I’ve been a fan of the Beatles since the first night that they were on Ed Sullivan in 1964. I could not be more in the Beatles camp without needing medication.
Actually some people think I do need medication over my Beatles fixation, but never mind. The reason I say this is so that you’ll know whose “side” I’m on.
The most recent histories of the World’s Greatest Band (this one and “The Beatles: The Biography” by Bob Spitz) are more reliable as general retellings than most of the previous dreck we’ve gotten, with the possible exception of Phillip Norman’s, excellent “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation.” In fact, most of the previous general histories we’ve got on the Beatles have been garbage–being either authorized fan-club/teenie-bopper raves, or idiot kiss-and-tell scandal tomes (like “The Love You Make: An Insider’s Story of the Beatles” which paints the Beatles as victims and jerks simultaneously).
In fact, even “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles” by the very odd Geoff Emerick (who, despite having been in on the most important of the Beatles recording sessions seems to have entirely missed the point) is pretty good.
So we’ve got an excellent crop of fairly recent Beatles books out now. So what? Well, I think that for those of you who want to understand the Beatles story on a gut level, this is one of the must-have volumes.
Cynthia Lennon is honest in this volume on the level that her famous ex-husband always claimed to be, and generally wasn’t. The feeling I get as I read this volume is that, for an autobiography, the book is unusually truthful. I suspect we’re getting about 75% of the truth, and 99% of the truth as Cynthia saw it (understanding the distinction in those two points is critical in reading autobiography). Her portrait of John is unflinching and to the point when she speaks of the events she witnesses. It is also solid from the standpoint that a lot of the action that occurred in and around the Beatles circle happened just off of Cynthia’s radar, and she tells us plainly when she was off stage. It is interesting that she seems honestly bemused by so many of the events that occurred in her own life.
The portrait of the “Cynthia Era” Lennon that emerges is the one we always suspected was the truth: that John was a funny, warm, intelligent person–usually. We also see the Post-Yoko John, and the bizarre head changes that Ono put John through.
Cynthia suggests that the changes in Lennon’s temperament were symptoms of drug abuse, and I’m certain that was a contributing factor, but she either doesn’t see or leaves us to read between the lines about the influence that Ono had over Lennon. I suspect that she’s being kind; the combination of Ono’s machinations, and Lennon’s emotional and intellectual vulnerability were a frightening force, and changed John completely. In fact, the immediate post-Ono Lennon seems more like a cult adherent than a drug casualty, and that was, the way it seemed to fans like me at the time.
Lennon switched from the affable (if temperamental) head Beatle to a surly, smug, unsmiling but silly media manipulator who was more than delighted to exchange creative credentials for media attention. As Cynthia points out, “He never smiled and he took himself so seriously.”
Best of all, Cynthia asks the ultimate question about Lennon, ‘How could he be so interested in world peace, and so uninterested in making peace with his own son?”
Cynthia also seems aware that McCartney, who has received bad press in the last few years for having the bad taste to remain (Quelle Horreur!) popular and mainstream, is a talent in his own right, and half of the Beatles songwriting legacy. Cynthia is also aware that the Beatles were a band, an organism of four men, not John Lennon and three other guys. It was nice to hear someone say this; the other Beatles have gotten short shrift since Lennon’s death.
Of course, a central part of the “Lennon Problem” is carefully discussed here; Lennon wanted a divorce from his wife. In the early 21st century that situation is considered sad, but with the current 50% divorce rate it might also seem unremarkable. In the late 1960’s it was scandalous, and the way Lennon dealt with his ex-wife and child we even worse.
You won’t learn a lot about how the Beatles music was made here, Cynthia wasn’t allowed in that part of her husband’s life (no big deal there, how many of you reading this take your spouse to work?), but you will learn a lot about who John Lennon was, and how he mutated into the media-hungry self-righteous maniac he became in the 1970’s. Best of all, Cynthia still loves John, and despite the degree that he wronged her, she leaves us room to do so as well.
Most beloved public figures have many facets — some of them nasty, some of them pleasant and admirable. Most biographies either focus on the good, or the bad.
But fortunately, Philip Norman is making a valiant effort to show, if not all of John Lennon’s facets, then as many of them as possible. Having explored the Beatles and their impact on a generation, Norman narrows his focus down to “John Lennon: The Life” — and he does a superb job unearthing the many details, relationships and differing faces of this much-lamented rock star. We’ll never get a John Lennon autobiography, but Norman does a pretty good job of getting inside his shaggy head.
John Lennon was born into an incredibly stormy marriage (which broke up soon after) and raised by his loving, strict Aunt Mimi, though he was something of a hellraising trickster as a child. The one blot: the tragic, shocking death of his mother Julia.
