Monday, 12 March 2018

John Lennon Essay: 'Power To The Beatle!' - Why Lennon's Authenticity Makes Him So Special/Updates

All musicians’ careers tend to go in cycles. Heroes one minutes, zeroes the next, now that Alan’s Album Archives has been running a wee while itself now (a decade or so as I write these words) it’s interesting to note how much these patterns of popular thought have changed since we first put pen to paper (well ‘laptop to website’ technically, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it somehow). One of the biggest changes perhaps has been in the reputation of one Dr Winston O’Boogie, known to his enemies as Beatle John, known to his friends as Johnny, known to strangers he wished to avoid as The Honourable John St Johnson and known to his drinking buddies as the Rev Fred Gherkin. Naturally when John died so young and so suddenly he was revered as a patron saint of music and peace, an activist that nobody appreciated until he was gone. With his legacy left unfinished people flushed to appreciate what was there and hailed it as the Beatles solo catalogue that mattered, even though there was far less of it than that made by Paul, George or even Ringo. There was a bit of a spike of interest around when Lennon’s seventieth birthday would have been in 2010, but otherwise there’s been a feeling that Lennon’s legacy has been slightly overspent, with Lennon best-ofs and anthology box sets following Beatles sets doing the same into the shops. The last ten years have seen the rise of reputations of Paul (with his expensive but classy deluxe re-issues offering new comers a chance to hear his music afresh), George (his albums out on CD en masse at last) and Ringo (the most prolific Beatle decade for any of them since Paul in the 1970s, who saw that coming?!), but John’s career has been slightly parked. Even Oasis, Lennon’s disciples bar none, don’t have the clout they once had anymore.  Biographies have tried to look at the ‘saint’ lurking behind the ‘sinner’ (and to be honest didn’t have to scratch all that far below the surface) and as Lennon biopics become more and more common there’s a general acceptance that Lennon wasn’t quite the ‘working class hero’ the way he presented himself to be.
That is, however, to true fans, stuff and nonsense. Lennon would have been the first to be horrified at just how canonised he has become in death. In life part of what made him so fabulous, so brave, so pioneering, was the fact that he had so many contradictions and was so open about his failures, even while he dreamed of being rid of them. Technically he wasn’t working class and his Aunt Mimi was rich indeed as Liverpool families went, but then John never really claimed to be; it was a Southern-Northern divide prejudice that lumped The Beatles together as working class poor because Lennon had ‘that’ accent. What made Lennon unique was that when the papers said it he didn’t write to them in protest or anger, started talking with a received pronunciation accent or started hanging round with ‘posh’ celebrities, but instead delighted in his new role. The Beatles, he once said, were the first working class band who didn’t sell out their working class roots and became posh the minute they ‘made it’ and he has a good claim, even if he himself was rich for all of his life (bar a brief period in Hamburg when all The Beatles were penniless and Aunt Mini figured keeping money from John was the best way of teaching him some ‘sense’ in the hope he’d get a ‘proper’ job). Lennon delighted in being ‘working class’ from his earliest schooldays, most of his friends astonished to go round his house and learn that it was bigger than most of theirs: he loved the idea of getting by on cheek and charm, living by his waits, succeeding because of what he knew rather than who he knew. Aunt Mimi despaired of Lennon bringing his ‘poor’ friends round to ‘play’, including Paul and George, but John hated it more: he yearned to be like them, to escape the molly-coddling of his background and be ‘authentic’ driven rather than ‘money’ driven. John was the last person who would ever ‘sell out’ his supposed ‘roots’ even if they weren’t actually his; he’d worked too hard for most of his life to be a tough Liverpool worker and felt far more comfortable with similar people than posh arty types (that will, err, change after meeting Yoko!) Lennon was still one of our biggest working class heroes, even if technically he wasn’t working class, because he helped show people that there was a pride to be taken in who they were and – combined with the very Beatles-driven change of social climate in the 1960s – being true to who you were was more than enough to change the world.
People sometimes take umbridge at the word ‘hero’ too. Look, they say, at the way John is said to have beaten up first wife Cynthia on occasion when drunk and frustrated, the way he abandoned first son Julian when Yoko came along, the ‘lost weekend’ when he ran around America drunk insulting bar maids with a tampon on his head or when he was making sniping remarks about somebody (anybody) all day long. Surely, people say, this drug-addled musician who went a ‘bit weird’ after meeting Yoko (and who was always a bit weird before in retrospect) can’t possibly be heroic? Well, my definition of being heroic isn’t just doing heroic things but standing up and being brave even when you don’t want to or have to – and facing up to the things you get wrong when you try. On that score Lennon is one of the biggest heroes that ever lived, not because he never got things wrong or was entirely flawless, but because he faced up to the things he got wrong, tried to change them and embraced his flaws without being proud of them. It’s easy for rich kids with perfect families who end up working in daddy’s company to get the perfect family and job. It’s a lot harder when you’re a born cynic with a broken home, surrounded by multiple deaths in the family, that leave you feeling hurt and betrayed and who everyone has dismissed as ‘thick’ from childhood, when really all you are is curious (and not very keen on rules). Everyone dismissed John from birth: his aunt was secretly proud but his it well, his teachers thought he was awful, even his fellow musicians didn’t always see John’s talent in the way that they did for George (a hot guitarist) or Paul (a hot multi-instrumentalist). Yet John got there, by sheer nerve, creative talent, charisma, a refusal to back down from anything people threw at him. When the tough got going, Lennon got tougher, at least at first, ploughing his own furrow despite the people lining up to tell him ‘no’.
