Monday, 18 January 2016

The Rolling Stones "A Bigger Bang" (2005)

The Rolling Stones "A Bigger Bang" (2005)

Rough Justice/Let Me Down Slow/It Won't Take Long/Rain Fall Down/Streets Of Love/Back Of My Hand/She Saw Me Coming/Biggest Mistake/This Place Is Empty/Oh No Not You Again/Dangerous Beauty/Laugh I Nearly Died/Sweet Neo Con/Look What The Cat Dragged In/Driving Too Fast/Infamy

There's a theory that the big bang happened in our future and that we're all leading up to it now, our lives in reverse. That might explain why 'A Bigger Bang' sounds more like something a band do at the beginning of their careers rather than - with all respect for how much music this band has left to give, maybe one day - the end. Named by Keith after being instructed to come up with a tour name that had a 'bigger bang' about it and then being encouraged to keep it for the record by Virgin, it's an immediate record high on energy big on pop songs and with a couple of classic deep songs peeking through the glitz and glamour - the sorts of thing we'd be praising new bands for showing 'promise' on. The run up to this album was plagued by health scares and worries that the Stones would never sound the same again, sliding too gracefully into middle age - during the lengthy making of it Charlie beat off throat cancer, Ronnie was in and out of rehab and Keith is but a few months away from falling out of a 30 foot palmtree - but against it all this is the youngest, most vibrant and downright noisy record the Stones have made since their first and second albums. The record was encouragingly well received ('Best album since Exile on Main Street even though we said that last time - and the time before that!') and is certainly the catchiest poppiest Stones album in a long time, but it also happens to be the longest Stones album since 'Exile On Main Street' and doesn't quite have enough material here to sustain a full 65 minutes (a mere two shorter than 'Exile'). It's a record of sixteen pop singles (well, twelve pop singles and their B-sides), something many bands do in their early career but which the Stones have never really done before. This is an album that's always after a bigger bang than the track before, with the result that there's no subtlety here, no real change in flow and little depth compared to 'Steel Wheels' 'Voodoo Lounge' or 'Bridges To Babylon', even though on first listen this album sounds better than all of them. The musical equivalent of viagra or botox, 'A Bigger Bang' makes the Stones sound young again, though it comes at a price.

Charlie, especially, seems to have a point to prove and plays with a ferocity and speed he's never possessed before, a shocked Mick and Keith telling reporters that their drummer - traditionally the last part of the sound to be added to the arrangements - was there first every session, eager and enthusiastic like never before. Though Ya Yas has the famous line, it's this album that's his towering achievement with the band, the one where Charlie's good tonight not just on one track but every track, turning songs that might have sounded decidedly boring and average into pulsating 'groove' songs where the rhythm dominates for the first time since 'Black and Blue' (with rather better songs pasted over the top this time). A good half of the album starts with Charlie setting the tone, something you sense has been lacking since the 1970s when Watts decided that the Stones was the best way of paying for his jazz career on the side and he looked like he wanted this all to be over with as soon as possible. Nobody but nobody listening to this record who didn't know the Stones would have guessed he was 64 when it was released: Charlie sounds young, hungry and full of energy - the complete opposite of how he behaved in the band's early days when he seemed like the older, calmer figure (even though Bill was two years his senior). 'A Bigger Bang', it seems, defies the effects of time and gravity, opening with four straight rock songs in a row for the only time bar 'Steel Wheels' and in total eleven of these sixteen songs play hard and fast. None of it, barring the blues of 'Back Of My Hand', falls into that curiously Stonesy 'swamp rock' either - there's nothing blurry or slow-dressed-up-to-sound-fast about this album: everything really is that fast, with an average tempo somewhere around twice the pulse of the average Stones album and perhaps four times the speed of 'Exile On Main Street', the record everyone says is their 'rock' album. The Stones should have sounded like this years ago, with 'A Bigger Bang' the closest thing to a sequel to the punk energy rush of 'Some Girls' in twenty-seven years and eight studio albums. Even Keith only gets one slow ballad cameo, not two as per usual. Almost everything here could have been released as a catchy single (the band missed a trick by not doing that with the catchiest song, 'Oh No Not You Again!' but perhaps they were afraid of sarcastic reviewers like me...) - there were in fact four taken off this album, for the first time since 'Some Girls', almost of it uptempo and catchy. This is, at long last, pure rock and roll from the world's self-proclaimed greatest rock and roll band and I have to say I like it.

Unfortunately where this album loses out is the sense of unfolding drama and emotional weight of the last run of albums ('Steel Wheels' 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Bridges To Babylon', albums which by contrast sounded a little bland and safe but which revealed new depth and detail the more you got to know them. While the Stones of 'A Bigger Bang' can't wait to tell us how youthful and vigorous the band now sound, it's rather a shame that the maturer and adult sounds the Stones had grown into on 'Slipping Away' 'Out Of Tears' and 'Already Over Me' is largely missing. There's little sense here of a band having grown into themselves or into their sound, which is what makes that title so apt: this is a re-set button to take the band back to what everyone who hadn't bought a Stones record in forty odd years would have expected them to sound, even though the Stones never really ever sounded like this - energetic and wild-yet-disciplined. Somewhere deep in this album's DNA seems to be the shock of the band actually bothering to hear their old original recordings for the first time in aeons, possibly for the '40 Licks' compilation set released three years earlier or the 'deluxe' album re-issues already been worked on, and realising that everyone's idea of the Stones' sound was actually a myth so the band had to record one album in that style just to set the record straight. The trouble is the Stones have spent most of the years since they dropped psychedelia and R and B from their act covering the fact thaty they couldn't play as fast and hard as their rivals up. The run of Jimmy Miller LPs between 1968-1973 invented a whole new sound of debauched anarchy that suited the band just fine, while of the later albums only 'Some Girls' even pretended the group were a rock band anymore rather than a pop band who played fast. The Stones have, in truth, become pretty good at honing a whole new style which no other band ever quite managed to mine so successfully: the band's only natural successors in the 'swampy rock' vein were Credence Clearwater Revival and they never came close to the sense of menace or emotional heartbeat the Stones got in a guitar riff. By making 'A Bigger Bang' the Stones effectively turned their back on the sound they'd pretty near perfected, falling in the traps of making this record a little too repetitive and predictable in their haste to prove their rock credentials.

The best songs on the album remain the ones that are the most revealing. A good third of this album is about Mick Jagger's recent and rather bitter split with wife Jerry Hall, his girlfriend since 1977 and wife since 1990 - the legality of which was questioned in court during the divorce in an attempt to keep the alimony low. The press at the time had a field day, bringing out the usual images of Mick as a hard and cruel man intent on making the lives of those he loved a living hell without a shred of remorse, but this album's lyrics reveal a different side. Like Charlie, Mick has a point to prove in defence of what people are saying about him and sounds eager to pour himself into this project, desperate to write out his side of the story. Though the record starts with a typically Stonesy take on divorce on 'Rough Justice' which starts with the ultimate teasing and fan-pleasing Jagger couplet ('One time you were my little chicken but then you turned into a fox, one time I was your red rooster but now I'm just one of your cocks!') and detours into the typical stinging put-down 'Look What The Cat Dragged In!', the rest of the album finds Jagger in sadder confessional mood. 'Laugh I Nearly Cried' and 'Streets Of Love' feel like the deepest, darkest Jagger songs in decades and one where he admits his guilt and his faults like a 'grown up', something fans thought they'd never hear ('The awful truth is awful sad, I must admit I was awful bad!') The fact that both songs happen on an album where the modern Stones sound their youngest is all part of the oddness of this album. Both songs are great and continue the good work of the better run of Stones ballads we've had recently, with the biggest bang on the record seemingly the one that's breaking Mick's heart in two, the end of this relationship clearly causing more pain and grief than his snarling put downs of Chrissie Shrimpton or his how-do-I-get-out-of-this? response to Marianne Faithful's drug overdoses. Had the Stones been brave enough to do a whole album in this vein, after teasing us with bits and pieces in a similar vein on all the 90s Stones albums, this record could have been an even bigger bang even if it might not have sold so well by taking the Stones even further away from the sound everyone thinks they have (but don't).

Both songs show up the biggest weakness with 'A Bigger Bang': a lack of melody. Not since 'Undercover' and 'Dirty Work' has there been a record full of so many songs that you can't actually remember at the time you play them. Like those two albums, this record is mainly about rhythm and grooves but it lacks even the usual Stonesy guitar riffs for the most part, Keith's and Ronnie's parts for once buried underneath Charlie's and Mick's. This is not the Stones album to buy if you only want to hear the band's latest variation on their typical Chuck Berry riff as the closest we get is the U2-style choppy fretwork of 'Rain Fell Down', the Lenny Kravitz style 'She Saw Me Coming'. The best solo on the whole album comes at the end on Keith's showcase 'Infamy', where it's shared by Mick on harmonica and Darryl Jones on bass. Only when 'Streets Of Love' or 'Laugh I Nearly Died' come on do you realise how badly this album is missing the sort of gorgeous beauty of this band at their best or even their average - that in the band's haste to rock they've largely forgotten how to roll. The Big Bang, remember, started with a lot of noise and power (Keith admitted he was thinking of a big explosion when he came up with the name, as well as the creation of the universe and probably the sexual and drug connotations too - I think we can safely accept the official explanation that the band have a 'fascination with scientific theory about the origin of the universe' as something of a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration) but the inertia fades away the further you get away from this source - meaning that the longer you go without playing this album the more you've forgotten how it goes, without any of the usual guitar hooks or sweeping chord changes to truly stick in the memory the two highlights apart.

Which is not to say that fourteen tracks on this album are without worth. Some of the songs here show real invention, even while they're dressed up as pure empty pop-rock songs. ' Sweet Neo Con' is quite unlike anything else the band have ever done, Mick saving his sarcasm and sniping for 'neo-cons', former left wing liberals who turn Conservative-voting capitalists in middle age. One of the biggest changes since the last Stones CD is that Mick is now a 'sir', knighted by the queen in 2003. Though the public were generally supportive of Jagger's slow acceptance into the establishment, Keith for one was horrified and took to calling his colleague 'Sir Brenda' to annoy him (a variation on a nickname hanging round since the 70s based on reports of Mick's bisexuality). Mick's lyrics sounds like a defensive retort that he isn't going to become one of 'those' people, reformed do-gooders who change political stance when they have money to protect. Though we've heard political Jagger before, his barbs have generally been posed at a faceless establishment or  on 'Undercover' war-mongerers and arms dealers. This is a first, a political attack with the pointed chorus 'How come you're so wrong?!' 'Rain Fall Down' too is near-unique in Stones circles: the first 'working class' song since 'Salt Of The Earth' got things so spectacularly wrong on 'Beggar's Banquet', a night of 'sweet love' being a glorious moment of warmth in a life 'like a battleground' in a grey town slum where it's always raining (I never knew Mick had been to my home town or Ormskirk!) 'Back Of My Hand', too, finally treats the blues with care, something I've been longing the band to do ever since the appalling collection of blues songs that marred their work across the 1980s and 1990s. The 'straightest' blues performance since 'Little Red Rooster', it proves how effective the band can still be when they sing like they mean it. That's two classics then and three other songs that win kudos for being brave - in the olden days enough for a pretty strong LP; it's only stretched out to sixteen tracks things start looking a bit thin.

