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John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Unfinished Music Volume One: Two Virgins"
(Apple/Distributed By Track Records, November 29th 1968)
Two Virgins no 1/Together/Two Virgins no 2/Two Virgins no 3/Two Virgins no 4/Two Virgins no 5//Two Virgins no 6/Hushabye Hushabye/Two Virgins no 7/Two Virgins no 8/Two Virgins no 9/Two Virgins no 10
"Is it true dear you've won a major prize?...Excuse me, thankyou.."
How do you celebrate one of the most intimate evenings of your life - the moment when the girl you've been chasing for years finally consents to come round to your place? And what to do you do to woo them? Well, if you're John Lennon you gets the tape recorders out and have an avant garde jam session! The album was recorded the night of May 19th 1968 (shortly before the sessions for The White Album started in earnest) at John's Kenwood address when first wife Cynthia was away on a holiday - this is the night before the famous occasion when she came back early to find Yoko in her dressing gown. In a way John was unlucky at being caught the only time he 'played away' (McCartney appears to have got away with a lot more according to many Beatles books) - and in another it was probably a relief for a couple who prided themselves on honesty and open-ness at all times. For 'Unfinished Music' is very open about the pair's relationship - even to the point of the album's most talked about feature, a full-frontal shot of the couple naked which still largely gets centred to this day. EMI, who still released all the official Apple albums, refused to be responsible for it so Lennon turned to the 'hipper' Track Records, home of The Small Faces and The Who making this the first Beatle--related record not to be on EMI or Apple. Even then the record had to be sold in a brown paper bag to cover obscenity laws around in 1969 (given that the 'unwrapping' resembled Yoko's 'cut piece' - where the audience would be invited to cut off her clothes layer by layer - this was probably her idea). It speaks volumes about this record's rare mix of brash arrogance and humility that Lennon refused to allow a photographer in to see them and took the cover shot himself on a timer (like all the Beatles it seems, he was an impressive photographer on the quiet) and yet both John and Yoko were more than willing to be seen naked by the world in general. Legend has it that the roll of film was given without comment to Apple's usual errand boy Jeremy (officially Neil Aspinall's assistant) to develop at a local photographer's shop - his only comment when he got back to the office was that the pictures were 'mind-blowing'! Many fans have wondered why - no one had ever done this sort of thing on the front of a record cover before - but it makes more sense if you consider that the Ono-Lennons considered this record 'art' not 'music' and that this sort of thing had been going on in the art world for decades (perhaps the biggest 'groundbreaking' part of the cover is that John and Yoko are side by side, as equals, and equally on display - most artists tended to use women or make 'self-portraits'!) Lennon's later comment that the pair were ticked off more for looking like 'slightly overweight junkies (although John in particular looks dangerously thin) rather than looking 'pretty' is sadly closer to the mark ('Why don't you put Paul naked on the front of the record?' the head of EMI Joseph Lockwood is meant to have told Lennon at the time, 'he looks prettier - and you'll sell more records!', probably not what John wanted to hear!)
For many fans this album was a jolt - The Beatles had been 'getting weird' across 1967 and had always aimed for a 'higher purpose' than most of their peers. However this is the first album that tries to make the 'art' more important than the 'music'. At the time nobody quite knew who Yoko was or what this album meant and as the first Beatle foray into avant garde it caught many people out. Now, seen in the context of the JohnandYoko love story, 'Two Virgins' makes perfect sense - a moment of intimacy turned into a global statement, although what that album statement is perhaps less fully developed than John and Yoko's later work. The album sees both artists with their very different backgrounds trying to meet in the middle (Yoko does what she normally does, but with more humour - John plays along for long periods but then, unsure of himself, winds up in corny gags and is the one to cut the jam sessions short) and sometimes the couple appear to be getting on each other's nerves: 'spit it out dear' a bitter John exclaims after a Yoko wail goes on too long; 'corny' a sarcastic Yoko adds thirteen minutes into the second side. (I really wish the pair had included the bit of chat before they begin where Yoko proceeds to lecture John on how to perform avant garde before the two get the giggles - it's by far the most 'human' part of the record and perhaps the most interesting!) Compared to later records this doesn't quite sound like the meeting of soul-mates it was presented to be - Yoko is often oblivious to what John is doing and John is sometimes less than kind about the shriller side of Yoko's art he doesn't quite understand yet (throwing in lots of jokes half-remembered from old TV programmes such as a lot of Clangers-inspired whistling and the parody of conventional life that 'it's only me Hilda, home for tea!' - possibly a reference to Hilda Ogden, a character from Coronation Street). Then again that shouldn't be as much of a surprise as yet simply because the pair barely know each other except through each other's art and a few snatched meetings in the company of other people. Perhaps the biggest myth about the John and Yoko love story is that the pair fell head over heels for each other instantly - actually it took some eighteen months to get to this point; Yoko had never seen inside John's house before (he still won't see the insider of her flat for a while longer!) In retrospect this isn't the perfect union so much as two people 'feeling' each other out through improvisation.
In time there will be three volumes of this avant garde 'unfinished music', with 'Two Virgins' the most famous (mainly thanks to that daring cover), although it's easily the least convincing, Not co-incidentally, it's the only one of the three that wasn't made for public consumption from the start - instead it's the sound of two people playing around with a mellotron and their own imaginations. Lennon has fun with every setting he can find on his mellotron, ad libbing wildly over the top as he discovers jazz, gospel and space age settings seemingly at random. Occasionally Lennon gets lucky: the wilting trombone he hits roughly halfway into the album's second side is hilarious in the context of Yoko's gently slowing guttural spasms and Lennon's knowledge of how chords fit together allows him to sketch out quite a few ear-catching doodles that in another context might have become the basis for some interesting songs. Indeed, this record is most interesting as a peek into the songwriting process for Lennon in this period, reaching out for chords and breathing life into ideas as they flit through is head, before being discarded quickly when Lennon's famously short attention span makes him grow bored. However the comedy is often forced, with Lennon well outside his comfort zone for now and his attempts to 'screech' along with Yoko is more copycat than tribute. Yoko's happier in this context of simply letting her imagination lead her along without structure or a guide, but by Yoko's own standards she's having an off day here, unsure quite how to respond to Lennon's own brand of improvisation and simply doing her thing oblivious to him. The result is an often tough listening experience with the occasional highlight if you're patient enough to find them, although you sense that this album was released more for posterity and to prove to the world that the pair were a couple rather than because of it's worth as an artistic statement.
You doubt whether John and Yoko themselves ever played this tape back afterwards. However it's a key moment in their relationship - the first time they truly find whether each other has the artistic talent both have been dreaming of and longing for in absence the past eighteen months - and seems to have worked for the two creators if not always the audience (Lennon's later statement that at night they put the tape recorders away and 'then as the sun rose up we made love', inspired by the album, makes 'Two Virgins' perhaps the oddest foreplay on record, as it were). 'Revolution #9', made later in the year specifically for 'The White Album', displays a much greater understanding between the two, with Yoko a more active partner and John having discovered how to put this sort of an ;'art collage' together while keeping it interesting and of relevance of just the people who made it. Traditionally the other Beatles are meant to have hated this album - while they no doubt did have reservations, in private Paul - who knew more about the avant garde world than Lennon for now until Yoko brought him to speed - more envied than hated his friend's nerve. His ungrammatical sleevenote for the album- 'When two great saints meet it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a saint' - is perhaps the most successful 'avant garde' construction of the whole album, both gently mocking and supporting the whole experience We'll be back for unfinished music the next year although the mood couldn't be more different, with this record's most lasting emotion - naivety - replaced by something much darker and more powerful. Like all three of these 'avant garde a clue' albums, they're interesting to hear, once at least, but you'd had to be stranded on a desert island with any of them - you'd go mad within hours!
John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Unfinished Music Volume Two: Life With The Lions"
(Zapple, May 9th 1969)
Cambridge 1969//No Bed For Beatle John/Baby's Heartbeat/Two Minute's Silence/Radio Play
CD Bonus Tracks: Song For John/Mulberry
"*No Bed For Beatle Jo-e-ohn!"
For years 'Life With The Lions' has been filed away with 'Two Virgins' as crass irrelevent self-indulgent nonsense. Which in a way it is - but it's a very different sort of crass irrelevent self-indulgent nonsense. This time the mood isn't life but death and the attempt is to create art out of suffering and pain rather than love and hope. As a result it's a much darker album all round and taken from a much darker period in the pair's personal lives when John and Yoko were being hounded by seemingly every media source ever invented and the pair slid further and further into drug abuse ('Two Virgins' makes for a good pair with the hope and optimism of 'Give Peace A Chance' released a few months afterwards; 'Life With The Lions' is 'Cold Turkey' stretched out to forty painful minutes). Saddest of all is the death of John and Yoko's first child together, John Ono Lennon II, who died in a miscarriage in Queen Charlotte's Hospital, London in November 1968 - a proud Lennon had recorded a few seconds of the baby's heartbeat while in hospital which turned out to be the only memory of their child the couple ever had, looped here on record to a desperate and lonely-sounding five minutes as if the pair are willing to give him life. The heartbeat ends abruptly, resembling what really happened, and this is followed by 'Two Minute's Silence', which in direct comparison to the 'Nutopian National Anthem' has never sounded more sad or depressed. It is thought that the baby was lost as a direct result of the heroin flowing through Yoko's veins and together with her mourning for abducted daughter Yoko must have felt to the couple as if their world was falling in.
All this sits in direct contrast to the mood of the rest of the record, which for the most part is feisty. The album opens with 'Cambridge 1969' recorded in March and the first time John and Yoko had been seen in public as a 'couple' (it should have been the 'Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus' the previous December, but of course that was never shown at the time!) Or at least 'sort of' as a couple - Lennon apparently played with his back to the audience, leading the 'hip' ones in the audience to 'guess' whether it was really him or not! Yoko was invited to the show to perform solo at a jazz concert at Lady Mitchell Hall - still mourning for her lost baby she was reluctant to go but Lennon persuaded her to howl things out of her system and appeared as her 'plus one' on some nerve-shredding guitar (the pair are joined late on by saxophonist John Tchicai and percussionist John Stevens). Given the circumstances, though, this opening twenty-six minutes are defiant, almost joyous as Yoko lets all her pain ebb and flow out of her system and Lennon is right there with her, finally uniting in 'her' world as an 'equal' for the first time and this is arguably the first performance by the pair as a 'couple'. No wonder they wanted to share it with the world, even if like many of their avant garde releases it's terribly heavy-going and needs a jolly good edit.
The rest of side two isn't solely in mourning either. John and Yoko had already intended to make the birth of their baby their 'statement' and Lennon had smuggled a tape recorder into the hospital to record for the album. We don't know how far they got before the sad event happened but what we do get is a giggled 'No Bed For Beatle John', a giggled madrigal in which Yoko and a just out-of-earshot John read out the press reports of their stay in hospital (with Lennon sleeping on the floor on cushions by Yoko's bedside as there were no spare beds - a shot of this can be seen on the cover, one of the few times John and Yoko aren't looking at each other but off into the distance, lost in their own thoughts) as if they're town criers reading out the news. Yoko seems rather fond of this piece which is the only one of the 'unfinished music' pieces to appear on her 'Onobox' in 1992. It's lovely to hear them having such fun - although if course that's all swept aside by the sheer horror of the events that follow.
The record ends oddly too, with 'Baby's Heartbeat' and 'Two Minutes Silence' followed by perhaps an avant garde experience too far. Alone in hospital, with Yoko moved to another room for an operation, a desperate Lennon distracted himself with 'Radio Play' - not a dramatic performance but Lennon fiddling with the hospital radio, moving through the channels at random and occasionally side-stepping into swirling feedback and mayhem. This sort of random inclusion of other people's thoughts had long been a Lennon trademark (going back to 'I Am The Walrus' which randomly used a radio broadcast that just happened to be a performance of King Lear (but could have been anything!) and perhaps reflects the speed of his own sub-conscious mind (Lennon liked to work with the television on - many of his songs are inspired by half-caught idea of other people). This attempt to put that artistic instinct into an avant garde work doesn't really work though - whatever the intentions behind the piece it just sounds like what those of us tired of the radio experience every day (especially when The Spice Girls seem to be on every station!)
Of course one of the main JohnandYoko statements is that they are just ordinary people who got lucky - which might be why they chose the rather odd album title. We know from 'Two Virgins' that Lennon had a fondness for hoary old BBC dramas and radio plays about ordinary boring little people leading boring ordinary little lives - The Beatles often enjoyed these sort of things as 'escapism' from the high drama of being music legends. 'Life With The Lions' is about as direct a life as Lennon ever made though: the original title is 'Life With The Lyons' which was broadcast for eleven years on radio and five on television, last broadcast in 1961 (when Lennon would have been twenty-one). It's a sort of half-autobiographical, half-fictional account of an American family settling in England after the Second World War and coming to terms with being homesick and being distrusted by locals for their 'strange ways'. You can see why this would have appealed to Lennon in this period - alas very few episodes of this series exist (six of the TV, three of the radio) and these are hard to find so we 'youngsters' don't know really what made Lennon reference a show that most people had long forgotten by 1969 (though the desire to be 'normal' was probably a part of it). The back cover of the album shows why the pair could never be a 'normal couple' - John and Yoko are seen surrounded by hundreds of photographers as they try to walk home after their drug bust (proved later to be a 'set-up'). This time Lennon went to Beatles producer George Martin for a sleeve-note - and proudly printed the producer's faintly damning, faintly-comic 'No Comment' as an actual quote. The end result is a moving experience, one with a much wider sense of emotion and thought than 'Two Virgins' and a genuinely revealing glance of John and Yoko's difficult life together. The sense is clear: there's no going back from this now, but nor do they want to go back - never has their union seemed so strong or their ideas been so closely in tune with each other.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Wedding Album"
(Apple, October 20th 1969)
John & Yoko//Amsterdam
CD Bonus Tracks: Who Has Seen The Wind?/Listen The Snow Is Falling/Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)
"John! Yoko!....John? Yoko?...Jooooohn! Yokoooooo!..."
