Beatles’ Rare Fan-Club Christmas Records: A Complete Guide
Sure, the Beatles set the standard by which all popular music is judged, but you’d be forgiven for wondering if they lacked a little in the holiday-spirit department. The Beach Boys, the Supremes, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder and scores of other rock icons have donned red velvet hats and crooned about Santa and Frosty in the name of all things merry. Yet the Fab Four never had a widely available holiday offering – until recently.
Between 1963 and 1969, the Beatles sent limited-edition Christmas singles to paid-up members of their fan club. Consisting of wordplay-laden spoken messages, surreal skits and snatches of original songs, these ultra-rare plastic “flexidisc” records existed in a hazy area between bootlegs and legitimate, if tough to find, releases. In 2017, they were reissued on vinyl as part of a limited-edition box set, The Christmas Records, making them available for general purchase for the first time.
The goofy tracks capture the band at their most playful, showcasing their warm camaraderie and wit punctuated by cheery cries of their invented Yuletide greeting: “Happy Crimble!” As their fame grew and the pressure became more immense, the Beatles welcomed the chance to blow off steam and follow their creativity into areas beyond their usual pop fare. These low-stakes sessions emboldened them to experiment, sometimes inspiring ideas that would later appear on their better-known work. Even when they’re not pushing the artistic envelope, their eccentric humor, heavily influenced by British radio comedy collective the Goons, remains as funny now as it was half a century earlier.
Here’s a comprehensive look at the Beatles’ seven Christmas records. [Available for purchase here.]
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published December 2017]
“The Beatles Christmas Record” (1963)
The tale of the first Crimble begins on October 17th, 1963, inside Abbey Road’s Studio Two. Before beginning work on what would become their next single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles had some Yuletide housekeeping to attend to at the behest of their press officer, Tony Barrow, who suggested that they record a Christmas greeting as a special treat to their rapidly swelling fan club. The band liked the idea enough to acquiesce, but were still content to leave the specifics to a seasoned professional like Barrow, who prepared a script filled with standard expressions of gratitude and seasonal platitudes.
Of course, there was a lot to be thankful for. It had been an extraordinarily year of firsts for the Beatles, during which they released their debut LP, embarked on their first headlining tour and began their unparalleled string of Number One hits. Five days earlier they had sent the United Kingdom into its first throes of advanced Beatlemania with a televised performance on Val Parnell’s Sunday night institution, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, inspiring thousands of fans to swarm the stately West End venue. The hysterics would soon become tiresome, but for now it was fresh, and a genuine tone of naïve bewilderment pervades what would be known as “The Beatles Christmas Record.”
Celestial chimes, the only musical instrument to appear on otherwise a cappella track, herald the band’s arrival as they gather around the microphone to sing a version of “Good King Wenceslas” that’s both hilariously off-key and also hilariously wrong (the snow is not “deep and crisp and crispy” nor is Betty Grable’s name checked). The earnestness and showbiz sincerity of Barrow’s script is immediately undercut as Lennon introduces himself with a cheery, “Hello, this is John speaking with his voice!” Thanking fans for a “really gear year,” he notes the deluge of cards he’d received for his 23rd birthday the week before: “I’d love to reply to everyone personally, but I haven’t enough pens.”
After some irreverent dog barking, he hands it over to McCartney, who echoes the gratitude – save for one thing. Ever since the Beatles expressed their fondness for Jelly Babies (an English cousin of jelly beans) in a recent interview, fans had been shipping them by the crate-load. No longer wishing to be pelted by the confection during live appearances, McCartney takes the opportunity to tell the world, “We’ve gone right off Jelly Babies!” Striking up a faux-German reprise of “Good King Wenceslas” with Lennon, he passes off to Starr, who responds with his own in the style of a hep-cat nightclub crooner. “Thank you, Ringo,” Harrison deadpans as their mock applause dies down. “We’ll phone you!”
The band left it to Barrow to cobble together a workable recording from their banter. “I actually cut the tape recording with scissors, patched the pieces together, and let the discarded bits drop to the floor,” he wrote in his memoir, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me. “In doing this we destroyed a master tape that at some future date might have raised many thousands of pounds at auction as a unique piece of memorabilia – particularly with all the unused bad language left in!”
