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 (Above: It may have been the holiday season, but John Lennon wasn’t pulling any punches when he put this video together. This extended cut also includes edited interviews with Lennon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before it was a song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a billboard. In 1969, two years before the song was written and recorded, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed “War is Over! (If You Want It)” on signage in New York, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and several other major cities around the world. The signs were an outgrowth of Lennon and Ono’s bed-in for peace, but the phrase stuck in Lennon’s head.

When the couple relocated to New York City in 1971, Lennon quickly feel in the company of radical ‘60s activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon had already gone on record against the Vietnam War at a Beatles press conference in 1966. The conflict was also a frequent topic of conversation during the bed-in. Instead of giving peace a chance, though, the United States had become even more entrenched in combat.

Inspired by his social circle and frustrated by another holiday season marked by fighting, Lennon turned his billboard slogan into a song. Lennon wrote the song over two nights in a New York City hotel room and recorded it almost immediately. Despite being released less than three weeks before Christmas, the single still managed to reach the Top 40. The feat was replicated each time the single was re-released. In Lennon’s native England, the single did not appear until 1972, when it went in the Top 5.

After a whispered shout-out (whisper-out?) to the pair’s children, Phil Spector’s wall of sound kicks in. The opening line – “And so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” – is both a nostalgic look back and the previous year and question of accountability. Despite having hope for the upcoming year, Lennon admits “the world is so wrong.” A chorus of children from the Harlem Community Choir echoes the words that started it all: War is over/If you want it.”

The melody is based on the folk ballad “Stewball,” a song about a British race horse. The first versions of “Stewball” date to the 18th century, but Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly put their stamp on the song in the 1940s. During the folk revival of the early ‘60s, both Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez included the song in their repertoire.

Many artists, including skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, a big influence on Lennon and most British musicians of his generation, have cover “Stewball,” but their numbers pale in comparison to the roster of those who have recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” From Andy Williams and Celine Dion to Maroon 5 and American Idol David Cook to the Moody Blues and the Polyphonic Spree, the song has been covered by nearly every conceivable artist in nearly every conceivable genre.

Keep reading:

Review: “December 8, 1980″

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

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(Above: The original 1974 promotional film for “Ding Dong, Ding Dong.”)

By Joel Francis

It seems hard to believe in wake of the deification of St. John and the myth building of Sir Paul, but George Harrison was far and away the most successful of the solo Beatles after the implosion of the group.

The “Silent Beatle” racked up three No. 1 hits, a blockbuster triple-album, lured the reclusive Bob Dylan to appear at his all-star charity concert alongside Eric Clapton and fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, scored big with the subsequent Concert for Bangladesh soundtrack album.

Harrison rang in 1975 with “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” the second single from his third solo album and the opening cut on its second side. A gentle kiss-off to his former band and bright look ahead, Harrison’s laid-back, hopeful approach – “ring out the old, ring in the new; ring out the false, ring in the true” – supported his optimistic spirituality.

The catchy number is pretty simple, essentially four choruses and a bridge bolstered by a short, two-stanza verse. The arrangement hangs on Harrison’s slide guitar riff and is punctuated by a horn section. The galloping drums recall Phil Spector’s production on the previous two Harrison albums.

The presence of keyboard player Gary Wright, bassist Klaus Voorman and Starr suggest the basic track may have been laid down during 1973’s “Living in the Material World” sessions. The three musicians aren’t credited anywhere else on the “Dark Horse” album. Guitarists Ronnie Woods, Mick Jones, in pre-Foreigner guise, and Albert Lee also appear in Harrison’s Wall of Sound.

While the song’s roots stretch back, the vocals are unmistakably new. Harrison developed laryngitis while recording the album, and because of a pending U.S. tour – the first-ever American tour by a Beatle since the group’s final show in 1966 – he could not wait for his throat to heal. The resulting vocals were raspy and strained and Harrison’s voice was completely shot when the tour kicked off.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was Harrison’s lowest-charting single to date, but it still cracked the Top 40. For some reason, Harrison didn’t perform it during the North American tour. The trek was one of the first major arena tours, and performers will still figuring out how to translate the nuances of their songwriting to large sports domes. Critics savaged Harrison’s hoarse voice and bombastic band arrangements and silenced Harrison’s ambition as a live act.

The failure of Harrison’s 1974 U.S. Tour ended his reign as Top Beatle. The following year McCartney launched a massively successful tour immortalized on the “Wings Over America” LP and Lennon grabbed headlines with his Lost Weekend escapades.

Harrison returned to his familiar post, turning out reliable, if largely unchallenging, albums and guesting on songs with friends. Once again, he was the most celebrated second fiddle in pop music. “Ring out the old, ring in the new” indeed.

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