Monday, December 25, 2017

Who’ll Remember The Buns, Podgy? The Beatles’ Christmas Records

Happy Christmas Beatle People! The Christmas Records, a vinyl collection, was released on December 15.

The interwebs – lately anxious over the coming monetization, courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, of the entire internet; and dispirited as Donald Trump and the GOP delivered a historic largesse to themselves and to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans – were lit up for a few happy hours earlier this month. Via YouTube and other outlets, a recording few had ever heard, and almost as few believed to be real, came to light: an 18-minute remnant of Unforgettable, something put together in late 1965 by Paul McCartney for the sole enjoyment of his fellow Beatles. I and many others first learned of this item in All Together Now (1975), by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik, the first attempt at a complete Beatles discography, where (in a section on “Bootlegs”) it was generically dubbed Paul’s Christmas Album. “Perhaps the rarest Beatle recording in existence,” the authors called it. “It’s a special treat for the other three. Paul recorded a special album in which he appears as an announcer, a singer and a comedian. Only four copies were ever pressed.” For years I doubted this: it sounded too much like something dreamed up by a fan, floated as a joke, and then transformed via rumor from fetish to fact. (After all, the same section of the same book asserted the existence of such unreleased Beatles songs as “Pink Litmus Paper Shirt,” “Colliding Circles,” and “Four Nights in Moscow” [!]; only in 1999 was it revealed that most of these titles were the prankish inventions of a Beatle bystander.)

But in various Q-and-A venues in the 1980s and nineties, McCartney himself confirmed that the recording was real – even if it was nothing very close to the comedy record described by Castleman and Podrazik. Paul gave more detail in a 1995 interview with Mark Lewisohn: “It was like a magazine program: full of weird interviews, experimental music, tape loops, some tracks I knew the others hadn't heard . . . just a compilation of odd things." According to a recent story in Rolling Stone, he’d assembled the tape while living in an attic room in the London townhouse of his girlfriend Jane Asher’s family; at the time, he was experimenting with cassette recorders, primitive self-overdubbing, and the kind of randomized audioscapes that would make their way into “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Regrettably, the 18 minutes of Unforgettable now available to us are void of anything resembling that bold experimentalism. They instead constitute a podcast-like playlist of songs, recent hits or odd favorites, punctuated by McCartney’s game but lame version of disc-jockey gab. Not surprising for someone so gifted at musical pastiche, Paul has considerable resources as a vocal mimic; throughout The Beatles Anthology, for instance, he does hilarious impersonations of the group’s first manager, Welshman Allan Williams; an American promo man; and the phony Liverpudlian accents of Yellow Submarine’s voice actors. But here in 1965, those talents are underdeveloped, and Paul’s Americanese is a hapless hash of New England, New York, and Deep South. (To be fair, imagine a non-Brit trying to navigate the nuances of Cockney, Midland, and Northern speech.) As an exhibit in the history of cultural exchange, these 18 minutes are interesting for capturing Paul’s imitation of UK pirate radio’s imitation of U.S. Top 40 radio; as a Beatles curio, they are more than worth burning to a disc and filing away with other oddities, like the 1969 WCBN broadcast of the unreleased Get Back album, or F. Lee Bailey’s “Paul is dead” TV trial. The complete playlist: “Unforgettable,” Nat “King” Cole; “Someone Ain’t Right,” Peter & Gordon (“Thank you Peter, thank you Gawdin,” Paul drawls); “I Get Around,” The Beach Boys; “Heat Wave,” Martha & The Vandellas; “Don’t Be Cruel,” Elvis Presley; and “Down Home Girl,” The Rolling Stones (“that group that was once popular in the 1960s”).

Despite its Christmas-adjacent creation, Unforgettable is not at all Yuletide in sound, theme, or feel. For that we turn to Happy Christmas Beatle People! The Christmas Records, a merry addition to the lengthening line of superior reissue projects undertaken by Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company. All seven of the band’s seasonal discs, recorded for distribution to their UK fan club between 1963 and 1969, are packaged in their original sleeves, each in festively colored vinyl, with a booklet reproducing the accompanying fan-club newsletters. Historical notes and session details are provided by Kevin Howlett, and it all comes in a groovy little box that makes you think of holiday chocolates. (Even in their corporatized afterlife, The Beatles continue to prove that commercialism can be a beautiful thing.)

