"A part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not ... I was the one who all the other boys' parents – including Paul's father – would say, 'Keep away from him'" - John Lennon
This is a raw, edgy and angst-ridden solo album from John Lennon, his first "proper" solo piece of work. Lennon explores all sorts of mother and parental issues, anxiety about relationships and some cynical, political protest thrown in. It is musically basic - guitar, bass and drums for the most part with occasional piano and keyboards. Its sparse sound adds to its appeal for me, I always found parts of Imagine to be somewhat over-orchestrated. Old mate Ringo Starr is on drums throughout, giving it considerable gravitas, however. I listen to this material and think how much better it is than that which can be found on, for example, The Beatles' Let It Be album or the early Paul McCartney solo offerings, Despite the many criticisms of Lennon's early solo work, it does sound to me as if he has got his mojo back - this is bristling stuff that is alive.
** The two great non-album singles, Cold Turkey and Instant Karma! are both Lennon classics, full of edgy, searing, riffy attack. The latter, in particular, has become on of his most iconic songs, up there with the very best post-Beatles solo material.
It's So Hard is a pulsating, blues-based number. Personally, I feel it would work better without the lush string orchestration at the end. It is a good one, though, full of energy and enthusiasm. Cynically convincing too, is the bassy grind of the anti-war I Don't Want To Be a Soldier Mama. I love the bass, saxophone and guitar improvisation parts near the end. Gimme Some Truth continues the political comment with some killer guitar and a thumping rhythm. This is Lennon in full-on accusatory, cynical mood. He was a man with a lot of pent-up anger. It was a dissatisfaction that produced bristling pieces of work like this. however.
Oh My Love sees a switch to a plaintive, tenderly romantic song dedicated to the fulfilment Lennon was experiencing with Yoko Ono in his life. Just when he was getting a bit loved-up, however, the old spiky Lennon returns with the embittered How Do You Sleep? - his notoriously venomous attack on Paul McCartney. He obviously had a lot of suppressed vitriol, but this all seemed a bit over-the-top to me. Naming some of McCartney’s songs as examples of his faults was just a cheap shot. Musically, the song has a deep, muscular sound, some great guitar interjections and again, some string orchestration I feel it could have survived without. Regarding how he slept, I am sure McCartney slept the sleep of the somewhat bemused. How shows Lennon at his most vulnerable again, questioning himself and his feelings. Despite his apparent romantic bliss, he always seemed to be battling with various issues. Snap yourself out of it, John. He did just that with the jaunty Oh Yoko!. This is another one that has attracted opprobrium. Again, I have always quite liked it its melodic piano coda and touchingly sweet feel. Overall, the album is a perplexing one. It has several mood swings within its songs. Like Lennon himself. Enigmatic.
New York City is a marvellous, vibrant number, almost ruined by the awful production, but its good enough to still ride over that. It has some great cynical Lennon lyrics, killer guitar and saxophone too. It pulsates, from beginning to end. Quite why Lennon lived in New York is a mystery. He loved it, but the authorities were hounding him on a daily basis at this time. He should have come home. Sunday Bloody Sunday possibly needed to be sung, as indeed did Luck Of The Irish. However passionate and totally justified they were, though, they both sound more than a little naive in Lennon and Yoko’s hands, particularly the latter. The former was hard-hitting, as it should have been, and works the better of the two. John Sinclair was about a man unfairly jailed for a (comparatively) minor marijuana offence, while Angela was about black human rights campaigner Angela Davis. The effervescent We're All Water explores the Dylanesque concept of everyone being the same, naked, even the President. It is a madcap romp, with Yoko wailing for all she’s worth, but I can’t help but like it.
The hit single #9 Dream is a stimulating, ethereal piece of classic 70s Lennon, with a great vocal, Beatles-style string-heavy orchestration and a bizarre, non-sensical unknown language chorus - “ah bawakawa pousse, pousse”. It works, though. I always find myself singing along to it. Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox) is a rock and saxophone romp with the sort of sound George Harrison used on his All Things Must Pass album. It is a bit of an underrated gem. Steel And Glass sees Lennon railing at someone (hopefully not McCartney again! Apparently it was a rant at an ex-manager) Indeed, it sounds like it would not be out of place on the Imagine album, sounding a bit like How Do You Sleep? in places. It features some impressive wah-wah guitar, percussion and sweeping strings. What was often overlooked, particularly after Lennon's post-death deification, was that he was a man who didn't suffer fools (or indeed many People) gladly. He liked nothing more than to dish out a bit of bitter stick to someone for some perceived past slight. He seemed to be a man who bore a grudge for a long time. Beef Jerky is an instrumental jam, but an invigorating one at that. It reminds me of George Harrison's Savoy Truffle with slight bits of McCartney's Let Me Roll It in there too. Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out, although evocative, is somewhat self-pitying and indulgent, as Lennon was certainly not down and out, he just lost a weekend (or several). No big deal, get over it. I have always had a bit of a problem with the original sound on this album - too tinny in my opinion. However, the 2000 remaster is much bassier and full than the thin, jarring 2010 remaster. It has a delightfully resonant bassy thump and that is always fine by me.
I have always found it a totally enjoyable album to listen to. Whatever the circumstances of its conception or the stresses of the recording process, (apparently they were chaotic and, at times, fractious) Lennon sounds as if he was having a good time. That can only be a good thing. He could sing rock 'n' roll with his eyes shut, but, to me, he sounds rapturous on some of these recordings. You certainly can't tell if he was in a bad mood. This upbeat feel has always made me wonder why the album was so badly received at the time. In retrospect, in later years, it has received some better assessments.
Lennon undoubtedly sounds more upbeat on here than he had on any of his previous solo albums, particularly the earlier ones. I never fail to enjoy this album. I always liked the old cover photo of Lennon loitering in a Hamburg doorway too.
Upon this album's release a couple of weeks before John Lennon's murder, it was not well-received critically. After his death, of course, it sold by the bucketload. Retrospectively some have praised it, although many have criticised it as indulgence on both their parts - telling the world how loved-up they are and how at peace. They did, it has to be said, have an irritating quality of seeming to think the world cared about how happy they were, when, actually, before Lennon's unfortunate demise, the world had grown a little apathetic to them. Furthermore, the years 1976-80 saw a fractiousness in their relationship that the ambience of this album overlooked. Unfortunately, Lennon's tragic murder has given this album (and Lennon himself) a deification it and he didn't really deserve. Lennon is best remembered, for me (and many others) as an acerbic, cynical, often rude and difficult creative genius (at times) as opposed to a beatific spiritual guru. Lennon himself would have been appalled at being labelled thus.
Anyway, back to this album in question. Personally, I have always quite liked it. It has an excellent sound quality, particularly on the warmer, bassier 2002 remaster. I would say, though, that the first half of the album is better than the last. The album follows a Lennon song-Yoko song pattern. Many just programme their systems to play the Lennon material. Admittedly, the Lennon stuff is excellent, and the superior of the two, but I quite like the Yoko tracks. They are appealing in a punky, Lene Lovich sort of way, as opposed to the unlistenable screaming that is on much of her seventies material.
** (The bonus track, Walking On Thin Ice from Yoko is one of her best. It was also covered impressively by Elvis Costello on his Out Of Our Idiot compilation in the late eighties. Lennon's stark, piano-based ballad Help Me To Help Myself isn't so good, however).