Of course, everyone knows what happened later — after a brief stint at art school, Lennon became part of a band with an ever-shifting name, and started working on pop songs alongside Paul McCartney. Though briefly devastated by the death of a bandmate, Lennon quickly rose to fame and fortune when the renamed Beatles became not just a hit band, but a new way of life for the youth of Britain, and then the entire world. Hit album after hit album poured from the Beatles, along with the usual rock-star intake of drugs, sex and occasional PR disasters.
But Lennon’s interests began to stray in more spiritual directions, and as his marriage to the sweet-natured Cynthia fell apart, he met and fell in love with eccentric Japanese artist Yoko Ono. Suddenly he was devoting himself not to pop hits, but to experimental numbers, “bed-ins” and sitting in bags, and using his world-wide celebrity for the furtherance of peace. While this lifestyle didn’t quite tame Lennon’s wild side, it led to new focuses in his life — until it was tragically cut short.
You have to hand it to Philip Norman. While most biographers tend to portray Lennon as a hippie saint or a hopeless jerk, he tries very hard to find a happy medium that encompasses all of Lennon’s personality: a flawed man who had a boatload of issues and could be both cruel and kind. While he gets a bit worshipy in the latter parts of Lennon’s life, Norman does a pretty good portraying both the musician and those around him in a realistic, compelling light.
Additionally, Norman gives as much careful attention to Lennon’s youth as he does to the Beatlemania and John/Yoko years — in particular, his relationships to his mother, Aunt Mimi, Paul McCartney and the delicate artist Stu, as well as the months and years as a struggling young musician. There’s lots of pop psychology, but it works.
In he meantime, Lennon’s life is carefully framed in the political and social climes of the time — the post-war fifties, colourful psychedelic chaos of the 1960s, and the later, grimmer times of the Vietnam War. Politicians, pop art, Liverpudlian slang and changing societies are all explored in detail, and Norman has the perspectives of a lot of people who actually lived in the time and knew Lennon — his wives, his sons, his bandmates, and even his Aunt Mimi (and she gets a LOT of words in).
He also injects a wry sense of humour into the story (Lennon’s aunts turning up at a Beatles performance) as well as a steady, sometimes evocative writing style (“The room reeked of stale beer and wine, and was lined in dusty velvet drapes…”). At the same time, there’s some pretty shocking allegations here, such as the claim that Lennon may have been inadvertently involved in the death of his bandmate, but Norman avoids tabloid journalism by explaining why he doubts Lennon actually did any of that.
Lennon himself is a colourful mosaic of seemingly contradictory qualities — he could be mean-spirited (mocking the disabled), wild, kindly, romantic, neglectful, vibrant, brilliantly unconventional and craving a spirituality that’s hard to get when you’re filthy rich. As seen by Norman, much of his personality seems to be based on the fear of loved ones dying and leaving him, but we get glimpses of dozens of different sides to his psyche.
“John Lennon: The Life” attempts to accurately portray one of the twentieth century’s most unconventional and beloved pop stars, and for the most part, Philip Norman does a brilliant job.
I could see how releasing John Lennon discs called Acoustic and Rock ‘n’ Roll on the same day might have seemed like an insane stroke of integrated-marketing genius– “Why, it would almost be as cool as the Bright Eyes double-weeper!” some pony-tailed Capitol exec may have exulted– but these releases seem to have little to do with one another.
Hardly the polished, definitive statement that its title and cover photo imply, Acoustic culls demos and live tracks from 1998’s Anthology box, plus seven previously unreleased recordings. Much of the material draws from Lennon’s most raw album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, recorded after primal scream therapy with Dr. Walter Janov. The new disc’s most visceral moments– a bitter, desolate blues waltz of “Working Class Hero” and a finger-blistering, previously unreleased “Cold Turkey”, on which Lennon’s wavering, sheepish-lion vocal veers closely to Marc Bolan– predict the spare sneer of punk, even without amplification.
By comparison, Rock ‘n’ Roll sounds like “Crocodile Rock”. Here, Lennon revisits his roots, complete with the heavy, 50s-style echo he was employing on much of his original work (“Instant Karma”, for example). The now-familiar backstory to this satisfying (if less-than-brilliant) outing is that an out-of-court settlement with Morris Levy, owner of several Chuck Berry copyrights, required Lennon to record three songs to which Levy owned the rights. (Levy had charged, quite rightly, that Lennon’s “Come Together” cribbed from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”.) Phil Spector produced four of the album’s tracks, while Lennon handled the rest. Despite the legal obligation, Lennon’s performance never sounds forced; instead, he sounds unfettered, barnstorming through the favorites of his youth with the gleeful abandon he must have felt when, while listening to Radio Luxembourg, he first heard “Heartbreak Hotel”.
