Friday, 1 October 2010

John Lennon "Mind Games" (1973) (News, Views and Music 77)




“We’re playing those mind games forever, pushing the barrier, planting seeds’ “Playing those mind games together, faith in the future, out of the now’ ‘Uptight’s alright but if you can’t stand the heat you better get back in the shade’ ‘Aisumasen Yoko, all I had to do was call your name’ ‘Every morning I wake in your smile, feeling your breath on my face and the love in your eyes, ‘cause you’re the honey and I’m the bee’ ‘We don’t care where you’re from or where you’re going, all we care is that you came, although you’re making all the decisions we have just one request of you, that while you’re thinking things over there’s one thing you just better do’  ‘You were caught with your hands in the kill, and you still got to swallow your pill, as you slip and you slide down the hill on the blood of the people you killed’ ‘All my life I was born just to get to you, anyway I survive long enough to make you my wife’ ‘From Liverpool to Tokyo, what a way to go!’

John Lennon “Mind Games” (1973)


Mind Games/Tight A$/Aisumasen/One Day At A Time/Bring On The Lucie (And Freeda People!!)/The Nutopian National Anthem/Intuition/Out The Blue/Only People/I Know (I Know)/You Are Here/Meat City


Well here we are again studying the lives and times of John Winston Lennon, whose busy as usual pushing the barriers, planting seeds. Only 'Mind Games' finds Lennon reduced from his normal position of strength,  unwilling to do much of either for once. 'Mind Games' often gets overlooked amongst the better-selling 'Imagine, the response-provoking 'Sometime In New York City' and the melodic torture of 'Walls and Bridges' and in truth is more important as a stepping stone to later works. Lennon's most 'McCartney-esque' album, 'Mind Games' finds John strong on melodies and prettiness but less strong on ideas and emotion: recorded during the twin horrors of his on-going split from Yoko (Lennon is seen leaving a mountain range that looks a lot like his ex, his bags all packed) and his ongoing problems with America's immigration authorities. Given the context 'Mind Games' should be an angry wrathful emotional outburst - but instead Lennon sounds too tired to care very much about anything in his life. All that emotion will find it's way out eventually - and this album includes one last great dig at Nixon and company on 'Bring On The Lucie', perhaps the greatest of Lennon's small collection of political rallies. But by and large 'Mind Games' seems too anonymous to be a John Lennon album: it's a timid, self-questioning, anxious beast that is as likely to turn to escapism and memory for solace as seek revenge and vent anger. But just as McCartney loves playing 'mind games' with us, hiding his real emotions under layers of production gloss and sudden eruptions of real feeling - his imagination as much a part of his writing as what's on his mind and on his conscience - so Lennon is telling a really good story here if you're prepared to listen, full of heartbreak, regret and still full of love for the wife he's just wronged. 'Mind Games' is the sound of an abashed sounding Lennon and - given that we don't hear that side of him very often - 'Mind Games' can be considered as a big a break-through in his writing as his wrist-slashing confessionals (which were much more Lennon's style). Writing this album seems to have come hard for Lennon, who wrote this album more to have a product out in the shops and to heal the wounds caused by 'Sometime In New York City', the closest he'd come to writer's block since his drug-addled 'Sgt Peppers' days.

There’s an unwritten rule amongst Beatle scribes that you can’t call any Lennon solo album his ‘angst’ LP because, well, all of them are. Only once does Lennon sound even vaguely contented with his life’s work – and that’s his last album ‘Double Fantasy’ which to all intents and purposes (and especially hearing the outtakes) probably wasn’t that contented a period anyway. But ‘Mind Games’ is unusual because it's the only album of his solo oeuvre where Lennon tells us all about his feelings and problems – and then sticks a great big plaster over the whole thing. His vocal is muted throughout, lost in the mix with that famous echo John always used because amazingly he hated the sound of his own voice (and to think – the Spice Girls actually seem to think they’re good singers – how messed up is the music business?!) The backing too is more slick session guys than the starkness of ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ or even the slapdash hi-jinks of Elephant’s Memory. It’s as if Lennon is hiding something from us – or, perhaps more likely seeing as Lennon never exactly covered himself up from the world in any sense of the word – from the authorities.

