For members of the Official Beatles Fan Club in the 1960s, Christmas was a very special time of year. That’s because season’s greetings from the seminal band arrived in the mail, in the form of a square cardboard-backed envelope. Inside was a recorded message on a flexible phonograph record (or “flexi-disc”) from The Beatles themselves, wishing fans a merry Christmas, in various fascinating and entertaining ways.
“No other piece of mail ever looked like that – I always knew exactly what it was,” remembers renowned Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. Issued each year from 1963 to 1969, those discs have been repackaged as “The Christmas Records,” due for release by Apple Corps Ltd/Capitol/UMe on December 15. The box set includes 7-inch colored vinyl reproductions of the records, with their associated original picture sleeve art, remastered at Abbey Road Studios by engineers Simon Gibson and Sean Magee, as well as a booklet featuring historical notes from Beatles historian Kevin Howlett.
The discs were the idea of Tony Barrow, then press officer to Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprises, which managed the Beatles, as well as acts like Gerry and The Pacemakers and Cilla Black. “Tony was aware that these flexible records,” common as giveaway discs in magazines and do-it-yourself books, “could be used for recording spoken messages,” states Lewisohn. The discs were pressed by Lyntone Records in England, known for such products at the time.
Members of the Fan Club, which began in 1961 (as described in Lewisohn’s “Tune In,” a detailed historical account of the group’s career), would pay 5 Shillings each year and receive photos and a newsletter, as well as this bonus gift, says Freda Kelly, who ran the club in The Beatles’ home town of Liverpool, and eventually became its national secretary. “The Beatles were very good to the fans,” notes Kelly, herself the subject of a recent documentary about the club, “Good Ol’ Freda.” “The Beatles Fan Club was one of the best, for what you got for your money.” The cost of the records was absorbed by NEMS Enterprises, out of whose office in London the Club was run. “Brian’s intention was always that it should, at best, break even, but he was prepared to make a loss on it, because of the sheer goodwill of it,” Lewisohn says.
For most years, the group would record the messages at the tail end of a recording session at Abbey Road — the first after an October 17, 1963 session which produced their breakout single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for example. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr would read a somewhat-corny script written by Barrow which was supposed to be “by The Beatles,” but which the band farcically made clear it was not, Lewisohn points out. “They sent it up. Any notion that they’re trying to pretend that these are their own words is completely subverted. And, in doing so, they brought their own selves into it, which made it even better.”
It was never considered, at that time, that the discs would continue, says Howlett. “When they made the first one, there was no idea that this was going to be an annual event.” But they continued, recording another Barrow script at the tail end of their “Beatles For Sale” sessions in late October 1964, and continuing each year, through 1969, in other incarnations of their own.
The American club also issued Christmas messages to its members (included with their $2.00 annual fee). The U.S. discs, though, were provided on “soundcards” – the phonograph material adhered to a piece of cardboard (as one might find of a children’s record at the time, on the back of a cereal box), as one panel of a tri-folded cardboard mailer (with the disc side curiously left exposed to damage on the outside of the fold). They were manufactured by Allied Creative Service in New York. “They were a pain to play,” recalls Walter Podrazik, an early Beatles discographer. “They would slip on the turntable mat, when you put your record player’s tone arm on them,” requiring a quarter or some other light object to give them enough weight to stay put.
By 1965, the Beatles were beginning to take control of the content of their Christmas messages, becoming more and more elaborate as the years went on. Though the released version that year, recorded at Abbey Road in early November, while completing “Rubber Soul,” features simple adlibbing hijinks, the group actually had recorded a script of their own making the month prior, at Marquee Studios, the only such time they worked there, according to Lewisohn. “Tony Barrow was there, as was Mick Jagger, just as an observer. The tape surfaced about ten years ago,” he adds.
The 1966 recording, made at the small studio of their music publisher, Dick James, began to show evidence of the creativity the group was about to unleash with Sgt. Pepper the following year. Recorded on November 25 — the day after the first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever” — the band offers a “pantomime,” a special presentation with a seasonal bent to it, Lewisohn says. “They all went to pantomime in theaters at Christmastime as children, something that’s a strong tradition here in England to this day.”
That disc, plus the following year’s equally elaborate one (which contained a true new Beatles song, “Christmastime Is Here Again,” recorded the day after the release of “Magical Mystery Tour”) offer other reflections of British culture, both of their day and of their childhoods. Parodies of staid BBC radio and television programming are offered, a faux children’s book (“Podgy the Bear”) , a laugh at BBC Light’s “Housewives’ Choice” and others.
The “new look” Beatles – who were being heard in December 1966, seven months away from the release of “Pepper “– didn’t necessarily appeal to all fans. “A lot of the girls in my club, when they got that, were unhappy,” says Debbie Gendler, who ran the New Jersey territory of the U.S. fan club. “They thought, ‘They’ve changed. They’re not the same Beatles we always loved.’ A lot of them didn’t renew.” Though, by December 1967, following the release of “Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” she noticed another shift. “It wasn’t just screaming girls anymore – a lot of guys in my high school joined the fan club, because they got really interested in The Beatles’ music.”
Discs in the following years included one assembled by radio personality Kenny Everett, whom The Beatles had befriended following his interviews with them for the underground Pirate Radio. “They loved Kenny, and he obviously loved The Beatles’ music and had done various interviews with them,” says Howlett. “He was an absolute wireless wizard, a genius practitioner in the studio,” who skillfully combined the bits and pieces the Beatles had submitted.
Everett performed similar duties in 1969, when the bandmembers submitted individual contributions for the second time(Paul offering the only true song), though, as Lewisohn notes, “By the time Fan Club members received the record that December, The Beatles had ceased to be – although we didn’t necessarily know it yet.”
By the end of 1970, The Beatles had officially reached their end as a group. The Fan Club would remain in existence until March 1972, but there was no new Fan Club recording that year. “We were looking at a final gift to give to everybody, to say ‘thank you’ and farewell, and Apple was looking at giving them an Apple keyring,” recalls Freda Kelly. “I was at a meeting, and I noted that people were always wanting the Fan Club records, so we decided, ‘Well, why don’t we just put the lot on an LP, and give that as a final gift?’” The album was assembled from dubs of Kelly’s own flexi-disc collection, the original master tapes having long been discarded.
“That album was a godsend,” compared to the flexis, notes Wally Podrazik. “For many of us, we could actually hear them for the first time” – including the 1964 recording, which had arrived too late in America to be issued, the 1963 recording having taken its place.
The new reissue is drawn from several types of sources, Apple offering some tape masters (perhaps safety copies), the master from the 1970 LP compilation containing transfers of Kelly’s flexis, and some flexis themselves. Selecting the best source of each, Gibson and Magee utilized the tape masters for 1964, 1965 and 1967, the archival dubs of flexis for 1963, 1966 and 1969, and a new dub made from a flexi for 1968. Pops and cracks were removed (mostly from the flexi dubs), and the recordings mastered, sounding remarkably good – certainly the best any fan will have ever heard them.
It is fascinating that, even after exploding onto the global stage, and moving away from the days of screaming girls, The Beatles had continued making the records for their fans. “The Beatles evolved so quickly, and grew up so much from 1963 to 1969,” says Howlett, “yet they were still committed to providing the fans with this traditional annual message.”
“It was an opportunity to hear them doing something different, being entertaining in a different way,” notes Mark Lewisohn. “I just remember, as a child, listening to them with a smile on my face. They made me feel good. Like their music made you feel good, so did these records.”