Sunday, February 3, 2019
The Beatles: From Then to You- The Beatles' Christmas Album (1963-69)
One of the major focal points of curiosity among the Beatles' semi-officially released output from the '60s was their series of fan-club Christmas flexidiscs, released each year from 1963 to 1969 followed by this full-length compilation of all seven in 1970. None of these slapdash recordings were ever issued to the general public until fragments slipped out decades later on the "Free as a Bird" single (1995) and the Beatles Rock Band video game (2009). Like clockwork by mail to the faithful, however, came the annual record, initially just a spoken-word message but gradually growing ever more elaborate with each passing December. Years hence, this became -- with the band's promo films, their BBC recordings, their various missing movies and documentaries, and The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl -- one of the constantly-dangling (and hotly demanded) carrots for future official release into the CD, digital and streaming eras. Neither elusive session material unintended for outside ears nor part of any actual canon, these products occupied a certain limbo and always seemed on the cusp of making their way out.
Eventually they did, although really in no less esoteric a form than their original format (see our boxed set page). A case can be made that From Then to You (renamed The Beatles' Christmas Album in the U.S.) should have been on the market years ago, as its historical interest -- actual Beatles recordings, made in conjunction with George Martin and produced at Abbey Road! -- is obvious. At the same time, however, these were clearly meant as mostly private, privileged communiques with hardcore fans of the time, never launched out into the world freely even with the kind of revenue they were sure to generate, and even fifty years down the line there's a certain implicit trust inherent to that fan-artist relationship: this was for them, meaning those who cared enough to send in their little card and small postage fee and such, not for just anyone. So it's perfectly understandable -- respectable, even -- that they've never been prepared for digital release or for anything beyond a "step beyond" finder's quest for the few who care enough to track them down.
However, they're all out there if you want to hear them, and inevitably the 1970 compilation is part of Purple Chick's deluxe series. The archival appeal of the set is obvious; everyone who's deeply interested in the Beatles' outtakes and session material, and more broadly in deep dives into their history, will surely want to hear it at least once. Whether these flexis were actually any good is another question, and really a very personal one. I know fans to whom they mean a great deal, and some who make a point of trotting the whole sequence out for a listen every winter. For me -- and again, this is quite subjective -- they are probably the least rewarding major "chapter" in the Beatles' bootleg-oriented chronicle; I get more out of shoddy audience recordings of live shows and hours of Get Back sessions and even bad home tapes with Stu on bass. I'm glad I have them, but I'll be honest: until I sat down to write this, I was never able to make it through all of them in their entirety.
Actually, it's a little more complicated than that. For me, the first three Christmas messages -- 1963, '64, '65 -- are quite charming and fascinating. At this stage, the Beatles were unguarded, slightly mischievous youngsters who wanted (no doubt at Brian Epstein's prodding) to show faithfulness to their base but were also just a tad annoyed (in John Lennon's case, probably more than a tad) at the intrusion, and it's a sobering privilege to hear direct evidence of the day-to-day grind of being in the band at the height of their popularity. The next two flexis, from 1966 and 1967, are the most famous and fan-beloved because they're actually quite elaborately constructed comedy pieces, influenced by the Goons and embodying some actual music; I'm hit and miss with them, and I miss the spontaneous, accidental humor and acerbic impatience of the prior discs. Finally, the two closing volumes are, for me, almost insufferable; and I am someone willing to listen to half an hour of barely distinguishable monitor mixes of "A Day in the Life," so that is not said lightly.
It's often noted that the history of the Beatles' Christmas flexis is a handy mirror of the history of the Beatles' music; as the production on their commercially released recordings became more considered and elaborate, the same went for the sound (and artwork, for that matter) of their annual fan club offering. And as the band fragmented and split apart, the records reflected both constant restlessness and an agonizing, if implicit, disharmony.
Still, there are few more persuasive capturings of the breathlessness of late 1963 in the Beatles' universe than that first Christmas disc, recorded about a month before With the Beatles was released, with press agent Tony Barrow presiding as he would over the following two fan club records. There's goofy singing, John dripping with sarcasm, and signs of the times with talk about "Please Please Me" having been the hit that changed everything. Paul sounds gracious despite his pleas to the fans to cut it out with the jelly babies, and it's telling that he mentions he likes stage shows but his favorite aspect of the Beatles' career is the recording process. At this stage, Ringo is still taking note of how new he is to the band -- just barely over a year at this point -- and your heart kind of goes out to him over what must have been a whirlwind. George is prickly but funny ("thank you Ringo, we'll phone you") and shouts out the fan club secretaries before everyone closes out with a naughty chorus of "Ricky the Red-Nosed Ringo." The whole thing is over and done in five minutes.
