Friday, 3 July 2009

John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Sometime In New York City" (1972) (Revised Review)

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Sometime In New York City” (1972)

Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/ Sisters O Sisters/Attica State/Born In A Prison/New York City//Sunday Bloody Sunday/Luck Of The Irish/John Sinclair /Angela/We’re All Water//Cold Turkey (Live)/Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow) (Live)/Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)/Jamrag/Scumbag/Aii 

"Here is the news: You killed Hanratty you murderers! Now all you gotta do to put it right is sing 'scumbag' brothers and sisters..."

I’ve been reading John Lennon’s FBI file recently. No, I haven’t got some special dispensation with the American Government or anything – it was revealed earlier this decade under the 30 year freedom of information act and very disconcerting reading it makes too full of Nixon's paranoia and the fact that it wasn't just hippies who felt they were on the losing side of an unwinnable war (all the era's worst fears actually turned out to be true, with the Government even meaner and less tolerant than they supposed at the time). Anyway, reading Lennon’s FBI file suddenly makes sense not of Lennon's life but of the response to 'Sometime In New York City', a record that's truly unique in John and Yoko's back catalogue. To put it mildly this record was savaged, destroyed and crucified for the two singers stepping out of their comfort zones and daring to comment on the political scene. To some extent John and Yoko are just jumping on the bandwagon when they moved to the States in 1971 to join in the Nixon-bashing - Tricky Dicky had been popular for a good long while and bands like CSNY and the extended Jefferson family already had the morality of the man in the White House firmly in their sights. By comparison with 'Ohio' ('Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own!') and 'Mexico' ('There's a man called Richard and he's come to crown himself King!') John and Yoko's attacks are softer, more general and more likely to promote the under-dog that topple the fat cats from their coveted position at the top of American politics. However Lennon had something his rivals and contemporaries never had: a platform to appeal to the whole world by and large, not just hip trendy youths the Nixon Government had largely given up on anyway. Hard as Lennon was trying to forget it had ever happened, his position as an  ex-Beatle gave Lennon a position of power nobody else except the other three could ever have commanded.

As it turns out there was a very practical reason why John and Yoko decided to make the 'bad ass city' of New York their new home. Lennon's place in Ascot was full of memories of Cynthia and The Beatles so he wanted to move somewhere - Yoko had always adored New York after moving there from Japan as a teenager and had been banging on about how great and free it was to her new husband for years by this time; Lennon, though a concerted anglophile with most of his American memories or Beatle press conferences and hurried concerts he didn't wish to remember, was intrigued enough to visit and fell in love with the place himself. Yoko was also keen to reconnect with her daughter Kyoko, whom she'd had with her second album Anthony Cox - the Coxes and Lennon had for a while been close and shared babysitting duties but the media portrayal of John and Yoko as less than savoury parents and the infamous drug bust of 1969 (planted, as the arresting Sgt Pilcher later admitted, serving time in prison himself for 'framing' famous rock stars) convinced him that Kyoko was better off staying with him. Instead of telling Yoko the pair had simply fled, with the Ono-Lennons hiring several leading detectives to find traces of them - the only lead they got was that Cox had returned to their old stomping ground of New York City. As it turns out Yoko won't see her daughter again until as late as 1998 but they don't know that as yet - for now they come in hope. The pair rented a flat in the Dakota district intending to stay only temporarily while keeping their main base at Ascot but Lennon quickly lost his distaste of American and quickly took to the 'vibes' of New York City.

The Lennons clearly came to if not exactly praise Nixon then not actually to bury him, but that's clearly not what the powers that be thought. The hidden message of the FBI folders is a scratched head over the thought 'why are they here?' and Nixon clearly feared the band were after him personally (I have this wonderful image of Nixon settling back on the White House sofa while his agents play him 'Scumbag' and debate whether Lennon was singing about him personally or simply shouting random phrases that sounded a bit naughty). The fact that the Lennons were an obvious magnet for the counterculture didn't help either, attracting all the people who really did want Nixon dead and 'using' the Lennons for their own ends. John was always a soft touch for a charismatic speaker with a sob story and there was just enough injustice in what he saw in America to make him turn to them - people like singer-songwriter David Peel who wrote then-blasphemous songs about the 'Pope smoking dope' that nobody else would touch (until Lennon got him a deal with Apple), Jerry Rubin (a political activist who once promoted 'Pigasus', a pet pig, as his electoral candidate over Nixon), Abbie Hoffman (who had a knack for organising rallies and demonstrations), John Sinclair (locked up for ten years of being in possession of just two joints of marijuana) and though they never actually met her Angela Davis (who was given a whopping prison sentence for aiding and abetting three prisoners out of prison, way out of proportion with the crime). However anyone who'd known Lennon personally could have told Lennon that he was simply pleased to be the centre of attention - and that while he meant what he said when he said it he'd have moved on to another cause and a quite different mindset a month or so after making this album (nobody changed his mind and approach faster than Lennon, except perhaps McCartney, another reason why there's was a match made in musical heaven).