Though it's not officially part of the 'Unfinished Music' series, 'The Wedding Album' is effectively John and Yoko's avant garde album number three. This time the mood is overwhelmingly one of joy, celebrating John and Yoko's marriage in Gibraltar (the only country that would allow two divorced people to marry at speed back then) on March 20th 1969. Typically, the couple treat their marriage as a universal event for music buyers the same way that their bed-in 'honeymoon' was a universal event for the media. Those willing to fork out a little extra to buy this album (which thanks to the price hike sound even less copies than the last two) were treated to a number of 'souvenirs' of the sorts of things every newlywed family would send their special guests - reproduction of Lennon doodles made in the couple's hotel suite, the sort of pictures a 'wedding photographer' would have sent to friends and family, a photocopy of the marriage certificate (his occupation is listed as 'composer', she's an 'artist') and a picture of some half-eaten wedding cake (delicious!) Just to show the pair aren't like the rest of us mere mortals, however, their wedding album also comes with a booklet containing press cuttings of their marriage and honeymoon - most of them decidedly uncomplimentary. The whole lot came in a bag marked 'bagism', another JohnandYoko conceptual piece about prejudice ('put everything and everybody in a bag' they argued 'and we'd never have discrimination - we wouldn't be seen for our race, class, looks or gender we'd be free to be ourselves', which in true style is a terrific idea that's sadly wholly impractical). It's all very John and Yoko and aptly the receord celebrating the moment two become one is perhaps the quintessential release from a partnership that tries hard to behave as both artists and clowns. Just the packaging alone makes this record the sweetest of their three avant garde LPs, the one that tries to reach out to the listener rather than baffle them and (apart from the extra price) demonstrates how much they really did care about their many followers.
However the contents of the album are a severe test for even the most faithful JohnandYoko-phile. Side one contains just a single solitary track running for nearly twenty-three minutes named simply 'John and Yoko'. The 'song' consists of John and Yoko calling out each other's names in every emotion they can think of (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, guilt...) and you'd be amazed at how many variations they find on this simple piece, recorded over the sound of their twinned heartbeats (which one reviewer memorably described as 'sounding like African drums' - they just sound like heartbeats to me). However for all their good intentions this song got boring after the third 'John?....Yoko?...' and for all my love of Lennon and willingness to explore his experimental side I've only ever had the strength to struggle to the end of this song once (I've never been the same since either - it took an hour of playing 'Cold Turkey' to bring me round!) Side two isn't much easier on the nerves either - 'Amsterdam' is a twenty-five minute low quality recording that allows the listener to become a fly-on-the-wall at the couple's Hilton Hotel bed-in. That sounds fascinating - but unfortunately we happen to be a fly with tinnitus and an ear trumpet trying to listen to what's going on from what sounds like a million miles away. Though it's very JohnandYoko to leave the entire recording complete and unedited - including all the mistakes and long bouts of silence - the only 'interesting' bits are those we know well from the televisuals anyway: John's attempts to explain over and over how a personal honeymoon can stand for universal peace and the pair of them uttering the words 'bed peace...hair peace' like a mantra. The most illuminating passages are the brief snatches of song - Yoko tries out an early version of 'John John (Let's Hope For Peace)' that's about to unleashed on the world at the Toronto Peace Festival later in the year, a snatched Lennon improvisation that runs 'Goodbye, Amsterdam, Goodbye!', an improvised Yoko song entitled 'Grow Your Hair!' and perhaps most interesting John ushering the photographers out of the room to the strain of Beatles song 'Goodnight'. However there's nothing here you'd really want to revisit and like the last two albums there's nothing here that wouldn't sound better with a lot of editing.
'The Wedding Album' predictably sold very badly despite having more publicity centred around it than either 'Two Virgins' or 'Life With The Lions' ever did and it's notable that John and Yoko never did release another standalone avant garde release again (though the second half of 'Sometime In New York City' is effectively volume four in this series with a few more 'normal' songs thrown in). However the pair remained proud of it - more so than most of their extra-curricular releases. The pair were particularly tickled by one hapless reviewer from Melody Maker who was accidentally sent a 'wrong' copy of the album acetate to review, which included two sides of a 'machine testing' experiment as well as the main LP itself. Assuming the record was meant as a double set, Richard Williams described the work as 'two sides of single note tones'. John and Yoko were tickled and sent back a congratulatory telegram: 'Maybe you are right in saying that they are the best sides...We feel this is the first time a reviewer ever topped an artist and we're not kidding!'
The Plastic Ono Band "Live Peace In Toronto"
(Apple, December 12th 1969)
Blue Suede Shoes/Money (That's What I Want)/Dizzy Miss Lizzy/Yer Blues/Cold Turkey/Give Peace A Chance//Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)/John John (Let's Hope For Peace)
"All we are saying is give peace a chance!"
This is one of those albums that continue to divide fans and critics then and now. 'Live Peace' came about after Woodstock when John Brower and Kenny Walker decided to hold one of those hippie peace festivals everyone was talking about with the twist that most of the acts on stage would be the stars from the 1950s and not the current crop of 'festival' bands at all. More out of cheek than anything else they sent a telegram to the Beatles' Apple office inviting the band to take part, perhaps as masters of ceremonies even though the a brief Rooftop show aside the band hadn't been seen on stage for three years. Lennon happened to be around when the telegram came through and 'stole' it, ringing them up and saying that while he hated the idea of introducing acts (Lennon was notoriously shy for all of his brash reputation) and The Beatles were to all extents and purposes 'over' (something the press won't find out until the following year) he was thinking of playing his first live gig and would they like him to bring a band? Clearly the organisers weren't about to say 'no' so Lennon set about hiring his first post-Beatles band, given the 'fluid' name 'The Plastic Ono Band' so that, unlike The Beatles, the musicians could be chopped and changed at will (McCartney made the wonderful joke years later that he'd had ideas of doing the same thing but Lennon beat him to it - 'though my band would have had to have been called 'The Plastic Macs'!) John and Yoko went through their phone book ticking names off - the Beatles' old Hamburg friend Klaus Voormann (later mooted as McCartney's replacement by the press) was a shoe-in on bass, Yes' drummer Alan White (who assumed the call from Lennon was a prank and hurled abuse at him down the phone, which much tickled the Beatle!) and Eric Clapton, who by now was a free agent after the collapse of Cream and knew Lennon through their shared performance at the still-unscreened 'Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus' a full year before. Of all the band Eric seemed the least likely - a very close friend of George Harrison's, he must have been privy to all of his pal's moaning about Lennon and clearly didn't need the publicity or career boost - in fact in the middle of a fairly major drug problem that eclipsed even Lennon's, it's a wonder he made it onto the plane for the 'first rehearsal'.
Yes you did read that right - the first rehearsal of The Plastic Ono Band took place on the plane, which also happened to be the first time these musicians had ever met. Given free reign by the organisers to play what he wanted and unwilling to revisit much of his Beatle catalogue just yet, Lennon decided to stick with the rock and roll vibe of the festival and figures these songs would be simpler for his ad hoc bans to play anyway. The resulting set list is highly revealing, the band sticking to 'only numbers that we know because we've never played in front of people before!' Lennon revived two old covers from his Beatles days that were in the bluesier style Clapton knew well ('Money' and 'Dizzie Miss Lizzle'), the one lone Beatle song 'Yer Blues' - included simply because John and Eric had already played it at the Stones Circus show, promoted his two newest, simplest and very different singles 'Give Peace A Chance' and 'Cold Turkey' and throws in Carl Perkins' old rock hit 'Blue Suede Shoes' for good measure. 'Cold Turkey' fares the best of the bunch, the sheer wall of noise of the band and the ragged ends suiting this song's howl of pain, with a slowed down and world-weary 'Money' (so different to the exciting adrenalin-fuelled version on 'With The Beatles') not far behind. By contrast everything else sounds a little one-legged, even 'Give Peace A Chance' surprisingly which sounds less like a universal singalong and more like torture (Lennon hasn't even bothered to learn his own lyrics, singing 'Everybody's singing about Norman Mailer, Tommy Cooper and, err, somebody!'). The band are clearly looking to Lennon for their 'lead', but the Beatle is too nervous and ill to 'lead' the band he would have done once.
The band then hold on as best they can for a full twenty minutes of Yoko Ono outpouring 'her thing all over you' - much to the visible shock of the audience in the film - an actually pretty terrific five minute version of 'Don't Worry Kyoko' which sounds much softer than most versions of the song (yes, it does, honest!) and a jaw-dropping twelve minutes of 'John John (Let's Hope For Peace)' written on the pair's Amsterdam honeymoon. The song ends in a typically 'concept' way, with the band leaving the stage, their instruments still blaring feedback, until faithful Beatle roadie Mal Evans walks on stage to turn everything off! Like many a Lennon solo spin-off project in this era, half you wants to dismiss the whole enterprise as a lot of self-indulgent rubbish and half of you is left pleading for more. Though clearly nervous (Lennon very nearly didn't show - he was being sick a lot backstage through a combination of heroin withdrawal and sheer fright) and very very raw (Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistol 'sacked' for liking The Beatles, should have given his colleagues this album in his defence - it's by far the 'punkiest' Beatle related recording around, all simple notes, thrash chords and messiness) the band were proud of what they'd played at short notice and Lennon especially was enthused by the sheer joy of performing for his first audience in years. Even though you can see the fright in Lennon's eyes (the show was later released in full as the film 'Sweet Toronto' with a single performance each by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Lennon idols one and all) and the relief when 'his' section of the show is over without too many mistakes, you can also tell John is having the best fun he's had in years.
The show was a magic moment for those who were there and who had been warned in advance that Lennon might not show so were expecting the worst, not the ragged glory of this performance. To his dying day Lennon seemed to consider his first solo show his best one - and he's probably right, not that he did that many (this band are raw in a better way than Elephant's Memory's raw as at least it's consistent, while the 'One To One' benefit show is surprisingly polished). However it's not a show made for easy listening - the 'Live In New York City' release of the 'One To One' shows is much more what you'd be expecting from a live show and this is one of those moments that sounds like you really had to be there to get the whole intensity of this show. There's also a really perverse joy with which Lennon seems to have mixed this album, making it all sound flatter and harder to hear than the film of the show, with the feedback and Yoko mixed up nice and loud (though apparently he did remove most of his wife's squawks from side one, returning to Abbey Road solo to do so!) Released in a plain blue wrapper with a single image of a cloud floating in the sky (JohnandYoko's problems disappearing in the distance?), the record was rushed into the shops as much to deter the bootleggers Lennon knew were in the audience as much as an 'artistic statement' (Lennon was a keen collector of bootlegs and when he died had one of the largest collection of unofficial Beatle recordings out there!) While Apple were of course willing, at first Capitol - responsible for the American releases of Beatle records - refused, saying that no one would want to buy raucous rock and avant garde screaming (even though they'd put the 'unfinished music' series out without any qualms at all). Lennon persuaded them to print a few copies up - and the record became John and Yoko's first solo American top ten album! For once John and Yoko kept their packaging to a minimum, although the first pressings did include a calendar for 1970 marked 'year of peace' (which rather sweetly was re-made in a smaller size for the 1994 CD debut, for the year 1995!)
"Live In New York City"
(Parlophone/EMI/Capitol, Recorded August 30th 1972, Released February 10th 1986)
New York City/It's So Hard/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/Well Well Well/Instant Karma///Mother/Come Together/Imagine/Cold Turkey/Hound Dog/Cold Turkey
"Que Pasa New York?"
