In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
Saturday, 3 March 2012
John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Milk And Honey" (1982) (News, Views and Music 135)
You can buy 'Remember - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono' in e-book form by clicking here!
John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Milk and Honey” (1982)
I’m Stepping Out/Sleepless Night/I Don’t Wanna Face It/Don’t Be Scared/Nobody Told Me/ O’Sanity//Borrowed Time/Your Hands/(Forgive Me) My Little Princess/Let Me Count The Ways/Grow Old With Me/You’re The One
I don’t need to tell you that the death of John Lennon in December 1980 was an awful, senseless, eye-watering, heart-breaking loss to the world of music. When Lennon died he took not only the promise of another prolific stint of songwriting and performing with him but also the chance of a proper Beatles reunion and in many ways the end of the sixties dream. The 70s was a troubled decade, splintered and difficult for many, but Lennon for one was sure that the 80s right around the corner were going to be different, more positive and more interactive, with more power to the people and help and support to those around us. We should have had a return to the summer of love, more working class figures in high culture and a movement away from war and Watergate and betrayal and back again to peace and love.Instead we got The Falklands War, the Gulf War, the mess of the Reagan and Carter and Thatcher years, money-grabbing yuppie philosophy and music-wise Madonna and Duran Duran, frankly not a fair substitute. Thinking that Lennon would have changed all that single-handed is surely wishful thinking, especially given that the man had only just come out of self-enforced hibernation, but, well, the 1960s would have been very different too without Lennon and The Beatles to lead the charge. I guess the easiest way of putting all this is that, by January 1984 when ‘Milk and Honey’ was released, the world was mourning more than just a single slain hero – they were mourning the loss of a decade that had promised so much and had already gone wrong too many times.
No record released into that sort of a climate is going to have an easy ride and the unfinished ‘Milk and Honey’ – made up of leftover tracks recorded during the ‘Double Fantasy’ sessions but left to one side for a follow-up – has never had an easy ride. Debate still rages as to what Lennon might have done with these tracks if he’d lived, whether he’d have left them pretty much as they were with the rough edges left in, would have ‘glossed them up’ to make them sound more like the ‘Fantasy’ songs or been inspired enough to record a whole new set of songs (Lennon hadn’t been so inspired to write the few months before his death since at least 1970, with the songs pouring out in contrast to, say, ‘Mind Games’ or ‘Walls and Bridges’ where writing had become a bit of a slog). For my money, I think that Lennon would have made good on his plans to tour in the first half of 1981, added a few of these newer, rockier songs to his setlist and then re-recorded the whole bang lot of these songs with a cracking band who knew the material back to front. But what do I know? Lennon never left any real clues as to how he wanted this album to sound because he’d only just finished making the last oneand many a fan refuses to accept this album as ‘canon’ because they know it’s not finished.
But finished or not ‘Milk and Honey’ is still a fine album and a too-often-forgotten one. For my money its light years better than ‘Double Fantasy’, an album that found Lennon sounding middle-aged but for all the wrong reasons (it remains Lennon’s only toothless album, with only one great moment of raw angst in ‘Stranger’s Room’ – and even that’s diluted compared to the session tapes and outtakes for it). ‘Milk and Honey’ doesn’t make any bones about the fact that the writer was older, either, but it makes the point in a much more believable and heartfelt way: ‘Good to be older’ sings Lennon on the album’s one true classic ‘Borrowed Time’, with a wisdom he clearly learnt the hard way. ‘I Don’t Wanna Face It’ and ‘I’m Steppin’ Out’ are also much more honest and human reactions to years of leaving the music business behind to bring up a family behind closed doors, both hiding from and looking forward to the spotlight when it comes round again after ‘bathing the kids and screwing around and watching Sesame Street and going crazy’. Frankly I like ‘Milk and Honey’ precisely because it shows the human side of Lennon again, not perhaps as powerfully as ‘Walls and Bridges’ or ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ but certainly more honestly than on ‘Double Fantasy’. Of all the artists we cover on this site it’s Lennon (and possibly Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull) who thrive best on their problems and hard times, making their best work at times of great struggle and losing their way as their lives get happier (and we ain’t buying the put-open, hopeless, over-anxious Albert Goldmann portrayal of Lennon in this period for a minute). Good as it is for us fans to hear Lennon so happy before he died, it’s not healthy for his music, which seemed to lose its way somewhat in the house-husband years. Then again, perhaps Lennon simply overdubbed that album to death – both the outtakes (on ‘Lennon Anthology’) and the recent ‘Double Fantasy Stripped Down’ album suggest that ‘Double Fantasy’ might have been a much more interesting album than it sounded at first, in amongst the 1980s production techniques, electronic choirs and snazzy for-effect playing.
