Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: The Beatles' Christmas Records Box & the 'Sgt. Pepper's' Picture Disc


In December of 1963, UK kids received their biggest reward for joining the Beatles’ Official Fan Club: a flexi-disc arrived in the post containing messages of good will and “Happy Crimble” from the Fab Four. Each year throughout The Beatles’ brief career, fan-club devotees received such a holiday record from their fave group.

For their first Holiday platter dished out on December 6, 1963, The Beatles grunt “Good King Wenceslas” and whistle “God Save the Queen” as John Lennon gives a neat recap of the first phase of his band’s success and says “gear” more times than a John Lennon impersonator. Paul McCartney begs for a moratorium on the chucking of Jelly Babies, Ringo Starr reprises “Wenceslas” like a lounge lizard, and George Harrison gets silly before all four fabs mangle “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while plugging another famous schnoz into the lyrics.

In 1964, Beatlemania officially spread from the UK to the rest of the globe, and the boys’ recent discovery of Ms. Mary Jane seems to be the fuel on their Yule-log flame. The banter is a bit more lackadaisical than on their first Holiday Record. Or perhaps they were just exhausted. They do sound as knackered as they looked on the cover of the recently released Beatles For Sale… well, at least until the brief but frenzied piano demolition that ends this year’s message.

The Beatles’ 1965 message gets started with a rowdy knees-up of their latest rowdy number, “Yesterday”, before getting on to their usual heartfelt holiday messages. Taking some time out from recording Rubber Soul, John voices his appreciation for some rather original gifts he received from fans, then sings silly songs in an…ummm, I don’t know? Scottish accent? Next up is a reference to a George Harrison B-side that wouldn’t be released for another three years, a quick Four Tops parody, and a deranged version of “Auld Lang Sine” sung with Dylan-esque gravitas. Finally they all get sucked down some sort of reverb-laden vortex, no doubt gearing up for a New Year of acid experimentation and being bigger than that guy allegedly born on December 25th.

Not their most well-remembered holiday carol, “Everywhere It’s Christmas” (sung like the Upperclass Twit of the Year) begins the record shipped to fan club members in December, 1966. What follows is a far more elaborate production than those featured on previous holiday records, with the boys enacting a surreal holiday story complete with weird chorales and George’s memorable portrayal of Podgy the Bear.
 1967 saw release of the most famous Beatles’ fan club record thanks to the inclusion of their first and only full-band holiday song: “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”,  a number as tunefully frothy as their recent number one hit, “Hello, Goodbye”. Inter-cut within the song are snippets from a broadcast on Radio LSD, which features that beloved World War II chestnut “Plenty of Jam Jars” by The Ravelers.

To commemorate 1968, Paul McCartney does a “Blackbird”-reminiscent improv, John name-drops his new paramour amidst his usual verbal gobbledygook, Ringo goes insane, and a very stoned-sounding George pals around with Tiny Tim, who lays down a characteristically shrill version of “Nowhere Man” on his uke! All of this is glued together with some avant garde tape-tomfoolery straight out of “Revolution 9”. Freaky.

Sure, The Beatles couldn’t stand each other by 1969, but that neither stopped them from tossing together another holiday record or kept Yoko Ono—who sloshes through the snow with her new hubby and sings like a Disney thrush—from getting in on the fun. A bit of “The End” played beneath this recording gives a good idea of where The Beatles’ heads were in late ’69. Ringo plugs his burgeoning acting career, perhaps because he knows he’ll soon be without a job. However, a little X-Mas ditty by Paul provides an unexpectedly sweet holiday treat.

While original individual copies of these rare discs fetch as much as $600 today, a new box containing the entire set of these rather bizarre and often hilarious discs is now available for a fraction of that cost, and instead of crackly, wafer-thin flexi discs, they are on proper and rather heavy vinyl in a multitude of festive colors courtesy of Universal Music. There is quite a bit of sound variation due to the different sources from which the messages were pulled. According to the notes, some of the discs were sourced from the flexi-discs, and I'd wager that these include 1963, 1966, and 1969. While the crackling is shockingly mild on the 1963 record, the others sound considerably rougher. 1965 sounds like it was pulled from a cassette. The others sound much cleaner, which means that the most significant piece of music in the set, “Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, sounds nice. However, there are some distortions that likely result from the lo-fi way the original recordings were made, and be sure to take note that the 1964 record revolves at 45 RPMs rather than 33 1/3 or risk hearing the Fabs either sound like some sort of Satanic Santa.

The package is suitably lush. Each record comes in a shrink-wrapped picture sleeve with the original artwork (which because increasingly psychedelic as the sixties progress). The lot of them is encased in a gift box that’s only missing the paper and bow. There’s also a slim but nice booklet with a short introductory essay by Kevin Howlett, repros of each fan club newsletter shipped with each disc from 1963 through 1967, additional photos, and a note about the creation of each record. Gear!

As a nifty stocking stuffing bonus, UMe is also issuing Giles Martin’s recent 50th Anniversary stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a picture disc depicting the original cover on Side A and the custom Sgt. Pepper’s bass drum head on Side B. Picture discs have a reputation for crackly, dull sound, and while this pressing surely isn’t as crisp and vibrant as the CDs in the box set released last spring, and the bass is still overbearing, it still delivers generally good sound.
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