If you’re someone who has ever kept Christmas cards from a person who was a powerful presence in your life at one time or another, you’ve perhaps noted how the sentiments they’ve expressed to you have changed over the years.
It can be quite an emotional surveying: to sit there with these collected cards in hand, shaking your head at the mutability of bonds between people. For years now, I’ve done a version of that with the Beatles’ Christmas fan club recordings—their holiday Valentine, in essence, to the people who bought their records, got their newsletter, and supported them at the most hardcore of hardcore levels.
Beatles collectors have pined for a release of these recordings, which usually comprise five or six minutes, for years now. I was trying to think what might sit atop a Beatles fan’s wish list for material in the vaults that has yet to come out, and we’re talking top five desires here. This year, a Christmas wish of sorts is sated, as Apple bestows upon us a lavish box set, dubbed The Christmas Records—on colored vinyl, no less, with original sleeves reproduced—of what had originally come out on what was called flexi discs.
Flexi discs were cheap—you might have had them as a kid if you owned a cheap record player back in the ‘80s, if you’re of that vintage. Each fall, the Beatles would repair to Abbey Road, and in the same place where they’d cut radical wonders like “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” they’d have a few tokes and/or swigs—or so it sounds, anyway—and try to further please the fans by personalizing some holiday cheer. If you were a fan club member, the flexi came in the mail, you ran up to your room, dropped the needle on the record player, and fancied that you were hanging out with the Beatles for a holiday to-do.
No one else really did this. I mean, could you imagine the Rolling Stones even trying? The Who? The Stones would probably be propositioning you. It’s not hard to imagine Mick Jagger’s voice saying, “This is Mick, erm, I mean Santa, what are you wearing? Really hope you’re ready to be bad…” Marketing disaster!
Well, maybe it would have worked in the Stones’ favor, as most things tended to. But the Beatles were ideal for this kind of Christmas-y enterprise because of the synergistic flow that always existed between them, which is not unlike the flow that exists between you and your tightest group of friends, when you get together when you are able to, provided you’re a group that has been through a set of shared life experiences that make you closely bonded to each other. As the Beatles had.
You hear so many people parrot the cliché that the Beatles were so funny, such that you’d think they were a comedy quartet who cracked you up in between music-making. There is something like John Lennon’s “rattle your jewelry” remark from the Royal Variety Performance in November 1963, but that’s not a whole lot different from you as a youngster saying something kind of cheeky—but also nothing that will get you in too much trouble—to your frosty great aunt at some family gathering. You know where the line is.
They’re regularly funny on the wonderful BBC recordings, the bulk of which have never been released—a situation that ought to be redressed—and then there is the first flexi disc holiday message from 1963. I can’t listen to it without some warming chuckles. These guys have no clue, at this point, if they’ll last. Pop acts at the time often had a shelf life less than batteries. Someone shakes some sleigh bells, John Lennon puns away, they garble the hell out of the normally reverential tones of “Good King Wenceslas,” and tease Ringo with a chorus of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” drunkenly working in Ringo’s name. You’re in their tree fort, the ladder pulled up, all defenses down within the group.
There’s something nice about listening to people who love each other interact. They need not be talking about the strife in the world or heavy issues or big decisions. They can be discussing the ballgame, the cold that waylaid them, the weird date they had. You’ll notice that when you’re at a bar this holiday season and your ear pricks up over something along those lines that some good friend is saying to another within earshot.
That’s what you get with the 1963 flexi, and, to an extent, the 1964 one, when the Beatles had gone from UK dominance to global supernova. They’re wearier, but content, with pride in their voices that has not soured to arrogance. There’s a degree of ennui with the 1965 flexi; you can tell this is less something they wish to do, and more a matter of “ugh, let’s bloody get through this, quickly, freaking grown men recording a Christmas message for teenyboppers.”
Or that’s how I hear it, anyway. The changing nature of Christmas cards. Come the 1966 flexi, they’re treating the endeavor as a mini-artistic production, bored with just chitchat, adding effects—doing, in essence, a fan club Christmas flexi version of Revolver. That is one strange hybrid. Definite John Cage element.
For 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” they’ve even written a full song—one which will bore through the lobes of your brain with more simplistic rhythmic tenacity than “Feliz Navidad.” That song is “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” complete with Ringo adding a fun, Seuss-like vocal dollop to the song (“O-U-T spells Out!”). I actually like it, though sometimes when it remains in my head for more than twenty-four hours, I am tempted to shake my cranium violently so that it might tumble out and leave me in peace for a bit. Let’s just call it very hooky.
By the end of the run of the Christmas flexis—the last coming in 1969—the Beatles had gone full-on White Album and weren’t even recording them in the same room. It’s always struck me as curious, but almost touching, that they kept making them, as the notion of a fan club—like that was something they needed—became more and more irrelevant. They weren’t pups anymore; they’d lived decades in the space of seven years, they were splintering from each other, away from those unique bonds, but they still did this for you each autumn.
I think they did it for them, too. It was a way to conjure the feeling, the nostalgia, the memories that would never be fully buried, of pre-fame times—of sitting in a room impressing your buddy about some embellished feat, of shooting the shit in a Hamburg dive backstage, or riding a bus home with your new mate who you knew you were going to know for quite a while, in a special way.
This is the sound of perishable relationships, but not perishable connections. Between friends, between bandmates, art-makers, and people you never knew in the flesh—but knew intimately, in a way, all the same. People you still know.
The Ghost of Christmas Past advised Scrooge that what he was seeing were the shadows of what had been, but real all the same. This is the sonic version; the Beatles’ Christmas penumbra. Happy Crimble, as they would say.