Fans nowadays don’t believe for a second that the United States of America were ever so narrow-minded as to want to kick Lennon out of their country for something as minor as a single soft drugs conviction. But that’s the truth of it (or so the official line always reads)  – Lennon left Britain in 1971 intending to visit America, see Yoko’s old student haunts and meet with some radical protestors and come home again. Instead he ended up staying there for the final nine years of his life, long past the moment in 1975 when he was at last free to leave – and, heart-tugger that it is, had even booked tickets to visit Liverpool the week he died (his Aunt Mimi, then living in Cornwall after John bought her a house there, heard the news about his death while making up the bed in her spare-room ready for his visit). However, Lennon’s timings were notoriously bad and in 1971 he couldn’t have picked a worse time for his American holiday. Presidents like JFK wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at a famous rock star coming over to visit a few harmless left-wingers (in fact JFK would have met him at the airport, cameras blazing, with several publicity drives lined up!) but to president Richard Nixon – already trying to hide the Watergate scandal that would cost him his office – the singer and political activist was a threat. How could he possibly get away with pretending to be doing the best for the American people with that pesky songwriter breathing down his neck? Lennon was threatened with deportation several times and had his car tailed and his phones tapped, leaving an already fairly paranoid musician after years of drug-taking and unfinished primal scream therapy sessions in quite a state  - a situation that only got worse whenever Lennon did something brave like his John Sinclair rally (an outspoken critics of the Government who was given a 10 year sentence for possessing just two joints of marijuana) and the ‘Hanratty Is Innocent’ ‘happening’ (DNA suggests Hanratty probably was guilty of some quite violent murders – but his barbaric execution at the hands of the state in as modern a period as the 1970s was guaranteed to get Lennon – and hopefully some of our readers – hot under the collar). The 'Sometime In New York City' album was designed to take the fight to the White House - but it sold worse than any release Lennon had been involved with since 'Love Me Do'. The sad truth was that half of early 1970s America was scared too - after Nixon's penchant for shooting protestors ('four dead in Ohio') what would this madman do next? The other half simply trusted Nixon as a man in office - if he got elected he must be ok. Lennon clearly had to re-think his strategy for his next LP - his political leanings were getting him into trouble, causing sleepless nights for him and Yoko and his public didn’t seem to want to hear it so why was he doing it? How typically Lennon, then, that he should go in completely the other direction and ignore politics completely (except for one last extraordinary track). I've often wondered: was Lennon additionally scared off? The surviving FBI files don't suggest that anything worse happened than a tapped phone, surveillance from an unmarked car and some poor constable dressed up to look like a hippie and sent to infiltrate the 1972 rally for 'John Sinclair' (his entire notes on the rally: 'the new songs don't seem to be up to Lennon's usual standards'. Everyone's  a critic!) But who knows what's waiting in the bundle of documents waiting in Lennon's file (was he even bumped off by the equally paranoid Reagan, just elected in November 1980, afraid of what a re-energised Lennon in the 1980s would do?) While the change in styles between albums is certainly in keeping with Lennon's manner, the lack of talk in public about the difficulties and the rather pointed way all of his venom is fitted into just one track suggests...something.

Of course, it could just be that Lennon isn't feeling his usual ebullient self. A lot has been written about the ‘Lost Weekend’ phase of Lennon’s life that actually went on for 18 months. For those who don’t know, Yoko suggested Lennon might like a separation for a while and sent him out loose in America with only her personal secretary May Pang along for the ride, despite the fact that she already had feelings for the Beatle (which Yoko fully knew about).  Crueller biographers paint this as some sort of impossible test about celibacy he was bound to fail - other kinder commentators simply think that Yoko didn't have the heart to send a heartbroken Lennon out into the world alone. May Pang is the major reason why Lennon ever got through this phase – and she’s the unsung hero of ‘Walls and Bridges’ which you can read about in the next review – but even she couldn’t stop Lennon’s drinking bouts, drug taking and general dissolution over the 1973-74 period. We’ve all heard the stories about Lennon being thrown out of clubs for heckling comedians, wearing sanitary towels on his head or allegedly slapping a woman photographer for taking pictures (although that last one always sounded odd to me and very uncharacteristic for Lennon, even while drunk – certainly he denied it to the day he died despite paying out money to make the case go away). But this is Lennon at the beginning of the lost weekend when none of that has happened yet and he’s just a lonely man facing an enforced separation, half enjoying the tug of being free and single again and half desperately working out how he can get back with Yoko (the best general picture of the era was made by The Beach Boys' ‘Smile’ co-writer Van Dyke Parks, who remembered in an interview the other year how Lennon would start off the night very happy and bouncy, end up getting more morose and on one night ended up with him flattened in a taxi-cab screaming Yoko’s name over and over, a neat summation of the whole Lost Weekend escapade, seemingly repeated night after night).  Just look at that heartbreaking cover which Lennon made himself: a dazed looking Lennon, bags packed, walks away from a huge mountainous Yoko while two moons twinkle away in the background, suggesting this is yet more new ground for the ex-Beatle.

