On December 6, 1971, just weeks after John Lennon’s iconic peace anthem “Imagine” peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, The Plastic Ono Band’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was issued in the U.S. Now considered both a classic protest song and a yearly Christmas favorite, “Happy Xmas” initially flopped. After becoming a #4 hit the following year in the U.K. – where it was released on November 24, 1972 – it grew in notoriety to become the oft covered standard we now know it as, consistently among the most played holiday songs on the radio (check out this list of the top 100 most played holiday songs recently compiled by Radio-Info.com, Nielsen BDSradio and Billboard for instance). Hear John discuss the War is Over campaign – and other rockers’ thoughts on Christmas – in this video:
The seed of this seasonal chestnut was John and Yoko’s 1969 “War is Over” campaign. On December 15th the couple posted billboards reading “WAR IS OVER! IF YOU WANT IT Happy Christmas from John and Yoko” in 11 cities: New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
John called his ’69 protests with Yoko “gimmicks and salesmanship” and just like those signs were conceived to “advertise” peace through a fusion of protest and pop-art, the song that followed two years later can be heard as their commercial jingle for world harmony. Its melody is a variation of folk standard “Stewball” and its counterpoint hook – poignantly delivered by children from the Harlem Community Choir – was deliberately simple. It repeated the same three, short words that were massively printed on the ’69 billboards (“WAR IS OVER“). But as on the signs, there was a catch – the four syllable that followed:
“if you want it“…
To build the arrangement from whispers to a “wall of sound” climax – the sonic equivalent of the billboards lettering size – John and Yoko enlisted Phil Spector to co-produce with them. Phil had more experience producing contemporary Christmas pop than probably anyone at that time so it’s no surprise that of all his controversial work with The Fab Four – both as The Beatles and after they split – his production approach was never better fit than on “Happy Xmas.” Together they created a timeless record – like “We Shall Overcome” (another song that latches simple words to a borrowed tune) meets Coca-Cola’s famed “I’d Like to Buy The World A Coke” jingle, meets the children’s vocals on A Charlie Brown Christmas…
…meets the Ronnette’s “Sleighride”…
On top of four-players-worth of overdubbed guitar and bass parts, chimes/ glockenspiel and keyboards were layered by Nicky Hopkins (who had previously played that righteous electric piano on The Beatles’ “Revolution” and various keyboard parts on John’s Imagine LP – not to mention his pivotal performances with The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck Group, Jefferson Airplane and many others).
Waltzing underneath that sonic wall was the drumming and sleighbell jingling of Jim Keltner (John and George Harrison’s ’70s surrogate Ringo – in fact, he played on Ringo’s records too). Add to this John’s echo-drenched lead vocals, Yoko’s unmistakable harmonies and a children’s choir (long before such a tactic had become a dreaded cliché** and the sum sounded as large as the letters on the “WAR IS OVER” billboards.
(**For the record, the Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” used an adult choir).
In recent holiday seasons, Yoko has brought the “War Is Over” concept into the digital age by inviting all to add original WAR IS OVER! pics here, view user generated WAR IS OVER! posters here and offering her own multilingual poster downloads here. There’s additional links to watch a film and join the War Is Over Facebook Group at imaginepeace.com/warisover. On twitter she encourages tweeting with the hashtag #warisover – view the stream here. In 2009 Yoko revived the Plastic Ono Band with her (and John’s) son Sean as musical director. This New Year’s Eve at midnight, The Flaming Lips will perform “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (for more details and ticket links click here).
Like the John-and-Yoko Plastic Ono incarnations, this is a “conceptual group” with the motto “We Are Plastic Ono Band.” In other words, the line-ups vary from one show or session to the next – though Cornelius and Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda are recent regulars alongside Sean and Yoko. Their comeback shows at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown Festival in June 2009 featured Antony Hegarty. 1969/’70 POB members Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Jim Keltner reunited for a special February 2010 show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music celebrating Yoko’s birthday (actually, there were two shows if the ticketed “dress rehearsal” the day before is counted, though Eric played only the latter). Those shows also included Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Paul Simon with his son Harper, Gene Ween and others; Deerhoof joined the Plastic Ono Band at Noisepop a couple weeks later. To celebrate John Lennon’s 70th birthday in October 2010, the Onos’ elastic band expanded to include Nels Cline, Mike Watt, Iggy Pop, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, RZA, Perry Farrell, Tune-Yards and Lady Gaga.
We are all the Plastic Ono Band, indeed…
UPDATE November 27th – Is a Plastic Ono Band Holiday Sequel to “War Is Over (If You Want It)” in the Works… with The Flaming Lips?
Now the Plastic Ono Band is collaborating with The Flaming Lips on new music. This past weekend, Wayne Coyne tweeted three short segments of a song for the collab called “The Fear Litany.”
- The two bands are ringing in 2012 by playing “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on New Year’s Eve at midnight
- The similarly of the imagery of the title “The Fear Litany” with ‘War is Over’s” refrain “Let’s hope it’s a good one/ Without any fear”
- Last year I asked Yoko (via twitter) if she would work again with The Flaming Lips – who appear on her 2007 album Yes, I’m a Witch. She replied, “I love their music. Something can happen in the future….”
- In each of the past four years The Flaming Lips have released new Christmas music – adding to their catalog of prior yule like “Christmas at the Zoo,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” ‘White Christmas (Demo for Tom Waits)” and “Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So)”
- The Flaming Lips’ (almost) monthly 2011 releases have including songs for Valentine’s Day, Halloween… and even 4/20!
- Wayne Coyne told Rolling Stone in September, “I want to hit these Flaming Lips-specific holidays. You know, we do Christmas, we do Halloween.”
- All of the Lips are big, life-long Beatle fans and have tributed John in various ways recurringly throughout the past couple of decades. Even when recording with Sean earlier this year they referred to his voice as sounding like “the ghost of John Lennon…”
- The chance to follow-up one of John’s most famous songs is the type of opportunity The Lips seem to thrive on lately. Yoko, who recently introduced The Lips cover of John’s “Revolution” at MTV’s O Music Awards, seems likely to be open to the idea…
- The Lips are likely recording right now. It is less than a month until Christmas (…true, most Christmas music is recorded in the summer – but The Flaming Lips aren’t most bands. They’ve been releasing music within weeks of recording it throughout this entire year. It stands to reasons they would end 2012 with some sounds for the season…)
- Shortly after tweeting the first three “Fear Litany” clips, The Flaming Lips left their home in Oklahoma for their final 2011 sessions at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road Studios near Fredonia, New York. Two days later they were spotted on SUNY Fredonia’s campus. Last time that happened – this past April – they ended up using music students for overdubs on their Soft Bulletin Live La Fantastique De Institution 2011 gummy skull album and filming two live music videos. Who knows…maybe their return to the campus will involve the school choir helping them repeat a “War Is Over”-styled refrain…
…is “The Fear Litany” the The Plastic Ono Band’s holiday sequel to their Christmas classic from 40 years ago?
In memory of Lennon’s life, in celebration of his masterful music and in hope of his vision for peace…
Follow updates on “The Fear Litany”, Yule tunes The Plastic Ono Band and The Flaming Lips at twitter.com/FutureHeartDay.
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