The album's consistency is, as usual with the second half of the Stones' career, their biggest problem. Had 'A Bigger Bang' been released in the age of vinyl, trimmed back to a strong forty minute set with B-sides, the world would have gone crazy. Instead there are too many songs like Keith's latest slow motion ballad 'This Place Is Empty', the too-many-rockers-now filler of 'Dangerous Beauty' and 'Driving Too Fast' and the country ballad 'Biggest Mistake' that are, well, 'A Bigger Bang's biggest mistakes. There are two albums' worth of material here not one and way too much to take in in one go, while cutting the album into bits reveals just how similar too much of this album is. In a way it's the opposite problem of 'Voodoo Lounge' and 'Bridges To Babylon' which has such fun exploring new ways to do things with the old Stones sound and throw in a few trademark templates for fans that they rather ran out of time. 'A Bigger Bang', though, feels like a writing partnership that was having such fun they just didn't know when to stop, before handing over to a band who were having more fun in the studio than they'd had in years and didn't know when to stop either. Far be it from me to tell someone else they've gone on too long and editing's their friend, but there's a groundbreaking ten track album inside this sixteen-tracker trying to get out.

All that said, 'A Bigger Bang' still has more minuses than pluses and largely makes up in performance what it lacks in songs. The Stones never sound as if they're giving less than their all or that they don't care about what they're performing, which will come as a shock to anyone whose arrived here after our recent reviews for so-so Stones albums like 'Out Of Our Heads' and 'Emotional Rescue'. After eight long years away, broken only by the four new songs on '40 Licks', a lot was resting on this album to remind the world that the Stones had a place in the modern world and they do that with ease. At a time when AAA releases were at an all time low, when Paul McCartney was reduced to pretty re-makes of 'Blackbird' on 'Chaos and Not Much Creation', when Paul Simon could only manage half a 'Surprise', when The Who were caught on a seemingly endless 'Endless Wire' and Neil Young was wasting his talents with the world's least interesting soap opera 'Greendale', 'A Bigger Bang' was something of a relief (Rolling Stone Magazine voted it the second best album of the year, behind Kanye West, which will give you some idea about what a rotten state music was in at the time). The Stones don't mess up too much, add two great songs to their back catalogue, stretch their palette on three tracks including a blues they actually don't mess up, pitch in another half dozen or so mixed tracks that sound great mainly thanks to Charlie and don't release anything close to their worst material. That might not be enough for the career renaissance so many people took it to be (in truth this album evens out at about the same level as the more highlights but less consistent trio of 'comeback' albums that came immediately prior), but it's a lot better than many of us feared or expected. 'A Bigger Bang' allows the band to defy the laws of physics and music, time travel back to a time when they sounded young and fresh and inspired and deliver an album any fresh new band would be pleased to have on their CV.  That, surely, is more than enough bang to your buck.

 'Rough Justice' is the stinging sound of outrage and betrayal, the opposite feel of 'Aftermath's sneering put down as Mick is made out to be the guilty party as he pleads it's all lies, that 'I'd never break your heart!' Far from being reformed though, Jaggers still swaggers, informing us that she still loves him for his 'animal attraction' and using the song to strut like a peacock never mind a little red rooster. Though the music sounds like the usual sort of Stones-like filler, it was apparently the first riff Keith had written in his sleep since 'Satisfaction', who opens the album on a typically crunching guitar line before a rare appearance by Ronnie (whose missing for nearly half this album) on slide guitar. It's Charlie though who you notice the most: you sense that even if he wasn't mixed so loud and in your face he's still be the loudest thing in the room, musically spitting feathers to go with Jagger's histrionic performance. Released as the Stones' first double single 'Let's Spend The Night Together/Ruby Tuesday', it was paired with its polar opposite 'Streets Of Love'. A shot of adrenalin with an appealing first verse, though in truth not much else going on past both, the song did well enough to peak at #15, the band's best since 'Like A Rolling Stone'.

 'Let Me Down Slow' would normally be a sweet ballad, but no one seems to have told Charlie that as he's off again at a hundred miles an hour. Mick, again unusually, sings of feeling fragile as he fears the love of his live is about to dump him and begs 'baby let me down real slow'. It's in sharp contrast to 'who wants yesterday's papers?' and reveals new depth as Mick turns detective and sees clues everywhere that his girl is seeing someone else (she's coloured her hair, she's smiling to herself and has a 'swish in her step'), whilst avoiding the confrontation that might put it all straight. A sweet chorus with some descending chords makes this track more memorable than most on this album and there's a nice bed of guitars for the track to sit upon, but the heavy drums are a mite intrusive to be honest and though Charlie nails the turbulence in the song you long for the 'pauses' in the song when he doesn't play. Unfortunately, too, while the song shows promise the track doesn't really lead anywhere - there's a half-hearted slide guitar solo where the 'peak' confrontation/twist in the story should be and Mick ends it as confused and anxious as when he began. How much better the song might have been had he discovered that he was wrong - that she's dressing up because she's worried about losing him or smiling because she's just realised how great he is. The Stones were always naturals at paranoia (see '2000 Light Years From Home') but that gets rather lost inside this song despite some good ideas.

The rocked-up blues riff opening to 'It Won't Take Long' is Keith's greatest moment o the album, a new way of doing an old song that sounds more menacing than many of the Stones' more formulaic uses of the riff. The sound inspired Jagger to a lyric that tries to stay positive and dismissive, like all past Stones 'break-up' songs, but is clearly nursing a broken heart. Though Jagger sings with all the passion and verve of old, we don't believe him for a minute as he protests just that bit too much, spending four minutes to tell us that he'll forget his girl in seconds. A clever chorus expands on the idea, repeating the world war one mantra that 'it'll all be over by Christmas', something most of the people who signed up didn't really believe either (note that Mick doesn't say which Christmas). When Mick adds that 'it seems like yesterday when we first met' he's trying to be dismissive about how little the relationship (almost certainly his marriage to Jerry), but the effect is also that the relationship has only just got started and has so much further to go. A flying Keith suddenly soars over his and Ronnie's twinned weaving on the riff, the counterpunch giving this song a real weight as the track tries to soar and snarl all at the same time. All this adds up to one of the most depressive last verses the Stones ever wrote, Mick's narrator trying to make sense of the fact that the love of his life now only exists as 'a few memories in an old shoe box' and that 'life comes as quite a shock'. Though the track is delivered to the same high energy level of the rest of the album there's a lot more thought that's gone into this one and thankfully Charlie's desperate how-dare-you drum rolls this time perfectly sum up a man whose realising the mess he's in by stages, each verse chorus and solo punctuated by a fresh panic attack.

 'Rain Fell Down' also did well as a single despite being something of a departure for the Stones. A story song about a couple of slum kids who fall in love in a world that had once seemed to offer nothing, it's a song about hope overcoming despair, though it's far from a romantic fairytale - the couple make love to keep warm as much out of romance and get disturbed by the heavy rain that falls on the windows. There's a hint, though, that she's somehow different to Mick's narrator's usual lovers: though just as poor her flat is kept spick and span to her own, with hers the only flat door still on its hinges. The pair feel as if they're living in a battleground' and wonder why they never leave 'this strange grey town', their poverty unmentioned despite being a bonding between them. In the context of this album, where every other relationship is ending in heartbreak, the hint seems to be that anyone whose in love is richer than a millionaire going through a divorce. There's even a verse damning a 'rich bimbo' on TV for spilling her life story for $10,000 - something that should be kept precious and whose betrayal should be above any sum (something to ponder when Keith's mud-slinging autobiography comes out five years later...) The backing cleverly mirrors this hopeless yet happy existence, Keith's guitar 'ringing a bell' as he plays the part of the phone ringing off the hook which the couple are too wrapped up in themselves to notice or answer. There's some nice interplay between the guitars, which sound more like lots of Keiths to me than Keith and Ronnie and another example of Charlie playing out of his drumskins which raises this song up another level too. 

'Streets Of Love' proves that the Stones can still write meaningful songs as well as catchy ones. Despite forty odd years of Jagger being brutal to the women and partners who slow him down, it's hard not to feel affected as the same thing happens to him. There's a moment of realisation in this song - the 'awful truth' as he puts it - that, actually, he's not just the victim but a bit of the villain here too that's so un-Stones like that it catches you almost as off guard as it seems to catches Mick. Taking the opposite tack to the equally gorgeous 'Out Of Tears', a now homeless Jagger again finds himself walking the streets through the pouring rain, imagining it 'drenched with tears'. Like many a song of heartbreak, Mick walks past a whole world that seem to be in love apart from him, couples hand in hand and enjoying wedding marches on 'the streets of love' while he's never felt more alone and all he can see is the rain beating down on him. The street seems to go on forever, just as a lonely future beckons, and Mick walks it like some doomed figure from Greek Myth, trapped here for a 'thousand years'. We've never heard Jagger like this - fragile and desperate - and it coaxes one of the best vocals of his career, certainly one of the best where he actually sounds like he means it without a trace of irony. People have often discussed whether Jagger is really a great singer or not and whether he's been putting his on all these years with sheer charisma, but this performance - which goes from growl to 'Miss You' style falsetto - is proof that Jagger is one of music' best expressive singers when he wants to be. Clearly this is mainly a Jagger song and one he clearly wanted to get off his chest, but it sounds like Keith had a lot to do with this song too: though it's easy to miss the growling howling guitar riff buried at the bottom of a strings-heavy mix is perhaps the best on the album, channelling all that inner frustration and sadness. There's an icy calm about this one though despite the extra power the band bring to the song, something about it which says that its final this time, with no more reconciliations from here. A highly impressive song that's very different to even the usual Stones ballads and perhaps the first Stones song that's ever been about guilt.

Clearly Mick's in a bluesy mood, although perhaps strangely 'Back Of My Hand' ends up being the only blues song on this Stones album after quite a run on the past few. It's quality not quantity that matters though, with Jagger a more convincing bluesman than usual here, though it's his overdubbed harmonica playing that really catches the ear. Keith and Ronnie swap guitar parts over a thick and heavy bass sound that's about the closest the band get to their trademark 'swamp rock' in this period. In a hint of the 2012 track 'Doom and Gloom' to come a preacher warns about problems ahead that he can read as clear as 'the back of my hand' (a bit of sooth-saying two years ahead of the 'credit crunch'). After switching from 'hearing' the news, suddenly Jagger's narrator can see it firsthand, 'Love' and 'misery' are dancing by the side of the stage and the veterans of Altamont know what it's like when darkness stalks the concert. A third verse is set in Jagger's mind as he goes a bit mad, haunted by visions and - in the nattiest rhyme on the album - 'Goya's paranoias', with reality slowly sliding into the abstract visions of the painter. Similar to 'You Gotta Move', but better, the first Stones blues song to be about creeping doubt and a universal fear works so much better than their usual woe-is-me-millionaire-in-love stuff and makes 'Fancy Man Blues' seem like a distant memory. Maybe the ghost of Brian Jones was even persuaded to come back and take a look at what his old band had become without disgust on this one, the first Stones recording for years of which you sense he'd approved.

'She Saw Me Coming' was one of those songs that probably could have gone though, or at least been demoted to B-side. It's more of a chorus than a song, with Jagger back to his innocent victim against an evil woman rant as he complains about being 'screwed'. This is, however, the first Stones character to be a real bad girl, out on parole for some wicked deed - Jagger assumes it's because she 'burglarised my soul' and she 'lined me up in her sights' like a sniper with a gun after his heart. He's clearly having fun venting his anger against Jerry and you sense this exactly the sort of song his therapist would have told him to write to get this period out of his system. However it's not quite like the earlier Stones song in the same line either: 'I'm a sucker!' he sings, before adding in the fadeout 'Boy am I a dope - she had me on the ropes!' - we'd never have had this sort of admission on any previous Stones album as Jagger again partly blames himself at the same time he tries to pin all the blame on 'her'. The rest of the Stones though get very little to do on a song that won't move out of it's simple groove all the way through and only Mick and an even noisier Charlie, like a teething toddler with ADHD let loose on a drumkit really seem to 'understand' this song. Keith and Ronnie sound pretty annoyed at having to sing the title line over and over in fact. That said, it's impressive that such a simple song still comes off as well as it does - earlier albums would have smothered this track with superfluous gospel backing singers, synthesisers and backing singers and it works really well reduced to power-trio-with-singer.

