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Beatles, "Ultimate Christmas Collection"Among the thousands of records I own, there resides but one, solitary bootleg - The Ultimate Christmas Collection (pictured left) by The Beatles (read more). Released on the storied Vigotone label in 1998, it's a package that would put Rhino Records to shame, containing each the band's annual fan club discs; top-quality copies of several solo Christmas singles; and about two dozen rare tracks - radio greetings, live snippets, rough mixes, etc. The packaging, too, is a marvel, presenting both front and back covers of the fan club releases in vivid color along with fastidiously researched notes and photos of Christmas-related Beatle paraphernalia (e.g. John Lennon's 1958 hand-drawn Christmas card to wife-to-be Cynthia). I bring up The Ultimate Christmas Collection, however, mainly as an excuse to discuss the Beatles' Christmas legacy; you see, locating one of these gems will be a herculean task, so all that's left is the music.

The Beatles' annual Christmas releases, pressed on cheap flexi-discs and sent out gratis to members of their fan club, have never been officially released to the general public (with one minor exception), and they provide a unique window in the the rarified world of the world's greatest rock group. When the story begins, however, there was very little music to discuss. The first flexi-disc (recorded in October, 1963, just before the band invaded America) begins with the Fab Four mangling "Good King Wenceslas" but quickly devolves into four Beatles passing a single microphone around the table (you can actually hear the microphone being scooted), taking turns thanking their fan club for their support. The mood, thanks to a banner year on the English charts, is ebullient.

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Beatles, "From Then To You"The plots grows thicker very quickly, as more of the Beatles' trademark humor and musical sophistication revealed itself with each passing year. On the 1964 disc (which follows a similar format as the previous year), a certain worldliness creeps in: Paul states acerbically, "We hope you've enjoyed listening to the records as much as we've enjoyed melting them," and John says of his forthcoming book, "It'll be the usual rubbish, but it won't cost much." Then, in 1965, the year Bob Dylan introduced these Liverpudlians to marijuana, the proceedings are all but chaotic, careening wildly from a vicious parody of Paul's "Yesterday" to a politically charged Dylan send-up to perfunctory thanks for "all the presents this year... especially the chewed up pieces of chewing gum and the playing cards made out of knickers."

"Pantomime" (1966), by contrast, is a genuine production - almost coherent, even - and features several snippets of original music, including the exuberant, vaudevillian"Everywhere It's Christmas." The humor is very English (inspired by The Goon Show, featuring Peter Sellers) and probably mystified the young American Beatlemaniacs who received the aural missive (hell, it mystifies me 30 years hence). "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" (1967) is weirder still, but it includes the closest thing (in the titular melody) the Beatles' ever came to committing a proper Christmas song to tape. It was this song, by the way, that was officially released (in edited form) in 1995 as the b-side to "Free As A Bird."

Beatles, "Christmas Album"By the end, however, the flexi-discs became dense, elaborate, psychedelic, nearly indecipherable collages of sound, though 1968's "Happy Christmas" includes an actual recording of Tiny Tim warbling "Nowhere Man." Both the '68 and '69 flexi-discs were edited down by Kenny Everett, an English DJ and fellow Beatle traveler, from lengthy, rambling tapes, and they probably reflect his personality as much as the Beatles'. Shortly after the Beatles' 1970 breakup, members of the longsuffering fan club were offered a chance to purchase all the Christmas flexi-discs together on one vinyl record, alternately titled From Then To You (pictured above) in the U.K. and The Beatles Christmas Album (pictured left) in the U.S. It is that record that has been frequently bootlegged through the years, though the world of bootlegs is seldom burdened by consistency and quality control - which is to say, caveat emptor.

Vigotone's Ultimate Christmas CD appends much material to the original LP, but it's mainly icing on the cake - outtakes, rehearsals, radio promos, etc. Much more valuable is the handful of officially released solo Christmas singles - especially John Lennon's classic "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," recorded with wife Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band in 1971. A soaring, optimistic, yet bittersweet song, "Happy Xmas" is far-and-away one of the greatest post-60's Christmas records, though it is rarely collected on Christmas compilations (probably for contractual reasons). It is, however, usually included on hit collections like Lennon Legend (1998). By the way, the b-side to the original "Happy Xmas" 45, Yoko's "Listen The Snow Is Falling," is lovely, too, but Vigotone did not include it in Ultimate Christmas. Instead, look for it as a bonus track on Rykodisc's CD reissue of John & Yoko's otherwise excerable 1969 Wedding Album.

