The Christmas Messages: The Story
A feature article painstakingly researched and written by Beatle Brunch Club member Rick Salemi. Thanks Rick!
You can tell the Holidays are here when you hear clips of The Beatles Christmas messages on Beatle Brunch. After hearing Joe play part of "Evereywhere it's Christmas" a few years ago, I decided to pick up a copy as a Christmas Gift for my wife. With all the reissues and expanded sets that had been released, I figured the Christmas messages had also been reissued. I also thought I could easily pick up a copy at a reasonable price.
I hit my favorite online music stores and even some who sell physical media. I came up empty. So it was time to do a little digging. A net search sent me to eBay and that's where I finally found different versions spanning several years.
Did I say reasonable price? While I know that some Beatles memorabilia commanded high prices, I was still suffering from sticker shock. There had to be a story behind their high market value and my curiosity got the better of me. I had to find out.
What were these Christmas messages? It turns out that they were the brainchild of Beatles press manager Tony Barrow. As the Fab Four's popularity grew, the U.K. fan club received a deluge of fan mail that was more than the small team could handle. Realizing they were struggling, the Christmas messages were Tony's idea to let the fan club members know they were not forgotten.
The Beatles backed the idea because it allowed them to take a break from their breakneck pace and offered them an opportunity to reach out to their fans.
Tony Barrow's assistants empty bags of mail and work the telephones at the Fan Club office in London.
Photos from http://knowauthentic.com/ and http://www.meetthebeatlesforreal.com
In late October of 1963, after a successful recording session of "I want to Hold Your Hand", The Beatles talked George Martin into letting them to hang around and record their Christmas message. Barrow wrote a script knowing that The Beatles would revise it and possibly improvise the recording. They didn't disappoint him.
They opened with a musical rendering of "Good King Wenceslas", launched into their messages and closed with and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo". This is also the recording when John coined "Crimble", meaning Christmas, almost as if it's a word reserved for the fan club elite.
To deliver the message, they used a format that was common for the day, the flexi-disc. Made from thin plastic, flexi-discs were used in marketing and could be found in magazines or on cereal boxes. They were inexpensive to produce and their flexible lightweight nature made them ideal for mailing.
Instead of a record label, a pressing plant specializing in small runs named Lyntone did the manufacturing. There wasn't much time between the recording date and Holiday season, so Lyntone pulled out all the stops to meet the initial demand of 31,000 units and later produced another 35,000 more flexi-discs without the sleeve to send to all the new members who joined in December.
The first Christmas message was a yellow gatefold cover with the fan club newsletter printed on the inside. The flexi-disc fit inside a flap secured with staples.
Headshots of The Beatles appeared on the front cover. The back displayed a photo of The Beatles with The Queen and a photo of The Beatles with the "fan club secretaries".
1963 Beatles Fan Club Message photos from http://yokono.co.uk/
While Bettina Rose was a real person, a little known secret was that Anne Collingham was a fictitious person invented by Tony Barrow. Because the Fan Club and press office had the same mailing address, the name Anne Collingham allowed the mail to be easily separated. When Anne Collignham was needed for a photo-op, fan club assistants would often stand-in. If you pay close attention to the 1963 recording, you will hear The Beatles laughing as they give "Anne" a shout-out. One fan club office worker who was and is definitely real is Freda “Good Ol’ Freda” Kelly. She rose to an upper level of celebrity when a film called “Good Ol’ Freda” was produced and released a few years back, with the blessing of Paul and Ringo.
In early December, the first run of The Beatles first Christmas message was shipped to the U.K. fan club members.
Example of the package used to mail the 1963 Christmas Fan Club to members of the U.K. Fan Club. (Image found on eBay.)
After the flexis shipped earlier than expected, Tony called John Lennon to talk about the "one-sided seven inch bit of magic". During the conversation, Tony was surprised that John wanted to create a Christmas message again next year. He asked John again to be sure and John stated, "Wouldn't have it any other way, Barrow, “ and that is how the annual Christmas messages tradition began.
From 1963 through 1969, The Beatles created different themed flexi-discs. With the exception of the '68 and '69 editions, the messages were recorded together in the studio and in some cases in the middle of some of their biggest recording sessions. Each edition featured a theme, a unique picture sleeve and a newsletter.
One side of the 1964 Newsletter Images from http://www.yokono.co.uk/
By the time the 1968 Christmas flexi was issued, it was obvious that The Beatles were going their separate ways. The Newsletter was replaced with an offer to purchase "Superpix". There were 4 different sets offered by the fan club and originals can still be found on auction sites such as eBay. Original photos also command high prices.
With running times between 4 and 8 minutes, the Christmas messages mirror The Beatles evolution and ultimate break-up. Starting out fun, light-hearted and madcap, the first three Christmas flexis had The Beatles reflect on the past year, take the time to perform some skits and say "Thank You" to the fans for a wonderful year.
Breaking with the previous formula, the 1966 Pantomime disc offered the original composition "Everywhere It's Christmas". The last time The Beatles would record a Christmas message together was on 1967's disc and this gave birth to the later-released "Christmas Time is Here Again". While the 1968 and 1969 discs offered plenty of artist material, it was clear the group was fragmented by this time. Each Beatle recorded his bits separately with the message edited together by Kenny Everett, a deejay who became friends with The Beatles during the August 1966 US tour.