Yoko is often portrayed as the villain of the Lost Weekend and indeed the way she engineered it so that Lennon ran off with her own personal secretary is extraordinary, but like many things with John and Yoko the view the audience got of unfolding events in the 70s isn’t 100% true. We never knew about it till the 1990s but in 1973 Lennon, drunk and disillusioned with both his deportation court case (which till late on it looked like he would lose) and the Watergate events on television where Nixon seemed to be wriggling out of his own big mess, went to a party with Yoko and in less than an hour made out with another of the party guests and left Yoko, speechless, on her own with a gang of people she didn’t know, trying wanly to stick up for her husband over the sound of the ex-Beatle enjoying himself rather more than he should have done. Add in the fact that Yoko virtually gave up the chance of living with her daughter Kyoko to be with Lennon (the two tried in vain to find her and even secured a court custody order, only to find Yoko’s ex had left America and was on the run to keep her from the Lennons and what he saw as their ‘degenerate lifestyle’, a fact perhaps true of the couple circa 1979 but not in 1973) and you can understand why the John-and-Yoko story is going through what dramatists would call 'dramatic tension' before the fairytale reunion ending. You only need to hear ‘Death Of Samantha’ or ‘What A Bastard The World Is’ from Yoko’s own superlative album ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ (released shortly after 'Mind Games' and, in truth, it's superior in every way) to know how betrayed Yoko felt. Not just because she’d watched her husband have an affair under her nose but because, less than a year before, he’d been showing true solidarity with the feminist movement with tracks like ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ – and continues to try, half-heartedly, in this album’s weakest song ‘Only People', yet threw it all away on a fan too star-struck to say no that to Yoko was being treated as an 'object'. As Yoko said herself in a song six years later ‘I’m moving on, you’re getting phoney’. 

Not that Lennon is the ogre that biographers like Albert Goldman painted him out to be either. Here he was, having given up not only the Beatles but his first family for Yoko only to find himself trapped in America fighting a decision to kick him out of America because of a (most likely framed) drugs bust in 1968. Lennon must have been dog tired by 1973, competing with his past, watching his old adversary Paul McCartney finally score big with ‘Band On the Run’ and watch his own heavily Yoko-influenced album ‘Sometime In New York City’ sink like a stone. ‘NY City’ is nothing like the terrible calamity most Beatles fans seem to think it is, but nor is it an easy album to love. After riding high as the 'popular' Beatle in the wake of 'Imagine', Lennon was now reduced to being kicked by the music press - an uncomfortable position to be in, however tough Lennon claimed to be - and being told to write 'more like that nice Mr McCartney' (whose last album, 'Red Rose Speedway', was a flowery record Lennon particularly hated). Interestingly McCartney seems to have got the message to write more like 'Mr Lennon' and as this album went to the shops was busy in Laos, Nigeria recording his most Lennon-ish album 'Band On The Run'. I've always found the different circumstances of Lennon and McCartney in 1973 fascinating: Lennon got pillories again for this 'weak' album while McCartney gained his first praise from the general public in a very long time for 'Band On The Run'. In the context of Lennon’s work you can see that the slickness of ‘Mind Games’ is a decided attempt to capture the market that ‘Wings' so successfully, but Lennon is missing both his old honesty and his partner’s gift for telling story-songs. The trouble is, Lennon hasn't written about anything other than 'himself' or Yoko since about 1967, leaving him rusty. 'Only People' is a pale crowd-rousing anthem even next to 'Power To The People' never mind 'All You Need Is Love', while 'Meat City' is an attempt to write a 'New York' song that still sounds decidedly like the views of a tourist, not a resident. 'Intuition' is a lyric about living by instinct that sounds like the most carefully planned and over-rehearsed song in Lennon's canon, a defensive riposte to Lennon's usual style moulded to one of his partner's. 'Out The Blue' and 'One Day At A Time', meanwhile, would have been dismissed as typical 'McCartney ballads' had they appeared on any Beatles album. Thankfully the rest of the album is better - but Lennon is clearly a little lost, unsure what to write about if he can't touch politics and doesn't want to face the break-up with Yoko just yet (indeed, apart from the cover, this album seems to have pretended it hasn't happened).