Even the Stones on rare band form can't quite rescue 'Biggest Mistake' though, which dare I say it really is the biggest mistake on the album. It's a country-style weepie ballad (though minus Ronnie's pedal steel for once - this seems to be one of the songs where he's missing!) and the most generic 'breakup' song on what's arguably the Stones' biggest 'break-up' album. Mick realises once again 'I think I've just made the biggest mistake of my life' as he has one affair too many for his marriage - but you wouldn't know that from the strangely bouncy music or the poppy 'Miss You' style 'oohs' he adds over the top of the track. Jagger confesses that he was 'brainwashed' by love and portrays his decision to sleep with someone else as a 'rebellious' moment against 'the system', but he's fooling no one and soon comes back round to reflecting on how it's 'the biggest mistake of my life'. Charlie once again thumps the drums like this is a rock song and only Mick seems to really understand this song, with a Keith Richards guitar part that verges on forgettable - most unusual for him. Even this track, though, is merely bland and forgettable, not horrendous as per 'Sweethearts Together' and 'Gunface' from the last two albums.

Keith's been rather quiet so far across the record, but somehow his latest growled ballad  'This Place Is Empty' feels a little bit ordinary compared to years gone by. A song of heartbreak and absence to reflect the overall down feel of the album, apparently written while his wife was enjoying a night out with friends, it lacks the sparkle of a strong band performance to brighten the song (it might be notable that Charlie's in the background again now, not the front for the first time on the album). Keith might be trying to be at one in solidarity with his partner, perhaps with Jagger chipping in a few lines about his own situation again, but in a reverse of their usual personal lives Keith is enjoying a rare period of love and calm in his life and he's too laidback to get across the message of sadness and despair this song needs. Though this is a very 'Keith' song by past traditions, full of his characteristic phrases like 'it's funny' and 'it's crazy' and the gratuitous request that his girl go topless to comfort him which comes out of nowhere in an otherwise gentlemanly lyric, it might have been better if Jagger had sung it with his harder edge and urgency. Mick does appear  by the way, unusually or as Richards song, playing the slide guitar part in Ronnie's absence - as well as the drums on an early version that just featured the Glimmer Twins. The result is another song of heartbreak that sounds suspiciously close to 'Sleep Tonight' 'Slipping Away' and 'Thru and Thru' without the same sense of authenticity and less of a melody than all three. That said, Keith's mastered his vocals and the low growl that fifty odd years of hard living have done to his formerly squeaky voice and it's a lot better than anything that appears on his next solo album 'Cross-Eyed Heart' (one of the most disappointing releases of last year).

'Oh No, Not You Again!' returns to the album tradition of noisy pop songs like loss. It's one of the best examples of this style though, with the punkish rush of 'Some Girls' inspiring another blistering band performance where sumo wrestler Watts attacks the drum kit with so much weight and power you're sure it's going to break. Jagger howls his vocals out with such force that the lyrics are hard to hear, which is a shame because they're rather good in a simple way. Mick is distracted by beauty in the first verse, then realises his mistake and tries to break away, turning from being seduced into being stalked. Howling in rage that he didn't take his own advice he screams 'oh no!' like he's just joined John Lennon in primal therapy before telling us that this partnership dates back decades - she's had time to have daughters and even grandaughters since they last met. This could of course be pure fiction - it's a very Stones idea that Mick is such a great lover no one ever forgets him - but are there shades of Marianne Faithful's comeback in this song? Having been away from the music business for years (indeed poor Marianne homeless for much of the 1980s) she was suddenly central to the Stones story again, appearing on documentaries and writing an autobiography that naturally said quite a lot about Jagger (the pain of being 'discussed' by his ex-lover, followed a mere few years later by Keith's book, must have been difficult for someone as private as Mick). The character doesn't necessarily 'feel' like her though, taking the lead to such an extent that even Mick declares 'I can't stand the pace!', though it is worth pointing out the lines about a shared 'addiction', with its shades of 'Sister Morphine'. The end result is a noisy thrash that, 'You Got Me Rocking' aside perhaps, is the best Stones wild rocker since the 'Some Girls' album and taped in the same spirit of keeping things simple and raw. There are better songs on this album, deeper tracks on similar themes and one or two band performances even greater, but the performance here is impressive for a band now in their sixties and this is the most the Stones have sounded like a band in a long time too. Keith and Ronnie both get to solo during the course of the song and both are fantastic, aggressively channelling Mick's despair. 
This really should have been the album's single - it tended to be the song from the album that was getting the most radioplay when 'A Bigger Bang' was first sent to DJs for promotion - but got cancelled by 'Street Of Love' instead. A bad move I think - the sheer energy and chutzpah in this song was the best advert available that the Stones of old were really back - for half an album or so at least.

'Dangerous Beauty' just sounds like the last song without the speed or the thrills. Mick is in awe of a beauty who looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth and is so 'young and naive' in her high school photograph. However she's a dominatrix on the quiet, with Mick seeing a different controlling side to her that the rest of the world never does. The opening is surely about Jerry Hall again (who does indeed look sweet in her early modelling photographs but comes over a little differently in interviews - Mick's clearly got a 'type' following Marianne and Bianca in that regard), but perhaps worried about libel Mick pulls back. The following verses seem to be about, surprisingly, Monica Lewinsky,  who brought an end to Bill Clinton's presidency in 1999 (a little after the release of 'Babylon'). In Mick's warped vision though she's not the intern but the cleaner, 'with your rubber gloves a favourite with the chiefs of staff'. Perhaps tickled by the idea that love can cause even the leader of the free world to put their marriage and career in trouble, Mick portrays her as his usual femme fatale, knowing exactly what she's doing with a cold heart of steel behind her sweet and innocent ways (actually Lewinksy doesn't sound like that sort of character at all and was almost certainly seduced by her boss, but this version of the story is a more 'Rolling Stones' one). 'If looks could be killing, I'd bet you'd shoot me now!' Mick purrs at the end, back to his taunting best as he inspires an all too brief moment of passion from Keith on the guitar. Once again, though, this song doesn't feature much of a melody and just sounds like something to sing across the drum beats which again feature Charlie thumping away as if there's only him left between doom and despair.

The album highlight is surely 'Laugh, I Nearly Died'. Like 'Streets Of Love' but more so, the swagger has gone and Mick is left realising that he's messed up big time. Used to having his own way he's now rudderless, homeless, pretending that everything's alright as he travels the world nursing the hidden secret that he has no home to get back to. 'I'm so sick and tirrrrrred' he purrs like he means it, as he threatens either to end it for the relationship or himself as he bids his 'goodbyes' and bitterly mocks the fact that he's poured his heart out and all his former loved one can do is laugh. In a mocking switch of the usual roles (this song is the polar opposite of 'Yesterday's Papers'), Mick can't believe that he's been cast aside so casually and meant so little to someone who meant so much to him once. Informing us he 'lost my direction and my home', Mick tries to carry on with his job but he's stung by her ice cold words even in the heat of India and can't get away far enough even in a world of fantasy. The battle-scarred line 'This kind of loneliness is way too hard!' may well be the most chilling moment on a Stones album since Brian Jones went mad with a mellotron on 'We Love You' - the act is over, the hurt has gone too deep and Jagger is magnificent on a lyric that relies on his performance to step up to the mark like never before. Unlike 'Streets Of Love', though, this is no mere solo performance with backing and the rest of the Stones absolutely nail this track. The sudden heart-stopping plunge before Charlie steps in with a 'WHALLOP!' in the chorus and the guitar riff physically drags the players' heads downwards in a terrific musical scowl is chilling. The song ends, as it always must, with Jagger as lost and trapped as ever, with even the band dropping him out and leaving him alone, 'Laugh' ending on an a capella-with-drums blues part: 'Been travelling far and wide, wondering whose gonna be my guide...' Mick's been left with so little he's taken to praying and chanting in a cry for direction, while he scat sings over the backing sea of voices and turns 'diiiiiiiiied' into a twenty syllable word. It's a striking memorable moment that for once bears so very little with the usual Stones signature sound, no longer an attempt to get played on top 40 radio and give fans on tour something to scream about but a real message from a heart that's bleeding and suddenly realising the horror of being s victim rather than a bully. Pure brilliance and one of the greatest moments of any Stones LP or CD.

'Sweet Neo Con' is a slightly more forced experiment. Mick has always had more of a political eye than people gave him credit for and seems to have taken an unusual interest in the election of George Bush Jnr to the Whitehouse. Figuring, probably rightly, that the Christian movement had played a major role in the election, a breakaway bunch of former liberals who pushed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and labelled their former Democrat parties as 'weak'. Jagger, a lifelong liberal despite that recent knighthood, is appalled and contradictory ticks them off for being 'hypocrites' singing about freedom and democracy and freedom for all while playing such a major part in the balance of power, whilst telling them plainly they're 'wrong'. Mick, of course, was one of the few musicians concerned enough by Western interference in the middle East to write first 'Undercover' about arms deals and then 'Highwire' about the inevitable fall-out. Mick sees through it all for what it really is - a war about oil prices and taking oil fields over for pricey fuel - and complains mockingly 'I love gasoline, I drink it everyday, but it's getting very pricey....' Mick then mentions Halliburton, the gas and oil company named in a bribery scandal in Nigeria in 1994 whose full ramifications only trickled out bit by bit (to 'sweeten the deal' a bag of $1 million dollars was proved to have been 'dropped off' by the American Government, though it was peanuts compared to what the deal was really worth). Jagger also namechecks a questionable merger with the company Brown and Root that took away much of the competition that had formerly kept these sort of companies to account. Mick can see the repercussions from a mile away, getting paranoid and imagining 'bombers in my bedrooms' as the tensions between countries inevitably leads to war and he's arguably even more right then he'd have known back in 2005, events then only half-known leading to the credit crunch and a whole other 'big bang' a few years down the line from this album. Alas a strong lyric is rather batted away on another fairly forgettable melody that's based on one of the simplest two-note guitar riffs yet. Mick's vocal and noisy 'yeah yeah yeahs' are also a little too brittle and off-key for the ears, even though if any lyric gives Jagger a right to mock the world it's this one. Charlie too hasn't slowed down a jot despite the fact this song is so much slower and more thoughtful than normal. Perhaps this track should have been saved for a solo Jagger album as the others sound rather out of place on it, though full marks to the band for even trying a song as against the general tide of politics at the time as this one on a record where nobody seriously expected the band to come out with any kind of 'big' political message.