Ironically both ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Milk and Honey’ might have been better received had they both come out the other way round. By the time 1984 came around Lennon wasn’t portrayed as a human being with flaws anymore but a saint, the man who had been sent to earth to take us out of our darkness. Hearing an album where Lennon sings openly about his fears, neuroses and apologies must have been difficult to swallow at the time – almost as difficult as the songs like ‘Borrowed Tune’ and ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ where Lennon sounds happier and more at peace with himself than possibly ever before. Fans were expecting more of a, well, ‘Fantasy’ (in both meanings of the word!) where boys are beautiful, women are to be worshipped and Yoko is ‘Dear Yoko’, not the pained, wounded figure of ‘Flower Princess’. Hearing Lennon singing about human simply didn’t fit the image created after his death. As for me, I was all of 18 months old when this album came out so I’ve always appreciated it as part of Lennon’s canon (in his own words, every album is an ongoing part of the same story) and I appreciate it all the more for it’s honesty and for not papering over the cracks in both the music and the relationship between John and Yoko. Lennon never sounded as poignant and as believable as when he was singing about his mistakes and frailties and, assuming for the moment that Lennon would have left the raw touched of these performances intact, I think this album would have had a much better reception released in the anything-goes world of 1981, in a parallel universe where Lennon lived on, than released into the troubled and Lennon-starved world of 1984.
Of course, there was controversy over whether this album should have been issued at all. ‘It’s too soon’, some reviewers complained, ‘Yoko should have waited or got a ‘proper’ band in to overdub these songs’. Personally I feel that Yoko got this album release spot-on, waiting for the first rush of Lennon feeling to die down and waiting until she herself was ready to cope with listening to her husband’s voice again before releasing these songs in as finished form as they were made. Releasing them in January, thus avoiding the Christmas rush, was another masterstroke, Yoko giving this album the space it needed to breathe. Say what you will about Yoko as a ‘professional widow’, I for one think she’s protected her husband’s legacy well, offering us all the Lennon releases we could ever possibly need, but at long intervals and with care and attention paid to each release. It makes sense too that the unfinished ‘Milki and Honey’ is the first of these: ‘Menlove Avenue’, made up of outtakes and unfinished songs from the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Walls and Bridges’ sessions is another worthy revealing release, the live records are interesting enough to be worthy of the Lennon name (even if I doubt they’d ever seen the light of day had Lennon been around to create his own legacy) and the Lost Lennon radio series and resulting Lennon Anthology box is as rounded and intriguing a retrospective as any set of unused recordings has a right to be. But ‘Milk and Honey’ deserved to be first because it contains what ended up becoming Lennon’s last message to the world and a very worthy farewell they are too. The trick is to treat this not as some great lost document but as a work in progress for what should have been not a final statement but the second step in an intense programme of new albums and new found creativity.
In fact, Yoko comes out of this album as a whole pretty well. Her contributions to this album were predictably scorned by most of the reviewers when this album came out but I think she was right to stick with the gameplan of releasing this second in a series of John and Yoko albums with the pair alternating telling their own sides of the story. We know now that most of Yoko’s songs were recorded after Lennon’s death (aside from ‘Let Me Count Ways’, heard here in demo form) – by the sound of it most of them were written after too, recorded back to back with the heavy going but rewarding Yoko album ‘Seasons Of Glass’. To be honest I’d have rather hear the best of those songs (re-recordings of 1974’s ‘Mindweaver’and ‘Even When You’re Far Away’, originally part of ‘A Story’ and reviewed as news and views no 89, plus outtake ‘A Winter Friend’, one of Yoko’s all-time best songs) than any of Yoko’s contributions to this album, but like Lennon’s work for me they’re superior to Yoko’s ‘Double Fantasy’ work because they’re more revealing, more honest and heartfelt. Most of them are strong but closing song ‘You’re The One’ is the one track that’s right up there with her best work (namely ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’, review no 54), somehow managing to sum up the John and Yoko story from the inside in a few short lines without sacrificing the depth and the struggles the pair went through. Some reviewers think that Yoko would have had to improve on her songs for this album a lot before Lennon would have allowed them past – on the contrary, I think that aside from ‘Borrowed Time’ they’re easily the match of Lennon’s work and would have been only the better for his suggestions and additions to them. Note the absence of ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ from the running order by the way – this was the song the Ono-Lennons were working on the day that John was shot (he was clutching the master-tape for the recording when he died) and may have been just too painful to include (despite coming out as a single in 1981, only slightly behind its planned schedule).