Seen from Nixon's point of view, though, Lennon's involvement seemed certain from the second he set foot in the States. This is a time of oppression, where nobody knows where the next big problem is coming for next and where the Government is so terrified of losing control that they bug the phone-lines of ex-Beatles (Yes, folks, it wasn’t just paranoia that made him speak out of having his phone tapped and being followed from work by strange unmarked cars - we know from the FBI reports that John really was being kept under a tight surveillance by the Nixon government because his influence on the young was thought to be so powerful that he could get them to do anything; I still have my suspicions that Lennon's murder was on the orders of Ronald Regan after Lennon took a lead role in campaigning for equal rights of Japanese Veterans inside America a week before Mark David Chapman shot him in still slightly woolly and contradictory circumstances). Nixon clearly feared that with this many friends in tow John and Yoko were preparing to take down the Government but he underestimated two things. The first was the strength of feeling the two singers actually had for their cause - every single person in this list will be dropped from their address book after the album's release and will never be seen in public together again. The second was the strength of feeling his fans had for Lennon, who put off by an album that contained nothing as life-affirming as 'Imagine' or as memorable as 'Jealous Guy' wrote it off, all the more so the fans who'd never actually been to New York or this album's other backdrop of Ireland and had no interest in politics.

'Sometime In New York City' has always had a bad press, mainly because this is Lennon’s ‘newspaper’ album, the one that was meant to reflect the troubled times that listeners were living in, there to be perused in between readings of the financial times and the nine o clock news. It's notable for being the only album of original material by John or Yoko that reveals absolutely nothing about the creators - and coming a mere two years after the soul-baring of 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' this is a major sea change (even 'Imagine', 'New York's immediate predecessor, is a highly revealing confessional album). In a way it's rather a nice change - Lennon's always been concerned with changing himself, but he's back wanting to change the world as well just like the old days! The trouble with that approach is, though, that while raw emotion rarely dates famous people and political events always do. The album comes in the form of a mock-up newspaper, complete with the strap-line 'Ono News That's Fit To Print!' and the lyrics to the songs laid out like columns with a picture at the top. (Sadly the CD re-issues all skip these, but the freebies in the original record were great too: a postcard featuring the Statue of Liberty clenching her fist and calling her citizens to arms and an army recruitment advert filled in by Lennon and stamped with the words ‘fit to die’!)  At the time it must all have seemed very powerful - especially the cut and paste job on 'We're All Water' that sees Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao apparently stripped naked and dancing together (Lennon would have loved photoshop!) However newspapers get old very very quickly and most of the news events discussed on this album (Angela's links to the black power movement, John Sinclair's drug bust and after a while even the 'Bloody Sunday' uprising in Ireland) were forgotten as soon as the next big news story came along. Most Lennon albums were made to live forever, with a timeless quality that makes them appeal to at least part of every generation with reflections on human activity that will never change. This Lennon album comes with a best-before date which means that today it's of most interest to American political activists and historians who like a bit of Lennon with their rebellious uprisings. And unlike today's slower news pace the climate of the 1970s political scene was changing by the hour, with society teetering on a knife-edge in a different way nearly every say (protest marches on the left, political scandal on the right and Vietnam all over the news). Unloved, quickly discarded, at odds with everything that came before (there's only one mention of JohnandYoko the entire album, in 'New York City', in a particular bad rhyme of 'Ono' and 'corner') and much misunderstood by most fans who came after the events of 1972, 'New York City' is perhaps Lennon's obscurest album. The special case of 'Double Fantasy' aside it is perhaps his weakest album.

