Monday, 31 January 2011
Gosh, issue 89 already and still so much music to cover, still so much to say. Our random-ometer has been going a bit haywire recently, with two top five albums reviewed for you, so we thought we’d go back to basics this week and give you one of the obscurer AAA albums to ponder – an album that should have come out in 1974 but is only available as part of a 1998 box-set (and one that sold fairly badly at that). Meanwhile, we’re up to 4291 hits, seem to have stalled at £7 revenue and have had an interesting week with the Beatle family on our Sims game (George is still a five star celebrity and the ‘boys’ have moved into a luxurious mansion – only for Lennon to fall out with his ‘agency’ and McCartney to suddenly up sticks from his paperclip company after only a week as a director to become – wait for it – a football team mascot (?!)) That’s about all you really need to know – if, indeed, you even needed to know that much – so on with the news...
♫ CSN News: No more news since last week, really, but I’m still struggling to take it in. Metallica? Why?! No record contract? No zillions of sales? No rebirth of the magic sound fans know and love with a master of keeping things real at the helm? What a waste! I despair of being a collector sometimes I really do...For those who haven’t read last week’s issue yet and having got a clue what I’m on about, the two year on-and-off project of a CSN covers album, with Johnny Cash producer Rick Rubin at the helm, is at an end because Rubin is spending too much time with his other acts and can’t dedicate his full attention to CSN. And those acts more important than the greatest band in the universe include...erm, Metallica, who the bearded one is working with as we speak. So that’s put an end to the seven-figure salary CSN were promised in a two album deal, an end to years’ worth of speculation about what covers would have been on the album (The Dead’s ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and The Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’ among them), an end to the trio’s best chance at regaining their lost audience since the early 80s and the end of the universe as we know it. Why?! Why?!? Why?!?!? OK, sorry about that, I’m better now, honest. Oh alright then, one last one. Why?!?!?!?!?!?
♫ Monkees News: Music impressario Don Kirshner, ‘the man with the golden ear’, has died of heart failure at the age of 76. Kirshner, pretty much the last of the tin pan alley music publishers who sought to find the right songs for the right singers, was at one stage of his career so successful that he ‘owned’ three different recoprd companies at once, scoring many hits with a wide range of artists including Bobby Darin and Carol King as well as ‘discovering’ the group Kansas. However, it’s Kirshner’s work with The Monkees that brought him the greatest successes of his long career, with three massive hits in ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ ‘I’m A Believer’ and ‘Little Bit Me, Little Bit You’. Kirshner’s hands-on, I-know-best role with the band also gave him his biggest headaches, however. There are two schools of thought among Monkees collectors about Don’s role in the band. To many fans and much of the band he was a controlling figure who gave the four Monkees no room to breathe and an interfering impresario who considered the TV series to be just a chance to plug some songs rather than the reason deitre of the project. But to others he was the whole reason the project existed in the first place, honing the band’s musical direction into something much more palatable for daytime television, discovering songwriters like Neil Diamond and Jeff Barry along the way and making sure The Monkees recorded only the best material. Certainly, their records never sold as well without Kirshner on board, although to be fair that probably owed more to the shock-horror with which the music press learnt that The Monkees didn’t always play on their own recordings (as if they would, what with recording 32 episodes a year of a TV series as well!) Don was famously sacked by the band and creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider after releasing the all-important third single ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ after being promising to give the band more input into their records and not even telling the band about its release. A similar tale relates to second album ‘More Of The Monkees’, which the band actually had to buy from a record store in order to hear - and Kirshner’s music choices often owed more to the writers he was ‘friends’ with rather than a reflection of each song’s merits. But it’s probably fair to say that had Kirshner not been there at the start of The Monkees project, it might not have happened at all – the band needed his reputation as a music maker to interest the TV schedulers in the project and, even if he did make his fair share of mistakes, it’s generally agreed that Kirshner’s choice of A-side material was spot-on. After Kirshner was unceremoniously booted off the show he went on to found the animated group The Archies - parts really played by a group of anonymous session musicians who could easily be replaced if they started getting as stroppy as The Monkees had done – and present his own music television show in America, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert which ran for a year in 1972. His last achievement before his death was to co-launch the company RockRena, dedicated to finding new musical talent among online bands, which reached the net just a few days before Don’s death. He had two sons, five grandchildren and is survived by his wife of 50 years Sheila.
♫ Gilbert O’Sullivan News: Gilbert never used to be that prolific an artists – he only released four albums during the 1970s and three each during the 1980s and 1990s. But the news is that, after only three years away, Gilbert is back with a new record entitled ‘Gilbertville’. The record was partly recorded in Nashville, a first for Gilbert, and the biggest talking point among fans is the surprisingly dark final track ‘Talking Of Murder’, with musing about violence in the modern world and how everyone has the potential to be a killer!
♫ Pink Floyd News: Surprising news this: not only have the band ended their multi-year battle with record label EMI over making songs from their back catalogue available rather than simply as albums, as the band have requested, but they have now re-signed with the struggling label for a full five years! The band’s other biggest non-Beatles artists – like Radiohead and Queen – jumped ship last year, but the Floyd seem to have stuck it out with their old pals at EMI.
♫ Paul Simon News: At last, after five years of waiting, Paul Simon has announced that a new album is due for release. ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’ is due for releaswe in April and looks set to be Paul Simon’s biggest debate about life, death and the universe since ‘Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme’ right back in 1966! One sad thing about the album, though, is that it ends a good few years’ worth of speculation about a sixth Simon and Garfunkel album, following the duo’s successful tours a few years back - although the pair seem to have gone their separate ways again. More news if and when we hear it!