Although this is their first mass-market release, the Christmas records have been familiar to fans for decades. They were first collected in 1970 on an Apple LP called From Then to Us, for fan-club consumption only; U.S. clubbers got the same thing as The Beatles’ Christmas Album. After those pressings dried up, the discs became popular fodder for bootleggers and pirates; in 1998, Vigotone assembled The Ultimate Beatles Christmas Collection, a nice bootleg box containing, along with the fan-club releases, pretty much every Christmas-themed song or greeting produced by the Beatles as a group or as soloists. And of course all the original fan-club recordings have been available on YouTube for years now. So there’s nothing here we haven’t heard before – no hidden tracks, no Easter eggs, no Christmas cookies. But relistening, with intention and attention, to a familiar body of material can always produce new clarities.

For instance, one hadn't really noted with specificity the degree to which each year’s Christmas disc parallels the developments in the group’s music. The 1963 and ’64 editions are, like the albums and singles that surround them, relatively minimal, straightforward affairs, especially when compared to what came later; but they’re also more intimate and unmediated, a more direct connection to four people and one unit. 1965 is along the same lines – just the guys around a microphone, improvising – but the smell of cannabis in the air fosters a wilder, darker humor, and the burden of Beatlemania produces groaning self-parody (“Yesterday” in the voices of barroom drunkards or lonesome dogs). As ids and imps trailing Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, the 1966 and ’67 records are fully written, rehearsed, produced, and sequenced, with skits, songs, sound effects, library music, and a prevailing spirit of discipline that nonetheless leaps free with oddity and anarchy. Of all the Christmas records, these are the least like any other thing to be heard before or after them. They bear the obvious influence of The Beatles’ beloved Goon Show, but unlike that BBC radio milestone, The Beatles’ sketches are not premise-driven – or rather, they are all premise, no elaboration. An absurdity is posited, played with, and discarded: a charming strategy, provided the set-ups come thick and fast, as they do here. With its parody voices, nautical settings, rattling noises, and down-home singalongs, 1966’s Pantomime: Everywhere it’s Christmas resembles “Yellow Submarine” more than it does anything in the non-Beatle world; 1967’s Christmas Time (Is Here Again), while quite Goony, has elements that predict the U.S. comedy group The Firesign Theatre (especially the lightning-fast talk show and game show parodies), and others that show Beatle affinity for The Bonzo Dog Band (who had lately filmed a spot for Magical Mystery Tour, the TV special soon to make its underwhelming Boxing Day debut).

One year later, and everything is different. The Beatles’ 1968 Christmas Record is pure White Album collage, with “Revolution 9” crash and bang, a winsome acoustic toss-off from Paul, some embittered wordplay from John, George introducing us to Tiny Tim (with New York traffic in the background), and a distant piano tinkle setting off the creepy childhood vibe. Finally, Happy Christmas 1969, assembled only a few months before the band was officially defunct, is the most ineffably melancholy of the bunch. Fragmented and diverse, both its humor and its encompassing grandiosity – its gesture toward a summation that is stirring but not unduly pompous – recall the Abbey Road medley. John walks with Yoko through crunching leaves, extolling “the Elizabethan high wall”; Paul delivers another acoustic ditty, one just as charming and trivial as “Her Majesty.” The climax to the record, and the box, comes upon a resounding choral rendition of “The First Noel,” sprinkled with Ringo’s laughter just as it fades into oblivion. Perfect – and perfectly sad.

Any listener who has been hearing these discs seasonally and peripherally for a long time will find bits of realization surfacing. Ringo’s sincerity in addressing the fans (“May your every wish be granted”) is in stark contrast to his mates’ jovial sarcasms, without ever seeming a rebuke to them. The marching sound that opens the 1964 record is eerily, perhaps intentionally reminiscent of the prelude to The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go,” a #1 hit of the previous summer. Mock-German voices throughout the records raise not just the silly ghosts of The Goon Show, but also echoes of The Beatles’ own long-gone Hamburg stages. This listener first heard these records in December 1980, in the weeks-long interregnum between John Lennon’s assassination and the coming of Christmas. Along with other Beatle bootlegs – live concerts, BBC tapes, Get Back sessions – they were played over and over on the local university radio station by a program director who had loved The Beatles since their American arrival, and who by exposing us to these long-lost sounds imparted a great gift in the wake of a horrible theft. Amid all the beauty, humor, and life of The Beatles at Christmastime – and every other time – this may be why I can never hear them without thinking, sooner or later, thoughts of death.

But I also can’t hear them without thinking, sooner or later, of “Podgy and Jasper.” In 2018, may your every wish be granted, and may we deliver ourselves from evil.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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