The campaign had been launched on 15 December 1969 in 12 cities around the world: New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. White posters with stark black lettering appeared, stating: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko”. Two years later Lennon turned the idea into what would become an evergreen festive song.
Although ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was ostensibly about the Vietnam war, it proved a universal message understood worldwide. Lennon had experimented with anthemic messages in songs such as ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and ‘Power To The People’, and again produced a simple lyrical refrain which he hoped anyone could understand.
‘Happy Xmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message – the idea that we’re just as responsible 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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Lennon recorded a home demo of ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ in early October 1971. Few of the words were in place, but the melody and structure was mostly complete. Lennon evidently had trouble singing the high notes of the middle section, as sung by Ono in the final version.
Both Lennon and Phil Spector claimed the song’s melody was based on The Paris Sisters’ 1961 hit ‘I Love How You Love Me’, which Spector produced. However, the verses are more closely related to Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of the American folk song ‘Stewball’.
A rough mix of the song, titled simply ‘Happy Xmas’, was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology.
In the studio
The basic track for ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was recorded at the Record Plant East in New York City on 28 October 1971. The balance engineer was studio owner Roy Cicala, and Phil Spector was the producer. Spector, of course, had previously recorded the classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift For You.
The backing track was recorded in seven takes, with take six selected as the best.
John Lennon had wanted Klaus Voormann to play bass guitar on the recording, but his flight from Germany to New York was delayed. The bass part was initially recorded by one of the guitarists recruited for the session, but was later replaced.
The 16-track master tape had Hugh McCracken’s acoustic guitar on tracks 1 and 2, and Chris Osborne’s on tracks 3 and 4. Other acoustic guitars, played by Lennon, Teddy Irwin, and Stuart Scharf, were recorded to tracks 11, 6, and 12 respectively.
Voormann’s bass guitar was on track 5, and Jim Keltner overdubbed a sleigh bell onto track 13.
Nicky Hopkins’ piano was on track 7, and he also added glockenspiel and chimes to the same track during a reduction mix. More piano by Hopkins was added to track 9, along with vocals by Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Tracks 8 and 10 were used by Spector as echo tracks. The remaining three tracks, 13-14, were used for Jim Keltner’s drums.
On 29 October the single’s b-side, ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’, was recorded. The composition, written by Ono in 1968, featured the same musicians as on ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, minus the acoustic guitarists and children.
On 30 October Voormann recorded his bass guitar part for ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. That session also saw the recording of strings and the Harlem Community Choir, and the whispered introduction for Lennon and Ono’s children: “Happy Christmas Kyoko”; “Happy Christmas Julian”. The sleeve photography for the single was also taken during this session.
The label for the ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ single featured a five-shot sequence of John Lennon’s face morphing into Yoko Ono’s. It was the first time the Apple Records logo had not been used on a Lennon single.
The heads sequence had been used on the back cover of the catalogue for Ono’s exhibition This Is Not Here at New York’s Everson Art Museum in October 1971, and was also used for the Some Time In New York City album the following year. The photographs were taken by Ian Macmillan, who also took the cover shots for The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was not a success when initially released in the United States, and failed to chart. The main factor was the lack of promotion it received, mostly due to it being recorded so late in the year.
The single was available on green or black vinyl as APPLE 1842. It was released on 1 December 1971.
In the United Kingdom a dispute over Yoko Ono’s contribution to the songwriting meant its release was delayed until Christmas 1972. It was eventually issued as Apple R 5870, and peaked at number four on the singles chart.
The song was reissued in the UK following Lennon’s death in 1980, and reached number two. It also charted on the following two years, and occasionally in subsequent years.
‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was issued on the 1975 compilation Shaved Fish, where it segued into a live version of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ featuring Stevie Wonder on vocals.