By the way we still don’t have the true story of what went on that fateful night, two months to the day after Lennon’s 40th birthday and Mark Chapman isn’t talking (more on that later).Trying to make sense of the end of perhaps the most publicised and documented life in music is one of the toughest things you can write about, though a few writers have given it a go – and found out almost nothing. I’ve just been reading Fenton Bresler’s 1988 book ‘Who Killed John Lennon?’ and whilst his argument that Mark was ‘got at’ by some higher power (FBI, CIA, in fact any of the organisations Lennon listed in The Beatles’ ‘Dig It’ song except BB King and Doris Day!) doesn’t have enough proof to convince, there are some really big holes in the story. For a kick off, there is no motive to the murder. Despite what was written at the time Chapman was neutral about Lennon (despite being a music biff his passion was for Todd Rundgren not The Beatles) and only had Lennon’s records in his house because his wife used to be a fan in her teenage years. He’s also never officially been proved to be mad – his plea of guilty meant that no court ever bothered to look into his mental state and despite living in solitary confinement (for his own protection) in a tiny cell he’s still never spent longer than a single night in a mental asylum (and then only because that’s where the police held him soon after the murder, more because that’s where they presumed he should be than because he needed it). So the idea of a deranged fan who identified with Lennon and exposed him as a ‘phoney’ seems wrong. It may be that there’s nothing to write about, that it was just a lone act that happened that way without motive – or it might be that people have covered their tracks well. Certainly there’s evidence that Mark wasn’t as cut off from the world as people think (American prisoners have much more outside contact than British ones) and that before flying to New York he stopped off in Chicago for three days, despite what he told police (why?) One fact I didn’t know before reading the book was that, far from dropping his political views when he ‘retired’ Lennon still kept in contact with some of his revolutionary friends and was in fact planning to march with Yoko at a ‘Japanese Workers’ rally, in protest at an outdated law that meant employers could get away with paying less wages to immigrant workers (thankfully long gone now). Were the authorities afraid of what Lennon might do next, now that they couldn’t hang the ‘green card deportation order’ over his head to keep him sweet? No one really knows – and chances are no one will ever know, but the truth is that we haven’t had the truth yet, whether because of mistake, cover-up or insanity I don’t know.
One other we don’t know, of course, is whether the milk and honey you hold in your hands is the same one Lennon would have made. Lots of reviewers point at the one-note ‘Flower Princess’ as a work-in-progress song Lennon would have ditched, but that’s missing the point of how drastically Lennon’s songs changed anyway in this period. Just look at the evolution of ‘Stranger’s Room’. The first verse started life as sweet little piano ballad ‘Tennessee’, grew a life of it’s own as a piano song, started to be played on an acoustic guitar and eventually became the rocker you hear on ‘Double Fantasy’. Chances are many of these songs would have gone the same way, but I hope not – its Lennon’s muttered witticisms and improvisations that make these recordings as good as they are. For the record, though, other songs in the running for this album include ‘Free As A Bird’ (boo!) and ‘Real Love’ (yay!) as returned to by ‘The Threetles’ in the 1990s, the intriguing ‘Mirror Mirror’, the rather clichéd ‘When A Boy Meets A Girl’, the funky ‘Just One Of The Boys’, the also funky and clearly Bowie inspired ‘She Is A Friend Of Dorothy’s’, the Mind Gamesy ‘I Promise’, the bitty ‘Vacation Has Just Begun’, the Mccartney-ish ‘Memories’,the quite frankly awful drinking song ‘Shoeshine’, the venomous Dylan pastiche ‘Serve Yourself’, the sweet ‘You Saved My Soul’, the scattershot psychedelic ‘Illusions’, the eerie ‘Gone From This Place’ and best of all ‘Howling At The Moon’, a sort of sequel to ‘Scared’ that simply had to be finished and issued at some point in Lennon’s future (Shockingly that last track still isn’t officially out yet!), not to mention some older songs like ‘Here We Go Again’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll People’ that could have been added to the pot. In short, Lennon had enough songs to work on for at least another two records with Yoko in tandem and might not have been restricted to the songs we have here.