However, before you move on there's too much of worth in this double-set to simply dismiss it outright. Update the name ‘David Peel’ for everybody’s favourite stoned simpleton ‘Pete Docherty’, turn Jerry Rubin into a rather extreme version of Obama and replace Nixon and Mao with Bush and Bin Laden (editor's note - modern readers coming to this a few years after the first version of this article was published might prefer Justin Bieber, Hilary Clinton and David Cameron) and you’re beginning to see a parallel. Lennon's outrage might have been short-lived but he's making statements that even the counter-culturalists haven't quite taken on board yet - the single best feminist song written by a man ('Woman Is The Nigger Of The World', although in an unfortunate irony given the sentiment of the song John pinched the name from an interview Yoko gave to a magazine and 'forgot' to give her a co-credit), attacking his home country for their imperialist values ('Sunday Bloody Sunday' and 'Luck Of The Irish') and the sloganeering of 'Attica State'. Of course not everything works (we won't mention 'Angela' if you won't  - even the subject matter of the song was said to be a little disappointed when she heard it) and too many of these songs get by purely on anger without the considered response of why and what caused the misery of millions. Not for the last time (see 'Double Fantasy' and 'Milk and Honey') many of the better tracks belong to Yoko, who at least has the foresight to break new ground musically whilst jumping on the political bandwagon (dare I say it, her songs are far deeper lyrically than her husband's too - 1972 was a great year for Yoko, with her period album 'Approximately Infinite Universe' easily her masterpiece!)  The elephant's memory in the room is that the performances simply aren't all they could be either, messier than 'Imagine' without the drama and more than a little rushed (the album would have done better if JohnandYoko had held fire for a 'later edition') with the sloppy amateurism of the pair's new band working against these recordings more time than it works for the songs. However there is still much to love and still so much pertinent to now: protests sat on heavily by Governments in precious positions reported in a negative light by the media, near-innocents given prison sentences way in excess of their crimes (just this week there was a tale of a penniless shoplifter sentenced to 28 days in prison for stealing a single chocolate bar) and  a sense of injustice and oppression against race, gender and class that still exists as an ever-widening chasm even forty odd years on from this album's release (Lennon would have been appalled by what out Governments have done to us in the wake of the credit crunch - and Yoko is). Ultimately the only real difference is that back then stars like John and Yoko were still prepared to put their careers on the line, to an extent - nowadays we just get The Spice Girls.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this album is that Nixon appeared to get in a Tiswas ultimately for nothing - with the sole exception of 'Bring On The Lucie (And Freeda People)' from sequel 'Mind Games' (a song far superior to any on this album) Lennon will never ever again be political in his work (and only rarely will he take up causes the way he had in 1972). True the powers that be went through great pains to make life difficult for John and Yoko. He was threatened with deportation for three years due to a very minor and as it turned out later falsified drug conviction and desperate to stay in the country to trace Kyoko, Lennon was forced to keep his mouth shut and never again reached the fire on this album (except parts of ‘Walls and Bridges’, where all the anger is directed at himself). No wonder Lennon backtracked like mad after this album, releasing ‘Mind Games’ the deliberately inoffensive toothless album that is the ying to ‘NY City’s’ yang (well, apart from ‘Bring On The Lucie' which is just vague enough not to name names) and succeeds and fails in all the ways this album doesn't (it's a pretty album, higher on melody and on balance probably lyric as well but the lack ofa 'cause' makes the whole album sound timid and unsure of itself - by contrast 'New York City's confidence is the album's greatest strength). Yoko fared better, thanks to her lower profile, and this album marks a true stepping stone for her, allowing to make a trial run for the truly innovative and hard-hitting ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ album the following year (see review no 54). Frustratingly, this album feels like it should have been a stepping-stone for Lennon too, but we’ll never know how the follow-up might have turned out because he was frightened from going any further than this. Goodness only knows whether Lennon would have picked up his political bashing in the cold war eighties - I rather hope he might have done, however pipe-and-slippers his one finished record of the decade turned out to be.

But forgetting what this album might have been can’t make up for the album that it is. You can see why casual Lennon collectors almost never talk about this album – and when they do it’s to condemn it. There’s an awful lot of Yoko on this album and unlike her better known songs on ‘Double Fantasy’ she’s full of venom and bitterness every bit as much as her husband. Secondly, there’s absolutely nothing here that could possibly be played on FM Radio and the closest this album came to a hit single – ‘Woman Is the Nigger Of the World’ – received a ban from its title on down. The second album too is clearly an indulgence too far: it would have been interesting to see how well a heralded classic like 'Imagine' might have fared if stapled together with one of the 'Unfinished Music' albums; this second disc of random avant garde live tracks and on-stage jams with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention on a not terribly inventive day is effectively a fourth release in the series - and the last. It's certainly not the weakest - there's an extended eight minute 'Cold Turkey' that comes to a natural end after two and yet keeps pushing relentlessly on really gets in the zone of addiction and desperation and the old 50s standard 'Well (Baby Please Don't Go)' that was forever being jammed by Lennon in the studio is a fine song played by a singer but having a rotten day (he's out of tune, Yoko's too distracting and the tempo's too slow - but even if you didn't know the better studio outtakes of this song I think there's enough in this version for you to hear what this song might have become). However congratulations to anyone who sits through the entire fuzzily recorded largely atonal second disc from beginning to end more than once a decade - you're even more of a fan than me (and that's still more times than I've listened to 'The Wedding Album'!)