ANNIVERSARIES: Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear AAA stars born between January 26th-February 1st, happy birthday to you!: Nick Mason (drummer with Pink Floyd 1967-94) turns 66 on January 27th, Marty Balin (singer with Jefferson Airplane/Starship 1965-70 and 1974-78) turns 69 on January 30th and Steve Marriott (guitarist with The Small Faces 1965-68) would have been 64 on January 30th. Anniversaries of events include: Otis Redding charts with his ‘breakthrough’ UK hit ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ (January 26th 1967); John Lennon writes and records ‘Instant Karma’ during a 24 hour period (January 26th 1970); The Who make the first of many appearances during ‘their’ TV show ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (January 28th 1965); The Who are temporarily banned from touring America after a slight fracas involving Keith Moon, several bottles of spirits and a sobbing waitress (January 28th 1968); A tribute concert for Brian Epstein is held at London’s Marquee Club, including a performance by The Who (January 29th 1968); Guitarist Henry McCullough officially joins Wings after leaving Joe Cocker’s Grease Band (January 29th 1972); The Beatles’ last ever performance takes place, on top of the roof of their Apple building (January 30th 1969); The Beatles abandon their intended eighth album project of childhood songs and start recording what will become the title track of ‘Sgt Peppers’ (February 1st 1967) and finally, Beatles music publisher Dick James dies (February 1st 1986).
This week, another of our mad little existential debates for you. Anyone who has done even a little amount of research into the 1960s will know that the sudden impact of the Beatles was bound to happen sometime, some place, in some format to somebody. It just seems like something had to give – the more you read about the years up to 1963 and the outpouring of Beatlemania more or less around the world in that year the more you realise that the world was just waiting for something to happen. The Beatles were just lucky enough (or unlucky enough, given George Harrison’s later comments about ‘giving up his nervous system’ to be in the band) to be there (and The Beatles were hardly the only band connecting to rock and roll and looking for something new either – almost every artist on our list from the 1960s was gigging before the band had even met Brian Epstein). Of course it goes without saying that the biggest influences on the bands were other bands, mainly American musicians like Elvis, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly or unsung heroes like The Everly Brothers, Arthur Alexander and The Kingsmen. But that would be boring and far too straightforward for our top five (we also covered something similar with our five greatest pre-Beatles/Beach Boys songs on ‘News, Views and Music’ no 27 if that’s the sort of thing you want to read). So here are the top five non-musical influences on the 1960s era in general that broke the mould and allowed the unstoppable force of Beatlemania to take hold.
5) The Marx Brothers: What do a bunch of comedians who were arguably at their peak some 30 years before ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ have to do with the 1960s spirit of freedom and equality? Well, that question can only be asked by anybody who hasn’t actually seen the films (and I recommend every Beatles and Monkees fan does, simply to see where their filmic influences came from) because The Marx Brothers are pure 1960s nihilism in every way but the dress sense. Every time Groucho Marx insults a celebrity, every time Harpo insults social class by running off with a young rich girl, every time Chico wreaks havoc with a piano in stark contrast to how you were told top behave in your prim and proper music lessons, you can just see the children of the 1930s and 40s going ‘wow, I so wish I could do that’, even if they don’t always get the jokes the brothers put in simply to keep the mums and dads amused. Anyone whose ever seen Groucho Marx stand up to authority, actively insult it and get away with it without question and laughed their socks off as the fuming aristocrats is surely a child of the 60s, whatever their generation, and the comedy partnership’s influence on the whole anti-establishment flower power era, via the jokes in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and The Monkees’ TV show, is incalculable. Surprisingly though the only Marx Brothers reference I can find in song is a throwaway line on Cat Stevens’ ‘Ghost Town’, where Chico and Harpo are throwing custard pies at their ‘brother’ Karl Marx! Another leading influence is of course The Goon Show – and particularly chief writers Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine – who were even more directly responsible for inspiring John Lennon in particular, but that’s something that’s been better written about by other writers elsewhere. Suffice to say the word-punning of Beatles press conferences, their Christmas fanclub records and Lennon’s three books of prose would never have been the same without Eccles, Bluebottle and Neddy Seagoon.
4) Tony Hancock, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson: While The Marx Brothers and their many gag writers specialised in situations you wanted to be in but could never possibly be brave enough to do, the other side of the coin is comedians who specialised in making real life funny. Writers Galton and Simpson were masters of the art, the first real writers to make working class situations palatable and hilarious to middle class audiences and Tony Hancock was the world’s greatest comedic interpreter then and now, delivering more with a raised eyebrow and an obstinate silence than a modern comedians’ hours worth of dialogue. The team’s influence on the 1960s is huge, pointing out a world that isn’t as good as it should have been despite the promises of 1950s reform back in a time when any criticism of the period immediately after World War Two was frowned upon and effectively turning chuckling at your problems into a mainstream art. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that without Hancock and the few who came after him to pave the way the social protest of the 1960s, starting with folk and moving through to psychedelia, would have been enjoyed by the fringes only rather than the average man in the street. Hancock even gets a mention on the Dave Davies song ‘Fortis Green’ from his ‘Bug’ album, with a young Dave settling back in his chair to listen to ‘Ancock’s ‘Alf ‘Our’) and Roger Waters surely had Hancock in mind for his snappy, disillusioned child-hating teacher delivering a ‘requiem for the post-war dream’ (as on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Final Cut’ LP).