So why such unexpected creativity in the first place? Well, contrary to popular thought Lennon didn’t spend all his house-husband years with his guitar hanging up behind his door as he so eloquently put it on his return. What he lacked was not inspiration but the desire to communicate with an audience and go through all the hassles of promotion, touring, subjecting yourself to reviewers and living up to your reputation all over again. That all changed in 1979 when Lennon went on a solo sojourn to Bermuda, a favourite Lennon-Ono spot. Slightly scared of the water and not that well acquainted with his companions, Lennon nevertheless agreed to go out on a sailing ship for a week’s worth of travel round the islands. Somewhere along the line the sea got choppy and the sailors all fell ill, all except for Lennon who after years of heroin abuse had trained his body not to be sick. The sheer thrill of danger and of being in charge of his own destiny seemed to cause something to go click with Lennon’s brain that day and his companions still talk with awe about how their unusually quite guest went from being shy to hauling himself around the deck and singing sea shanties. Lennon had always planned to come back to recording when Sean was ‘old enough’ and he’d successfully managed to break the Lennon chain of abandoning children (as his father Fred had ‘abandoned’ him and he had largely abandoned Julian). Lennon had always been vague when ‘old enough’ was, but the fact his lad would soon be five and out at school in the daytimewas surely at the back of Lennon’s mind. Sensing her husband’s rekindled fire for life Yoko also packed Lennon off to Japan for a week on his return, leaving him to fend largely on his own in a country where few people bothered him. Inspired by seeing ‘life’ outside the Dakota, Lennon began to think more that touring the world and visiting other lands wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Hence the sheer amount of references to Bermuda and Tokyo on the demos of this period ! Lennon was inspired again, no doubt about it, writing more between late 1979 and late 1980 than he had done since his ‘Imagine’ days nearly 10 years before – the only question is how long would that creativity had lasted and how well would Lennon have taken to being in the spotlight again?
John was actually slightly hurt by the sluggish sales of ‘Double Fantasy’ (although of course the album became a huge seller when he died) and even more hurt by the largely dismissive ‘so what?’ reviews on its release. It’s quite possible that he’d have never got round to making ‘Milk and Honey’ at all after that poor reception, despite the fact that recording sessions for that album never properly stopped (John and Yoko simply carried on into the next album).I like to think that Lennon, spurred on by accusations of toning down his rougher edges, would have left most of ‘Milk and Honey’ as it is intact and that, freed of the need to play up the cosy JohnandYoko story, it would have been a better album all round. I also think that the planned tour, already pencilled in for the end of January 1981 according to Lennon’s final interviews which seems remarkably soon to get such a lot of stuff together, would have inspired Lennon to greater things, just as the Wings tour of 1976 inspired McCartney all over again. But then again, who knows? Lennon certainly wasn’t told there’d be ‘strange days like these’, when one of our most beloved stars would find his life ended in unusual unique circumstances never seen before or since and we search in vainly for clues as to what it all means. Strange days indeed...
What we do have is an album that’s often under-rated, where there’s plenty of jokes on the fadeout as Lennon and backing band have a good time but not enough to get in the way of how brave and honest and high energy most of this album is. Opening track ‘I’m Steppin’ Out’ is a good example of this, with Lennon clearly having fun with his vocal on a song about doing what you want to do, with no responsibilities to anyone else but yourself .‘I’ll be in before one...or two...or three!’ he growls to his guardian (Yoko?) on the fadeout, on one of his funniest moments on record and there are plenty of other jokey wordplay lines too, such as putting on a spacesuit ‘because I’ve got to look my best’ which aren’t quite ‘I Am The Walrus’ but do still delight in their juxtaposition of surrealism and mundanity. But there’s a serious message at work here too: like ‘Watching The Wheels’ this is Lennon admitting that he stopped because he could and didn’t want to live his life filling objectives for other people. However on that earlier song becoming a house-husband meant escape from the routine of rock and roll – here its being a house-husband and being expected to stay home that’s the cause of his misery. I’ve often felt that ‘Wheels’ would have made a much better song as Lennon’s last release before retirement, a sort of ‘reasons why’ record for fans to ponder in the interim. It’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ that should have signalled his comeback, a delightfully breezy and bouncy song that reiterates the age-old JohnandYoko story that ‘only you can change you’ b y reminding everyone ‘if it don’t feels right, you don’t have to do it’; whatever your bosses, parents, teachers, friends or conscience tells you its only you who has to live with you all the time.
Most of the message comes from the middle eight of this retro song, which is vaguely structured around the chords of ‘Stand By Me’, Lennon’s cover hit from 1975 (which again means this song would have made more sense as a comeback, picking things up where they left off), slowing down the tempo a notch to make it a head-shrugging moment in amongst a songnot so much new wave as 1950s rocker. Chances are some of these working lyrics would have been changed (other recordings of this song exist with slightly different words, suggesting Lennon was changing them as he went along), but if so that’s a shame as they point an intriguing picture of Lennon’s life in the late 70s, blessing cats (John owned quite a few by 1980) and watching Sesame Street with Sean. Impressive as this song is, though, its the bouncy air of the recording that wins the listener over – Lennon hasn’t sounded this enthusiastic for years and really sings with the passion of old. In that context, who cares that the backing musicians clearly don’t know this song that well yet and that Lennon’s still telling them when to come in again (‘now boogie... alright, one more...hold it down!’) when we can hear Johnny Rhythm on such good form. Already this album is better than anything on ‘Double Fantasy’ and there’s better still to come!