Effectively Lennon playing his local, this turned out to be the only 'normal' full-length performance of Lennon's career (by the time you take Yoko or special guest stars out of the equation). Backed by Elephant's Memory, the band who played on 'Sometime In New York City', this show was known to fans at the time as the 'One To One' show, another Lennon benefit show raising money for the Willowbrook School for disabled children. Like anything Elephant's Memory played on, it's a curious mixture of over-rehearsed and sloppy, without the spontaneity of Lennon at his best or the polish of other period live albums like, say, 'Wings Over America'. Lennon is having a bad day all round, struggling to remember the words to some of his songs and singing in a slightly flat strangulated cry, perhaps because he's trying to make himself heard over a backing band that insist on making everything sound 'big' ('Come Together' for instance - the only Beatles song performed all night, perhaps slyly referring to Morris Levy court-case happening behind the scenes, is bludgeoned to death while 'It's So Hard' has never been so hard to sit through and an MOR 'Well Well Well' - like Emerson Lake and Palmer covering The Sex Pistols - is wrong on every level). Recorded semi-professionally for Lennon's archives rather than seriously for record release, the sound is flat and echoey and sounds like it was taped at a great distance (though paradoxically Lennon would have loved the extra 'echo' this gives his vocal even when singing live). Bootlegs reveal that Yoko released the 'wrong' performance of the show - this is the afternoon gig and Lennon had 'warmed up' for the evening, free to scream his voice away by the end. However occasionally Lennon's talent shines through and the sole live versions of several classic tracks (a moody 'Mother', an aggressive 'Instant Karma', a moving 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' and perhaps the best live version of our old friend 'Cold Turkey') make the lesser moments of the record worth sitting through. Personally I'd still take 'Live Peace In Toronto' as Lennon's best live album, ragged shredded nerves and all (yours and the performances) but 'Live In New York City' is still a welcome souvenir from a performer who sadly never got the chance to prove how great he could have sounded with the right band and a full tour. Yoko performed several songs at the show by the way but sadly cut them all from the record despite this being a golden era for her songwriting (her cut songs, all available on the video and DVD film version of the concert, include 'Sisters O Sisters' 'We're All Water' 'Born In A Prison' 'Don't Worry Kyoko' 'Open Your Box' and a terrific early version of her best rocker 'Move On Fast').
John Lennon and Elton John "Live At Madison Square Gardens (EP)"
(Amiga, Recorded November 28th 1974, Released '1981')
Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds/I Saw Her Standing There
"Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly"
Naturally much shyer off-stage than he ever seemed on it, Lennon enjoyed the thrill of being on stage but hated the worry and build-up to it, spending the hours immediately prior to all his solo gigs in a state of nerves and throwing up. It took a lot to get Lennon out on stage and after the hassles with his green card (yeah yeah yeah it was blue!) he suddenly wasn't as keen on sticking up for good causes the way he once had in case they got him kicked out of the country. By 1974 he hadn't performed on stage for two years and nor did he have plans to, until a chance meeting with a hip and trendy young music-maker named Elton John. The two Johns performed on 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night', a rather Elton-ish piano based pop song from 'Walls and Bridges' which Elton bet Lennon would make #1. Lennon laughed - he hadn't had a solo number one ever by this point and his last single 'Mind Games' hadn't exactly set the charts alight at a US peak of #18. In Britain 'Night' flopped badly too, falling to #36 (Lennon's lowest charting single in his homeland in his lifetime) but in America, thanks partly to some witty promos Lennon put together with Ringo, the single went all the way to the top of the charts. Lennon was thrilled - then nervous when he remembered a 'bet' he'd made with Elton without thinking, that he's perform with Elton at a concert he had planned at Madison Square Gardens. Elton expected Lennon to chicken out, but kept telling him what a thrill to would be to hear a crowd applauding him after so long away and Lennon found himself talked into it on the condition he only performed three songs. Despote this being very much an Elton concert, with Lennon unbilled, the crowd really do go nuts and Lennon gets by far the longest applause of his solo career as the audience instantly 'get's what a special night this is. Lennon is audibly nervous, trying to live up to all that applause and plays with competence rather than inspiration but the track selection is interesting enough to see him through (mainly Elton's choices). A ragged 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night' became the only live performance of the song that Lennon ever gave, a magical 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' becomes, unbelievably, the only live performance of that song Lennon ever gave too ('borrowed' from Elton's reggae-fied recent cover) and best of all we hear Lennon singing lead on 'I saw Her Standing There' for the only time in his career, neatly bookending Lennon's live history with where it began. John introduces the song as 'by an old estranged fiance of mine' luring the crowd into thinking he means Yoko before adding 'called Paul' at which the place erupts - though funnily enough this show played a crucial role in John and Yoko getting back together. John sent Yoko a ticket, not expecting her to come and their backstage meeting was stilted after some 18 months apart. However Lennon finally apologised for his behaviour back in 1972 (when he's left Yoko behind at a party to have sex upstairs with a stranger) and asked what he had to do to be forgiven - Yoko asked to start over again at the courtship phase and asked for chocolates and flowers! It took a few more months yet, but without this gig the John and Yoko story might well have ended sooner and the 'lost weekend' might have been more of a 'lost five years'. Who'd have thought Elton would turn out to be a matchmaker?! 'Standing There' additionally came out as a single with a solo Elton cover of Lennon's 'One Day At A Time' on the flipside; all three songs were later released as an EP in tribute to Lennon in 1981. The show has been a bit harder to track down in the CD age but all three songs do appear complete on the 'Lennon' three-disc box set.
John Lennon "Roots"
(Adam VIII 'January' 1975)
Be-Bop-A-Lula/Ain't That A Shame?/Stand By Me/Sweet Little Sixteen/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/Angel Baby/Do You Wanna Dance?/You Can't Catch Me//Bony Maronie/Peggy Sue/Bring It On Home To Me-Send Me Some Lovin'/Slippin' and Slidin'/Be My Baby/Ya Ya/Just Because
"You can't catch me - 'cause if you get too close you know I'm goin' like a cool breeze!"
If Lennon had an Achilles' heel as a writer, it was his magpie nature that made him take bits of songs from other writers without much caring where or how the ideas came to him. I mean he was a multi-millionaire Beatle right? People should be flattered that he 'recycled' bits of their work! (How Lennon never got sued for nicking almost the entire Elvis song 'Baby Let's Play House' for 'Run For Your Life' I'll never know!) However Lennon went a bit too far when he re-wrote Chuck Berry's 'You Can't Catch Me' into the Beatles' Abbey Road track 'Come Together', even quoting from the lyrics for his opening line to make things uber-obvious ('Here come old flat-top, he come grooving up slowly!') Berry couldn't have cared less - he and Lennon were old friends - but his publishers Morris Levy were very angry and decided to make Lennon pay. Rather than simply get a financial settlement, in a court case that dragged on some five years they tried to get the Beatle to settle for recording three of the songs they published so they could get a share of the profits from an almost certain big seller and turn the public on to their songwriting catalogue with a Lennon endorsement! Figuring that three cover songs would look a bit odd on a 'normal' album, Lennon accidentally invented a new craze: the rock and roll covers album, made up of songs that had got him interested in music in the first place! The concept was perfect for a post-prog pre-punk music scene that was running out of ideas and feeling nostalgic for the good ol' days, but Lennon made life much harder for himself by hiring old friend Phil Spector to produce him - the pair's first collaboration since the 'Imagine' album after which Lennon had left Britain in 1971 and set himself up with New Yorker musicians. Alas life had been hard for both men in the interim and the recording sessions that took place around the end of 1973 have gone down in history as some of the booziest, wayward sessions imaginable, with tales of Spector randomly firing a loaded pistol at the recording studio ceiling and being thrown out of a mixing session for deliberately pouring whiskey on a very expensive mixing board (actually the bootlegs and the 'Anthology' box set paint a different story - both men are desperate to work and get material sorted - and it's their love of getting the last word that keeps getting in the way of the music as they try to out-quip each other all the time!) The Rock and Roll album ended with Phil Spector quitting the sessions unannounced and taking the master-tapes with him, which left Lennon an album down.
Lennon wrote a long and rambling apology to Morris Levy explaining the problems he'd had and recorded a 90 second fragment of 'Ya Ya' (a Lee Dorsey song published by Levy and funnily enough a song that often appeared on the 'Beatles with Tony Sheridan' albums despite featuring a 'later' Sheridan backing band) with his son Julian on drums for inclusion on the end of his substituted 'normal' album 'Walls and Bridges'. Levy still wasn't happy - the recording was a doodle rather than the master cover he expected and in private he was said to be insulted by the 'peace offering'. So Lennon abandoned the original recordings and set about re-cutting his intended rock and roll album in 1974 - only for Spector to sheepishly bring the tapes back after all. Legend has it that Lennon was appalled at the drunken shambles he heard and vowed that he wouldn't use any of the old tapes on an album - and he didn't, re-recording many of the songs he'd once recorded in a slicker, more professional setting and adding a few new ideas along the way too. Levy, determined to check that Lennon was behaving himself this time, asked for copy tapes of the sessions which John complied with. Only Levy wasn't playing ball - he reckoned that he could pull a fast one over The Beatle and released his own version of 'Rock and Roll' from the tapes Lennon had given him on his own 'Adam VIII' label, whilst simultaneously suing Lennon for 'breach of contract' when the album proved to be too slow. The record turned out to be the first Beatle product to ever be advertised on TV - the one part of the whole experience that thrilled television-a-holic Lennon but was greeted by his fans with despair (the advert was incredibly tacky!) Lennon was supposed to back down and grin and bear it - instead he counter-sued and won, with Levy being forced by a court of law to pull 'his' version of the album which has now become a big Beatles collectors item.
'Roots: John Lennon Sings The Rock and Roll Hits' has gone down in history as being an amateurish version of the same album that came out in 1975. In terms of the packaging that's certainly true: the title is tacky, the use of a cut-and-pasted photo of Lennon taken from the 'White Album' photo-give away is not only crude but very out of date and the whole thing looks like a bootleg (indeed, many bootleggers chose this one to copy because it was the 'easiest' sleeve of all the Lennon rarities to replicate on a low budget). However musically that's not strictly true: I actually prefer 'Roots' to 'Rock and Roll' in all its flimsy, chaotic glory and the muddy work-in-progress mixes add a lot of the 'fire' back into the album. The 'official' EMI version of the album contains tighter performances and you can hear Lennon much more easily - however these performances have a lot more character and the band sound as if they're having fun rather than doing their duty. At fifteen songs this album is also vastly longer and features some really excellent 1973 outtakes that Lennon never returned to which are the highlights of the entire sessions: 'Angel Baby' is an obscure 1960 single by one-hit wonders Rosie and the Originals which reveals the depth of Lennon's memory and record collection. A sweet doo-wop song, sung with a knowing wink and expressive double-tracking, John's falsetto part is genuinely exciting and it's a surprise absentee from the later album: John even calls it 'one of my favourite songs' in the rambling introduction and adds 'send my love to Rosie, whoever she may be'. Perhaps Spector's most famous hit 'Be My Baby' (written for his wife's band The Ronettes) was another long-term Lennon favourite that was probably only dropped because of Lennon's annoyance with his producer - it's actually one of the best of all the re-arrangements with a slower, more dramatic bold up that peaks with Lennon's desperate-sounding and vulnerable vocal. Both of these songs will appear officially on the 'Menlove Avenue' set in 1986 - oddly a third and fourth track, another Spector song 'To Know Her Is To Love Her' and the party-spirited 'Since My Baby Left Me' were never released by Levy. There are other subtle tweaks to the recordings too - 'Ain't That A Shame' and 'Slippin' and Slidin' both run longer, 'You Can't Catch Me' runs shorter (the EMI version adds a whole repeated last verse taken from earlier in the song) and 'Stand By Me' comes from an early mix before the string parts were added. Less honourably, many of the songs were artificially sped-up, partly for energy but mainly so Levy could fit more songs per side on his flimsy low-condition vinyl records. The result is an odd but fun album that's less streamlined and clear than the final version, but is a whole lot more fun - which was surely the whole point of the whole affair in the beginning, court-case or no. In the end the mail-order distribution - something largely untried back in 1976 - failed to work with only 3000 copies sold before legal action pulled it, with even Lennon forced to wait a month after placing his order before he could hear it (you think they'd at least have sent the creator a copy on time!) The album remains officially unreleased on CD.
John Lennon "Rock and Roll"
(Apple, February 17th 1975)
Be-Bop-A-Lula/Stand By Me/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/You Can't Catch Me/Ain't That A Shame?/Do You Want To Dance?/Sweet Little Sixteen/Slippin' And Slidin'/Peggy Sue/Bring It On Home To Me-Send Me Some Lovin'/Bony Maronie/Ya Ya/Just Because
"This is Dr Winston O'Boogie saying goodbye from the Record Plant East, New York, hope you had a swell time, Everyone here says 'hi'!...Goodbye!"
'Rock and Roll' is how Lennon always intended his album of cover songs to sound. It certainly looks much better than 'Roots', with a marvellous Astrid Kircherr photo of a twenty-year-old Lennon leering from the doorway of the Cavern Club and looking the epitome of cool. However personally I've always felt that what Lennon did to the contents of the album makes it vastly inferior to 'Roots'. The crystal clear production is so at odds with the messy joi de vivre of the original songs that it simply shows up how professional and 'clean' these performances are. Lennon tries hard to sing these songs with passion, but he all too often sounds like a thirty-five old millionaire rather than a young and hungry teenager - the main audience for most of these original songs. The decision to drop perhaps the four best songs from the record ('Angel Baby' and 'Be My Baby' as released on 'Roots'; 'Since My Baby Left Me' and 'To Know Her Is To Love Her' released later on 'Menlove Avenue') is also a curious one, robbing the album of much of the enthusiasm, energy and life. Too many of these songs like they were much more fun to play than they actually are to listen to and of the recordings here only three come close to matching the originals: the hit single 'Stand By Me' where the production shuts up long enough for Lennon to do his stuff, 'Slippin' and Slidin' where the band get lucky and nail things in one rough take and the closing 'Just Because', a song that Lennon didn't even know until Phil Spector introduced him to it during the sessions - it's a perfect vehicle though for his aggressive, keening vocals and amongst the most emotional of his 'Lost Weekend' recordings. You have to say, though, that much of this album is a lost opportunity: Lennon sounds like a hired hand rather than a creative force and the backing musicians just do what they did on every other album of the period (they also play on Ringo's, Harry Nilsson's and Keith Moon's solo albums of the time, which all end up sounding exactly like this!)