And yet, the even more remarkable thing is that Lennon got softer too. Not soft as in ‘weak’, but a whole different idea of soft to the one he grew up with. Back in the 1940s and 1950s if you grew up in Liverpool you had to be tough: you’d been born in a war when Germany had dropped bombs at you and where men had to be macho. At first Lennon lived the part superbly, out-macho-ing anybody around him, even in Liverpool and playing the role of a Northern Working Class Man, including the bits that, with retrospective eyes, he got ‘wrong’. There comes a change, though, one of the biggest in rock. By the mid 1960s Lennon had gone from a Liverpool drunk always waging war and skirmishes to one of the biggest peace advocates the psychedelic movement ever had. Lennon risked his career early on, denouncing the Vietnam war from almost the minute he stepped onto American soil in 1964 and The Beatles in general proving that they were better read about it than most Americans. Even before Yoko came along Lennon became one of the peace movement’s most erudite and learned intellectuals, arguing for a change to the inevitable ‘war every generation’ trend of the 20th century this far. What Yoko did was to encourage Lennon to use his platform to promote peace as a main even not just a subsidiary to what he was saying, with the couple even turning what should have been private (their honeymoon) into a publicity campaign for peace (because ‘if people wanted peace as badly they want a TV set then the world would have peace’, an idea that still sadly rings true today). He even wrote the peace movement’s most famous song [1] ‘Give Peace A Chance’, his first ‘statement’ as a solo act, promoting philosophy more than music, before hoping for a better future in [20] ‘Imagine’. In less than ten years Lennon went from being the Beatle you would least want to meet down a Liverpool alley in his working class leathers to the celebrity most people thought of when the word ‘peace’ was mentioned. Lennon never lost his inner temper, his inner rage or his uncontrollable frustration when things went wrong, but he tried to, every day, for most of his life to the point where his nicer tendencies are most of what people remember about him now. That’s one hell of an achievement.
And it’s not the only one as, closer to home, Lennon’s views of feminism changed considerably. From a culture where he was encouraged, nay expected, to beat up his significant other during his life Lennon began thinking and questioning what was expected of him and people like him. Lennon, remember, was surrounded by tough female figures throughout his life and had a sneaking respect for them – he didn’t really know his dad and his ‘father figure’ Uncle George was a sweet soul (compared to his harridan aunty anybody would have been!) Even so, the change in Lennon’s (indeed The Beatles and all their peers’) attitudes to girls wasn’t certain. The 1960s rock and rollers came together out of a love for 1950s music – and as a very wide generalisation there was no more misogynistic genre than 1950s rock and roll. Did Elvis ever care about his girl once he’d seduced her or wiggled his hips at her? Did Chuck Berry ever think about what would happen after he got his girl across state lines and his lust was spent? Did even the seemingly sweet Buddy Holly think about Peggy Sue as much as he thought about himself and his own pleasure? Jerry Lee Lewis treating his beloved with kindness? Great balls of fire!  The Beatles, though, were different and kick-started a tradition of being kinder to girls than characters in the 1950s had been – even if it’s a tradition that starts slowly – and as usual its Lennon leading the way. In The Beatles ‘Girl’ (Rubber Soul, 1965) starts seeing women as being not just the equal but in many ways the superior of men. ‘Getting Better’ (‘Sgt Peppers’, 1967), though started by McCartney, is in many ways a Lennon breakthrough song: ‘I used to be cruel to my woman and beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves, man I was mean but I’m changing my scene...’, a middle eight that’s meant to be John’s contribution to the song. ‘Julia’ (White Album, 1968) finally stops trying to win a girl over and accepts her for who she is (and she, clearly, is Yoko the ‘ocean child’ of the song). By 1969 and ‘Let It Be/Abbey Road’ Lennon is howling out his dependency on a girl, revealing a vulnerable side a million light years away from where he started (‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I Want You’ particularly). Yoko’s feminist friends lead him to pen a song that still sees jaws drop today ([36] ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’) – it would have made Lennon’s old Liverpool drinking buddies faint! By the end of his life Lennon has embraced his teenage polar opposite, becoming to all intents and purposes a ‘house husband’, bringing up second son Sean ‘properly’ as a very hands-on daddy while Yoko went to work. Lennon may not have been a hero at the beginning – and he probably burnt the bread occasionally and shouted at Sean occasionally and did all the rubbish things parents do every day without meaning to, never mind a ‘lost weekend’ where he acted like a complete jerk in pubs and clubs in a repeat of his wild early days – but he tried and in the end he came through it all. That too is one hell of an achievement.
