The Beatles never had a proper Christmas number one, only seasonal number ones with unseasonal bangers: ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’ (1963-65) and ‘Hello Goodbye’ (1967). Though they never made a traditional Christmas record, the Fabs loved Yule — and you know you should be glad. Between 1963 and 1969, they recorded an album-worth of charming Christmas nonsense. Welcome to the semi-secret hinterland between the legal and bootleg worlds: the Beatles’ Fan Club Christmas flexi discs.
The flexis have only had one official release since their private circulation to the ravenous Brit-Beatle fan club. In 2017, Apple Records released a lavish box of 7-inch singles. This being Apple, the box cost the price of an apartment in Manhattan. You can pick it up for even more now on eBay, and I thoroughly recommend you do so. The Fan Club Christmas singles are excellent, prime slices of Yuletide yester-Fabs.
On 1963’s ‘The Beatles Christmas Record’, the band is still in black and white, still scratching a way out of post-war austerity and the light-entertainment niche. I producer Tony Barrow’s script, the boys are blinking in the reflection of their own genius: in a few months, Merseybeat may be over. Or not: by 1964, the world has fallen into Beatle-mania. ‘Another Beatles Christmas Record’, again scripted by Barrow, shows that the Sixties have really begun. But something has happened. The Beatles are going off-script.
By 1965, as we all know, the Beatles are really fab and getting self-conscious. ‘Yesterday, now they know that we’re all here to stay,’ the boys croon confidently at the start of the fabulously stoned ‘Beatles Third Christmas Record’. There were actually two attempts at cutting this blast of Goon Show pot surrealism. The first, in October when they had just finished recording Rubber Soul, was rather lethargic. The second, made in November, is super Fab stoned fun.
Less super fab fun is Paul McCartney’s extremely rare 1965 Christmas album, where Paul smokes yet more weed and pretends to be the host of an American radio show, spinning some of his favorite discs by artists including Peter and Gordon and the Beach Boys. The McCartney Christmas album was pressed up as a private acetate of three copies as a gift to the other Beatles. It was called ‘Unforgettable’. I would suggest ‘Take a Day Off, Paul’ as an alternate title. We can only imagine John, George and Ringo’s unfettered joy on receiving this gift.
Some say Revolver. Others, The White Album. I say the Beatles’ greatest record is the 1966 Fan Club flexi disc, ‘Pantomime — Everywhere Is Christmas’. This one is recorded between sessions for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and it shows. The Fabs are firmly locked in ‘inventing everything’ mode. There are piano skits and song snippets, all surrealist and — get this — actually really funny. To say nothing of the ‘Podgy and the Bear’ pantomime section. If ‘Podgy and the Bear’ is the last thing I hear before I croak, I’ll die happy.
At Christmas 1967, the Beatles really do a number on Britain. First they jam up the festive top spot for six weeks with ‘Hello Goodbye’. Then they torture and confuse a hungover nation with their excellent, years-ahead-of-its-time BBC TV special, Magical Mystery Tour, broadcast on Boxing Day. The real Christmas special is, however, reserved for alternative reality Flexi Land, where our heroes finally get around to recording a proper song. If the magnificent ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again!’ (with imperial-feel ‘Penny Lane’ production) had been released properly, it would still be at number one today.
The ‘1968 Christmas Record’ is a sad affair. The Fabs are now recording their flexis separately, the same way they record their less important albums. All goes well with a sound collage produced by Maurice Cole (better known as the radio DJ Kenny Everett), until George brings in the terrible Tiny Tim to sabotage John’s ‘Nowhere Man’, presumably in revenge for not letting him have enough songs on The White Album.
Which brings us to 1969 and the last Beatles flexi, again produced and edited by Maurice Cole. Seasonal revelers are treated to John and Yoko walking around their palatial pad babbling away. Consider it a less traumatic and protracted version of the couple’s avant-garde double whammy of that year, Life With The Lions (disturbing) and The Wedding Album (boring, disturbing).
It’s a real shame the Beatles’ Christmas flexis have not had a proper, all-on-one-album release. They contain everything that made the group great: the wit, the invention, the talent, the chutzpah, the cynicism and the newness of a time when it seemed that there were still things to invent. Perhaps most of all, they are a prime bit of Beatles that, now all their official albums have been excavated, remastered, remixed and reboxed, still sounds fresh to the ears.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2020 US edition.