While Rock ‘n’ Roll is a wistful look at rock’s lost innocence, Acoustic hunkers down in the humdrum here-and-now of 1970s existence. “All right, so flower power didn’t work,” Lennon tells a live audience between the off-kilter protest songs “The Luck of the Irish” and “John Sinclair”, both originally on Anthology. “So what? We start again.” The fallout of the failed 60s left Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas’s Raoul Duke mired in drugs and depravity; Lennon ultimately turns, creatively enough, to “reality,” as described in the oft-quoted “God”. The version here, previously unreleased, opens with twangy guitar as Lennon goofs an impression of a Southern preacher. The accidental distortion that kicks in on the bass during Lennon’s powerful, repetitive “I don’t believe” sequence vaguely brings to mind Neil Young’s haunting Dead Man theme. Interestingly, Lennon replaces “I don’t believe in Zimmerman” with the less cryptic “I don’t believe in Dylan.” As always, the song concludes with Lennon’s statement of faith in himself. Still, this is a drop in recording quality compared to the Anthology version.
Among other previously unreleased tracks, the nursery-rhyme melody of “My Mummy’s Dead” stands out against a stark, slightly crackly background. “Dear Yoko” (as opposed to “Oh Yoko!”, which you may know from the Rushmore soundtrack if not from Imagine) suffers from fuzzy tape noise that Capitol’s sound engineers couldn’t remove. The song’s straightforward message of love still shines through– “I miss you like the sun don’t shine”– but casual listeners would be better served by the Double Fantasy version. “Well Well Well” becomes a heavily phased, forgettable one-minute run-through of the Plastic Ono Band original. Pop gem “Real Love” is informative as a demo, though it will merely leave you heading back to The Beatles’ 1996 version with fresh ears– it’s proof that Paul, George, and Ringo didn’t fuck that one up, after all. On the plus side, you don’t know “What You Got”, originally from Walls and Bridges, until you hear this percussive, bluesy rendition.
On “Watching the Wheels”, Lennon fleshes out the solipsistic themes hinted at in “God”. Whether or not his years of domesticity were as blissful as advertised, I don’t really care. It’s a song that Holden Caulfield might have sung after realizing he couldn’t smear out every F-word, a song about being true to oneself. If only Catcher in the Rye-obsessed maniac Mark David Chapman had understood, I like to think we might be listening to a new, blissfully mediocre release by a 65-year-old Lennon rather than a rarities compilation. This recording– originally released on Anthology and the “Unplugged” bootleg– strips away the hopelessly dated production of the Double Fantasy version. What’s left is poetic, melodic, homespun– it’s what diehard fans of any band look for but rarely ever find in a demo. Even brief background chatter from Yoko can’t throw a Spaniard in these works– instead it adds intimacy to the proceeding. It’s my new favorite Lennon recording, at least until the next time I listen to Imagine.
Nothing on Rock ‘n’ Roll matches that moment, but it has a breathless energy all its own. The remixing and remastering is clearly noticeable– for instance, the cover of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula” sounds infinitely clearer and brighter here than on the original album. With its staccato acoustic guitar and Lennon’s fervent vocals, “Stand By Me” remains more affecting (just barely) than the Ben E. King rendition. Much criticism has been hurled at the album’s ubiquitous brass, but on the new recording, bouncy horns and newly vivid bass enliven even previously unspectacular songs like “Ya Ya”, although the cod-reggae “Do You Wanna Dance” will forever be a concept by which Lennon fans measure their pain. “You Can’t Catch Me”– the song that necessitated this album in the first place– is a solid footstomper.
The four bonus tracks are welcome, but will leave little to satisfy Lennon cultists. “Angel Baby”, a swooning ballad from the cringe-worthy posthumous release Menlove Ave., should have been on Rock ‘n’ Roll in the first place. (It had appeared on Levy’s unauthorized Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits release.) Unfortunately, “Be My Baby”– one of the most legendary cuts from Roots– is still absent; completists already own it on Anthology, but that’s no excuse. “To Know Her Is to Love Her” is another slow, pleasantly schmaltzy Menlove Ave. track, while “Since My Baby Left Me” is a bouncy version of a cut from that comp. “Just Because (Reprise)” is really nothing more than a bizarre alternate ending. “I’d like to say hi to Ringo, Paul, and George,” John says, possibly drunk. “How are you?” This earnest, slightly silly snippet captures the record’s tossed-off joie de vivre– even if it’s not as Rock ‘n’ Roll as, say, Acoustic.
