In the early 1980s, two albums of rare Beatles recordings were released with little fanfare. Consisting of the Christmas messages the Fab Four distributed to their fan club in the 1960s, these LPs weren’t authorized by the Beatles, and it appears the reasons they were put out in the first place had, oddly, little to do with financial gain—in the traditional sense, that is. There was also a third album of this material in the pipeline, and though its release was challenged in court, copies eventually made their way into the world.
Back in April, we told you about the tax shelter record labels of the 1970s and 1980s. These companies offered investments in master recordings, which would be used as the basis for albums. Tax shelters aren’t illegal, but those that focus on the tax benefits, rather than, say, the success of an album being bankrolled, are considered fraudulent by the I.R.S. Many of these labels were found to be just that, while others are believed to have been shams. In such a scenario, a record that failed to sell resulted in a significant tax credit for investors.
The tax shelter labels existed as a means to exploit the U.S. tax code, but they also exploited artists, who, more often than not, had no idea their work was being issued in such a manner. All sorts of material—demos, outtakes, rarities, etc.—was issued with little-to-no promotion. In recent years, collectors came up with a colorful descriptor to identify such LPs: “tax scam records.” Some of these albums are amongst the scarcest slabs of vinyl ever pressed.
The Beatles first holiday record, 1963.
Between 1963 and 1969, the Beatles taped Christmas messages specifically for their fan club. The recordings were pressed on 7-inch flexi discs, housed in unique artwork, and shipped to fans, free of charge. The first year they established what would be the standard format: holiday greetings and year-end updates mixed with parodies of holiday classics, and the sort of tomfoolery the group was known for. As the Beatles began to stretch musically, the messages became another outlet for experimentation. By 1967, their fan club records were downright avant-garde.
Cover of the 1966 flexi.
After the Beatles broke-up—and just before the 1970 holidays—Apple Records sent the Beatles’ US and UK fan club members an album of the full run of Christmas discs. Again, there was no fee.
A decade later, in 1981, a selection of the Beatles holiday greetings appeared on an LP called Happy Michaelmas. The title is taken from a section of the 1968 message, in which Paul McCartney is singing a little ditty and playing off the phrase “Happy Christmas.”
The album draws from the 1967-69 messages, though the original recordings had been edited and the track names were altered. The jacket artwork for Happy Michaelmas is basic and doesn’t look much like a proper Beatles release. This is partly due to the curious fact that the record is credited to “John, Paul, George, Ringo” on the cover, though “Beatles” does appear elsewhere on the package. The LP was issued by a mysterious record company, one with a most unusual name: the Adirondack Group.
Houston resident Mark Buchine was a general partner in a number of tax shelter operations that invested in master recordings, including the Adirondack Group. Buchine, who had a background in sales and accounting, also prepared tax forms for investors in the partnerships. The Adirondack Group enlisted the services of distribution company, Album Globe, a Hendersonville, Tennessee company run by Mike Shepherd and Hank Levine (I wrote about Shepherd and Levine extensively in part two of my April article). Album Globe were responsible for creating the artwork, manufacturing the album, and placing it in stores.
The Adirondack Group licensed the Beatles recordings from UM Leasing Corp., a New York corporation. In order to attract financiers, UM held seminars that explained the tax benefits—profit potential wasn’t the focus—of releasing an album. UM obtained the Beatles recordings from Peter Bennett, a music industry vet. Bennett was the Beatles promo man from 1967 until their dissolution, and he also promoted records by the four individual members of the band following their breakup. Bennett claimed that, in the early ‘70s, he was gifted the rights to the group’s Christmas recordings by John Lennon, yet he still advised UM Leasing that an album of those tracks not be credited to the Beatles, but to “John, Paul, George, and Ringo.”
Peter Bennett and John Lennon.
In 1982, another LP collection of the Beatles Christmas singles was released. Christmas Reflections contains two side-long, fourteen minute tracks, both labeled as “John, Paul, George, Ringo.” The album purportedly consists of the 1963-66 Christmas messages. Just one look at the hideous cover art and it’s obvious that this product was not sanctioned by the Beatles.
Christmas Reflections came out on the Desert Vibrations label, with a copyright claim by the company printed on the jacket. It was distributed by Heritage Sound Recording Distributors (HSRD), a Phoenix-based organization owned by one Leon Ross (he’s also responsible for the album’s cover illustration). Like Shepherd and Levine, Ross was involved in the tax shelter record business. In 1985, he was among the defendants in the case, Thomas J. Hirt v. UM Leasing Corp., et al., in which the plaintiff had invested in a Merle Travis master recording, but an LP was never produced. In his complaint, amidst other allegations, Hirt asserted that Ross/HSRD had conspired with Peter Bennett and UM Leasing to rip him off. When Ross attempted to have the charges dismissed, he was denied by the court.
In 1986, another tax court case, this time involving an investor who had been denied tax credits for a Joni Mitchell album, once again involved Bennett/UM Leasing and Ross. As in the above case, Ross/HSRD was hired to create the package and distribute the LP, but what was delivered was less than stellar—a jacket that had a plain white cover with the song titles glued to the back. HSRD produced just 109 albums, selling a grand total of nine copies. A memorandum decision indicates a single newspaper advertisement was run by HSRD to promote the album.