Ringo StarrAlso included on Ultimate Christmas is George Harrison's typically whimsical "Ding Dong Ding Dong," originally from his album Dark Horse (1974) - a song never compiled on a Christmas album before. Additionally, we get both sides of Paul McCartney's 1979 Columbia Christmas single. Macca's a-side, "Wonderful Christmastime," was recorded during the McCartney II sessions in the same willfully simple, homespun fashion. The b-side, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae," was recorded four years earlier and sounds - amazingly enough - like "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" played in a reggae style.... Both songs were appended to the English CD reissue of McCartney's Back To The Egg (1979).

After the release of Ultimate Christmas, unassuming drummer Ringo Starr became the only Beatle to record an actual Christmas album - in this case, the charming and (not surprisingly) unassuming I Wanna Be Santa Claus (1999). Mark Hudson (of, believe it or not, the Hudson Brothers) helps write, play, arrange, and/or produce practically the whole record, but the music retains Ringo's trademark jocularity and casual, confident musicality. Mr. Starkey certainly gets high marks for effort - six original compositions and a rolicking new rendition of the Beatles' "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)."

Nearly half of Ringo's new songs rise above average; I'm especially fond of the slammin' glam rock opener, "Come On Christmas," and his wistful title track is worthy of the sentiment it expresses. Surprisingly, a couple of the covers are just as innovative. Starr and Hudson drive "Winter Wonderland" through New Orleans and fly "White Christmas" down to Jamaica - with both trips yielding delightful, unexpected rewards. The rest of the album is what we've come to expect from Ringo - honest, good-time rock 'n' roll with none of the innovation of the Beatles themselves. (In 2003, I Wanna Be Santa Claus was reissued almost verbatim as 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection.)

Before I close, I should note that the mastering of Ultimate Christmas Collection (in addition to the packaging) is unassailable, especially considering what they had - or didn't have - to work with. It behooves any Beatle fan or Christmas music buff to track this material down, but one can only hope that the surviving Beatles (or EMI/Apple) will one day deem to release such precious cargo legitimately. (FYI, I looked on eBay while researching this piece, and only one Vigotone set was listed at the time; bidding had risen to nearly $200....) [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • - group flexi-disc recordings (1963-1969)
  • The Beatles Christmas Record (1963)
  • Another Beatles Christmas Record (1964)
  • The Beatles Third Christmas Record (1965)
  • Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas (1966)
  • Christmas Time (Is Here Again) (1967)
  • Christmas 1968 (Happy Christmas) (1968)
  • Happy Christmas 1969 (1969)
  • - solo singles (1971-1979)
  • Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John & Yoko, 1971) star Top 100 Song [close]
    John & YokoUber-producer Phil Spector (read more) developed a cozy relationship with the Beatles, and, after salvaging the band's final work as Let It Be, he worked with both George Harrison and John Lennon on their initial solo records. Spector was subsequently at the helm when rock's most controversial couple (Lennon and his wife, avant garde artist Yoko Ono) waxed their resplendent "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Given the volatile political environment and the couple's controversial recent work (such as Lennon's scathing Imagine LP), "Happy Xmas" (note the missing "Christ") was a salve for both the record buying public and a war-weary world. Released only as a single (backed with Yoko's "Listen The Snow Is Falling"), "Happy Xmas" is rarely included on Christmas collections; it is, however, available on most Lennon greatest hits packages, including Lennon Legend (1998). It is also captured on Vigotone's fab Beatles boot, Ultimate Christmas Collection (1998).
  • Listen The Snow Is Falling (Yoko Ono, 1971)
  • Ding Dong, Ding Dong (George Harrison, 1974)
  • Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae (Paul McCartney, 1975)
  • Wonderful Christmastime (Paul McCartney, 1979)
  • - I Wanna Be Santa Claus (Ringo Starr, 1999)
  • Christmas Time Is Here Again
  • Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On
  • I Wanna Be Santa Claus
  • White Christmas
  • Winter Wonderland

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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