Monday, 30 April 2018

John Lennon: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

FIVE LANDMARK CONCERTS:



I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important. Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! This has been particularly hard as Lennon only ever performed seven – and we’ve decided that the ‘Live Peace In Toronto’ and ‘One To One Live In New York City’ shows have already been covered twice in our CD and DVD sections so we’ve brought you more about the other five gigs he played as a solo act instead. With a live show rawer than Paul’s or George’s and only ever one gig that might be termed ‘normal’ or full-length (the ‘One To One’ show) this is, perhaps, a weirder list than you might be expecting…

1)  Where: Cambridge University When: March 2nd 1969 Why: First Gig Setlist: ‘Cambridge 1969’

John and Yoko’s first public gig was especially weird. The show was a ‘happening’, a chance for artists to get together and explore their muses, with Yoko a guest of organiser and poet Anthony Barnett. Shy of appearing on stage alone – and in a twist on the ‘Paul wants Linda on stage’ idea of Wings – she asked if she could bring a ‘plus one’ and got Lennon to back her on snarling feedback-driven guitar. This was clearly Yoko’s territory, not his, and John was even shyer, allegedly standing with his back to the audience throughout, slicing his Epiphone guitar nearly in two as he tried to keep up with Yoko’s improvised squawks. The two already sound much more of a ‘unit; than they did on ‘Two Virgins’ less than a year before, the two sparking off each other better than most of their avant garde recordings despite the presence of 500 people to make them nervous. Lennon rarely played guitar on record again after this and the recording on ‘Life With The Lyons’ is a valuable chance to hear just how good his guitar tone was, as he controls the feedback coming from his amplifier like a pro, with no roadie there to help him for once. The result, titled ‘Cambridge ‘69’ in an unusually logical move,  is one of the pair’s more listenable, ‘unlistenable’ pieces, even if twenty-six minutes of it is a bit much. The pair were joined on stage for the end in what looked like an improvised move, Yoko coaxing two musician friends pianist John Stevens and saxophone player John Tchicai up on stage with them. It’s the beginning though, with just John and Yoko, that works the best. The first time any Beatle had been ‘seen’ in public (as opposed to a rooftop) since Candlestick Park in August 1966, this wasn’t quite what Beatle fans had in mind, but it works on its own level better than most of that year’s avant garde works. Unsurprisingly there was no encore!

2)  Where: Lyceum Ballroom, London When: December 15th 1969 Why: Weirdest Gig? Setlist: [3] ‘Cold Turkey’ ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)

Three months after John and Yoko’s second public appearance, ‘Live Peace In Toronto’, comes a fascinating third which is their least known gig and rather forgotten despite being released two years later on ‘Sometime In New York City’. That might be because John and Yoko felt they were ‘conned’ into it; aware that the couple liked doing good deeds for ‘peace’, this show promised them as the headline act for a Unicef fundraiser that would deliver money to the poor and needy in war-torn countries around the world. The publicity got out of hand and would have backfired on both halves for a ‘non-show’ and anyway it was the sort of thing John and Yoko would have done anyway if asked properly – although they felt rushed, even compared to Toronto. Most of the same line-up of the Plastic Ono Band agreed to take part for this second and final concert, with the addition of Apple signee Billy Preston on keyboards (the last time he ever played with Lennon nearly a year after The Beatles’ rooftop show). In the event George Harrison was in town and plays his last ever gig alongside Lennon here, though you can’t really hear him on a ‘noisy’ gig which is very unlike George’s tastes (and so unlike his far more polished ‘Bangladesh’ gig to come, built on similar charitable lines). One condition, though, was that the Plastic Ono Band wouldn’t play a full set; instead they would do a song of John’s and a song of Yoko’s as publicity for their latest single. Perhaps because of his insecurity and annoyance Lennon turns in a terrific performance of ‘Cold Turkey’, one that’s somewhere between the untamed beast of ‘Toronto’ and the more polished version for the ‘One To One’ shows the following year, snaking and twisting and extended to nearly seven minutes. Billy adds a touch of colour that softens the blow, even though a saxophone section (‘borrowed’ from Delaney and Bonnie, with whom Clapton also played a set) are doubling Eric and Clapton’s wild guitar thrash and making the thing sound heavier than ever. John has great fun with the screams, which take up nearly the entire second half and sees him making more of the guttural vocal noises you can hear buried way down on The Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ and ‘Revolution 9’. The whole thing then crashes in a big chaotic chord of mess and violence and withdrawal. ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ is a chilling performance too, at least for the first half before it just becomes a formless jam, faster and in many ways happier than the ‘Toronto’ version, with a much thicker guitar sound with all those players on stage behind her shrieks. The song starts ‘John I love youuuuuuuuuuu!’ before Yoko attacks Britain ‘You killed Hanratty, you murderers!’, a reference to James Hanratty, one of the last people to be executed in Britain back in 1962 for the murder of a passing motorist and the rape and attempted murder of his girlfriend, before he was found to be innocent retrospectively, somewhere around the time this concert was performed. Yoko is clearly moved, crying during the entire second half according to onlookers (though surprisingly for John and Yoko in this period, the concert wasn’t filmed). It’s an explosive twenty minutes, leaving the crowd unsure quite what to think of it all.