‘Sleepless Nights’ is an oddball song from Yoko, one recorded after but apparently written before Lennon’s murder. On the ‘Ono’ box set there’s an alternate mix that sounds fabulous: the song opens with a full two minutes of the musicians having fun with the circular guitar-bass-keyboard riff before the drums suddenly wallop you in the stomach, the song stops coasting and Yoko plungers into her vocal. Here that whole beginning has been cut and robbed the song of much of its power so that we have left is something of an average song with a cute riff about how Yoko can’t sleep, asking herself over and over what things are running through her heads to stop her body from resting. (As Philosophy Phil says, there’s no cure for insomnia like a good night’s sleep). By the end she’s got so carried away with her ‘hmms’ and ‘ahh’ noises (and a long list of what she feels in different parts of her anatomy) that she’s forgotten what the song was about anyway, asking us rhetorically ‘what am I asking for?’ Lennon said in 1980 that one of his reasons for coming out of retirement was that he’d just heard the B-52s (the cutting edge ‘now’ to Jonah’s bewildered ‘then’ in Paul Simon’s ‘One-Trick Pony’ film) and realised the world was ready for Yoko’s music. Certainly the new wave scene of 1979 has more in common with Yoko’s obtuse but commercial music of the period than any before or since and this recording is good evidence of that, sounding far more contemporary than anything Lennon wrote then. The problem now is that recordings from the early 80s now invariably sound awful – this song isn’t the worst offender but I’d still love to hear a ‘Stripped Down’ version of it one day a la ‘Double Fantasy’ in 2010 (as I would the rest of the record to be honest).
‘I Don’t Wanna Face It’ is clearly a rehearsal take – you can hear the engineer start the tape midway through the count in and Lennon again talks openly to his band. But for all that Lennon’s vocal is a cracker, storming out of the blocks from the very first and wringing every drop of confused hurt and bemused fear out of this song. People often claim that Lennon couldn’t laugh at himself but that’s clearly nonsense here, with Lennon laughing at, if not his current self, than at least himself in the ‘Lost Weekend’ phase. ‘You want to save humanity, it’s people that you just can’t stand’ is one of his all-time classic lines, summing up the whole ‘bed-in’ era when John and Yoko snarlingly turned on reporters who didn’t understand their peace and love messages and ‘I can sing for my supper – but I just can’t make it’ is also highly revealing about Lennon’s psyche going into his house-husband phase and getting back to ‘reality’.As far as I know this song never existed until late in the ‘Fantasy’ sessions and there aren’t copious demos for it around as there is for much of this album and its predecessor, but that said it sounds to me like another song rooted firmly in his decision to quit music in 1975. Of course, the eeriest line in retrospect is the fadeout, with Lennon howling ‘every time I look in the mirror, I don’t see anybody there!’ Along with the lyrics to ‘Borrowed Time’ and the ‘scary’ conversations Lennon had with producer Jack Douglas about expecting to die soon (caught on tape apparently but locked firmly up in Geffen’s vaults so very few people have heard them) some have seen this as Lennon knowing about his death. In truth, he’s probably referring to the fact that in ‘retirement’ he’s a ‘nobody’ to the music world and fans, but even so he doesn’t have sing that line with a scare in his voice. As a song ‘I Don’t Wanna Face It’ is, like ‘Stranger’s Room’ and ‘I’m Losing You’, an excellent and brave portrayal of Lennon’s life and hinting that it might not be as wonderful as heard on ‘Woman’ and ‘Beautiful Boy’. It’s not that deep, it doesn’t last that long and again the music hasn’t so much progressed as found its natural curve somewhere around 1958 but there’s much to love about this record, not least Lennon’s vocal which finds the singer, ironically enough, at his most alive.
‘Don’t Be Scared’ is probably Yoko’s weakest contribution to the album, although its still superior to most of her songs for ‘Double Fantasy’. 1980 was also an era for cod-reggae by lots of white bands who should know better (10cc’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ started the trend admittedly, but it was meant as a joke people!) and, curiously enough, the closest song to this Mrs Lennon song in the AAA canon is Mrs McCartney’s ‘Seaside Woman’ (make of that what you will!) The staccato rhythm stabs aren’t that interesting and the backing choir inane, but what makes this track work at all is the lyrics. We’ve just heard Lennon talk about being ‘scared’ and yet here’s Yoko ‘replying’ with a song about why its good to be scared sometimes – it means that you care about something. In a lovely middle eight she urges us all to ‘drop our survival kits’ once in a while, to lose our defences and feel what it’s like to be really alive and really yourself. The logical musical extension of Yoko’s ‘Grapefruit’ book dedicated to stripping conventions out of your life (‘Grapefruit’ being the book that so enticed Lennon when she sent it to him in India in 1968), its odd that Yoko hadn’t made a song on this theme before. In all it works better on the lyric sheet than it does on the album, though, where its a little too twee for it’s own good.