It’s worth remembering also how brave Lennon had to be to do all of these things. He wasn’t just some two-bit musician nobody paid attention to: he had the world’s eyes focussed on the back of his head at all times. Every small mistake he made was front page news. But Lennon was content to make big mistakes, talking his philosophies out loud to a public so far removed from them they couldn’t understand them. The Lennon’s first concert appearance wasn’t in an arena singing old Beatles hits for millions but a Cambridge art party with John playing feedback behind Yoko’s squawks. Whatever you think of it as ‘music’, its certainly not playing things ‘safe’. Lennon’s first mainstream concert? It’s at a peace festival in Canada organised at such a last minute rush that the ad hoc Plastic Ono Band hadn’t even met each other until the plane ride over. On television Lennon never took the easy way out to sell records: he talked about peace, about political prisoners, about working class men who wanted to do nothing more than smoke a joint or riot about prison food or the Irish kicking out the English for invading their Sceptered isle, sticking up for the working classes of the world whether the world wanted him to or not. He talked up radicals who would never have appeared in the national consciousness any other way, spoke up for feminists who were a punchline for bad jokes when discussed by other musicians and promoted new ideas against racism (I still say the ‘bagism’ idea of everybody being in bags is the best solution to job interviews, boycotting prejudice of gender, colour and class and focussing on ability, all that ever mattered to Lennon). People often laughed at John and Yoko doing ‘nutty’ things that seemed a bit daft, but it was a brave crusade all the same that neither John nor Yoko had to do: it wasn’t for a career (indeed it hurt their career) but was done in the name of ‘peace’, whether people ‘got’ it or not. Personally I love the many weird developments in the John and Yoko story – the acorns sent to every world leader to plant in their gardens, the balloons with hopeful messages inside released to everyone in, er, Suffolk and the self indulgent avant garde videos and records that tried to make their pop-loving public think in a different way. Even if some of it, maybe a lot of it, failed, The Lennons tried to stamp their own personal brand on the gigantic coat-hook of peace and did more to make being nice to each other and kind to people who ‘weren’t like you’ popular than any other couple.
John also wore his heart on his sleeve, speaking for ‘us’ every time he opened his mouth, refusing to play the showbiz game of singing about ‘us’ before becoming one of ‘them’, amongst the first truly uncontrollable celebrities with enough of a following to make the institutions really scared. Of course they were going to come after him (he should have been warier over the fake drugs bust in 1969 or the Nixon FBI infiltration of his political rallies of 1972 and though Lennon never spoke about it he clearly got scared off by someone circa 1973 when his songs got softer and he stopped talking about politics in his interviews) – Lennon was a threat, in a way no ‘musician’ had ever really been a threat before. Because Lennon was in a unique situation: he was one of the most famous people on the planet, with a guaranteed platform, who was always brave enough to speak from the heart, no matter how stupid or petty or wrong it very occasionally made him sound, with an erudite voice that people would always listen to, even if they didn’t always follow.
That’s what made it all the more devastating when he was taken from us. Not by someone who got cross at him. Not by a Government who felt threatened by him (or did they?...There is evidence that the FBI were involved somewhere along the line). Not by a war-mongerer or a chauvinist sticking up for their rights, but by a fan. One of the reasons Lennon was so canonised wasn’t just how he lived but how he was taken away, so needlessly, so horribly. Lennon hadn’t coveted celebrity in the same way as most celebrities: he hadn’t used it to promote empty pop records (though, you know, some of his comeback singles weren’t that great), he hadn’t used it to promote a self-less cash-in ghostwritten book he probably hadn’t even flicked through before printing, there were no Lennon brand anything until after he died and he most certainly didn’t have a fitness video out. He used his celebrity to promote peace and tolerance and whatever radical crusade was flavour of the month that month. Even at his worst, even at his most big-headed and mean-mouthed, Lennon had never ever used his celebrity against ‘us’ – instead he used it to ‘help’ us, to make the world a fairer safer place. It also hurts that a man who had already known such violence in his life, yet had overcome it to promote peace, died in such a violent way. I think a lot of the monumental out-pouring of grief over Lennon’s death in the 1980s was a combination of shock, grief, loss that we wouldn’t have Lennon around to speak for ‘us’ anymore and a little bit of guilt at laughing at someone we should have taken more seriously.
The end result is a fascinating contradictory character who wasn’t a Working Class Hero and yet most certainly was; who would make mistakes repeatedly but then talk about them and try to overcome them; a war baby who was frustrated and violent who turned into a giant peace advocate; a Northern male working class misogynist who did more to help the feminist movement than any man before him; the timid and shy introspective songwriter who still yelled his unpopular ideas to the world because he cared about them so. Lennon never shied away from being a collection of glorious contradictions – the violent drunk who could drink anyone under the table before singing songs about peace from the heart, the lost little boy pretending to act like a tough guy, the down-to-earth cynical realist who embraced avant garde art or the man who’d never really known love who enjoyed one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century. What made Lennon more special than anything, though, was that he managed to stay authentic and true to himself, despite the fame, despite the attention, despite the groupies, despite the money, despite the endless posh people trying to make him ‘one of them’, despite the rockstar culture of keeping your missus at home in the kitchen instead of up on stage in a plastic bag howling while you backed her on guitar in some giant art installation madness. Every word Lennon sang (except, perhaps ‘Cookin’ In The Kitchen Of Love’) was always from the heart, whether it made him look like a saint, a sinner, a loser or a winner. Lennon expected the truth from all people and always tried to give it himself, no matter the cost to his career, his marriage or to his fanbase.
