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…)

476. ‘Jealous Guy’, by Roxy Music

The fourth and final part of Britain’s period of national mourning for John Lennon and we end, quite fittingly, with a glossy tribute.

Jealous Guy, by Roxy Music (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 8th – 22nd March 1981

To my ears, this is an interesting choice of both song and band to end up with the big Lennon tribute hit. ‘Jealous Guy’ wasn’t one of his very biggest hits, and Roxy Music aren’t the first act you’d think of to have been influenced by The Beatles, or John Lennon. Then again, what band that formed in the early ‘70s wouldn’t have been influenced by The Beatles? And maybe a more predictable cover of ‘Imagine’, or ‘Give Peace a Chance’, would have been met with a collective shrug.

I went through a phase, as a teenager, where ‘Jealous Guy’ was my favourite song, ever. It’s overwrought, and needy, you see… It’s Lennon’s ‘emo’ record. Feeling insecure… Swallowing my pain… Shivering inside… Those sorts of things. I still like it, though there are other Lennon tracks I much prefer these days. And I quite like this cover version. Bryan Ferry’s vocals are excellent – tremulous but powerful, and not as theatrical as he sometimes can be – but the music is slightly self-indulgent soft-rock.

It’s slow – though the original is, too – and over-long. I count three solos: guitar (good), synth (fine), saxophone (not for me). At least they kept the whistling. That was always my favourite bit. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered since starting this blog, it’s that whistling in pop songs usually works for me. If every sax solo ever recorded was replaced by whistling then the world would be a better place.

This was Roxy Music’s sole number one single, almost a decade into their chart careers. They had a similar chart run to ELO, who had scored their solitary #1 a year before. Both were a huge presence throughout the seventies (though Roxy Music had a two-year hiatus in the middle), and both scored a belated chart-topper with what was far from their best song. Though, I have to admit, my knowledge of Roxy Music beyond their biggest hits is patchy.

It’s worth noting, as we reach the end of it, the effect John Lennon’s death had on the top of the UK charts for three whole months. Other big, premature artist deaths – Buddy Holly, Elvis – resulted in posthumous #1s, but not in weeks of domination. And it will never happen again, in the download/streaming age, where an artist’s back-catalogue is at our fingertips, and we are no longer at the mercy of re-releases. Anyway. Next time out, ‘normal’ service is resumed.

474. ‘Woman’, by John Lennon

Part III of the Great John Lennon Mourning Period. A single from his brand new record kicks the re-released classic from top spot, only the second time an artist had replaced themselves at #1 (Lennon was also quite heavily involved when ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ replaced ‘She Loves You’ seventeen years earlier).

Woman, by John Lennon (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, 1st – 15th February 1981

Just like ‘Starting Over’ – see what I did there –this is another love-letter to Yoko. He starts off by whispering The other half of the sky… (reminding me of the whispered ‘Happy Christmases’ on ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’) and then launches into a detailed explanation of why this woman is so special: Woman, I will try to express, My inner feelings, And thankfulness…

It is a bit soppy. And a bit simplistic. Like ‘Imagine’, the message is sincere but basic. And Lennon’s voice is as close to simpering as I’ve ever heard it, especially on the Hold me close to your heart… line. While the chorus is all ooh-ooh-oohs and do-do-do-dodos. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ it is not. Nor is it the equal of much of Lennon’s earlier solo stuff: ‘Mind Games’, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’, ‘#9 Dream’ and the like…

That’s not to say it’s a bad song. It’s fine. It’s still a song written by John Lennon, and the quality is there. But like ‘Starting Over’, this wouldn’t have been coming anywhere close to #1 had the tragic not occurred. And I’ve always thought that calling the song ‘Woman’ was a little insulting. He could just as easily have called it ‘Yoko’ and it would still have scanned (though perhaps wouldn’t have sold quite as well…) Still, as Lennon himself said, it is a tribute to all women: Yoko, and you’d imagine his late mother, the aunt that raised him, his first wife Cynthia… That makes it a little more sincere to my ears.

I’ve never fully listened to ‘Double Fantasy’, the album from which this and ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ came, released three weeks before Lennon’s murder. Going by the song titles there was a bit of a theme going on: ‘Dear Yoko’ and ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’ from John, and ‘Beautiful Boys’ and ‘Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him’ from Yoko. It’s a celebration of love and family, against which the image of Lennon being gunned down in the doorway of his home, his wife watching on, becomes even more horrific.