‘Nobody Told Me’ is a song that certainly wasn’t intended for this album. Along with ‘Life Begins At 40’, it was written for Ringo to sing on the album that ended up becoming Ringo’s 2nd or 3rd best album ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’ in 1981. In the end Ringo kept Paul and George’s contributions but didn’t have the heart to record Lennon’s without his friend around to help him, so this song was still unused when Yoko came to release ‘Milk and Honey’. I’m glad that she did because, unlike novelty country honk ‘40’ this is a Lennon song not a Ringo novelty one, with snappy lyrics and a quick-stepping rhythm similar to ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’, with the same Yoko-inspired Cod philosophy. After bemoaning how people ‘are always making love but no one ever really cares’ and that ‘everyone’s smoking but no one’s getting high’, Lennon seems to wonder why the hippie dream of the 60s ran cold and how strange it is to be living in 1980 with those dreams unfulfilled. It’s a masterful piece of writing, with Lennon back at his caustic best with another great vocal (again, the backing musicians don’t know this song well enough yet but Lennon sounds as if he’s been singing this song for years), wondering why no one – not the Maharishi, not God, not Yanov, not Dylan, not anybody on that long list of belief systems used on the 1970 song ‘God’ ever came forward to tell him about days like the present. Listen out too for the reference to ‘a little yellow idol to the North of Katmandu’, a line that makes no sense in context but does make perfect sense when you realise the source is Lennon’s beloved Goon Show radio series from the 1950s, where Bluebottle and Eccles frequently started a sentence with this line before leaving it hanging in the air. Lennon might well have changed such an obscure reference by the time of the final take, but I hope he’d have left the rest of this song intact: the very McCartney bass rolls, the shimmering electric rhythm guitars, the very Ringo-like percussion, everything about this track is fun and, when finished, it could have really been something special.
Yoko’s ‘O’Sanity’ is a 90 second song dating from 1981 (ie after Lennon’s death) that seems to pick up on Lennon’s question in the last song and states that, in today’s world (ie 1984), the only sane way to behave is to be insane. Yoko speaks to her insanity in the third person, at first as if sanity is her conscience, ‘standing behind me like a devil in hell’ and then referring to it as if berating a child, asking ‘what am I going to do with you?’ ‘You’re The One’ aside, its the closest we get to hearing Yoko referencing those hard heavy days in the wake of John’s death and its worrying indeed to hear a former addict agreeing to ‘drink up, shoot up, anything you please’ to escape the pain she feels in everyday life. That said, this is clearly a jokey song, ending with a half-chuckle on the line ‘cut it out!’, as if Yoko is having fun with her public image of being a ‘mad old witch’. It’s a shame this song isn’t longer because the 90 seconds we have here are delightful, if a little on the skimpy side, with a sing-songy melody that really gives Yoko a chance to show what a fine natural singing voice she’s got when she chooses to use it (she’s also noticeably better at pronouncing English on this album than before).
Side two starts off with ‘Borrowed Time’, one of my all time favourite Lennon song. The title is, in light of what happened, undeniably eerie, as is hearing Lennon singing about middle age in the firm belief that he’s going to grow older still. It is lovely, though, to hear him so self-assured at along last, content with his life without the festering anger, the need to be noticed and the ‘broken ideals’ that so confused him and so blinded him in his youth. There’s even a marvellous improvised fade to the song, unique to this recording of the many ‘Borrowed Time’s that still exist in the vaults, where Lennon speaks to his younger self and acknowledging how difficult life once seemed (‘Am I going to get rid of the pimples? Does she really love me?’) and how life is much much easier now (‘I know she loves me!’) Lennon then ends the song on a charming vocalised duet with the percussion, perhaps suggesting where he wants an overdub to go (or, more likely, just for the hell of it), which is a delightful moment on a song that is just so Lennon. Musically this song is another with reggae twinges and a definite Calypso feel (its one of many songs started in Bermuda, which makes more sense musically here than elsewhere) and it suits Lennon really well, bringing out the older, maturer feel to his vocals. It’s wonderful to hear a contented Lennon sing ‘would not exchange a single day or a year’ but – unlike the sleep-written ‘Beautiful Boy’ or ‘Startin’ Over’- on a song that really stretches himself and adds a whole new sound to the canon. This is a truly world-beating song right up there with the very best of Lennon’s work and truly couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Some 13 years after adding the caustic punch-line ‘couldn’t get much worse!’ to McCartney’s song of contentment ‘Getting Better’ Lennon at last sounds as if he’s found peace with himself and his wayward past and can look forward to the future with new resolve. How sad, then, that this song seems likely to have been the last ‘new’ song Lennon introduced to these sessions, with only the similarly future-looking demo for ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ to come. Lennon was entering another purple patch it seems and I for one rate both of these songs very highly indeed.
