I was driving into the office yesterday morning, and I heard “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on the radio. I’m going to level here. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is garbage. Maybe that’s overstating it, but not by much!
The lyrics are uninspired, if not outright trite, and they barely even fit the melody. (Lennon stole the melody from an English folk song, “Stewball.” It’s about gambling and a race horse.) Just look at the way John stretches out the word “Now” (as in, “War is over now”) over four notes and an octave of range. I get what John was trying to do, but his choice was either to write a melody that fit the lyric or rewrite the lyric to fit the melody. Instead, he went the lazy man’s way out and decided he didn’t give a shit. Then, for some reason, John sings the song extra-nasally, and I’m not much a fan of Nasally John. And Yoko should have been buried further down in the mix; when she’s singing along with the Harlem Community Children’s Choir she overwhelms them.
You don’t realize quite how bad the melody for “Happy Xmas” is until you’ve heard the song on bagpipes. The main lyric line is very atonal, so on bagpipes the song just drones.
This song was John in his overtly political New York phase in the early 1970s, about the time he was working on his absolute worst rock album, Some Time in New York City, and he didn’t put a lot of care into his work in that period. His idea at the time was that he could start writing a song at nine in the morning, be in the studio by Noon, and have a mixed mastertape by six. You can tell, listening to the results. For a cherished Christmas classic, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is pretty bad.
Sarah McLachlan’s version is very nice, though. She has the voice to make it work, and the production is evocatively lush.