Monday 30 April 2018

Pentangle Essay: The Time Has Come (Or Has It Been?!?)

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Before Darwin put together his theory on human evolution in 1859 (which even he admitted was a bit dodgy in his opening chapters) mankind hadn’t given a thought to the idea that mankind was progressing or evolving. The idea that everything that went before him was a chance to reach this particular point in time was a very Victorian idea, which doesn’t really bear thinking about given the many wars and hostilities that have broken out in the 20th century. Mankind may have evolved genetically for the better (though looking at who we’ve elected as world leaders in the Western world lately I doubt it!), but the idea that morally he used to be an animal and is only now reaching his potential is one that just screams ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘empire’. We may have had a claim in the 1960s that mankind was evolving into an ‘Age Of Aquarius’, but ask any hippie during the Vietnam and Korean wars and the missile race between two world superpowers if life was better in any way other than technological and they would have laughed in your face (before checking the windows to see if there was an FBI informant recording their every move). For most people, though, they don’t really think about it: we wear suits in our day jobs now, get haircuts and go to work in technologically advanced pieces of equipment whilst muttering into small boxes about how late we’re going to be because the technologically advanced apparatus has broken down again. Surely, people think, this means progress. We’re not like we were when we believed in fairies and elves and dragons, women are no longer fair maidens out to come under the spell of witches and wizards and sadly there are no magic horns (well, not unless you’re playing one of those endless infernal games on that technological box you take with you everywhere). If nothing else will give you the feeling that actually we might be going backwards you only have to look at The Spice Girls and weep.
Pentangle, though, have a slightly different relationship to time. They seem to believe, much like the Medieval philosophers believe, that mankind is going in circles and chasing his own tail. Back before there was such a thing as science and astrology filled the gap they used to call it ‘as above, so below’ – that when the heavens reflect a past historical date in the sky so the same old events will happen on Earth all over again. You may be surprised to learn, dear readers, that our astrological alignments of all the planets (including ones the Medieval scholars didn’t even know about) reflect the period of the 8th century, when there was a Moorish invasion of Europe from the far East and corrupt Kings ransacked their citizens for extra money every five minutes. We had our share of weak and feeble leaders, in mind and body, who insisted on making our miserable lives steadily worse to further their own nests and who wore increasingly stupid hairpieces while the citizens spent their back-breaking days joking about what sexually transmitted diseases they’ve picked up this time. Anyone who can read that sentence without picturing Donald Trump in Lederhosen and a baroque wig will, if nothing else, sleep better than I possibly will tonight.
For Pentangle history isn’t some remote object that happened in the past to be done away with and forgotten. For them history is now, or at least it was at the time they were recording (time is confusing to talk about!), forever to be repeated. The past isn’t the present on holiday, some theme park that’s just different enough to hold our fascination – it’s a time that was just like ‘now’, only with more fairy tales and less Pythagorean Theory tales (joke copyright Cat Stevens 1976). There are, you see, other bands besides Pentangle who did what they did, taking songs from many centuries past and singing them in the modern day, but what other bands do to a lesser or greater extent is make them sound like period pieces, to give listeners the same thrill they get when stepping back through time in a museum where everything is authentic. The Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention – they are all ‘guilty’ of this to one extent or another, which is fair enough if you like that sort of thing.
What Pentangle do, though, is treat the past like a guest in ‘our’ world which is much more interesting. Considering the fact that they were all folk scholars to some extent (with a prestigious knowledge of the ‘Harold Childe Ballads’ which gathered together as many folk songs as possible that had survived up until the 19th century in the different regions of Britain), Pentangle were a very ‘modern’ band for the day. They were specialists in jazz, which combined with their rock instruments gave them the same ‘feel’ as the San Francisco bands of the day like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane where fiery improvisation ruled the day. They performed on all the latest equipment then in fashion, be it sitars (John Renbourn was one of the West’s best players), marimbas or particular guitar tunings. They wore hippie clobber on stage more often than not. And their songs were what you might consider ‘racy’ to some extent, full of murders, rapes and pointless wars. The difference was that a majority of this material came from days of centuries past, written by our great-great-great-grandparents. All this taken together gives Pentangle a fascinating sound that none of their contemporaries share: it’s as if the past is still here, or that we are living in days that will one day be the past, struggling with all the same questions that kept our ancestors up at night. Mankind is going in a circle – which isn’t far off the Pentangle ‘five pointed star’ logo if you think about it (the fact that it looks very 1960s, while based on an old pentagram for warding off witchcraft, also makes it the perfect image for this band).