Thirty thousand copies of the one-track single were pressed on Lyntone “flexi-vinyl” and sent to fan-club members in the first week of December. In among the jokes and half-songs (like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo”) heard by anointed “Beatle People,” McCartney delivered a surprisingly prescient mission statement. “Lots of people ask us what we enjoy best – concerts and television or recording. We like doing stage shows, ’cause it’s great to hear an audience enjoying themselves. But the thing we like best – I think so anyway – is going into the recording studio to make new records,” he says. “What we like to hear most is one of our songs taking shape in a recording studio, one of the ones that John and I have written, and then listening to the tapes afterwards to see how it all worked out.” Hours after committing these words to tape, the band would have their first transatlantic hit in the can, elevating the Beatles to a level they could scarcely imagine, and insuring that “The Beatles Christmas Record” would have a sequel.
“Another Beatles Christmas Record” (1964)
Far from viewing it as a chore, the Beatles had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of recording their first Christmas message and looked forward to a second round. “It was the boys themselves who promoted me into continuing the tradition,” Barrow wrote in his memoir. “‘When are we doing this year’s Crimble record?’ They asked me. They also wanted another script. I knew they needed my words simply as a security measure in case they dried up. In the event they made everything I wrote much funnier by their distinctively zany, Goons-style presentation.”
On October 26th, the band huddled in Studio Two to record five passes through Barrow’s latest message, each one veering off into its own realm of randomness. (Outtakes include a Jimmy Stewart impression, a version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that consists solely of the item “One plastic bag,” and a hummed rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly,” the song that had knocked the Beatles off the top spot of the America charts for the first time in 14 weeks that spring.) It was the end of a long day that had begun at 10 o’clock that morning, as the band held the final session for their next LP, Beatles for Sale. Taping nearly 12 hours later, they could be excused for sounding slightly less energetic than they had on their prior Christmas greeting.
The production quality has greatly improved from the previous year, with the sound of marching feet giving way to the opening bars of “Jingle Bells,” backed with piano, harmonica and what sounds like a piece of paper on a comb (a trick recycled during sessions for “Lovely Rita” years later). The band members make no effort to disguise the fact that they’re reading a script, and the supposedly illegible handwriting becomes a running gag. “We hope you have enjoyed listening to the records as much as we have enjoyed melting them,” says McCartney before they all break into peals of laughter. “No, no that’s wrong. Making them!”
Lennon adopts his traditional role as the witty slinger of withering one-liners. “Don’t know where we’d be without you, really,” McCartney graciously tells fans. “The Army, perhaps,” Lennon lobs back. After thanking fans for seeing A Hard Day’s Night, Harrison reveals that their next film will be in color. “Green,” Lennon helpfully adds. In addition to plugging his upcoming book, A Spaniard in the Works – “It’s the usual rubbish, but it won’t cost much” – he manages to sneak in a sly naughty word with “Beatle peedles,” German slang for male genitalia. Its close proximity to the band’s name was the source of great amusement during their club days in Hamburg.
For the fadeout, they sing a loose version of the Irish standard “Can You Wash Your Father’s Shirt.” This soon devolves into demented shouts of “Christmas,” predating Monty Python’s brainless “Gumby” character by half a decade.
“The Beatles’ Third Christmas Record” (1965)
The Beatles’ 1965 Christmas offering got off to a false start on October 19th, when the band convened at London’s Marquee Studios to create what they hoped would be a bold step forward in holiday greetings. It was a week into their creatively fertile sessions for Rubber Soul and anything seemed possible, but this represented one of the few occasions when the magic failed to materialize. Outtakes purportedly from the date reveal ambitious plans for elaborate sketches stitched together for a show on their own fictitious pirate network, “Radio Beatle People.”
Unfortunately, none of the musicians appear all that enthusiastic as the tapes roll. Sound effects fade in and out seemingly at random, while the band attempts to make up jokes and stories, apparently on the spot. McCartney reads the in-studio weather, portrays a German pipe organ superfan, and leads listeners on a visit to a “wind-making” factory, while Harrison serves as sports commentator at a boxing match with Lennon doing his best faux Muhammad Ali raps. Most interesting, albeit gross, is a discussion on the finer points of dismembering babies while a loop of a cooing infant plays. The bit may have provided inspiration to photographer Robert Whitaker, who was present in the studio for at least some of the session. Five months later he would bring the grisly scene to life while shooting the infamous “Butcher Cover” for the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today album.
Through it all they fail to maintain the same carefree bonhomie of years past. “Uh, John, I understand you had a couple of words to say to us,” McCartney says at one point. Lennon can only mumble, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to speak to you on this level and … that’s about all.” McCartney, acting as host and cheerleader, continues to prod his mates into action. “Where’s all the good cheer we used to know? Maybe we’re not pulling together, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe we have to pull together with one concerted effort … and pull our party in the lead! If we could keep going for another couple of hours and maybe we’d get something.” After a lengthy amount of aimless chatter, Lennon chimes in with a crucial observation: “Has anyone mentioned Christmas yet?” To remedy the issue they toss off a few skewered holiday ditties with names like “The Holly and the Mustard” and “Silent Bonfire Night.” Starr scores the biggest laugh during “The 12 Days of Christmas,” singing the off-color, “On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me, one bird a hummin’, two sailors coming …” The session, and the tapes, were abandoned soon after.
