When it was released in the United States back in December 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” hit the charts with a thud, barely cracking the Top 40. Credited to John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band, the song has enjoyed several different iterations over the past five decades—“some forever not for better”—as new generations of listeners discover Lennon and Ono’s timeless holiday tune.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” began life as a peace slogan, which John and Yoko unveiled in a December 1969 ad campaign declaring “War Is Over! If You Want It—Happy Christmas from John and Yoko.” Imagined as a protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War, the slogan emerged as the foundation for Lennon and Ono’s holiday-oriented composition in the fall of 1971.
Working with producer Phil Spector, the duo recorded the basic track for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” at New York City’s Record Plant on October 28th, with John and Yoko sharing vocals, along with renowned rock pianist Nicky Hopkins, guitarist Hugh McCracken, and drummer Jim Keltner, among others. The song begins with Lennon and Ono offering holiday wishes to their respective children, with Yoko whispering “Happy Christmas, Kyoko” and John whispering “Happy Christmas, Julian.”
A few days later, on October 31st, Spector overdubbed backing vocals from the 30-member strong Harlem Community Choir, as well as John and Yoko’s assistant May Pang. That same day, photographer Iain Macmillan, the man behind the cover art for Abbey Road, was on hand to shoot the record cover sleeve for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
As with so many songs in Beatles and post-Beatles history, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” found its roots in a variety of quarters. Discerning UK listeners, for example, might hear the familiar strains of “Skewball,” a traditional English ditty about an eighteenth-century prize-winning racehorse. For his part, Spector easily picked up on a very different tune—the highly recognizable melody of “I Love How You Love Me,” a Top 5 hit for the Paris Sisters. Spector had produced the Barry Mann and Larry Kolber composition for the girl group back in 1961. When Lennon first played “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” for him in October 1971, Spector copped to the similarity immediately, but Lennon didn’t give it a second thought. Within a few hours, they were ensconced at the Record Plant, transforming John and Yoko’s latest work into musical reality.
For Spector, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” marked the second time in as many years that he had produced eerily similar versions of earlier hits. In 1970, he supervised the recording of George Harrison’s global blockbuster “My Sweet Lord,” a thinly veiled reworking of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” which had topped the US charts in 1963. Once again, Spector recognized the antecedent’s melody as soon as he heard it. Harrison would later be found guilty of “subconscious” plagiarism for his musical borrowings.
Although John and Yoko would suffer no such fate for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” their 1971 peace anthem has experienced many lives since its original release. In 1972, the song registered a Top 5 hit on the British charts, beginning an odyssey that has seen the record make its return to the US and UK charts on nearly 20 different occasions. In December 2017, John and Yoko’s seasonal tune clocked in at number 21 on the UK charts.
Although “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” has enjoyed a hallowed place in the holiday musical canon, in 1980 it took on tragic overtones after Lennon’s senseless murder on December 8th. As music lovers lapsed into a protracted period of mourning, the familiar song fell into heavy rotation on the radio airwaves, affording the peace anthem with deep tones of sadness in addition to the tune’s abiding call for social unity. In the UK, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” made its way to number two that year, only to be denied the top spot, rather fittingly, by “Imagine,” Lennon’s signature anthem.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. He is the author of Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966). The second volume in the series, entitled Sound Pictures: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Later Years, 1966-2016), is forthcoming in 2018. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.