'Look What The Cat Dragged In' is a final burst of noise and aggression as Mick switches in an instant from victim to aggressor. His missus has been out partying again and she looks a state, leaving Mick tut-tutting like a 1950s housewife in curlers in the corner. He sneers over her doddery 'walk of shame' back to the house, compares her night of debauchery with his own serene night in studying the Sunday papers for mentions of Syria and the Lebanon and throws in a nod to an old rival band with the line 'You look like a leper, dressed as Sgt Pepper!' The best line though: 'Your muscles are doing the walk of shame!' Keith is inspired to add his own curt commentary on the song with a stinging guitar line that's piercing and shrill, the musical equivalent of a slap to the face to wake her up. Of course, in the great context of Stones tradition, this song is deeply unfair. Traditionally the band are the ones out living a party lifestyle and haranguing those who try to hold them back so Mick's harrumphing at one meagre incident seems a tad unfair. You can hear, behind this song's complaint, Mick's sheer glee at someone whose been giving him a hard time for exactly this sort of behaviour falling into the trap herself and is keen to rub it in her face as much as possible. Typically Jagger, the song almost opens with the lines 'I won't interrogate you and I will never berate you' even though that's exactly what he does for the whole song! A useful bit of tension-expelling helped by some terrific one-liners and another strong band performance (minus Ronnie once again) with an especially strong ending that comes to a halt not on the expected final door-slam but on a moody slower question mark. 'We're even now, at last' the finale hints, 'So...friends again?' The rest of the album hints that the answer is still 'no!'

There comes a point on every long-ish AAA album, usually towards the end, where we'll get the inevitable 'car' song. It happened to The Kinks, to David Crosby and Neil Young spent whole albums stuck on the theme. 'Driving Too Fast' is, for once on this album, a weak and cliched lyrics rescued by a glorious Stonesy riff-based backing and a fierce band performance that raises the track way above where it should by when you read the lyrics. Life, as so often happens on these sorts of songs, is a long and winding road. Sometimes though, Mick explains, the journey isn't as simple as it seems from outside the car. A defensive comment on people who are making copy from the end of his marriage to Jerry, he explains that sometimes you make mistakes: you get mud on your windscreen that impairs your vision, you take the wrong roads out of fear that you're about to crash and living life to the full often leaves you 'driving too fast' to make all the bends safely. There are no seat-belts on this performance which features three jagged stabbing guitar parts and a fierce Watts drum part that keeps pushing the accelerator pedal down. Mick reaches a fork in the road, caught perhaps between staying faithful to his family and the intoxication or a new romance and he longs to take both and see where each of them leads - though he fears he's doomed whichever direction he takes, with blind alleys in both. Though the relationship has 'run out of gas' it's already out of control and there's nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable crash. Not the best song on the album by a long way, but even this sort of track - which could so easily be filler material of the sort written by every band continuously - is well handled here, with a strong Stones performance that's wild but unlike some earlier albums still impressively under control.

The last word, as so often happens, is left to Keith on his first uptempo rock song in years. There's an unusual feel about Infamy, though, which is based around a bubbling bass lick and features an even trickier, tighter tempo from Charlie. Perhaps remembering his own similar tales of betrayal (maybe even Mick sleeping with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg while making the film 'Performance'), Keith says that a long term friend or partner has made something 'abundantly clear'...but won't tell us what. The title reflects the old Carry On Caesar joke ('Infamy!...They've all got in for me!') and is a mixture of typical Jaggerisms and Richardits, suggesting the pair wrote it closely. They may well be writing it to each other, given the lines about how 'it might be you that wrote the song baby - but it's me that's got to sing!' and complaints that once upon a timer 'we got along so famously' (not a line that's particularly true of either's complex love lives but would fit in well with the Mick n Keef story). There's a hint, too, that Keith is digging at Mick's talking on his behalf during the years when his drug problems made him unwell and he backed away from Stones decisions: 'I'm still learning my lined baby, since you re-wrote my part!' The song fits with both men's images: Keith the outlaw, hunted by the law for reasons he doesn't quite understand and Mick's recent feeling that everyone and everything seems determined to let him down. Though not an obvious song for Keith to sing (it's a shade too high), he copes well with the vocal (it's a relief to hear him on something other than a slow ballad by this point), while Mick backs his partner up with a strong harmonica part beside him. Though the song is another of the album's parts that seems strangely melodyless, a strong riff and another great band performance keep the song ticking over nicely and it's a good track to go out on: the first time a Stones album has ended on a rocker rather than a ballad since 'Some Girls'.

The end result, then, is certainly a noisy bang of an album, though one with care and real emotion hidden not all that far underneath the aggressive backing tracks and Charlie using the album as his gym routine. Whether it's a bigger bang than what came before is a moot point: the record plays it safer than 'Voodoo Lounge' or 'Bridges To Babylon' and recycles too many idea and riffs to sustain the longer running time. It is, however, a more consistent album than either with tracks that fall to average at worst and rise to masterpieces at best, with the recent pain of Mick's breakup with his longest relationship ever inspiring him to new heights of eruditeness and the Stones to new heights of brotherhood and unity in the studio. We still don't quite have the 'amazing comeback' the Stones and indeed their reviews have promised us for so long, where everything works and the band are the equal of any modern rock band with work on a par with their past. This record's Achilles heel is the lack of the sweeping melodies that used to be second nature to the Stones, even as recently as the last album, while there are also far less memorable guitar riffs in Keith's locker than probably any other Stones LP (though it's touch and go with 'Black and Blue'). Great lyrics and even greater band performances aren't quite enough to make this album a classic without those things, but two out of three ain't bad. This is, after all, quite an incredible past to match up to and the Stones come closer than a lot of other bands have ever managed who have lasted so long. By turns fierce, guilty and political, 'A Bigger Bang' is a lot better than any band entering their 43rd year has any right to be. The awful truth is awful sad: if you expected any more than this after so many years, you're awful mad. Maybe though, just maybe, the Stones will surprise us all next time around and tick all three boxes, though as the time between albums ticks to another ten years - two longer than even the wait for this one - and the fallout from Keith's autobiography continues there remain fears that 'this could be the last time'. There are worse ways to go out than this though: sassy, witty and intelligent behind the youthful energy and bluster this is a worthy enough bang to end on. 

Other Rolling Stones articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

'No 2' (1965)

'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll' (1974)

'Black and Blue' (1976)

'Some Girls' (1978)

'Emotional Rescue' (1980)

'Undercover' (1983)

'Steel Wheels' (1989)

'Bridges To Babylon' (1998)

Rolling Stones: Unreleased Recordings

John Lennon: The Best Unreleased Recordings 1968-1980

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!

Though sadly John Lennon didn't live long enough to become the 'ninety year old guru' sitting in his rocking chair as always dreamed of becoming, he had a very full and productive life. More home recordings exist for Lennon that probably any other artist in the history of popular music, often turning to the tape recorder when he's got no more than the basis of an idea and a starting point. By the sound of it Lennon had always worked like this, with Paul McCartney working with him on a whole pile of cassettes in the Beatles era - most of which were thrown out by Cynthia or Jane Asher, much to the collective horror of many Beatlemaniacs down the years. The earliest Lennon demo that seems to have survived is a scruffy surprisingly folk-rock version of 'She Said She Said' in 1966 - however there are so many out there that we've cut this article down to just the tapes Lennon made when starting out on his solo career, from the point in 1968 when he began working with Yoko.
However the vast majority of our article comes from one busy period in particular. One o the biggest myths about Lennon was that during his house-husband years of late 1975-late 1980 he never had so much as a musical thought. That clearly wasn't the case as Lennon was as prolific as ever during those years - what he lacked was a desire to go through all the record company hoops to get his music out there. Who knows how many if any of these tapes Lennon would have returned to as part of his 'comeback' or even how long that comeback might have lasted, but we do know that a few of the songs discarded circa 1978 were revived in quite different form for  both 'Double Fantasy' and 'Milk and Honey' in 1980. Interestingly Lennon has adopted a quite different writing style, nine times out of ten using the piano rather than the guitar to interpret his latest muse and as was the habit of a lifetime quite often left his demos sketchy, sometimes coming back to them to extend them when he got struck by another idea. For the most part Lennon sounds oddly melancholy - not as desperately emotional as the early solo years or even the 'Walls and Bridges' era but decidedly 'down' compared to the comeback album and half-finished follow-up.

 One of the biggest myths about Lennon was that he turned his back on music forever There's a particular emphasis on the supposedly 'quiet' year of 1978, right in the middle of the 'house husband years', when a rather melancholic sounding Lennon took to the tape recorder again as and when the muse struck Though not everything Lennon wrote was gold dust, there 's enough promise in what Lennon ultimately abandoned to have filled at least two more albums after the completed 'Double Fantasy' and half-started 'Milk and Honey', most of them piano ballads in the same vein as the 'Threetles' reunion singles 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' (though, generally speaking, most are better, making it odd that Yoko should have chosen the pair of songs she did to give to Paul, George and Ringo). Do please note by the way that Lennon couldn't care less what date it was when he taped most of these , never mind pass the info on to bootleggers, so the dates are general at best - to save time we've lumped most of these tapes under 1978, the mid-year of Lennon's 'retirement' when we know he was writing a lot, though we could be up to two years out either way.  

 However even before we get that far there are plenty of alternate versions out there to enjoy with lots of choice demos and alternate takes from all of Lennon's 'mainstream' solo work well worth being given an official release. If you're a proper longterm Lennon fan you might recognise many of these names from the long-running radio series 'The Lost Lennon Tapes'. A true treasure trove of unheard tapes chosen by Yoko and presenter Elliott Mintz (a Lennon family friend) together, it ran for a ridiculous 218 episodes between January 24th 1988 and March 29th 1992 on the American channel Westwood Radio One Network. That alone should tell you what a mammoth task it is covering everything unreleased Lennon did, so we've only gone with the highlights - the recordings that still desperately deserve a release rather than the ones in the 'it would be nice' category. Many fans expected a lush and pricey series of box sets to follow, but actually Yoko has proved to be impressively reluctant to cash-in on her husband's legacy and so far only one box set appeared featuring these recordings and a good deal of still un-broadcast material as late as 1998 ('The Lennon Anthology'), with a couple of single disc sets 'Acoustic' (2004) and 'The Home Tapes' (as part of the 'Signature' box set of 2010) to follow. Hopefully there'll be at least another box set to come in the future - until then though that still leaves several hundred priceless rare recordings for the bootleggers however (and no doubt Lennon would have approved, being a keen collector of Beatle bootlegs himself!)

1)    Two Virgins Opening (1968)
The 'Two Virgins' recording made on May 18th 1968 didn't actually start with Lennon turning his synthesiser on and Lennon sqauwking but with some playful chat that's actually a lot more interesting than most of the record. Yoko tries to explain to a disbelieving Lennon how to create 'avant garde art' and just 'let his mind go'. He's too busy making jokes though ('You're not going to turn the lights out and leave me alone in the room doing the one note are you?') and interrupting Yoko's wails to ask 'excuse me, am I meant to wait until you finish?' He really tickles Yoko's funnybone - this is the most I've heard her laugh in forty years' worth of recordings!) and Lennon does his impression of the posh Abbey Road engineers counting her in ('Take it from the top won't you love? Bit more sweep as you come round the sidewind!') Yoko apologises, even though it's John whose wasting time (and tape!) leaving Lennon to kindly add 'it's alright - we'll wait for her won't we ladies and gentlespoons?'

2)    A Case Of The Blues (Demo c.1968)
Sounding like a White album era demo, this song isn't so much a blues as a skiffle rocker performed on acoustic guitar. A less intense 'Yer Blues' John speaks about the futility of hiding his feelings when to the outer world they're obvious: 'everyone knows it, it's a case of the blues'. A nicely retro rocker that has an inventive slowing-down section at the end.