The U.S. versions of the Christmas messages were manufactured by a company similar to Lyntone named Evatone. Known as "soundsheets" in the States. They featured the same recordings but sported different labels and packaging than their U.K. counterparts. The notable exceptions were the 1968/1969 sleeves which were identical.
1968 U.S. Soundsheet and U.K. Flexi-disc Comparison from http://www.yokono.co.uk/
Although the U.K. Fan club received all of the flexi's, the U.S. Fan Club received a post card in place of a flexi on certain years. U.S. Fan Club Members wouldn't hear the missing messages until after The Beatles break-up.
Even though The Beatles broke up, the fan club was still operating in 1970 and sent a 12" compilation LP to the fan club members. Titled "From Then To You", it contained all of the Christmas messages. And just like the flexis, this was only available to fan club members.
Images from https://www.discogs.com
There was also a US counterpart known as "The Beatles Christmas Album" and was released in 1971. This was the first time the US Fan Club members received all of the Christmas messages.
The story of the Christmas messages finally came together. I began to understand why these were commanding such a high price. One thing became clear, and nothing said that more than Tony's words in the 1963 newsletter: He wrote "This record is exclusive to our Club and will not be made available elsewhere ... just enough to supply every existing Club member with a free copy in time for Christmas".
With less than 100,000 copies made each year, I realized that I stumbled across a unique Beatles rarity. The bottom line, it didn't look like this was going to work out as a Christmas gift. But then I found a link to something called "Christmas Reflections".
In the early 80's, there were two albums, "Christmas Reflections" and "Happy Michaelmas", that claimed to be legitimate releases of the Christmas messages. The Beatles representatives filed a lawsuit claiming copyright and trademark violations and won in court. The albums were never produced leaving fans disappointed.
Without official releases, many different bootlegs started to emerge in both LP and later, CD format. Some of these bootlegs contained outtakes from the original Christmas messages. Others included Christmas recordings that were made by individual band members after the break-up.
Examples of different Christmas message bootlegs. Images from eBay and Discogs
One of the more unique bootlegs was a picture disc version of the yearly messages. Often seen on auction sites, this appears to be the only bootleg of the annual messages that is not a compilation.
The bootlegs weren't limited to physical media. Digital bootlegs can also be found on the internet. You can even listen to the Christmas messages on YouTube. This is often hit or miss because the files are often removed for copyright reasons.
Example of Christmas Message Digital Bootleg on a Music Forum
Bits and pieces of the Christmas messages have been officially released during the 1990's. While versions of "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" have been released as the B- side to The Beatles Anthology "Free as a Bird" CD / cassette single, by Ringo Starr on his excellent Christmas album from 1999, "I Wanna Be Santa Claus", and more recently by The Beatles cover band, The Weeklings. There has never been a mainstream release of the Christmas messages in their entirety. That is, until now.
After years of waiting, the Christmas messages are being reissued and released in their entirety on December 15th. How do these messages compare to the originals?
Right away, you can tell these are not reissues but revised editions. Instead of black vinyl flexi-discs, the Christmas messages are 7" colored vinyl. The labels use the same color scheme as the originals with very minor layout changes for updated copyright notices.
Example of Christmas Message Digital Bootleg on a Music Forum
Each edition features all the original artwork with some minor adjustments to the 1963 edition. Because the staples often left a hole on the original gatefold, it was swapped out for a conventional 7" sleeve.
The biggest change is to the newsletters. While the sleeves were pretty much standardized, the newsletters varied. In 1963, it was printed on the gatefold, other years it was an insert and in the final years there wasn't a newsletter but an ad for "Superpix". It looks like this inconsistency was solved by placing all the newsletters in a 16-page booklet.
The boxed set boasts "remastered" recordings but it is unclear what source was used. When the compilation album was created back in 1970, the master tapes were misplaced. So the compilation was created from copies of the flexi-discs. However after The Beatles break-up Apple Records was able to find the masters and kept them in their vault. This is what was used to create the Anthology-era "Christmas Time Is Here Again" bonus track.
There’s no reason to worry about the sound quality of these recordings. If you’ve sat through the end credits of Ron Howard's “The Beatles Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years”, you were treated to most of the 1963 Christmas message. This gives a glimpse at how good the upcoming release will sound.
While these are not faithful reproductions of the originals, they retain almost all of the original's character updated for today, and the running time matches to the second, the originals, indicating that Apple did not “edit” any clips or even mistakes from the original recordings.
The colored vinyl box set is a nice touch and using 7" sleeves for all the discs gives the set uniformity. Having all of the the newsletters as a booklet makes perfect sense for a boxed set and puts everything at your fingertips.
I personally would have preferred individual newsletter inserts which would more closely resemble the originals. It would have been interesting if they included the known "outtakes" as a "bonus" disc. These are all really minor points.
Bottom line: I believe that this will make a great addition to any Beatles fans collection.
If you remember, this all started years ago because to I wanted a pick up a copy of The Beatles Christmas messages as a gift. What did I do? I ended up with a bootleg. I decided to put all that research to good use and create my own boxed set in CD format.
While this set threw in a couple other fan club trinkets and another Beatles rarity, a CD is not a substitute for 7" vinyl. That's why I'm looking forward to December 15th. I have already pre-ordered mine and eagerly await its arrival. Somehow, I think my wife already knows what one her gifts will be, especially if she’s reading this! LOL
Happy Crimble Beatle People!