Oddly, too, Lennon doesn't choose many of his actual favourites to cover - none of these songs were on his much-played 'jukebox' (sold at auction in 2000) and many of the song choices tended to be McCartney rather than Lennon favourites (where for instance is 'Some Other Guy', Lennon's 'favourite song ever' or 'I Put A Spell On You' the song his mother loved which introduced him to a world of music as seen in the 'Nowhere Boy' film?) The result is perhaps the least essential release of Lennon's lifetime and a record that in covers times comes somewhere between his partner McCartney's similarly disinterested 'Choba C C CP' which includes a terrible 80s production to boot and the genuinely inspired 'Run Devil Run'. The record also makes for an unusual, uncomfortable place to say 'goodbye' before five years of becoming a house-husband - Lennon hasn't quite made the decision to 'retire' just yet but admitted later his spoken word 'goodbye' at the start and end of 'Just Because' was made at least partly in the knowledge that he might be gone for a while; the sheer aggro of the Morris Levy lawsuits and the Phil Spector sessions played a major role in his decision not to renew his record contract with EMI/Apple when it came to an end in this year leaving Lennon 'free' for the first time since 1962. Yoko also happened to get pregnant at just the right time - and Lennon was determined to be there this time, no matter what happened next. In retrospect 'Rock and Roll' seems a semi-conscious goodbye to the music that inspired Lennon, enabling him to put it to one side as he returned to the world's second most important job of becoming a full-time father and husband.
'Be-Bop-A-Lula' is an old friend by Gene Vincent that Paul used to sing with The Beatles (he'll re-cut it for his 'Unplugged' album in fact). This recording gets the period echo spot on but nobody seems to have much passion for the song, which rattles along harmlessly in a way that true rock and roll shouldn't.
'Stand By Me' stands head and shoulders above the rest, with Lennon really getting into the spirit of Ben E King's classic and became a deserved hit (though not as big as many think - only peaking at #20 in the US and #30 in the UK). In the context of the time Lennon may have had Yoko in mind as he promises to 'stand by' his loved one even at a distance. A charming performance for the Old Grey Whistle Test had Lennon singing a snatch of 'Unchained Melody' ('Oh my love, my darling...') over the guitar solo Goon- Show style!
Lennon turns back to the McCartney songbook again for a medley of two Little Richard classics, 'Rip It Up' and 'Ready Teddy'. The squealing saxes and dodgy performance brings back bad flashbacks of Elephant's Memory and Lennon's double-tracking (he hated the sound of his own voice and did whatever he could to disguise it!) robs the medley of any power he might have had.
'You Can't Catch Me' is the song that inspired it all and perverse ly Lennon re-moulds Chuck Berry's quick-stepping original into a sighing, swampy song where it sounds more like his own 'Come Together' than ever! The slow tempo works well, allowing Lennon to suck on and spit out every line, but there's something wrong about hearing Chuck Berry played with a horn section.
'Ain't That A Shame' is another McCartney favourite a Fat Domino song about farewell that's almost certainly about missing Yoko. Again, though, the sound is all too big and flat and the atonal horn riff seems to be pointing a nagger finger at the whole song when Lennon should be swamped by loneliness and sadness.
'Do You Want To Dance?' as made famous by The Beach Boys among others has been reggae-fied into something else entirely. The sense of nagging desperation has gone, as had the dramatics leading into the chorus in favour of a slow-burning groove that never quite comes off. Seriously, how did Lennon overlook his sterling work on 'To Know Her Is To Love Her' for this?!
It's hard to go wrong with 'Sweet Little Sixteen' but Lennon tries anyway, re-arranging the quick-bopping Chuck Berry classic into a slowed-down horn ensemble piece reflecting his own instrumental 'Beef Jerky'. It sounds like a car wreck in slow motion.
At long last everything comes together on 'Slippin' and Slidin', an enjoyable Little Richard number where Lennon finally songs from the heart and not his head and the whole band actually sound as if they're enjoying themselves. The band nail the tricky stop-start beats and get right behind the rhythm of the song, although the single-tracked rawer version from the 'Old Grey Whistle Test' show is better still.
Buddy Holly's 'Peggy Sue' deserves better than to be given an overly echo-laden piano arrangement that leaves Lennon hard to hear and instead of building to climax simply rings off in a crescendo of abused crotchets. Another noticeably McCartney rather than Lennon favourite this version comes close to sabotage.
Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me' heard in a medley with 'Send Me Some Lovin' is better than most on the album, slowed down to a swampy blues-soul hybrid of the sort Janis Joplin once excelled with. The band and singer have learnt how to work with one another too: they provide a hard-as-nails backbeat as Lennon pulls and tugs ahead and behind the beat. Even the very mid-70s use of the vocoder sounds rather good, although you wouldn't say this song is a natural fit for Lennon's voice.
Larry Williams' 'Bony Maronie' is his 'other' big song that the Beatles never got round to covering (after 'Slow Down' 'Bad Boy' and 'Dizzy Miss Lizzie') and makes more sense than most given the special bond Lennon always had with the author. Lennon sings well, but the song about a skinny girlfriend isn't up to Williams' other songs and the recording only really comes alive on the sudden switch to a minor key in the middle eight ('underneath the apple tree...')
A rather more serious attempt to record 'Ya Ya' is certainly a lot more professional than John and Julian jamming, but it's a whole lot less fun. Lennon returns all too briefly to his falsetto but this cutely nonsense song is played far too stiffly to work the way it should.
In closing, 'Just Because' does for 'Rock and Roll' what 'You and Me (Babe) did for 'Ringo', lampooning the album and the corny Las Vegas vibe in a very Lennon vibe. Lennon tries hard to remember how old he was when the song first came out, even though he barely remembered it when Spector suggested it for the album , telling us 'I must have been fourteen when this came out. Or I could have been twelve actually. Or was I 22?!'Actually Lennon was seventeen, the perfect age for this slightly schmaltzy take on a first breakup which clearly had vibes of Yoko about it (so it's odd Lennon didn't know the song the first time round actually!) An outtake from the album which has surfaced on bootleg has a very drunk Lennon screaming his lungs out for Yoko, in between lusting after all the female hangers-on around the studio which paints a very sad and sorrowful picture of the Lost Weekend's schizophrenia - this finished version is surprisingly 'up' for such a sad song and Lennon sings it well!
So ends an album which in its own way is an odd a release as any of the 'Unfinished Music' series and is perhaps the one boring album in Lennon's canon. Few fans have it as their number one favourite and many critics jumped on it at the time for being more evidence of Lennon's creative fall from grace across the 1970s. However the record got Lennon out of trouble without too much loss of face, sold rather (a US peak of #6 compared to Mind Games' #9 and matched Walls and Bridges in the UK) and accidentally invented a cottage industry of covers albums along the way (with many acts like The Beach Boys and even McCartney thinking 'well it must be alright to do a covers album if even Lennon's done one!') In truth though it's not an album made for repeated listening and has little to recommend outside a handful of recordings - you doubt whether Lennon would have ever consented to such an artistically bankrupt idea as a covers album had Morris Levy not forced him into it.
(Apple, October 20th 1975)
Give Peace A Chance/Cold Turkey/Instant Karma/Power To The People/Mother/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World//Imagine/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Mind Games/#9 Dream/Happy Christmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance (Live) (Reprise)
"Pushing the barriers, planting seeds"
With Lennon heading for retirement, EMI released 'Shaved Fish' as a stop-gap best of, the third solo Beatle collection to come out (and beating 'Wings' Greatest' by a couple of years!) In a way it's a celebration of Lennon's complex and complicated past five years, released a mere three weeks after John and Yoko were finally issues with the 'green card' (which was actually blue!) that enabled them to stay legally in the States. Of all the Beatles Lennon had perhaps the greatest non-album legacy at this point, with no less than five singles which had never appeared on album up to date. As usual with Lennon, though, there were a few surprises thrown in too: 'Give Peace A Chance' appears in a minute-long edit as a sort of 'overture' to the album, 'Mother' combines the opening of the album mix and the ending of the single, 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' gets cut down by about fifty seconds and 'Happy Xmas' features a whole new ending, cross-fading into the then-unreleased 'One To One' benefit concert recording of 'Give Peace A Chance'. Sadly the album doesn't even touch on the non-single album tracks which means that there a few favourites from later compilations conspicuous by their absence: 'Working Class Hero' 'Love' and even 'Stand By Me' are all absent curiously despite the short-running time of the album (interestingly 'Imagine' is here despite not having been released as a single at the time - as Lennon's favourite song did he insist on it? He was at least consulted on this album, if not exactly an active participant!) It's a shame too that rarities like the non-album B-side 'Move Over Ms L' aren't here for completists. You have to say, though, that compared to the appalling mess that was 'The Best Of George Harrison' (which recycled Beatles songs on side one) and Ringo's ever so short 'Blast From Your Past' this compilation at least tries to capture the real Lennon. The very Lennonish title is actually the invention of a marketing man at EMI and refers to a type of sushi (specifically the fish katsuobushi if you ever feel brave enough to order it!) which would have no doubt tickled Lennon, still largely reluctant to eat Japanese food! The cover artwork too is very Lennonish, divided into twelve with illustrations for every song (the rather Lennonish drawing for 'Mother' is delightfully creepy though it looks nothing like his real mother Julia, coming out as a cross between Aunt Mimi and the Wicked Witch Of The West!), a naked woman being attacked by giant lipsticks for 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' and a pot of fish paste for 'Instant Karma!' (The illustrator chickens out for some, though, with 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night' reduced to a drawing of the 'Walls and Bridges' front cover and a written sermon for 'Power To The People'). The only Lennon compilation released in his own lifetime, it's a pretty good attempt at covering just five years' worth of music though arguably superseded by the longer and more thorough compilations that have come out since his death.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Heart Play (Unfinished Dialogue)"
(Polydor, Recorded September 10-28th, Released December 16th 1983)
"What have I been doing? I've been baking bread and looking after the baby!...Nobody controls me I'm kind of...uncontrollable"
Lennon gave what turned out to be his last in-depth interview for Playboy Magazine three months before his death, with some twenty hours recorded on tape in seven lengthy sessions ('This will become my reference book!' John quips early on), the transcripts of which were published after his death in January 1981 - becoming one of the best-sellers in the magazine's history. Though less revealing and outrageous than Lennon's similar conversation with Playboy in 1970, he still clearly had a lot on his mind and is far more at peace with himself, looking forward to the future and frustratingly for us all these years on talking about all his plans for future projects he'd never get a chance to do - experimental albums, more work with Yoko, 'Milk and Honey' ('this album out now is part one of at least two'), rallies, a concert tour and the biggest hint yet about a Beatles reunion. Most scarily of all, Lennon discusses the dangers that come with living in New York and talks about how violence can happen against any big name: 'Martin Luther King is a fantastic example of a non-violent mind who died violently, what does it mean when you're such a pacifist you get shot - I could never understand that!' The interview is a tough listen for fans but is a welcome addition to the Lennon saga, presented thankfully as is without any gushing tributes on the back cover or tearful tributes; just Lennon talking one last time with his usual wit and candour about his fascinating life. Actually Lennon has never sounded so contented, although that might have more to do with the editing, with interviewer David Sheff cutting out the parts about drug addiction and the lost weekend. The title cleverly refers back to both 'Double Fantasy' (a 'dialogue' between two lovers - Yoko is present too though quieter than most joint interviews, though Lennon praises her more than usual - 'She's the teacher, I'm the puipil!') and JohnandYoko's 'unfinished music' series, presented as an 'unfinished dialogue' that never had closure (though most questions had been asked Playboy had been loosely invited to come back another day to tidy up any loose ends before publication). The album cover was taken at the La Fortuna coffee shop - the setting for the last of the taped sessions, with proceeds going to the charity Spirit Foundation (which helps war veterans find work).