They would try again at Abbey Road on November 8th. Aware that the band was struggling, producer George Martin kept the tape running while they worked through Harrison’s “Think For Yourself” earlier in the day, hoping to capture some amusing studio chatter to add to the mix. (It was not to be, but a snippet of backing vocals did surface in the film Yellow Submarine.) Recorded well after midnight, the 1965 Christmas greeting followed much the same format as previous years’, beginning with a comic warble of “Yesterday” and an original by Lennon titled “Happy Christmas to Ya List’nas.” A brief parody of Barry McGuire’s end-times anthem “Eve of Destruction” features a surprisingly overt reference to the escalating conflict in Vietnam – much to the annoyance of their manager, Brian Epstein, already smarting from their stubborn refusal to reprise their annual Christmas performance residency. An airing of the Four Tops’ recent Motown hit “It’s the Same Old Song” – almost immediately halted amongst shouts of “Copyright!” – can be heard as a message to Epstein, and anyone else who cared to listen. The Beatles’ need to progress artistically had become all-consuming.
“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.
“Christmas Time Is Here Again!” (1967)
Now that the band had mastered their studio domain, the Beatles’ 1967 seasonal message – wrapped in a Sgt. Pepper–like collage of vintage photos created by Lennon and Starr – would be the apex of their Christmas recordings. Recorded back at Abbey Road’s Studio Two on November 28th during a nine-hour marathon session, “Christmas Time Is Here Again!” expands on the sketches of the previous year by adding the only performance among the Beatles’ holiday recordings that could safely be categorized as a proper “Christmas song.” The tune is little more than a holiday mantra, but the Beatles sell it through their full-throated commitment and a clever arrangement reminiscent of their new single, “Hello, Goodbye.” Lennon, ever fond of unusual count-ins (he can be heard intoning “Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy” on early takes of “A Day in the Life”), introduces the song with a hastily exhaled “Interplanetary remix, take 444!” before a lushly multi-tracked chorus of Beatle voices remind listeners that Christmas time is indeed here again.
The plot, scripted by the band the day before, makes about as much sense as “Everywhere It’s Christmas.” The story begins with the Beatles portraying a fictitious group called the Ravellers, on a quest to audition for the BBC. Once they’ve made it past the gatekeeper (played by their friend Victor Spinetti, who had appeared in A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and the yet-to-be-released Magical Mystery Tour) they perform a tap-dance in the “fluffy rehearsal room.” From there it all becomes a bit difficult to follow as the record fades into a fever dream of fractured broadcast clichés including jingles (“Wonderlust for your trousers!”), a noir radio drama called Theater Hour and a game show where the grand prize is a trip to Denver and automatic appointment to “independent candidate for Paddington.” The Ravellers, having apparently passed the audition, return to croon a tune about jam jars across the airwaves for the benefit of injured woman in Blackpool.
A haze of maniacal echo-drenched laughter gives way to the regal voice of George Martin, addressing fans for the first time on the disc. “They’d like to thank you for a wonderful year,” he says with the tone of a kindly but exasperated schoolteacher, before the students repeat his words with mock reverence. Lennon signs off with a Goonish original poem, a sort of lonely Christmas “Jabberwocky” delivered in a thick Scottish brogue over the sound of a wintery gale. “When the beasty brangom button to the heather and little inn,” he says while “Auld Lang Syne” plays softly. “And be strattened oot in ma-tether to yer arms once back again. Och away, ye bonnie.” So ends the Beatles’ last documented recording of their extraordinary year. It would also be the final Christmas disc recorded together by the group as a unit.
“The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record”
Much like the White Album, released several weeks earlier on November 22nd, the Beatles’ 1968 Christmas record represents the efforts of four independent artists working under a shared banner. Each Beatle recorded their part largely on their own, often at home, and handed the tapes to their friend, BBC Radio 1 DJ Kenny Everett. Though it’s tempting to cite this separation as evidence of their impending implosion the following year, a more likely scenario is that they were simply too busy. Harrison was in the midst of a six-week trip to the United States, falling in with Bob Dylan and the Band. McCartney was also back and forth between New York City and his farm in Scotland as his relationship with Linda Eastman became increasingly more serious. Lennon had to contend with a recent marijuana bust, and the Starr family was in the midst of moving homes.
