zaterdag 16 december 2017

A Paul McCartney Christmas on 7” vinyl

It's going to be an expensive Christmas for the fans of Paul McCartney – with three Paul McCartney-related releases this Christmas season – with one of the three being a boxset with seven 7”''s. And we're only talking about his 45s releases here. Paul McCartney, who we of course don't have to introduce, was already involved in the fanclub flexis The Beatles put out for Christmas in the years 1963-1969, but he also has released quite some solo Christmas 45s or Christmas-related 45s through the years.

The Beatles: Happy Christmas, Beatle People. The Christmas Records 7" box set (Capitol / Apple, 5791485, Europe, 33 rpm, different colours vinyl)

In 1963, all the members of the Beatles' English fanclub received a free flexi-disc 7” in their mailbox, titled 'The Beatles Christmas Record'. 1963 had been a crazy year for The Beatles. The band had debuted in October 1962 in the British carts with 'Love Me Do', but that song had only been a minor hit. Their next single, 'Please Please Me', that was released early January 1963, started the Beatle mania, that culmilated that year in three number one hits and one number 2 hit. The Beatles received such an amount of fanmail that it became sheerly impossible for the band to answer all the letters. So Beatles' press officer Tony Barrow came up with the idea to send all fanclub members a free flexi, as a way to reach out to the fans to thank them for all their support for the band. It was also Barrow who scripted the what was on the record: a combination of individual messages of the four Beatles' members Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrrison and Ringo Starr, several renditions of the carol 'Good King Wenceslas', while the record closed with the Fab Four singing 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Ringo'. All of it was recorded on October 17, 1963 at the Abbey Road studio, just after the recording session for The Beatles' fourth single of 1963, 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. The flexi, white with blue lettering, was housed in a yellow fold around sleeve, with a Christmas wish and the head's and signatures of the four Beatles' on the front, some photos on the back and a 'newsletter' inside.

In 1964, the whole operation was repeated, with again Barrow scripting the performance, although it seemed, listening to the record, that especially John Lennon was less willing to follow the script, as he was misreading parts of it, and joking about the whole process. The record started with the four singing 'Jingle Bells' and ended with a version of non-Christmas song 'Oh Can You Wash Your Father's Shirt?'. It was again all recorded at the Abbey Road Studios, and the flexi came this time in an ordinary sleeve, with a two page insert, that included photo's of the Beatles and a newsletter. It was titled 'Another Beatles Christmas Record' and had a photo of the four Beatles, dressed in suits and smiling friendly into the camera.

The third flexi, recorded November 8, 1965 at Abbey Road was the last that involved Barrow as writer, although this time the Beatles' themselves were also involved in writing the sketch. It featured the four singing parts of Christmas songs ('Auld Lang Syne and Lennon's 'Happy Christmas To Ya List'nas') and non-Christmas songs ('Yesterday' and very small parts of 'Eve Of Destruction' (Barry McGuire) and 'It's The Same Old Song' (Four Tops)). It also had a poem, 'Christmas Comes But Once A Year'. The record was simple called 'The Third Beatles' Christmas Record' and was the first to clock over six minutes. It came again in an ordinary sleeve, with an insert with the newsletter on one side and a photo on the other, plus a smaller insert with a drawing including photos of the heads of the four Beatles, and the Christmas wish 'Happy Christmas Beatle People!'

The fourth Beatles' flexi, 1966's 'The Beatles' Fourth Christmas Record', subtitled 'Pantomime: Everywhere It's Christmas' was the first that was all written by the band itself. It was recorded during sessions for 'Strawberry Fields Forever', on November 26, so quite late, and had a collection of original songs and sketches, including one Christmas-themed, 'Everywhere It's Christmas'. It was the first flexi that was produced by George Martin and the first flexi that came in a coloured sleeve, with a psychedelic looking drawing on the frontcover, and again a newsletter as insert, but this time, there were no photo's of the band to be found.

Had all the previous flexis been recorded in October and November, so near to Christmas, 1967's flexi had already been recorded in May, It seems that with every flexi, the band took the project more serious. The flexi was called 'Christmas Time Is Here Again', which was also the title of a song that the band had written for the flexi. The song was repeated several times throughout the recording. The Beatles all played different characters, and the story was build around auditions for a BBC radio show. At the end of the record, Lennon reads the poem 'When Christmas Time Is Over'. The front cover was a college of old photo's, with in the middle five coloured flowers. It had the same feeling as the cover art of The Beatles' 1967 masterpiece 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. The song 'Christmas Time Is Here Again' later appeared on the B-side of The Beatles 1995 45 'Free As A Bird', and was also included on the Beatles Anthology that was released that year.

The sixth flexi was the longest, clocking almost 8 minutes. It was the first for which the band members recorded their contributions separately, and also the first to feature another voice besides that of The Beatles': American singer Tiny Tim, known from his rather weird version of 'Tiptoe Through The Tulips', doing a short version of The Beatles' 'Nowhere Man' on ukulele. The recording also featured McCartney's 'Happy Christmas, Happy New Year' and a lot of different snippets, noises and individual messages. George Martin was not involved in the recording, it was produced by a friend of the band, DJ Kenny Everett, who put all the separate contributions together. The sleeve featured again psychedelic looking artwork, in white, red and blue. The record was simply titled 'Christmas 1968'. As the sketch was so long, it was spread over two sides of the flexi. It came again with an insert, this time no newsletter, but an order form for pictures of the band members. Commercialism seemed to have made its entrance in the Christmas world of The Beatles.