The second message is a little more playful, but also bears the marks of in-jokes as a basic underlying form of communication, something that had undoubtedly grown important among the four Beatles as the world began to follow them everywhere. "Jingle Bells" gets droned out with kazoo and harmonica, Paul thanks you for buying the records over the past year, John, coughing into the microphone, says they'd be in the Army if they weren't Beatles (you learn in Lewisohn's book Tune In that conscription -- compulsory military service in the UK -- was a huge hazard to the Beatles' early existence, timing-wise) and announces "those were the days" in regard to "Love Me Do" and might mean it. He thanks you for buying his book and means it too, despite the Paul Harvey voice, the semi-buried penis jokes and the fact he really clearly doesn't want to be doing this, or maybe wants us to think he doesn't. John is simultaneously the most guarded and least phony of the four; George is polite -- he 'spects a lot of you saw A Hard Day's Night more than once -- and Ringo sounds exhausted (the band's "been to Australia and America and New Zealand and Australia"). All the while, even under these decorum-imposed conditions, their chemistry is remarkable.
Thanks to a run of outtakes PC includes here as supplemental material, we know that the 1965 message -- finally laid down on November 8th of that year -- was a hassle and a half to get right, probably because of the huge influx of weed into the Beatles' orbit. As it finally stands, it's probably the best and most agreeably frenetic of the whole lot, and the most diabolically self-deprecating, kicking off with a ridiculously atonal a cappella "Yesterday" and following up with John's brilliant acknowledgement of fan mail in the form of "chewed-up pieces of chewing gum and playing cards made out of knickers." This one also has some semi-music, like John's "Happy Christmas to Ya Lis'nas" plus the "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" poem, and some truly edgy joking around about song copyrights and war in the Middle East ("look at all those bodies floating in the river Jordan" to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne"). Eventually it all descends into echoy chaos (but not before someone curiously invokes the phrase "old brown shoe").
It gets really weird after that. '66 brings us "Pantomine (Everywhere It's Christmas)," the first of these to be actually full-on written by the Beatles and produced by George Martin, recorded in the midst of the "Strawberry Fields Forever" sessions and it shows: creativity runs like a stream, enough so that even though it isn't wholly successful in an objective sense, it's odd that Apple has never elected to release it more widely in some capacity. The band proves adept at fake swing, and the cornucopia of styles they touch on afterward really shows how limitness the world must have seemed to them at the time, freed from the puppet strings of touring. The basic format of the record is a very disjointed storybook, rife with the usual stoned and frantic humor, that calls ahead pretty clearly to the impulses and tone of Magical Mystery Tour (the film, as well as the book that joined the record); as with that project, a comparison with George Dunning's Yellow Submarine -- a clever narrative strung together from Beatle threads without their own participation -- reveals that these weren't the world's greatest storytellers, so thank heavens they never tried to go all the way with a true concept record. That said, portions of this are undeniably hilarious, and full of strangely endearing turns of phrase ("two elderly Scotsmen munch on a rare cheese"), the best of the quick episodes being one that involves the repetition of the words "matches" and "candles" so that Podgy and Jasper (?!) won't forget to buy either product at the shop. "Who'll remember the buns, Podgy?" might be the most unlikely laugh line this side of Firesign Theatre. At one point, John accidentally references A Clockwork Orange five years early by demanding to know if someone is enjoying their wine. Taken together, "Pantomine" is chaotic and awkward and extremely elaborate, but still benign and jokey enough to fit somewhat well with the earlier messages -- though you do kind of wonder what the younger fans who got it in the mail really thought of it.
