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The Christmas Records

The Christmas Records

Beginning in 1963, The Beatles sent out a Christmas record every year to members of their fan clubs—or “Beatles people,” as they were called. In all, seven 7-inches appeared, and on December 15 Apple Corps Ltd./Capitol/UMe reissued that series in The Christmas Records, a nicely-packaged box set that includes a 16-page booklet. Originally released as flexi-discs, the records are now on colored vinyl. Each disc has its own cardboard cover, and those covers begin to chart the changes of The Beatles, starting with simple black-and-white photos of the band and then moving to more psychedelic imagery (and in fact the last two cover seem anachronistic in light of the direction the group took after Magical Mystery Tour). The spoken segments range from droll season’s greetings by all the band members to John’s poetry to pure gibberish, and musically the foursome share snippets from albums that had not yet been released along with some very loose musical performances that are quite silly, although top honors in the goofy department may go to guest artist Tiny Tim’s performance of “Nowhere Man.” (Talk about competition!)

The discs do a nice job of charting the trajectory of the Fab Four. At the time the first disc was sent out to fan club members, all hell had not yet broken loose—or at least not in the States, as the December, 1963 disc precedes the first American LP by a month and the first Ed Sullivan appearance by two months while the final disc includes excerpts from the last album The Beatles recorded, Abbey Road. You might think that, as The Beatles became grown adults and Beatlemania became somewhat of a burden, fan-club Christmas records would seem like embarrassing reminders of their earlier mop top days. But not only did they keep sending out such records, their length increased, and the band members fussed with the records more as time went on, the aural and verbal non sequitirs becoming that much wackier, an evolution that marks the band’s progression toward greater experimentation.

The zaniness of the set will spark memories for Beatles fans of aspects from every point in their career. While listening to the discs, you may be reminded of those early press conferences where the Fab Four seemed to have a witty answer for every question; the humor/absurdity/surrealism of the movies Help, A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and Magical Mystery Tour; such musical oddities as “Wild Honey Pie” and “Birthday” from The White Album and Lennon’s off-the-cuff “Dig It” from Let It Be; the between-song banter and mid-song comments of Let It Be and countless Beatles boots from those sessions, with recordings that included completely irreverent performances of everything from “House of the Rising Sun” to “She Came in through the Bathroom Window.” Humor was always a part of The Beatles, even at the end, and here we remember that, very late in the game, the flip side of “Let It Be” was “You Know My Name (Look up The Number),” an act of pure lunacy that was mostly Lennon and McCartney’s baby. To understate the obvious, then, these experiments were not out of character for The Beatles, and they did this sort of thing quite well. While spinning the records, I dutifully scribbled notes about various minutiae, but continually I found myself laughing out loud, reminding me that they sure knew how to make us laugh. That’s one of the reasons we loved them.

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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