Why John Lennon was disappointed with the outcome of 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'
5 December 2023, 10:37
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"So this is Christmas, and what have you done?"
Since its release in 1970, 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' has become a festive standard when Christmas arrives each year, due to its impactful words and affecting melody.
Lennon wrote the song at a time when his own political beliefs were heavily influencing his work, notably the countercultural movement and the backlash against the Vietnam War.
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"I'm not claiming divinity,' John once said, "I've never claimed purity of soul. I’ve never claimed to have the answers to life. I only put out songs and answer questions as honestly as I can, but only as honestly as I can – no more, no less."
'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' was similarly intended to remind people of their collective responsibility, that whilst we celebrate Christmas, others aren't so lucky.
In fact, his main inspiration to write the song was to replace the ubiquitous, Irving Berlin-written 'White Christmas', believing that there was a need for a new, conscientious song to replace the Christmas standard made famous by Bing Crosby.
But Lennon was disappointed by the outcome of the song, which ultimately failed to achieve what he set out.
HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER). (Ultimate Mix, 2020) John & Yoko Plastic Ono Band + Harlem Community Choir
At least that was initially after the song was released, with Lennon feeling that his record label scuppered the opportunity for 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' to make a significant impact.
"Yoko and I wrote [the song] together," John recalled in 1980, as mentioned in the 2000 book All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. "It says, 'War is over if you want it.'"
"It was still that same message - the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button."
"As long as people imagine that somebody's doing it to them, and that they have no control, then they have no control."
Released in 1971, the song failed to reach the top of the charts in the US, where The Singing Dogs' version of 'Jingle Bells' edged it out.
When asked by it didn't perform better, Lennon blamed his label: "Well, they should have released it a bit earlier than two weeks before Christmas."
"You need at least four weeks in America." His claims just about check out, given the song was released just over three weeks before Christmas in 1971.
"They held it up, trying to make out that Yoko didn't write it and it's a Beatle record really and all that jazz," he said.
'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' wasn't released until the following year in the UK, where it peaked at number four in the charts.
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Lennon's Christmas anthem was produced by his frequent collaborator throughout his the beginning of his solo career, Phil Spector.
Coincidentally, Spector had produced a version of 'White Christmas' by Darlene Love, the song that Lennon loathed so much he wanted to oust from festive airplay each year.
Despite the early success Lennon had whilst working with producer Phil Spector, their relationship was seemingly rather tense.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon recorded the song's vocals with the Harlem Community and a group of around thirty children, which lends the song its angelic quality.
But Spector was concerned about Lennon's vocal recording, supposedly telling everyone in the studio that he sounded "wheezy" and was "unable to hit the high notes", jibing him by saying: "Yoko's out-singing you, John."
Shaking his head throughout the recording process, the frustrated Spector reportedly scathed: "He's smoking his ass off while he’s singing."
Though 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' may not have sounded like Spector wanted, or had the impact that Lennon wanted, it remains one of the greatest Christmas singles of all time.
It's a chart contender most years, notably after John Lennon's murder in 1980 when it reached number two in the UK charts.