3)  Where: Fillmore East, New York City When: June 5-6th 1971 Why: Or is it this one? Setlist: [18] ‘Well (Please Don’t Go)’ [46] ‘Jamrag’ [47] ‘Scumbag’ [48] ‘Au’

Meanwhile, over on side four of ‘Sometime In New York City’, we get a slightly up to date concert (that was still quite a few months old by the time of release). One of the first things John and Yoko did after moving to New York was agree to perform a two-night show with Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention as part of a ‘concept’ film they were making about a ‘rock band on the road’ – a sequel to their successful film ‘200 Motels’ (which also featured a Beatle, Ringo!) The shows all consisted of the same set – Lennon’s choice of rock and roll screamer and a Zappa speciality, the instrumental ‘King Kong’, which Yoko squawked over and which John interrupted by cries of ‘Scumbag’ for reasons only known to himself. An amused Zappa takes over during the first night, asking the crowd in his poshest accent if they could sing the title along with him. Low quality footage of this gig exists, apparently shot by one of Yoko’s arty friends with a camera, in which a thin looking Lennon is almost as nervous as he was at Toronto, not that Zappa looks an awful lot happier. Sounding very different to the record, it seems safe to conclude this gig from the 5th is from the ‘other’ night, with the 6th used on the record, although we don’t actually know officially which one was used. The result is perhaps Lennon’s least interesting gig – while he sounded good singing ‘Well’ in the studio (it was one of his favourite warm-up songs) it’s too ‘normal’ for a band like The Mothers Of Invention, while he and Yoko in turn struggle to add their stamp to an originally improvised song that the band clearly know all too well.

4)  Where: Ann Arbor University, Michigan When: December 10th 1971 Why: Important Gig Setlist: [38] ‘Attica State’ [42] ‘Luck Of The Irish’ [37] ‘Sisters O Sisters’ [43] ‘John Sinclair’

Concert number five for Lennon came about eight months before the ‘One To One’ shows and feature John and Yoko helping out at a hastily formed rally in aid of John Sinclair. Named the ‘Ten For Two’ rally, after the ten years the hippie activist was given for being found in possession of just two joints of marijuana (clearly an ‘excuse’ to get him off the streets campaigning against the Vietnam War), Lennon was asked especially by his new New York hippie radical buddies if he could ‘write them a song’ about the injustice. Seeing more in common with John than just the name, Lennon set too with gusto, writing a song (named simply ‘John Sinclair’) that’s audibly based on ‘We Shall Overcome’ but with a funkier guitar riff. Figuring that John was imprisoned just for ‘breathing air’, Lennon pleads with the world to right an obvious injustice and throws in a steel guitar part more common to a blues song. This was the climax of a fifteen minute performance that also included three new and then-unheard songs written by John and Yoko for ‘Some Time In New York City’, all of which dealt with similar injustices against radicals around the world (prison rioters, the Northern Irish and feminists). The show is a scrappy, messy one (Plagued by sound problems, especially on ‘Attica State’), but acoustically based so it lacks the power and daring of the Toronto and Lyceum shows. Lennon is unusually quiet (Yoko is slightly chattier) and hides behind dark glasses for much of the show, though he does utter his immortal phrase here that ‘Apathy isn’t it. So flower power didn’t work? We start again!’ The show was recorded on film and audio but so far only the performance of ‘John Sinclair’ has officially appeared on album (on the ‘Lennon Anthology’). Against all odds the rally ‘worked’ – just three days later John Sinclair was freed from prison, all cases against him dropped. John and Yoko, meanwhile, borrowed their song back and re-recorded it in the studio anyway, still pleading for John Sinclair to ‘be set free’ even though he was safely back home by the time ‘Sometime In New York City’ came out. It was a big moment for the two of them – proof that people did listen and that musicians could change the world; it seems strange, in fact, that this is the only political rally they will ever play and very nearly their last concert together (with only the ‘One To One’ show to follow).