Lennon may not have been a ‘working class hero’ on paper. He was often too cross, too rude, too violent, too drunk and his own wife accused him of ‘getting phoney’ on their last LP. But that was why we loved him: it wasn’t as if Lennon kept that side of himself hidden. He lived out his ‘lost weekend’ in public (a time that was only boozy at night anyway – Lennon did a lot of good away from the cameras during the day). He had petty fights with other musicians including other Beatles. He wasn’t always kind and courteous and many people had run-ins with Lennon when he was in a devilish mood and came a cropper (including many of his musician peers). But Lennon never claimed to be any ‘better’ than any of us – he was indeed adamant that he was always one of us, stripping away the idea of cult or celebrity as early as [14] ‘God’ on his first solo album and teaching us, often and always, that he was ‘nothing special’ and that we could do what he did too. And yet he was special, for what other person that big and famous refused to believe their own publicity? And then used that publicity anyway to promote peace, love and any radical idea of the month. His most famous solo song [20] ‘Imagine’ really isn’t his best, but its popular because it sums Lennon up so well: he’s a dreamer who wants to be a better person and wants us all to be better people too. He thinks he’s found a way to make his idealist vision come true – but he falls short, never mind the people around him. Still, though, Lennon keeps dreaming. Despite his horrific background of loss, divorce and death (not just mother Julia but Uncle George and best pal Stuart Sutcliffe, a lot for any one human to contend with and all before he hit his twenties), despite the teachers who told him ‘no’, despite the background that could have made him like every other war-toting chauvinist, despite problems with drink and drugs that were there long before fame came a-calling, despite a marriage that most fans viewed with suspicion and a bunch of releases best described as ‘really really weird’, Lennon stayed true to himself and tried to better himself, while owning up to all the mistakes he made along the way. That surely makes him a working class hero in my eyes – and a braver and nobler figure than many people realise. Power to the Beatle indeed, who overcame more than anyone really gives him credit for, while staying as authentic as anyone with that much fame possibly could.

Yoko Ono "Take Me To The Land Of Hell"
(Chimera Music, September 17th 2013)
Moonbeams/Cheshire Cat Cry/Tabetai/Bad Dancer/Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone/There's No Goodbye Between Us/7th Floor/NY Noodle Town/Take Me To The Land Of Hell/Watching The Dawn/Leaving Tim/Shine Shine/Hawk's Call
CD Bonus Tracks: Story Of An Oak Tree/Ai
"If one day we slip away  - and that may be in the cards - we will know deep in our hearts that there's no goodbye between us"
Yoko's most recent record at the time of writing, 'Hell' is nicely upbeat and positive despite the title. The record opens with new age style sound effects that 's only missing the whale to become the sort of thing that plays when you're getting a massage and much of the record feels like unwinding in a hot bath, far calmer and gentler than Yoko usually is. Overall it's another strong album that shows off Yoko's range and features a 'revival' of the Plastic Ono Band name again (with Sean on guitar). 'Cheshire Cat Cry' is Yoko's best non-ballad in decades, a witty surreal song with Yoko returning to her theme of her reserve holding her strong emotions in check with some cracking guitar, bass and drum work. Other highlights include the playful 'Tabetai' (translation: 'excuse') and the title track which is another strong Yoko piano ballad. Lennon is still Yoko's favourite subject though and her latest batch of songs for her husband are truly moving: the indescribable contemporary dance track 'Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone' about trying to tell Sean his dad had died (a song which starts with a long sigh that speaks volumes), the sweet 'There's No Goodbye Between Us' about John and Yoko’s last walk through Central Park together which sounds very much at one with the gritted-teeth-strength of Yoko's 'Season Of Glass' album and the powerful 'Watch The Dawn' in which Yoko asks John to wait for her up there because she's still got a bit more to do back on Earth first. Admittedly there isn't much happening on the rest of the LP, but considering how quickly Yoko released this album after her last and how often she's gone down these roads before this is still an impressively inventive and moving listen. Yoko seems to be getting better with age, returning to the promising career that got cut short by the 'lost weekend' era and the poor reception to her lesser 1980s work. Lennon would have been very proud and it will be fascinating to see where Yoko might go from here.
The album opens in the most slow-moving way possible, with six minutes of the new agey ‘Moonbeams’. There is some gorgeous guitarwork on this atmospheric song and this is one of the few times I want Yoko to be quiet so I can hear trhe backing.
‘Cheshire Cat Cry’ is fabulous, a slinky funky song where the Cheshire Cat is (I think) our subsconscious, taking us out into imagination and escape every time life gets too nasty. You don’t quite know whether to pet this pussy or give it a wide berth as The Plastic Ono Band hit a groove that’s cute yet scary all at the same time.
‘Tabetai’ is about greed, with a long list of food-stuffs standing in for other kinds of mankind demanding things it really doesn’t need. This is an intriguing, rule-breaking song as Yoko remembers where she and John made love against a sparse funky backdrop.
‘Bad Dancer’ is unfortunately a truly awful club song. Yoko is a bad writer of dance tracks too it seems, though her self-deprecating lyrics about being hopeless and how her partner will have to ‘watch their step’  is a great accompaniment to the usual club 18-30 beat!
‘Little Boy Your Daddy’s Gone’ is awful, but in a good way. Yoko remembers having to tell five-year-old Sean his daddy’s not coming home so she tries to turn it into a nursery rhyme that’s dumb yet uplifting all at the same time. The sigh which continues throughout the song speaks volumes before Yoko tumbles into a whole long jumble of words, desperate to convey the meaning to go with the sigh that strikes all children everywhere with fright that something really bad has happened.
Yoko’s latest John ballad is ‘There’s No Goodbye Between Us’. Building on ‘Never Said Goodbye’ Yoko has been worrying all this time that she never got to have a final word with her husband – and yet she now realises that the rest of her life has been one long goodbye. She’s poorly, fearing she’ll never be well enough to walk their beloved Central park again, but strangely at peace as she looks forward to being with John  again. The backing and melody aren’t as strong as other Yoko songs on the same theme, but these poetic lyrics are beautiful.
‘7th Floor’ picks up where ‘Memory Of Footsteps’ left off, but this time its Yoko staring down from the Dakota to the pavement below. She sees a body chalked on the pavement as a crime scene and wonders if it’s her own and she’s somehow died but stayed in her favourite place. This narrated song isn’t as good as it would have been if she’d sung it and the backing is very weird even for Yoko.
