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|"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"|
|Single by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band|
with the Harlem Community Choir
|B-side||"Listen, the Snow Is Falling" (Yoko/Plastic Ono Band)|
|Released||1 December 1971 (1971-12-01) (US)|
24 November 1972 (1972-11-24) (UK)
|Recorded||28 and 31 October 1971, Record Plant East, New York City, NY, USA|
|Writer(s)||John Lennon, Yoko Ono|
|Producer||Phil Spector, John Lennon, Yoko Ono|
"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is a song written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, released in 1971 as a single by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir. It was the seventh single release by Lennon outside of his work with The Beatles. The song reached No. 4 in the UK, where its release was delayed until 1972, and has periodically reemerged on the UK Singles Chart, most notably after Lennon's death in 1980, at which point it peaked at No. 2. Originally a protest song about the Vietnam War, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" has since become a Christmas standard, frequently covered by other artists and appearing on compilation albums of seasonal music, and named in polls as a holiday favourite.
"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" was the culmination of more than two years of peace activism undertaken by John Lennon and Yoko Ono that began with the bed-ins they convened in March and May 1969, the first of which took place during their honeymoon. The song's direct antecedent was an international multimedia campaign launched by the couple in December 1969—at the height of the counterculture movement and its protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War—that primarily consisted of renting billboard space in twelve major cities around the world for the display of black-and-white posters that declared "WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko". Although this particular slogan had previously appeared in the 1968 anti-war songs "The War Is Over" by Phil Ochs and "The Unknown Soldier" by The Doors (which features the refrain, "The war is over."), its subsequent use by Lennon and Ono may just be coincidental; there is no evidence to confirm whether or not they were acquainted with these prior works.
Recognising the accessibility and popular appeal that made his 1971 single "Imagine" a commercial success compared to the other songs he had released up to that point, Lennon concluded, "Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey." He conceived "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" as a means of elaborating upon the themes of social unity and peaceful change enacted through personal accountability and empowerment that served as the basis of the earlier billboard campaign, trying to convey optimism whilst avoiding the sentimentality that he felt often characterised music of the holiday season.
Lennon was first among the former Beatles to release an original Christmas song after the group disbanded in 1970. "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" would be followed by George Harrison's "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" (1974), Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" (1979), and Ringo Starr's album I Wanna Be Santa Claus (1999). From 1963 to 1969, The Beatles issued special recordings at Christmas directly to members of their fan club.
In early October 1971, with not much more than bare-bones melody and half-formed lyrics, Lennon recorded an acoustic guitar demo of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" in his rooms at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City where he and Ono were living at the time. Ono would receive co-writing credit, but the actual extent of her contribution at this initial stage is unclear since she did not participate in the demo, which was atypical of their collaborations. Another demo of the song was made in late October, after the couple had taken an apartment in Greenwich Village. As with his previous two albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine (released in the U.S. just several weeks prior), Lennon brought on Phil Spector to help produce. The first recording session was held the evening of Thursday, 28 October, at the Record Plant studio. After the session musicians—some of whom had performed at one time or another as members of the Plastic Ono Band—laid down the basic instrumental backing and overdub tracks, Lennon and Ono added the main vocals. One of the four guitarists needed to fill in for Klaus Voormann on the bass when his flight was delayed out of Germany. Ono and the session musicians recorded the single's B-side, "Listen, the Snow Is Falling", the following day. The Harlem Community Choir—featuring thirty children, most of them four to twelve years of age—came to the studio on the afternoon of Sunday, 31 October, to record backing vocals for the counter-melody and sing-along chorus. Photographs for the original sleeve cover were also taken during that session by Iain Macmillan.