Yoko’s ‘Your Hands’ isn’t about the future, though, but about the past just gone. A sort of sister song to her 1973 ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ song ‘Chirinaka’, this song finds her singing in Japanese before translating in spoken word for her English listeners. But whereas that track said ‘I didn’t know...’ this one says, well, goodbye. It’s an impressive song deserving of Lennon as Yoko sings about each part of her lover’s body in turn, saying sad goodbyes to it all over a moody backing that has a really melancholy air. When Yoko gets to either of her two middle eights its all the listener can do not to cry themselves (‘In a day, no matter how many times we meet, it is not enough; in a lifetime no matter how many lifetimes we meet, it is not enough’), so intense is the mood, especially with the slight charge and urgency of the key change before the song settles back down again. Interestingly Yoko ends with talk of Lennon’s ‘eyes’, cutting the song off before we get to the end of a verse pattern that’s been repeated four times across the song already (for ‘hands’ ‘skin’ ‘mouth’ and ‘arms’ in turn). One of Yoko’s best songs on the album and a moving tribute to her fallen partner.
‘(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess’ is the runt of the litter, not so much a song as a work in progress, with Lennon improvising lines right left and centre over a rigid two-chord backing. Many reviewers questioned why Yoko should want to release it but a) this song is a great starting point for a song that could have been terrific with the addition of a chorus and middle eight and b) you sense that this song was close to Yoko. In review 54 we talked about the time when John and Yoko went to a party, only for John to hook up with a woman he’d never met and left Yoko, confused and alone amongst a sea of people she didn’t know, angry enough to suggest the whole ‘Lost Weekend’ debacle. Most of her greatest achievement ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ is spent waiting for an apology for Lennon and then berating herself when it doesn’t arrive. Lennon did, in fact, write many apologies on his ‘Mind Games’ album (one of them in Japanese to make it clear who he was apologising to), but none of them sounded as honest and heartfelt as this one. Lennon’s narrator is angry with himself for ‘crushing your delicateness’ and pleads for ‘one more chance’ (again, showing a far more honest side of the JohnandYoko story than the one on ‘Double Fantasy’), suggesting that ‘we have the rest of our lives’ to make mistakes up between each other. Although that promise sadly never came true, at least Lennon got to start this track before he died. Frustratingly unfinished as it is, there’s still something hypnotic about this track. About 15 years ago, back in the days when MP3s were an alien technology and I was still in the process of updating my vinyls and cassettes onto CD I had a portable tape machine that used to play cassettes, both sides, over and over until turned off. When I fell ill with a fever (possibly a forerunner of CFS though I’d never heard of it back then) I played this tape on a loop for days, seemingly only waking whenever this track was playing. I’ve never heard it quite the same way since; obtuse, elliptic, urgent, sad, curious, this is completely unlike any other song in the Lennon catalogue. Goodness only knows what it might have become with a bit more work – the track of a lifetime, maybe? Or simply another lost opportunity overdubbed to death as per ‘Double Fantasy’?
The next two songs take a bit of explaining. John and Yoko used to joke that their love was so powerful they’d clearly been together before ‘in another lifetime’ and one of the couples they seized upon were the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. There are certainly plenty of parallels: she was a feminist way ahead of her times; he was a superstar who spoke for a wider range of citizen than anyone had achieved before, writing for the working classes not just the rich. He also kept her maiden name as a middle name when they married, just as John did with ‘Ono’ (although that might just have been an excuse for him to drop his hated middle name of ‘Winston’!) One day towards the end of Lennon’s life (somewhere around September 1980) Yoko suddenly became inspired to re-write one of Elizabeth’s poems titled ‘Let Me Count The Ways’. Setting it to music (played on a piano, like all of Yoko’s most personal songs) Yoko tweaked the words a bit so they ended with a very Yoko-ish ‘Thankyou Thankyou Thankyou’ and played the results to John down the phone, then back in Bermuda. Inspired himself, Lennon asked her to get ‘my office’ to fax through some Robert Browning poems in the morning to see if one inspired him too – only to sheepishly ring back a couple of hours later admitting that he’d been watching a film about baseball which included the first stanza of Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’ aka ‘Grow Old Along With Me’. Lennon then played his song down the phone to Yoko! (Alas I don’t know the name of the film and I know nothing about baseball, so write in if you what it might have been!)