CD I: 1) Working Class Hero; 2) God; 3) I Found Out; 4) Hold On; 5) Isolation; 6) Love; 7) Mother; 8) Remember; 9) Imagine (take 1); 10) “Fortunately”; 11) Baby Please Don’t Go; 12) Oh My Love; 13) Jealous Guy; 14) Maggie Mae; 15) How Do You Sleep; 16) God Save Oz; 17) Do The Oz; 18) I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier; 19) Give Peace A Chance; 20) Look At Me; 21) Long Lost John;
CD II: 1) New York City; 2) Attica State; 3) Imagine; 4) Bring On The Lucie; 5) Woman Is The Nigger Of The World; 6) Geraldo Rivera – One To One Concert; 7) Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (live); 8) It’s So Hard; 9) Come Together; 10) Happy Xmas; 11) Luck Of The Irish; 12) John Sinclair; 13) The David Frost Show; 14) Mind Games (I Promise); 15) Mind Games (Make Love Not War); 16) One Day At A Time; 17) I Know; 18) I’m The Greatest; 19) Goodnight Vienna; 20) Jerry Lewis Telethon; 21) “A Kiss Is Just A Kiss”; 22) Real Love; 23) You Are Here;
CD III: 1) What You Got; 2) Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out; 3) Whatever Gets You Through The Night (home); 4) Whatever Gets You Through The Night (studio); 5) Yesterday (parody); 6) Be Bop A Lula; 7) Rip It Up/Ready Teddy; 8) Scared; 9) Steel And Glass; 10) Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox); 11) Bless You; 12) Going Down On Love; 13) Move Over Ms L; 14) Ain’t She Sweet; 15) Slippin’ And Slidin’; 16) Peggy Sue; 17) Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’; 18) Phil And John 1; 19) Phil And John 2; 20) Phil And John 3; 21) “When In Doubt, Fuck It”; 22) Be My Baby; 23) Stranger’s Room; 24) Old Dirt Road;
CD IV: 1) I’m Losing You; 2) Sean’s “Little Help”; 3) Serve Yourself; 4) My Life; 5) Nobody Told Me; 6) Life Begins At 40; 7) I Don’t Wanna Face It; 8) Woman; 9) Dear Yoko; 10) Watching The Wheels; 11) I’m Stepping Out; 12) Borrowed Time; 13) The Rishi Kesh Song; 14) Sean’s “Loud”; 15) Beautiful Boy; 16) Mr Hyde’s Gone (Don’t Be Afraid); 17) Only You; 18) Grow Old With Me; 19) Dear John; 20) The Great Wok; 21) Mucho Mungo; 22) Satire 1; 23) Satire 2; 24) Satire 3; 25) Sean’s “In The Sky”; 26) It’s Real.
Obviously, this 4-CD mammoth could not have been released anytime before the water had already been well tested with The Beatles’ Anthology, the last volume of which was released just two years before this box. This is a serious argument in favour of it merely serving as a way of procuring more cash for Mrs Ono Lennon; another argument is that bootleg recordings of most of this stuff had been circulating around the world for years, ever since Yoko gave the permission to air the “lost Lennon tapes” on the radio, and there was still no revenue!…
Okay, I’m gonna drop the pedestrian Yoko-bashing for a bit and get serious. Reading the liner notes leaves little doubt about how personal these “unfinished tapes” have always been to Yoko, not to mention subtly put her in a fair light for everybody (like, for instance, the story about how she was begging John to take part in Harrison’s Bangla Desh concert and he was categorically refusing). And in any case, the box itself is fairly substantial, although technically, I would certainly vote to include the first part of Menlove Ave. on here and delete that bastard record from the catalog.
As it is, the “new” material on the Anthology can basically be counted on the fingers of your two hands – out of the ninety-four tracks, only an absolute minority present any “melodic ideas” you haven’t heard previously. The rest are either preliminary demos, sometimes differing from the final versions of the songs but always hinting at the final results at the least; rough mixes and alternate takes, in most cases inferior to the originals; occasional live tracks from the 1972 period, which was pretty much the only period when John occasionally performed live; and bits and snippets of dialog, studio banter, and suchlike. In short, not too different from the Beatles’ Anthologies, only less interesting because it’s just John.
On the other hand – also more interesting because it’s just John. The four CDs, arranged more or less chronologically, do give you a pretty intimate picture of the man; and given that John Lennon is, after all, one of the most unique persons in XXth century music, it’s worth taking this “deeper” look at him. Wonsaponatime, reviewed above, doesn’t really give a full perspective; it is way too condensed and, in fact, does look a bit like Menlove Ave. Vol. 2 from a certain point of view. By the way, I’m not taking off my older review of that album – it may be rendered useless with the acquisition of the complete set, but the two things really do serve different purposes, want it or not.
