The Beatles were always something of a cabaret act. Once you dig past the grandstand, era defining tracks theirs is a back catalogue of fanciful musical experiments and when John Lennon quipped about the people in the balcony rattling their jewellery it wasn’t the establishment baiting bravado we kid ourselves it was, he was merely kowtowing to his paymasters. Phase one Beatles (pre-Rubber Soul, the boy band years) saw John and Paul cast as harmless rogues Dennis The Menace and Gnasher with enough cheap branded Beano tat to make One Direction blush. They weren’t pop’s first millionaires for nothing. But I digress. Initially I couldn’t think of a single Christmas themed Beatles song and that’s because there weren’t any apart from a collection of seven annual snippets, skits and seasonal covers released on Flexidisc to the band’s fanclub members. This might sound fine for phase one Beatles but remarkably carried on every year right through to the spliced together efforts of 1968 and 1969 by which point the band had effectively split. History may not recall what the increasingly acerbic and aloof players made of this contractual albatross but as you work through them you get an intriguing snapshot of the band’s mindset and creative vantage from year to year.
So, the 1963 and 1964 efforts are very much the traditional jointly recorded messages still familiar to boy band fans today (thanks for buying our records/tickets/merch, see you soon and a happy new year) by 1965 it’s a lot more off the wall as the band had begun to experiment more and a yuletide barbershop version of ‘Yesterday‘ perhaps hints at the more creatively free direction the band were taking. By 1966, as you might be guessing, things are beginning to take an altogether more surrealist turn and the accompanying musical clip ‘Everywhere Is Christmas’ is a tantalising peak at both John and Paul’s future Christmas songs.
1967’s Fifth Christmas Record could easily be an outtake from the Magical Mystery Tour film of the same year but walks a safe distance from the Two Ronnies cliff edge to be anything more than pastiche, although a George Martin cameo is a nice bonus for hardcore Beatle nerds. Production is noticeably ramped up for the 1968 and 1969 offerings which are increasingly impersonal and divested as the obviously telegrammed in recordings are spliced together by someone else. However, 1968 is the real highlight in this vinyl box set release. A meta version of ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ peppers a recording that wouldn’t, at times, sound out of place on the Beta Band’s Three EPs and contains further hints of how successfully experimental the band could have become. Snippets of genius, touches of early Wings while the increasingly detached patter betrays a band on the brink of implosion. So, by the time we get to 1969’s held-together-documentary-style the format and the participants have become tired and audibly disinterested.
Time was you couldn’t get Beatles product for love nor money (well, not love anyway) and the ‘best of’ collections were limited to the red and blue albums helpfully filtering out all the guff, and preserving the band’s undeniable legacy in a sort of prehistoric vinyl. Aside from those lucky enough or fanatical enough to seek out the rarities which is where this largely pointless collection should have stayed, in the realm of gimlet eyed collectors. On the other hand it’s the sort of festive over-indulgence the lull between the Queen’s Speech and Wallace and Gromit is perfect for.