What’s stranger is that this album is viewed so poorly by the Lennon cognoscenti and even his cult followers haven't adopted this record yet - for all the negative reviews and snide comments about this album down the years, there’s much to talk about that’s positive here. Lennon is rarely braver and certainly never spoke up so loudly for the suppressed underdogs again in his career, which is exactly how most of us remember him (or want to remember him). But ultimately this album has no staying power; we shake Lennon’s hand over the issues in the songs and look on in interest at what’s interesting to him, but after the album’s finished nothing’s changed. The arguments within simply aren’t strong enough to make us take to the streets in furore and even  if those of you reading this article all suddenly did en masse  - well we don't get enough visitors to make that much of a difference and even if we did  we’d currently be 37 years too late to make any difference to Ireland or John Sinclair anyway. Unlike ‘Revolver’, ‘Peppers’, ‘The White Album’, ‘Plastic Ono Band’, ‘Imagine’ and even thanks to its sad circumstances ‘Double Fantasy’ nothing changed because of this album. Worlds never shifted, wronged criminals were still in prison for a few years after (although Lennon’s presence at a ‘free John Sinclair’ peace rally undoubtedly helped speed up release), the Bloody Sunday dead were still dead no matter how much their ghosts might have been relieved and the world is still very much a prison those of us down the political food chain are born into whether we're black, female or simply poor (or all three). Lennon’s bitten off more than he can chew here – arguably for the first and perhaps only time – and despite the record's  poor reputation this is the ‘height’ of Lennon’s powers in many ways; the height of his radical work, the height of the togetherness and synchronicity of John and Yoko (this is the only ‘mainstream’ album credited equally to both until 1980’s ‘Double Fantasy’) and the height of the point where the average person is the street would go ‘coo, I wish I could be that bad-mouthing, peace-loving, personification of cool that is John Lennon’ before the pop world dismisses him for being tired and boring and for getting nothing concrete done. This album might have led John and Yoko to jump off the cliff of what they could get away with, but it’s a sad fact that neither of them ever quite flirted with this much danger again once 1972 had run its course.

One other point to make – no sooner had Lennon left his home in England behind than the Government began to behave outrageously, as if merely waiting for Lennon to leave. Liverpool has always had a close relationship with Ireland given that it's the 'nearest' bit of mainland, give or take, to the country and John in particular proudly traced back his family tree to immigrants from there. On January 30th 1972 a protest march took place in Derry against the internment of political prisoners. The march was largely peaceful (though there were reports of rock throwing nobody brought a weapon, for instance) but the army sent in to patrol the marches got trigger happy and opened fire, killing thirteen people outright. A camera caught the whole carnage unfold and what took people at home by surprise was the callousness of the soldiers towards people most of the English had taken to thinking as their 'close cousins' whatever their political feeling (the army even shot the people tending to the wounded, as was captured on film). Even those who believed that England had an imperialist right to rule over their poorer neighbour were shocked at the human cost involved in maintaining the peace and the event remains the single biggest turning point towards separate rule since Parnell started filibustering in parliament on Irelands behalf prior to the First World War (without the distraction of which Ireland would almost certainly have been 'free' by the 1920s, before a 'Home Rule Bill' got delayed and extremist violence scuppered the deal). Over in London, having just put together his new group Wings, Paul McCartney was incensed and forced into action, releasing his own response 'Give Ireland Back To The Irish' (a very 'Lennon' song). Lennon's 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' is a typical Lennon song too, sounding his mouth off without ever really suggesting he's read anything more than the first paragraph in newspaper reports, although the more poetic 'Luck Of The Irish' which is more about the historical context and does show a grasp of the subject matter is oddly enough a very McCartney-sounding song. Though neither are particularly successful, the inclusion of these two songs on an album packed with such Americana actually enhances the record a great deal, making it seem as if the world, not just a nation, are at a breaking point and that the lines are drawn between young and old, not just one set of Americans against another.