Like I said, the four discs are arranged chronologically, each one corresponding to one of the four main periods in John’s solo career. The first one is subtitled “Ascot” (the name of the Lennons’ mansion where they lived in the early Seventies – the white Victorian one you’ve probably all seen in the immortal ‘Imagine’ video) and covers the years 1970 and 1971; predictably, the bulk of the material are alternate versions of tracks from POB and Imagine.
In addition to the observations I put down in the previous review, it’s fun to learn that ‘Hold On’ actually began life as a bouncy music-hallish pop-rocker before taking on the “ethereal” character of POB (and I say the final version is definitely less clumsy); that ‘Mother’ was originally recorded with an acoustic guitar and some guy on the electric guitar adding occasional flourishes; that ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier’ can be found here without the echoey Spectorish production if that thing ever bothered you; and that ‘Remember’, with just a teensy chord change, can become a peppy music-hall send-up as well.
There’s also a fifty-second version of John strumming ‘Maggie Mae’ (which makes it longer than the Let It Be version, come to think of it), and the only Yoko-wail-enhanced track on the album (thank God!), a half-psychedelic, half-avantgarde jam called ‘Do The Oz’ (rather novel in comparison with the much more structured ‘God Save Oz’).
The second disc, ‘New York City’, plunges us straight into the turmoil of John’s political struggle in 1972. There’s a whole bunch of live performances here, including three tracks from the second Madison Garden Show (not that they sound much different from the previously released first one – except that at the end of one verse of ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’, John forgets the lyrics and honestly admits, in the same fiery bombastic tone, ‘this one I can never remember but you get the message anyway! oh woman is the nigger of the world… etc.’), two from an acoustic-only performance at the Apollo (‘Attica State’ and ‘Imagine’; the latter sounds pathetically feeble when played on an acoustic guitar instead of a piano, don’t you think?), and two more from an Ann Arbor performance in 1971 (‘Luck Of The Irish’ and ‘John Sinclair’ – aarrgh, they could have at least done ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ instead).
In between and afterwards, there’s plenty of outtakes from the Mind Games sessions, including a particularly decent version of ‘One Day At A Time’ without the obnoxious falsetto. And hey, as a special treat, you get two songs John wrote for Ringo – ‘I’m The Greatest’ and ‘Goodnight Vienna’ – with John himself on vocals! Priceless.
Disc three is ‘The Lost Weekend’ – despair, paranoia, and booze. This one, I think, is the least interesting of the four, particularly because we get to hear those Walls And Bridges tunes again – for the third time since the album proper and the alternate takes on Menlove Ave. Gee, it’s been a long time since I last heard ‘Bless You’ or ‘Steel And Glass’. On the positive side, there’s more of those Rock’n’Roll sessions with the horns taken out, so you get to hear ‘Slippin’ And Slidin’ with the boogie piano mixed upfront and suchlike (as well as John’s take on Spector’s ‘Be My Baby’ – which he seems to be performing in a drunken haze, as far as I can tell). And the real gems here are actually those bits of crazy drunken banter with Phil Spector at the end – especially the third one. ‘What are they gonna do, go play jazz with Jethro Tull?’ ‘Elton John is my good buddy. – Yeah, he’s got the same name as you, only you put it in front and he puts it in the back’. ‘Elton’s gonna die young, I’ll be a ninety-year old guru…’. And so on.
Oh! At the end of the third disc, you get an outtake called ‘Stranger’s Room’ – which, after just a little while, can be understood as the “rough beginning” to ‘I’m Losing You’. Almost looks like John’s composing that one on the spot. It’s little surprises like these which really make the experience valuable.
Finally, the fourth CD, entitled ‘Dakota’, is John’s homemade 1979 recordings and outtakes and demos from the 1980 sessions. ‘Serve Yourself’ I already discussed before, but there’s more: the three ‘Satires’ at the end are hilarious parodies on Dylan, apparently recorded by John at the same time as ‘Serve Yourself’ when he was bitterly pissed off at the old guy for embracing religion. Maybe John does have a bit of a hard time when trying to imitate Dylan’s accent, but the lyrics are priceless – ‘mama take this make-up off of me, it’s bad enough on the beach, but it’s worse in the sea’ (remember Bobby was in his “glammy” period at the time?).
And ‘Satire 2’, apparently, is just John reciting a bunch of political news chronicle as if it were one of Bob’s “talking blues”, with an occasional ‘wow man, sounds like a ballad to me’ or ‘oh, this will get me in the village bar’ thrown in. Priceless again! Who needs the actual songs? Oh – oh – there’s also a venomous parody on good old George Harrison, in the form of ‘The Rishi Kesh Song’ (‘all you need to do is to say the little word, I know it sounds absurd but it’s true… the magic’s in the Mantra!’). You sure don’t fool around with Mr J.