3) James Dean: I must admit I’ve never cared much for James Dean films, which are often poorly acted and, by comparison to what came later, badly thought out. But the difference between the ‘look’ before and the ‘look’ after Jimmy Dean’s portrayal of troubled teenagers is quite extraordinary, giving some sort of a voice to teenagers of the 1950s who felt abandoned by WW2 and the lack of opportunities in post-war Britain. The look also chimed well with the music coming out of America at the time – the sort of music outlined above that became anglicised and grew into the 1960s, even if there’s little or no music in his films for real, so simply had to be mentioned here as perhaps the biggest example of pre-Beatles rebellion in the 20th century. The one musical reference we can point you to is Brian Wilson’s moving a capella Beach Boys song ‘A Young Man Is Gone’, from the ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ album.
2) JFK: Nowadays you look at JFK’s three-year legacy and think ‘what was the man doing?!’ Despite the promise of radical reform and change, most of Kennedy’s time in office was marked by avoidable accidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was only in his last year that Kennedy was anything like as good as his reputation supposes, when he at last stuck his neck on the line concerning civil rights. But of course history didn’t record it that way at the time and the fact that a ‘young’ man (at 40!), quite distinct from the old and weary world war generation was having a go at running the country with a promise of ‘change’ meant that when he died in office a wave of grief swept the Western world. (Obama is to JFK what 9/11 is to WW2, but that’s another essay for another time). I’m not the first fan to point out that the three months between Kennedy’s assassination in Novemeber 1963 and the first, hysterically-greeted Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964 is perfect timing, giving America long enough to grieve their fallen hero and a certain amount of hope and escapism thereafter. But I will go even further and say that, in America at least,The Beatles and all who came after them are Kennedy’s successors much more than they are Elvis’ or (shudder) Cliff Richard’s, offering a new alternative way of life based on greater freedom for all that represented the changing of the guard via youth and vigourthat goes far beyond just their music. Dare I say it, JFK was too unpopular at the time he died to make a second term of office (unless things had radically changed of course and to be fair he was changing in 1963, so I’ll guess we’’ll never know) and dare I say it The Beatles would never have been quite the phenomenon they were in America had he lost that election of 1964. Musical AAA references for JFK abound, albeit mainly in later recordings about his assassination (The Beach Boys’ ‘The Warmth Of The Sun’ is the best, a moving eulogy written the night after his death should be your first port of call, while The Kinks’ ‘Give The People What They Want’ and The Monkees’ ‘Mommy and Daddy’ are the best examples of songs looking at the JFK assassination conspiracy).
1) Hitler: Undoubtedly the biggest single influence on the 1960s happened over a decade before, when Hitler pushed his luck too far and by invading Poland started a World War (that, erm, only happened in Europe, America, Japan and Russia but we’ll forget about that for now). I cannot stress how important WW2 is for the 1960s philosophy: childhoods spent on bombsites or having been evacuated with or without parents dead from bombings or on the frontline haunt many an AAA song (Roger Waters is again the biggest example, with the death of his dad in the war, despite being a conscientious objector, a key influence on most of the mid-to-late period Pink Floyd albums). Furthermore, having lived through or in most cases been born into a terrifying World War not of their making turned more and more AAA members into musicians, making them determined to create a new society based more on peace and not at all like the austere, frightening world they were brought up in (at least they will once things get moving on a bit – oh and Pete Townshend is still the only AAA artists to come right out and say all this, mind, but you can’t write a site like this without a little bit of conjecture). So why this world war and not, say the first World War? Well, nobody ever really talked about that war once they got home by and large – it’s only since the 1970s when our vertans started dying of old age that we’ve heard endless documentaries and interviews recorded for posterity before it’s all forgotten. But when the soldiers first got home in 1919 they simply didn’t talk about such things, they brought back too many unhappy memories and distressed the wives and children they’d left behind. The same would undoubtedly have happened in WW2 had it not been for the bombing raids that involved civilians not just soldiers on both sides of the war for the first time and rationing, which meant it was a subject that stared everyone in the face for six years and couldn’t be avoided (unless you’re American of course, in which case make that two). In short, something akin to the 1960s was inevitable in some form after the events of 1939-45 and as luck would have it the best practitioners for this brave new world turned out to be four musicians from Liverpool, not a group of artists, writers or politicians. To end this little speech, I have to add how fantastic its always seemed to me that the real start of the 1960s and the promise of a new era happens when The Beatles, who grew up in bomb-shelters and the devastation of Liverpool, end up playing in a German club surrounded by the bomb-shelters and devastation of Hamburg. In 1960, less than 15 years after the end of the Second World War, a whole new way of life is growing up for people everywhere – and its happening to five people who were physically born into the devastation of WW2 (Lennon was, famously, born during a Liverpool air raid in October 1940) . The road to peace still starts here and the fact that it couldn’t last is no shame on those early pioneers who started it.
And that’s it, another end of another issue. See you next time!
You can buy 'Remember - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono' in ebook form by clicking here!