5)  Where: Madison Square Gardens, New York When: November 28th 1974 Why: Last Gig Setlist: [62] ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’

Few people in the room knew who Elton meant when he suddenly interrupted his set at Madison Square Gardens midway through to introduce a ‘very special guest’ for ‘Thanksgiving’. Not many people recognised Lennon despite Elton’s announcement of ‘someone you’ll all know’ dressed as he was in a suit (when did he last wear a suit? 1964?) Even fewer would have guessed that this brief ten minute appearance was to be Lennon’s last ever in front of a crowd (though sadly we know John had plans for his first ever tour in 1981 on the back of ‘Double Fantasy’). The minute-long standing ovation when his name was called, though, clearly moves Lennon and makes him even more nervous than normal before Elton’s band fires up into a shaky version of the song the two Johns had recorded for ‘Walls and Bridges’ and which was only just beginning to fall back down the American charts at the time. Elton sounds far more comfortable than Lennon and is unusually supportive in the performance of the song, his vocal ‘cushioning’ the gap where Lennon sounds unusually raw and quiet. They then move on to Elton’s favourite Beatle song, with ‘Lucy’ given a glam rock re-make that doesn’t quite suit her (she sounds better in hippie garb than platform barbs and there’s just too much going on) and John only joins in on the chorus, but is a good stab at re-creating the epic scale of ‘Sgt Peppers’ for the road. The final song is a surprise though: introduced by Lennon with mischief as ‘by an old estranged fiancé of mine, called Paul!’ Who would ever have guessed that the last song Lennon sang in front of people would be a song he’d never sang lead on before and yet which had introduced The Beatles (in album terms at least) to the world? ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is performed even more roughly than when The Beatles had performed it at the Cavern but is nevertheless a fitting end, played with fizz and fire and energy, if not much excitement. Lennon giggles that he’s going to rush through the song ‘because I want to get off stage sos I can be sick!’ In actual fact he goes backstage and meets a waiting Yoko who wants to tell him how good she thought the show was, re-igniting their passion and ending the ‘Lost Weekend’ in one go. Sadly nobody seems to have filmed this gig, but the audio was taped and was released as a three-song EP, collected on CD to date only on the ‘Lennon’ three-disc set.

THREE KEY COVER VERSIONS:

Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) Inevitably there are a million recordings out there of songs like [20] ‘Imagine’ and even a few of [32] ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. That’s all very boring though and not how we roll at the AAA, so instead for our usual section we’re going to give you one very important cover of a famous Lennon song and two lesser known recordings of lesser known songs. Since his death Lennon’s songs have fared better than almost anyone’s, actually, with almost all of his solo songs recorded by somebody out there somewhere (well, maybe not the ‘Sometime In New York City’ album just yet!)
1)  [9] ‘Isolation’ Harry Nilsson (‘Ariel Pandemonium Ballet’ 1971)
Back in 1971 Harry Nilsson was a Beatle-obsessed singer desperate to make a name for himself with his cod-operatic overtones. He isn’t yet a household name, with his wretched cover of Apple signee Badfinger’s beautiful ‘Without You’ not out yet – but Lennon’s interest was already piques by that recording and this lesser known gem of one of the better tracks from ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’. Lennon figured nobody would ever try to cover songs from his most personal album, but this song is a good fit for Harry’s style. Going from slow burning beauty to sudden energetic fiery fits of temper in the middle eight (‘I don’t expect you to understand!’) musically this is almost a Nilsson song anyway. Harry does, though, sweeten the blow of some of Lennon’s bitterest lyrics, adding in a fuller production that features a lovely organ part allowing the navigation of those awkward piano chords, stumbling towards the light, to have some hope. The two will become firm friends and drinking buddies when Lennon begins to hang around with other musicians during his ‘Lost Weekend’. While there Lennon also agreed to do the only production of his solo career, helping Harry make his 1974 LP ‘Pussycats’, named as a reference to both the nightclub the two singers got kicked out of for being drunk (making all the papers) and for how ‘sweet’ they really are underneath all that booze  (if you were wondering Lennon’s only Beatles-era production credit being for Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas back in 1963, where he spends most of the time giggling!) The pair had a special bond at least partly because of this track which manages to be enough like the Lennon original to show Nilsson ‘got’ it while adding his own characteristic touch.
2)  [28] ‘How?’ Helen Reddy (‘Helen Reddy’ 1971)
Ah dear Helen Reddy. The sweet voice that could melt any heart, usually whilst singing deep and tragic and often brave songs about issues like feminism and poverty. There’s a definite mirror to Lennon’s own writing there and she sounds rather good sweetening up one of his most lost and despairing sounding tracks. Her version of ‘How?’ was hot off the press when Helen released it as the opening track of her second ever record and Lennon must have been surprised to hear a version of such a new song that wasn’t [20] ‘Imagine’ or [22] ‘Jealous Guy’ off the same LP> Lennon’s original is already pretty sweet, thanks to a cloying Phil Spector orchestra, but while Reddy also uses an orchestra her version is tougher and paranoid, the strings sound like they’re out to get her. There are big menacing pianos too, followed by the big booming heartbeat drums that sound like a panic attack. Her vocal, though, is the most different: unlike John, Helen sounds incredibly self-assured and confident, giving the song quite a different feel – the sense that everyone is lost and searching for something, not just the writer who was brave enough to say it. Fans of this song should check out ‘Candle On The Water’, Helen’s contribution to the original (and best) ‘Pete’s Dragon’ soundtrack, easily the greatest song ever used in a Disney film, whatever Elton John thinks.
3)  [22] ‘Jealous Guy’ Roxy Music (Single 1981)
Endless acts paid tribute to Lennon after his death – five of the AAA ones have been collected together in our top ten (Paul, George, Yoko, Paul Simon, Nils Lofgren). You can add to that John’s close friends like Elton and Joan Baez, plus a brief acquaintance with Queen. Perhaps the most surprising tribute, though, was one by a distant admirer as Bryan Ferry was so shocked at Lennon’s death he abandoned plans to release a new Roxy Music song and instead recorded one of his favourite Lennon songs. The band had been playing ‘Jealous Guy’ ever since the week of Lennon’s death on tour as a stunned audience weren’t quite ready to boogie  and night after night the crowd lifted their cigarette lighters in solidarity with the band – somehow the song seemed inevitable as a single too given how well it had gone down with crowds. Lennon’s song is updated to the sound of early 1980s synthesisers which add an alien and distant feel to what was one of John’s warmest and lushest, most emotional songs. Ferry’s directness, his clipped tones and his vocal piercing the darkness is most unlike Lennon’s original and yet it somehow works, both as cover song and tribute to a fallen hero. Released two months after Lennon’s death, it became the first single in eight weeks to reach UK or US number one without Lennon’s voice on it and as such was the perfect stepping stone for the rest of the world to finally ‘move on’ without him. Is it better than the original, as so many people say? Hell no, Bryan Ferry can barely stay in tune, never mind whistle. But it’s a heartfelt moment that updates the Lennon sound for a whole new generation.
Other Lennon related articles from this website for yous all to read:

'Imagine' (1971) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/john-lennon-imagine-1971-album-review.html

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/news-views-and-music-issue-35-john.html

'Mind Games'(1973)  
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/news-views-and-music-issue-77-john.html

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-63-john-lennon-walls-and-bridges.html
'Double Fantasy' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/john-lennon-and-yoko-ono-double-fantasy.html

'Milk and Honey'  (1982)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/news-views-and-music-issue-135-john.html
Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-and-yoko-ono-non-album.html
Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/john-lennon-livecompilationraritiesunfi.html
The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-best-unreleased-recordings.html
Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-surviving-tv-clips-1968-1980.html




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