Should Have Been a #1…? ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’, by John & Yoko with The Plastic Ono Band

So this is Christmas… And what have you done?

‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, by John & Yoko with The Plastic Ono Band & The Harlem Community Choir

reached #4 in December 1972 / #2 in January 1981

Not many festive hits start in such an accusatory tone. Not many festive hits sound like this classic, though. Yes, there are jingling bells and a choir. But there’s no talk of Santa, or snow, or stockings stuffed with presents. This record has it sights set higher: peace on earth.

In my post on ‘Imagine’, which hit #1 shortly after Lennon’s murder, I said that nowadays it could feel a little too idealistic, and a little preachy. Why, then, can I tolerate this song year after year? Is it just because I’m more receptive to songs about war being over, if I want it, when I’m stuffed full of mulled wine and mince pies? Maybe…

I think actually that it’s Phil Spector’s production: taking Lennon’s song and giving them his full Christmas treatment. Strings, chiming bells, beefy drums… It may not have worked on ‘Let It Be’, but it really does here. Despite not actually being much about Christmas, this song sounds like Christmas should.

I’m not posting this song just because I really like it, though. I do, but I also think there’s a chance that it genuinely should have been #1. In its first chart-run, in 1972, it made #4 fair and square, behind the likes of T. Rex and Little Jimmy Osmond. But in 1980, re-released in the wake of Lennon’s death, it also made #4 for Christmas, while the delights of St. Winifred’s School Choir wafted down from top-spot.

Back in those pre-computer days, when everyone at the chart-keeping company was on Christmas holiday, the post-Xmas chart was usually a copy-paste of the previous week’s. St. Winifred’s remained top, John and Yoko at #4. The week after, though, it rose to #2, behind the also re-released ‘Imagine’. I wonder… If the sales of the ‘Happy Xmas’ – which was presumably selling very well in the days leading up to Christmas – were counted, and the chart hadn’t simply been repeated… Could it have been a number one? I guess we’ll never know.

Though it never made #1, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ makes the chart every year now thanks to festive streaming. It’s currently perched at #34 in the charts, and will presumably rise even higher next week. With that, I’d like to wish all my readers a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year… Let’s hope it’s a good one… wherever this holiday season finds you. (I’d also like to wish for war to be over, but I think I may be overreaching…)

13 thoughts on “Should Have Been a #1…? ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’, by John & Yoko with The Plastic Ono Band

  1. This one is my favorite Christmas song…maybe a little idealism is not too bad at Christmas. I’ve just finished a book on the Beatles after they broke up. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be a Beatle after they broke…lawsuits running every way possible up until after George died…not at each other many times but with Apple. Idealism probably didn’t look too bad after that lol.

    I can’t believe they just repeated a chart! I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world BUT that practice could have changed the history of the charts.

    Awesome post…Merry….I mean Happy Xmas to you and your family.

    • I think you can get away with these sentiments at Christmas for sure…

      I do wonder how many songs would have been #1 if they hadn’t repeated the charts… they did it for years

      Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!

  2. Yes Happy Xmas everybody and in my mind theres no doubt this would have topped the chart as gift sales from kids to grandma would have dried up and grandmas certainly werent buying it, that would have been too bizarre!

  3. Honestly, I’m not into this song as much which is probably due to the common Christmas song fatigue of hearing them so much every year that it loses its fun even with the Spector production. My other problem is that the message along with the children’s choir can come across as preachy and accusatory. Like most Christmas songs, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” has only just started to make its impact on the Billboard charts thanks to streaming making its chart debut in 2018 and so far peaking at #42. On the latest Hit Parade podcast episode, Chris Molanphy talks about how acts like Lennon could become known to future generations mainly for their Christmas songs with this song and “Imagine” taking up the bulk of radio plays and streams for Lennon’s solo career. Obviously, this seems weird to think about with him but as we’ve seen now major hit making acts like Brenda Lee and Mariah Carey even are mainly listened to now at Christmas time for their Christmas classic.

    • I actually quite like the way it starts with an accusation – it’s very Lennon. But I admit, the things that put me off ‘Imagine’ are the things I enjoy about this, and I think that is simply because it’s a Christmas song.

      I’m not sure that this will ever outshadow Lennon’s other songs, before you even start on his Beatles’ stuff. But yeah, Mariah Carey is a really sudden example of someone being known only for her Xmas song, considering how hugely successful she was well within most people’s living memories. She embraces it, though, and plays up to the ‘Christmas Mariah’ memes and so on… Brenda Lee, Bing Crosby and the like are more understandable as their hit-making days are now a very long time ago.

      In the UK, Shakin’ Stevens, Slade and Wizzard – all huge hit-making acts in their day – are now remembered, or known for, their Christmas songs.

      • Obviously, his stuff with the Beatles is secure and they never put out a Christmas song at least publicly so they don’t have to worry about a Christmas song overshadowing their legacy but with Lennon solo, his Christmas song and “Imagine” are probably going to be the songs most people are going to remember from him.

      • How about Elton John…? Now he’s added a second Christmas song to his back-catalogue, he might also end up a Christmas footnote one day. And now Ed Sheeran has his Xmas hit, I can’t wait for the day, 30 years from now, when that is all he’s remembered for…

      • For both artists, I doubt it. In America at least, John’s “Step Into Christmas” hasn’t been a big Christmas classic and even him and Sheeran’s new “Merry Christmas” song has been a low charting hit so I don’t think they’ll become known for their Christmas songs. Then again, Christmas songs don’t become classics right away most of the time so what do we know about how they’ll be viewed in the future.

  4. Pingback: 499. ‘Ebony and Ivory’, by Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder – The UK Number Ones Blog

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