John Lennon and Yoko "The Last Interview"
(Geffen, Recorded December 8th 1980, Released March 24th 1998)
"A story, but a story without much description just dialogue - or a radio play that can't afford much dialogue or panning shots"
Lennon's last interview was with Rolling Stone Magazine and ended mere hours before his death - the glass of water Lennon was drinking during the interview which took place in the window seat of the Dakota building can be seen on the front cover of Yoko's 'Season Of Glass' album. It's tough listening, given how happy and enthusiastic Lennon sounds, his head spinning with plans of what to do next. A transcript of the interview wasn't published until 2010, although some twenty-two minutes' worth of the nine hour interview was included on the CD re-issue of 'Milk and Honey' in 1998 where it makes for an eerie coda to Lennon's catalogue, hovering in mid-air between what was and what might have come next. Lennon may have struggled a bit with his music-making in 1980 but he was on top form as an interviewer and paints a fascinating portrait of his life during his house-husband years. John sounds stricter than expected, talking about refusing to let Sean watch commercials on TV and keeping an eye on his diet but also talks about his special bond and telepathy with his son (born the same day thirty-five years apart so 'we're twins') and speaks with joy about watching Sesame Street together (Lennon was such a fan he's have almost certainly appeared on the show at some point during his comeback, if only to impress Sean!) Lennon also talks about stopping because he was worn out and no new music was coming ('it's like the signals on the radio were jammed, y'know') and sounds happier than usual with his Beatles legacy ('I only ever worked with two people for more than a one night stand as it were, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono - and I'd say that's a pretty damn fine choice!') Yoko then talks interestingly about her 'guilt' at holding Lennon back - that 'he could have had number ones all the time without my B-sides getting banned'. Lennon signs off ominously, talking about loving to talk to fans but struggling to get pens to work when signing autographs and wondering where to sign: 'I'm a fan too though, you know, I like to sign people's books when they give them to me and all that'. A mere few hours after this the very next person to come up to Lennon for a signed autograph on a battered copy of 'Double Fantasy' will be Mark Chapman - and a few hours after that he'll be back for very different reasons...
"The Lennon Collection"
(Parlophone/Geffen, November 1st 1982)
Give Peace A Chance/Instant Karma/Power To The People/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/#9 Dream/Mind Games/Love/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)//Imagine/Jealous Guy/Stand By Me/(Just Like) Starting Over/Woman/I'm Losing You/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Watching The Wheels/Dear Yoko
CD Bonus Tracks: Move Over Ms L/Cold Turkey
"Together we have grown - we have grown!"
Impressively, both Yoko and Geffen waited a full two years before releasing the first posthumous Lennon album, despite being guaranteed a sure-fire winner whatever they put out. Thankfully, too, 'The Lennon Collection' was just what fans had been after with a much longer selection of songs than 'Shaved Fish' and (almost) every single fans might want to own (though 'Cold Turkey', added to the CD re-issue, seems an odd omission). The record was presented without any gimmicks, no teary tributes or unreleased recordings - in fact so up front was this album that it even included a full head-on shot of Lennon in profile, which looks life-size if you're lucky enough to own the vinyl original. Sensibly too the running order keeps everything in the 'right' chronological order, unlike most Lennon comps to come, making this one still perhaps the best single-disc best-of Lennon set around. Highlights missing from 'Shaved Fish' include 'Love' 'Working Class Hero' and 'Stand By Me' restored to their proper place as three of the jewels in Lennon's crown and all six Lennon songs from 'Double Fantasy', which is a bit overkill but understandable (Geffen paid to license the other songs from Apple - the more songs of their own they used the less they would have to pay). The result is a nice tribute - no substitute for what that second album might have been admittedly but a record done with taste and restraint and one that received it's just deserves by becoming one of the must-have releases of the Christmas 1982 market, a record world still largely in shock over Lennon's passing. EMI bought the rights to this album back when Geffen had a bit of financial difficulty and made a strong album even better when the set was re-released on CD in 1989 with 'Cold Turkey' and rare B-side 'Move Over Ms L' tacked on the end. Shockingly, though, the American issues of this album in any form have always skipped two of the more important tracks: 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' and 'Stand By Me'.
(Parlophone/EMI, November 3rd 1986)
Here We Go Again/Rock and Roll People/Angel Baby/Since My Baby Left Me/To Know Him Is To Love Him//Steel and Glass (Early Version)/Scared (Early Version)/Old Dirt Road (Early Version)/Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out (Early Version)/Bless You (Early Version)
"Though I know we've seen this place before ,someone keeps on moving the door"
Two years on from 'Milk and Honey' Yoko raided the vaults again for the first posthumous Lennon album that wasn't intended for release somewhere down the line. Though overshadowed by later longer outtake compilations, the release of 'Live In New York City 1972' from the year before and the broadcast of the 'Lost Lennon Tapes' it remains an excellent and engaging outtakes set and proves just how 'on it' Lennon was even on basic demos and rough rehearsal takes. The album comes divided in two - five songs recorded at the 'Rock and Roll Sessions' (two of which had been - briefly - released on 'Roots') and five alternate takes of songs from 'Walls and Bridges' given the sparse 'Plastic Ono Band' treatment, quite a lot of which is actually superior to the two albums released in the 1970s. The album was named, oddly enough, after the street where Lennon grew up (technically his Aunt Mimi's house, where Lennon lived between the ages of five and eighteen when he moved into a flat with Stuart Sutcliffe) - Strawberry Fields is just around the corner. The reason it's odd is that these recordings are firmly within Lennon's 'American' years and none of the songs make reference to the 'old days' - I guess 'The Corner Of West 72nd Street' (the address of the Dakota building) just didn't have quite the same ring to it. The album cover is great, though, and arguably the best of all of Lennon's posthumous releases - a sketchy drawing of Lennon by Andy Warhol completed just months before Lennon's death in 1980 (and intended for an exhibition, not an album colour) that's a lot more expression-filled and accurate than Warhol's usual 'mass produced consumerism' work.
We've said before in 'Roots' how much more engaging that version of the album was than 'Rock and Roll' with the Lennon of 1973 much looser and rougher and yet far more exciting than the slicker version of 1974/75. Lennon introduces 'Angel Baby' as 'one of my all time favourites' and Lennon sings the 1960 lone hit by 'Rosie and the Originals' with gusto, aided and abetted by the best use of Phil Spector's 'echo' orchestra. There's a party atmosphere on 'Since My baby Left Me' which sounds like the mother of all karaoke parties with the crowd answering Lennon's echo-laden vocal and some funky horns. The slowed down version of Spector's own 'To Know Her Is To Love Her' is exquisite and perhaps the best recording to come out of all the Rock and Roll sessions. Lennon clearly feels his colleague's pain (Spector wrote it for his father who died when he was small, after a message inscribed on his tombstone, inspiring a track that could have fitted onto the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' debut quite happily) and offers quite a different vocal reading to most versions (including The Beatles' BBC version), singing soft and low before suddenly exploding into passionate emotion the way only Lennon can ('DON'T YOU KNOW THAT I....love love her...') Better yet is a Lennon-Spector collaboration from the first Rock and Roll sessions, 'Here I Go Again', where Lennon manages to point at the boredom that led to his retirement while sounding genuinely inspired. Spector's lush orchestra, usually so over-powerful, sounds glorious here, turning Lennon's very Ray Davies-like song about the drudgery and mundanity of everyday life into a thing of beauty and the journey from the verse growl to the screamed chorus is truly sublime. The song was abandoned at the time because Lennon felt it wouldn't work on an album of rock and roll covers and seems to have cooled on the idea of releasing the song at all when co-writer Spector ran off with the tapes, even when he got them back in late 1974. However this is one of the Lennon triumphs that got away - had it been released as a standalone single somewhere in 1973 or 1974 it would surely stand amongst his best-loved works. Slightly less essential is a second Lennon original, 'Rock and Roll People, a slight voodoo boogie full of clichéd lyrics about what the party behaviour of rock and roll people that lacks his usual authenticity. Still, one bad song out of five from the outtake sessions of by far Lennon's weakest LP and four real classic - who, after buying the rather sorry mess of a covers album in 1975, would have been expecting that in 1986?
Over on side two there are no new songs and yet the five old friends from 'Walls and Bridges' couldn't sound any more different. Stripped of the polished production and the upbeat performances, 'Walls and Bridges' sounds even more like a howl of pain than the rather schizophrenic slick-yet-emotional album that made it to the shops. A demo of 'Steel and Glass' is genuinely scary even without the soaring 'I Am The Walrus' style strings, reduced to just Lennon's ghostly vocal (still treated with echo even on the demo) and a badly tuned guitar (plus some drums and guitar that kick into the song's second half). There's no doubt in this version - Lennon is surely singing about himself not Allen Klein and there's a whole verse cut from the finished product, probably wisely: 'There you stand with your toilet sand and your Mickey Duck and your Donald Fuck!' replacing the verse about 'leaving your smell like an alley cat'. A plodding 'Scared' is even more, well, scared than the finished product - reduced to a piano thud played at a slower tempo and some twirly Jesse Ed Davis guitar lines Lennon sounds even closer to the brink of madness or death. He messes up the shouted middle eight ('Hatred and jealousy!') which clearly catches him by surprise but Lennon's vocal is very real and a powerful songs sounds ever more powerful. A sleepy 'Old Dirt Road' is slightly less impressive but still has its moments, Lennon sounding ever more desperate without an orchestra ensemble to spur him on. The sparse setting really suits 'Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out' particularly and though clumsy and often un-footed Lennon's depressed-sounding vocal and sorrowful whistling is ever closer to the song's true spirit. The gear change from zero to a hundred in the middle ('I'm looking in the mirror') is there but not with such a contrast just yet. The album then ends with a rather timid version of 'Bless You' featuring Lennon doing a bit of scat singing in deference to how 'jazzy'; this arrangement of the song is. In truth it's not that different or that good, but Yoko was very fond of this love song for her written in her absence and Lennon's little-boy-lost performance is like much of the album very in keeping with the spirit of the song.
Overall, then, you wouldn't want to buy 'Menlove Avenue' as your first Lennon LP but for fans who know both 'Rock and Roll' and 'Walls and Bridges' inside out you might be surprised at just how much better both albums sounds in these versions. Sadly to date Yoko still hasn't done the obvious and released the two CDs with these ten songs split between the two records as bonus tracks (perhaps in a deluxe version with offerings from the 'Anthology' box set) and 'Menlove Avenue' is rather a hard album to find. Do keep an eye out for it though if you love your Lennon raw as there's a real grit and honesty about all of these performances (give or take 'Rock and Roll people'!)
"Imagine: The Motion Picture Soundrack"
(Parlophone/EMI/Capitol, October 11th 1988)
Real Love (1979 Demo)/Twist and Shout/Help!/In My Life/Strawberry Fields Forever/A Day In The Life/Revolution/The Ballad Of John and Yoko/Julia/Don't Let Me Down//Give Peace A Chance/How?/Imagine (Rehearsal)/God/Mother/Stand By Me/Jealous Guy/Woman/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/(Just Like) Starting Over/Imagine
"You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one, I hope someday you'll join us and the world will live as one"
The Lennon memorial bandwagon went up a gear in the late 80s, as the world slowly got used to the idea of our 'working class hero' not being there anymore. One of the more interesting projects was 'Imagine', a documentary film that mixed the hours and hours and hours of Lennon home movies (there wasn't much he didn't recorded across 1971 alone) with new interviews of his nearest and dearest, including some very unusual names who didn't often talk much (a surly looking 25-year-old Julian, a shy 13-year-old Sean, a tough looking Aunt Mimi, a fragile looking Cynthia and best of all Ernest Pobjoy, Lennon's old headmaster and the one who recognised his talent underneath all the 'clowning around' - he clearly had a soft spot for his notoriously naughty 'old boy' and would have remembered him well enough even without the fame that followed!) The film takes a rather rushed look at Lennon's life and skips a lot of the music, but it's about the best that could have been done in the length of a film rather than a whole TV series as Lennon deserved. The film-makers decided early on to release a soundtrack album which mainly mixed the famous and much-sold Lennon recordings for the umpteenth time but it's notable for three reasons. First of all, it's the only Lennon compilation that mixes Beatle recordings with solo works, meaning that if you really don't know any Lennon or Beatles at all (i.e. you're a babe in arms!) then this is probably your best place of all the Lennon releases to start. Secondly, it contains the first official release of Lennon's late 1970s demo 'Real Love' later released as the second Beatles reunion single in 1996 (though it's not just the demo tape with the overdubs removed - it's a different, altogether more finished take without the bad tape hiss that would have been a much better basis for the finished product all round). Thirdly there's a lovely 90 second fragment of Lennon teaching the assembled musicians in 1971 how to play a new song he's written called 'Imagine' ('Nice' says Phil Spector 'Yeah, I think it's my favourite on the album that one' adds Lennon). Whether all this is enough to fork out for a pricey double-set that's become ever rarer and pricier in the years since first release is up to you, but both recordings are of interest and the 'previously released' stuff is chosen with more than normal to give a real favour of Lennon, especially the solo stuff (with 'How?' and 'God', missing from all other compilations, particularly welcome).
(Parlophone/EMI, October 30th 1990)
CD One: Give Peace A Chance/Blue Suede Shoes/Money (That's What I want)/Dizzie Miss Lizzie/Yer Blues/Cold Turkey/Instant Karma/Mother/Hold On/I Found Out/Working Class Hero/Isolation/Remember/Love/Well Well Well/Look At Me/God/My Mummy's Dead/Power To The People/Well (Baby Please Don't Go)
CD Two: Imagine/Crippled Inside/Jealous Guy/It's So Hard/Gimme Some Truth/Oh My Love/How Do You Sleep?/How?/Oh Yoko!/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/New York City/John SInclair/Come Together/Hound Dog/Mind Games/Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)/One Day At A Time/Intuition/Out Of The Blue
CD Three: Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Going Down On Love/Old Dirt Road/Bless You/Scared/#9 Dream/Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)/Steel and Glass/Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)/Stand By Me/Ain't That A Shame/Do You Wanna Dance?/Sweet Little Sixteen/Slippin' And Slidin'/Angel Baby/Just Because/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (Live)/Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Live)/I Saw Her Standing There (Live)
CD Four: (Just Like) Starting Over/Cleanup Time/I'm Losing You/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Watching The Wheels/Woman/Dear Yoko/I'm Steppin' Out/I Don't Wanna Face It/Nobody Told Me/Borrowed Time/(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess/Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him/Grow Old With Me
"Remember how the man would always leave you empty-handed? Always..."