‘Ny Noodle Town’ is a love song to Yoko’s adopted home city and a long list of all the things she loves and hates side by side: ‘confusion and depression bred by manipulation’ and yet the citizens ‘drink and dance’. Yoko sounds much happier than she did on ‘Midsummer New York’ and it sounds to me as if she’s healing the wounds of what was said after Lennon’s death, that it was the danger in the city that killed John rather than an individual who actually came from Hawaii.
‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’ has Yoko again remembering the day John died, most specifically the moment she gazed into John’s eyes and ‘knew’ that he’d gone. She recalls the ‘fivers of blood’ on the pavement, her choked cries, her tears – and most of all her realisation that they would never ever be together again. This ballad is hard to take, though Yoko’s vocal (reserved but not as detached as on earlier songs) is haunting.
‘Watching The Dawn’ is a return to the classical ballads that ended ‘Between My Head And The Sky’. Another of Yoko’s better songs, this is a philosophical tale that wonders what happens to us as adults. Everyone is born out of some form of love and ‘dream’, even if its lust and yet by the time we’re ready to have children of our own most of us are having offspring ‘born into neglect’. Yoko mourns everyone who ever had a messed up childhood like her own and the result is another powerful haunting ballad.
‘Leaving Tim’ is awful, though, a return to the cod music hall of [98] ‘Yes I’m Angel’. Yoko recalls not her third husband as normal (Lennon) but her first and how badly it ended, ‘always in despair, no way to repair’. Yoko realises that her husband expected her  to ‘put him on a pedestal’ and that’s not the way she works at all! This song too is about the defining moment when Yoko ‘knew’ definitively that their love was over, but the jaunty backing isn’t right for this sad song.
‘Shine, Shine’ is four minutes of noisy modern music with Yoko squawking over the top which is every bit as hard going as it sounds. I would rather listen to Yoko being a fly for an hour or twenty minutes of [4] ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ than this – at least that song came with 1960s sounds beneath the screams!
The album ends with ‘Hawk’s Call’, fifteen seconds of silence that recalls [54] ‘The Nutopian National Anthem’ and seems a bit pointless without explanation at the end of a CD when most people assume their player has just picked up a fault and hasn’t stopped yet.
A horrid beginning and ending, then, but much of what’s in the middle is actually rather good and there’s a run of four songs towards the end that’s the best Yoko’s come up with since at least 1974. Brave enough to talk about growing older whilst still being young enough to take chances, this is an often brilliant set that’s far better than any set released after someone’s eightieth birthday has any right to be. I await the next Yoko album with baited breath – and a hand out for the CD player skip button admittedly – but there’s a lot of worth here and the tributes for Lennon are heartbreakingly good and worth owning the CD for alone.

(Apple/Capitol, September 14th 2014)
Imagine/(Just Like) Starting Over/Instant Karma/Stand By Me/Watching The Wheels/Mind Games/Jealous Guy/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Love/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance
"I want you to make love not war, I know you’ve heard it before…”
How odd that the first Lennon compilation on a budget – the Working Class Hero for the Working Classes you could say – is the softest, most gutless Lennon set on the market, Heaven forefend there should be any controversial moments here like ‘Working Class Hero’ ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ or even ‘Power To The People’. Instead we get Lennon’s ten least controversial hits plus the sweet ballad ‘Love’, which is just daft. Anyone intrigued enough by talk of Lennon as the ‘brave Beatle’ who feels compelled to try this album for a fiver or so is unlikely to be converted, while the ‘Icon’ of the title doesn’t really fit either: ‘Lennon: Autopilot’ would be a better name I fear. Even so, the price offers a valuable beginner’s guide and the ‘Icon’ series as a whole is a good one, offering fans on low budgets a taste of an artist’s wares before having to commit to a whole pricey CD. The Lennon set though is one of the weaker entries in the series and even the cover picture of Dr Winston O’Boogie looks really cheap and tacky. Even on a budget fans deserve better. 

Yoko Ono “Yes I’m A Witch Too!”
 (Manimal Vinyl Records, February 16th 2016)
Walking On Thin Ice/Forgive Me My Love/Mrs Lennon/Give Me Something/She Gets Down On Her Knees/Dogtown/Wouldn’t/Move On Fast/Soul Got Out Of The Box/Approximately Infinite Universe/Yes I’m Your Angel/Warrior Woman/Coffin Car/I Have A Woman Inside My Soul/Catman/No Bed For Beatle John/Hell In Paradise
"Wind of now blows off her cool, telling her there’s something she missed”
Yoko’s first remix album had done rather well nine years earlier – people who would never normally go anywhere near a Yoko LP but were intrigued by the list of names they worked with discovered a catalogue that was generally much more musical, innovative and inventive than they ever realised. This second version may be even more interesting, moving on from Yoko’s semi-famous songs to her rarer and much more interesting songs and attracting several bigger names. Highlights here include a marvellous grungy take on ‘Move On Fast’ by Jack Douglas, Sparks adding their retro-rock-with-1980s vibe to Double Fantasy’s ‘Give Me Something’ and a modern hand-clapping punk version of ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ by ‘Blow-Up’. Son Sean appears and interestingly passes on all the obvious choices for a playful version of his mum’s ‘Dogtown’, intercut with eerie echoey Yokos intoning ‘No Bed For Beatle John!’ Not everything here is good – remixes can only enhance what’s there not create it and the songs from lesser albums like ‘Feeling A Space’ still sound horrid, while ‘Hell In Paradise’ is a good description of what is going in the last number as unbelievably Moby (the biggest name here?) takes Yoko’s 1980s sonic mess and makes it even more unlistenable by taking even the tiny bit of a tune away! The biggest missed opportunity, though, is the talented John Palumbo completely missing the point of one of Yoko’s most talent-filled songs ‘I Have A Woman Inside My Soul’ and turning an exquisite ballad about vulnerability into a noisy drum ‘n’ bass dance number! Oh well, the cleverly titled ‘I’m A Witch Too’ casts more magical spells than curses and continues the gradually re-appreciation of Yoko Ono as an artist in the 21st century, an icon for so many big names in music even here, at the age of eighty-three.