In this context, its no surprise ‘Mind Games’ is the softest Lennon album we’ve had since ‘Help’ and ‘Rubber Soul’, with Lennon’s venom restricted to just one extraordinary track, the album’s unsung highlight ‘Bring On The Lucie’, which sounds ever braver when you realise what it might have cost Lennon. Perhaps that's why this album sounds so at odds with the rest of his work: he's trying to write love songs for the wife out of guilt (and 'Mind Games' is full of love songs - even more than when he and Yoko became an item in 1968; the only other candidate in his discography is 'Double Fantasy') and may have been trying to write like his old mucca Macca out of guilt too (after some outrageous slurs against Paul even John is now admitting publicly to having second doubts about his appointment of Beatles manager Allen Klien: Paul effectively sued the other three and left the band to prevent Klien getting his hands on the band's assets). One other guilty feeling may have been towards son Julian (now  ten years old and becoming interested in music). While the pair had met up during the 'Yoko' years it was only thanks to the healing personality of May Pang that John really embraced his son - and his absence during his son's growing up must have struck him more than ever after the 'primal therapy' of 1970 led him to confront his own missing father head on. 'Guilt' is the main theme of this album for this whole variety of reasons, Lennon back to the self-questioning he'd  raised on the Imagine song 'How?' , but this time unsure in a career sense as well as a personal one. 'Aisumasen', an apology written in Japanese so Yoko would know for definite it was for her, is the obvious example. However even the title track sounds like an 'apology' for the failure of the 'hippie dream' (the working title was 'Make Love, Not War - I Know You've Heard It Before'), much as Lennon tries to turn the message positive ('Yes is the answer!' he screams, a neat reference to his beginnings with Yoko turned into a healing song that never quite shakes itself out of its own haze and uncertainty. 'Tight A$' is a fun boogie possibly inspired by Apple's business wrangles, but underneath it all is a message to the self: 'Uptight's alright, but if you can't stand the heat better get back in the shade!' 'One Day At A Time' sounds like John trying to wheedle back into Yoko's affections, reminding her that the pair are destined to belong together, but in a sadder less certain sense than any previous love song (compared to the savagery of 'Don't Let Me Down'). 'I Know', the second strongest song on the album, is a lovely song about Lennon still a pupil 'only learning' and with a chorus that ends in a long drawn out 'I'm sorrrrrrreeeeee!'  Interesting Lennon's apology is not for his behaviour or his actions but 'because I never could speak my mind' - really? Lennon?! No wonder this record is called 'Mind Games'... 'You Are Here' then attempts to show Yoko just how far the pair have travelled ('From Liverpool to Tokyo - what a way to go!') before concluding that wherever they end up will be 'home' if they're together ('Wherever you are you are here').  While many biographers dismiss the idea out of hand, Lennon was genuinely interested in Japanese culture and after several holidays meeting various Yoko relatives (who took to him far more than Yoko's previous husbands, despite having never heard of The Beatles) may well have been considering a move there full time if America really had kicked him out.

One other theme of this album - and one common to many Lennon albums - is of peace. Till now peace has been an abstract concept - what people do when they're not fighting - but here Lennon continues the logical extension from 'Imagine' by making peace a 'state of mind' and something personal. That odd four seconds of silence at the end of side one most people barely notice now they own 'Mind Games' on CD, but indexed as a separate track in its own right, might well be the most significant song here, daft as that sounds. Many philosophers and thinkers down the years have yearned to create their own state, governed by their own rules and which exists outside the 'main' one. We've even considered starting our own, with a currency made out of vinyl and with AAA mascot Max The Singing Dog's top hat on top of each coin (our national anthem is a trickier one: The Beach Boys' 'Add Some Music To Your Day' might do, or more likely The Beatles' 'Help!') Lennon, tired of arguments over petty geographical boundaries, decided to create his own national state too - only being Lennon it was 'all in the mind', with the listeners welcome to join in too as long as they didn't hassle him over trumped up drugs charges. The name is a typical Lennon play-on-words: this isn't just 'utopia' (a state of bliss) but a 'new topia' - one updated for the modern world where rock stars can take drugs in peace and writers and thinkers are free to go wherever they please. Sadly, unlike some of Lennon's longer lasting 'art concepts', the idea never really took off and simply left most fans wondering what had happened to the extra track listed on the back of what is rather a short-running record.

Overall, then, 'Mind Games' isn't top flight Lennon. Even John himself sheepishly declared this record to be about 'nothing' during a bored promotional tour during its release ('It's just rock and roll at different speeds'). That's how fans have always come to see this record since: a curiously lifeless Lennon album that shows him tired and bored. That's all true and filler like 'Meat City' and 'Only People' truly represent the worst of Lennon: the first is word association bluster, the second a sermon that Lennon has already delivered several times and which he doesn't even seem to believe anymore ('We don't want no Pig Brother Scene!' Can you imagine how much Lennon would have laughed at a McCartney lyric like that?) Shockingly, ‘Mind Games’ sold so poorly it became the first solo Beatles LP to end up released on Apple’s budget half-price label – something even Ringo’s first few albums hadn’t done, which rather says it all! However, the parts of 'Mind Games' that work best really are in touch with the author's emotions - whatever the glossy production suggests - and at times this is Lennon's most moving record outside his first. 'I Know' 'Aisumasen' and 'You Are Here' are all severely under- rated Lennon songs and a definite improvement on the unfocussed rants on 'Sometime In New York City', while the title track is one of Lennon's better singles of the period. So what we have in ‘Mind Games’ is a mess, but one that works far better than it should if you if you give it the patience for a decent few hearings before you get critical, accept that’s its not going to reveal what we learnt about Lennon from ‘Plastic Ono Band’ and ‘Walls and Bridges’ and spend a good deal of time listening to the album’s outtakes, which in true Lennon style are rawer, looser, far more emotional and above all far more likeable than the finished product.