Growing pains aside, Lennon’s input hints that all was not well within their ranks. His poem “Jock and Yono” is a thinly disguised Carrollian allegory describing the trials and tribulations of his burgeoning relationship with Yoko Ono, which had already endured a miscarriage and the aforementioned marijuana bust – to say nothing of a hostile London press. “They battled on against overwhelming oddities,” he recites over Ono’s delicate piano, “including some of their beast friends.” The malapropism was not lost on Harrison, who was reportedly quite offended by the line. An additional poem, “Once Upon a Pool Table,” was equally surreal though less biographical, telling the tale of “a short-haired Butcher’s boy by the way of Ostergrad.”
McCartney delivered the most tuneful contribution, offering a sweet acoustic ditty in the vein of his recent White Album tracks like “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” Lacking a title, he wishes fans “Happy New Year, happy Christmas, happy Easter, happy autumn happy Michelmas, ev’rybody,” under a chord change that seems to predict “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which he would bring to the Get Back sessions the following January.
Starr performs an ingenious one-man comedy skit, portraying both himself and an unhinged middle-aged harpy shrieking down the telephone line. The pitch gets even shriller when Harrison introduces Tiny Tim, the idiosyncratic American artist who earned fame performing pop hits from the 1920s with a ukulele, ghostly white pancake makeup, and a strangulated high-pithed yodel. Much as Harrison’s collaboration with Eric Clapton injected a dose of excitement into sessions for the White Album, Tiny Tim’s quivering version of “Nowhere Man” is a surreal highlight of the 1968 Christmas record – one that must be heard to be believed. “Thank you and God bless you, Tiny,” Harrison says with an appropriately Dickensian twist.
The band handed off their tapes to Everett, who used his manic brilliance to blend them all together with snatches of White Album cuts (including “Helter Skelter,” “”Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Yer Blues,” and “Birthday”) as well as an early piece of electronica, “Baroque Hoedown” by Perrey & Kingsley. Each Beatle’s contributions spoke to their personality: McCartney’s gift for melody, Lennon’s brilliance for self-expression, and Starr’s humor and charisma. Harrison, however, sounds particularly put out as he greets fans. “Well, here we are again, another fab Christmas,” he says with barely contained sarcasm. “Christmas time is here again. Ain’t been around since … last year!” Despite the callback to the previous year’s record, that sense of band unity had all but evaporated as 1968 drew to a close.
“The Beatles’ Seventh Christmas Record: Happy Christmas 1969”
The Beatles existed in name only by the Christmas of 1969, after Lennon famously told his compatriots in September that he wanted “a divorce.” But for fear of disrupting upcoming business deals, as well as a genuine sense of confusion, the band decide to keep any talk of a breakup strictly among themselves. To maintain a sense of normalcy, they dutifully set about recording pieces for yet another Christmas record, once more to be assembled by Everett.
Most of the Beatles opted to tape their pieces in the comfort of their own homes. Ono, who had just contributed anonymous backing piano the previous year, introduces her now-husband as they stroll through the grounds of Tittenhurst Park, their Ascot estate where the final Beatles’ photo session had taken place on August 22nd. Together they stage a jokey interview, ranging from their favorite foods to their place in the decade to come. “I think it’ll be a quite a peaceful Seventies … [peace] and freedom,” Ono opines. As the autumn leaves crunch underfoot, Lennon can’t help but belt “deep and crisp and even” – the line from “Good King Wenceslas” he gleefully butchered on the band’s first Christmas record. Once a fresh 23-year-old having a laugh with his mates, he’s now an adult superstar, roaming his palatial estate with his wife, preaching peace to the globe. Even now, the monumental six-year leap remains difficult to comprehend.
McCartney performs another inviting acoustic original, this one titled “This Is to Wish You.” Music will remain his preferred method for bringing peace to those who endured the tumultuous decade he had helped to shape – as well soothe his own soul during the uncertain time. Starr sings a song of his own, a goofy ad-libbed tune, and manages to work in a plug for his new film, The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers, whose radio work with The Goon Show can be felt in each of the Beatles’ Christmas discs. Harrison, however, remains unwilling to submit to this last vestige of mop-toppery. His contribution, a single line uttered at the London offices of Apple Records, runs six seconds long.
Among recordings of Christmas choirs and pipe organs pulled from the tape vault, Everett utilized another preexisting piece of music: “The End” from the Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road. Perhaps even he had an inkling that this would be the last offering of its kind from the group. He ensures that the concluding sound heard on what would prove to be the final Beatles Christmas record is that of laughter, a fitting reminder of the inherent good humor that runs throughout the band’s works. Even to the bitter end, the Beatles could be counted on to raise a smile.