A good example is Pentangle classic [  ] ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’. You don’t have to scratch the surface very far to realize that the maiden narrator is not singing about herbs: she’s talking about a man stealing her ‘future’, literally taking her ‘time’ by interrupting her bodily cycles and making her fall pregnant. It’s a warning couched in song because nobody in the 1680s when this song was first referenced (under the name ‘The Sprig Of Thyme’) could actually come out and say it. In 1968 when Pentangle recorded it three hundred years not much had changed: the world was still full of predatory man desperate to satisfy their urges whether it makes young girls pregnant or not and you still can’t talk about this openly in artforms or you’d be at risk of a radio ban and censorship. The fact that the song just feels’ like a late 1960s song (with *that* guitar-bass-drum interplay sound) only exaggerates the effect that time is spinning round in a circle. [  ] ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ is every tale of heartbreak and girls being wronged by boys there has even been across time (and is a leading source of pop music even now), this one from several centuries in our past, updated with the sound of a sitar that makes this piece universal as well as timeless. 18th century tale [  ] ‘Jack Orion’ is surely an in-joke, a tale of a minstrel who gets into trouble for working for a different Kingdom who falls in love with a princess, who is raped by his manservant pretending to be him and who gets off scott free and all three principle characters in the song die out of guilt and shame (while this wasn’t exactly what was happening to Pentangle to the letter, they had just discovered that their record label Transatlantic and their manager had left them high and dry financially with some poor business decisions while the band was unable contractually to sue or sign with anyone else for the time being). Most worryingly the guilty church leaders of [  ] ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ – the oldest Pentangle song of them all, dating to something or other BC - begging for mercy after some heinous deed are surely more relevant to our time than ‘theirs’. Of all the band’s cover songs only two *feel* contemporary: [  ] ‘Turn Your Money Green’ is a modern song by Pentangle standards, but still dates back all the way to 1928 (and thus forty years old by the time the band first performed it already); [  ] ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ dates even further back though it might seem modern with its tale of a man being kicked out the house by his girl after years of marriage in a feminist gesture – it’s actually another ‘Childe Ballad’ song that dates back at least a couple of centuries!
Interestingly, though, the opposite happens with the songs that Pentangle wrote themselves. You would expect that, freed of the need to write for times historical, Pentangle would lay down the imagery or witches and dragons, but it’s rare for a band original to be set specifically in the modern day. The band’s most famous composition [  ] ‘Light Flight’ may have been commissioned specifically for the BBC drama ‘Take Three Girls’ but it’s lyrics could be set anytime: it’s about escape, of running away to nature, staring at stars that have been in the sky much longer than mankind. [  ] ‘People On The Highway’ might use the title imagery, but that’s the only part of a song that wouldn’t chime with a Medieval gentleman had he somehow passed forward in time – it’s a song about the human-long feelings of despondency, of having taken a wrong life turning and of  realising that something has stopped being fun. [  ] ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ comes with fairytale like imagery of forests and creatures and words like ‘I dearly love thee’ that belong to a different century. The sentiments, though, are the same mankind has also been singing for centuries long: I love you so much, what do you mean you don’t love me? [  ] ‘A Woman Like You’ is a Bert song that could have been written in any era and just happened to be written in the 1960s. The narrator has lived all of his life alone and is surprised by the speed with which he falls in love; without that eventuality happening in every single generation mankind would have died out long ago. Even [  ] ‘Train Song’, whose title screams 20th century progress and muscle, is oddly antique in feel: ‘fare thee well little lady…love is a basket of light, grasping so tight’. Though nobody in the Middle Ages would know what a train was, turn it into a dragon and they’d have understood every word: this is a man being torn away from his sweetheart by a vicious beastie after he turned out to be less of a man than they both thought he was (it’s also, according to the sleevenotes, a ‘lament for the end of the steam trains’ – Dr Beeching’s cuts were only six years earlier as if this is another song recognising that the then-present day will also become old and faded, the facets that are particular to it passing into folklore one day too).
