The track, originally released in 1971 by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir, has grown into a Christmas classic over the past 43 years, entering the pantheon of “White Christmas,” “O Holy Night” and others. And it’s the only Christmas song in that illustrious group to deliver an enduring political message, too—John and Yoko simply request a peaceful, loving holiday season. “War is over / If you want it,” they told us via promotional billboards and magazine advertisements.
For All Is Bright, Ono revisited the song with a kindred artistic spirit, Coyne (whose band the Flaming Lips just released a track-for-track cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club). Fittingly, the duo added a psychedelic vibe to the holiday staple, with deep-space synths, dissonant sound effects, crashing drum rolls and more.
We emailed Ono a handful of questions about “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” hoping to get the stories behind the original song’s creation and the magic of the new rendition with Coyne. We got that and more.
Enjoy the full Q&A below. And happy holidays from Amazon Music!
How did the original version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” come together?
John wanted the Harlem Community Choir kids to do the chorus. So we invited them right away. They did a good job!
What was the writing process between you and John like for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”?
John wrote the versus and I wrote the chorus.
With the Flaming Lips you’ve brought a new, more psychedelic sound to your latest rendition of this song for Amazon’s All Is Bright playlist. Did you set out to transform the song with a new sound?
Both Wayne and I just did what we could do without thinking of copying the way John and I did. Our voices reflect the times we now live in. There’s no two ways about it.
Why did you choose to work with Wayne on this cover?
Wayne makes kids feel that life is worth living. That’s big. He’s the kind who hides his intelligence.
What about “Happy Xmas” has made it such a timeless holiday song?
Because John and I did it with love.
John once said of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey.” Do you think this song was your and John’s most influential or lasting political statement?
Like John said, we put some honey on words of wisdom.
Are you working on new material for a full-length album? If so, can you tell us a little about the material…
I don’t believe in talking about things until it’s done.
What new art projects are you working on now? Anything you can reveal?
You’ll see a few things next year.
What is your first and/or best musical Christmas memory.
I just remember the sweet Christmases John and I had, just us, and with Sean when he arrived!
Was there a Christmas record that your family played around the house?
“Rudolph the Reindeer” to “White Christmas” to… “Happy Xmas.” All the Christmas songs! John, Sean and I loved every song on the Christmas records and every bit of the Christmas rituals.
What are your favorite Christmas family tradition?
John and I did the Christmas decorations. More John than me. We piled up gifts for Sean and called him in from his room at midnight. Sean would come out of his room running and opened all the gifts while John filmed him. John was having the best time. I know Sean loved it too.
Favorite Christmas movie? TV Special?
It was more songs and not films.
What does Christmas dinner look like around your house growing up?
Except for the time of War, when we didn’t have too much to eat, I remember great Christmas dinners and New Year’s Eve Japanese feasts.
Best Christmas present ever?
Anything my mother and father planned for me was great! I loved them all.
What are your plans for Christmas this year?
John and I loved doing it the same every year. We decorate the tree, have a turkey dinner with great stuffing and shower Sean with things he loved. And there always were surprise presents we gave to each other. John was Liverpool English, he believed in and loved a very traditional Christmas. After John’s passing, I made sure to keep the tradition going, especially for Sean’s sake.
If you could have one thing for Christmas this year, what would you want?
A peaceful family gathering with lots of love.