Well. Anyway. The final verdict is – same impact as the Anthologies, but maybe just a little bit sharper because it’s just a little bit more intimate as an experience. It’s probably safe to assume that no other lost gems will ever be discovered in the Lennon archives, or, at least, there won’t be a lot of ’em, so historical importance is all we’ve got here. Do not blow your cash on this unless you really want this intimacy with John, but the box definitely has got its uses anyway.
By 1973 John managed to somewhat cure himself of his political schizofrenia, concentrating more on his personal problems – the tensions between him and the American government had died down a bit, and he finally made the retro transition to normal activity without letting the current political situation overshadow the global message of his songs. Which is definitely a good thing for us the listeners who are not living in the Seventies and don’t give a damn about John Sinclair – and don’t even give a damn about Angela Davies, although hopefully listening to Sometime In New York City will at least induce somebody to browse through modern history and sociology textbooks.
Nevertheless, nothing ever passes without a trace, and there are still some washed-up remains of the old politically active stinker evident here. Thankfully, their number is limited to two tracks, and it’s a good thing, because they’re far worse than the ones on New York City. In particular, the main thing that unites the fake anthems ‘Bring On The Lucie (Freeda People)’ and ‘Only People’ is a totally phoney atmosphere.
It’s not that the melodies and lyrics are horrible: on the contrary, they’re pretty catchy and sometimes even infectious. Yet somehow, John manages to have forgotten to provide them with the kind of thumping energy and ‘universal sound’ that was so prominent on the previous album. The anthems on NYC sucked if you actually tried to take them and their messages close to heart on an objective level, but they worked – John had a talent of making you believe in all his idealist fantasies and prophetic ambitions just by the sheer power of melody and bombastic, overwhelming arrangement.
Here, the anthems sound as weak parodies. Weak parodies – nothing more! Have you heard ‘Only People’? A song based on an idiotic, repetitive chorus obviously standing there in the role of computer programs pronouncing the meaningless phrases ‘Only people know just how to talk to people… only people know just how to change the world… only people… only people…’ while John keeps shouting out his ‘hey hey’ and ‘come on now’. But who is he shouting at? It sounds as if he is shouting at this dumb chorus and all they can do in response is keep repeating the same pre-programmed lines.
Listen to it, if just out of curiosity! It’s a very weird song. I could write a whole article on it because it’s very metaphorical to me. I bet John just thought it would work out as a people’s rights anthem, but instead it works out like a parody on people’s rights anthems. Bizarre. Practically the same goes for ‘Bring On The Lucie’ which is at least more energized, although that’s not really saying much. Oh well, maybe he should have brought in a couple more saxophones.
Now the introspective stuff is really much much better. The title track is an absolute classic and it’s one of John’s best songs ever – an epic love hymn which really makes one think about one’s place in the universe. And ‘Intuition’ is one forgotten gem – maybe because it’s so quiet and short, with a nice lil’ bass riff that just seems to be sayin’ to ya: ‘well I’m here, but don’t you mind, I won’t be really boring you, just thought you would like me to hang around for a while’. So welcome it and let the song grow on you – and maybe you’ll feel about it just as I do. Indeed, these two songs are enough to buy the album – and you won’t find ‘Intuition’ on any hit collection in existence!
The rest of the album is either generic ballads or generic rockers, and I have mixed feelings about them. About half of them are nice and about half of them are certainly low-quality for John. Well, ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Aisumasen’ are pretty nice Yokosongs (and I don’t know who plays the guitar solo on ‘Aisumasen’, but it sure is the best moment of that one), but they’re nothing spectacular. ‘I Know (I Know)’ is slightly better, ’cause it’s also introspective, but ‘One Day (At A Time)’ (by the way, you don’t mind my using parentheses all the time? I have an excuse – every third song on this album uses parentheses, and if John is a friend of parentheses, why shouldn’t I be?) is a horrible song, mostly because of John adopting an ultra-sweet falsetto tune which doesn’t suit him at all.
Come to think of it, I now suppose that he really intended parts of this album to sound like a parody. A stupid parody at that. Just consider the lyrics: ‘You are my wisdom, I am your strength… you are my honey, I am your bee…’ Berk. [You are my ass, I am your hemorrhoids]. Elton John liked that song and did his own version (which is actually better), and it should have been his duty to convince John to leave it to him.
