‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’
By Madeline Bocaro ©
In one of his final interviews in 1980, John Lennon ecstatically spoke about ‘Happy Xmas’ being played during the holiday season each year. He would be amazed that now – nearly a century later – not only this song but many of his others have become beloved classics.
“I think my greatest pleasure is writing a song – words and lyrics – that will last longer than a couple of years. Songs that anybody could sing. Songs that will outlive me, probably. And that gives me my greatest pleasure. That’s where I get my kicks.”
– John Lennon 1971
‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was recorded at NYC’s Record Plant in October 1971 with the Plastic Ono Band featuring Nicky Hopkins, Jim Kelter, Chris Osbourne and Hugh McCracken. The choruses are sung by Yoko along with the children of The Harlem Community Choir. The Christmas spirit is evoked by the use of sleigh bells, tubular bells and glockenspiel.
Production is by Phil Spector who had produced a classic Christmas album by various artists including The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love in 1963 (released on the same day of JFK’s assassination). The album was re-released by The Beatles’ label Apple as Phil Spector’s Christmas Album.
More about A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector
The single’s B-side, Yoko’s song ‘Listen the Snow is Falling’ was recorded the day after ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.
Read my story all about Yoko’s song here:
‘Listen the Snow is Falling’
‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was released in America on December 6th 1971 on transparent green vinyl. The UK release was delayed until almost a year later, November 1972. The song’s highest chart position was No. 4 in the UK due to its release late in the holiday season and lack of promotion. Over the years, the song sporadically appeared on the UK Singles Chart reaching No. 2 (‘Imagine’ was at No. 1) just after John’s death in 1980.
A sequence of photos on the record label show John and Yoko’s heads perfectly morphing into each other. . The portraits originally appeared in October 1971 on the catalogue and poster for Yoko’s major retrospective exhibition This Is Not Here in Syracuse, NY. The photos and montage were created by Iain Macmillan.
(Read more about the photo montage below.)
‘Happy Xmas’ was accompanied by the Lennons’ striking billboard campaign spanning 12 major cities worldwide. The ad slogan, printed in bold letters was the song’s chorus – “WAR IS OVER! (IF YOU WANT IT) Happy Xmas from John & Yoko.”
At the start, Yoko and John whisper holiday wishes to their young children whom they were both separated from; ‘Happy Xmas Kyoko’, ‘Happy Xmas Julian’. (Their kids lived with their respective exes). The melody is based upon an 18th century English/Irish folk song (‘Stewball’) about a race horse named Skewball. Peter Paul & Mary recorded the folk song in 1963 and in 1966.
Peter, Paul & Mary – ‘Stewball’
John and Yoko have always emphasized our powers to change the world. In the first line of the lyric, John holds each one of us individually accountable, asking;
And so this is Xmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun
In the song’s second half John includes himself, reminding us that we are all in this world together (“…and what have WE done?”). Mostly though, the song brings good tidings and cheer to all humanity for a fearless and wonderful Xmas and New Year. The lyrics also remind us that, ‘the road is so long’ and ‘let’s stop all the fight’. The “War Is Over if you want it” chorus emphasizes the power of positive thinking.
“We are just as responsible as the man who presses the button.”
– John Lennon, 1971
The new 2018 Imagine ultimate box set has an alternate mix of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ with Yoko singing the choruses alone (without the Harlem Community Choir of children). This beautiful acoustic version appears on Disc 2 (alt Mix, Singles out-takes).
There is also a much clearer mix of the original 1972 version.
A psychedelic synth version of ‘Happy Xmas’ was released on 7-inch vinyl in 2011 by Yoko and the band The Flaming Lips. They also performed the song live together. The gorgeous b-side ‘Atlas Eets Christmas’ (At Last It’s Christmas) begins with Yoko singing ‘I love you’ amidst bells and strings.
Plastic Ono Band and Flaming Lips ‘Atlas Eets Christmas’
In New York City, Yoko joined The Flaming Lips for a live performance of ‘Happy Xmas’ (February 5, 2014) descending from the sky.
FLAMING LIPS / PLASTIC ONO BAND “Happy Xmas” live 12/31/11 with Sean Lennon and Wayne Coyne sharing lead vocals.
Oklahoma City, OK
The Rykodisc CD single version, An Xmas Message From Yoko 1991 has a spoken voiceover by Yoko about the affirmation of love.
JOHN AND YOKO’S MORPHING HEADS:
Iain MacMillan: John Lennon & Yoko Ono – the dissolving heads series.
While Iain MacMillan is undoubtedly best known for his Abbey Road sessions with the Beatles, he also created a series of five photographs of John and Yoko which he called the ‘dissolving heads’ series. As the viewer looks from left to right at the sequence of five photographs, John morphs into Yoko. The image at the center is an uncanny match and blend of their very similar features – as if they are looking out of each other’s eyes.
Iain MacMillan’s close up portraits of John and Yoko – the basis for the dissolving heads series were first used on the poster and catalogue for Yoko Ono’s exhibition ‘This Is Not Here’ at Everson Art Museum in Syracuse, NY (October 1971).
The series of photos were also used by John & Yoko on their 1971 US single ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over). They appeared again on their single ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’ released in 1972. The album ‘Some Time in New York City’ also released in 1972 featured the sequence. This was the last release with the dissolving heads.
A set of dissolving heads portraits was exhibited in Macmillan’s home town at Dundee’s Discovery Point Gallery in Scotland from February 2010 to June 2010, in a retrospective exhibition of Iain MacMillan’s photographs titled “From Dundee to Abbey Road”. This was a public gallery but nothing was for sale.
After the exhibition, Yoko Ono purchased of all Iain’s photographs featuring her and John, including the set from the Dundee exhibition.
The five silver gelatin photographs were made in the mid 1980s by photographer Iain Macmillan from his original 1971 negatives. They measure 18 x 18 cm / 7 x 7 inches on 20 x 25 cm / 8 x 10 inch paper.
Iain created the set from two negatives, one portrait of John (the first photograph in the sequence), and one of Yoko (the fifth in the sequence). Three other images are double exposures with varying exposure times to give the morphing effect. The result is the superimposed images. One image is emphasized over the other by being exposed longer. Iain timed the exposure of each frame to create the ‘merging’ effect. The complex process means that no two complete sets of dissolving heads portraits will ever be exactly the same.
May Pang (the Lennons’ PA in New York in the early 1970s) stated while watching Iain develop the photographs: “Well, remember that there was no Photoshop or computers back then, and that is a key point. It is amazing that he was able to accomplish this. Iain had to do all of that by hand. Imagine that! I remember him working on those photos, painstakingly, and how he’d come back from the dark room with some outtakes that were really funny. You know, he’d come out with the eyes or mouth not lined up right, (laughs) and he’d show me and we’d laugh ourselves sick. They were so funny.”
(Prints of the photos were offered for sale at Snap Galleries in April 2016).