Note the inclusion of the HSRD-distributed Beatles LP.
In September 1983, Houston record distributor Rick Smulian announced he was readying his own album of the Beatles Christmas singles. Smulian had previously worked for Koala Records, which had a prolific tax shelter business. Koala albums were packaged and distributed by Album World, another of the Shepherd/Levine companies. The October 8th, 1983 issue of Billboard magazine included an article on the pending Beatles Christmas album, in which Smulian said he was moving forward, despite a cease and desist letter from Apple Corps (Smulian claims he never received it). Looking towards a mid-November release on his own Richy Records, the album would also bear the “John, Paul, George, and Ringo” credit, and consist of the 1963-66 messages. UM Leasing and the Adirondack Group were also behind this LP. Smulian had hired a couple of producers and an engineer to edit the recordings and create a new master, which he says cost him $100,000. Smulian told Billboard the result was a “masterpiece.”
Billboard ad placed by Richy Records and R/S Distribution (both companies were owned by Rick Smulian) congratulating Peter Bennett on 25 years in the biz.
Smulian, the Adirondack Group, and UM Leasing all ended up in the New York Supreme Court, when Apple Corps, the entity that represents the Beatles, sued to stop the release. Much of UM Leasing’s claim that the Christmas tapes were their legal property, and were, thus, free to license them as they wished, hinged on Peter Bennett’s assertion that John Lennon gave him the rights by way of a verbal gift. The court examined the many was this was preposterous, including the fact that there was nothing in writing. In a amusing passage of the court’s decision, they scrutinize the plan to issue the album as “John, Paul George, and Ringo.”
This does not insulate the defendants from the charge that they are unfairly trading on the name of the Beatles. Four persons named ‘John, Paul, George, and Ringo’ will not be taken by the public as a reference to the Moskowitz brothers, to the Pope and two other people, or to anyone else except the members of the best known singing group in the world.
As you may surmise, the court ruled in the Beatles’ favor, and on December 15th, 1983, a temporary injunction was granted (the Adirondack Group’s 1981 LP wasn’t mentioned in the decision). I can find no evidence of a court filing regarding the Desert Vibrations/HSRD-distributed album, Christmas Reflections. It’s possible that so few records were pressed that it simply flew under the radar. These days, it’s certainly more difficult to obtain than Happy Michaelmas.
In February 1985, Rick Smulian was back in the news, when a reel-to-reel tape of the Beatles recordings was stolen from the studio he hired to create the new master of the Christmas messages. A former employee of the studio had taken the reel, and when this person demanded cash for its return, the FBI got involved. Not long after, the feds made an arrest and the tape was recovered. Smulian still wanted to release the album, telling the press that, prior to legal action, he had received a purchase order for one million copies.
Less than two weeks after the FBI recoverd the tape, a court filing by the investors in the delayed LP signified they had thrown in the towel. On March 7th, 1985, the Adirondack Group took UM Leasing to civil court, citing the RICO Act and seeking $5 million in damages. Peter Bennett was among the defendants.
By then, the U.S. government was fully invested in combatting fraudulent tax shelters. Unscrupulous shelter programs of all sorts exploded in the “greed is good” atmosphere of the 1980s, costing the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars in annual revenue. Congress adopted new provisions and penalties for abusive shelters when it passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. The enacting of this law marks the end of the tax shelter record label era.
Though Rick Smulian never got to release his album of Christmas messages from the Fab Four, that’s not the end of the story. Over the past decade or so, a certain cassette has turned up a couple of times in the Houston area.
You’re looking at one of the only existing copies of a Richy Records tape of the Christmas recordings by the Beatles—oh, sorry—John, Paul, George, Ringo. My guess is that Smulian pressed up a few test copies prior to the Apple lawsuit.
The J-card credits for the tape.
In the mid-1980s, an edited version of the song “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” taken from the 1967 flexi, was slated to appear on Sessions, an authorized collection of Beatles recordings from the vault. The album was initially scheduled for release in late 1984, but was delayed, and ultimately scrapped. It was subsequently bootlegged. In 1995, a different mix of “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” with elements from the 1966 fan club disc, was released as the B-side of the “Free as a Bird” single.
The complete collection of Christmas messages the Beatles sent to their fan club has just been issued in the form of a limited edition 7-inch boxed set. The release of The Christmas Records marks the first time the full run of 1963-69 singles have been made available to purchase.
The Beatles wish their fans a Happy Christmas during a television interview on December 24th, 1963:
Thanks to Jay Young of Thrifty Birds for the high-resolution photos of the ‘John, Paul, George, Ringo’ cassette. Jay has one of the only known copies of the tape, which he found at a Houston Goodwill in 2012. If you want this super-rare item for yourself, feel free to make him an offer.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Tax Scam Records’: Artist discovers albums of his songs were released by shadowy companies in 1977
‘Almost Famous’: Artist discovers his music was released by shady record companies in 1977 (Part II)
Listen to Paul McCartney’s ‘lost’ experimental Christmas disc for his fellow Beatles from 1965