The seventh and last flexi ('The Beatles' Seventh Christmas Record') was recorded when The Beatles were slowly disintegrating as a band, so again the members had recorded their parts for the flexi separately. It were mainly Lennon and McCartney who were appearing on the flexi. Lennon together with his wife Yoko Ono, playing the game 'What Will Santa Bring Me?' and Ono interviewing Lennon. McCartney sings 'This Is To Wish You A Merry, Merry Christmas'. The front cover of the sleeve features a rather vague orange-red-ish photo and the back cover featured a drawing of Starr's four year old son Zak. It was untitled, so became known as 'The Beatles' Seventh Christmas Record'

In 1970, all the recordings were for the first time released on vinyl, on a LP, that was also send out to all fanclub members. In 1983, all seven records were re-released by The Official Beatles Fanclub on 7” picture discs, titled 'The Beatles Christmas Collection', in a heavy polyvinyl sleeve bound into a vinyl-covered booklet, with various printed inserts. The package was limited to 1000 copies and only available to fan club members. It took another 34 years before the flexi's finally saw an official commercial re-release in their original 7” format – although not on flexi-disc (that are known to wear out quite quickly), but on coloured vinyl, packed in a stylish red box set. The cover design of the box takes its inspiration from the sleeve from the very first Beatles Christmas flexi and the message 'Happy Christmas Beatle People!'. All seven singles are housed in a separate picture sleeve, based on the artwork of the original sleeves. Included is also a booklet with the fan club Christmas newsletter and notes on the discs' contents. It is not cheap, but you get value for your money, and, as The Beatles are still very popular, this will probably become a collectors items. So if you are into the Beatles, or in beautifully packed Christmas records, get yourself a copy before it's too late!

Listen to the only Christmas song (well, sort-of-a-song), from the 1967 flexi, 'Christmas Is Here Again'.

Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon And The Roots / The Decemberists: Holidays Rule Vol. 2 (Capitol, B002752921, USA, 45 rpm, green vinyl, 3500 copies)
Paul McCartney, Jimmy Fallon And The Roots / Norah Jones: Holidays Rule Vol. 2 (Capitol, B002752021, USA, 45 rpm, red vinyl, 3500 copies)

After The Beatles officially broke up in the early 1970s, all members went their separate ways and started solo careers, with Paul McCartney forming the band Wings after a first solo record. Paul McCartney's first Christmas release as a solo artists came quite late. It was already eight years since he started his solo career until he would finally release a Christmas single. Paul McCartney was the third Beatle to enjoy a Christmas hit as a solo artist. When the single was released, on November 16, 1979 in the UK and one week later in the USA, Paul McCartney was still a member of his group Wings, although he was working on his second solo album, 'II', that would be released in 1980, and would mark the beginning of the end of Wings. 'Wonderful Christmastime' was written on a very hot day in July 1979, based upon a synthesizer riff played on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. At the time, McCartney was experimenting a lot with synthesizers, undoubtely inspired by the many electropop bands, that were slowly getting popular, especially in the UK. The song was recorded August, 30, 1979, at Lower Gate Farm, in Sussex, the farm McCartney was living at the time. The recording was total solo project, with McCartney playing all instruments (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and percussion) and also producing the song. The lyrics were simply describing having a good time at Christmas, and were seen as a reaction to the much more serious lyrics that Lennon had written as a solo artist, including on his hit 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over!)': 'The moon is right / The spirits up / We're here tonight / And that's enough / Simply having a wonderful christmastime'. It also had a part featuring a choir singing 'Ding Dong, Ding Dong', that also happens to be the title of the 1974 holiday single of George Harrison. The B-side was a novelty song that McCartney had already recorded in 1975, a reggae-fied version of the classic Christmas song 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer', retitled to 'Rudolph The Red Nose Reggae'. It was recorded at a time when, mainly due to the success of Bob Marley, reggae was breaking into the mainstream.

A video for 'Wonderful Christmastime' was filmed in November 1979, and although they did not play on the song, the video did feature the other members of Wings. The video was filmed at the Fountain Inn in Ashurst, West Sussex and was merely showing McCartney and the other Wings-members having a good time at the pub. Which was exactly what was the case: the group went to the pub, did a bit of filming inside and outside, and got back to the pub. Wings included 'Wonderful Christmastime' in the shows they played during their November-December 1979 tour of the UK. In the UK, 'Wonderful Christmastime' was a big hit, it reached the 6th spot in the first week of January 1980. In the US, the single was not as successful. It did not chart in the Billboard Hot 100, and it went only to 83 on the Cash Box Top 100 and to 94 on the Record World singles chart. It only appeared once in the Billboard Christmas chart, and that was in 1984, five years after the initial release of the single. The opinions about the song are divided: many people love the song, but others consider it the worst song Paul McCartney has ever written, and it is regularly listed among the worst Christmas songs ever.