 ‘Mind Games’ has suffered the ignominy of being one of Lennon’s weakest albums for far too long – while I’d never bracket it with his best, the fact that Lennon could fall so low and still make what for most people would be an amazingly consistent and groundbreaking album simply shows up what a great bunch the other albums are. Since his death Lennon has deservedly become to be seen as some sort of martyr, willing to bravely fight and stand up and be counted, especially as this advocate for peace died in the most violent way possible, and that’s the way Lennon is best remembered. But he did have a softer side – anyone who came up with the fragile ‘Love’ or the breathtakingly beautiful ‘Beautiful Boy’ had to have. So if you like your Lennon energy and passion turned down a notch or two then ‘Mind Games’ might well be for you, with Lennon at his wittiest, sunniest and warmest – although these few tracks account for only part of the album. For even though ‘Mind Games’ might not sound like it, it really is one of his most troubled albums, recorded at one of the lowest points in his life. That's what the 'mind game' at the heart of this record really is. You might well think differently the first time you play it, but 'Mind Games' is still breaking barriers and planting seeds - just different barriers and different seeds to usual.

The Songs:

[54] ‘Mind Games’ itself is often taken as the album’s standout track. Certainly its the only piece you’ll know if you’re only a casual Lennon fan and it was Lennon’s last big single in this  country until his comeback (unlike America where ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ became the only #1 hit of his lifetime). It’s also the last song that appears to have been written before Yoko chucked John out – certainly it’s the last until the ‘Double Fantasy’ period where Lennon is delighting himself with what the pair are up to together (instead of wondering where Yoko is and what she’s doing). As such, its sort of an epitaph to the couple’s exploits, like ‘Imagine’ full of images seemingly straight from Yoko’s book ‘Grapefruit’ (although none of these lines are actually in the book – Lennon’s just making his own Yoko-ish ideas), celebrating various events along the way (the ‘Yes’ exhibit the day the couple met – where Lennon was relived to climb up a stepladder to read the word ‘yes’ on the celing of the Indica Art Gallery) and the pair’s days as ‘mind guerrilas’ (a pretty spot-on description of John and Yoko’s days trying to convert the world to peace). Lennon even adds the lines ‘I want you to make love not war’ onto the fadeout – the song’s original hook before he came up with the ‘mind games’ idea, jesting by adding the rhyme ‘I know you’ve heard it all before’ as he tried to find yet another angle on a favourite subject. But that’s ‘Mind Games’ the song – ‘Mind Games’ the recording sounds all wrong to me. Lennon’s acerbic vocal is better suited to his political rants than this sweet love song and it sounds to me as if it was recorded long after Yoko kicked him out the house (just listen to his bitter roar on the line ‘some call it magic – the gift of the grail’). If so then it’s a tribute to Lennon’s eye for a good song that he decided not to changer the words  to something tougher and harder, but its a shame he wasn’t in a better mood when he recorded this song. Like many of the Beatle’s songs about Yoko its all about fixation and lust – like the pair’s ‘hello’ song ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ this ‘goodbye’ song is based around one hypnotic riff that keeps playing over and over more or less on one chord with only a switch for the chorus. Alas this, combined together with Lennon mimicking Phil Spector’s epic production techniques simply smothers the whole song in a sea of gaping strings and funny synths, leaving Lennon’s vocal to bear the brunt of the song and unusually he seems to be having an off day (the key’s too high for him for starters). The end result is a mis-mash – a song that sounds great on Lennon’s home demos and yet fails to come alive on record, with the listener left to do too much work to fill in the gaps of what we should be hearing.

[55] ‘Tight A$’ is, by contrast, the silliest and happiest song we’ve heard from Lennon for some time although – like its close DNA cousin ‘Crippled Inside’ – the lyrics are actually far from happy. Like George Harrison’s earlier ‘Sue Me Sue You Blues’ this is the Beatle’s fallout and the financial shenanigans at Apple (where the band agreed to hand over 80% of their earnings in 1967 and had to fight like crazy to separate it when the band fell apart in 1969) and its interesting that both Beatles treated the whole thing as a joke (even though you can tell from george’s vocal he doesn’t find the whole mess funny at all). The title alone contains three meanings and in typical lennon goonish style means ‘as tight as you can make it’ ‘tight assed lawyers stopping me getting at my money’ and the use of the dollar sign in the title brings it right back to finances. For all that, this is a secondary work in Lennon’s catalogue, as it reveals les than normal and sticks to one repetitive hook throughout. For all that, though, its a lot of fun and Lennon sounds more at home on this vocal than he does on the rest of the album. Staggeringly, despite the many many Lennon outtakes sets out there, Yoko has yet to issue one of the best Lost Lennon tapes of all – a classic radio phone-in where Lennon receives a request for ‘the one after Mind Games on the Mind Games album’, desperately tries to work out which track that is and then rattles off a superb one-man band version of this song. Not very deep, but catchy.