Yoko Ono “A Story” (recorded 1974, released 1992)
A Story/Loneliness/Will You Touch Me?/Dogtown/Tomorrow May Never Come/Yes, I’m A Witch/She Gets Down On Her Knees/It Happened/Winter Friend/Heartburn Stew/Hard Times Are Over
Having covered two of the biggest selling albums made by the groups on this list, now we get back to normality with one of the poorest-selling, hard to find albums in the whole AAA back catalogue! Ironically, of course, I prefer it to both the albums we’ve just covered as this album – recorded in 1974, locked away in a draw, re-recorded in part in 1981 and then finally seeing the light of day first as part of a 1992 box set and then as a full album in 1997 – is a delight. ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ is a special case, a magical album that contains all of Yoko’s best work by light years (see review no 54 for why) and should have been a huge boost to a talented, diversified career– but that album aside, it’s oh so typical that Yoko’s best work, her most successful attempt to match her caustic feminist tone with some extraordinarily well crafted songs, has gone unheard by about 99% of the people who like her work, never mind the public at large. Had ‘A Story’ come out at the time it was intended to – as a close cousin of husband Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ albums of ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Walls and Bridges’ (‘A Story’ was recorded somewhere between the two) – then it might well have become Yoko’s best seller to date. It’s probably no coincidence either that a handful of tracks from this album in inferior re-recorded form from the 1980s are on Yoko’s most genuinely successful album ‘Season Of Glass’. As it is, this is a forgotten gem, albeit it one that’s valued highly by the small percentage of people who call themselves Yoko Ono fans.
Let’s make one point clear. If you’re new to Yoko’s work then you probably expect this record to be one long angst-ridden scream, similar to JohnandYoko’s experimental work on the ‘Two Virgins’ ‘Live Peace In Toronto’ and disc two of the ‘Sometime In New York City’ LPs. You’d be wrong, in the years after 1971 at least. In terms of melody Yoko even beats her husband, seemingly sharing a closer affinity with McCartney in terms of writing songs that have a clearly definable beginning, middle and end and that sound so obvious and hummable you’re amazed they haven’t been around for generations. Where Yoko does sound more like John is the subject matter, as starting with the ‘Approximately’ album Yoko’s never been afraid to go near subjects lesser mortals would wince from covering. Think Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ albums are harrowing? They’re nothing on the very real heartbreak throughout this album; the worry felt for the future, the left-turns that come out of nowhere to take us all by unpleasant surprise from time to time and a very real fear when facing possible rejection. Yoko even has a chance to show off her rarely heard sense of humour with the song ‘Yes, I’m A Witch’ which does exactly as the song suggests! The one reason Yoko isn’t better known - other than for marrying a Beatle and supposedly breaking up the biggest band on the planet, of course – is her voice. Western culture is oh so narrow minded, even when it thinks it’s being wide open to any new thing and what with English being her second subject Yoko isn’t as fluent on most of these songs as listeners expect her to be. But if you look past the recording – and the occasional production faux pas – then ‘A Story’ is a rewarding album, right up there with all but the very best Lennon solo albums.
One other point worth making is how revealing this album is. Yoko had shied away from revealing her true feelings on 1973’s ‘Feeling The Space’, predecessor to ‘A Story’, perhaps after the flak some of the more honest songs on ‘Approximately’ received, not least from her feminist friends in high places who felt that any admission of guilt or sadness was more ammunition for the anti-feminist movement. Alas, taking that advice resulted in a truly terrible record, one that’s all about sloganeering and politics without humanity in a way that made even ‘Sometime In New York City’ sound like it came from the heart, not the pages of the tabloid press. Despite selling well, Yoko seems to have gone back top her original intention of writing about her feelings here, making a record that tells you more about how Yoko was feeling during the ‘lost weekend’ than we ever learnt from Lennon in three LPs from that period. How ironic, then, that it’s this album should be titled ‘A Story’ – Yoko is clearly reaching out to make her songs more accessible here than they had been before and yet never had she put more of herself into her work.
How typical, too, that Yoko was robbed of her powers of speech just as she was beginning to come out from under Lennon’s shadow and have something of her own to say. The Beatles’ label Apple was all but over by early 1974 when this LP was recorded - George Harrison’s ‘Extra Texture’ record from later on that year is actually Apple’s last ever release – and, having just broken up with Lennon and missing his support to get the album pushed through – ‘A Story’ had no chance in the schedules. The few reviewers who even notice this album are mixed over how ready this album was for release – one school of thought has the album all waiting and ready to go, with a set track listing and a rather pertinent front cover picture of a five-year-old Yoko with a rubber ring round her neck, as if to save her form drowning all ready to go (it’s also a neat mirror of JohnandYoko’s joint ‘Plastic Ono Band’ primal scream LPs, with a back cover of the pair of them as toddlers). Others say Yoko never got as far as actually putting the albums’ sessions in any order – which may be why the running order between 1992 and 1997 (when this album came out first as CD 6 of the box set ‘Onobox’ and then later as an album in its own right) changes dramatically. However far ‘A Story’ got, it’s a crying shame that Lennon couldn’t see past his differences with Yoko to actually get the album made – he always kept in touch during even the darkest days of his ‘Lost Weekend’ and must have known about Yoko’s album (they were forever playing each other songs down the phone). Interestingly, Lennon himself comes out of it quite well – just as John’s work is full of tracks like ‘Bless You’ that sound more apologetic and romantic than any song written for her during their time together – with Yoko having vented most of her anger against men in general on ‘Feeling The Space’ and Lennon in particular on ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’.
One final point to make is that fans will recognise quite a few of these songs from Yoko’s immediate post-Lennon album ‘Seasons Of Glass’, still her best-selling album to date even if it was mainly out of sympathy for Yoko’s plight in those dark days of the Winter of 1980-81. Now, that’s fascinating for fans who know both albums and can compare them side by side because, even though the arrangements having changed much, the whole feeling of the two albums are so so different. On ‘A Story’ Lennon is the absent party, having dropped Yoko and responsibilities for what was effectively a mid-life crisis, taking up with other women romantically and other men artistically to fill the void of Yoko while she is left with nothing. On ‘Season Of Glass’ Lennon is again the absent party, but he’s down the end of a phoneline, being carefully observed by an anxious Yoko wondering where it all went wrong, but out in the spirit world, taking up with other women and artists simply because he’s not alive anymore to work with Yoko, while she is – again – left with nothing. There’s emotion a plenty on both albums, but whereas Yoko’s feeling sorry for herself a bit on ‘A Story’, picturing herself as the victim to some extent, she’s simply numb with incomprehension on the later recordings. It’s not for nothing that Lennon hovers like a ghost on two out of three of Yoko’s immediate post-1980 recordings for his presence is all over every record she makes, even now – and yet its ‘A Story’ where his hole is biggest, with each song a reaction to lost opportunities, mistakes, guilt, anger and remorse at the fact the pair aren’t as close as they used to be. Closing track ‘Hard Times Are Over’ is especially powerful in this context – John and Yoko got back together just months after this recording and Yoko clearly felt that conciliation was in the air and the song serves a similar service when used as the closing track of the pair’s ‘comeback’ album Double Fantasy in 1980. Yet in both cases it’s a cruel blow because we, the modern listener, know how the album will work itself out, that hard times are indeed over, but only over ‘for a while’.
The album actually starts with the sound effect of a train whistling through a station, a clever metaphor for this album being just another, further stop down Yoko’s musical and actual life journey. The title track then comes into life, sounding like an outtake from ‘Approximately’, sharing that same song’s semi-autobiography and wistful, fragile air, although on that heavier, rockier album it would no doubt have been used as light relief. In fact, musically it sounds not unlike the first few Belle and Sebastian albums – really pretty until you scratch the surface and read the hidden scars between the lines. A flute melody pulls against some rather cloying strings before some twinkling pianos float the song away on a cloud. ‘A Story’ is a crucial song for cementing Yoko’s new post-screaming sound and gets more important yet when you begin to decipher the lyrics. In many ways its the ultimate John and Yoko song, starting off in both their childhoods (a big thing with the Ono-Lennons thanks to their joint primal therapy in 1970), with Yoko brought up in a strict household where she wasn’t allowed ideas of her own and could only work out her personality from telling ‘stories’ and John unable to use his intelligence, finding that the only time people liked him was when he made them laugh. The pair’s coming together is pictured as the saving for both of them, allowing them to become the people they always wanted to be but were afraid to. Most telling is the third verse, when the pair make love for the first time and find that, rather than leading to sexual bliss, it actually turns into an outpouring of repressed conversation, covering every subject ‘from the world to the weather’. John and Yoko gave each other the confidence they each needed to free themselves, this song seems to be saying, and a huge emotional journey for them both (‘so many places they travelled’ sighs Yoko at one point). What’s most noticeable and most moving about this track, though, is that it’s all sung in the past tense. For Yoko at least, the dream seems to be over at this point in the LP (things look more hopeful by the end) and the pair really have split for good. The track is also clearly about John and Yoko, even if they are just a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl’ in this song (common imagery for the pair in Yoko’s songs, especially on ‘Milk and Honey’). An astonishingly brave and powerful song, then, its a double shame that a) this song is one of the few from this LP that wasn’t resurrected for later, better selling LPs and b) that here it’s just a sketch, a slender two-minute dialogue that could have run for oh so much longer. Still, it’s a brave and quite astonishing start for the album and one of the two clear highlights of the record.
‘Loneliness’ takes the ‘story’ up to the present day, with an ominous bass rumble and a rather dissonant piano riff sounding like the world splitting apart. Metaphorically, in many ways the world is in this song, with Yoko at her most worn down and vulnerable vocally, opening with the line ‘there are many things in life I can endure’, before telling us that a simple case of being left alone is not one of them. This song switches gears several times throughout the song, including a bluesy guitar part from Yoko’s most sympathetic musical collaborator Wayne Gabriel (who is a major reason for ‘Approximately’s success) and a punchy chorus where Yoko seems to be trying to fight her way out of her own trap, punching the lines of ‘lo-o-o-o-o-oneli-ness’ over and over like some deranged boxer. Vocally, this is Yoko’s most hysterical performance on the record, while the performers play everything calm and tidy behind her (a kind of reverse version of one of Yoko’s better songs ‘Death Of Samantha’, where she’s the cool chick with a band trying it’s best to make her melt). Yet on ‘It’s Alright (I See Rainbows)’, where this short sketchy song sounds much more powerful and heartfelt, its Yoko whose calm while the band fight out the apocalypse behind her. Hearing both versions back to back, I have to say I prefer the 1983 version of this song, where the loneliness seems to stretch out forever, but in either version this is a strong song that again is pretty close to the bone in terms of its words (even though, yet again, adding an extra verse or two would have made it better still).
‘Will You Touch Me?’ started out life as long ago as 1971, where you can hear a sweet little demo by Yoko with John whistling as an extra on the ‘Fly’ album. This re-recorded band version from 1974 can’t match up to the innocence of that original and sounds badly out of place here, more the sort of thing Yoko was including on the back of Lennon singles such as the B-sides ‘Who Has Seen The Wind?’ and ‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’. Not that’s it all bad – Yoko always had a direct way with words, perhaps because English was always her second language and this song works in the same way a haiku poem does, letting the listener fill in the gaps in the words and sentence construction. The most moving part of the song is the third verse where (I think, because as I write I’m desperately searching for my copy of ‘Fly’ and haven’t heard it in a while, curse you you stealing CD pixies!) Yoko has added a bit to her original song, with lines about ‘doors closing on me’ and how only kindness can open her heart. Heard as a track on its own, these lines are cloying in the extreme, especially when sung in such a soppy voice, and yet coming on from the last two tracks the message of this song is quite moving, another excellent musical metaphor for the hole Yoko feels in her heart now that John has gone. I could have done without the ball-room piano, though, or the way Yoko raises her voice to sound like a little girl, a trick she’ll try again in the even more toe-curling ‘Yes, I’m Your Angel’.
Amazingly there’s a fourth strong song in a row – Yoko really did save all her best songs for this album’s first side (barring one, anyway, as we’ll see in a minute). ‘Dogtown’ really split reviewers down the middle when it came out on ‘Seasons of Glass’ – to some, it’s a repetitive not-much-happening song about the dog-eat-dog system that has been heard many times before and yet to others it’s a masterpiece in miniature, a very Yoko track that says more in three minutes than most double-album prog rock LPs. Personally, I side more with the latter crowd, as this latest song about Yoko as victim is full of some of her classiest lines and a breathless tune that neatly mirrors Yoko’s words about her ongoing life and works. Yoko’s narrator can’t sleep, there’s too much buzzing around her head and she feels she needs to get on in a town where hard work and application are everything, with the fast patter lyrics and ever restless tune more like a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song than a rock and pop anthem. Like many tracks on ‘A Story’, it sounds as if Yoko knows she is being cut off before her time, that this album will never see the light of day and she is unlikely to get anyone else to hear her story (she can’t have known for certain the Lennons would get back together mere months after these recordings). There’s several mentions of things left unsaid, of letters never sent and songs ‘I meant to finish all my life’. Admittedly the nagging chorus (‘dog dog dog dog dog dog dog dogtown!’) lets the song down badly, especially when it seems to be repeated endlessly and this latest use of Western nursery rhyme as a substitute for haiku poetry pales badly when compared to the songs on ‘Approximately’ (‘peas porridge in the pot nine years old!’) But there’s another excellent song at work here, you just have to dig for it. ‘Dogtown’ is yet another song better known by a re-recording (from ‘Season Of Glass’ once again) which loses out on a sparser backing but gains by having a much more focussed performance from Yoko, who clearly knows the song much better than she did in 1974. ‘Dogtown’ sounds badly out of place on the later record, though, amongst the heavier, more reflective works although strangely it suits the downbeat mood of this album rather well.
‘Tomorrow May Never Come’ sounds like a much more hopeful song, opening with a snatch of birdsong suggesting the dawn breaking through a dark night and this track seemingly takes the same upbeat role on the album as Approximately’s ‘Have You Seen A Horizon Lately?’ It even has a sort of jaunty vaudeville feel about it, which makes it pretty much unique in Yoko’s canon. But the lyrics are again quite lost and lonely, with Yoko making reference to her passing age (she was 41 when these songs were recording – Lennon was 34), all the great memories she’s had in her life and her acceptance that they will probably never pass her way again. ‘Tomorrow May Never Come’ is just a snappy line for the title here – Yoko is actually afraid of tomorrow happening too soon for comfort. The chorus bears some resemblance to The Who’s ‘Tommy’ or perhaps that album’s starting point ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ with its chorus of ‘Reach me! Touch me! Hold me!’ searching for a human connection from someone, anyone. Yoko’s pulled off this ‘double-layered feeling’ trick several times in her career – again ‘Death Of Samantha’ is the obvious starting point – but somehow this song never quite gels, perhaps because for once Yoko is enthusiastic and upbeat in her vocal, leaving her, the band and the melody at odds with the words. Not for the first or the last time on this album, it’s also frustratingly short, more like a demo than a finished product (even as an 11 track album with three bonus tracks, the CD only lasts a skimpy 42 minutes!)
‘Yes, I’m A Witch’ is a witty riposte from Yoko who takes all the criticism she’s been given over the years for marrying a Beatle and somehow ending the world’s favourite group of moptops and telling us that – yes, actually, you’re right. In many ways this song is a continuation of the feminist anthems of Yoko’s last two albums, with Yoko addressing her unseen male partner in a whole range of condescending ways usually reserved by backwards men from the first half of the 20th century (‘honey ball’ ‘sugar cane’ ‘baby doll’ etc) and claiming how she and her sisters can tell them what to do. This song sounds badly out of place on the album (it’s moved to the last track on the OnoBox set, where it works better), sounding more like the confident strutting Yoko of old, convinced that her mission is right and that changes will be around the corner, sometime somewhere. I prefer it to frankly all the songs from ‘Feeling The Space’ which cover the same ground as at least this song has wit and knowingness on its side, but Yoko’s already covered this ground much better on ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ and this song quickly runs out of things to say. It’s still fun to hear Yoko agreeing with all her critics and adding ‘I don’t care what you say’, as if she’s so used to people disagreeing with her over everything else, she assumes they’ll take an opposite view even when she’s on their side! There is a good chorus line here with the very JohnandYoko idea that every time you cut yourself off from your feelings a part of you ‘dies’, but alas its not developed fully and ‘Yes I’m A Witch’ is ultimately a song that casts less of a spell than the other songs here. The song was later used for a Yoko ‘remix’/’covers’ album, a weird hybrid that shows Yoko being reclaimed for their own by the 1990s’ young and eccentric scene, although ironically the new version of the title track is about the worst thing there.
‘She Gets Down On Her Knees’ is an intriguing, angst-ridden song that instead of finding Yoko as the victim finds her all but berating herself for causing all her own problems. Yoko may have taken a leaf out of her ex-partner’s book here, writing this self-flagellation song in the third person (as in ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Steel and Glass’ and possibly even ‘How Do You Sleep?’, the great trilogy of songs where Lennon vents his anger at his own failings). The narrator has so over-indulged on everything life has to offer (including her own misery) that her body can’t handle it, leaving her on her knees being sick as her body pays her mind back for one bad experience too many. Whatever the character does, though, she can’t rid the feeling of guilt and misery, finding herself automatically wandering from room to room, looking for things to clean to escape the smell and memories of her old lover. Like many a song on this album, this track is given a jolly, almost jaunty melody that jars even more for combining with a set of such harsh and sarcastic lyrics and the dispassionate way with which Yoko sings the words makes this track sound totally detached and uncaring – and thus very powerful. There’s quite a few segments to this song apart from the nagging chorus line which add great drama to the song, with Yoko slowing the song down completely as the melody mechanically follows her thoughts ‘up up up’ or ‘down down down’ as she gets on with her household tasks. For once the re-recorded version of this song (on ‘Season Of Glass’) sounds better, with an anger and power this earlier version is missing and a much more natural flow between the many parts.
‘It Happened’ is another song better known from a re-recording and this time around its the re-recording that works best, a haunting ballad that again doubles for Lennon’s spiritual absence in 1974 and his physical absence in 1981. This beautiful song about unexpected changes in your life and how they knock you backwards at a time when you are ‘least expecting’ is best heard on the back of Yoko’s ‘Walking In Thin Ice’ single – the song she and John were working on the day he was killed – and can bring a tear to even a Yoko-hating Beatle fan’s heart. This earlier version doesn’t have the same poignancy, but it’s a strong recording nonetheless, with some more gorgeous Wayne Gabriel guitar and an impressive riff that seems to know where it’s going until the end of each verse, when it vainly tinkles around the song’s key, as if trying to find a way back home. Like many songs on ‘A Story’ this song is very short and would have really benefitted from more than just the one verse and two choruses (the haiku poetry being Yoko’s link to the basics of rock and roll thing again, as this happens with much of Yoko’s work – see review no 54), but it is very moving nonetheless, with Yoko at her most vulnerable and lost on this song’s few simple lines.
Magical as that song is, however, it’s ‘Winter Friend’ that’s my personal favourite on the album. I could, literally, write the whole of this article around this song there’s so much in it –so feel lucky you’re only getting two paragraphs! The opening suggests that for the first time in her career Yoko is going to actively embrace the Japanese culture of her childhood (she came to New York as a teenager). The sound of four or five Yokos singing at once in harmony is lovely and a trick I wish Yoko had used more, all held together by some more excellent guitar work and some synthesiser tricks that really do sound like some ancient Japanese ballad. But this is no folk song Yoko’s singing, not a ‘story’ but yet another autobiographical song. Like many reviewers I’m tempted to see the ‘winter friend’ in this song, the one in pain that Yoko befriends at the start of the song and enjoys spending time with, as John (simply because the pair wrote about each other so often and so blatantly) but as the song gets going it’s made clear that this is an earlier event, albeit one that mirrors closely Yoko’s relationship with Lennon (possibly it’s about Yoko’s first husband Tony Cox – the line ‘I had never seen his soul’ reflects some of Yoko’s comments in interviews on their relationship, as the pair were more artist and patron than husband and wife). The relationship ends suddenly, though, in dramatic fashion, with the narrator’s partner cutting himself and using the blood to tell her a note that things are finally ‘over’ (again, this is another Yoko songs about the difficulties of communication, with the man finding it harder to tell her that he is leaving than physically cutting himself). However, this is only the sudden abrupt end to a relationship that’s been heading that way for some time, with Yoko telling us that the man was dead inside his eyes, even when he was trying to pretend things were alright.
Yoko then shifts to the present day, sighing as she asks why she remembers such unhappy times now and seems to suggest that this song was written at a stage of Yoko’s life when she feared that past events like this one were happening to her again. In which case it makes it all the more strange when the chorus line cuts in that ‘he was a winter friend to me...’ – the whole image of that line conjures up someone who’ll stay with you through thick and thin, through the cold hard days of Winter when things go wrong. Yoko seems to be suggesting that both of her ‘husbands’ (if that’s who this song really is about) are really the opposite: that her relationships thrive on pulling together through difficulties and fall apart through boredom and happier times, because the narrator is so unused to them she doesn’t know how to act or behave. The song then takes an abrupt left turn halfway through the song, with Yoko in the present using the album’s ‘journey’ metaphor again for a scene of her in a car, driving off a cliff as she helplessly looks to ‘reach for the brakes’. This whole ending passage is exceptional, cutting through the jaunty feel of the song to seemingly speak from the heart as Yoko half sings half cries the best line of her career on ‘I’m not ready to die – or live a living death’. As the other songs on this album make clear, Yoko doesn’t cope well with loneliness or loss and the thought of going through such an upheaval in her life so soon after the last one finds her ending this song pleading with the future not to mimic her past. The song ends the only way it can on an unresolved minor key question (on the line ‘I’m not ready to die...’) without the resolution both the narrator and us are clearly looking for. So ends one of Yoko’s best ever songs (it wins the ‘silver’ award on our forum of Yoko Ono best songs for instance), one that’s ambitious but easy to follow, sad but not too caught up in itself and with wandering melody line that’s so haunting and fragile you wonder how it ever got to the end of the song without breaking. In short, fabulous and its a disgrace that this is one of only three songs from this record that Yoko never re-recorded when this album got shelved.
‘Heartburn Stew’ can’t compete with the last track, but it does follow the same trick of looking back to the past to work out how to cope with your present. Yoko’s narrator is forever disappointed in this song, which can best be thought of as Yoko’s equivalent of Lennon’s primal scream song ‘Mother’ without the screaming. As a child Yoko’s exuberance is slowly eroded away by her parent’s lack of care or love and as an adult, too, she never gets what she expects from her partners, forever disappointed by life. The bitterness she feels manifests itself as ‘heartburn’ - not the physical, I’ve-eaten-too-much-and-my-insides-are-on-fire kind of heartburn, but a cold and clinical I’ve-not-had-enough kind of pain. This song would be truly self-indulgent had Yoko written a tune to match her thoughts, but no – ‘Heartburn’ sports the jolliest tune on the record, with Yoko addressing us as if we’re a younger sibling ‘what can I do with a heartburn, I ask you?’, all the while keeping her face straight and her voice polite, as if afraid of being told off for making a fuss. Listen out for the reference to having indigestible ‘apple jam’, a witty reference to the fallout from The Beatles and the business shenanigans getting this record made – Yoko ends up taking her gift and ‘feeding it to the birds’ before poisoning the family cat. This is another track that Yoko never went back to from this album, which is a shame because while the song is strong enough the arrangement here is all rather cold and clinical, with a voice choir that really does fit the personal vulnerable angst in the song. The backing players also seem to think this song is a jazzy jaunt like the songs on ‘Feeling The Space’ – and did I ever tell you how irritating that record is?!
The album ends with its best known track, ‘Hard Times Are Over’, the song that ended John and Yoko’s ‘comeback’ album ‘Double Fantasy’. On the one hand, you have to ask why probably Yoko’s weakest song on the album was re-used when so many better songs were passed over – and yet, in the context of 1980, this songs makes the perfect sense as a kind of making-up-for-lost time kind of a track. I’ve never been that keen on the 1980 version – like many on ‘Double Fantasy’ it seems to have lost its sparkle after one take too many, although last year’s ‘stripped down’ version suits it rather better – although the 1974 version doesn’t sound awfully better, being more of a demo than a full-blown song. A sweet little optimistic number, this song is a close cousin of Yoko’s ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’, a track about wanting to start over again and get right back into the fight of things. In fact, it sounds like the perfect musical metaphor for sinking back into a comfy armchair after a long and difficult journey – one that presumably started with the train in the tunnel at the beginning of the record which has now pulled into a more inhabitable siding. As a result, like most of the songs on Yoko’s ‘lesser’ records it runs out of things to say very quickly, as if the narrator is unsure how to cope with writing about happiness as she has spent so long pondering over sorrow. ‘Hard Times’ doesn’t have the emotional impact of the other songs on ‘A Story’ and the tune, too, rambles and coasts as if it has all the time in the world – apt for the song but something of an irritant after so many short snappy songs on the trot. ‘Hard Times’ is exactly the sort of song this album needs to end, though, rounding off Yoko’s 1970s output in a much happier and uplifting mood than the vast majority of the tracks before it.
So, against all odds, ‘A Story’ ends up not as one of the most miserable or negative albums of her career but as a comparatively uplifting work, one where Yoko’s analysis of mistakes in her past means she won’t make the same mistakes in the future. How inconceivably sad, then, that after five years of musical silence and parenthood Yoko will find herself back in this state for her next album, the terrifying ‘Seasons Of Glass’, where many of these songs are re-recorded and sound all the more futile and sad for Lennon’s death. Yoko understandably spends most of that album in a dark and heavy place, with backing musicians doing their best punk impressions and a sheen of noise quite unlike anything else in her back catalogue. But on ‘A Story’ she possesses a lightness of touch that enables her to make the most out of her multi-surfaced songs, adding a depth and a debate that songs this fragmented and short shouldn’t possibly have. Along with ‘Glass’ and our AAA favourite ‘Approximately’, ‘A Story is one of the three Yoko albums you really need to own, light years above the rest of her output, marvellously tuneful, lyrically insightful and as hard-hitting yet accessible as they come. Not every track works and even the best of these songs sounds somewhat undeveloped compared side by side to the best on this list, but overall ‘A Story’ is a towering achievement and it’s a great shame this forgotten album has gone neglected for oh so long. If only every ‘story’ in Yoko’s ‘journey’ could be as good as this and the other two classic records – ah but then I wouldn’t wish the circumstances of Yoko’s recording of all three of them on anybody. The fact that she wrote anything of worth at all in this turbulent period is remarkable – as is the ongoing dismissal of her work as a bunch of talentless trash. Listen to this work with open ears, marvel at the naked autobiography that even the greatest Western writers can’t bring themselves to write, hum along to the perfectly crafted tunes and then tell me which reading of this album is the ‘story’ and which one the truth.