But from what I have heard from the album, I’m not sure it would be so well-regarded if it hadn’t been for his soon-to-follow death. Lennon himself won’t be back on top of the charts – the 3rd single, ‘Watching the Wheels’, only made #30, which is a shame because it’s better than either of the #1s – but there is one more tribute to come before the Great Mourning Period wraps up. It must have been a sad time, and people must have been looking for some light relief. For what else would explain our next #1 single…? Gulp!

473. ‘Imagine’, by John Lennon

Herein lies the beauty of a weekly chart of popular singles based solely on sales, rather than on accepted tastes and public decency. We can swing straight from ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, to this…

Imagine, by John Lennon (his 2nd of three #1s)

4 weeks, 4th January – 1st February 1981

There are surely very few people left on this planet who haven’t heard ‘Imagine’s hushed and reverential piano. I’m not sure what this was recorded on, but the piano sounds off in the distance, as if the opening chords are floating in from the nearest cloud. Then in come John’s vocals, and it is young John – Beatles John – sounding significantly different from ‘Starting Over’, though I couldn’t put my finger on why.

It’s simple, it’s stately. Piano, drums and subtle strings. It already sounds like a remnant from another era, despite being only a decade old (I noted the same thing with ‘Suicide Is Painless’), and musically I find this record quite beautiful. This is as close as we’ve come to a pop music hymn… If it weren’t for the irreligious lyrics.

And the lyrics are where ‘Imagine’ starts to lose its shine. Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try… Imagine no hell, no countries, no religion or possessions. Imagine all the people, Living life in peace… I’ve taught ‘Imagine’ to twelve-year-olds and, if we’re being honest, pre-teens are the only people who are going to buy the message on offer here. From our teenage years onwards, the vast majority of us are far too cynical to genuinely believe in a world of people living life in peace.

Maybe Lennon was being playful when he wrote this. He did have a wicked streak, and you can perhaps picture him grinning evilly at the thought of there being no countries, or possessions, and of every one living in the moment, in an orgy of flesh and, let’s face it, violence. Not to mention the church’s tutting at the idea of there being no heaven. Or maybe not. I think he did mean it. And only he, perhaps, could get away with recording this and not having people laugh in his face.

It’s easy to dismiss this song as the trite ramblings of a very rich rock star. In the wrong hands it can sound deludedly ridiculous. (Remember that celebrity cover version from the early days of Covid last year, later described as ‘creative diarrhoea’…?) But you can see why this was the Lennon record that everyone flocked to in the wake of his horrific death: a fitting eulogy for a flawed but beautiful man. It was the title track of his 1971 album, and had been released belatedly in 1975, when it made #6.

‘Imagine’ is a huge, weighty record. It’s impossible now to properly judge it. Or even to properly enjoy it. I doubt I’d ever actually choose to listen to it and, if I did want to be preached to by John Lennon, I’d opt for ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, which was also riding high in the charts during the festive season of 1980-81. But it feels only right that ‘Imagine’ had this month on top of the UK singles charts, only to be replaced by…

471. ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’, by John Lennon

It’s been well over a decade since we heard this voice at the top of the charts, one of rock’s most famous. It’s great to hear it again… just a shame about the circumstances.

(Just Like) Starting Over, by John Lennon (his 1st of three #1s)

1 week, 14th – 21st December 1980

Three clear notes are struck – three notes that always make me think of a yacht coming into harbour – before an old-style acoustic intro. Our life… Together… Is so precious… Together… John Lennon made no secret for his love of rock ‘n’ roll music, and this is his tribute to the stars he grew up with, those who caused him to pick up a guitar: Elvis is the one who comes across most in the vocals, but there’s Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent in there too.

It’s a love-letter too, to his second wife, Yoko Ono, who appears on the cover and on the ‘B’-side… But when I see you darling, It’s like we both are falling in love again… It’ll be, Just like starting over… As controversial as her role in The Beatles’ final years is (and I think she gets a very bad rap), Lennon loved her dearly.

When the beat kicks in, the production is very early-eighties gloss. Thick, echoey drums, noodley guitar licks and the like. It’s got a karaoke backing-track feel to it – if that isn’t a huge insult to one of the 20th century’s most revered musicians – and doesn’t scream ‘lead-single from John Lennon’s first album in five years’. He chose it as the lead, though, not because he thought it was the best song on the LP, but because the theme of ‘starting over’ fit in with his comeback.

‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ doesn’t scream ‘huge #1 hit’ either, to be honest. It’s fine, it’s catchy, it’s far from Lennon’s greatest moment. I prefer the rock ‘n’ roll covers he had put out a few years earlier: they’re rawer, cooler. This needed a push to return him to the top, and that push came on the evening of December 8th, when a deluded fan, Mark Chapman, shot him in the entrance to his apartment in New York.