A complete list of Lennon articles from this site for you to read:

'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey'  (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

Grateful Dead: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Cover Versions


Normally at this point in our books we day something about the bands we cover being very studio-based and would you believe it they sometimes got outta the studio and toured too? That seems a bit obvious with the Grateful Dead and over one hundred and forty archive sets later it's probably fair to say you've got the gist by now that this was a band who, more than any other, lived for the live arena where they could see the whites of their audience's eyes and smell the contents of their bags of marijuana. Despite the many pages dedicated to the band's live shows there are four key ones that still haven't been discussed at length yet (some because they weren't recorded, others because they're just too darn sad) and as this series of articles always explores things in fives it seemed to make sense having a bash at 'Rocking The Cradle' again simply because, well, it remains a unique and important milestone in popular music unlikely to be repeated. Even we can't go through every gig a band ever played so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway), starting at the very beginning...
1) Where: Magoo's Pizza, Menlo Park, California When: May 5th 1965 Why: First Gig Setlist: [39] Cold Rain and Snow [7] Stealin' [210] Little Red Rooster 'Off The Hook' [137] 'Good Lovin'
Technically speaking this is the first gig by 'The Warlocks', the band not becoming the Grateful Dead until December 5th 1965 and for now consisting of a quartet of Jerry, Pigpen, Bob and Billy, with Dana Morgan playing the bass in the months before Phil joined. The future kings of the road ending up playing nearby to where they all lived and instead of their future stadiums played in a tiny pizza parlour while people were eating. Not many people can remember what happened (the songs played that night are much debated too but seem likely given the band's early love of The Rolling Stones with a few later cover favourites thrown in, with only the Stones song 'Off The Hook' never appearing in a later concert or album), but what people can remember is that the band were politely applauded, weren't booed off the stage and didn't yet have any roadies, setting up the equipment themselves. Legend has it a nervy band didn't want their audience to see them play so sat with their backs to the audience for part of the set (something Miles Davis and The Buffalo Springfield both used to do) before the crowd kept yelling at them to turn round -a big day in Dead history as they'll never stop looking their audience in the 'eyes' again from here-on in. There were perhaps a dozen people there - certainly no more than twenty. The band's second and third gigs? Also at Magoo's a week later (so the fledgling Dead can't have been that bad!) The fourth a teen club named 'Frenchy's a month later. The fifth, the Merry Pranksters' Acid Test...  From small acorns grow big trees, so don't be discouraged if barely anyone turns up at your next gig and you're drowned out by the sound of people eating pizza, dear readers, for a colossus of rock and roll got there before you...
2) Where: The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles When: December 13th 1967 Why: First 'Dark Star' Setlist: Unknown
A red letter day which sees the 'breakout' of one of the Dead's most popular songs, their 'theme tune' if you will which will go on to be played nearly 250 times and nearly always got the biggest applause of the night. [63] 'Dark Star' is a song the Dead did every which way over the years: fast, slow, jazzy, rocky, folky, compact, very very very long, upside down - man, there was probably a be-bop rap version out there I just haven't come across yet. Regrettably none of the tapers seem to have been in the audience that night and nor, unusually, was sound engineer Bear who took records of things like this. Chances are the Dead didn't see it as that big a deal: they already had their own epics in the shape of [42] 'Morning Dew' and [44] 'Viola Lee Blues' and this was the first true Hunter-Garcia collaboration (indeed, Hunter scribbled the lyrics when he heard an early version of the song in rehearsals and you can't get much hotter off the press than that! He later added a second verse at Garcia's request while sitting in a park. 'Whatcha doing?' a kid asked him as he scribbled away on a piece of paper. 'I'm writing my first song lyric. It's called 'Dark Star'. It will be important one day so remember this!' Hunter remembers replying). However nobody in the audience guessed just how important that friendship was going to be. Nobody remembers what this version was like but it was likely a rather cautious attempt to lift off into the ether given that the band had only really jammed away on material at the ends of songs before this, never the whole way through. We don't know how long it lasted, what style it was in or what else was played at the gig that night (though most of the first 'Grateful Dead' album from March that year seems likely). However without this concert the rest of this book might not have existed.