Pentangle don’t just twist time in a historical, societal sense. At the same time there’s a sense of overlapping going on in the music (again, a bit like the logo, of triangles all laden over the top of each other). More often than not, particularly on their jazzy debut album, this band are playing in five different time signatures – often in different keys too. More than that, though, its as if the band are playing with different mind-sets. Almost all Pentangle songs feature two guitarists, but rather than duel in a Rolling Stones or a Stills-Young kind of a way one of them (usually John) will be pointing towards the past in his stylised courtly tones and the other (usually Bert) will be playing hot licks so far ahead of their time it feels like we haven’t quite caught up yet. Throw into this mix any number of variations (ancient historical instruments like celestes and harpsichords, sort-of modern instruments like sitars and drums, harmonies that can be of the past, present or future depending on the arrangement – Pentangle were good enough and had enough voices to cover it) and any Pentangle song feels as if it could be from any time period. It’s as if somebody reckless has left the Pentangle time machine on fast forward and it’s giving us glimpses of lots of our possible futures and definite pasts all playing at once and overlapping each other (which is why Pentangle’s second most recognisable image – their bodies in silhouette against one another – is so apt too). Maybe this is why one of the signature Pentangle instrumentals is called [  ] ‘In Time’. This is clearly a joke: the band aren’t playing in time or in synchronisation with each other but going their different merry ways for the most part until a typical big ending! But in some sense they are all of their own time, even though the time is different: Bert’s very loose 1960s riffing comes off a stark and harsh Medieval rhythm from John, the bass and drums are pure jazz lounge 1930s and the whole song somehow has the feel of being like music of the future, that you’ve never heard before.
These are all reasons why I’ve always been shocked that Pentangle have never been given their true due, as being way and above all their folky peers. They come in so many extra dimensions: their maidens wronged could be your children now; their corrupt Lords and Kings ruling the land badly could be our modern day world leaders; these tales of doubt, of worry, of woe could all have been from our own times – and conversely all the original songs are about topics and use language that seems deliberately written to invoke our past. Songwriters are still tapping into the same ‘sources’ that we have always used, mankind still looking for questions to his age-old worries and fears. Pentangle, though, come with a difference that to my ears no other band has: when they sing of pain and misery, especially on songs from the past but even ones from the period, they sing it *knowing* that it is going to end. Many a time it seems as if the dragons rule the kingdom, or that the [  ] Lady of Carlisle’s spiritual tests are impossible, or that [  ] ‘The Snows’ are here to stay. But Pentangle know they are not because these songs worrying about what the future holds were written centuries ago. We know we have more of a future than many of these Childe Ballads, haunted by fears of invasion and death from plague, ever realised. And that somehow makes the modern songs about modern worries all the more palatable too: we may be lost and confused people [  ] ‘On The Highway’ not so sure where to go after the 1960s (as true now as it was when written in 1972 I fear), but there must be a future as we’ve doubted so many times in our past that we would have one and that somehow turned out kind of ok.
Sometimes the only way to know where we’re going is to work out where we have been and to learn from it, to stop ourselves going round in circles. Pentangle knew that more than any other band. While like other fans I adore their stunning musicianship, their sense of scope in song, their ability to go anywhere thanks to being adept at so very many different styles all at once and their desire to hide from the spotlight, to be very much a cult band despite the fact that they could have been huge, it’s this feeling that mankind is as trapped in the present as he was in the past and by many of the same things that make Pentangle the standout group of their ilk to me. Not, of course, that there really was any other band doing what Pentangle did and playing in time because perhaps what makes Pentangle unique most of all is that we have never ever had another band quite like them – in past or present. Maybe the future all bands will sound like Pentangle though and in the 58th century mankind will be listening to modern-day songs about i-pods and The Spice Girls being the devil incarnate; that would, you suspect, be rather great and a fitting legacy to a band who were never constrained by anything: style, subject or time.

A Now Complete List Of Pentangle Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings

John Lennon: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

You can buy 'Remember - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono' in ebook form by clicking here


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey' (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

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

Landmark concerts and key cover versions