Some Time in New York City… This album was not kicked off with a good start. After John and Yoko moved to New York, they started to get involved in anti-war protests, and protests to get John Sinclair out of prison. All of these were followed with Richard Nixon’s attempts to deport John Lennon, which would last for around 5 years afterwards. The original album was, and still is, a double album, filled with mostly songs of a political nature, and some that would cause an about face with Lennon fans who were expecting something like off his Plastic Ono Band release or the Imagine album that was released a year ago. What did people get? Mostly a bunch of half-baked ideas, and the ones that are fully-baked were the ones that caused John major controversy.
The album kicks off with one of the more controversial songs off the album , “Woman is the N****r of the World”, which, contrary to its song title, is about sexism rather than racism. All the fuss about the n-word aside, the track is pretty strong, and really needs a better social climate to listen to it. Just be careful if your friend asks to see your iPod and ask what you’re listening to. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is also really good, mostly based off the Bloody Sunday Troubles in Northern Ireland, and you can see where John’s sympathies lie, and it is a surprisingly upbeat. The other track that stands out for the recorded set is “New York City”, a Chuck Berry inspired piece about John and Yoko’s new home in the Dakota and Manhattan. It may get a little repetitive, but it’s a rockin’ song, so I guess I could let it slide. Basically, stick with all the Lennon tracks, as they are the strong parts of this whole record.
The other gems on this record are all live, and they comprise of everything after track 10 (which I’ll get to in a little bit), and they come from two different concerts, one of them the live UNICEF jam from 1969, the other from a Fillmore East gig featuring Frank Zappa (yes, that Frank Zappa) on guitar from 1971. The sound quality from the UNICEF jam is a little bit on the poor side, but it does show Lennon’s prowess in a live setting. The later tracks are in better quality, but most could be indifferent about what the tracks contain, especially with Zappa.
Now, I have to talk about the bad parts of the album, and unfortunately, it comprises a lot of the album: Yoko.
Let me clarify my stance on Yoko in this album, because this is an interesting case. I think her songwriting is some of her best on this album, because she had gotten better before this album. Unfortunately, her voice is just really annoying on this album, like many reviewers at the time liked to point out. The song contents of “Sisters O Sisters” and “We’re All Water” are really good, and it forces a reader of the lyrics to really think. When a person listens to them, however, it makes you want to eat your least favorite food for about a week and then spend a night near the toilet. Even the two Lennon songs about the Troubles, including “Luck of the Irish”, are simply spoiled by Yoko’s screechy voice, which is a shame because these songs are pretty good, but why did Yoko have to be on the most sentimental songs of the whole album??!!
On the whole, like most John Lennon albums, the good stuff is really good. The opening song is great, the back-to-basic song is great, the live jams are really good. There could have a lot of opportunities to make this album one of his greatest, but a lot of opportunities were wasted for what they are.
Now this is really not the place to start with John. We all fall into childhood sometimes, and he, too, seemed to decide that he had enough of making good music and fell into the world of political battles and demonstrations. (I heard he even wore Mao Zedong badges at one period, but that’s another story). Anyway, this album is nothing but a bunch of rather lame political protest songs with straightforward dumb lyrics. Even worse, about half of the songs are sung by Yoko – a crazy experiment which would unfortunately be repeated eight years later. And even more worse – and I know that’s grammatically incorrect, but I can’t say it any other way – even more worse, this is a double album, with the second one constituting the infamous ‘Live Jam’, parts of it being the same kind of friggin’ ‘experimental’ live jams that are so abundant on John’s early albums. In other words, keep your head down folks. Namely, there’s a century-long version of Yoko’s ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ that’s energetic but doesn’t go anywhere in particular and even some collaborations with Zappa (God save Oz!) ‘Scumbag’ is the most atrocious of the lot, with John and Frank singing this obviously mystical word for about six minutes and asking their audiences to participate. If you happen to get this album on vinyl, just burn the second part of it on the spot. And don’t even think about buying the double CD for a ‘nice price’. I have a bootleg copy with most of the crap edited out, but I’ve heard the complete version, and looking at my bootleg copy makes me all the more happy.