Before most of Lennon's albums made it to compact disc in their own right there was the 'Lennon' box, a sturdy four disc box set that came in the form of a cube and presented pretty much everything of Lennon's fans needed to own from 'Give Peace A Chance' through to all the Lennon songs off 'Double Fantasy' and 'Milk and Honey'. The set was compiled by Beatles mastermind Mark Lewisohn and offered a good range of Lennon's many styles including some already hard to find tracks such as the 'Live Peace In Toronto' record and the 'Menlove Avenue' set, while the box remains today the only official place where you can hear all three lice duets with Elton John (fittingly at the end of disc three, as a 'teaser' for the comeback to come). However I always though it a shame that this wasn't simply a five disc set that included everything - after all it comes very close- there's no 'I Don't Want To Be A Soldier' (Imagine), no 'Luck Of The Irish' 'Angela' or 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' (Sometime In New York City - the missing Frank Zappa jams are probably less of a problem!), only half of 'Mind Games' (what - no 'Bring On The Lucie', again???), no 'What You Got' ('Walls and Bridges) and the set doesn't make the most of the opportunity to add the rare 'Roots' songs or the 'Move Over Ms L' rare B-side (although the single mix of 'Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him', with Lennon's harmony part now the lead, is here). In fact the only album that is here complete is the 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' LP., which is a shame to say the least. The result is good but still could have been great with just a little bit of tweaking (it's worth pointing out that the fourth disc in particular is very short and most of the missing tracks could have been catered for quite easily!)
"Lennon Legend: The Best Of John Lennon"
(Parlophone, October 27th 1997)
Imagine/Instant Karma/Mother/Jealous Guy/Power To The People/Cold Turkey/Love/Mind Games/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/#9 Dream/Stand By Me/(Just Like) Starting Over/Woman/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Watching The Wheels/Nobody Told Me/Borrowed Time/Working Class Hero/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance
"So long ago - was it just a dream?"
Some fifteen years after 'Lennon Collection' a whole new Britpop generation had grown up, perhaps getting into Lennon's work for the first time after the 'Threetles' reunion songs and the 'Anthology' project. This set in truth didn't offer much the last set didn't but was another fair introduction to Lennon's work, complete with a monochrome sleeve with Lennon in his trademark sunglasses looking the epitome of cool and a slightly longer track listing. The first compilation to include songs from 'Milk and Honey' as part of the track listing, 'Lennon Legend' is interesting more for what it decided to include as 'canon' than for anything else: 'Nobody Told Me' and 'Borrowed Time' feature alongside the other 'hits', 'Double Fantasy' has been pared back to four songs and the album now opens with the thoughtfulness of 'Imagine' and ends with the singalong 'Give Peace A Chance'. A shame the set wasn't brave enough to include the hit single 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World', however. Unlike the Lennon Collection the songs do not appear in chronological order so if push came to shove I'd still take that album over this (even though new addition 'Borrowed Time' may well be the single best thing here!) Oddly 'Give Peace A Chance' came with a credit revision with McCartney's name removed - an odd decision to make twenty-eight years after the event.
John Lennon "Anthology"
(Capitol/EMI, November 2nd 1998)
CD One ('Ascot'): Working Class Hero/God/I Found Out/Hold On John/Isolation/ Love/Mother/ Remember/ Imagine/Fortunately... (Speech)/Baby Please Don't Go/Oh My Love/Jealous Guy/Maggie Mae/How Do You Sleep?/God Save Oz/Do The Oz/I Don't Want To Be A Soldier/Give Peace A Chance/Look At Me/Long Lost John
CD Two ('New York City'): New York City/Attica State (Live)/Imagine (Live)/Bring On Da Lucie (And Freeda People!!!)/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/One To One Concert Introduction (Speech)/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (Live)/It's So Hard (Live)/Come Together (Live)/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (live)/Luck Of The Irish (Live)/John Sinclair (Live)/The David Frost Show (Interview)/Mind Games Demos (I Promise/Make Love Not War)/One Day (At A Time)/I Know (I Know)/I'm The Greatest/(It's All Da Da Down To (Goodnight Vienna)/Jerry Lewis Telethon (Speech)/A Kiss Is Just A Kiss (Fragment)/Real Love/You Are Here
CD Three ('The Lost Weekend'): What You Got/Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (x2)/Yesterday (Spoken Parody)/Be Bop A Lula/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/Scared/Steel and Glass/Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)/Bless You/Going Down On Love/Move Over Ms L/Ain't She Sweet?/Slippin' and Slidin'/Peggy Sue/Bring It On Home To Me-Send Me Some Lovin'/Phil and John (x3) (Speech)/When In Doubt, Fuck It! (Speech)/Be My Baby/Stranger's Room/Old Dirt Road
CD Four ('Dakota'): I'm Losing You/Sean's Little Help (Speech)/Serve Yourself/In My Life/Nobody Told Me/Life Begins At Forty/I Don't Wanna Face It/Woman/Dear Yoko/Watching The Wheels/I'm Steppin' Out/Borrowed Time/The Rishikesh Song/Sean's Loud (Speech)/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Mr Hyde's Gone (Don't Be Afraid)/Only You/Grow Old Along With Me/Dear John/The Great Wok/Mucho Mungo/Satires #1 and #2/Sean's In The Sky (Speech)/It's Real
"This is a story about...this is a story!" "I like it VERY LOUD!!!!"
Nearly a decade after many of these songs were first broadcast (with many hundreds more) as part of the series 'The Lost Lennon Tapes' in America, Yoko finally allowed fans access to some of them legitimately. The result was a revelation - yes there were the usual gripes that Lennon couldn't sing and that few of these recordings were ever made for public consumption and in truth there's only a handful of tracks that match the accomplishments of the main records. But Lennon never gave a 'false' performance in his life and his demos and early takes alike all come with a certain magic, an integrity and honesty that few other singers can match no matter how many takes they go for. While the general opinion amongst Beatle fans is that songwriting was harder for Lennon to come by than McCartney but that his quality was higher, this set challenges both preconceptions: both men made more than their share of mistakes along with some of the best work of the 1970s and Lennon's sub-conscious was dripping with imagination and invention - even in his 'missing' house-husband years.
Yoko sensibly divided the set into four chronological periods, all covering a different creative period of Lennon's life. The first disc ('Ascot') is perhaps the best. Eight of the 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' songs are here in the form of demos and alternate takes which are even sparser and rougher than the finished album, coming up with some real highs (a fascinating 'Working Class Hero' that's somehow less intense and more intense than the finished one all at the same time, a grungy demo of 'I Found Out' with Lennon at his snarling best, a 'Remember' that leaves Lennon giggling and swearing as he tries to keep up with his backing band and an outtake of 'Isolation', ruined by a rare mistake from Ringo, that's never sounded so lonely or desperate) and some real lows (forty-five seconds of a skiffle version of 'Hold On John' and a rushed 'God' that swaps the intensity of one of Lennon's more thoughtful songs for japes and giggles). 'Imagine' fares better, with a gorgeous rehearsal take of the title track that's lighter yet more authentic than the better known finished product and comes complete with Phil Spector's classic admonishment 'could we have less noise from the kitchen please?' followed by what sounds like the maid dropping a baking tray! There's also the best recording yet of 'Well (Baby Please Don't Go)' performed by Lennon live often but never with the same intensity as here, a gorgeously fragile 'Oh My Love' with George Harrison getting his opening guitar phrase wrong, a much more open and vulnerable 'Jealous Guy' and a superior funky 'I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' without all those ghastly saxophone overdubs. Had the final 'Imagine' album sounded more like this (ie more the 'Plastic Ono Band' album) I would have been much more of a fan. Even a frustratingly short fragment of Lennon teaching his assembled hotel room how to sing 'Give Peace A Chance' ('Does anyone know what an offbeat is?' he asks 'An offbeat what?' Billy Graham quips with a very Lennonish pun he uncharacteristically doesn't pick up on) and a few snatches of chat that get in the way of the music can't prevent this from being an excellent run of recordings.
Disc two ('New York City') takes us from 'Sometime In New York City' through to 'Mind Games' and while the first half is rather badly served (most of the songs only exist in inferior live versions from various rallies) 'Mind Games' is quite a revelation. A thrillingly raw 'Bring On The Lucie' features Lennon in a great mood as he re-enacts the drum solo with his voice and rips the song's political lyrics to shreds while playing the slide guitar part of his life. Two piano demos of two different songs that will become stapled to each other as 'Mind Games' are a fascinating insight into how Lennon pieced his songs together. A lovely laidback rehearsal take of 'One Day At A Time' has Lennon growling instead of singing in a painful falsetto and loses the awful girl choir overdubs that ruined the finished take. A demo of 'I Know' that has Lennon sounding even guiltier, a busked studio take of 'You Are Here' that sounds like lounge jazz and an interesting alternate demo for 'Real Love' (why didn't the 'Threetles' use this one?) are all vastly superior to the released versions too. To get there however you have to sit through with some unreleased live recordings from the 'evening' show of the 'One To One' benefit concert, the unplugged acoustic rally for John Sinclair that's a real you-had-to-be-there(-but-preferably-not-in-prison) moment and a pointless remix of 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)' that sounds like all the tinsel has been picked off a rather ordinary bauble (the demo, which sounds quite different to the record, would have been a much better idea).
Disc three ('The Lost Weekend') covers both attempts at 'Rock and Roll' and 'Walls and Bridges'. Given that this period was already covered so well on 'Menlove Avenue' no one was expecting much from this disc and certainly the best material had come out on that set. However the set still has its moments: a slow and spaced out 'Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out' sung with a giggle in the voice that's most disconcerting, a raw and rough 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night', yet another passionately performed rehearsal take of 'Steel and Glass' and a truly beautiful 'Bless You' that's a lot tighter than the 'Avenue' version. However the musical highlight is probably the out-of-place piano demo for 'Stranger's Room' that's well out of sequence (it should be on the next disc!) but is another set highlight, with Lennon sounding deeply vulnerable. Over on the 'Rock and Roll' half of the disc, there's less happening with the best things here being some interesting studio chats with Phil Spector from the aborted 1973 sessions which points towards just how strenuous and mad these sessions were (both artist and producer love having the last word and keep coming back with wise-cracks, often about why they should be getting on with work ('Phil this is our big chance at A&M, now let's not fuck it!' exclaims a weary Lennon 'Hey we got the man here!' 'What man?' 'Any fucking man let's go - I'm gonna get an all girl band' 'You need one - let's go' 'You won't let me do Be Bop A Lula?' 'I will - after this...You can even do Johnny B Goode' 'No No No' 'Well I wish you would - let's go!' 'Oh I could, I even know the solo' 'Yes I bet you do - let's go' 'What are they going to do - play jazz at the Roxy with Jetrho Tull?' 'No Elton John probably' 'I refute - Elton's a good friend of mine' 'Well good, he's got the same name as you only you spell it at the front and he spells it at the back' 'But Elton's going to die young - I'm going to be a 90 year old guru' 'Good - you make gurus, I make history, let's go' 'Phil I'm going to write your history so be careful...' Was it really like this everyday? How did they ever get anything done?!) As for the songs the outtakes sound much the same as the finished products, just drunker, although this rawer version of 'Bring It On Home To Me' does have much more life about it.
Disc four ('Dakota') is perhaps the weakest of the four, despite starting in blistering style with the glorious 'Cheap Trick' version of 'I'm Losing You'. Much sharper and tougher than the 'Double Fantasy' version, it really brings out the best in Lennon's voice - why on earth did he reject it and insist on a new recording, even arguing with Yoko who much preferred this one? Elsewhere a raw 'Nobody Told Me' features all the right jokes but not necessarily in the same places, a wild screaming 'I Don't Wanna Face It' starts mid-take with a studio jam in progress, a slightly slower 'I'm Steppin' Out' is great fun if not quite up to the released take, a sweet early take of 'Beautiful Boy' with a delightful Lennon lead and there's a great reggae-fied home demo of 'Borrowed Time' that's truly gorgeous. However nothing on this disc is truly up to the released takes for the first time across the set and our dreams of hearing 'Double Fantasy' performed the same way as 'Milk and Honey' (without the overdubs, but with the fun) appear to be dashed. There are many more new songs from the house-husband days released her for the first time but none are all that great (certainly there's better still not officially released as yet): 'Serve Yourself' is Lennon at his nastiest however spot-on his Dylan parody, 'Mr Hyde's Gone' is a peculiar music hall ballad, 'The Happy Rishikesh Song' is far less interesting than the title suggests ('The magic's in the mantra and they'll give you all the answers, swallow it that's all you gotta do!') - the second half belongs as part of another superior song titled 'Solitude' by the way, 'It's Real' is an acoustic guitar instrumental without much merit and 'The Great Wok' is a less funny spoken word sequel to 'In His Own Write' and 'A Spaniard In The Works'. Only 'Mucho Mungo' impresses and that's just a simple demo made for Harry Nilsson and already released on his album 'Pussycats' (Lennon sings it rather better, but Nilsson's fuller orchestral texture is more suited to this pretty song) - it's also well out of sequence (it's a 'lost weekend' song!) The George Martin string overdub on the previously released version of 'Grow Old Along With Me' is also appalling - exactly the lush treacly stuff Lennon hated which sounds as odd pasted over a hissy tape demo as 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' did with even less point to it - annoyingly this has become by far the most common version of this lovely song. Elsewhere it's great fun to hear snippets of the family at play (Sean asking his daddy if he sang 'With A Little Help From My Friends' as Lennon patiently corrects his made-up words, wondering why he wasn't with John and Yoko when they bought the Dakota 'house' and being told he wasn't yet born ('You were still in the sky') and Sean telling his dad to turn up the volume on his guitar speaker - both father and son clearly like their music 'very loud'!) but these sections should really have been collected together at the end of the disc as they interrupt the musical flow. To be honest much of the rest isn't really worth your while.