And a final point to make - Lennon had spent his first two ‘proper’ solo records enlisting the help of his old British chums from many years back (including two ex-Beatles) and new friend Phil Spector, but for this record John and Yoko are adrift in America without a proper base to work from. A chance encounter led them to work with Frank Zappa’s post-Mothers of Invention band ‘Elephants Memory’ and their screechy 1950s-basic-rock-taken-to-extremes sound dominates this record even more than Lennon’s anger or Yoko’s squawking. Fans are divided as to whether this was a good idea or not – on the one hand hearing Lennon’s anger backed by a huge outfit giving him the space and strength to make his statements is exhilarating. On the otherhand, space and strength is just about all this band can do and there is little subtlety or depth to this record, one which musically hammers us over the head every bit as much as John and Yoko do lyrically. Over forty minutes the lack of change becomes wearing – with the additional second live album, dominated by Frank Zappa and the Memory band with Yoko at her most extreme – it becomes monotonous. Yoko’s still the star of this record though, I have to say – it’s her nugget of home-spun philosophy that makes ‘Woman...’ the highlight of the record and her lyrics on ‘Sisters’ and ‘Water’ have a wit that Lennon is for once too cross or too caught up in his own problems to match. In a just world this album should have been the launching pad for Yoko’s career – instead, to many, it represents the death throes of her husband’s career instead.

The end result: a misguided album that made a lot of mistakes and made them very clumsily, though often with the very best of intentions and with a few flashes of the John and specially the Yoko genius peaking through at times. Even the FBI official keeping an eye on Lennon’s activities didn’t reckon on this album much, actually filing an FBI report that claimed that this record wasn’t as good as Lennon's two previous LPs. The undercover cops at the Sinclair rally also claimed that Lennon had 'lost whatever brilliance he once possessed'. However both were the wrong target audiences: disenfranchised politicised youth everywhere should love this album for all its unfocussed ranting glory. It's certainly a more interesting album than many of Lennon's other records and is perhaps the last point at which Lennon was truly leading the pack rather than caught up in the middle of it - though courage alone is sadly not enough of a reason to purchase an album.

The Songs:

As discussed, [40] ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of the World’ is the highlight of the record. Lennon pulls no punches here, kicking this double album off with a primal screaming vocal (once he gets going) that sounds like an out-take from the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ LP. But this time Lennon’s turned outward, renouncing his past chauvinistic attitude in songs like ‘Girl’ and ‘Run For Your Life’ in favour of a rant on behalf of the feminist movement. People look at the credits and assume this is a Yoko song, even though it’s John who takes the vocal – actually the work is all Lennon’s but was inspired by an interview quote his wife gave in which she came up with the title phrase. Lennon himself confessed later that his lyrics for the song were just a ‘fill-in’ to give him a chance to use this provocative title and it’s true that once Lennon’s got the chorus out of the way the song falls a bit flat. But this is a brave song to listen to now, nearly 40 years after it came out – to hear an ex-Beatle with much to lose singing this as the follow-up to ‘Imagine’ is mind-blowing. Lennon even tries to get his listeners in on the act, admonishing us directly with ‘Think about it!’(the last time Lennon ever does address his listener directly, despite it being a staple of his singles in the early 70s) and giving the song a gospel-feel to emphasise his unexpected conversion. Forget the lyrics if you must though – the conversational-style melody, far more like McCartney’s work than Lennon with its octave-spanning notes and the seamless way the chorus, verses and middle eights expand and contract and join together – is one of his most complicated but still sounds straightforward enough to be an obvious choice for a single. The arrangement is great too, being part of a trilogy with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Steel and Glass’ in having the scariest string accompaniment in history. Yoko is surprisingly absent from the vocals, despite the fact that this song makes for a close match with her own feminist anthems on her superlative ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’, but it’s Lennon’s heart and his lungs that make this track the minor classic that it is, full of pain on behalf of the down-trodden and underdogs that he sees women to be. He’ll revise his statement in later years of course (Lennon rarely held any matter of opinion for longer than a year at a time) and come up with the much more mature and rounded ‘Woman’ on his last LP, dedicated pointedly to ‘the other half of the sky’. For now, though, this is Lennon at his bravest, sticking his neck out for a cause that pointedly never wanted him to join them anyway (Yoko got far more stick from the feminist movement for working with Lennon than Beatle fans ever gave her) and annoying most of his fans in the process.  

Onto the lesser spots of the album. [44] Sisters O Sisters is a curiously patronising track from Yoko without her usual wit and sparkle and emphasising all her weaker points, from her nagging lyrics to her off-key singing. The basic idea of the song is that the female front should unite together – but Yoko lacks the conviction her partner had on ‘Woman...’ and only her tongue-in-cheek riposte to a request for a better take (‘male chauvinistic pig engineer’) catches the ear. Not one of Yoko’s better moments and a song which sadly points ahead to her dismal ‘Feeling the Space’ album of 1973.