For the record: if you did buy the double CD, at least you might be consoled by the fact that the second disc has a passable, although overlong live version of ‘Cold Turkey’, as well as an old blues number with John in top form (‘Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)’). Even though the Lennon Anthology has a far superior studio version. On second thought, out of all the versions of ‘Cold Turkey’ I’m familiar with, this might just be the gloomiest and wildest, with Lennon throwing a series of virtual fits on stage that hasn’t ever been surpassed. And the instrumental backing from the Elephants Memory Band is gritty and crashing. Okay, do not burn this album, but don’t think too high of it, either. It’s truly an unpleasant “nostalgic” return to the crazyass days of 1969.
Now, about the studio disc. Here is where the explanation of my relatively high rating (and yes, a rating of six is exceptionally high for such a record – any other reviewer would probably cut it in half) comes in. The funny thing is, after repeated listens the songs do grow on you, and if you bring yourself to not noticing any of the lyrics – a pretty hard job, as everything is being articulated pretty distinctively – some, if not most, of the studio recordings turn out to have pretty well constructed melodies and an overload of sincere and brimming energy.
First of all, there’s the great feminist anthem ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ with Phil Spector finally stepping in on his own: zillions of rhythm tracks, booming drums, huge brass sections, and Lennon’s soaring vocals atop of all that – the regular stuff. It is undoubtedly John’s peak as the greatest anthem-writer of rock – the tune’s driving power smashes you against the wall, and John’s soulful and furious vocals are clearly heartfelt: yes, dumb as it may seem, but he really believed all the things he sang about, even more, at times he’s almost able to convince me that ‘woman is the slave of the slaves’, much as I’m sceptical towards the feminist movement (don’t get me wrong – I’m all for equality of sexes, but let’s not get carried away, ladies and gentlemen). Hell, the lyrics might have been even more generic, who cares – I tip my heat to the song that screams POWER POWER POWER with its every note. Pure musical ecstasy.
None of the other tracks amount to such unscalable heights, but that’s no big surprise. Instead, they’re just good. There’s the fast, rocking, upbeat and catchy ‘New York City’; unfortunately, it ain’t a Big Apple anthem, rather ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko Part 2’. Oh, never mind, it has lots of drive. There’s the pretty country tune ‘John Sinclair’, dedicated to, well, John Sinclair and human rights protection in general (unfortunately, spoilt by the rather annoying refrain ‘you gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta… gottan… gotta let him go’).
Two of the songs are dedicated to Ireland’s struggle for independence. The very fact that John had suddenly become aware of his Irish roots on the spur of the moment stinks of hypocrisy or, at least, of dumbness, and, as usual, Mr Lennon tends to exaggerate (‘as the bastards commit genocide’ is a way too harsh line in any case – why didn’t he sing about Cambodia instead?), but ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is still impressive, because it’s a harsh Lennon protest song and that genre certainly couldn’t fail. But I’m definitely not a fan of ‘The Luck Of The Irish’, and the middle part sung by Yoko makes me sick: what the hell did she know about Ireland to sing of the country’s goods and wonders? Pretty stinky.
That leaves us with Yokosungs (ha! there’s a good difference: ‘Yokosongs’ are songs about Yoko and ‘Yokosungs’ should be songs sung by Yoko. Ain’t I clever?) Anyway, these I won’t be discussing at all. Horrible generic crap marred by (if crap can be marred, of course) Yoko’s horrible vocals. I feel somewhat ashamed to admit that most of them are quite catchy – it took me years to throw the pedestrian melodies of ‘Sisters Oh Sisters’ and ‘We’re All Water’ out of my head. It irritates me even more that the unbelieeeevably dumbhead feminist anthem ‘Sisters Oh Sisters’ begins with Yoko saying something like ‘hey there male chauvinist pig engineer’. I wonder what did she mean? Maybe he dared making a remark about her singing talents? Sigh. The only thought that the record ends with a seven-minute Yokoscreamfest (‘We’re All Water’) makes me shiver and think about all the sickness this woman has brought into my personal life. And no I don’t blame her for breaking up The Beatles; I only blame her for daring to sing on the same record with John. She’d had a solo recording career by that time (starting with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band that came out in 1970 as a ‘twin’ to John’s record); why they had to join forces for this one, not to mention repeating the experience later on, is way beyond me.
Anyway, despite the major and multiple flaws of the album, I still feel no problem about giving it a six because when we filter out the weeds, we are still left with a bunch of solid melodies, and melodies are always your backbone, whether you’re indulging in progressive sci-fi fantasies or blurting out acoustic songs of anti-Vietnam protests. Also, ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ still sounds fresh and mighty to these ears, and any album with this song deserves a high score.