- John Lennon – vocals, guitar, producer
- Yoko Ono – vocals, producer
- The Harlem Community Choir – backing vocals
- May Pang – backing vocals
- Nicky Hopkins – piano, chimes, glockenspiel
- Teddy Irwin – guitar
- Jim Keltner – drums, sleigh bells
- Hugh McCracken – guitar
- Chris Osbourne – guitar
- Stuart Scharf – guitar
- Roy Cicala – recording engineer
- Phil Spector – producer
The song begins with spoken Christmas greetings from Ono and Lennon to their children from previous relationships: Ono whispers, "Happy Christmas, Kyoko", then Lennon whispers, "Happy Christmas, Julian". Lyric sheets accompanying the albums Shaved Fish (1975) and The John Lennon Collection (1982) erroneously transcribe this introduction as, "Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John."
When Lennon first played his demo for Phil Spector, the producer remarked that the song's opening line, "So this is Christmas...", was rhythmically identical to the 1961 single "I Love How You Love Me" by the Paris Sisters, which Spector himself had produced. At the recording studio, Lennon instructed the guitarists to incorporate mandolin-style riffs similar to the ones heard in "Try Some, Buy Some", another single that Spector produced earlier that same year for his wife, Ronnie Spector, formerly of the Ronettes. Spector also included percussion instruments of the sort he utilised on the 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You.
In addition to these reappropriated elements, it has been suggested that the chords and melodic structure of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" bear more than a passing resemblance to the traditional English ballad "Skewball", specifically the 1963 rendition (titled "Stewball") by Peter, Paul and Mary, itself based on the classical version recorded during the early 1940s by folk singer Woody Guthrie. Furthermore, Lennon may have modelled the lyric "And so happy Christmas / For black and for white / For yellow and red ones..." on a verse from the 1968 single "Everyday People" by Sly and the Family Stone: "There is a yellow one / That won't accept the black one / That won't accept the red one / That won't accept the white one...."
Apple Records released "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and "Listen, the Snow Is Falling" in the U.S. on 1 December 1971 (APPLE 1842). Issued in 7" single format on transparent green vinyl with a card-stock picture sleeve, the pressing bore two label variations, one of which displayed a sequence of five images that showed Lennon's face transforming into Ono's that was originally featured on the reverse cover of the exhibition catalogue for Ono's career retrospective This Is Not Here, presented October 1971 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.
A legal dispute between music publisher Northern Songs and Lennon over royalties from Ono's co-writing credit on his songs delayed the release of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" in the UK until 24 November 1972 (APPLE R 5870). The initial British run was issued in 7" single format on opaque green vinyl with the picture sleeve and variant label, but it sold out quickly and had to be repressed on standard black vinyl.
The song's first album appearance was on Shaved Fish (1975), the only compilation of Lennon's solo recordings released during his lifetime, where it was coupled with a reprise version of "Give Peace a Chance", performed as the finale of the One to One benefit concert on 30 August 1972 by Lennon and the Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory Band along with several other musical artists. The album's cover, designed by Roy Kohara, is composed of drawings representing each song featured on the album: for "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", it features the image of an airplane dropping a Christmas ornament instead of a bomb.
Over the years, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" has been reissued in a number of single formats by Capitol, Geffen, and Parlophone/EMI, most often to promote the release of albums collecting both Lennon's and Ono's work. It is also regularly found on compilations of Christmas songs, notably those from the Now That's What I Call Music! series.
A rough mix produced during the first recording session on 28 October 1971 was included on the second disc of the John Lennon Anthology (1998), where it is titled "Happy Xmas".
A music video for "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" appeared on The John Lennon Video Collection, released on VHS in 1993, corresponding to the 1989 reissue of The John Lennon Collection. It consisted of images from Lennon and Ono's 1969 "War is over!" billboard campaign and candid photographs of the couple and their son Sean from the late 1970s, interspersed with a boys' choral ensemble singing along with the original Harlem Community Choir vocals. The video was recut, and the song itself remastered, for the 2003 DVD Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon. The current version is composed of documentary footage—mostly depicting children—from the Vietnam War, in addition to recent scenes from various conflicts in the Horn of Africa, the Bosnian War, the 11 September 2001 attack on New York City, and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" did not meet with much success in its 1971 U.S. single debut, owing to its late release and lack of promotion. However, it was selected by Billboard magazine as one of the "Best Bets for Christmas" in 1971 and 1972, and placed among the "Christmas Hits" of 1983, 1984, and 1985. A reissue appeared at No. 32 on the Hot Adult Contemporary chart for the week ending 6 January 1996. The song also spent the last three weeks of 1971 on the Cash Box Top 100 Singles chart, peaking at No. 36 in the final week of its run.
