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Celebrating Christmas with The Beatles

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Paul: "I just wanted to thank you fans. Don't know where we'd be without you."
John: "The army, probably."

George, speaking about their upcoming film: "This one will be in color."
John: "Green."
--1964 Beatles Christmas Record

So much of the career and lives of The Beatles has been documented in books, TV specials, movies, videos, magazine articles, and more. But one often ignored facet of their fascinating story is their annual Christmas records. The Christmas recordings, usually done after a regular recording session in the studio, give a unique perspective of the evolution of the most popular band in the world.


The original idea for an annual Beatles Christmas record came from the Beatles press officer, Tony Barrow (the originator of the group's most common nickname, "the Fab Four"), who was inspired by the Queen's annual Yuletide greetings on British radio. Barrow, whose office would be backed up for weeks with floods of fan letters for the group, thought a Christmas record might please their many fans. Thus, for the next seven years (from 1963 to 1969), the boys would record a 7-inch flexi-disc of them singing and talking, which would be mailed directly to their U.S. and U.K. fan club members.

The first few Christmas records were written as scripts, but it's the boys' ad-libs that make them so interesting. The records give a glimpse into the boys' Monty Python-esque humor, a humor which is, at it's best, hilarious and which was a key ingredient in the band's incredible success and popularity. A popular British radio show, "The Goon Show," featuring Peter Sellers, had a definite influence on the Beatles' Christmas recordings. John Lennon, especially, was a devoted, inveterate fan of the show.

1963

The first Christmas record shows the Beatles' early fresh-faced innocence as, one after the other, they thank their fans for a "gear year" and sing renditions of "Good King Wenceslas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo."

1964

The second record is actually much funnier, and more sarcastic, than the previous one. John speaks about his book, reading obviously scripted dialogue: "I write in my spare time, it says here." Paul asks if he wrote that himself, to which John replies, "No, it's somebody's bad handwroter."

1965

The 1965 Christmas record was not as scripted as its two predecessors, and it shows. The boys sing a deliberately off-key version of Paul McCartney's hit, "Yesterday," and seem a bit blasé and robotic as they give their fans their customary thanks. (It cannot be neglected that the Beatles were, at this time, having "marijuana for breakfast," according to John. They had also discovered LSD in '65.)

1966

The Beatles came back in 1966 with a full-fledged British pantomime called "Everywhere It's Christmas." During the last months of 1966, the boys had been apart for the first time in four years, and one can easily hear their pleasure at being together again. They obviously had a ball cutting up, making inside jokes, and assuming various roles.

1967

"Christmas Time is Here Again," the 1967 record, is probably the greatest Beatles Christmas record. The title tune is catchy, the sketches are great, and the jokes are sharp. John and Ringo even designed the cover. Sadly, this was to be the last Christmas record in which one can hear the boys enjoying each other's company.

1968

By the 1968 Christmas record, the first to be recorded individually instead of as a group, the disintegration of the Beatles had begun. Yoko Ono's presence was a necessity for John, and an onus to the other three. John recites two of his poems; one, called "Jock and Yono," was a thinly disguised mild attack telling of the "two balloons named Jock and Yono who were in love" and "had to overcome overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends." George sarcastically thanks the Beatles fans for "making [their] lives worth living," before having then-popular singer Tiny Tim give a horrible rendition of John's song "Nowhere Man" — quite possibly the single worst Beatles cover of all time.

1969

At the time of the 1969 Christmas recording, the Beatles had already split up, although it had not yet been publicly announced. George makes a token 16-second appearance, while Ringo gets in a brief plug for his new movie, "The Magic Christian." Paul ad-libs a pleasant song, but the majority of this dull final Christmas record is devoted to the obviously besotted John chattering with his beloved new bride, Yoko. (I love John Lennon, and he's definitely not a boring guy, but when he gets into the banter with Yoko, the "magic" seems to leave.)

In 1970, a compilation album of all seven Christmas records was released to the devoted fans.


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.


Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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