‘Let Me Count The Ways’ may have been influenced by Barratt but is also very Yoko-ish, half worldly wise and half naive girl, with the everyday ways of her lover that so pleases her compared not to anything in her present but yet another range of memories of happiness (‘It’s like that tree in my childhood garden’).The ‘thank-you’ ending seems like a deeply unnatural way to end the song but, that aside, its clear to hear how inspired it is as a song and only really takes the original poem and the first line as a starting point. Lennon’s ‘Grow Old Along With Me’ is closer to the original and yet is very Lennonish too in the way it fits in a chromatically descending middle eight that shouldn’t fit but does and takes a more circular route than Yoko’s song ion expressing his love for her. Alas the only tape that still exists of Lennon playing this song is the one on the album, the last recording he ever made, despite the fact that Yoko says he recorded this song dozens of times those last few weeks of his life (they may have been on the tapes ‘stolen’ by the pair’s assistant Seaman- he claims they were promised to him by Lennon before he died in a court-case that just kept on running in the 80s). It’s a sweet way to go, with Lennon looking forward to old age from his middle age (he turned 40 in October 1980, hence the name of the song he gave to Ringo, who’d tuned 40 that July) and there’s a real intensity about the primitiveness of the recording that adds rather than detracts from the song. Yoko commissioned George Martin to add a string arrangement to the recording for the ‘Anthology’ box set but, sadly, the George Martin of 2001 was a long way from the George Martin of the 60s and his addition is saccharine in the extreme, making the song nauseating to fans who know the original. It’s a shame we couldn’t hear a finished version of it though because I’m fascinated by the sound of it and I do wonder if this lovely song might indeed have become a ‘standard’ as Lennon hoped at the time of his death given different circumstances.
‘Milk and Honey’ has one surprise left in store, however, and that’s Yoko’s passionate goodbye ‘You’re The One’. ‘How do I tell?’ runs the emotional chorus over and over as Yoko tries her best to put into words just how much Lennon meant to her and what their partnership meant to the whole world. This song could easily have gone very wrong, summing a most complex life up in a few pithy lines, but Yoko gets most of them spot on, seeing the pair as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ ‘Heatchcliff and Cathy’ ‘Don Quixote and Sancho’ and ‘a wizard and a witch’. Most movingly though Yoko decides to sacrifice all that for one last image of the pair as ‘simply a boy and a girl’, hinting that theirs is a story than runs across time and that the listeners might too become their own JohnandYoko one day. Yoko’s last tribute to her husband is not how her brought her money, gave her a recording contract or brought her fame but that his influence inspired her to be herself. Even with all the ups and downs of their difficult story, even as ‘stars move on’ and ‘rivers may run’, they knew they were destined to always be together and they ‘never looked back’. Yoko sings the vocal just the right side of histrionics, clearly more emotional than she’s been throughout the album (as we said in our other two Yoko reviews, it’s a key Yoko and indeed key Japanese teaching not to show emotion but to leave your art to talk for yourself) and its one of her best performances, with the listener audibly hearing her reach for each and every note. The backing could have been better, sounding cutting edge then but faintly embarrassing now, but that too has its moments, with the unchanging grating ‘gr—gr—gr—gr—gr’ of the percussion sounding like a clock ticking down the time Yoko has left to wave her husband goodbye. It’s a fine place to leave the John and Yoko story, though sad that we had to leave it anything like so soon and is comfortably amongst the twenty or so truly classic Yoko songs in her oeuvre.
Pretty darn good for an outtakes album, then, with both John and Yoko sounding far more inspired than on ‘Double Fantasy’. Whether that’s because of the rougher edges of the music, the fact that this album is unfinished or the circumstances behind how we hear it now, there’s a lot to like about ‘Milk and Honey’, which to my ears fully deserves to be included as part of the Lennon pantheon. Not every track here is a gem but the mistakes are still impressively few and far between with ‘Nobody Told Me’ ‘Your Hands’ ‘I’m Steppin’ Out’ ‘You’re The One’ and especially ‘Borrowed Time’ all as good as anything in either John or Yoko’s canon. In Yoko’s moving sleevenotes she speaks about the horrors of life between 1981 and 83 and how she saw a ‘rainbow’ and people full of love hidden behind a black forest. Yoko could only call the rainbow closer by listening to John’s music, which is her reason given for finishing this album. This record is a rainbow indeed, a last bit of comfort from a legend who was gone too soonand even if its not the shiniest rainbow that every floated in the sky it does its bit to push those rainclouds away, if only for a while longer. Here’s to the album that could have been and the bravery of Yoko for letting us hear what’s left of it.
A NOW COMPLETE LIST
OF LENNON ARTICLES TO READ AT ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES: