Released: 24 November 1972 (UK), 1 December 1971 (US)
John Lennon: vocals, acoustic guitar
Yoko Ono: vocals
Hugh McCracken: acoustic guitar
Chris Osbourne: acoustic guitar
Teddy Irwin: acoustic guitar
Stuart Scharf: acoustic guitar
Nicky Hopkins: piano, chimes, glockenspiel
Jim Keltner: drums, sleigh bells
Harlem Community Choir, May Pang: backing vocals
Released in the US in 1971 and in the UK the following year, Happy Xmas (War Is Over) had its roots in a 1969 peace campaign staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
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.
Lennon had wanted Klaus Voormann to play bass guitar on the recording, but his flight from Germany to New York was delayed. Eventually the bass part was recorded by one of the four extra guitarists recruited for the session.
The backing track was first to be recorded, after which a number of guitar and vocal overdubs were added. These included the whispered introduction for their children: “Happy Christmas Kyoko.” “Happy Christmas Julian.” A rough mix was made, and the first session ended at around 4am.
On 29 October the single’s b-side, Listen, The Snow Is Falling was recorded. The composition, written by Yoko Ono in 1968, featured the same musicians as on Happy Xmas (War Is Over), minus the acoustic guitarists and children.
On 31 October the Harlem Community Choir, featuring around 30 children, were brought in to add backing vocals to the Christmas song. 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 Lennon’s face morphing into 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. The main factor was the lack of promotion it received, mostly due to it being recorded so late in the year. The single, which was issued on green or black vinyl as APPLE 1842, failed to chart.
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.