'Wonderful Christmastime' was not McCartney's last Christmas-related single. In December 1983 he released the single 'Pipes Of Peace', which did not mention Christmas or was overly seasonal, but giving its message of love and peace, it was not coincidental that the single was released just before the Christmas season. In a way, with its plea for peace, it could be seen as a tribute to Lennon's 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'. 'Pipes Of Peace' was the first solo number one hit for McCartney (not counting 'Mull Of Kintyre', that McCartney had recorded with his band Wings, and that was actually the UK Christmas number one of 1977).

One year later, McCartney was involved in the production of the animation movie 'Rupert and the Frog Song', and one of the songs of that movie, 'We All Stand Together', was released as a single. It was credited to Paul McCartney and The Frog Chorus. The Frog Chorus part was performed by the King's Singers choral group and the choir of St Paul's Cathedral. Again, it was not really a Christmas-song, but again, it had a very Christmas-like message, best summed up in the second verse: 'Play the game, fight the fight / But what's the point on a beautiful night? / Arm in arm, hand in hand / We all stand together'. As the music and singing by the chorale group and the choir fitted in very well with actual Christmas songs, so it was played very often during the Christmas season, and has even been included on several Christmas compilations. The song would have been the Christmas number one, were it not for Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' getting in the way. The competition for the Christmas number one of 1984 was so itense that it even made Shakin' Stevens decide to postpone his already recorded Christmas song 'Merry Christmas Baby' to 1985 – to become the UK Christmas number one that year. But that's another story.

In 2012, Paul McCartney was involved in the 'Holidays Rule' compilation. It was a compilation, released late October 2012 by Hear Music, part of the Concord Music Group and produced by Chris Funk of the American alt.rock band The Decemberists. It was quite a mixed bag of artists that appeared on the record, alt.rock bands like The Shins and The Civil Wars, but also a pop band like .fun and legendary soul singer Irma Thomas. Paul McCartney was definitely the biggest name on the compilation – but well, he is probably the biggest name on any compilation he would appear on. McCartney choose to cover Nat King Cole's classic 'The Christmas Song', accompanied by Diana Krall on the piano. McCartney had acquired the rights of this song, so at least, he did not have to pay copyrights to be able to record it. There was one small problem, and that was the turkey, for whom things did not end too well in the song, as we all know. And Paul McCartney is a long time vegetarian and a supporter of animal rights. So he decided to record the first vegetarian version of 'The Christmas Song', in which Christmas is also a celebration for the animals. Out goes the turkey, in comes the holly. Because, face it, the first to witness Jesus' birth were animals, not humans – the ass, who so faithfully had carried Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (perfectly captured in the classic Christmas song 'Little Donkey'), and the ox (Who is going to write a Christmas song for him?). Only later, the shepherds arrived. So Jesus was not only born to bring salvation for us humans, but also for the animals! But that part we seem to forget, especially during the Christmas celebrations. And I don't think Mary and Joseph had the ass the ox for their Christmas meal. So all praise to Paul McCartney and his version of 'The Christmas Song'! As an interesting side note, the song was produced by Tommy LiPuma, who, early in his career, was the producer of Claudine Longet's take on the classic sunshine pop Christmas song 'I Don't Want To Spend Christmas Without You' – covered in 2013 by The Garlands for their Snowflakes single. You see, everything is connected in Christmas music! Anyway, Paul McCartney's version of 'The Christmas Song' was also released on a limited (2000 copies) 7”, only to be sold at independent record shops, and pressed on green or on red vinyl. Unfortunatelty, the single sold out in no time, and in the end, was only sold on platforms like Ebay and Discogs, starting at 50 euro/dollar.

Paul McCartney explaining what happened to the turkey and singing 'The Christmas Song':

This year, a second volume fo 'Holidays Rule' is released, this time by Capitol Records, and again, Paul McCartney is featured, this time, and here we come full circle, with his first Christmas song 'Wonderful Christmastime'. He is joined by talk show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, for an almost acapalla version of the song – only instrument that is used are sleigh bells. The song was premiered last year, in The Tonight Show, that is hosted by Fallon, and featured the cast of the animated movie Sing doing backups. The song was re-recorded, this time without the cast of Sing, for the compilation, with Fallon and McCartney sharing the lead vocals and The Roots doing the a cappella backup. It is very short, only 1 minute and 28 minutes. As part of Record Store Day's Black Friday celebration two 'Holidays Rule Vol. 2' 45's were released, that both featured this track on the A-side. B-side of the red single (red cover and red vinyl) is a version of the song Horace Silver's song 'Peace' by Norah Jones, recorded live at The Sheen. B-side of the green single (green cover and green vinyl) is The Decemberists' take on Alex Chilton's Big Star's 1975 song 'Jesus Christ'. Both singles are released in editions of 3500 copies (McCartney has learned from what happened with his previous Christmas 45), so will hopefully stay available for a reasonable price.

You can listen to the 2017 version of 'Wonderful Christmastime' on Spotify

So, that's enough Paul McCartney for today.

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