Overall, then, 'Lennon Anthology' is a nearly-box set. It's undeniably very good and considering everything here is unreleased (bar the 'Lost Lennon' broadcasts) it offers a real value for money and certainly helps not hinders Lennon's legacy - after all what other artist who recorded for a grand total of six years as a solo artists could make a four disc set of outtakes sound this consistently good? The packaging too is nice, with a unreleased Lennon doodle on the outside and a nice book that's the same size as the CDs which includes a very moving introduction from Yoko, a reproduction of the rare 1979 newspaper piece that broke the couple's silence ('A Love Letter To People Who Ask Us What When and Why') plus lyrics and recording details for every song and many more Lennon scribbles , poems and sayings. However it could so easily have been superb - there are a good eighty recordings out there more interesting than a good half of this box set and a couple of extra discs would have made this as essential as any of the actual Lennon albums. As it is, this set is still something of a mixed bag(ism), containing the very best but also the very worst of Lennon. All those spoken word tracks, some barely seconds long, also test your patience severely too and make the set seem at first glance much more interesting than it really is. That said, song on song the great still win out over the ghastly (and song for song is probably better than the longer but even more filler-filled 'Beatles Anthology'). A second volume sometime in the future would be highly welcome.
John Lennon "Wonsuponatime"
(Capitol/EMI, November 8th 1998)
I'm Losing You/Working Class Hero/God/How Do You Sleep?/Imagine/Baby Please Don't Go/Oh My Love/God Save Oz/I Found Out/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (Live)/A Kiss Is Just A Kiss (Fragment)/Be Bop A Lula/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/What You Got/Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out/I Don't Wanna Face It/Real Love/Only You/Grow Old With Me/Sean's In The Sky (Speech)/Serve Yourself
"You're looking for oblivion with one eye on the hall of fame!"
Less than a week after the mammoth outtakes box set Yoko authorised the release of a single-disc highlights set. This seems like an odd move given that the whole point of the box was to appeal to collectors - and that almost all of the more interesting and rarer songs are missing from this highlights disc. Few fans, for instance, would chosen the raucous one-note 'God Save Oz' as Lennon at his finest and the inclusion of almost the spoken fragment that were so irritating on the original seems perverse. The running order is curious too, being almost chronological, although kicking the set off with highlight 'I'm Losing You' (as backed by Cheap Trick) is admittedly an excellent idea (though making the acerbic 'DServe Yourself' the finale seems perverse). What's more even the better songs on this set have all been edited down to shorting running times, the sort of thing that makes a collector scream as if they're doing primal therapy. In short, steer well clear of this and get the impressively consistent box set which is actually far more consistent than this - although bizarrely this is the release that tended to get the kinder reviews at the time. Go figure...
John Lennon "Instant Karma: All-Time Greatest Hits"
(Timeless/Traditions Alive Music, February 1st 2002)
CD One: Instant Karma/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Jealous Guy/Mind Games/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/#9 Dream/Stand By Me/(Just Like) Starting Over/Woman/Watching The Wheels/Nobody Told Me
CD Two: Ain't That A Shame/Angel Baby/Be Bop A Lula/Blue Suede Shoes (Live)/Dizzy Miss Lizzie (Live)/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/Peggy Sue/You Can't Catch Me/Slippin' and Slidin'/Do You Want To Dance?/Sweet Little Sixteen/Just Because
CD Three (Live): Well Baby Please Don't Go/New York City/It's So Hard/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/Well Well Well/Instant Karma/Mother/Come Together/Imagine/Cold Turkey/Hound Dog/Give Peace A Chance
"You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine!"
I wonder what Lennon would have made of this budget release intended to be sold through major retail stores. Would he have embraced it's commercial practicality and the means of selling to a whole new range of people who'd never been in a record store in their life (as McCartney did with his 'Memory Almost Full' album sold in Starbucks in 2007)? Would he have been thrilled that at a low price some of his rarer material would be more affordable to the masses? or would he have been horrified at the continued commercialism of the music business and the sheer scale of fans who walked into shops like Costco and Sam's Store solely to buy this record of tracks they already owned to sell at a higher price on ebay? Chances are a little of all three. On the plus side this set features a wider range of songs than normal and even contains a 'live' disc - which is amazing given that the lacklustre 'One To One' show and the downright weird 'Sometime In New York City Side Two' releases aren't exactly made to ease people into becoming Lennon collectors. The studio songs too are something of a shock: there's lots from 'Rock and Roll' (plus the outtakes that ended up on 'Menlove Avenue') as well as the hits, making probably Lennon's least interesting album the one best represented here. The result is a bit of a mess and was more likely to have potential newcomer Lennon fans off for good - no, please come back, Lennon's solo career is so much better than this, honest!
John Lennon "Acoustic"
(Capitol, November 1st 2004)
Working Class Hero/Love/Well Well Well*/Look At Me/God*/My Mummy's Dead*/Cold Turkey*/Luck Of The Irish (Live)/John Sinclair (Live)/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/What You Got*/Watching The Wheels/Dear Yoko*/Real Love*/Imagine (Live)/It's Real
* = Previously Unreleased
"I have a message from above and I'm here to tell you this message concern sour love...the angels must have sent me to deliver this to you!"
Perhaps something of a step too far in the 'Lennon archive release' stakes, 'Acoustic' featured just seven new (though much-bootlegged) recordings to go alongside nine taken from the previously released 'Lennon Anthology' box set. Yoko got such flak for the lack of value in this release, which got some of the worst reviews of anything with Lennon's name on it (and accusations of what her husband would have said) that the releases slowed down perceptibly after this. However, treat this set as a sort of 'Anthology Disc Five' and it's actually not bad - a 'spooky' 80 second fragment of 'Well Well Well' sounds more music hall than punk rocker; a Dylanesque 'God' has a charming opening where Lennon is provided the lyrics by an 'angel with a message' and that it's about 'love' - not the usual interpretation of the faith0breaking lyrics of this song!; a slightly more together 'My Mummy's Dead' has a more upfront vocal though it still sounds like it's being played down a faulty telephone line; a funky swirly 'What You Got' sounds more like a 50s blues song than the very 70s stomper it became; a pretty and almost reggae-fied 'Dear Yoko' is far more charming and heartfelt than the version on 'Double Fantasy'; another 'Real Love' - different to the one The Beatles overdubbed or the one from the 'Imagine Soundtrack' - is the weakest version yet but has a lovely middle eight that really deserved to be on the re-recording even if it wasn't on that version of the demo ('I don't expect you to understand the Kingdom of Heaven is in your hand, I don't expect you to wait for your dreams, too late for crying now it seems...'); best of all a marvellously OTT 'Cold Turkey' with Lennon really adding some vibrato to his voice was the one recording I'd been longing for since 'Anthology' anyway.
All are well worth releasing - the only question is whether they were best served being released here with so many repeats. Had Yoko gone on all the way and found another eight acoustic recordings in the archives (and there are loads of great ones on the Lost Lennon tapes including a charming 'Tight A$$' from a radio phone in to a different 'Cold Turkey' demo to the one on 'Anthology') then this might yet have been a very valuable release. Yoko's aim, as intended in the sleevenotes, was to 'inspire start-up guitarists the way John had once been inspired' (the booklet even includes the guitar chords needed to play along). Yoko may have had son Sean's progress on guitar in mind when she wrote these words - but the sad fact is that Lennon tended to keep things a little too simple in his demos; these songs only really shine because of the commitment of the vocal and few if any beginner guitarists are going to match that....An interesting extra if you can find it cheap enough, but no substitute for the big box set.
John Lennon "Working Class Hero: The Definitive John Lennon"
(Parlophone/EMI/Capitol, October 3rd 2005)
CD One: (Just Like) Starting Over/Imagine/Watching The Wheels/Jealous Guy/Instant Karma/Stand By Me/Working Class Hero/Power To The People/Oh My Love/Oh Yoko/Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out/Nobody Told Me/Bless You/Come Together/New York City/I'm Stepping Out/You Are Here/Borrowed Time/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
CD Two: Woman/Mind Games/Out The Blue/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Love/Mother/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/God/Scared/#9 Dream/I'm Losing You/Isolation/Cold Turkey/Intuition/Gimme Some Truth/Give Peace A Chance/Real Love/Grow Old Along With Me
"There's room at the top they are telling you still"
Another decade another best-of, this time a double disc set released for what should have been Lennon's 65ht birthday that tries to dig a bit deeper than the usual Lennon sets around. I have issues with the chronology (the opening four songs alone keep bouncing between 1980 and 1971) and the set chickens out from containing any of the really out-there Lennon moments (so none of the 'unfinished music' albums, 'Come Together' the only live recording or outtakes and only the two songs from 'Sometime In New York City'. However the choices from the more 'normal' recordings are by and large spot on with hidden treasures like 'Isolation' 'Gimme Some Truth' 'Oh My Love' 'Scared' and 'Bless You' nestling amongst the 'Give Peace A Chances' and 'Starting Over's (Still no 'Bring On The Lucie' from 'Mind Games' though - why such discrimination?!) The most surprising choices here come right at the end with the two outtakes of 'Real Love' and 'Grow Old Along With Me' taken from the Lennon Anthology ('I'm Losing You' is also the superior Cheap Trick-backed take from 'Anthology' by the way). All in all, a pretty good first step on your way to becoming a Lennon-phile. Even after so many years and so many releases it peaked as high as #11 on the UK album charts - not bad considering there was relatively little publicity around this release compared to the media frenzies of 1982 and 2010. Early editions came with a limited edition DVD, which was 'hinted' at being a whole new release on the back of the box but just turned out to be the 'Lennon Legend' music video set out again.
"The US Versus John Lennon"
(Parlophone/EMI/Capitol, September 25th 2006)
Power To The People/Nobody Told Me/Working Class Hero/I Found Out/Bed Peace (Speech)/The Ballad Of John and Yoko/Give Peace A Chance/Love/Attica State (Live)/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier/Imagine/How Do You Sleep? (Backing Track)/New York City/John Sinclair (Live)/Scared/God/Here We Go Again/Gimme Some Truth/Oh My Love/Instant Karma
"Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear!"
Lennon spent most of his time in America under no illusions that he was being followed by the FBI - he saw their cars from his Dakota building windows and heard their taps on his phone. Lennon being Lennon he even left them a few 'messages' when he knew he was being overheard and complained openly in the press about his treatment. At the time this was put down to Lennon just being an egotistical rock star - our politicians wouldn't monitor our rock stars would they? - but time and the thirty year ruling that leaves most items under the official secrets act available for public scrutiny has revealed how right Lennon was. Lennon's political phase may not have led to his most successful music but it is arguably the most interesting aspect of his life during his solo career, as Lennon made new friends and new enemies and tried to pro-actively put across the messages of supporting the under-dogs and taking on the greedy leaders The Beatles had always made their message. It's ripe pickings for modern documentary makers, especially in the post 9/11 era when trust on our politicians was at an all-time low, and if Lennon had lived he'd have surely been taking people in power to task the way he once did. The making of two documentaries on this theme (this album's 'The Us v John Lennon' and the later 'Lennonyc' seem inevitable.
The film-makers of 'US' sought and won permission from Yoko, who granted them access to much of her archives and gave them permission to use Lennon's period songs on the soundtrack. For many casual fans this was the first chance they had to hear some of Lennon's more political songs like 'Attica State' 'I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier' and 'John Sinclair', as well as more obvious choices like 'Give Peace A Chance' and 'Power To The People'. However I'd have liked for the soundtrack to be a little more adventurous yet, using 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' 'Bring On The Lucie' and 'New York City', ever more 'dangerous' Nixon baiting songs that would have helped the film-makers make their points even more about how direct Lennon was in his songs. The decision to use so many of the live recordings from the rallies and benefits, though it makes sense in the context of the documentary, is a bit of a shame on the record as the studio takes are better and in many ways rarer, while the lone new song for collectors (an instrumental version of 'How Do You Sleep?') doesn't add much - not least because it's a song attacking Paul, not politics. It's a shame too that only one Beatles song ('The Ballad of John and Yoko') is here - 'Revolution' remained the most political song Lennon ever wrote in his career, even if he never got round to making his mind up if he was for or against it. Plus points for reviving the fairly obscure but beautiful 'Here We Go Again' and 'Scared' too, although I'm not quite sure what they have to do with Lennon's politics. The problem too is that Lennon's political songs are often more interesting to read about than to listen to, making this a poor first choice of record if you're new to Lennon's oeuvre and features too many repeats if you own even one Lennon compilation already. It's hard to know quite who this compilation is aimed for, but the film at least is a welcome and revealing insight into Lennon's mind - this really is just a bit of merchandise to get an extra bit of publicity for it. I have to say though that the compilers knew their Lennon and adding the sarcastic yet hopeful 'Instant Karma' over the end credits - about how you reap what you deserve - was an inspired choice for a closing piece and a welcome last song here too.
John Lennon "Power To The People: The Hits"
(EMI, October 5th 2010)
Power To The People/Gimme Some Truth/Woman/Instant Karma/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Cold Turkey/Jealous Guy/#9 Dream/(Just Like) Starting Over/Mind Games/Watching The Wheels/Stand By Me/Imagine/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance
"You better give 'em what they really own!"
Yoko celebrated what would have been her husband's 70th birthday with not one but three releases - for the beginner, the casual fan and the passionate collector (a one, four and eleven disc box set respectively). 'Power To The People' was easily the weakest of the three, yet another simple best-of for a market already over-saturated with 'The Lennon Collection' and 'Lennon Legend' and given a rather odd title (erm, name me another song on here that's about 'power to the people'?) Effectively this is 'Lennon Legend' with 'Mother' 'Love' 'Beautiful Boy' 'Nobody Told Me' 'Borrowed Time' and 'Working Class Hero' removed, with only 'Gimme Some Truth' added - not a bad substitute , no doubt here thanks to the key role it played in the two recent Lennon political documentaries, but still less welcome than losing six songs. The packaging is nice at least, with Lennon in his 'New York' T-shirt staring back at the camera, but new fans are better off with any of the previous best-of sets and fans who already know enough about Lennon to like him would be far better off with either of the two box sets released the same day (depending on the health of your bank balance!) Ignore 'Power To The People' - right on!
Gimme Some Truth! (2010)............................
John Lennon "Gimme Some Truth"
(EMI, October 5th 2010)
CD One ('Working Class Hero'): Working Class Hero/Instant Karma/Power To The People/God/I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier/Gimme Some Truth/Sunday Bloody Sunday/Steel and Glass/Meat City/I Don't Wanna Face It!/Remember/Woman Is The Nigger Of The World/I Found Out/Isolation/Imagine/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance/Only People
CD Two ('Woman'): Mother/Hold On/You Are Here/Well Well Well/Oh My Love/Oh Yoko/Grow Old Along With Me (Anthology Version)/Love/Jealous Guy/Woman/Out The Blue/Bless You/Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)/My Mummy's Dead/I'm Losing You/(Just Like) Starting Over/#9 Dream/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
CD Three ('Borrowed Time'): Mind Games/Nobody Told Me/Clean Up Time/Crippled Inside/How Do You Sleep?/How?/Intuition/I'm Steppin' Out/Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Old Dirt Road/Scared/What You Got/Cold Turkey/New York City/Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)/Borrowed Time/Look At Me/Watching The Wheels
CD Four ('Roots'): Be Bop A Lula/You Can't Catch Me/Rip It Up-Ready Teddy/Tight A$/Ain't That A Shame/Sweet Little Sixteen/Do You Wanna Dance?/Slippin' and Slidin'/Peggy Sue/Bring It On Home To Me-Send Me Some Lovin'/Yer Blues (Live)/Just Because/Bony Moronie/Beef Jerky/Ya Ya/Hound Dog (Live)/Stand By Me/Here We Go Again
"Even after all these years, I miss you when you're not here"
The middle of the three special sets released for Lennon's birthday, 'Gimme Some Truth' is a four disc set featuring pretty much all of John's recordings studio recordings, with the 'Unfinished Music', live recordings, Yoko's offerings and some of the 'Rock and Roll' 'Menlove Avenue' and 'Milk and Honey' material removed. It's probably the best way of getting all the Lennon you need at a price you can afford if you don't think you're going to want to own absolutely everything - although do be warned that some of what this set thinks is essential (John and son Julian jamming uncomfortably through 'Ya Ya' for 'Walls and Bridges') really isn't and some of what it thinks isn't essential (Mind Games' highlight 'Bring On The Lucie', 'New York City' is represented solely by 'New York City' and Milk and Honey's 'Forgive Me (My Little Flower Princess)') is actually very essential. The decision to re-group these songs into four differently themes discs is also a bit hit and miss - Lennon's career can't be marked down into four neat parcels like this and the 'politics' 'love' 'lie' and 'rock and roll' aspects of the album aren't quite as perfect a fit as the compilers make out ('Instant Karma' is not really a political song, 'Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out' is definitely not a love song, 'Surprise Surprise' is presumably part of 'life' rather than 'love' because it was written for May Pang not album compiler Yoko and 'Here We Go Again', despite being recorded at the 'Rock and Roll' sessions, sounds very out of place amongst the 'roots' material). The decision to then mess up the chronology even on the individual discs also makes for a very uneven listening experience. Still, it was cheap and made with care which is more than a lot of Beatle sets out there - and was the perfect way to celebrate Lennon's 70th birthday for fans who owned a little bit but not too much.
Power To The People (2010)...........................
Signature Box (2010)................................
John Lennon "Signature" (Box Set)
(EMI, October 5th 2010)
Disc One: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Disc Two: Imagine
Disc Three/Four: Sometime In New York City
Disc Five: Mind Games
Disc Six: Walls and Bridges
Disc Seven: Rock 'n' Roll
Disc Eight: Double Fantasy
Disc Nine: Milk and Honey
Disc Ten: Non Album Singles: Power To The People/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Instant Karma/Cold Turkey/Move Over Ms L/Give Peace A Chance
Disc Eleven (Home Tapes): Mother/Love/God/I Found Out/Nobody Told Me/Honey Don't/One Of The Boys/India India/Serve Yourself/Isolation/Remember/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier
"For the first time in my life my eyes - and ears - are wide open"
If you had a lot (an awful lot) of money then you could join in with Lennon's ultimate birthday party - a remastered re-issue of every single 'normal' studio album (with 'Rock and Roll' and 'Milk and Honey' counting but not 'Menlove Avenue' sadly), an extra disc of singles, an extra disc of 'Double Fantasy' in a new 'stripped down remix' that vastly improved the album and a disc containing thirteen unreleased recordings. It's a fascinating set, especially for those who hadn't bought these albums before (though not strictly deleted, they were becoming hard to find by 2010) complete with bonus tracks where applicable and a chance to re-evaluate albums like 'Sometime In New York City' and 'Mind Games' alongside the more famous albums like 'Imagine' and 'Double Fantasy'. Now this set could be better and quite easily too: for that price you'd expect to have everything Lennon did, including the 'unfinished music' series, 'Live Peace In Toronto' 'Live In New York City' 'Menlove Avenue' and the 'Anthology' tracks as well and the packaging isn't quite as lush or as thorough as you'd expect for a set the size of a small house (how am I supposed to 'imagine no possessions' when the Beatles keep releasing these big box sets?!) The outside of the box is rather boring too, even if it seems highly suitable for the set to be 'white' somehow (the doodles on the sky-blue 'Anthology'; is still prettier on the shelf, though). All AAA readers probably know these albums, so just a quick run through: ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is the raw and honest one (AAA review no 43), ‘Imagine’ is the over-rated one with three great songs and not much else, ‘Sometime In New York City’ (news and views no 35) is an under-rated set of raw and sometimes naive political rallies, ‘Mind Games’ is an under-rated album about Lennon’s split from Yoko (news and views no 77), ‘Walls and Bridges’ is a harrowing but tuneful set from Lennon’s ‘lost weekend’ (review no 63), Rock and Roll is a messy and rather pointless covers album, ‘Double Fantasy’ is a weak and saccharine return to work released just week’s before John’s death (but see below...) and ‘Milk and Honey’ a terrific set of outtakes from the ‘Double Fantasy’ sessions that blows that album out of the water and has been long overdue for a re-issue.
The biggest talking point was the 'Home Tapes' disc, which while nice to have isn't exactly essential and isn't what I'd have chosen from the hundreds of hours of Lennon recordings still unreleased - the title seems a misnomer, too, given that many of these recordings are alternate takes made in studios rather than home recordings. Many of these songs sound suspiciously like the finished products or the 'Anthology' takes anyway - with the ones that don't including a passionate 'God' which opens with a bloodcurdling scream, a rough but charming home demo of 'Nobody Told Me' complete with drum track, a slower piano version of 'Serve Yourself', a sweet demo of 'Beautiful Boy' (though not the best around) and two fully new recordings from the househusband years - a promising salsa named 'One Of The Boys' and pretty ballad 'India' that's far kinder about the Maharishi days than any other Lennon song. So far so good, but there's no excuse for releasing the rest when there are so many good songs out there still to come out - erm, what is Yoko planning for Lennon's 80th birthday me and my bank manager ask nervously?...
The surprise of the set was undoubtedly the new mix of ‘Double Fantasy’. This has always been the weakest Lennon LP of the lot me (as it is for most people born after he died – although many fans who remember the anticipation of him returning from his retirement love it, interestingly). Much as those of us who’ve been following Lennon’s story through to the end delight in hearing him happy, his music here is robbed of the edge and bite we so sorely miss and sounds too often like a course in singer-songwriting rather than an album from the heart (it is, in fact, the antithesis of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album, which might be why it starts with a ringing bell as opposed to the more threatening slowed-down church bell of the earlier album). It’s also ironic that Lennon’s last album should be the one that’s dated the most badly, with a quite hideous voice choir and very 80s synths often getting in the way of Lennon’s voice. But here, with most of the extraneous arrangements taken away, Lennon’s songs have more room to breathe and resonate and his voice sounds full of the emotion we’re used to hearing. Now ‘Starting Over’ sounds like a genuine promise rather than a comeback record sales opportunity, ‘Clean Up Time’ pounces rather than saunters, ‘Beautiful Boy’ sounds more beautiful and ‘I’m Losing You’ sounds downright scary. Not everything works still: ‘Woman’ still sounds pretty awful in any version and the Yoko song ‘Every Man...’ has degenerated from one of the best and catchiest songs on the album to a tuneless piece of off-key singing. Best of all, we get to hear all the bits and pieces so badly mixed on the album they might as well not be there at all (especially the delightful Lennon dialogue on the fadeout of ‘Dear Yoko’ where Lennon breathlessly tells his wife all the parts about his time in Bermuda that he didn’t fit into his postcard ‘which is hanging up in your office now, right?!’) The mix can only improve what’s there of course, not invent something new, but this ‘stripped down’ version does help ‘Double Fantasy’ to sound more in keeping with the rest of the Lennon catalogue and reveals its hidden strengths rather than emphasising its weaknesses. I wouldn’t want to hear every album in my catalogue revised and remixed like this but for ‘Double Fantasy’ by and large it works. Perhaps the greatest moment of the whole set is when you realise that your least favourite album might suddenly become one of your favourites...
That's perhaps the message of the 'Signature' set overall. It was the first time ever that all of Lennon's studio albums had been out together in the way that John had originally intended and the greatest aspect of the set is that we get to judge all the albums alongside each other, with the lesser-rated albums sounding better than you might expect (well, perhaps not 'Rock and Roll', that still sounds a disappointment!) Yoko has been careful with her husband's legacy down the years, always doing something different and offering fans something new. Arguably she's rather over-priced this one, released at the peak of a credit crunch (that still isn't quite as bad as previous ones whatever people with short memories say) and a few extra rarities wouldn't have gone amiss. But 'Signature' is a box set full of discoveries for new and old fans alike which celebrates Lennon's birthday and leave his legacy, generally speaking, in healthy form.
'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-43-john-lennonplastic-ono-band.html
A NOW COMPLETE LIST OF LENNON ARTICLES TO READ AT ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES:
'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-43-john-lennonplastic-ono-band.html
'Imagine' (1971) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/john-lennon-imagine-1971-album-review.html
'Sometime In New York City' (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/news-views-and-music-issue-35-john.html
'Mind Games'(1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/news-views-and-music-issue-77-john.html
'Walls and Bridges' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-63-john-lennon-walls-and-bridges.html
'Sometime In New York City' (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/news-views-and-music-issue-35-john.html
'Mind Games'(1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/news-views-and-music-issue-77-john.html
'Walls and Bridges' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-63-john-lennon-walls-and-bridges.html
'Double Fantasy' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/john-lennon-and-yoko-ono-double-fantasy.html
'Milk and Honey' (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/news-views-and-music-issue-135-john.html
'Milk and Honey' (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/news-views-and-music-issue-135-john.html
Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-and-yoko-ono-non-album.html
Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/john-lennon-livecompilationraritiesunfi.html
The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-best-unreleased-recordings.html
Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/john-lennon-surviving-tv-clips-1968-1980.html
Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/john-lennon-essay-power-to-beatle-why.html
Landmark concerts and key cover versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/04/john-lennon-five-landmark-concerts-and.html
Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/john-lennon-essay-power-to-beatle-why.html
Landmark concerts and key cover versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2018/04/john-lennon-five-landmark-concerts-and.html