The response of UK audiences to "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" has been decidedly more positive. After spending eight weeks on the UK Singles Chart in the wake of its 1972 release, at which point it reached No. 4, the song has, to date, reentered the chart another nine times. The most notable of these instances occurred immediately following Lennon's death on 8 December 1980: the song entered at the No. 2 spot—falling just short of becoming a "Christmas number one"—and remained on the chart for nine weeks.
Between December 1972 and February 1973, the song entered the Top 10 in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Singapore.
In recent decades, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" has gained a higher profile in the cultural mainstream due to an increasing proliferation of cover versions by other musical artists, most having been recorded during the last ten years. Among these, two have entered the Billboard charts, both of them in the same year. The first was released on 17 October 2006 by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan along with her album Wintersong, which was the best-selling Christmas album of the year and a Grammy nominee. It features backing vocals from the Children's and Youth Choirs of the Music Outreach Program at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music in Vancouver, British Columbia. Entering the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart at No. 22 the week ending 9 December 2006, it climbed to its peak position at No. 5 four weeks later. The second was released 12 December 2006 by American rock band The Fray as a digital download. It debuted at No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 41 on the Pop 100 the week ending 31 December 2006, but stayed on the respective charts for only one more week.
Some of the earliest cover versions of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" appear on holiday albums released by major pop singers, such as I Still Believe in Santa Claus (1990) by Andy Williams, The Christmas Album (1992) by Neil Diamond, A Very Special Season (1994) by Diana Ross, Christmas Island (1996) by Jimmy Buffett, and These Are Special Times (1998) by Celine Dion. This trend has continued with Save This Christmas for Me (2001) by Johnny Logan, Christmas Is Almost Here (2002) by Carly Simon, December (2003) by The Moody Blues, It's Christmas, Of Course (2007) by Darlene Love, A Winter Symphony (2008) by Sarah Brightman, Happy Christmas (2010) by Jessica Simpson, Hear the Bells (2011) by Vanessa Carlton, and A Very Merry Perri Christmas (2012) by Christina Perri.
Also typical are covers included on seasonal compilation albums that contain songs from various artists, such as the versions on Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (1997) by Tomoyasu Hotei; Christma-ska (1998) by The Toasters; It's All Bells – Jingle All The Way (2002) by Damien Rice; Maybe This Christmas (2002) by Sense Field; Pop Idol: The Idols – Xmas Factor (2003) by the top ten finalists from the second series of Pop Idol; Maybe This Christmas Tree (2004) by The Polyphonic Spree; Happy Holidays from Drive-Thru Records (2004) by An Angle; Taste of Christmas (2005) by Street Drum Corps and Bert McCracken; We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year (2008) by Tommy Shaw, Steve Lukather, Marco Mendoza, and Kenny Aronoff; Happy Christmas Vol. 5 (2010) by Sent By Ravens; and The Warmest Gift (2011) by J-Min.
Other notable covers of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" are the 1991 version on the album Standards by The Alarm, the 1994 in-concert performance by Melissa Etheridge, the 2007 single release by Maroon 5, and the 2009 version by mash-up band Beatallica on the album Winter Plunderband. On 13 December 2012, Sean Lennon—the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono—performed the song with gospel singer Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco, and the Harlem Gospel Choir on the Comedy Central program The Colbert Report. Their version was made available for purchase on the music download site iTunes, and proceeds were donated to Hurricane Sandy disaster relief.
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- ^ White, A., ed., p. 8.
- ^ Holdsworth, ed., p. 57.
- ^ Whitburn, p. xiv; "From 1963 through 1972, and from 1983 through 1985, Billboard published a seasonal Christmas Singles chart, and did not chart Christmas singles on the Hot 100."
- ^ White, T., ed., p. 84.
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- "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" official music video (2003) on YouTube