Imagine Another Day was a huge success, breaking sales records, and cementing the Beatles once again as the world’s greatest rock band. While the album’s popularity didn’t exactly consign The Concert for Bangladesh to record store nostalgia bins, it did erase any doubt that might have lingered among rock critics that the Beatles, together, were as good as it gets.
Certainly no one could captivate emotions more than the continuing saga of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Part of their continuing success was that in an era before reality TV, they had become genuine celebrities that everyone thought they knew, so that even bad behavior made them more interesting and their records more necessary to own. The feud between John and Paul had mesmerized fans worldwide. Had they actually broken up and pursued solo careers, it is doubtful the interest would have been sustained.
Even so, past years had taken a PR toll. Beatles manager Lord Beeching and producer George Martin had become friends, and both felt it was time to throw the world a bone of peace. They both knew it would not come in the form of an album this year, so they decided to go for what had always worked before — Christmas. They reached out to Lennon and McCartney and asked each of them to consider a Christmas song for a single they would put out well before the holiday, in mid-September.
Christmas releases were something of a tradition in Beatlemania and, in a bid to transcend his growing reputation as an angry political radical, Lennon immediately signed on, saying he wanted “to go balls out for Santa.” He already had the song — “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — something he and Yoko had performed in a live concert setting almost two years ago. That it did not exactly transcend his angry-young-radical image was not something Beeching or Martin felt compelled to point out.
McCartney had been toying with a song that he would later release on his own, “Wonderful Christmastime,” an entirely pleasant ditty that simply could not hold up to the power of the flip side. He considered ducking this comparison altogether, as he had the one over “Imagine” the year before, believing that one Christmas classic per season was more than enough, even for the Beatles. But he could not bring himself to take a pass and let John run away with the idea.
McCartney decided to go with “Smile Away” as his contribution, but twist it into a Christmas configuration. An up-tempo rocker with nonsense lyrics, he’d tried recording it during the 1972 Record Plant sessions but Harrison had made a snarky remark, seconded by Lennon, and Paul sensed it wasn’t worth fighting for at the time.
McCartney now re-tooled the song with entirely new lyrics, changing the title from “Smile Away” to “Santaway.” If Lennon’s song was anthemic, McCartney’s was just plain fun. A party with Santa in attendance.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” became the instant radio hit and dominated the airwaves from September through the end of December 1973. Given that the Vietnam War peace treaty had been signed at the beginning of the year, it was less of a protest song than it had been, but many listeners seemed to take it as a victory lap for peace. However it was seen, it was catchy, hopeful and popular.
Even with the A-side success of “Happy Xmas,” McCartney’s “Santaway” was not buried. Many fans loved it, and it too found its way into heavy radio rotation, played almost as frequently as Lennon’s classic for years.
And, history records, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney exchanged fashion-oriented Christmas presents in 1973. Paul and Linda received matching kimonos mailed from Tokyo, and in return, sent John and Yoko matching wool sweaters from Scotland.