[45] ‘Attica State’ is another dreary song that takes simplicity to new lows, rhyming ‘state’ with ‘mate’ throughout. John and Yoko’s vocals are phased to sound out of sequence (which is a particularly odd move on this album, which is all about a last-ditch attempt to hang onto hippie philosophies of strength and unity) so it’s a pain trying to work out what the pair are singing anyway. The song was inspired by an uprising at the Attica State Prison in 1971, one in which the terrified paranoid Nixon – afraid of losing his power – had the national troops sent in to wound 85 prisoners and kill 28 outright. Lennon’s views on how to ease tensions within prisons are hopelessly naive (‘all they need is truth and justice, all they need is love and care’) but still very Lennon – and yet the walking pace tempo just loses all the built-up venom and bitterness the song should carry. This isn’t about ‘them against us’ any more as Lennon intended – this is about the Lennon’s verses us, challenging us for the sake of an argument however true the sentiments might be and however genuinely wronged were the prisoners

 [41] ‘Born In A Prison’ is the next classic on the album and is nothing short of Yoko’s poetic take on Lennon’s stripping-conceit-away ‘Working Class Hero’. The tune is suitably sluggish and claustrophobic, repeating the lines ‘ a prison’ at the end of every line to emphasise how trapped she feels the whole world to be in the this song. Everybody is being controlled, she’s telling us here, with all of us being told what to think from an early age right to the grave. Yet for all of its harshness and bitterness, this song has a very sing-songy nursery-rhymeish melody that pulls the tune into another area. It’s a curious fact that the best protest songs nearly always sound like nursery rhymes (‘Give Peace A Chance’ among them) like children’s songs they need to be basic, simple and easy enough to sing along with the first time you hear them. So what we get here is an adult song done childishly, or perhaps a childish song done in the most adult way possible, confronting all of our fears and frustrations head on and telling us that there is no way out – even John and Yoko, with all their celebrity, notoriety and artistic escape routes feel as trapped as the rest of us. A forgotten gem, ignored by Yoko fans every bit as much as John ones, this song deserves a wider audience and is the best ‘ballad’ on the album by a long way to boot. The only negative point is the ridiculously slowed down ending, where a painfully slow saxophone riff seems to be looped over and over again for an eternity.

[46] ‘New York City’ is often singled out by reviewers as the stand-out of the album, but that’s simply because it’s the most easy-on-the-ear and apolitical of all the songs on this tortured album. The track sounds like ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ part two, updating us on the Lennon’s adventures now that they’ve fled to America and it has that same conversational, wow-I’ve-got-so-much-to-tell-you-my-woirds-keep-spilling-out-feel. But the rhymes are so bad (‘Ono’ rhymes with ‘corner’, unbelievably) and the people we meet so one-sided and sketched out (‘met a man called David Peel, we thought that he was real, sang ‘the pope smokes dope every day’ – not the brilliant line some Lennon fans take it to be as ‘The Pope Smokes Dope’ was the name of David Peel’s only album, released the year before ‘Sometime in New York City’) that the end effect is like a boring relation crashing into your home and showing you his holiday photographs. Being John and Yoko is usually enough reason to care about them on their own – but in truth their USA escapades don’t sound exciting enough to be recorded in song. The song’s one hook (‘que pasa New York?’) is a good one however so it’s a shame a better song wasn’t found for it.

 [42] ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is the other semi-classic protest song on the record, with Lennon again wrapping his tonsils around a so-so lyric and investing them with enough power for the cause to get away with it. The song refers of course to Ireland’s troubled history, with England unsure whether to exploit their near neighbours or ignore them altogether. Lennon was of Irish descent on his father’s side, a fact that many biographies forget, and what with Liverpool being the unofficial ‘capital of Ireland’ and the natural landing point of Irish sailors and emigrants, Lennon had more of a right than most in speaking up and making his claim heard. ‘Sunday’ isn’t a classic protest song, however, taking this album’s motto of ‘acting like a newspaper’ to a logical conclusion and telling us nothing we can’t learn from the history books. Yoko is also at her worst here, chanting the title line over and over off key – this is one song the Lennon-Onos needed to deliver straight and they were partly found wanting here. The music is recycled, for starters, recalling the 'got to be good looking 'cause he's so hard to see' part from Lennon's Beatle song 'Come Together' (itself a rip off of Chuck Berry as Lennon will soon find out to his cost). But for all that, the power of Lennon’s performance is so desperate and – even for this album – soaked through with bitter irony that you can just about forget about the song’s faults. The arrangement has touches of magic too, from the marching opening (which works far better than the similar trick used on ‘Power To The People’) to the chorus line’s close proximity to the Beatles’ Come Together (a song already causing Lennon some sleepless nights after he was accused by Morris Levy Publishers of ripping off the tune from Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch me’; typically Lennon, he steals the riff a second time here).  Incidentally Paul McCartney was also inspired to write his own protest song ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ on which a promising song (delivered very much in the first person unlike Lennon’s) was scuppered by a comparatively below par recording. If only the two Beatles had been able to curb their differences they could have written a great anthem. As a secondary note, those interested in the history of Irish protest songs should look out Lindisfarne’s ‘Poor Old Ireland’ from their ‘Dingly Dell’ album – no these Geordies weren’t from Ireland either but this song is the best example I’ve heard on this complex theme.