3)    Give Peace A Chance (Demo c.1969)
Lennon's just had a bright idea for his honeymoon so gets a quick sketch of it down on tape. More uptempo and angry than the finished product - and obviously without the massed singalongs - Lennon's early idea for the song seems to have been more of a spoof of gospel music, complete with 'right ons' and 'alrights'. Interestingly, the lyrics to the verses which he always considered rushed and 'less important' than the chorus are all here complete, suggesting this isn't a very early draft of the song.

4)    Power To The People (Alternate Version 1969)
The finished version of 'Power To The People' is a communal chant, complete with a large chorus singing along and stomping their feet. A version exists with Lennon singing a solo guide vocal, however, alongside a saxophone part that's barely heard on the finished version. Like many a Lennon song, the final version is so over-produced it loses some of it's raw edge and grit but this rough take is terrific, Lennon coming close to some early primal screaming as he tears into his working class supporting lyrics. Right on, brother!

1)    Mother (Alternate Take)
if you think the finished take of this song is 'raw', that's nothing on the outtakes. Lennon is so busy spitting out his words he barely plays any piano and Klaus' bass is way down low, so all you really get is the very different vocal and Ringo's drums ticking away like a metronome. Lennon peaks much earlier but clips most of his lines throughout the song short as if sobbing. It is perhaps not quite up to the finished version but it's still hauntingly 'real', especially the 'Children don't do what I have done' verse that's performed at twice the adrenalin of the first half of the song.
2)    I Found Out (Demo 1970)
So far the 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' LP has become by far the best represented on outtakes sets with multiple versions of all eleven albums tracks around - enough for a deluxe double disc set at least if Yoko ever wants to re-issue the albums on CD again. A handful of different versions exist though, such as a slightly different and much longer version of 'I Found Out' in demo form. Great as the finished product is I think I prefer the demo version even more, with Lennon truly solo and destroying his acoustic guitar with some very psychedelic guitar slashes in his fury. Although, funnily enough, Lennon's actual vocal is the most 'together' of all the Plastic Ono Band era, dripping with detached contempt rather than wild fury however much of a wreck he's turning his guitar into. There's a solitary lyric change: 'I seen through junkies, I seen through them all, I seen neuroses from Jesus to Paul!'

3)    Remember (Unedited Version 1970)
The finished album take of 'Remember' did not end with the sound of Guy Fawkes blowing up the houses of parliament as per the album, but with a demented fade-out that runs for a full four minutes extra. Lennon appears schizophrenic, telling Klaus Voormann and Ringo (on bass and drums) 'okay - you can stop!' but his fingers have found a great piano groove that he's enjoying too much to end. 'Dur-dee-doo-BAM-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam' he goes over and over again, playing faster and faster so that the track gets more and more hypnotic and out of control while someone (possibly Lennon overdubbed) fiddles around on organ. Lennon starts to sing along and goes into an improvisation ('She was rolling and polling and molling along...') which Lennon credits to Frank Zappa though none of his songs really fit ('Brown Shoes Don't Make It' being about the closest).Enjoying himself Lennon laughs 'avant garde - that's French for bullshit!' and jokingly tells his fellow players 'don't lose it now - this is a serious piece of work!' However it's Lennon who loses his way first, dropping the chords to take up a quick improvisation on the piano's black notes. Till the end though it's thrillingly intense and the album version could easily have lasted up to the six minute mark. A slightly different mix also reveals that the take actually started with a thump of Ringo's drums before Lennon's thick heavy piano chords joined in and that there's a jew's harp being twanged in the background.

4)    God (Demo 1970)
Good as the 'God' demo on the  'Anthology' is it's no match for the rather straighter demo Lennon put together of his song. Sung to a country and western style acoustic backing, the song has a surprisingly upbeat feel unlike the careful thoughtful plod of the finished product. Lennon hasn't added 'Beatles' to his shopping list of broken faith systems yet and instead of pausing for emotional effect simply ploughs on without stopping that 'I just believe in me - Yoko and me!' 'Hallelujah brothers!' he slyly adds at the end despite having just knocked every religious faith ever made off their perch.

5)    My Mummy's Dead (Alternate Version)
Lennon returned to the simple album closer more than any other 'Plastic Ono Band' song. Though less numb with pain and slightly clearer than the finished version, this one is easily the best, capturing more nuances in Lennon's emotional vocal and ending in an instrumental repeat of the 'three blind mice' melody that runs for a full verse instead of simply ending.

6)    Imagine (Alternate Take 1971)
Sung with the same echo as the finished product, but without all the accoutrements and the slightly buried vocal of the finished product, this is a different rehearsal take to the one on the 'Imagine' soundtrack (John even sings the ending 'properly' this time!) Lennon's vocal is right upfront where it deserves to be and it's a great one, full of pathos and emotion that makes up for a rather wobbly Jim Keltner drum part. Interestingly the band back out for the third 'Imagine no possessions' verse' which is performed with the same subtle acoustic vibe as the first verse.

7)    Imagine (Strings Overdub 1971)
I'll be honest with you - despite being a huge Lennon fan I've never really taken to Lennon's most famous song  'Imagine' much. Lennon wrote many better lyrics on the theme and the melody is subtler than most in his catalogue. The first time I fell head over heels for it was hearing the string arrangement part solo, which sounds like the score from the best film soundtrack ever made, sweeping in with sheer unadulterated emotion - and in effect doing the very opposite to Lennon's rather detached performance underneath. This lovely warm arrangement will be a shoe-in if we ever do an AAA classical prom one day!

8)    Jealous Guy (Alternate Version 1971)
Many many alternate versions of this classic song exist all featuring some truly gorgeous Lennon lead vocals. Though the finished version of this song has gone for a more 'dreamy' feel, the rehearsal take is much more up-front and 'human', Lennon's forlorn vocal still smothered in echo but revealing every little nuance. It's all very fitting to a song about apology and being human.

9)    Gimme Some Truth (Alternate Version 1971)
One of the best tracks from 'Imagine' but with the overdubs kept to a minimum and Lennon's acerbic vocal mixed up close where you can actually hear it. And what a vocal it is, as Lennon wraps his tonsils round the line 'no short haired yellow bellied son of tricky dicky's gonna mother hubbard soft soap me for just a pocketful of dope!' An early mix also includes George Harrison's first pass at a guitar solo which isn't quite as polished as the record - this was George's preferred way of working his life-long, playing with the musicians live but coming back to perfect his solo after everyone had gone home. There's a longer fade too with Lennon getting increasingly carried away on his 'all I want are the truths'!  Lennon at his mocking sarcastic best and so much better than the completed mix.

10) I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier (Alternate Version 1971)
One of the 'Imagine' tracks I never much cared for sounds much better heard in a rawer, funkier no-frills version. There's very little here, just Lennon's scratchy guitar, Klaus' bass and Jim Keltner's drumming but the power trio cook up a real storm of noise and Lennon handles his vocal better, getting louder and louder with each passing verse as the recording takes off and soars from a wayward start. A lyric change has Lennon not wanting to become a 'lawyer' rather than a 'failure'. I don't wanna hear the version with overdubs no more, mamma, that finished version doesn't seem to wanna try.

11) Oh My Love (Alternate Version 1971)
The Imagine album's hidden classic, 'Oh My Love' was nearly perfect as it was. And yet the rehearsal take edges closer to heaven still, with less production technique getting in the way of one of Lennon's prettiest vocals of all and a backing track that's just the right side of sloppy. I don't know about the world, but everything is clear in the mix at least.

12) How Do You Sleep? (Alternate Version 1971)
John's damning attack on Paul was never my favourite Lennon moment, but for those who love this song they need to hear Lennon's ice-cold rehearsal version in which he growls his way through his most acerbic lyric, sounding less passionate but more quietly vengeful. A lengthy fade, with George performing some slightly different guitar parts, stretches the song out to some eight minutes but Lennon sounds less than happy with him and ticks George off for 'racing ahead' (so that's two Beatles he's insulted with one track!)

13) How? (Demo 1971)
A suitably stuttering, timid demo for a song about uncertainty, this is clearly a version arrangement of the song with Lennon still feeling his way round the piano keyboard looking for 'clues' about where to go. He's also obsessed with the opening line, repeating it several times and coming up with a slightly different lyric ('How can I go home when I don't know the way, I'm not sure of it!') that doesn' quite work. However what does work is what comes next, Lennon reaching out for some 'Hey Jude' style soul lines and wearily moving to an unhappy minor key for some belated resolution 'wo-a-woah no, we don't know, Yo-o-o-ko' he sighs, the song coming to a halt.

14) Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' (Demo c.1971)
One of the greatest moments in this list, John picks out his festive single's pretty tune on a guitar while singing much more directly to the listener with all that echo and all those sleigh bells (lovely though they are). Lennon's song of hope and peace at yuletide has never sounded more personal or intimate, with Lennon going into falsetto for Yoko's part and 'doo doo doo'ing the lines he hasn't written yet ('...and a happy new year, let's hope it's a good one without any fear'). My copy comes with a charming attached coda that sounds like a 90 second Beatles Christmas Fanclub outtake. 'Greetings from the home of John and Yoko' announces John before Yoko wishes us a happy Christmas and the pair pick out a simple, plodding piano song with the chorus 'merry merry merry Christmas!' John and Yoko end up going into counterpoint harmony (he: 'Merry merry merry Christmas', she: 'John and Yoko want to say Merry Christmas') in a charming festive moment that should have been on the back of the single.

15) Uncle Albert-My Sweet Lord ('Party' cover October 1971)
Lennon had an eventful 31st birthday party. He spent the afternoon at the revived 'You Are Here' art exhibition where he spent most of it scowling at the patrons and answering their questions at a press conference with more questions. The night was a drunken party full of friends (Ringo among them) which quickly developed into a taped singalong. In between bursts of 'Happy Birthday' Lennon tackles two highly sarcastic versions of two recent classic by his fellow Beatles. Lennon doesn't bother to learn Paul's 'Uncle Albert' part but seems keen on the sheer banality of the second 'hand across the water' part which he ad libs and 'doo doo doos' along with, changing the lines to 'hands across the sea' and ending up in his own improvised 'Uncle Albert with nobody' section which bears nothing in common with the original on 'Ram'. Sadly the tapes cuts out here but cuts back in again in time to hear a drunken Lennon singing 'I really wanna see you lord, oh yes I do!' in honour of George Harrison's 1970 hit 'My Sweet Lord'. For all his sarcasm, though, note that Lennon has gone to the bother of learning both songs, proudly rattling off the chord changes in the middle. Well, it makes a change for the usual object of Lennon's wrath 'Yesterday' which was performed in every rendition going from horror movie to crooner!

16) New York City (Demo c.1971)
Moving on to 'Sometime In New York City', many of these demos sound a lot better than the finished products with even Lennon's notoriously wayward sense of time a better match than Elephant's Memory. 'New York City' sounds like a fun up tempo blues in this version with several different lyrics cut from the final version including a very different first verse: 'We was holding Jerry Rubin by the hand, up come a man with a guitar in some sand'. Other lyric changes include 'A sitar trying to be a guitar' and 'I was shooting up speed until I couldn't read, say you got to koo-koo today'. The winner of best line though has to be: 'She was dressed in hot pants which put me in a trance'...

17) Sisters O Sisters (Demo c.1971)
Strictly speaking a Yoko demo, but it features some classic Lennon guitar strumming and some nice background vocals so we've left this classic Ono moment in anyhow. Yoko's vocal is more in tune than the finished version and like her husband Yoko sounds much better solo-tracked without echo as per most of her recordings. The song, always one of 'NYC's better moments, sounds ever more charming in this version, with Yoko sounding genuinely excited and positive.