3) Where: Cow Palace, California When: March 23rd 1974 Why: 'Wall Of Sound' system first introduced Setlist: [153] US Blues [34] Promised Land [128] Brown-Eyed Women 'Mexicali Blues' [132] Tennessee Jed 'Black-Throated Wind' [156] Scarlet Begonias [37] Beat It On Down The Line 'It Must Have Been The Roses' [119] El Paso 'Deal' Cassidy' [57/2] 'China Rider' [149] Weather Report Suite [109] Playin' In The Band [73] Uncle John's Band [42] Morning Dew [159] Ship Of Fools [142] Big River [130] Ramble On Rose [110] Me and My Uncle [106] Bertha [161] Around and Around [114] Wharf Rat [84] Sugar Magnolia [80] Casey Jones
By 1974 the Dead's touring equipment was becoming a bit, well, old. Nearly a decade of touring up and down the country and - in 1972 - around Europe led to a feeling that maybe the Dead could afford to spruce things up a bit. Being the Dead of course that meant big and large and noisy! Bear plus band roadies and supporters Dan Healy and Bob Matthews researched exactly what they would be allowed to use, what would cut down on the extra 'fuss' of their old patchwork layout (which was running to some 200 amplifiers alone) and what could be transported easily. The innovation they came up with was to put the amplifiers behind the band, instead of in front as per most bands of the era, cutting out the need for stage monitors and most risk of unwanted feedback. They also had extra power which enabled the band to reach the back rows of stadiums now that the band had outgrown playing clubs. It took twenty-six people working fourteen hour shifts to get the thing upright before every gig - and this was the simplified version! In the end the system, dubbed 'The Wall Of Sound' by fans, comprised more than 600 speakers and used up over 25,000 watts of power. At this first gig at the Cow Palace (formerly a giant cow shed), one of the first big outside venues the Dead played, Bear and his associates dotted themselves around the arena, taking notes and comparing them afterwards to tweak the model a little more. Both they and most Deadheads agreed that the show had been a success despite heavy deafening winds. The Dead enjoyed it too, comparing it to a 'work of installation art' and 'like plugging into a flying saucer'. It remains one of the greatest sound systems ever put together - and yet the sheer cost of putting the thing together ($100,000 a month) meant that it only lasted until the end of the 1974 tour before making way for a smaller, more manageable sound. This first show was later released as 'Dick's Picks Volume Twenty-Four' and sounds mighty good, I have to say, even if the Dead's performance isn't always as strong as their equipment. The show is also celebrated for the first ever performances of 'Cassidy' and 'Scarlet Begonias'.
4) Where: Giza, Egypt When: September 14th 1978 Why: The only rock and roll gig ever played at the Giza Pyramids in Egypt Setlist: [196] Ollin Arageed [115] Not Fade Away [110] Me and My Uncle 'They Love Each Other' [43] New New Minglewood Blues [182] Peggy-O [37] Beat It On Down The Line 'Deal' 'Sugaree' [179] Samson and Delilah [156/186] 'Scarlet Fire' [91] Truckin' [48] That's It For The Other One 'Drumz' 'Space' [78] Black Peter [161] Around and Around
'Yeah yeah yeah' I can hear regular readers going, 'first gigs, first performances of songs, sound systems, pyramids...wait, Pyramids?!' Yep this gig (actually three of them) are unique in rock and roll and circumstances in the years since mean it's unlikely to ever be repeated. The trip came about because of Phil Lesh's reading material, discussing the amazing vibes that happened at certain sacred places on Earth at certain times. Reading that there was going to be an eclipse of the sun in Egypt Phil asked the band (and crew) on a whim if they could maybe book a few gigs there next tour. Everyone assumed the Egyptian authorities would turn the band down - there had, after all, never been anything like the Dead performing right next to the pyramids (and sphinx) before - but as it turned out that was more because nobody had thought of asking and the authorities couldn't have been nicer. Especially when the Dead agreed to submit all proceeds to a local charity concerned with preserving antiquities. So, for the only time in 2500 years, the Pyramids were a stage venue with the excited touring crews of Deadheads (the shows advertised with the tagline: 'Egypt - a place with no cops or parents!') and a few interested locals so close to ancient sights they could almost touch them. The band were supported by local musicians Hamza El Din who played his 'welcome' song 'Ollin Arageed' especially for the Dead at each gig, the Dead wrapping their opening number around the beat each night. The gig was in many ways a failure - it cost a fortune and the band played a pretty average set by their standards, with a planned for live album to off-set the costs scrapped (later released as 'Rockin' The Cradle' 0on the show's 30th anniversary in 2008). That wasn't all: Billy had broken his hand during the off-season and shouldn't really have been playing at all but didn't want to miss this trip so for three nights only the 'Rhythm Devils' played with three hands. One truck containing key equipment got stuck in a sand-drift and had to be towed by camels. Sand also got into Keith Godchaux's piano and caused it to go wildly out of tune at all three shows. For all that, though, those who saw the shows - from the stage or the audience - will never be quite the same again (Bob Weir reckoned the band tuned into an 'ancient history' during the time of the eclipse!)
