(Pictured: John and Yoko on The Dick Cavett Show, September 1971.)
Today is the official 50th birthday of another one of the holiday season’s most famous warhorses: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
The phrase “war is over if you want it” dates back to 1969, and a billboard campaign John and Yoko ran in 12 cities around the world. On October 28, 1971, Lennon, his band, and producer Phil Spector went to the Record Plant in New York City to record a song incorporating it. The band included guitarists Hugh McCracken, Chris Osborne, Teddy Irwin, Stuart Scharf, and Lennon himself. Jim Keltner played drums and sleigh bells, and Nicky Hopkins played piano and glockenspiel. That weekend, at a second session, Klaus Voorman overdubbed his bass part; at the same session, strings and the voices of the Harlem Community Choir were added.
The official American release date for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” backed by “Listen, the Snow Is Falling,” on green vinyl, was December 1, 1971. However, WMEX in Boston charted it on its survey dated November 18, with a picture of John and Yoko on the survey cover. The caption reads: “Their brand-new Christmas song played on 1510 only days ago already makes ‘MEX top 30.” (On the WMEX chart, the song is listed as “Christmas, and the War Is Over” by the Plastic Ono Band, and it’s shown in its second week on.) The song appears on surveys dated December 1 in Philadelphia and Hartford, and later that week in Seattle, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, so it was clearly on the air, or at least in the pipeline, before December 1. It has 69 listings at ARSA at Christmas 1971, and eventually made the Top 10 in Seattle, Boston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Youngstown, Ohio. WCFL in Chicago charted it for a single week, WLS not at all. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas singles chart for one week in 1971 and three weeks in 1972, and would reappear when Billboard rebooted the chart in the 80s.
“Happy Xmas” was not released in the UK until 1972, owing to a dispute over Yoko’s songwriting credit. It made #4 on Britain’s national charts in that year. If you didn’t buy the single, you had to wait until 1975 for it to appear on an album, the Lennon compilation Shaved Fish, in medley form with “Give Peace a Chance.”
For years, I included “Happy Xmas” in the mythology of my first radio Christmas in 1970, impossible though it was. It may have been part of the WLS Holiday Festival of Music in 1971, although it’s more likely that I began hearing it regularly starting in 1972. It eventually became one of the holiday’s treasures, Lennon’s voice ringing out like a Christmas bell signaling the season. In 1980, Lennon was murdered at Christmastime, and it was strange to hear “Happy Xmas” that year. It didn’t make me sad; it made me angry, and it was several years before I could enjoy it again.
Any song that gets 50 years of radio play is going to alienate some listeners. As I have written several times about several Christmas songs, there’s a plausible argument that nobody really needs to hear “Happy Xmas” again.
Except we do. Especially now.
In 1971, Lennon put the reponsibility for finding meaning in the season on each individual listener. In 1980, speaking of the song’s connection to the 1969 billboard campaign, Lennon told journalist David Sheff, “We’re just as responsible [for war] 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.”
America is in serious trouble right now, as a loud, vicious minority attempts to impose its will on the majority, who want only to live as they choose. John Lennon would say—correctly—that the loud, vicious minority isn’t doing anything to the majority. We are letting them do it to us, and they would have to stop if we made them stop.
Do we have the will as a nation to make them stop? The leaders we need to fight for us don’t seem to recognize the gravity of the moment. The system in which the fight must take place is broken. In the end, the most reliable weapon each of us has may be our own individual will, our own personal determination not to knuckle under.
War is over, if you want it.
We are about to find out if that’s true.
Here’s an alternate version of “Happy Xmas” without the children’s choir, on which you hear Yoko hitting the high notes (and doing just fine, actually):