[56] ‘Aisumasen’ is fascinating in so many ways. Firstly, its the most bare-bones and honest track on the album, with Lennon saying ‘I’m Sorry’ to Yoko in both English and Japanese for his errant ways, admitting that despite the many years and songs as a feminist promoter Lennon still ‘has trouble feeling your pain’. Secondly, this song is spookily close to ‘Walls and Bridges’ ‘Bless You’, a later and more rounded song of loss for Yoko, although here Lennon still thinks he has a chance to get back with Yoko and in the later song he’s more or less wishing her good luck with whoever she chooses to live with. Thirdly, this song is like a slowed-down version of obscure Beatles song (and Lennon favourite) ‘I Call Your Name’ – although jaunty Beatles melancholia is replaced her by true heartbreak, with the song lurching to a halt every time the singer ‘calls out your name’ this time around, as if the narrator is left out of breath by his very need for his partner. If you have even a vague love for Lennon, its hard not to feel sorry for him on this bar-room honky tonk which perfectly underlines Lennon’s feelings of the period – guilty and yet innocent because ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Lennon will hit the big time with ‘Bless You’, one of his greatest ever ballads, but the aspects of that song are in place as early as this track which is heart-melting in its honesty and desperation. Listen out too for two very revealing parts to this song – Lennon apologising in Japanese (he will go onto learn the language properly in his house-husband phase as he gets to know Yoko’s family better – her mother went on the record saying what a lovely boy he was, in deep contrast to what Aunt Mimi thought of Yoko! – how typical of Lennon too that one of the first words he learned to speak in a foreign tongue was ‘I’m sorry’) and how the song ends on a swirling church organ, as if mimicking Yoko shutting the door in his face. A fascinating song and one that – forget the new stripped down version of ‘Double Fantasy’ – I’d love to hear without the period trappings and claustrophobic backing. Full marks to guitarist Dave Spinozza though (who’d played fantastic lead on Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ album too in 1971), whose piercing slide guitar is the perfect accompaniment to Lennon’s emotional-but-just-about-holding-it-together narrator.

So far Lennon has been showing himself very low on confidence, which perhaps explains his strangest decision on the whole of the album: to record [57] ‘One Day At A Time’ using a very odd and very unflattering falsetto. Most Lennon fans were put off this lovely song for years until hearing the vastly superior outtake on the ‘Lennon Anthology’ where Johnny Rhythm sings in a deep baritone which suits this song so much better. True, many of the lyrics are rather trite and without hearing it most fans would assume from the words alone they were looking at a McCartney one, but then so does the majestic, sweeping melody line which is one of Lennon’s few that matches his ex-partner’s in terms of roundness and perfection. ‘One Day’ is yet another tribute to the missing Yoko although it’s a far more generic and universal song than ‘Aisumasen’ and as a result has nothing like the same impact. Lennon’s friend Elton John later re-recorded this song for the B-side of his cover of ‘Lucy In The Sky Diamonds’ and I have to say it sounded the better song out the two, especially with Elton singing in a decent vocal register – what on earth was Lennon thinking, trying to sound like Mickey Mouse and backing himself with choirs?

No such gripes for [58] ‘Bring On The Lucie (Freeda People)’, which is the last great political statement from Lennon and knocks spots on everything on ‘Sometime In New York City’. Saving all his built up venom against Nixon for just one single song, Lennon doesn’t miss a single line, stuffing the whole song with cutting vitriol as only Lennon can and standing up for the ‘ordinary people’ as on ‘Power To The People’ , but with much  more sensitivity and, well, power ironically. I adore this song, the highlight of the album for me, because its so so brave for a man facing deportation if he put the slightest toe out of line: lines like ‘you slip and you slide down the hill on the blood of the people you killed’ is one of the most harrowing in Lennon’s quite harrowing back catalogue. In fact that whole middle eight (starting off with the album’s best line ‘you were caught with your hands in the kill’) is one of Lennon’s best, very much pointing the finger at Nixon in the middle of the Watergate hearings without being libellous and his biting final verse ‘you’re time is up you better know it, or maybe you don’t reads the signs’ is a classic I’ll-see-you-in-court sign off from Lennon. Alas, the only thing not in this song’s favour is the recording which is, again, frustratingly anti-septic, sapping all of the bite and danger in Lennon’s words. Again, the demo of this song sounds an awful lot better than the finished product – either of them, actually, as the version on the 2005 reissue of ‘Mind Games’ is different to the one on ‘Anthology’. Lennon’s opening cry of ‘alright boys, over the hill!’ may be a joke but in the context of Lennon’s life at the time its clear he really was leaving the safety of the ‘trench’ foe one last dig at the authorities. This track didn’t go unnoticed either and the lyrics were added to the mounting pile in Lennon’s FBI file. Richard Nixon got a lot of things wrong goodness only knows (second only to Bush Junior), but taking on an equally paranoid and determined ex-Beatle was hardly one of his better moves. Had Lennon gone all out and stuck this song out as a single Nixon’s empire would have fallen an awful lot sooner – but then, Lennon was already staggeringly brave for writing and recording this track at all. One of his most sorely neglected and overlooked songs, desperately in need of a revival. And no, like all other reviewers of this album, I’m still scratching my head over what a ‘lucie’ actually is.