Conventional wisdom is that the sort-of-psychedelic 1967 offering, centered around the half-assed ballad "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," is the best of the lot and somehow release-worthy; but while it's amusing, it's a great deal less defensible on artistic grounds than "Pantomime." To begin with, while the Beatles themselves appear to be fond enough of the endlessly reprised song to release it officially in severely edited form as a b-side in 1995, it's a dreadful tune. A lot had changed in the Beatles' organization between these two Christmases -- more than in any other calendar year save 1962-63, probably -- and the strain can be heard here. With the loss of Epstein the prior August, one wonders how the increasingly anarchic unit was even persuaded to sit down and put this together. There are funny moments but none of them are coherent or really relate to one another, and really consist of "funny voices" being parroted. (Paul saying "cross section of British youth" in serious BBC mode is really amusing to me for some reason.) Given the way people talk about this record you'd think it reflected, beyond its garish and slightly pretentious cover art, the peak "studio year" of the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and all that, but really it more closely resembles its actual origins -- the disorganized, tepid recordings that were the order of the day in the months after Pepper, with lethargy and lack of focus setting in. The Beatles release it most obviously resembles, in fact, is "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," both for its repetition and for its illogical, haphazard approach to humor.
Nonetheless, the '67 disc has joy in spades compared to the last two Beatles Christmas flexidiscs, which are a mess. These are basically sound collages, recorded separately by the band members, thus robbing them of a huge proportion of the actual appeal of this entire concept -- the chance to hear the group goofing off while working together. '68 does have a lot of music, though, from a Paul McCartney Christmas busk in the manner of "I Will" and "Rocky Raccoon" to the actual Tiny Tim inexplicably covering "Nowhere Man." There are heaps of sounds and bits from the then-brand new White Album (in fact, the best moment is probably a sped-up sample of "Helter Skelter" that then gets a bit of apocalyptic tape-delay treatment), and you can certainly sense that the chaotic, grab bag sensibility of the White Album is still in place here, but without the creative inspiration at the core of it, and pretty much free of charm. That goes especially for John Lennon's vignette "Jock and Yono," a ruthlessly unfunny and uncomfortably defensive depiction of his new-ish relationship that tries to apply In His Own Write-style wordplay to the situation ("they overcame overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends") and truly sounds dire and out of place in this context.
Lennon and Ono's improvisational and stupid segment of the final flexi is worse yet, with Ono (and again, I must reiterate here that I'm a great fan of her art and music and detest the flack she's gotten) cooing and giggling at Lennon's every answer to a fake "favorite food" interview (corn flakes, in case you're wondering); either they're high or they're just way too into each other to be letting outsiders hear this much of their shared personal life. The sensation of being a third wheel is strong here. You can almost feel the annoyance of fans radiating off this thing; there is a lot of Yoko here, and her and John's portions dominate this disc, which was prepared after the Beatles had already essentially broken up. Ringo comes off best, retaining an affable approachability even though his main goal seems to be to promote his new film, The Magic Christian.
By the end of 1970, of course, the Beatles were no more, a dissolution reflected inevitably in the progressing and regressing content of the flexidiscs. Instead, fans were treated to this quite generous compilation which subsequently became a valuable collector's item (an attractive one even, at least the American version) and is still the only release of this material that makes much sense. It also quickly became a favorite source of bootlegs; counterfeit versions are everywhere, then on vinyl and now digitally. PC's disc throws in some bonuses, most of which exhibit the same manic and tiresome qualities of the main attraction, though one huge highlight is Paul quite ruthlessly mocking Cliff Richard. Apart from that, the biggest boon here is a twelve-minute outtake of pothead Beatles trying and failing to record the 1965 message; it starts out funny, kind of sounding like a podcast episode rife with inside jokes you don't get yet because you haven't listened to the earlier installments, and when the Beatles aren't overly conscious of the microphone they exhibit a welcome dark humor here, anticipating the butcher cover with a series of severely tasteless jokes about eating babies. (If this ever leaks out on a larger scale, it probably won't be great for the public image, and Pizzagate-style conspiracy theorists will have a field day.) However, the recording gets aimless quickly and starts to become tiresome and mindnumbing like the tete-a-tete torture episode of The Prisoner. The most telling moment is when Ringo says something about "Silent Night" being copyrighted, then there's a tape jump and suddenly the four of them are singing a song in unison about the importance of singing public domain songs, before John kind of blows up and starts talking about how unfunny the whole thing is, and how he can't make it come off. Tony Barrow begs him to reconsider, saying he can make it stupid but also good. Stupid but also good is a nice descriptor for what we wish the Beatles' Christmas records were like; instead, they're a hodgepodge -- essential for the archival collector but not at all a goldmine.