5) Where: Soldier Field, Chicago When: July 9th 1995 Why: Final Gig Setlist: [223] Touch Of Grey [210] Little Red Rooster [268] Lazy River Road [258] When I Paint My Masterpiece [278] Childhood's End [77] Cumberland Blues [34] Promised Land [190] Shakedown Street [179] Samson and Delilah [272] So Many Roads [270] Samba In The Rain [271] Corrina 'Drumz' 'Space' [154] Unbroken Chain [84] 'Sugar Magnolia [229] Black Muddy River [82] Box Of Rain
We Deadheads feared the end was coming, but when it came it was a shock. The Dead were meant to be having a couple of months off before starting up again - this was meant to be a brief rest, not a final farewell. But a month today after playing his final show as a member of the Grateful Dead and a month after playing Soldier Field veteran Jerry Garcia was finally laid down. The past month had been a rotten one for all concerned, dubbed the 'tour from hell' in fan circles. On June 15th an extra 20,000 ticketless fans showed up, forcing the organisers to open the gates and allow them in for free to prevent a riot or a crush in Franklin Country Airport, Vermont. On June 25th a freak lightning strike hits three fans waiting in their cars for a gig to start at the Robert Kennedy Stadium in Washington, who all recover in hospital. Fans get drenched in an outdoor show held on June 30th at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh (the Dead wittily re-shape their setlist, throwing in every rain-related song they can think of: [82] Box Of Rain [270] Samba In The Rain [136] 'Looks Like Rain' and The Beatles' 'Rain'). A death threat is made against Jerry's life in Indiana on July 2nd, a show performed with police on the stage, the house lights up and a nervy band opening with the 'please don't murder me!' chorus of [75] 'Dire Wolf'. Deadheads waiting out a storm for a show on July 6th in Missouri find a disused cabin and climb in, only for the roof to collapse leaving dozens injured and one man paralysed. Fans saw omens everywhere from the song choices (the song of death [82] 'Box Of Rain' stayed in the set after its rainy revival performed for the first time in twenty-five years) to the clothes the band wore (Jerry always wore black, always, but suddenly started wearing red: nicking the line from [80] 'Casey Jones' came up with 'Trouble ahead, Jerry in red', writing it on placards and banners). By contrast the actual last show on July 9th went off well, with an ailing Jerry regaining some of his old composure. This is a sweet old gig, full of old friends and a few new ones proving that the Dead could still surprise when they wanted (an album, half started in 1993, was still being vaguely promised to fans and four possible songs from it are played tonight). It's the encores that hit you when you this still officially unreleased gig, though. Jerry had only just started singing his poignant goodbye [229] 'Black Muddy River' a few shows before and many fans still never expected to hear death doing 'Box Of Rain' in there too. Other poignant songs litter the set too including [223] 'Touch Of grey' 9with the chorus 'I will survive!'), [154] 'Unbroken Chain' (the tale of a band who give their all but are still 'searching for the sound'), [210] Little Red Rooster (performed at that very first gig thirty years earlier) and [272] 'So Many Roads', a new Garcia song about death. Even the regular 'Drumz' and 'Space' improvisations have a sad and mournful quality to them tonight. The surviving band members deny any knowledge that this might be the end or any tinkering with the setlist to reflect that fact and say things just turned out that way. But this gig is spooky, with ghosts hanging in the air, angels beckoning and the fickle finger of fate looming, the last goodbye far more poignant than even the Deadheads could have supposed.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) There is, for instance, an entire box set 'deadicated' to the Grateful Dead named 'Day Of The Dead' and released for the band's fiftieth worth hearing including Tunde Adebimpe and Lee Ranaldo's spaced-out take on [109] 'Playin' In The Band' and Jim James' [82] 'Box Of Rain' alone, while Dwight Yoakam finally does the obvious and turns [91] 'Truckin' into a real 'truckin' song! There remains perhaps another hundred or so cover songs of the Dead out there, which given how many we have to choose from means we've gone with the unusual and beautiful rather than the zillion takes on 'Truckin' and [63] 'Dark Star' and concentrated om covers of songs the Dead wrote themselves, rather than just songs made famous by them (there are some truly lovely [42] 'Morning Dew's out there for instance, particularly Lulu's version, a single from 1968).
1) Burning Spear [177] Estimated Prophet ('Dry and Heavy' 1977)
Part of a double-sided single with a cover of [106] 'Bertha' on the other side, we've plumped with this one because it sounds so different from the original and was such a new song at the time of this cover the 'Terrapin Station' album had only been out a matter of weeks! Burning Spear was the alias of reggae star Winston Rodney who was born in Saint Ann, Jamaica in 1945 (and is thus as old as the Dead themselves by and large). Bob's song works surprisingly well as a reggae number, given that it's irregular time metre makes it sound closer to the 'Eastern' style than 'Western' rock and roll. Burning Spear adds all sorts of extra too like a sighing choir (much nicer than the one featured on [181] 'Terrapin Station'), horns and lots of improvising raps Pigpen style about local politics taken from the same point of view of the audience member who has seen something more in the music than the musicians themselves ('You have all been asleep, you will not believe me, them vices telling me you will soon receive me, we are standing on the beach...') This song appears on Spears (not to be confused with Britney!)'s sixth album released suitable by Island Records.
2) Suzanne Vega [150] China Doll ('Blood Makes Noise' 1992)
An under-rated overlooked song in the Dead canon, somehow it's fitting that the Dead's most fragile, delicate beauty got a whole new lease of life after singer-songwriter Suzanne fell in love with it and turned it into a surprise hit. There are many ways you can take a song about suicide and Vega does the obvious, toughening the song up and making it more about the narrator, bustling along without really listening and all but badgering the poor China Doll into another nervous breakdown. Throughout the song a mournful synthesised whistle sounds like a siren, a warning to those around to take these suicide attempts seriously yet no one does, the song's arrangement instead emphasising indifference and callousness. No match for Jerry's pure empathy and beauty maybe, but a clever and haunting cover nonetheless.
3) Real Estate [147] Here Comes Sunshine ('Day Of The Dead' 2015)
I would have thought this beautiful Dead song - one of my favourites - was perfect for copying. It doesn't sound like one of their songs no one else could do for starters, with a sunny sunshiney pop singalong chorus and a general sense of growth and delight that's surely impossible to get wrong. So far I can only find one cover and Real Estate's is the highlights of the entire 'Day Of The Dead' set for me, hidden away halfway through the sixth and final disc. Real Estate were Deadheads anyway, covering [124] 'He's Gone' during some of their concerts too. This song is more 'them', though with a sort of robotic country-twinge that's quite distinctive and a nicely 'polite' vocal that takes the sting out of Hunter's words in the verses before dissolving into pop bliss on the choruses. Beautiful - the sun's out indeed.
Other Dead-related hilarity ensues on the following pages from our website: 

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases