Friday 4 July 2008

John Lennon "Walls and Bridges" (1974) ('Core' Review #61, Revised Edition 2014)

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John Lennon "Walls and Bridges" (1974)

Track Listing: Going Down On Love/ Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/ Old Dirt Road/ What You Got/ Bless You/ Scared// #9 Dream/ Surprise Surprise [Sweet Bird Of Paradox]/ Steel And Glass/ Beef Jerky/ Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out/ Ya Ya  (UK and US tracklisting)

‘Can you hear me, mother?’

"I'm drowning in a sea of hatred!" "Nobody loves you when you're six feet in the ground" "I'm scarred I'm Scarred I'm scarred". This wasn't what the man referred to on the back cover as 'Dr Winston O Boogie's many fans were expecting when they bought this album and read the lyric sheet. After all John had been seen in the press giggling like a naughty schoolboy while getting drunk and heckling strangers, suddenly coming out of hibernation to appear on any TV show that would have him (even gate-crashing a few that wouldn’t!) Suddenly the funny Beatle was being funny again in public and oh yes he didn’t even have Yoko warbling away on his arm anymore. John was talking to interviewers the way he had a decade before, being fun and cynical and cute, no longer a hermit hiding behind long hair, bed-peace, be-pans or politics. He was also about to be out of contract with EMI for the first time since 1962, able to release whatever the hell he wanted without recourse to selling records. How fun this next album was going to be, with the Beatles back where he belonged and willing to give airtime over not to her screams but his army of drinking buddies: Harry Nilsson, Micky Dolenz, Keith Moon and Ringo. What a laff! Even the :artwork seems fun, especially compared to the earnestness of ‘Sometime In New York City’ or the melancholy of ‘Mind Games’. There's a foldout cover drawing where you can put lots of different Lennons doing different poses together (with flaps folded one over the other), the bonus of a drawing made by an eleven-year-old Lennon and the sound is upbeat, punchy and professionally slick. There's some mistake, right? Apple are having problems - they must have just put the wrong lyrics sheet in with the wrong LP! I mean the album even starts with the invocation to boogie ‘got to get down…’

Only it wasn’t. That next line is ‘down on my knees’, with Lennon pleading for his life to go back to normal. This album in a microcosm: the bouncy, poppy ‘What You Got’, where Lennon sings lines like ‘I’m drowning in a sea of hatred’ with a great big smile on his musical lips. ‘Walls and Bridges’ sounds like Lennon’s having fun, sure. There’s the Elton John cameo to talk about, a co-write with Harry Nilsson and a production that’s sprightly and light on its feet. There are more snappy singalong pop songs than we’ve had since ‘Revolver’ and compared to ‘Mind Games’ this album’s tempos aren’t just quick but snappy, played by a well-drilled powerful set of L A Musicians who sound like they’re really on side with what Lennon’s trying to do. But this album is, at its core, eleven re-writes of ‘Help!’ with a man not waving at us to say hello but drowning (‘in a sea of hatred’ as this album’s grinning opening number howls). People were confused: Everybody Loved Lennon but he felt nobody loved anybody unless they were ‘six feet in the ground’. Everybody still loved The Beatles and felt a reunion was only a motion away – but here John Winston Legthighs was, giving us another Beatle requiem in ‘#9 Dream’ to go along with the finality of [14] ‘God’. Everybody thought Lennon was the most with-it popstar on the planet, giving him a number one with a catchy pop song that finally deserved that tag – but the man himself still thought himself the misunderstood misfit he’d been when he made the drawings recycled on the album cover, aged eleven, desperate for someone to notice his talent (these are some of the few pieces saved from the clutches of Aunt Mimi’s bonfire, from the mountains of drawings a teenage Lennon used to draw all the time, obsessed, desperate for someone to notice his talent – it speaks volumes he should reproduce them now). We thought the man knew how much he was loved – he only felt he was ‘scared’ or ‘scarred’ or ‘tired’, depending on the verse of this album’s big magnum opus.

Behind the smiles, behind the good-time party atmosphere, Lennon was going through hell. You could see it, if you were a sympathetic fan, every time the papers printed what Lennon was ‘really’ up to and how badly he lashed out when drunk: for all the multiple biographies making Lennon out to be a monster, we only have it on record that Lennon ever struck two people in his life: Cavern DJ Bob Wooler for cracking homosexual remarks about a holiday Johyn took with Brian Epstein (at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday bash in 1964 no less) and a waitress. Lennon probably didn’t hit her, but was so inebriated he admitted in court he might have just ‘forgotten’ and who paid up anyway – especially when enough audience members agreed as witnesses under oath that Lennon and his new pal Harry Nilsson had spent the night heckling hapless unfunny comedy duo The Smothers Brothers with wisecracks that a) weren’t even as funny as theirs and b) made them sound like the ‘old men’ from The Muppet Show and had spent most of the night with a used tampon on his head to make people notice him. Most stinging of all may have been the waitresses quote which seemed to sober him up far more than the court-case: 'It's not the punch that hurt as much finding out that one of your idols is a jerk'. John Lennon had, in five short years, gone from BBC TV’s pick as ‘the man of the 1960s’ to a drunken rootless loser, one quipping so hard only because he began to cry when he stopped. Help! Lennon needed somebody. And not just anybody. He needed Yoko.

Lennon wasn’t strictly ‘lost’ (Yoko even had his address) and it lasted way longer than a ‘weekend’, but ‘the lost weekend’ is what Lennon called this period of his life, for several good reasons. With Yoko unwilling or unable to forgive him after he broke her heart, John didn’t know what to do, alternating between guilt and lust for other women in a schizophrenic dance of wanting to be a grown-up and unable to be anything more than a child. So Yoko made the decision for him, secretly hoping that he would see the error of his ways and come back to her (perhaps with roses? That was her condition when they began courting again). John  didn’t leave of his own accord – Yoko packed him off to have fun as a bachelor before it was ‘too late’ so he didn’t resent being tied down, but at the same time sending her own secretary May Pang (who she knew had a crush on Lennon) to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t do anything too ‘stupid’. On this sense, perhaps, she failed – but as an inexperienced girl ten years Lennon’s junior she never really had a chance to keep Lennon on the straight and narrow. What she did instead – and it was something Yoko perhaps didn’t count on – was to ‘mend bridges’, putting John back in touch with people from his Beatle days, with his son Julian (now a music-obsessed eleven-year-old who knew a still visiting Paul far more than he knew his dad – he appears on the album’s odd finale, on shaky drums) and encouraging Lennon to be out amongst his public again. In between the bouts of drinking – and secret bouts of depression – Lennon genuinely seemed happier than he did for years, with a carefree attitude that cared nothing for American politics (‘Watergate’ had kinda proved his point for him about Nixon) May is this saga's one true heroine: she kept John in love and out of even more trouble, set up 'walls' to protect him and re-built 'bridges' to people from John's past and kept him just about sober to function, if not all day every day. I find it fascinating that John never once went ‘home’ to the UK with his new found freedom though: fearing he would never get back into the USA if he left and perhaps still figuring he still had a chance of getting back together with Yoko, John put off the day – until it never happened. He did, though, travel through almost every American state, visiting places he’d always wanted to visit and hanging out with musicians everywhere. It’s as if he was allowed out to be free, but only on a ‘leash’. Even so to the public of the day, who knew nothing about what was going on behind the scenes, Lennon suddenly seemed approachable – and popular. Of course he got his only American #1 in his lifetime right here and now: Lennon was at last back to being ‘one of the people’, rather than trying to bring them power, peace, utopia or his own insights from therapy. In the eyes of the world John was better off without Yoko – but in the eyes of John without Yoko he was floundering.

There were as many ‘walls’ as there were ‘bridges’. Like a man (or our mascot dog Bingo) with a drinking problem (party the night away and sleep off the hangover the next), ‘Walls and Bridges’ is a schizophrenic LP that doesn’t know whether to cry with happiness or tears, so does both – often at the same time. Lennon feels the tug of the new, of the people he’s never met and the places he’s never been and his desire to see the world (which he did as a Beatle I guess, but only from hotel windows). Lennon’s contract his nearly up, he’s nearly a free man and he’s nearly happy – but something keep reminding him of what he’s missing. 'Walls and Bridges' is, more than any other Lennon album, a love letter to Yoko, even though it’s the only one of his solo albums (at least of new material) that she wasn’t around to witness. Though Yoko confirmed not long ago that the couple spoke by the telephone weekly in this period (more when  one of them had news), ‘Walls and  Bridges’ sounds like a love letter sent through the music business because Yoko wasn't reading his actual letters anymore. Unlike parts of 'Mind Games', where John was playing the part of a teenage Romeo to woo her back, he sounds as if he means it this time, that the hurt and feelings run deep.

Lennon wrote many many songs for his missus during their years together, but arguably he never wrote as many all for one album as he does here during their time apart. 'You know the price is right' he bargains with Yoko on opener 'Going Down On Love', after listing all his many woes and why he’s learnt his lesson, while he sighs that ‘when your lover is gone it’s so hard to carry on’, a typical Lennonish pun that has him ‘going down’ on love after ‘going down’ on the wrong person. 'Bless You' is Lennon's most aching, tender, love song and the centre-piece to this album: a promise to do better next time and that he secretly knows it’s not over even though 'we've spread our wings' and he blessed whatever knew partner realises how wonderful Yoko is in a way he never ever did at the time. 'What You Got' is about not realising he had so much to lose and features Lennon literally screaming as he pleads to 'have one more chance'. '#9 Dream' has been taken to mean a farewell to everything from The Beatles to John's childhood: most likely both scenarios are in there too but this is really a song about Yoko, inspired by a dream in which she chants the nonsense verse at the song's heart to him ('O Bowa Kowa posse posse'), drawing him back to her telepathically. Even hit single 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night' features the revealing ad lib 'Can you hear me, mother?' (This being John's pet name for Yoko, his 'replacement' for his own mum and muse Julia) and sounds in retrospect like a defence of his increasingly out-of-control drinking, to cover up the ‘hole’ he feels over her absence. Even the one song dedicated to ‘May Pang’, ‘Sweet Bird Of Paradox’, is really about Yoko (‘Well I was wondering how long this could go on…’) and is really not the most romantic gesture the Beatle ever made in his life ('She makes me sweat and forget who I am'). The rest of the songs on this album simply tell us how lonely, sad and wretched Lennon feels: 'Scared' is as on the edge as Lennon ever was, even including the ‘Plastic Ono Band’, his weariest and most paranoid song as he laments ‘being alone, no place to call my home’. 'Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out' is John at his lowest and most cynical, despising the party-goers around him telling him he's wonderful when he knows in his heart he's anything but. 'Steel and Glass', too, is a guilty song - but a guilty song directed at Allen Klein (Beatles and Apple manager since 1968, then about to be given a prison sentence for tax evasion and rather proving the point Paul McCartney had made when he tried to warn the others off him and effectively had to sue his friends to prevent Klien taking all their money. This is reportedly the closest Lennon came to an actual apology over the matter).

Perhaps it’s no co-incidence either that, without Yoko there to ‘protect’ him, Lennon’s darker side shines through much more powerfully on this album than most of his solo works. That’s a mixed blessing: any fan who loves Lennon’s music enough to dig out these later, obscurer solo albums surely has more than a little affection for one of the most charismatic and remarkable musicians that ever lived and its tough hearing Lennon’s pain expressed in such real terms. But take away that pain, that instinctive ongoing search up and down a melody to express himself, and Lennon’s songwriting craft isn’t often up to much (as it turns out most critics have got it all wrong: Lennon needed McCartney more than Paul needed John and without his instant musicality to cover up the cracks many of John's solo songs struggle to stay accessible unless there's a strong enough message shining through them). The albums Imagine, Mind Games and particularly Sometime In New York City are far from worthless, but reveal so little of their composer’s real self and seem to inspire precious little in the way of new melodies or ideas that hearing them is a very hollow experience indeed if you come to them straight from Lennon’s deeper works, a few glorious exceptions aside. 'Walls and Bridges' is, along with the 'Plastic Ono Band' LP, the best of the solo Lennon - the record that 'sounds' real without being quite as relentlessly, tiringly 'real' as his debut solo release. Heard back to back with 'Mind Games' (an album I like more than most, but which even I admit is occasionally bland) and the difference is clear: Lennon is out of his comfort zone in life and is in his music too, pushing himself for arguably the last time (although the unfinished 'Milk and Honey' is proof that the follow-ups to 'Double Fantasy' would have been a lot more interesting than the playing-safe comeback record was).

'Walls and Bridges' is, then, an album that’s just as frightened but also eight times more vulnerable than the primal scream of 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' had been. Back in 1970 Lennon was taking the reins from the authority figures he'd believed in for so long (everyone from his dead mother to his dead band). This time though Lennon has nowhere to travel to and nothing to do with his ‘freedom’ except go round in circles on drinking binges - he's wildly, hopelessly confused, with the key theme of ‘Walls and Bridges’ being one of ‘confusion’. As the title puts it, walls keep you in, bridges lead you out – Lennon felt free and trapped without Yoko all at the same time and desperately wanted both things in this period, someone to test him, frighten him and push him as intellectually as far as he go and someone to mother him and tuck him in at night as well.  He was both happy and sad, creatively enthused and emotionally drained, excited and tired all at the same time. No wonder it was this album cover that had the multiple Lennon staring back at us: John doesn't know who he is anymore. Lennon was later to refer to this LP as being 'nothing like as schizophrenic as that year really was' but if so then he was listening to a different mix than me. 'Walls and Bridges' is the most schizophrenic AAA album since The Who's 'Quadrophenia', with Lennon pouring out his soul while sounding as if he has a big grin on his face. The difference is, unlike 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band', Lennon doesn't want the world to know he's hurting. A lot of his behaviour - heckling past-it comedians in night-clubs and wearing tampons on his head - was because that's what he felt he ought to be doing as the world's most eligible bachelor. Everyone around him seemed to be enjoying themselves after all, so why shouldn't he? (though arguably Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and even Ringo were as messed up and unstable at the time as he was and didn't make for good comparisons).

Early Beatle fans were shocked when John wed Cynthia suddenly in 1962. They were still quite shocked when John took the conventional route and married Yoko in 1969 (it was the honeymoon that was unconventional - the wedding was as normal as they could make it, given that both were divorced and most countries except Gibraltar refused to allow it at the short notice they were asking). They'll be even more shocked when, a year after this record, John and Yoko get back together again and he leaves rock and roll behind to become a 'house-husband', with 'Walls and Bridges' Lennon's last completed album of original material for six years. But a part of Lennon had always yearned for security and the stable home he'd never had as a child; it was McCartney who was always the Beatle unlikeliest to marry and who enjoyed his bachelor status (till Linda came along and changed his mind). John was always looking to settle down, but the problem with self-destructive geniuses is that they can never fully settle for what they have. 'Walls and Bridges' is Lennon being given his cake and finding out that he never really wanted to eat it. This album is the soundtrack to working that fact out in Lennon’s head as he comes to terms with the fact that what he really wants is commitment and stability, to be a husband and father, to no longer hang around with the showbiz cronies who encourage his drinking over his thinking. Lennon, usually so clear-thinking, has never sounded so puzzled. No wonder so many of this album’s moments that stay with you are about being lost and isolated: Lennon is left pleading for ‘help’, not knowing what he had until ‘you lose it’, wishing he was ‘six feet in the ground’, drinking to get him through the night and – most memorably -‘trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind’.

Phil Spector's production, so utterly OTT on the 'Imagine' album it came close to ruining it, is particularly fitting here, wrapping up Lennon in all the tenderness he craves and longs for – but in a much less sugary way. This time around Spector’s production techniques were added on long after the main musicians added their own funky and gritty parts, which gives the album much of its schizophrenic air. It’s as if we’re listening to a punk album that was then handed over to a prog rock producer or a layer of honey added to some porridge – the album is for the most part realistic and down-to-earth but suddenly some massive layer of sweeteners will land out of nowhere to knock us off our feet. It’s amongst the best production of any Lennon album (since the sparse first one perhaps?) Spector knew his fair share of heartbreak and psychotic episodes and seems to have correctly guessed where his old friend's head is at without apparently needing to ask. 'Walls and Bridges' isn't a fluffy album the way ‘Imagine’ often was - it's heavy, sinking underneath its own weight for much of the record, only to fly away into the ether whenever Yoko's spirit is invoked on '#9 Dream' and 'Bless You'. Interestingly, though, almost half of this album was released in rough, early take form on the posthumous 'Menlove Avenue' set (along with half an album of outtakes from next LP 'Rock and Roll') and sounds even better, Lennon re-energised by the rough and raw recording style he used before replacing many of these takes with a sea of overdubs. If you like this album then the side’s worth of outtakes is well worth digging out (and the tracks from sister record 'Rock and Roll' – started by John and Phil together before the drunken sessions were abandoned, to be revived by Lennon alone after this LP, are a big improvement too). One thing these outtakes are missing, however, is the ghostly quality that many of these finished recordings have, common for Lennon anyway thanks to the echo he always insisted on using for his voice (which, amazingly, he hated hearing pure) but particularly so here where so many of the recordings feel like a hallucinogenic coma dream: May Pang's spooky voice on' #9 Dream', the whispering intro to 'Steel and Glass' (teasing the audience with 'Who is it? Who is it?'), the cacophony of noise on 'Whatever...' : this is an album that's haunted by things said, mistakes made and people who aren't there who should be and which sounds as if Lennon is trying to pass on a message to us that's tantalisingly just out of reach.

A quick word about the guest stars on this album. It seems odd to say that John was heavily influences by Ringo in his solo career (the other way round maybe) but that’s kind of what happens here. The only Beatle not to have had a solo number one hit by 1974, Lennon is oddly edgy and defensive, desperate to win over his lapsed audience put off by Yoko screams and politics and looks to what albums are popular in this period. One of the biggest selling albums of 1973, Beatle or otherwise, is ‘Ringo’, the all-Starr gathering of friends including John, Paul and George that became a million seller thanks partly to the glitz and glamour, the bigger marketing budget but mostly the famous guests on the back cover. If Ringo could make a whole album as a glorified MC then surely Lennon, with his new group of drinking buddies, could too? This isn't something Lennon had ever resorted to before, but then he'd never recorded an album spending so much time away from home. Hanging around with new friends inevitably meant they ended up non this LP: ‘Old Dirt Road’, a co-write with Harry Nilsson intended for the ‘Pussy Cats’ LP John was producing for his new drinking buddy, got ‘rescued’ for this album at the last minute when Lennon suddenly realised how good (and perhaps how Yoko-like) it sounded. Harry got the silly ‘Mucho Mungo’ in return – not really much of a consolation prize. The biggest news though was another ‘John’ with glasses. Hard as it is to believe now but back in 1974 Elton John was young, skinny and popular; everyone wanted him for their albums (after years of being ignored as a session musician - that's Elton playing the piano on Hollies single 'I Can't Tell The Bottom From The Top' two years before he made his solo debut). Lennon was one of his early champions and all too eager to invite his trendy new mate to his sessions – Beatlemaniac that he was, Elton was only too keen to join in and much of ‘Walls and Bridges’ (a piano more than a guitar based album) sounds tinged with his ‘style’ of big block chords and even the way Lennon sings certain songs. ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’ is musically very much an Elton-style piece (a kind of revved-up utopian version of 'Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting')  so naturally Elton was asked to guest appear on it, a fact which also gives this album it’s ‘happy ending’. Elton loved it and bet Lennon it would get to #1; John, less than convinced by a 'throwaway' song he didn’t reckon much on laughed and told him what he had to bet. Elton’s wager was that  if the single hit number one as he said it would then Lennon would agree to sing ion stage with him, breaking a two-year live fast. John agreed and in a moment on panic sent Yoko tickets, figuring that he needed all the friends he could ‘get’ and that she probably wouldn't come anyway. But she did and their meeting backstage changed his life forever: after six months of sending her flowers every week and taking her out on ‘proper’ dates, John won back her heart she fell pregnant with Sean and John demonstrated his commitment by effectively giving up his musical career to become a house-husband until their son was of school-age and he could ‘go back to work’ in 1980.

As a final bow, returning to nearly all of Lennon’s favourite themes over the previous twelve years, ‘Walls and Bridges’ is hard to beat and is one of his most overlooked creations. Part fun-loving hello to the new experiences Lennon was having, part anguished goodbye to what he left behind, audio diaries rarely come any better than this. 'Bless You' is Lennon's most blissed out love song, 'Scared' his scariest recording, 'Steel and Glass' his most frightening, 'Nobody Loves You...' his saddest solo song, ‘Old Dirt Road’ his most poetic, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ his silliest - and they're just the highlights of a record that's arguably John's most consistently brilliant since the first. Who'd have guessed after hearing this album that the sweet and content (some would say boring) 'Double Fantasy' would be his next album of original material, that it would come after a five year gap (unheard of back then when rock stars released albums every year or disappeared forever) or that Lennon would be breaking off between sessions for that album to visit his five year old son after making it back with Yoko, the very picture of domestic bliss? The happy ending somehow makes the turbulent, confused, anguished 'Walls and Bridges' sound all the better for it, even if that happy ending is set to be tragically brief.

Our original reviews came with a list of officially available outtakes - in most cases these aren't worth repeating and the column was a pain to write as endless box sxets kept tripling it in size so I discontinued it early on, but this album is particularly rich for alternate takes and demos so I'll leave the list here: It doesn’t count as a recording but in terms of writing the Lennon-Spector collaboration [76] ‘Here We Go Again’ only missed out on a place on this album by the skin of its teeth. A lovely and much under-rated song, mixing from muted ballad to overblown orchestral epic, the song was taped as part of the first batch of songs for the Rock And Roll LP but left on the shelf throughout the Walls And Bridges sessions until finally being released on the posthumous 1985 set ‘Menlove Avenue’. [77] ‘Rock and Roll People’ is less exciting but more worthy of inclusion on this LP than, say, ‘Beef Jerky’ (a party instrumental with drunken friends). As discussed, alternate rough and early takes of several of the songs on this album are also on ‘Menlove Avenue’ (‘Old Dirt Road’, ‘Bless You’, ‘Scared’, ‘Steel and Glass’ and ‘Nobody Loves You’) and sound mighty fine there as well, even if they sound a bit too bleak and harsh in places without all the extra production values. ‘Steel And Glass’ sounds particularly good and chilling, being even darker in its new setting without the strings to add spookiness to the violence (though dropping the poor and rather childish last verse by the time of release was a good idea) and ‘Scared’ sounds downright magnificent, even more out on a limb than the version here. Elsewhere alternate versions include a mournful ‘What You Got’ (as an acoustic ballad!), a throwaway demo and almost-there-but-not-quite outtake for ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’, a very early take of ‘Old Dirt Road’ without the production gimmicks, a sparser and even scarier alternate take of ‘Steel And Glass’ (without the abandoned last verse this time around), a raw but nicely poppy run through of ‘Surprise Surprise’, an out-take of ‘Scared’ with a similar backing track but much rawer Lennon vocal where Lennon was obviously having fun that day, a heartbreaking similar take of ‘Bless You’ where he obviously wasn’t and finally an eerie and finally an even more spaced out ‘Nobody Loves You’…(which sounds even better without the echo washes drowning out Lennon’s sarcastic vocal) can all be heard on the 4CD rarities set Lennon Anthology (1998) and some can additionally be heard on the single CD Wonsuponatime (1999). Demos of ‘Goodnight Vienna’ and ‘Only You’ intended for Ringo to sing were also taped at these sessions and can be heard on this same set. The single CD out-takes set Acoustic (2004) adds a fascinatingly funky home demo for ‘What You Got’ alongside the Anthology demo listed above. The Menlove Avenue set has the better batch of out-takes, however, if you’re wondering where to look first!

Finally too, an extra word about that inventive cover, a picture of cowboys and indians drawn by an eleven-year-old Lennon not for school for his part-time childhood project Sport and Speed Illustrated, which was like The Daily Howl (another school newspaper which grew into the writings for In His Own Write) but with the emphasis on drawings rather than poetry or gibberish news columns. These rather impressive illustrations are just about the only ones not thrown out by John’s Aunt Mimi for being a waste of space, much to her nephew’s horror! (Thanks, Mimi). Cowboys and Indians is somehow the perfect album ‘theme’, as two sides with their own ideologies track down and hunt one another during the course of the album, at war as Lennon gets ambushed by crisis during his drinking sessions and has bouts of happiness through his tears, planning his next drinking campaign. It’s almost as if his eleven-year-old self could already guess that his thirty-four-year-old self might need them one day. Some of the paintings are darned good too, showing a strong eye for detail (this album shares the same qualities by the way). We say send that kid to art college!

The Songs:

[61] ‘Going Down On Love starts as the album means to go on, matching a surprisingly commercial tune that shows Lennon had lost none of the made-to-measure catchy touches last heard on the early Beatles albums with a doo-doo-doo nonsense chorus with lyrics that – read away from the jovial banter of the melody – sound like the depths of despair. The ‘trick’ is that Lennon keeps twisting the melody, adding section after section that finds him waking up bleary-eyed to some new upbeat strutting tempo even though the lyrics find him repeating the word ‘down’ over and over. On the lyrics Lennon sounds lost and hopeless, pleading fore the sort of divine invention he dismissed only a few years before, only to urge himself to ‘get down’ to pulling himself out of his funk, to bliss out on some spacey instrumental breaks – and then find himself back in a rut again, desperate for release. Like much of this album, Lennon seems to be deliberately distancing himself from the Yoko-evolved concept that ‘only real life is art’ now that he is no longer with her (witness his dismissal of Macca’s material as ‘story songs’ in the early 1970s press, despite the fact that they were in their own way just as personal and revealing as Lennon’s work). Instead this is a catchy clever pop song of the sort Elton John might write, complete with whoops and wails and a glittery performance by his latest band of session musicians (with Jesse Ed Davis, who Lennon met playing with Taj Mahal at the Rolling Stones Circus in 1968, an especially strong guitarist).  Throughout Lennon sings like he was born with glitter in his glam rock boots. And yet if you read this song rather than hear it you get an entirely different re-action, one that seems the opposite of glam rock (and even takes a sideswipe at T Rex’s ‘Get It On, Bang A Gong’ ‘When the real thing is gone and you can’t get it on and your love she is gone…’) A long list of complaints that spiral out of control and end up in the soggy chorus sigh ‘you gotta pay the price’, Lennon tries to ‘go down’ on his new partner but can only remember what happened the last time he did this – and how ‘love’ (meaning Yoko) went ‘down’ on him. With more individual sections strung together than any Lennon song since Happiness Is A Warm Gun, ‘Going Down On Love’ is an uneasy hybrid of adventurism and playing it safe that doesn’t work quite as well at its schizophrenia as the rest of the album but is quite unlike anything else in the Lennon catalogue.  

[62] ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night [the mis-spelling of 'thru' is there on the original - was Lennon a fan of Slade?] is similarly catchy but deep. Lennon makes it clear that he’s enjoying his escapism on this party song full of blaring horns, good time honky tonk licks and clever witty lyrics – but the whole point of the song is that it’s escapist fluff from darker, dingier aspects (Lennon himself was disgusted that he had a big hit with what he considered one of his most childish songs, once claiming ‘I thought this song should have been forty-odd and ‘Imagine’ should have been number one’ – actually that song had peaked at #3 in the US charts until being re-released after his death). The song is certainly not as long-lasting as so many other good ones in his catalogue - it lacks the depth and power of [1] ‘Give Peace A Chance’ or [32] ;Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – and in many ways Lennon is slumming it here, copying his new drinking buddies to get a hit (which makes a change from his drinking buddies copying old Beatles tunes!) However it serves its purpose by continuing ‘Mind Games’ strong showing in the melody stakes and comes parcelled up with a killer hook that darts this way and that, never quite being pinned down. This is also one of the bexst examples of why these LA musicians suited Lennon so much better than the New York ones on ‘Mind Games’ as they really get into the jazz swing of this song and offer up an excellent party groove – especially the drunken saxophone from Bobby Keyes, ‘on loan’ from John’s old ‘rivals’ The Rolling Stones. Everyone in the room is clearly having a ball and Elton is at his best here, lifting the song and pushing Lennon to up his game on a song that could easily have been one of his own tracks. Yet so used have we become to hearing one of Lennon’s more famous tracks that it’s hard to remember what the lyrics are actually saying – it doesn’t matter what gets us through the night as long as we get there but, whatever you say, life is hard and we all need some escapism in our lives. Lennon writes some of his greatest homespun philosophy in this song, out Yoko-ing Yoko in its neat but eccentric ideas, from a sword cutting through flowers to a watch wasting time to a gun blowing minds (his cry during the instrumental break ‘can you hear me mother?’ makes it clear that he’s trying to get her attention, perhaps by working in her own imagery). With such inventive metaphors as these, each demonstrating the power of the imagination, Lennon had surely been leafing back through Yoko’s old 1968 ‘Grapefruit’ book when he wrote this song and its all the better for it. Of course Lennon was going to lose that ‘bet’ he made about this song never going near #1: it might not have been to its own creator’s tastes but it’s too catchy, without being saccharine, not to have been a big hit (except in Britain, strangely, about the only country not to take to this noisy song where it barely made the top forty without Lennon around to promote it). Given this classic single’s irresistible boogie jive, squealing sax and inventive harmonies, perhaps the audience-fearing solo Lennon should have been more cautious in making bets on a sure-fire hit like this!

[63] ‘Old Dirt Road is another glorious-sounding song, with a gorgeous George Martinesque string arrangement standing out, but it’s sugar sweetness and outward-looking story-telling make it sound more like a McCartney track than a Lennon one. Strangely, it was co-written by Harry Nilsson, a songwriter who like Lennon was one of the greatest acerbic wits of the 1960s and one of the greatest out-of-control party animals of the 1970s, but getting together the two men seem to have written a genuinely gentle song here without the sting in the tale both men were known for writing – you wait for the song to ‘turn’ but it never does. Instead we get a song that sounds like both men are lost and confused, travelling down not a long and winding road but an ‘old dirt one’, aware that they’ve lost their ‘way’ from the path they set out on, but unsure how to get there. ‘Ain’t no difference’ Lennon sighs at one point, but he doesn’t sound as if he means it as these poetic lyrics find him further and further out in the desert, desperate for ‘water’ (one of Nilsson’s better tracks, best sung by Monkee Mike Nesmith, is surely ‘Rainmaker’ about a ‘Pied Piper’ figure who promises water – Harry may well have meant water as ‘love’, the way most songwriters do, though for Lennon rain usually meant ‘awareness’). From what I can tell (but I could be wrong) it sound like mainly Harry’s tune (it has the same long sweeping melodic structure that many of his songs have and would be unusual but not quite unique for Lennon’s writing) and John’s words – full of more Yoko-ish imagery in some hazy metaphors and a variation on the old Lennon cry ‘it’s gonna be alright!’ now changed to ‘keep on keeping on’. My guess is that Lennon was feeling miserable about his comparative lack of sales after years of Yoko co-writes and wrote this song after seeing McCartney and Wings the new critical darlings – the ‘road’ as a ‘career’ is, after all, a very Paul ‘image’. Interestingly, this track reverses the trick of the last two songs - Lennon performs what is really quite a happy lyric (‘tarred and feathered’ he may be, but there is an end to the road out there somewhere, he just has to find it and anyway the narrator is quite enjoying being on his own, away from ‘people’ and ‘weather’ or ‘the mud slide, mama, when the drama comes’, Lennon happy in anonymity) with just the right amount of wearisome gusto to suit the lethargic tune. The best thing about this song is the production that has Jesse Ed Davis’ guitar in an almighty tug of war with a Phil Spector string arrangement that often sound as if they are playing two different songs. Sadly Lennon’s echo-drenched vocal isn’t quite on the money for once though – he sounds better on the sparse outtakes included on both the ‘Menlove Avenue’ LP and the ‘’Lennon Anthology’ box set (which is the song’s definitive reading, as sparse and dry as the water-deprived setting). Interestingly Harry doesn’t appear on any of Lennon’s versions of the song even though the two were pretty much inseparable in this period.

‘One!’ yell the band at the start of the noisy [64] ‘What You Got, a howled song of despair at losing Yoko. Over on ‘Mind Games’ (before the song [59] ‘You Are Here’) Yoko represented ‘nine’, the special spiritual number that brought out the best and ‘highest’ in Lennon’s art; now here he is at rock bottom. This is a brief return to the screaming teddyboy rocker of old, tying with ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘Money’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’ and ‘Bad Boy’ to be the proud owner of Lennon’s hoarsest vocals on record. ‘Well its Saturday night and I just gotta rip it up!’ yells Lennon, recalling both his 1950s heroes and his new friend Elton’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’. But this is more escapism and this song isn’t happy-go-lucky at all but desperate, on the edge, in pain (it recalls [3] ‘Cold Turkey’ a lot too). ‘The more things change the more they stay the same’ Lennon howls, aware that he’s brought his latest misery on himself and in agony at the thought of losing Yoko, kicking himself as ‘you don’t know what you got until you lose it!’ John even sticks in a reference to ‘everybody’s got a bag’, a reference to Yoko’s anti-prejudice idea of ‘bagism’ (where if everybody wore a bag all the time, we wouldn’t see their skin colour, gender or class), only here it’s everyone else with an axe to grind against John. This is more downbeat heart-wringing posing as commercial fodder, but darn good commercial fodder it has to be said, a so-so song rescued by another fiery performance, perhaps inspired by one of Lennon’s favourite songs ([18] ‘Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)’, with which it shares a similar structure and several of the same chords). The riff is driving and heavy, the backing loose but punchy and the drums particularly spot-on in their relentless thuds Lennon even sings a line about ‘I know you know about the Emperor’s clothes’, perhaps a nod of the head to knowing fans who have guessed at the reason for this album’s tendency to dress up Lennon’s raw lyrics with orchestrated finery.  A great recording, with the American musicians really getting behind the song’s driving tempo, alas this song can’t quite compete with any of the other compositions on this record and it’s interesting to note that on the brief demo of ‘What You Got’ (included on the 1999 box set ‘Lennon Anthology’) the song sounds even better as a sweet acoustic ballad.

