"Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas" (1966)
The Beatles' fourth Christmas message was effectively everything they had attempted to achieve the prior year: a full-blown extended production featuring sound effects, music and a (loose) narrative. It was recorded on November 25th, one day after the group reconvened at Abbey Road following a three-month hiatus. The break had allowed them to indulge their independent pursuits for essentially the first time in their adult lives and, more crucially, offered a respite from the increasingly chaotic and confining Beatle existence. The mania that surrounded them wherever they went led the group to swear off touring that August, immediately prior to their solo sabbaticals. The effect was rejuvenating for all, and they returned flush with potent new ideas and creative vigor. The first session held upon their November 24th reunion yielded an early take of Lennon's haunting "Strawberry Fields Forever," a song that marked the start of the Beatles' reinvention as studio auteurs.
The next day, after catching the U.K. debut of an American import named Jimi Hendrix at the newly opened Bag o' Nails club, the Beatles gathered at a small studio in the New Oxford Street office of their music publisher, Dick James, to tape their latest holiday record. "We thought it was time we had an entirely different approach," McCartney later said. Ultimately, the final product would contain no greetings, and very few references to the holidays. In retrospect, "Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas," a 10-part endeavor nearly seven minutes in length, is a signpost for what was to come for the band. Rather than address fans directly with messages of gratitude, the Beatles performed as distinct characters, foreshadowing the approach they would take when recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the coming weeks. In keeping with the tradition of pantomime – a uniquely English brand of stage production blending music, slapstick comedy and folk tales – the snippets of original songs are rooted in English vaudevillian music-hall style. The title tune, a whirlwind pub piano sing-along played by McCartney, is not far removed from "When I'm Sixty-Four," which they would begin recording in a matter of days.
Much like Sgt. Pepper, "Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas" feels largely driven by McCartney, who also drew the full-color art-nouveau illustration for the sleeve. The imaginative original story defies any logical description, ping-ponging from Corsica, where a "bearded man in glasses" conducts a small choir, to the Swiss Alps where "a pair of elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese," and to the "long, dark corridor of Felpin mansion," home of the Germanic Count Balder. Instead of relying on Barrow, the Beatles took full use of George Martin's experience producing comedy records with British radio legends like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Together they created vivid soundscapes ranging from a rowdy royal celebration onboard the good ship H.M.S. Tremendous, to the charmingly gentle fairy tale of Podgy the Bear and Jasper. Though brief, the songs are evocative, and in some cases quite memorable. "Orowayna," ostensibly sung by a Corsican choir, is a strangely beautiful pop hymnal that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Smile-era Beach Boys album, and the vaudevillian wink of "Please Don't Bring Your Banjo Back (I Don't Know Where it's Been)" is as funny as it is bawdy. The Beatles' loyal roadie Mal Evans delivers a sincere "Yes, everywhere it's Christmas" before the proceedings skid to a stop with a reprise of the title song. As on their groundbreaking next LP, we come out the way we came in.