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Rock historian Ed Ward revisits the Beatles' puzzling Christmas records

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're celebrating Christmas Eve in our archive. Let's go back to 1992, when our rock historian, the late Ed Ward, did this great piece about the private Christmas recordings the Beatles made for their fan club. Ed described the recordings as downright odd and revealing.

ED WARD, BYLINE: Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YESTERDAY")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) All my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. I believe in yesterday.

WARD: Yes, that really was the Beatles. You might remember the song being rendered with a bit more finesse. Or you might be really lucky and know where that came from. If so then I know your secret. You were a member of the Beatles' fan club. And each year, you could look forward to getting the infamous "Beatles' Christmas" record. And if you got them, you probably puzzled over them, like all the rest of the fans. What were these guys up to? Well, the early ones weren't so bad. The first one in 1963 was positively cuddly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEATLES’ CHRISTMAS RECORD")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen as snow lay round about deep and crisp and crispy. Brightly show the boot last night on the musty cruel (ph). Henry Hall and David Lloyd, Betty Grable, too.

JOHN LENNON: Hello. This is John speaking with his voice. We're all very happy to be able to talk to you like this on this little bit of plastic. This record reaches you at the end of a really good year for us. And it's all due to you. When we made our first record on Parlophone towards the end of 1962, we hoped everybody would like what had already been our type of music for several years already. But we had no idea of all the good things in store for us. It all happened, really...

WARD: On and on, they talked, each thanking the fans for sticking with them. You get the real sense that they were amazed that all of this had happened despite their putting up the front of arrogant, jaded pop stars. For five or so minutes, four friends goofed with each other in the studio. But the sincerity was unmistakable. They'd gotten slicker by the time the next year marched around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER BEATLES CHRISTMAS RECORD")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Jingle bell.

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Hello, everybody. This is Paul. And I'd just like to thank you all for buying our records during the past year. We know you've been buying them because the sales have been very good, you see? Don't know where we'd be without you, really, though.

LENNON: In the army, perhaps.

MCCARTNEY: Oh, we hope you've enjoyed listening to the records as much as we've enjoyed melting them.

LENNON: (Laughter).

MCCARTNEY: No, no. No, that's wrong - making them

WARD: Once again, they were having fun - reading from somebody's bad handwroter (ph), as John calls it, plugging their first movie, cracking up when they deviate from the script. There's sort of a hip distancing that still includes the listener. And since the number of Beatle fans had grown astronomically in the past year, that was a lot of puzzled people - Beatle peotle (ph), as Paul called them. The 1965 record began with that horrid rendition of "Yesterday." And as it progresses, it seems like it might actually have started with a few stiff drinks. By 1966, not even their fans expected them to be warm and cuddly. So what they got was part vaudeville, part enigma.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PANTOMIME: EVERYWHERE IT'S CHRISTMAS")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Everywhere it's Christmas. Everywhere it's song. London, Paris, Rome and New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong - oh, everywhere it's Christmas. And I'm off to join the cheer. Everywhere it's Christmas at the end of every year. Oh, everywhere it's Christmas at the end of every year. I said that everywhere it's Christmas at the end of every year. One more time now. Everywhere it's Christmas. Orowainya (ph). Orowainya. Orowainya. Oh. In the manger. In the manger. In the manger. Oh.

GEORGE HARRISON: Our story opens in Corsica...

WARD: Opening with a minute of odd music, the record went on to tell a completely incomprehensible story. Listened to in the right frame of mind, it could elicit a giggle or two. And these sorts of giggles were just what Beatle fans wanted for Christmas. It doesn't take a genius to tell that this next one is from the time when "Sgt. Pepper" was brewing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME (IS HERE AGAIN)")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Christmastime is here again, ain't been around since you know when. Christmastime is here again. O-U-T spells out.

MCCARTNEY: The boys arrive at BBC House.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

LENNON: What do you want?

THE BEATLES: We have been granted permission, oh, wise one

LENNON: Pass in peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Christmastime is here again. Christmastime.

LENNON: An audition will be held at 10 a.m., Wednesday, the first, in the fluffy rehearsal room. Bring your own.

WARD: Once again, an incomprehensible story. But of course, they're using studio tricks to tell it. I hope the fans enjoyed it because it's the last one that was any fun at all. The 1968 one was patched together. George was in New York. And the record featured a cameo appearance by a person with a Christmasy name, Tiny Tim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEATLES’ 1968 CHRISTMAS RECORD")

TINY TIM: (Singing) He's a - oh - real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. Hasn't...

WARD: Not the kind of Christmas party I'd want to be invited to. But then, these were grim times for the band. They got worse, of course, as the last in the series makes clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEATLES' SEVENTH CHRISTMAS RECORD")

LENNON: Happy Christmas.

YOKO ONO: Merry Christmas, John. And I see that you're strolling in Ascot garden with your wife, Yoko. But - well, do you have any special thoughts for Christmas?

LENNON: Well, Yoko, it is Christmas. And my special thoughts, of course, turn towards eating.

ONO: (Laughter) All right, so eating. Well, what do you like to eat?

LENNON: Well, I like some Corn Flakes prepared by Parisian hands.

WARD: Each Beatle recorded his own message. Ringo plugged his film "The Magic Christian." And an engineer pasted it all together. What had started as a sincere thank you had ended as a self-indulgent raspberry. But that was OK. By the time the Beatles broke up, people were too cool for fan clubs, too cool for Christmas. Aren't you glad that time has passed?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON: This is George Harrison saying Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.

GROSS: The late Ed Ward was FRESH AIR's rock historian for many years. The piece we just heard was recorded in 1992. After a break, we go even deeper into our archive to hear some upbeat and some heartbreaking Christmas songs performed by Susannah McCorkle on our show in 1988. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS SEPTET'S "LINUS AND LUCY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.