18)  Make Love Not War (Early Version 'Mind Games' 1973)
Lennon's demos for next single 'Mind Games' were styled after the famous slogan 'make love, not war' but Lennon considered it such a cliché that it was only a stop-gap until he came up with something better ('I know you've heard it before' is his next line). However 'Mind Games' sounds rather good in this early version which is a similar but different take to the version on 'Anthology', running a full two minutes longer. Oh-oh yeah!

19) Call My Name (Early Version 'Aisumasen' 1973)
An early version of the lovely apology 'Aisumasen', Lennon sounds suitably shocked and desperate as he vows to make things up to Yoko, even using her own language to do so. Lennon is struggling with the guitar part and has to stop for a couple of re-takes before finally getting through the song - it's a close run thing, though, given the grief in his voice.

20) I Know (Early Version c.1973)
Another 'Mind Games' demo, Lennon tells us proudly at the start that 'this is a new version with an added middle eight'. Though Lennon appears to be either taping this with a dodgy mike or outside on a very windy day, it's a great performance that's much more likeable and more emotional than the rather timid version that made it to the album.

21) Say It Again ('You Are Here' early version c.1973)
A different alternate take to the one on 'Anthology' this version has Lennon almost whispering the lyric over a more predominantly caribbean backing of steel drums and slide guitars. It's an interesting different direction for an under-rated song and rather fitting in that' the song is all about travel and broadening your horizons. There's no icky female choir either, which is a definite plus!

22) Bring On The Lucie (Demo 1973)
hands down the best song off 'Mind Games', though, is 'Bring On The Lucie' one last burst of Lennon political bile. The finished version will be one of Lennon's greatest anti-Nixon rants but this very early demo sounds more like a sloganeering 'NYC' outtake which has only got as far as the slide guitar riff and a sort of early version of what will become the chporus. 'Free the people now! Jail the judges now! Set the people free! Keep the mothers now! If you want it, now! Do it do it do it now!' Only a fragment perhaps, but still a fascinating fragment.

23) Tight A$$ (Radio Phone-In) (1973)
Another classic clip that's rarely heard, Lennon and guitar are guesting on a local New York radio programme plugging his 'Mind Games' album. He gets a request from a caller to play 'the one after Mind Games on the Mind Games' album but neither she nor he can remember what song that is. So an assistant gets sent off to track down a copy and Lennon finds to his delight that it's his wise-cracking 'Tight A$$'. Lennon performs the song solo as a squirrelly blues that really shows off the taut little riff at the heart of this song and the opening riff goes on for nearly a minute as Lennon tries to remember his words. The song sounds great heard without all the extras and overdubs, as Lennon does his best blues singer impression and the song sounds impressively tough and meaty on this version, showing again what an under-rated acoustic guitar player Lennon was. Now why on earth wasn't this on the 'Acoustic' album for aspiring players? Even I might have given it a go after hearing this gem!

24) Meat City (Demo c.1973)
Sung almost to the tune of 'She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes', the initial very sparse demo of the hard-hitting 'Mind Games' closer sounds a lot more 'normal' if still not amongst Lennon's greatest triumphs. Lennon has fun with the guitar riff though, turning it into its own lengthy instrumental break and seems to be writing an early version of 'Steel and Glass' in the middle eight which has the same 'na na na hey' middle eight that's missing only the strings (removed from the 'Meat City' studio version. A worried Lennon stops midway through because he can see a red light on his recorder. 'Oh it is on!' he exclaims and gets right back into the groove with a much faster and tighter rendition.

25) Intuition (Demo c.1973)
Lennon's all-singing all-dancing happy song from 'Mind Games' is given the clo0d-hopping piano treatment and it's hard to tell whether Lennon's vocal here is as genuine or whether it's bitter and sarcastic. The chorus isn't written yet, which is a relief to be honest, leaving Lennon to drift off into an unfinished round of piano chords and an abandoned middle eight: 'You know that I can be sure, and you've got to be so sore, you know life can be long and you've got to be so strong'. Lennon may have realised that he's strayed into the chorus from his old song 'How?' and decides to have a trip down memory lane instead, branching out into his favoured 'the dream is over' passage from 'God' to round us out.

26) Going Down On Love (Early Version 1974)
At long last we can hear Lennon scream 'I'm drowning in a sea of hatred!' as if he means it, with a 'Menlove Avenue' styled sparse version of the 'Walls and Bridges' opener. The backing musicians are all playing loose and funky with a real guitar groove going on between Lennon and Jesse Ed Davis. The song sounds very different without all the extra, much moodier than the finished product and with a 'do-eo-o-e-own' vocal wobble that recalls Lennon's similar style on 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'.

27) #9 Dream (Demos 1974)
Lennon re-recorded his demo for '#9 Dream' several times, sounding suitably sleepy in each of them as if he still has visions of the dream that inspired it running through his head. The tune is there, although both verse and chorus are much shorter here, but the lyric was quite different. 'So long ago - when I was a boy' Lennon sings, in a similar way to 'She Said She Said' but the mood is much more nostalgic. A second demo doesn't get much further than the first, but a third demo finally adds the lyric we know and love right until the middle eight which is proving the hardest part of the song to nail: 'And I walk down the street feeling so fine 'cause I know she is mine...' A fascinating chance to see the progress of Lennon's creative vision.

28) Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox) (Demo c.1974)
This demo starts in the middle eight ('Well I was wondering how long this could go on...') and treats the song as a sad and lonely blues as Lennon prepares to say goodbye to faithful companion May Pang and go back to Yoko. Lennon has nothing else yet so he simply repeats the one part he has got over and over, ending with a very different line: 'And I know I could never wipe the dream from my eyes'.

29) Here We Go Again (Demo c.1975)
Breaking off from a false start Lennon quips 'Here We Go Again...Again' before turning in one of his best and most polished demos. Hearing this you wonderful quite what Phil Spector added to the finished version (on the posthumous 'Menlove Avenue' if you don't happen to know this gorgeous song) as even the orchestral twiddly bits are there thanks to Lennon's ever-restless guitar which really does seem to be going round in circles. The lyrics are almost there but there's an extra verse in the middle cut out from the record and seemingly aimed more squarely at Yoko: 'Here we go again, everyone's a one-night stand, you never really heard the band, all I wanted was to thankyou mam'.

30) Rock and Roll People (Demo c.1975)
'Rock and Roll People', also released for the first time on 'Menlove Avenue', isn't exactly Lennon's greatest moment but it makes for a great fun demo with Lennon channelling his early Elvis for a bare bones rocker that features Lennon hitting his guitar with his pick between notes. Less cooked than the version made in the studio, the simple setting is much more in keeping with this frivolous song. I just wouldn't change it if I was yous, Lennon!

31) Be My Baby (Alternate Take) (1975)
A simpler arrangement of the 'Rock and Roll' outtake without the Phil Spector backing, this song has Lennon singing in falsetto and sounding not unlike period Mick Jagger. 'Do it ice!' he croons over a lengthy opening as the band pitch in behind him one by one. Without the echo on his voice Lennon's vocal sounds feebler and yet is right on the money emotionally, the whole song turned into a nearly six minute epic by the end. Lennon might have been inspired by hearing Keith Moon's version for his solo album 'Two Sides Of The Moon' (a fellow 'Lost Weekend' drinking buddy) as both are very similar - Keith will do his own version of Lennon B-side 'Move Over Ms L' at the same sessions.

32) Just Because (Drunken Take) (1975)
Proof of how Lennon was in the lost weekend period comes from a fascinating bootleg take of Lennon which will surely never be released, alone with a bottle and his thoughts, singing along to what will become the 'Rock and Roll' closer a good few pints past his best. 'I wanna dedicate this song to the girls, Carol and that other one with the nipples' he slurs, 'all those people James Taylor had!' Without a trace of irony Lennon then bursts into anger-fuelled tears over being abandoned by Yoko: 'Just because you left and said goodbye! Don't you ever think I'm gonna sit here and cry!' Even though Lennon is doing just that. He ad libs the lyrics, 'Just because you think you're so damned smart! Just because you think you can break my heart! But listen darling I would never ever let you go!' Coming to his senses, Lennon nods to the engineer 'I need some excuse for doing this...I need relief from my, uh, obligations!' But he can't think of any so instead Lennon quips 'perhaps a little cocaine will set me right on my feet?' The drugs won't work though and by the end Lennon is more anguished than ever, howling 'Yes sir that's my baby, no sir don't mean maybe' without apparently realising that's a different track. 'Hey! I know you love me - I just want to know you love me - it's all I gotta know!' he screams, 'I just wanna hold you! I need your love so bad it hurts me!' John clearly needs Yoko - thankfully a reunion is right around the corner.

33) Something ('Karaoke' Version c.1975)
The Rock and Roll Band often broke away between takes and jammed some other numbers - usually rather roughshot versions of other rock and roll classics that sounded even worse than what ended up on the album. The band occasionally revived something more interesting though, such as a piano-led version of George Harrison's Beatle track 'Something' which, for once in these sessions, Lennon sings with care and affection. John always referred to this song as his 'favourite' from the 'Abbey Road' album and may well have had Yoko in mind when singing it in a very haunted and fragile way.

34) Cookin' (In The Kitchen Of Love) (Demo c.1975)
Though a real candidate as Lennon's worst ever song, this stupid little ditty handed straight to Ringo for his 'Rogotravure' album does sound an awful lot better in Lennon's hands. Lennon's funky keyboard playing is interrupted by lots of wild Lennon ad libs and John is clearly still in 'rock and roll party' mood, having fun on a demo that he knows is rubbish but is having fun with anyway. This turned out to be his last ever song before his house-husband phase and points the way ahead to much of his activity to come, with much o his time at the Dakota spent in the kitchen baking bread!
35) Now and Then (c.1978)
Moving on to the house-husband era, we start with what seems likely to have been one of the candidates for the 'third' Lennon demo Yoko handed over to Paul, George and Ringo for their reunion project (George is said to have objected, disliking whatever the third song was - other sources name it as 'Grow Old Along With Me', which would have really benefitted from Beatle harmonies). This song would have been done by them well, whatever the source, a piano ballad similar in feel to 'Stranger's Room' but with a lyric more like 'Jealous Guy'. 'I don't wanna lose you' Lennon sighs 'but if you have to go...' but he can't quite bring himself to finish the sentence. Lennon compares the fiery start of his relationship with Yoko to the present when the fire has cooled down a little but by the end is more hopeful that 'you'll return to me'. Alternately some fans think this is about the Beatles and quote the phrase 'for Paul' supposedly scrawled on the tape casing - this seems to have been a false report by an over-zealous fan, however, and Yoko fits the contents better. Still, a sweet little song whatever the origins.

36) Now She Is A Friend Of Dorothy (c.1978)
One of the developments in the music scene that really fascinated Lennon during his time away was the growing acceptance of the gay and trans-gender communities. Never one to sit back without a comment, Lennon turned to making his own pithy point about the mood - people with 'hot lips and no shame, all fun and no gain'. A funky piano chord part sounds not unlike a happier 'I Am The Walrus' and Lennon sings along with some vocal mannerisms where the drums should go. This sounds like it would have been a fun song had Lennon ever done it with a full band and it certainly has more life to it than many of the mid-househusband demos.

37) Across The River (c.1978)
Lennon had a lot of fun exploring new styles but never more than this cod-hip hop song also titled 'Dakota Rap' on some bootlegs, though it seems more likely Lennon's starting point was reggae. 'Are you still my brown eyed woman from across the river?' he moans before ending up in a medley with another new song 'Howling At The Moon'.