As for the rockers, one of them is quite OK (‘Tight As’, with blistering lead guitar parts), and the other one is named ‘Meat City’, features ununderstandable lyrics and sounds like a loathsoame heap of heavy metal bullshit loaded with uninspired sound effects; it’s one of my least favourite John songs ever. It does rock, but the muddy production gives me a headache, and a far more painful headache than the usual wall-of-sound production of Spector ever could (maybe John should have kept Spector for this album, after all). And to think of the fact that it is used as the album closer!
So you already see, there’s really a lot of dung here (“dung” according to John’s own standards – in the hands of a minor band, this could have been a real chef-d’oeuvre). If you’re not afraid of digging in, though, you’ll be rewarded – the title track, ‘Intuition’, ‘I Know (I Know)’, ‘Aisumasen’, ‘Tight As’ and ‘Out The Blue’ (a nice ballad I’ve forgotten to mention) are really worth the price.
But overall, Lennon’s sound is obviously deteriorating a little – this is the obvious point at which the title of “coolest ex-Beatle”, that was first awarded to Harrison and later clung on to John, finally was relegated to Paul. And there that title stayed right until December 1980, when it was finally understood that the coolest Beatle is the deadest. Par excellence.
The second equally important Lennon album is usually considered inferior to Plastic Ono Band, and I’ll have to guess why. So, my first guess is as follows: while the latter is still spoken of as an ‘underproduced’ wonder (‘how can such a great effect be achieved with such minimum arrangements?’), the former is unquestionably much more complex in the musical sense. So what? Damn the arrangements, the songs on here are totally and unashamedly great! Well, with one annoying exception: the closing ‘Oh Yoko’ is the first in a series of darned Yokosongs.
I just can’t stand all these lyrics, like ‘in the middle of the night I call your name… in the middle of a cloud I call your name… in the middle of a shave I call your name…’ Me, I wouldn’t call Yoko’s name even if I were in the middle of a scaffold, but that’s just me. I’ve always said it that if George Harrison sings about God as if He were a female, then John sings about his… err… ‘female’ as if she were God. Throw this song in a dumpster! Or, better still, think of another set of lyrics for it, cuz the melody sure sounds great. It’s upbeat, punchy, minimalistic, whatever, and almost invites you to sing along, but I can’t – I blush up to my ears if I ever try to sing along with ‘Oh Yoko, my love will turn you on’.
Apart from that, you get your average classic in the title track. I’ve been thinking of some cunning ways to find a fault in this song so that I wouldn’t have to mention it as the best song on the album and would look very smart, but all I could think about was saying that it’s saccharine and openly commercial. And if I’d say so, I’d end up looking like a complete dork instead of looking smart. So I can’t help it. Sorry, folks. This is the best song on the album, no matter what else you’re gonna say about it. Anyway, if ‘Love’ was a great song, why not ‘Imagine’? This is where Lennon finally manages to come up with his own ‘Yesterday’: funny it took him six years to outsmart McCartney for the most “overall-respectable” song of his career.
One thing’s for sure, though: there’s much more to this album than just ‘Imagine’. There’s a couple more gentle sincere sad ballads in ‘Jealous Guy’ (if it’s John excusing himself before Yoko, then it’s the first in a series of ‘apologetics’ songs culminating in ‘Aisumasen’; however, this one’s a much better song, if only because of the wonderful whistling) and the sentimental ‘Oh My Love’ whose piano melody isn’t any less genial than the one used on ‘Imagine’. It just so happened that it’s a love song and not a universalist anthem. So what? Does it matter for a true music fan? Nope.
The sentimental side also strikes through on ‘How’, an unusually gentle philosophical song along the lines of ‘Look At Me’, that is, once again John is trying to ‘take a decision’ on which way to turn and is left wondering without an answer. Yet there is no pain – ‘Look At Me’ was clearly a song reflecting a tormented and depressed mind, while ‘How’ reflects a far more gentle and loving conscience that’s almost ready to make peace with any situation, however grim or uncertain it might turn out to be. An interesting change of mood for John at the time.
A couple of retro numbers (the great guitar/piano shuffle of ‘Crippled Inside’, the hard rockin’ guitar/mighty brass swing of ‘It’s So Hard’) cook nicely, too. Some of ’em people like to despise ‘It’s So Hard’, for reasons unknown. C’mon people! What can be cuter than the lyrics ‘You gotta live, you gotta love, you gotta do something, you gotta shove. But it’s so hard, it’s really hard, sometimes I feel like going down.’ I like that stuff! Moreover, I even like the overlong, Phil Spector-trumped ‘I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier’. This is the only track which features a ‘wall-of-sound’ on the whole album (I’m beginning to think that it was really easy not to have Phil messing around with your music.
