‘Tis the season, so let’s settle one aspect of the Solute Canon and ask ourselves: which of these two ex-Beatle Christmas songs is worse?
John Lennon’s particular skill as a songwriter was in taking his inner turmoil and honestly expressing it in a simple, accessible way. John Lennon’s particular skill as a song writer was not being able to break down complex socio-economic ideas. “Working Class Hero” is a great song and I’ll go to bat for “Imagine”, even as overexposed as it became, but notice that both of these are extensions of his personal feelings, with the former tracking how it felt growing up in a working class English environment and the latter is a personal manifesto; whenever he tried to make pointed political attacks, it always came out as impotent flailing, with him shouting about Truth and Love without any real definition for those terms or any kind of specific action or plan. Worse, they tended to be repetitive and lacking in any poetry. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is exactly within that model of nonspecific fingerpointing that, from its opening lines, seems to direct its anger at the listener, making it all the more obnoxious. I don’t usually care that much about Lennon’s hypocrisy because truth is truth no matter where it comes from, but even I find this song grating in the way Lennon seems to be lashing out. What makes it worse is how the melody is lifted from a goddamned children’s folk song – at least Bob Dylan has the sense to rip off folk songs I’ve never heard of!
Paul McCartney’s strength and weakness as a composer are one and the same: he plays with music. I’ve always been struck by him saying that when he was a kid, there was a rule that each family member would write down the time and activity spent writing or playing music, because it reflects his lifelong approach to music – the end result is of secondary importance to the process of doing it. This is an approach that leads to a productive output but also a highly variable one, as less care is taken with individual pieces. At his best, McCartney compensates for this with ruthless editing, throwing out ideas and songs that either don’t serve the purpose of what he’s doing or just aren’t good enough. This song is not McCartney at his best, on any level. The basic substance of the song is weak – I’ve got nothing against the basic silly little Christmas song idea, but the melody barely qualifies as a melody, the chord progression weakly slams from one direction to another, and the two don’t so much complement each other as collide with one another occasionally. On top of that are two completely inexplicable and grating production decisions – first, he puts an effect on the vocals that actually seems to sand it down further into nothingness, and he adds an echo onto the main synth effect in the chorus that only serves to muddy the sound of everything further.