Back in 2000, when I was publishing the daily music blog prototype, Insiderone.net (which soon became Neumu.net), for Christmas I wrote this essay about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Christmas classic, “Merry Xmas (War Is Over).” In reading it over the other day — I’m putting together a collection of my music writing and have been reviewing what I’ve written these past 30-plus years — it struck me as appropriate to reprint this year. I hope you enjoy it.
“So this is Christmas/ And what have you done/ Another year over/ A new one just begun.”
So begins John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” one of the great rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs. Recorded and released in 1971, it was co-produced by John and Yoko and the legendary producer Phil Spector. (The other rock Christmas song that really means something to me is “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” produced by Spector in 1963 for his Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You.)
When I was a kid, John Lennon was one of my idols; I always thought he was the coolest Beatle. When he paired up with the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, I was one Beatle fan who thought it was a great move, and not just because he had found a soul mate.
Yoko opened John’s eyes to experimental art, and she also seemed to help him become conscious of social and political issues. And while his most political album, Some Time in New York City, is also mostly a failure, Ono’s positive influence was evident on both Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, as well as such singles as “Instant Karma.”
I thought John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace was awesome, an over-the-top, outrageous stunt — the perfect way for rock royalty to make a statement.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a wonderful, heartfelt song set to a great sing-along melody, and more. That first line challenges the listener. John and Yoko are saying, in essence, “OK, year’s over, what did you do? Contribute anything worthwhile to the world?” Then they follow with “…And so this is Christmas/ I hope you have fun/ The near and the dear ones/ The old and the young.”
So you take stock of the year that has passed, but then you celebrate. The song, which weds classic Spector wall-of-sound production to a great Lennon lead vocal, offers hope for a new beginning in the chorus: “A very merry Xmas/ And a happy New Year/ Let’s hope it’s a good one/ Without any fear.”
According to Yoko, the song was written over breakfast one morning in a New York hotel room; it was recorded during the evening and morning of Oct. 28–29, 1971 at the Record Plant in New York.
In his book, “Out of His Head,” Richard Williams described the session: “Spector is already into the groove. He is thinking not just of sound, but of arrangement and drama — production. His weird little head is taking the simple guitar chords and modeling, blending, and transforming them — his old pattern. Well ahead of everyone, even Lennon, he imagines the sound coming out of a million, two-inch transistor speakers.”
The second verse of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” finds John reaching out to all the peoples of the world: “And so this is Christmas/ For weak and for strong/ The rich and the poor ones/ The road is so long/ And so happy Xmas/ For black and for white/ For yellow and red ones/ Let’s stop all the fight.”
I don’t think it’s just because I grew up listening to the Beatles that John’s voice moves me so intensely. The current success of an album of old Beatles hits seems to prove that those records are timeless, and that they can touch a kid now in the same way that they touched me, back in the ’60s and early ’70s.
John and Yoko’s Christmas song ends with a wish for peace: “War is over/ If you want it,” they sing. “War is over, now/ Happy Xmas.”
Happy Xmas indeed!
-– A Days of the Crazy-Wild blog post: sounds, visuals and/or news –-