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…