And still the lesser tracks on this album keep coming. [47] ‘Luck Of the Irish’ is the younger sister that ‘Bloody Sunday’ really didn’t need, telling us that if we had the luck of the Irish we’d wish we was English instead. Well, that’s what we get for sending dunderhead Roundhead Cromwell over to Ireland to butcher them I suppose. The Irish deserve better than this, with Yoko’s re-joinding lines full of every patronising cliché about the Irish under the sun, from leprechauns to blarney stones (to be fair, these were thought to be written by Lennon as well). If only the Lennon-Onos had stuck to either their own point of view or those of the Irish they most identified with this could have been a fine song – as it is, it’s a dirge that even the promising tune can’t salvage (it doesn’t help that it’s been slowed down to a crawl).

[48] ‘John Sinclair’ confuses me every time I listen to it. Sometimes it sounds like a spirited cry from the heart on behalf of a fellow harassed underdog (John Sinclair was given a ten year prison sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana – a sentence even anti-drug campaigners at the time thought ridiculously excessive) with Lennon spitting venom at the judge who sentenced him and the ‘man’ who never lets these ‘ordinary people’ speak out. Other times it sounds like Lennon picked up a newspaper one day and started doodling without really taking notice of what he was doing. The rhyming of ‘Sinclair’ with ‘It ain’t fair’ is a gift, allowing Lennon to use his fellow John as a representative of every criminal or person who has ever been wronged and there are some other classic lines too (‘They gave him ten for two – what else could the bastards do?’). But the hook of the song, with Lennon repeating ‘we got to got to got to got to got to’ 30 times over like a stuck record, is a waste and despite another strong Lennon vocal there’s nothing urgent or adamant about this record. Nice to hear Lennon playing some steel guitar though, something he usually left to George Harrison (and may indeed have been inspired by an attempt to copy his seminal work on ‘All Things Must Pass’).

The worst track on the record, though, is [49] ‘Angela’. Miss Davies was a reluctant hero anyway – a pin-up of the civil rights movement, she was another supposed criminal given a ridiculously lengthy sentence despite having only little to do with a crime (she supplied guns – unwittingly, according to her supporters – that were used in the kidnap of a police van and the death of a judge). Mick Jagger’s ‘Sweet Black Angel’ from 1972’s Stones album ‘Exile On Main Street’ was about her as well, but even though that song was poor it has nothing on this. The lyrics are truly the worst Lennon and Ono ever wrote (‘Angela, you’re one of the millions of political prisoners in the world’ they run at one point, as if miss Davies wasn’t aware of that already) and the fact that the line rhyming ‘tea’ with ‘equality’ ends up being the best line of the whole song says much for Lennon’s falling confidence in this period (see the apologetic follow-up ‘Mind Games’ fore more).

 [43] ‘We’re All Water’ is Yoko’s second classic song, marrying a simplistic we’re-all-the-same charity-single lyric with a caterwauling rockabilly backing complete with rasping saxophones. As discussed in our review for ‘Approximate’, Yoko latched onto the rock and roll aspect of her husband’s career much quicker than the rest, recognizing that the primitivism and tribalism of rock and roll was the closest to the Eastern world’s tradition of Haiku poetry, where complex discussions about human progress were cut back to their most basic form. A close cousin of her ‘Midsummer New York’ track the previous year, this is Yoko at her most rockfish, dismissing the differences dominating the cold war with the line ‘there may not be much difference between Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao if we strip them naked’, cleverly using photo-technology to picture the idea on the record’s sleeve. The chorus is one of Yoko’s better ideas too, telling us that none of our differences will matter in the end because human life is too short and that when we die ‘we’ll evaporate together’, taking our opinions with us. The CD version adds another couple of minutes not there on the record and they're great, easily the highlight of Elephant's Memory's time as a band as Yoko gets more and more out there and they get more and more jazzy!