Things pick up for the side closer [65] ‘Bless You, however, perhaps Lennon’s best-ever love song for his wife. At least, music scholars think it’s about Yoko - Lennon was estranged from his wife at the time and in the middle of a long-term romance with May Pang, which might make writing a love song for her seem a little odd. But that’s what the lyrics seem to imply: they find Lennon thanking some un-named spouse for being there for him in the past and sighing at the prospect of a long lonely future without her. Lennon is even gracious enough to thank any future ‘replacement’ for looking after her and hoping they are more worthy of her love than he ever was (there are rumours of Yoko finding someone else in this period by the way, but it’s more speculation than fact). If any one song brought Yoko back to John then surely it’s this one: he’s finally lost his anger, his denial, his need to have freedom but isn’t ordering his wife back to him – instead he’s sadly lost in a fog of his own making, only now realising how perfect the lighthouse that guided him through the last crazy years was. Or was he? The middle eight suddenly makes this lifeless song breathe fire as Lennon sings of wanting to come home now, that everybody else says its ‘over’ but ‘we know better darling’, that he senses the tie that binds them together in absence is still strong. ‘The hollow hollering was only last year’s echo’ Lennon concludes, a mistake that can be put right now he’s had time to think things through. Haiku-like and fragmented, ‘Bless You’ is so ephemeral it sounds as if it’s hardly there at all, as if life and love has been reduced to its bare bones, that ‘I Want You’ because Yoko is so ‘Intellectually Heavy’. John and Yoko quite often made apologies in each other’s ‘styles’ and like [51] ‘Aisumasen’ this song tries to say ‘sorry’ in a Japanese haiku style, full of fragmented poetry quite unlike John’s usual style. It sounds good in his hands though, especially dressed up to the nines with Spector’s best production work on a Lennon album, all cozy and warm. Yet Lennon still seems to be mocked by what he cannot have: his own vocal is still wrapped in a fog he can’t break out of, as he returns to the old Beatle technique of putting his vocal through a ‘rotating leslie speaker’ to sound not quite there. Rather than being in a different plain thanks to drugs, though, he’s in a different plain thanks to his own stupidity and ‘Bless You’ strains at the leash to cry the bitter tears he’s trying to keep inside. The strings are a nice touch too, sweeping Lennon along and making him sound as if he is sleepwalking through the song, lost and adrift without his muse and companion to guide him or give him purpose. As Lennon writes himself on the back cover of ‘Walls and Bridges’ ‘possession is 9/10ths of the problem’. He obviously intended this as a pun about his 1968 drug conviction and deportation shenanigans that were dragging on in his life throughout this time, but it makes for fine double metaphor about the whole Johnandyoko relationship, with John only now learning that to really love he needs to let Yoko go and see if she comes back to him, blessing her from a distance. It’s perhaps the most moving moment on one of Lennon’s most moving albums.

Over on side two the wolves are running Lennon close. [66] ‘Scaredis another career-high for Lennon, a full-throttle return to the paranoia of Plastic Ono Band, complete with a mirroring of that album’s harrowing sound effects (the wolf sounds just like the tolling funeral bell at the start of Mother). Rather than being stark and bleak, however, this recording is a huge Phil Spectorish-feast of sound, with multiple pianos, a ‘crying’ guitar hook and a truly eerie string arrangement that makes everything sound big and claustrophobic. Lennon repeats again and again across three drawn-out verses how he is ‘scared’, ‘scarred’ and ‘tired’, toying with those phrases in his delivery throughout the song by dragging them out for bar after bar until they break. Lennon is getting older but his demons run him ever closer as he gets older and more tired, kept awake too many nights by things he got wrong. For the main part the song is couched halfway between playfulness and honesty, as Lennon detaches himself from the vocal and sets up a barrier between him and the listener despite the honesty of the lyric.AS with [14] ‘God’ he laments that he only has himself to blame with no chance of religious redemption, that ‘no bell book or candle gonna get you out of this’. He’s given up trying to sound pretty or look cool – instead he’s down to survival (‘I just wanna stay alive!’) The song, which has been prodding Lennon since the start, finally caves in on him during the middle eight with an extraordinary moment of self-loathing. ‘Hatred and jealousy gonna be the death of me!’ Lennon screams – an uncomfortable sentence given what will happen in 1980. More than one commentator has hinted that Lennon had an eerie premonition about being murdered or at least dying violently in middle age (a studio tape of Lennon discussing this a month before his death in 1980, not knowing he was being recorded, is apparently buried deep in an American studio vault on strict orders that it will never ever be released – Lennon may have learned the fact from Yoko’s fortune teller who allegedly informed her around the Walls And Bridges period to avoid the area of New York where John died because of fears something would happen to her husband). However at the time Lennon may have been simply attacking himself for spending too long in his own utopian thoughts instead of actually ‘living’ them, that he ‘sings out about love and peace because I don’t want to see the red raw meat’. This version of ‘Scared’ is obviously a rehearsal take (Lennon even tells the musicians to ‘stay on the E’ chord at the song’s end), but it’s easy to see why the band never attempted another version of this song – the musicians all get behind Lennon to create a ghostly vibe that’s spine-tinglingly spot-on throughout. Lennon at his greatest, bravest and near-best.

[67] ‘#9 Dream has the same spooky, confusing effect on the listener, but this time it’s because of the song’s dreamlike state (again!) and its overwhelming disorientating beauty. Stuck in some empty dive in L.A. after a drunken night out, Lennon had a genuine dream where Yoko called him back to her, starting the chain of events that will lead them to reunite. ‘Seemed so very real’ John sighs, while simultaneously sighing that their togetherness ‘seemed so very long ago’. In his dream Yoko spoke a phrase to him that he couldn’t decipher: for good reason. While many fans assume this song’s singalong chorus line ‘ah bouwake pousse pousse’ is pigeon Japanese, actually its complete made-up gibberish, written phonetically from what John could still remember from his slumber. Lennon, though, figured it must have meant something somehow and so put it into his song, hoping the message would get through to Yoko somehow, figuring she must have been astrally projecting to him somehow. It’s not just that single phrase, though, but the rest of this deliciously lovely song that ‘feels’ as if it was written in that same sleepy state, as John tries to stay in the moment and connect with his ex, which ends up becoming one of his most romantic songs, full of a comfort and sensitive sensuality the usual brash and realistic Lennon wouldn’t normally allow near one of his songs. Once again he feels the pull of ‘number nine’, his special number (both he and Yoko were born on the ‘ninth’ of the month’ and felt at one with the numerology ‘path’ of ‘nine’ (‘wisdom’ as a general summary, of seeing things other people had their eyes closed to) and is drawn away from the drunken debauchery of his lost weekend when he senses her presence, lifting him spirituality higher as ‘music touches my soul’. Spare a thought for May Pang, then, who gets to play his own ‘Yoko’ on this song by chanting John’s name the way Yoko used to (both forwards and backwards)  on their ‘date night’ while John sings about a reunion with his ex  being only a ‘dream’ away. The cleverness of Lennon’s lyric, though, mean that this is his only Yoko lyric on the album not obviously about her. Indeed some Beatle fans see it as a tribute to John’s band (and remembering it ‘like a dream’ that still lingers, in contrast to [14] ‘God’ which sang ‘the dream is over’). This is especially true given Phil Spector’s haunting George Martin style strings that recall lots of Lennon songs (especially ‘I Am The Walrus’) and sound as if they’re playing in parallel from some memory. This was especially true after someone at EMI ‘assumed’ this song was about The Beatles and stuck it at the end of their 1982 Beatle tour of Abbey Road Studios (the first time they had been open to the public) – less than two years after John’s death there was barely a dry eye in the house. This is, after all, a deeply warm and nostalgic song, whatever it is warm and nostalgic for and unusual for Lennon. Man, why don’t I ever get dreams like this?...Beautiful and commercial without losing any of its Lennon ‘authenticity’, I’ve always been surprised this song wasn’t a bigger hit when picked as the album’s second single.  