You only had to come up to him and say: ‘Phil! Just don’t you mess around with my music’. And he wouldn’t), but it’s OK: John clearly wanted to have a really menacing song to himself, and it works: the echoey boomy drums, the threatening guitars that go in and out again, the waves of brass in the solo breaks, and John’s scary lyrics also rushing like waves, all of this produces a really unique effect. I don’t mind the repetitive lyrics, I don’t mind the simplistic melody: I mind the atmosphere, the paranoid drums, the intense, strained punch of John’s voice, the climactic brass breaks, it all thrills me to the extreme, and I fully identify with the song, much as everybody else hates it.
Angry foaming-at-the-mouth classics also include: ‘Give Me Some Truth’ with some of John’s most politicized lyrics up-to-date and a frantic George Harrison lead break; and ‘How Do You Sleep’ with some of John’s most anti-McCartneycized lyrics up-to-date… and a frantic George Harrison lead break. The lyrics hit Paul straight in the eye, so that he even had to hasten up with releasing his witty answer ‘Dear Friend’ on Wild Life. I don’t know how exactly Paul slept before hearing that song, but it sure could disturb his sleep after its release! Good ol’ John! That kind of treatment towards an old friend! Aaaarggh. The melody, though, is extremely hooky. Just listen to that riff that he plays during the refrain, you’ll get my drift.
Overall, Imagine showed that Lennon was on a terribly high roll at the time, one by one spewing forth terrific melodies of prime Beatle quality (yes, you heard – that’s prime Beatle quality on here, even if few of the songs would have been deemed suitable for a true Beatles album), and only something extremely exclusive and unnatural could get him off his feet. That “unnatural” factor, unfortunately, happened to be John’s full-fledged involvement in politics and reinterpreting music as a social tool rather than an artistic element on his next album.
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.
After the breakup of The Beatles John released several singles (“Give Peace A Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma!”) and “experimental” (i.e. unlistenable) albums with wife Yoko Ono (Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions, and Wedding Album) before delivering John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his bold first proper post-Beatles solo album. Using spare rock n’ roll as the backbone for baring his soul and greatly influenced by the primal scream therapy of Dr. Arthur Janov, Lennon angrily denounces his past (“God”), looks back at his painful relationship with his parents (“Mother,” “My Mummy’s Dead”), blasts hippy hanger ons always looking for a handout (“I Found Out”), and professes his love for Yoko (several songs) as he searches for peace of mind and a spiritual sense of self.
Though the album is at times more impressive than enjoyable and it sometimes shows its age during its more corny hippy-ish sounding declarations (“love is wanting to be loved”), Lennon’s brilliantly pure vocal performance makes up for its shortcomings. The exceedingly spare musical instrumentation, based primarily around Lennon’s guitar or piano work (with occasional help from Billy Preston and co-producer Phil Spector), Klaus Voorman’s bass, and the backbeat of Ringo Starr, further distances himself from the lush sonics of Abbey Road and his former identity; he even claims at one point “I was the walrus but now I’m John.”
In direct contrast to his usual grandiose productions, Spector is smart and ego-less enough to let these songs’ primitive strengths shine through, with the occasional electronic effect adding to the intensity at certain key moments. Some of the songs are overly simplistic and perhaps could’ve been further fleshed out, but at its devastating best (“Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” “God”) these introspective narratives are intensely moving. Certainly “Mother” is one of John’s most affecting songs ever, especially its anguished, oft-repeated last line (“mother don’t go, daddy come home”), as Lennon’s mother was killed by a car just as they were getting closer (his aunt Mimi basically raised him), and his father deserted him and only reentered his life (hand extended) after John had become rich and famous.
Another key track is “Working Class Hero,” which features Lennon “unplugged” and some bitingly cynical social commentary, while “God” is also indispensable as John denounces Jesus, Elvis, Dylan, and The Beatles (among many other things) before memorably declaring “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.” If The Beatles’ breakup and Altamont hadn’t signified the end of the ‘60s, John singing “the dream is over” certainly did, as Lennon looks to the future and urges his listeners to do the same. Elsewhere, harsh, grungy songs such as “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” are why this album is often described as “difficult,” but there are lighter, more melodic breaks from the overall bleakness as well, such as “Hold On” (love its trippy guitar tone and comforting lyrics), “Isolation” (a sparse but deeply affecting piano ballad/rocker that’s both an absolute gem and an underrated album highlight), and “Love” (corny maybe as alluded to previously but still lovely).
Still, the album’s enduring reputation (despite being a commercial failure, causing a change in strategy for the ever-competitive John’s next album) is primarily due to its incredible overall intensity and unflinching honesty. Though many of these songs are ballad-like and he rarely exceeds mid-tempo material (even on a song as propulsive as “Remember”), John would never give such a visceral performance again.
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.