As for the album of jams at the end, let’s just say it’s as uneven as the ‘Wedding Album’, as heavy going as ‘Life With The Lyons’ and as unlistenable as ‘Two Virgins’ without the selling point of the risqué front cover. Frank Zappa doesn’t emerge till side four but even the Lennon-Ono pieces sound like Zappa on a bad day rather than anything we’re used to hearing. Live versions of ‘[3b] Cold Turkey’ and [4b] ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ sound good on paper, but can’t even match the raw and ragged versions on the ‘Live Peace At Toronto’ album. The former is introduced as being 'about pain' and is indeed a harrowing performance, although Elephants Memory are too sloppy to match the energy of the Eric Clapton-led Plastic Ono Band. Lennon sounds unusually arrogant on the vocal too, as if he's overcome his addiction now and can look back on this song as a memory rather than re-living it intensely. Still, the song is a good one and deserves another outing, although quite whether it deserves an outing as long as 8:35 is down to personal taste. Interestingly Yoko's selected song is the B-side of that very single, here extended to 16 heavy-going minutes. Yoko starts off by wailing to the words 'I love you!', but this version of the song sounds even less like parental love than the album's version. 'You murderers! You killed Hanratty! (Hanratty was one of the last people in England ever to be hanged, for murdering a husband and rthe rape and attempted murder of his wife - Hanratty always denied it and there were always doubts of Hanratty's guilt at the time with very little supporting evidence given besides a single witness account - however DNA tests unavailable at the time suggest that Hanratty was the killer) ' is her next line as Lennon and Elephants Memory hit on a groove faster and wilder than the Plastic Ono Band one. Like 'Cold Turkey' this is less intense than both previous versions, but still too intense for easy listening.

The highlight of the record’s last two sides – and this is a comparative measure – is Lennon wrapping his tonsils around the 1950s standard [17b]  ‘Baby Please Don’t Go, slowing the song down to a crawl and milking the lyrics for all he’s worth. It’s far better than anything off his ‘Rock and Roll’ album later in the decade and  – although, typically Lennon, the best songs from that album ended up on the cutting room floor until after his death anyway. The choice of song is interesting: Lennon did indeed sing this song 'at the Cavern' but he had sung it since, several times: there are multiple jams of it from the 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' and 'Imagine' sessions, all of which are tighter and more intense than here. You wonder why he chose to revive it for stage performance here, as opposed to say the Toronto gig (where this would have been right down Clapton's street and a nice memory for bassist Klaus Voormann, who'd have seen the Beatles play it at Hamburg often enough): the song is more usually associated by fans with his split from Yoko. Loosely like 'Don't Let Me Down', it's a song born for Lennon's shredding tonsils although here - with an unfamiliar band behind him - he never quite lets loose.

 The Zappa-led gem (‘Jamrag/Scumbag/Aii – wittily retitled ‘A small eternity with Yoko Ono’ when Zappa issued the tapes under his own name for the ‘Playground Psychotics’ album) is dull as ditch-water, with no one on good form and jamming for the sake of jamming rather than to explore an idea. Only when 'Jamrag' rights itself after a muddily-recorded, tentative start does the jam really take off and then it's more down to Zappa's band than anything John or Yoko are doing. Lennon's shouts of 'Scumbag' on the middle part of the jam would have been daring in 1972, but now sound rather childish (that one word being the entire lyric). 'Au' then ends the trilogy with an ear-breaking mesh of Yoko wails and feedback - more laidback than that description makes it sound but nevertheless intense. The band seem to be unravelling before your ears, with Yoko stubbornly refusing to leave the stage until the very last reverberating notes have faded. The audience seem to enjoy it though: ironically this night was probably easier listening than Zappa's usual fare!

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this album is that the poor reception to it from the rock press of the day and the need to be ‘nicer’ to authorities to continue living in the US means that it’s very much a one-off in Lennon’s back catalogue and sticks out like a sore thumb. I have a huge soft-spot for follow up album ‘Mind Games’ which possesses more subtle and delicate strokes of genius per arrangement than perhaps any other Lennon record, but it’s quite deliberately toothless and designed to upset precisely no one (well, except ‘Bring On Da Lucie and Freeda People – Lennon couldn’t keep his temper in check for a whole record!) That’s a shame because, like the newspaper this record tries so hard to be, this album cried out for updates, bulletins and new evidence to put old ideas in context; as it is, it’s a bit like hearing a three-album prog LP set without the dramatic ending. Just look at ‘Approximately’, Yoko’s first full recording after this album and undeniably her best. This record wasn’t much better from Yoko’s point of view than it was for John’s, but ‘Sometime in New York City’ seemed to spur her on to greater things. It’s a shame, then, that Lennon was forced to be quiet after this album came out and the next time around in New York City might have been even better had the new York authorities got in the way. What a bad ass city!


'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

Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special

Landmark concerts and key cover versions

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