[59] ‘The Nutopian National Anthem’ is three seconds of silence and is the last of the John-Yoko avent garde ‘happenings’ to find its way on record. As much as it’s included for a joke, however, the circumstances behind it aren’t funny at all. Lennon, annoyed by the whole green card fiasco and frustrated by border control and passports, set up his own new country ‘nutopia’ mixing the words ‘new’ and ‘utopia’ as only Lennon can. Some 35 years before Danny Wallace made up his own country for a TV series, Lennon declared that anyone who wanted could become a member of his new country which had no passports, border controls or immigration laws. That this very Cage-like idea doesn’t even get its own track listing on either of the two CD reissues says a great deal about how seriously the project was taken by Apple Records – in fact arguably there’s less space between the last track and the next than there is between any other two tracks on the album.

Still, after ‘Lucie’ hopes are high for side two – hopes which drop like a stone with [60] ‘Intuition’, one of the most depressingly ordinary Lennon songs not handed over to Ringo to sing. There’s nothing with this song as such – some of the lyrics, about working on a form of telepathy, are quite good and very fitting to the whole JohnandYoko communication saga, but the whole thing is passed off like a joke with a very tongue-in-cheek vocal, an over-bubbly bass and a cute synthesisier lick which sounds like its wandered in from ‘Playschool’. Annoyingly, out of all the songs on this album, never did Lennon need his intuition more to tell him to remake this song with a lot more thought and care. Any song that opens ‘hey hey hey alright, hey hey hey alright’ is never going to be one of the more distionguished or inspired songs and yet the frustration is that there’s a good song here trying to get out – the first verse with its tale of distrusting other people’s superstitions ‘seem like suicide’ and needing to rely on something to ‘get you through the night’ (another phrase on this album that turns into a full song on the next LP ‘Walls and Bridges’) are promising if not dazzling stuff by Lennon’s standards. And the less said about the cheesy instrumental in the middle the better – one of the lowest points of any solo Lennon album, Two Virgins and the Wedding Album included.

[61] ‘Out The Blue’ is a lot more interesting, even though its tune sounds like yet another generic ballad. This sweet little song is one of Lennon’s better ballads, switching between two separate verse structures (and no chorus, unusually) – one light and fluffy reminiscing about Yoko again and athe new breath of life she gave Lennon and a much harder, harsher second verse telling us ‘anyway, I’ll survive’ through gritted teeth as Lennon adjust to life without his muse. If I was Yoko I don’t know whether I’d feel threatened or flattered – Lennon is clearly still very in much in love, telling us that ‘I was born just to get to you’ and yet the whole song is sung in such an I’ll-show-you kind of way it sounds like Lennon is not taking no for an answer. It’s easy to see this song as an earlier one than most on the album, with Lennon still hurt and convinced he has a second chance before ‘Aisumasen’ comes along and finds him more humble and worried. Listen out too for the similie ‘like a UFO you came to me and blew away my misery’- Lennon will claim to have spotted one in August 1974, recording the date for posterity on the back of the ‘Walls and Bridges’ album and its intriguing that he should be thinking about them this early (he ought to move to Staffordshire – they have hundreds of the things there, although alarmingly all three towns I’ve lived in have been hotbeds for flying saucers, make of that what you will; perhaps the clandusprods have read my April fool’s day columns?!) One of the better songs on the record, ‘Out Of The Blue’ would yet again be a much better liked and remembered song had the recording matched Lennon’s words – as it is Lennon is still singing awfully high, the choir still chirrup in the background and nobody involved in this song seems to care for it that much at all. That’s a shame as its one of Lennon’s best of the period and another highlight of the record.   

Alas [62] ‘Only People’ is not one of John’s better ideas. It’s yet another re-tread of ‘Power To The People’, even using three of those words in the opening line, and amazingly sounds even less sure of itself and its ideas than its template. You’d think after making ‘Give Peace A Chance’ Lennon would never have the need to write another song on the subject but this is by far the worst – ‘only people realise the power of people, a million heads are better than one’ goes Lennon and yet he’s not giving the ‘people’ any direction of how to go about their change. In the glam rock, post 60s phase lines like ‘we can fly right on through, there’s nothing on earth we can’t do’ sound more desperate than committed and this song is so out of place in 1973 it’s hard to know where to start. ‘We don’t need no pig brother scene’ is another less than distinguished lyric, a pun too far for this often frivolous album which seems to be full of the things, although its ‘get together now and pull the chain’ that might well take the honours for his weirdest and least impressive lyric of the album. Surprisingly, however, sounds much more committed in his vocal than he does across most of the rest of the album and the song is clearly one close to his heart, even if it’s yet another good message garbled in production.