This single had peaked at #8 a few weeks earlier, but had dropped to #21 the day before his death. When the news broke, fans rushed out to buy his records as a mark of respect – in those pre-download days you had to make do with what was on the shelves – and this single was waiting for them. It’s the same reason why ‘Way Down’ became Elvis’s ‘funeral number one’. And ‘… Starting Over’ must have seemed nailed-on to become Christmas #1 too… yet fate had other ideas.

Unlike Elvis’s death, this chart-topper kicks off a run of Lennon-mania at the top of the charts. Between December 1980 and the following March, four out of the six UK number ones will be by John Lennon, or a cover of. The two records that disturb this run…? Um, classics, the pair of them… The first of which is up next.

272. ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, by The Beatles

Well then. For one last time, for the 17th time in just over six years, for the 67th, 68th and 69th weeks in total… The Beatles top the UK singles chart.

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The Ballad of John and Yoko, by The Beatles (their 17th and final #1)

3 weeks, from 11th June – 2nd July 1969

Coming so hot on the heels of ‘Get Back’ – only 1 week of Tommy Roe splits them – ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ sounds like an off-cut from the same recording session. It’s a bit rough and ready, there are the same squiggly guitars that we heard on ‘Get Back’, the same country-rock feel… Famously it features only John and Paul, no George or Ringo. I know it didn’t happen like this, but I do like to imagine the pair – the most famous song writing partners in British rock history – waiting behind after all the others had gone home for the day, putting their ever-growing differences aside and recording one last smash hit in a semi-lit studio.

As the title suggests, this is the story of John and his new wife Yoko, and the story of their marriage. They tried to get married in Paris, managed to do it in Gibraltar, and honeymooned in Amsterdam, in the face of some stiff opposition. All told over a simple riff, with Lennon’s vocals growing ever angrier as the verses rattle on.

I get about half the references… Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton, Talkin’ in our beds for a week… = the pair’s ‘Bed-In’ against the Vietnam War. The newspapers said, She’s gone to his head, They look just like two gurus in drag… = Lennon’s feelings of victimisation around his divorce and his new, foreign wife. The way things are goin’, They’re gonna crucify me… A cheeky reference to Lennon’s remarks from a few years earlier, about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.

Other references are more obscure. The trip to Vienna, eating chocolate cake in a bag is a reference to their ‘bagism’ phase, where they wore bags over their heads in a statement against racial prejudice (everyone looks the same in a bag, right?) The fifty acorns tied in a sack? That took some digging, but is apparently about a pair of acorn trees that John and Yoko planted in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral.

And then there’s the blasphemy. The Christ! that kicks off every chorus – I always enjoyed shouting it out in the car as a kid – with the final one being particularly venomous. Perhaps predictably, this caused a big kerfuffle in the States, with several radio stations at best bleeping the word out or, at worst, refusing to play the record at all. The BBC avoided it, too. 1969 is truly becoming the year in which swearing makes it to the top of the charts, after Peter Sarstedt’s ‘damn’ in ‘Where Do You Go To…’ Meanwhile, in Spain, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ caused controversy not because of the Christ!s but because of the references to Gibraltar being ‘near’ Spain. As far as Franco was concerned, Gibraltar was very much part of Spain, muchas gracias

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Is it slightly disappointing that this song is the final Beatle’s record we get to hear in this countdown? Before writing, I would have said yes; but the more I listen and the more I find out about this record, I’m not so sure. It’s John at his spikiest, it’s Lennon and McCartney reunited, it’s quite funny in places… Sure it doesn’t sound much like The Beatles, but what Beatles #1 since 1966 has? Plus, the riff that closes out ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, the final notes of their final number one, is lifted from an old rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘Lonesome Tears in My Eyes’, by Johnny Burnette, which The Beatles, or The Quarrymen, used to play way back in the early days. Which is lovely.

I was going to rank all The Beatles 17 #1s in order of preference, but to be honest I can’t face it. I’d need a spare half-day to decide… Of course, this isn’t their final hit single. ‘Come Together’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all still to come. Abbey Road hasn’t been released yet. But, the limitations of this blog are clear: if it doesn’t get to #1 then it doesn’t get a look-in.

And, of course, John, Paul and George will pop up many, many more times in this countdown as solo stars, as part of new bands, in re-releases and in amongst charity singles, well into the 2000s. There is only one man we need to bid farewell to here, then. Ringo. He will go on to achieve great things without bothering over the trifling business of topping the pop charts; namely narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, and becoming the most influential voice of my pre-school days… (apologies to my parents.)