Wishful Thinking: John and Yoko Release “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were as noted for their dedication to social activism as they were for making music. After years of having to downplay his more controversial views (relatively speaking) as a Beatle, Lennon could finally fully express himself freely.
And that he did — musically, artistically, and politically. Both big believers in the power of positive thinking, John and Yoko were committed to using their celebrity status to promote peace rather than protest war.
The song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” actually began as part of a larger peace campaign launched by John and Yoko on December 15, 1969. Twelve plain, white billboards were unveiled in major cities all over the globe, including New York, London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, that read in simple black lettering: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”
Less than two years later in New York City’s Record Plant East, Lennon took this concept and turned it into a modern-day Christmas classic.
The song was allegedly based on the folk classic “Stewball” and the old Phil Spector hit “I Love How You Love Me.”(The source of this information is Phil Spector, so take it for what it is.) John had a home demo version done by mid-October in 1971, and the basic track was laid down at the Record Plant on October 28. On October 31, the Harlem Community Choir, about thirty children strong, showed up to add their vocals. They get a credit on the single, along with Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band.
When “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was released in the United States on December 1, 1971, it pretty much tanked. Since it was released so late in the year, the record received no promotion and it failed to chart. It wasn’t even put out in the UK until the following year because of a legal snafu over Yoko’s songwriting contribution. When it was released over the 1972 Holiday Season in the UK, it reached #4 on the charts.
After John Lennon’s tragic assassination on December 8, 1980, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” became very popular, shooting to number two on the UK charts. It charted for the next couple of years and has done so occasionally in the UK and other countries around the world ever since.
Released and written the same year as “Imagine,” Lennon’s timeless ode to world peace, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was John once again encouraging his audience to picture the reality they desired and believe they could make it manifest. As Lennon said during his last interview with David Sheff before his death:
“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.”
Wise words from a much-missed modern sage.