[63] ‘I Know (I Know)’ is another delightful Lennon ballad, warmly looking back at his past with Yoko and humbly telling the listener that even after all these amazing experiences in his life ‘I am only learning to tell the trees from the wood’. Like Aisumasen, Lennon uses the word ‘sorry’ several times over, along with ‘guilty’, with the narrator bitterly regretting the fact that he put short-term fun over what he held dearest to his heart. Again, you have to hear this song without the production trappings to hear its full beauty, but in any version the key change on the phrase ‘I know’ is a powerful one, completely ripping up the carpet of all that came before and setting up a completely new phase of the song. And yet, unlike ‘Aisumasen’, this is Lennon at his most optimistic, telling his un-named partner (but presumably Yoko) that absence really does make the heart grow fonder and that ‘today I love you more than yesterday’. Anyone who doubts Yoko’s hold over Lennon need only listen to this song, which veers through some really uncomfortable chord changes before finding its way again and again back to Yoko, ending on a triumphant ‘no more crying’ which nevertheless slowly drops down from its chord to leave it on the dominant note, a lingering question mark in the air that only Yoko can solve. A fascinating song, convoluted in true Lennon style and yet showing real craftsmanship, this is possibly his most rounded and finished on the album and deserved to be the single far more than ‘Mind Games’. Lennon’s vocal on ‘I know what I am missing’ is simply gorgeous, with the track dropping out to leave him singing more or less a capella, the highlight of a lovely track on an under-rated album. Amazingly, it took around four years of on-and-off courting before Lennon even met Yoko’s parents. Even more amazingly, both Yoko’s mum and dad took to Lennon immediately, preferring him to Lennon’s other two husbands who they put down to being wrong for their daughter. That idea seems to have mingled in Lennon’s mind for the disturbing ‘You Are Here’ , which is basically one long hymn to Yoko and the idea that the pair really were made just for each other. For a kick off, the title is the one John and Yoko gave to their first joint exhibition, a typically Lennonish phrase even though he probably nicked it from George Harrison’s ‘Be Here Now’ on the ‘Living In The Material World’ album. This song finds Lennon just as at home in Tokyo as he was in Liverpool, figuring that as long as soul-mate Yoko is with him anywhere is home, although awkwardly his listing of the distance between the two home towns only demonstrates how estranged the pair are in this period. The backing on this track works better than on the others, even giving the track a country-ish feel unique to Lennon’s solo recordings, and Lennon’s laidback and rather dazed-sounding vocal is one of the better ones on this album, although interestingly he still sings this song in present not past tense, as if hopeful he still has a chance with Yoko. His middle eight is again the highlight of the track (the bit that runs ‘love has opened up my eyes...’) although annoyingly there isn’t much of it and we only hear it once. Still, flawed as it is, ‘You Are Here’ is a great track, giving Lennon a rare chance to show off his craftsmanship skills and adding a bit more to the JohnandYoko story in the process too.

After all those polished ballads it’s a surprise to hear the album end on such a raw, raucous note. [64] ‘Meat City’ is a song about nothing, an overhang from the ‘Sometime In NYCity’ sessions which far from outlining what a hustling, bustling place New York is simply makes it sound deadly boring. The spiky guitar lick on which this song is based is an interesting one, Lennon’s most angular outside the ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ album and giving this album some belated urgency. The backward tape loop effects also work well, the first time Lennon’s used anything like this since 1968 although the only one that Beatles fans have been able to decipher is simply a typically wicked Lennon piece of mischief (‘if you heard this then go fuck a pig’ the last one’s meat to say – a censored version saying ‘make sure you listen to the album’ appears on the version of ‘Meat City’ as a B-side to ‘Mind Games’ the single. ‘Meat City’ is a curious send-off, seemingly downplaying everything that came before it and its too polished for proper rock and not together enough for a properly enjoyable polished track.


So, all in all, what is ‘Mind Games’ the album? Well, it’s clearly more than Lennon’s unflattering portrait of the time ‘it’s simply rock and roll at different speeds’. For starters, there are more songs about Yoko on it than on any other Lennon album – yep, even ‘Double Fantasy’ – and they reveal a lot more about the creator and his muse than any other album, barring the obvious candidates like ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’. No wonder Yoko is a mountain on the front cover – even when Lennon is supposedly out having fun, forgetting about her and enjoying being a bachelor, she’s ever-present in his music. If only Lennon had put together the cooking band he had for ‘Walls and Bridges’ or stripped the songs back to basics as on ‘Plastic Ono Band’ and ‘Menlove Avenue’ then this album would be viewed as one of his greatest solo success, not the huge flop it was at the time.  But then, Lennon wouldn’t be Lennon if he didn’t play ‘mind games’ with his audience, dropping down barriers and planting seeds for us to go find and ponder over. Not the best Lennon album, then, but ‘Mind Games’ is still one of my favourites, offering so much more depth than it appears to have on first listening. And what better way to celebrate the man’s 70th birthday than in digging out these obscurer albums and finding out that even Lennon’s flops knock spots over practically everything else being made in 1973. Aisumasen, Lennon, we’ve neglected your missing minor masterpiece for far too long.  

Other Lennon reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:


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