38) Howling At The Moon (c.1978)
Talking of which, this lovely song - also titled 'Memories' on some bootlegs, which is confusing given that another song of that title also exists from this period - is one of the most 'complete' Lennon demos not to make it to 'Double Fantasy' or 'Milk and Honey'. 'Sometimes I get the feeling daylight has come too soon - hoping for something better, just howling at the moon'. Lennon did a lot of his writing into the night, taking care of Sean for much of the day, so might be singing about his creativity here while simultaneously comparing himself to a werewolf who 'comes alive' at night.

39) Memories (c.1978)
Starting with the same piano opening as 'Grow Old Along With Me', the track quickly develops into a very different sort of song, with Lennon seemingly having second thoughts about his 'retirement'. 'Oh memories, why do you have to haunt me when I thought I'd let you go? Release me from your spell!' Lennon sighs, as 'voices' from the past come 'whispering' to remind him of what he's missing. 'Today is all I need to know' Lennon declares positively, but his wistful vocal seems less sure. Some demos have Lennon falling neatly into 'Howling At The Moon' again.

40) Gone From This Place (c.1978)
A close cousin of 'I'm Steppin' Out' this song has Lennon getting ready to run away screaming from a place where he's been trapped, but he stays put after thoughts of his 'momma' telling him to stay (which is a laugh - he surely means his Aunt Mimi not his Mum Julia!) Lennon hasn't got much further than just this one verse, but it's a catchy one and could have grown into quite a lovely song.

41) You Saved My Soul (c.1978)
Sean gurgles in horror at the start of this track and so he might as Lennon plays with the setting on his guitar to make it sound really loud. A simple song with a Buddy Holly feel and a sort of reggae 'cha cha cha', this is a joyous song about recovery from past struggles. Lennon sings 'you save me from my suicide - remember that time when I nearly jumped from the apartment window?' However he sounds less than sad about it and is instead ready to throw a party. Some demos have this song segueing into a harder-edged electric version of 'Serve Yourself', the Dylan parody of the same period that turned up in acoustic form on the 'Lennon Anthology'.

42) Sarah and Billy (c.1978)
'Oo-er, that's a bit high!' jokes Lennon as he's written himself a vocal line that would have troubled even his younger self. The music recalled 'Mind Games' but the lyrics sound more like the sort of fictional creation Lennon would have crucified McCartney for. Sarah and Billy are clearly thinly concealed pseudonyms for himself and Yoko, with Lennon declaring himself 'one hell of a lucky guy' and noting 'all the tears he cried', presumably of joy. Some bootlegs have this listed as a 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' outtake but it sounds far more like one from this period thanks to the writing style, the mood and Lennon's deeper voice.

43) Mirror Mirror (c.1978)
Lennon's having a moment of self-doubt: did he really do all those things that the papers say? Did he really live the life of a Beatle he now only half remembers? One of the stronger unreleased demos, Lennon plays an urgent, troubled piano riff that makes for a fine partnership with lines about 'staring into a mirror and wondering - who could it be?!'

44) JJ (c.1978)
Who was JJ? Afraid I haven't a clue - as far as I can tell Lennon never worked with or knew anyone with the initials 'JJ' so it seems likely he's imaginary or possibly Lennon himself. JJ is clearly some sort of a relative to 'Angela', however, the song from 'Sometime In New York City' as both share a vague resemblance in the melody. This re-write is a much better song though, unfinished or not, with lines about how 'JJ couldn't get what he wanted because it wasn't there at all'. There's a nice middle eight that sounds more like Johhny Cash, but alas the demo trails out just two lines into this interesting variation. As was so often the case for Lennon, a television burbles away in the background, a useful 'thinking' device that enabled him to get several ideas for songs (from 'Good Morning Good Morning' to 'I Am The Walrus').

45) Whatever Happened To (c.1978)
Almost all the house-hsuabdns ongs are ballads, however 'Whatever Happened to?...' is an uptempo aggressive 50s rocker with Lennon dusting off his electric guitar for a quick twirl. So stuck is Lennon on his hot and happening riff that he plays it over for almost a full minute before the song comes in. The lyrics are interesting when they arrive though and seem to talk about Yoko giving up her career to be with him. 'She used to be an artist - but she threw away the key, got a 9-5 job and the most peculiar people always hang around her everyday...' Later versions have Yoko 'keeping her head in the dark, hiding her head in a scarf' and the very Lennonish line that 'she used to be a swinger, but now the rope is around her neck!' At nearly five minutes this is very long for one of Lennon's demos and more substantial than most.

46) Vacation Has Just Begun (c.1978)
A surprisingly jolly acoustic ditty that sounds like something John would normally have given straight to Ringo, this song has Lennon about to go on holiday and enjoying it already even though he hasn't got in the car to travel yet. He sings the chorus in a crooner style suggesting he isn't taking the lyrics all that seriously, but he's clearly bothered by the guitar part as the entire second half of the song is him practising how to play the tricky closing chords.

47) I'll Make You Happy (c.1978)
One of my favourite of the Lennon demos, this is another moody piano-based song that starts off like a pained version of 'I Should Have Known Better' with an elongated 'I-I-I-I-I-I' ending in the line 'I'll make you happy, I'll make you glad. Lennon sounds less than sure though, the haunting piano chords hinting at some darker shadow behind him. Lennon finds himself arriving by accident at 'Cold Turkey' ('One thing I'm sure of - love is so true') and breaks off before adding 'well I never really used those chords - I can use them again'. He picks up the pace a bit to disguise the difference as he sighs @I don't expect you to be happy every day, I don't expect to see you smiling all the time' but wishes that his loved one would brighten up a bit. Right on cue Yoko joins in from the other end of the room, adding a lovely harmony part. A classic in the making?

48) Illusions (c.1978)
Meanwhile, on the acoustic guitar, Lennon is returning to his favourite theme last heard on 'God' about the things that mankind 'makes up' to make life easier for himself. 'Sex and drugs' are 'real', though, and thanks to a lovely 'Oh Yoko' style chorus so is love. Another song that Lennon really should have returned to - unfinished as it is it's a lot more interesting than most of 'Double Fantasy'.

49) Tennessee (c.1978)
A two minute piano ballad that's also more finished than most, 'Tennessee' finds Lennon in a poetic frame of mind about his adopted homeland. 'Oh America, your faded glory will survive' he sighs in the verse before the chorus 'Oh Tennessee your words like water pure and clear, the sadness of your soul reveals the music of your sphere'. Oddly Lennon never did visit Tennessee ever but the lyrics suggest he's talking about a person not a place - early skiffle favourite Tennessee Ernie Ford perhaps, though if that's so why Lennon's singing about him here (Ford will live until 1991) is anyone's guess.

50) Pill (c.1978)
A nicely psychedelic acoustic song that recalls the string part on 'Steel and Glass', it's hard to tell if this song is pro or anti drugs. 'Need a special pill to keep you on the line' Lennon sings, as if he's covering The Rolling Stones' 'Mother Little Helper', before telling us that 'I've got the blu-hoo-hoo-hues'. It's not the deepest or most inventive song Lennon ever wrote but it's very catchy and could have been turned into something nice.

51) I Don't Wanna Sleep Alone (c.1978)
This sounds like a sadder and simpler first draft of 'I'm Losing You'. Like that song Lennon gets panicky because he can't through to Yoko on the phone and it brings back all those bad memories of the 'lost weekend' but here Lennon hasn't even thought about the long term yet - he's just anxious because 'I don't wanna sleep alone'. Lennon tries to get to sleep but 'the shadows on the ceiling keep on haunting me' but knows that 'deep inside we're gonna be alright'. Later versions of this song altered the lyrics to 'Help Me To Help Myself' but this earlier version has more passion about it - the later lyric just reads like a self-help book!

52) I Ain't Got Time (c.1978)
A simple yet effective guitar riff is the backbone of this near blues instrumental. The only lyric is 'I ain't got time der-doodle-dee-doo-dee-doo' but the song is a lot better than simply writing that sentence out would sound and is a rare example of Blind Lennon Jefferson tapping into his blues roots in his solo days despite it being a key part of his 'Beatles' sound.

53) I Watch Your Face (c.1978)
Lennon's back to being contented once again, suggesting this demo comes from later in the run of demos. It's a very McCartneyesque song again, actually, with Lennon delighting in the fact that he can rollover in bed and watch his wife asleep and feel all warm and romantic. The song peters out as Lennon decides to have a go at re-turning his guitar mid-song but the two goes he has at the song both share a pretty tune that again is very Paul in the way it sounds as if it's been around for centuries.

54) When A Boy Meets A Girl (c.1978)
The last completely unused Lennon demo for a while is another lovely song, as Lennon reflects on all the changes that love have on a person. For perhaps the only time in his career, Lennon is willing to embrace belief in a higher power - 'If you give to God everything, you'll get love - you'll find it when a boy meets a girl' (at least I think that's what Lennon is singing - this tape isn't the clearest of demos!) 'When I was a boy I had everything' Lennon sighs, recalling 'She Said She Said' - one of his favourite 'block' lyrics while he figures out where to go with the lyric. Unusually structured, with a melody that never goes quite where you expect, it would have been great to have heard a finished version of this song.

55) Everybody (Early version of 'Nobody Told Me' c.1978)
Set to a funky drum machine beat, Lennon puts down a slow and tentative but still pretty swinging version of his 'Milk and Honey' classic. The lyrics are nearly there and all along the sort of same lines but every once in a while you'll get some changes: 'Everyone's a winner and no one will ever lose, there's a place for us in movies if you're wearing the right shoes' 'Everybody's smoking but no one's getting high, everybody's flying but never see the sky'. The chorus is almost totally different: 'You gotta tell no one nothing or they'll never know it!' Terrific as the finished version is this scratchy demo runs it close, showing off Lennon's sense of humour nicely and the riff works really well on a piano. How on earth did this classic song not make 'Double Fantasy'?!
56) My Life (early version of 'Startin' Over' c.1978)
'Startin' Over' started off as two different songs that were later stuck together. This is (nearly anyway) the verse of Lennon's comeback single as he tells us how 'this life is yours - take it' set to the tune of the introduction. Lennon's less sure of where to go next and after a bit of noodling changes the key and starts singing in a lovely falsetto about how 'I'll dedicate my life to you'.

57) The Worst Is Over Now (early version of 'Startin' Over' c.1978)
Even closer to 'Startin' Over' is this slightly later demo, which almost has the chorus in full. However the rest of the song isn't there yet and Lennon's chorus is 'I think the worst is over now, it's high time it's over now - it'll be o-o-o-o-ver'. Once again Lennon uses a simple drum machine to emphasise the rhythm.

58) I'm Crazy (Early version of 'Watching The Wheels' c.1978)
Using the same distinctive piano lick but taking the song in a completely different direction, this demo of the song is like a sombre version of what is to come. Interestingly the lyrics are almost all there although Lennon stutters on a few of them, suggesting this song is brand new and there's an entire third verse cut from the finished product: 'People say I'm stupid giving my money away, they give me all kinds of names and addresses designed to save me financially, I tell them I'm doing fine just watching the flowers grow, 'but surely you'll not happy boy you don't own the whole damn world'?'

59) Stranger's Room (Demo c.1978)
The original demo of this song included on the 'Lennon Anthology' fades after three minutes and a bit of 'bee bop' scat singing from Lennon, but actually runs for almost the same length again. Lennon kicks back into the song again at a faster lick after the lengthy instrumental break and even throws in an extra verse: 'Checking the over-time, doing all of the socialising, trying to keep my mind clear, try not to over-do it, can I stop bleeding now?' Lennon then whistles his way to a proper finish.