[68] ‘Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)’ is a strange song even for this album. Many commentators see the first verse and read that Lennon wrote it as his (only?) song for May Pang and leave it at that (‘Sweet as the smell of success, her body’s warm and wet, she gets me through this godawful loneliness, a natural high…oh I need her!’) But this song doesn’t have a paradoxical subtitle for nothing (plus a Lennonish play on ‘sweet bird of paradise’): as the song moves on it becomes clear that Lennon is more in lust than love and this song isn’t what many people think it is but arguably another love song for Yoko underneath it all. The end of that first verse compares their love to a ‘butterfly’, a short-lived insect that’s far less substantial than his usual ‘metaphors’ for Yoko. A second verse then reveals that May is escapism: he doesn’t need to be who he used to be with her, with all that pressure on his ex-Beatle shoulders; instead he is free to be himself and it’s that Lennon loves really. ‘God she blew my mind’ sighs Lennon, ‘I think I love her…’ but never in this song does he sound as sure as he does on his love songs to Yoko. And then there’s that killer blow of a middle eight that is yet again back to singing about the ex: ‘Well I was wondering how long this could go on and on…it’s so hard to swallow when you’re wrong’, a ‘Mind Games’ style message that’s clearly intended for Yoko. Fittingly for Lennon’s confused state of mind the song flits about between multiple sections like a bumblebee: one minute we’re delighting to the grunted guitar opening (which is much more like a George Harrison track) and a sweet free-flowing melody (much more like a Paul McCartney one) before John stops pretending and writes that bitter howl of pain in the middle that couldn’t be more John Lennonesque if it came in rounded spectacles and an impish grin. The result is, once again on this album, the sound of a man genuinely having fun but who knows that the laughter is only a short-term solution to a long-term problem he doesn’t know how to solve yet. The result seems, judging by the title, to be as much of a surprise to John as it is to us as he first figures out that ‘I need her’ (to May) and then ‘I love her’ to Yoko. It’s very much a paradox this song, wondering where contentment really lies: with the soulful youngster who treated Lennon with kindness and awe or the intelligent heavyweight back home who treated Lennon like an equal. It’s interesting to see that Lennon felt that the two’s relationship was a paradox – the more John enjoyed himself and got closer to May, the lower his chances of getting back with Yoko. As an interesting aside, though, during her struggling artist days of the early 60s Yoko worked in a restaurant known as ‘The Paradox’could this song be yet another of an increasingly long line of Lennon in-jokes on this album?

This next song is a story about your friend and mine. But who is it? Who is it? Well the traditional guess is that [69] Steel and Glass is all about Brian Epstein replacement Allen Klein. Though The Rolling Stones gave The Beatles a kindly word not to touch their ex-manager with any amount of barge poles, Klein had won John and Yoko by knowing their songs backwards (yes, even hers), promising lots of money and to right injustices. Lennon saw a lot of himself in the cocky young promoter with the big mouth who had a placard reading ‘though I walk through the Valley of Evil I will fear nothing…because I’m the biggest bastard in the valley!’ on his desk. The more the pair talked the more John recognised the man’s inner pain, abandoned by a family who didn’t want him ‘when you were small’ and who could fight when cornered ‘like an alley cat’, his heart turned hard by rejection and betrayal. But what Lennon never reckoned on was that Klein would betray him just as quickly (Lennon was loyal to the few friends he had if not his girlfriends or – occasionally - bandmates), in 1979 going to prison for fraud (an investigation started around 1973). Lennon’s hiring of Klein had broken up The Beatles far more than Yoko or Linda McCartney had ever done, with Paul sure that Klein was a crook and suggesting his own in-laws as a substitute (an idea Lennon, wary of Paul’s pie-slicing, dismissed out of hand). The only way Paul could avoid being represented by Klein (and preventing him from selling out their Apple business company to all and sundry against the band’s wishes) was to sue The Beatles, getting the reputation as the ‘fab four’ who no longer wanted to be a Beatle (actually Macca was the last to quit, after Ringo and George had walked out at different times and John had called a meeting to formally end ‘his’ band but was persuaded to keep it quiet). John, it turned out, was wrong (and George and Ringo who stuck by him) and by 1974 even Lennon had to admit that Klein was a crook, with Lennon ‘betrayed’ yet again. This song was the closest Lennon ever came to an apology and admitting he was wrong, as he turns his attention on Klein and works out why he befriended someone who hid his heart behind ‘steel and glass’. Or is it? The fun thing about this song (and surely the reason behind Lennon’s unusual evasiveness over the identity at the start) is that every single line here could refer to John too: ‘Your mother left you when you were small’, now standing there ‘with your New York walk and your New York talk’, a hermit whose friends have abandoned him and ‘no one answers your call’, while the ‘downside’ negative portrayal of a ‘working class hero’ is surely the line ‘you leave your smell like an alley cat’. John was no stranger to talking about himself here and may well be singing about both men, working out how he came to identify with a crook like Klein in the first place – because maybe he’s one too. Lennon’s vocal is magnificent (though more so on the outtakes than this version; the one on ‘Menlove Avenue’ also adds a juvenile cut verse: ‘There you stand with your toilet sand your Mickey Duck and your Donald Fuck!’ Plus, interestingly, an extra verse about the character’s dad leaving them – true for John but not for Allen). He certainly means it, whoever he’s singing about it – those long held notes at the end of the line make even Lennon’s powerful lungs struggle to hold on to the note for long enough, on a note that’s physically exhausting and painful for him to sing, as he sounds somehow accusatory and guilty all at once. The ‘steel and glass’ of the title, meanwhile, is a classic Lennon image of a cold hard barrier concealing a see-through heart and may also be a return to the yin and yang theme of the album, with steel keeping you in, keeping you safe and glass letting you look out. The recording is another of Lennon’s run of spooky ambience on this record, with more eerie strings and a particularly pristine-sounding acoustic guitar duel in there somewhere too, all adding up to another of this album’s forgotten highlights in which the session crew really nail this slippery song that always seem to be just slightly out of grasp.

After all this soul-baring it’s almost a relief to turn to an empty instrumental, [70]  Beef Jerky, a curious horn-led song that seems to have come out of a studio jamming session (possibly one that was hastily tidied up and re-recorded) and might not even feature Lennon playing (he’s credited, but it doesn’t sound much like his guitar style to me – it’s much more like this album’s quiet star Jesse Edd Davies again, perhaps with Lennon doubling his part). The flimsiest song on one of Lennon’s deepest LPs, this track always seemed deeply out of place and should perhaps have been kept for a B-side (it was first released o  the back of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ – many fans were surprised to see it here too). It’s pleasant for what it is, dressed up with more finery from the cooking brass section but the innuendo in the song’s only lyrics (the title sung over and over near the end of the song) seem very much out of keeping. Lennon was, according to his letters home, fascinated by the food in America (so different to British fare like Yorkshire Pudding and Beans on Toast!) and sounds like he considered this freeze-dried beef product a euphemism for masturbation (Just listen for the rhythm the whole studio sing the lines at the end before cheering!) All in all, it’s a lazy excuse for a song though with the riff clearly inspired by the slinkier, better one already composed for Lennon personal favourite [50] ‘Tight A$’

A final slab of self-pity comes with [71] ‘Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out – another tearjerker again dominated by strings with Lennon sounding more than a little cynical and tired. Lennon may have based this song on the old James Cos standard 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' (as covered by AAA legend Otis Redding among others), but typically Lennon goes further still, seeing failure as something people would fall out of love for rather than simply dropping an acquaintance. It’s odd to hear Lennon, on this most ‘escapist’ of all LPs, finally dropping his guard and telling us what he really thinks, sounding so low and lonely he even whistles the refrain from [22] ‘Jealous Guy’ mournfully. One of the only songs here not about Yoko, instead it seems to be based around the crush to his ego that was watching the rise of Paul, George and Ringo while his own sales slipped. Perhaps that’s why he dismisses it all as ‘just showbiz’, while at the same time being audibly hurt. The fact that this is his last original song released before his five-year house-husband ‘retirement’ and that he chose to end an EMI contract that dated back to ‘Love Me Do’ with this song also speaks volumes. However self-pity isn’t a natural state for Lennon to be in – usually he’s in charge of his destiny – and most of the song falls a little flat, especially on record (the outtakes are better, especially the ‘Lennon Anthology’ cut where his vocals cut through the sparse backing like razorblades). There is though one last great Lennon moment to enjoy as we join him for a dark night of the soul: ‘Lying in the darkness and you know I can’t get to sleep, oo-wee!’ Lennon also looks in the mirror ‘to see’ but doesn’t tell what he spies or what he expected to see – instead he just lies flat, exhausted, his energies spent, back on the familiar self-pitying chords of the verse. This part of the song is taken at a breakneck screech in contrast to the tired don’t-care shrug with which he sings the rest of the song, the last of the many examples on this album of a track trying to trick the listener out by pretending to be what it’s not.

The song’s lyric, about fakery in the music business and people knifing each other in the back, was even quoted in the Morris Levy court-case (‘Everybody’s hustling for a buck and a dime’) which is the reason behind both the next track and the next LP ‘Rock and Roll’. Lennon had always been lackadaisical in where his ideas came from and occasional ‘stole’ bits and pieces without meaning to. Usually the people he cribbed off were too flattered to care, but when Chuck Berry’s publisher heard him pinch the opening lines of ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ for Beatles track ‘Come Together’ (‘Here come flat-top, he come grooving up slowly’ – even Lennon couldn’t argue that he’d come up with that line independently!) he decided to sue the Beatle. Lennon agreed to an out of court settlement that he would record a number of Levy-owned songs for his next LP and thus provide some extra royalties – but that became a major problem when he first of all tried to work out how to fit the rock and roll classics on an album of original material and then when his attempts at a full rock and roll oldies set were abandoned due to drunken sessions and general craziness in the studio. Lennon, abandon ‘rock and Roll’, realised he had to do something to keep his lawsuit-trigger-happy antagonist quiet so busked a quick version of the Levy-owned (and co-written) Lee Dorsey song [72] ‘Ya Ya’ for this album. It didn’t work: Levy was ‘insulted’ by the seventy second version included as an unexpected encore. He had demanded four full songs from Lennon and felt that this ramshackle version was taking the mickey out of it (he may also have resented Lennon’s opening words ‘well let’s get rid of that!’) The song is interesting, though, in being the only place where you can hear John playing (on shaky piano) alongside his then eleven-year-old son Julian (on even shakier drums). This nice bit of father and son bonding time is a neat way of summing up how much May Pang had encouraged Lennon to get back in touch with his son (and to ‘beat the cycle’ of what his father did abandoning him). However we really don’t need to hear it as the song fades before it gets interesting and is pretty abysmal (as least Julian has an excuse given that his dad probably gave him such little warm-up time – John has none for sounding more out of tune than any bootleg or outtake or Lost Lennon radio special).Terrible as this version is, though, it somehow has more heart and charm in its shambolic raggedness than anything from Lennon’s other recordings of rockabilly standards on his ‘Rock and Roll’ album, including the re-make of this song recorded later in 1974 (and which lasts not quite twice the length), where all the bite and energy has been polished one too many times for its own good.

Even with the rather poor start and end to the album, however, ‘Walls and Bridges’ is, so I would say, the Lennon LP that got away, the one that never got the critical plaudits of ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ or the high sales of ‘Imagine’ but is a pretty good mix of both, populist but breaking new ground and revealing just what it felt like to be a deeply confused Lennon in 1974. The album will, like ‘Mind Games’, be forgotten by its composer almost the minute it came out with Lennon already with half a leg back in to the door of the Dakota and home to Yoko, who became pregnant with Sean almost immediately (he was born on Lennon’s 35th birthday on October 9th 1975, almost a year to the day after the release of this LP). In the context of Lennon’s busy life this album only represents a very small fraction of it indeed and ‘Walls and Bridges’ was made redundant almost immediately after it was released (with John and Yoko officially back to being an ‘item’ just an month later). However its importance should not be underestimated: it’s the last ‘real’ untampered undiluted Lennon we have, a direct album that’s no longer hidden by rock and roll oldies or the domestic gloss of being a house-husband. It’s also an album with a happy ending, the light in the album represented by Yoko ultimately winning over the dark with John getting what he clearly craves so badly across this LP (though you have to feel sorry for May Pang, who had just moved into a flat with John – and two cats he named ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ – before he went back to Yoko, later ending up a record promoter for the likes of Bob Marley and Robert Palmer and later married record producer Tony Visconti, though she continued to be Lennon’s ‘mistress’ up until 1977 and stayed close until his death according her own surprisingly salacious book ‘Loving John’ published in 1983). Good as it was to see Lennon leaving his troubled past behind him as a fan, it was a shame for his music as this is the last time he felt frightened and passionate enough to write from the heart, with the drive and purpose of old. We didn’t know it at the time but ‘Walls and Bridges’ was a ‘goodbye’ record as well as a ‘hello’ to a different era of Lennon’s life and it remains both his most realistic and his most ‘spacey’ album, full of grit and earthiness but also poetic lyrics about fate and circumstance and spirituality. No wonder it was during the making of this LP that ufos came to ‘visit’ John, with Lennon proudly noting for the record (on the record?) that ‘I was visited by a UFO on August 23rd 1974’, as he was wrapped in a towel about to take a bath (May saw it too, as did three other people in New York that night according to official reports). Lennon thought his green alien friends were visiting him to help him get his green card – perhaps they were the ones sending him the ‘#9 dream’ to try and push him back to his true spiritual path, or maybe they had just come to say thankyou? ‘Walls and Bridges’ is, after all, the kind of special album you would travel light-years to hear and it remains one of the best kept secrets of the solo Beatle catalogue. Ah, all so long ago. Was it just a dream? (Seemed so real to me, oh yes it did).     


'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey' (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

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

Landmark concerts and key cover versions

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