60) Woman (c.1978)
Way way too over-polished and overcooked on the record, I much prefer the sweet acoustic demo of 'Woman' to the one the rest of the world knows (and an earlier, gentler demo of the song to the one released on 'Lennon Anthology'). Lennon sings double tracked  even on the demo but his vocal is so much more sincere. Hearing this you can understand why 'Double Fantasy' producer Jack Douglas raved so much about the demos he was given and wished he could have release those instead - the magic is here, at the point of creativity, not in a studio where it was overdubbed into submission!

61) I Don't Wanna Face It (Demo c.1978)
Though losing the manic energy and urgency of the completed version, Lennon's demo of his 'Milk and Honey' song is another good 'un. Lennon is rather far from his tape recorder microphone, suggesting he isn't recording this too seriously but his vocal is a good one and his sturdy acoustic playing is a neat match for the song's strident riff.

62) Forgive Me (My Little Flower Princess) (Demo c.1978)
The demo for this under-rated 'Milk and Honey' track actually sounds a lot more finished than the abandoned studio version ever did. Lennon sings more directly than he did on the re-recording and again uses twin acoustic guitars to create a nice choppy sound. Alas Lennon's unused third verse is almost unbearably poignant: 'Forgive me, just one more chance and I'll show you, let's take off and dance where we left off, the rest of our lives will be our best yet!'

63) Free As A Bird (Demo Version c.1978)
Why oh why did the Threetles use the lesser, hissier demo of 'Free As A Bird' when they could have used this one? Lennon's vocal is sharper and all the more poignant unadorned of their overdubs. You wonder what the Lennon recording this simple demo in a few dashed minutes would have thought of his colleagues having a hit single with the song and using it as the basis for their reunion project? Interestingly the middle eight ('Whatever happened to...') which we were all led to think had been written by Paul and George is here in the demo complete until Lennon stumbles over the last line. This version may be a simple pigeon compared to a giant bald crested eagle, but pigeons can be beautiful too you know.

64) That's The Way The World Is (c.1978)
Sounding like one of the lush, orchestral songs from 'Imagine', this piano demo has a graceful quality missing from some of the more throwaway Dakota demos and features a single line that will re-appear in 'Real Love' ('Why must we be alone?') Lennon doesn't have the rest of the song yet and doesn't go to the chorus, but in terms of the pure opening this is actually a better song.

65) Girls and Boys (Early Version 'Real Love' c.1978)
The 'actual' demo of the Threetles' other reunion song 'Real Love' appeared on the 'Imagine' film soundtrack in 1988 (which sold several thousand copies at the time despite being rather forgotten today), so it isn't actually rare at all. However the previous version, with very different lyrics is up for grabs. This version has the chorus 'it's real life' instead of 'real love' and starts off with the second verse and skips the first. Most interesting of all is the middle eight which would have made a nice song a lot stranger, Lennon recalling the middle of 'Isolation' as he sings 'I don't expect you to understand...The kingdom of heaven is in your hands, I don't expect you to wait for your dreams, it's too late for crying now it seems'. It's a lovely moment in a song that had so much more to offer than what Paul, George and Ringo did to it.

66) Something Is Wrong (c.1979)
At last a dating! However sad to say Lennon sounds even sadder than he did in 1978, with easily his most suicidal song since 'Walls and Bridges'. The descending chords of this one really have the feeling of something slipping away but by bit as Lennon howls the title out over and over. What could have caused such sorrow?

67) Solitude (c.1979)
Just as painful but even more remarkable is the moving 'Solitude', a nearly six minute piano ballad that's quite remarkable. 'If you walk away what can I say?' says Lennon as he contemplates another 'lost weekend' looming ahead, this time knowing how painful it would be to bear and a life 'with nothing much to do'. Lennon's clearly afraid of living alone with no one around him yet still stubbornly persists 'I'll never never never never change my mind'. Every so often Lennon interrupts his sad simple piano chords that have 'trapped' him for a sudden five-note riff that seems to be mocking him and showing him how much more of life there used to be with someone by his side. At last, some three minutes in, Lennon finds a hopeful optimism as like 'I'm Steppin' Out' he grasps for some normality ('Every morning when I get up I hold it in my sugar bowl and you know it blows my soul!') Suddenly we're back into the piano demo of 'Stranger's Room' but this version sounds even more lonely and desperate with Lennon 'wishing I was dead!' Recalling 'Cold Turkey' he sighs that 'my head is full of dope' and he can't think straight. Coming to a faltering full stop Lennon sighs that things might get better some day 'but some day's too soon when you left this room'. Truly remarkable, this is perhaps Lennon's best performance past his retirement, presumably left on the shelf because it doesn't fit our 'image' of what Lennon's final cosy years were like.

68) Borrowed Time (Demo and Alternate Take c.1979/1980)
'Let's not be so German about this, err with apologies to anyone of German national descent!' Regular readers will know that I rate the posthumous 'single 'Borrowed Time' very highly indeed, a classic slice of Lennon pop that manages to be catchy and simplistic yet very profound as Lennon laughingly looks back on the antics of his younger days 'full of ideals and broken dreams my friend' and sighs how much better life is in middle age. The demo is gorgeous too, with Lennon performing the entire reggae part on his guitar as he delivers a marvellously sassy vocal full of energy and enthusiasm. A different take to the one on 'Milk and Honey' isn't quite as special as the one that was chosen but it is pretty darn special all the same, with a delightful keyboard part cut from the final mix and a much more 'home-made' feel about it all that's highly in keeping with the sentiment of the lyric. Instead of the ad libbed spoken word finale Lennon puts on a Jamaican accent and sings the chorus one last time, ending the song with the single line 'Ah it all seems so bloody easy doesn't it?' Lennon is clearly still getting used to the song, opening with the line 'it's four bars at the beginning and after that it's every man for himself!'

69) Cleanup Time (Demo c.1980)
We know this demo has to come from late on because it was written after the 'Double Fantasy' sessions had started, inspired by a comment made by producer Jack Douglas. More together than many of the other piano demos, Lennon almost has the complete song, although the track comes with the odd tag line 'there's really nothing to it, show them mothers how to do it' over the ascending chords where he simply screams 'ahhhh!' in the final version.

70) I'm Steppin' Out (Alternate Take c.1980)
'Well he finally gets the kids to bed and goes to his owwwwwn space!' Lennon's clearly abandoned another take and got the band to pile straight into this one before they're quite ready and is raring to go with an urgent vocal that's rawer but just as fun as the 'Milk and Honey' one. The main riff for the song is simpler here which suits this stripped bare rocker about escaping commitment and responsibility. There's a whole cutr verse too: 'Called up the doctor but he was sick to death, he don't make house calls anymore, he's gone out dancing just to sweeten up his breath, he left a message on the floor'. No, I don't know what to make of it either! The lengthy ending is already there but not yet Lennon's delightful ad lib ('I won't be back till one!...or two...or three.......or four...')

71) I'm Losing You (Alternate Take c.1980)
Yet another variation on the many 'Losing You's' already out there, this one is played by the session musicians as a sort of slowed down blues -the sort of unoriginal thing Led Zeppelin got away with for years. Lennon's snarky vocal is a good one though, as he spits out the lyric like a man possessed. There's a great criss-crossing guitar solo too, much more menacing than the faster version that appeared on the album.

72) Life Begins At Forty (c.1980)
John and Ringo were both born in 1940 and had both recently celebrated their 40th birthdays when Lennon made his comeback. The very next set of session dates Lennon had booked when he died was for his old drummer who'd been promised this song along with 'Nobody Told Me' and a possible cover of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' (John's idea - Ringo sounds less convinced judging by their correspondence!) 'Forty' was a country-and-western song written by Lennon the week of his birthday on a nice new guitar Yoko had bought for him. Ringo would have done it nicely in a 'Beaucoups Of Blues' kind of way but the country pastiche doesn't really suit Lennon whose too 'authentic' for this kind of inauthentic rubbish. Still the lyrics have their moments: 'They say that life begins at forty - but if that's true then I've been died for thirty-nine!' Ringo was too heartbroken to record the song himself for his 'Stop and Smell The Roses' album (which would have been the first Ringo album to feature all three Beatles in many a long year) and Yoko has chosen not to release it either, perhaps because of the terrible irony of the title: Lennon actually died at forty and this was his last birthday, although clearly he doesn't know that yet.

73) Dear Yoko (Demo 1980)
'Welcome to Bermuda' invites Lennon before introducing us to a charming and even more Buddy Holly-ish demo of the 'Double Fantasy' closer. Lennon's multi-tracked vocals show off more range and care than the rather sloppy studio recording and this simple reading of the song suits this simple tale of devotion much more somehow. Lennon gets the giggles on the 'oh Yoko' chorus and shows off with some neat finger picking during an extended solo near the end with lots of flamenco flourishes as a choir of Lennons sound like The Beach Boys. Charming. Another take starts with Lennon intoning the song like he's a Hollywood romantic lead.

74) Cleanup Time (Alternate Take 1980)
'Are we all going to come in at once or do we sneak in like the old days?' Heard stripped down to bare basics in a 'Milk and Honey' kinda way 'Cleanup Time' sounds sooo much better. Lennon starts the song with a half-verse singing the first half of each line from the first verse before hitting the song properly and sings the song with the same guttural screaming vocal we're more used to hearing from his past. However Lennon isn't in a bad move - far from it, he's veering off into mock accents and comments to the other musicians throughout. There's a 'dur-dur-dur-dur-doo-dum-dum' riff that got cut from the final version too - a shame as it works rather well.
75) Woman (Alternate Take 1980)
'I still feel like I'm in the fucking Beatles with this track!' Ditto the rougher, leaner version of 'Woman'. Better than the song itself though is Lennon reminiscing about the old days in between takes to get the lead vocal right, comparing the 'breath-in' to Beatles song 'Girl' and unwittingly insulting McCartney with the remark 'the only thing we didn't have in them days was a good bass!' (a joke given what appeared on the record but it does sound rather good here!) Lennon also talks about his love of double-tracking, refusing to single-track record anything after this. However not for the first or last time Lennon's fears about his voice are unfounded - his heavily echoed single-tracked vocal is a masterpiece, so much better than the finished version on the record.  
76) Beautiful Boy (Demo c.1980)

Finally, Lennon's gorgeous demo of his lovely song for Sean has even more of a reggae-calypso feel, as Lennon overdubs the rattle of what sounds like a biscuit tin. This demo is similar to the one released on 'Home Tapes' but better, with a slightly more together vocal. Though the guitar clearly can't compensate for an entire backing band, Lennon's vocal is already right on the money and the sudden sly change of keys in the middle eight ('Life on the ocean, sailing away...') is even more gorgeous than the record. Some copies of the tape close with Lennon reading Sean a bedtime story and whispering 'goodnight Sean, see you in the morning' just as he does on the record - although the effect is spoiled by a crowd of people (including Yoko) shouting 'Goodnight Sean!' at the tops of their voices instead!

What a collection of demos that reveal so much more about Lennon than the albums. Let's hope that there'll be a 'Lennon Anthology Two' set one day as there's so much of worth still sitting in the archives or broadcast on the 'Lost Lennon Tapes' series - this is honestly just the surface, the 'essential' unreleased Lennon if you like and there are many other good bits out there. That's still plenty for now though - join us next week for yet more Lennon in the form of his live and compilation albums, plus a run-down of every avant garde and Yoko Ono solo LP for good measure. And after writing all that lot I'll be steppin' out - but I'll be back the week after don't worry...


'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