Saturday, 27 June 2020

John Lennon

"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 

John Lennon was never my favourite Beatle - he came across as cynical, sneering and often unnecessarily bitter to me, he just never endeared himself (not that he needed to, of course). However, I find his solo work disarmingly honest and touching as well as melodically appealing. I have to admit to having a great love for Imagine, Mind Games and Walls And Bridges in particular. I return to them with a surprising regularity and enthusiasm. Like George Harrison, I miss him a lot, musically....

The Plastic Ono Band (1970)

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.

Mother is a yearning, heartfelt opener with anguished vocals and a great backing sound to it. Hold On has an absolutely sumptuous bass on it from the talented Klaus VoormanI Found Out is bluesy and confrontational and has Lennon shocking the world when he sings of "some of you sitting there with your cock in your hand...". This was pretty racy stuff for 1970. This was Lennon at his most scathing and world-weary. Working Class Hero continues the mood brilliantly, as Lennon channels his inner Dylan and produces a superbly cynical protest song. There is no doubt by now the Lennon's world is not a particularly happy one, despite his apparent bedroom bliss with Yoko OnoThe bleak ballad, Isolation, only serves to reinforce that feeling. The album's cover shows a pastoral, peaceful scene, much like WingsWild Life. This was anything but a relaxed album. Remember is musically upbeat, with a pounding drum sound, augmented by a clunky piano. Again, though, it is a questioning song, one of disillusion. It actually has hints of McCartney about it, for me. As indeed does the tender Love, the first chilled-out love song on the album. 

The buzzy guitar-driven Well Well Well has echoes of The White Album in some ways. Maybe it is Ringo's muscular but rhythmic drumming. It is supposed to be a song about Lennon's daily life with Yoko. It ends with him screaming. Read into that what you will about his state of mind. He was always an impossible person to read. Look At Me is acoustically beautiful, Beatles-esque, but is deeply self-analytical once more. Having questioned his entire existence and his life, there can be only one more thing to question - God. The track bearing the deity's name is a marvellous slice of Lennon cynicism sung over a stark piano, bass and drum backing. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain...". Heavy stuff. Lennon then proceeds to list everything he doesn't believe in, incredibly convincingly and aggressively, eschewing, amongst other things, all the guru stuff, then Elvis and Dylan, until finally saying "I don't believe in Beatles...". This was possibly Lennon's most powerful, post-Beatles song of all. "I was the walrus, but now I'm John...". What a great line. What a moving song. Personally, I find the short, painful My Mummy's Dead to be unlistenable, so I do not include it when playing the album digitally, replacing it with the two chanting, tub-thumping protest songs, Power To The People and Give Peace A Chance. So, for me, God is followed by the fist-pumping unity of Power To The People. I find that quite apt. I do understand, though, Mummy's vital position on the original album, ending it on a starkly disturbing, anguishing note.

** 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.

Imagine (1971)

Lennon deals with all sorts of feelings on this seminal album - peace, putting an end to war, declaring undying love, idealistic utopian dreams and, lest we forget, having a nasty snip at his once best mate. Whatever, it makes for a beguiling and provocative mix.
The utopian daydream of Imagine is what is is - iconic. It needs no further comment. Yes, I know a multi-millionaire is asking us to imagine no possessions but to concentrate on that line for those reasons is to seriously miss the song's idealistic point. Crippled Inside is an enjoyable slice of lively, country-ish rock. It has received a fair few criticisms over the years, but I have always quite liked it. It is catchy and lightweight but still carries enough of Lennon’s cynicism to fit in with the album’s overall mood. Jealous Guy is another one known to everyone, Lennon’s original version being far more stark than Roxy Music’s big, full-sounding eighties cover of it.

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.

Some Time In New York City (1972)

A much-derided album, but one with incredible passion and depth of feeling, this was John Lennon and Yoko Ono in full-on protest mode. They take on a myriad of causes - sexism, feminism, the prison system, unfair incarceration, legal and governmental corruption, Northern Ireland, drugs laws and civil rights. Phil Spector produced the album - badly in my opinion, for such a genius ten years earlier. The sound is muddy and indistinct throughout.
The opener, Woman Is the Nigger Of The World, is incredibly hard-hitting, particularly in 1972, but it is bang on the money. The sound is muffled and dull, like that produced by Phil Spector for both George Harrison and later for Leonard Cohen. It has that blaring saxophone sound and damp uncrisp-sounding drums. I have to say that I find it a bit odd hearing the old sixties sexist Lennon now championing women’s rights, however. The feminist anthem, Sisters, Oh Sisters, has its moments. Some catchy saxophone and a rocking feel to it, though Yoko’s input is a bit grating. The singalong Attica State, about the New York prison, reworks the refrain from Yellow Submarine - “we all live in an Attica State”. Yoko’s similarly-themed Born In A Prison is one I have always liked. Some great saxophone on it too.

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 live set that formed the second disc of the original double album is an appealingly raw affair. Cold Turkey burns with a pure, visceral energy. The rambling Led Zeppelin-esque Don't Worry Kyoko has a few good points - namely the heavy riff and the overall groove, but Ono’s incessant screaming makes it pretty unlistenable for most of it. Thankfully, some blues is on the menu next with Well (Baby Please Don't Go). It features some searing guitar but Ono still manages to get some screaming in there somehow. The remaining three tracks were recorded at Fillmore East in New York City with Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of InventionJamrag (aka King Kong) is an interesting instrumental, funky in places, but once more blighted by Ono’s vocals. Scumbag is a lively, organ-driven rhythmic with some inventive lyrics (not). The title is repeated incessantly. It segues straight into AĆ¼ which is basically Yoko wailing again and Lennon and Zappa sending their guitars into feedback mode. It is pretty much unlistenable. Overall, this is undoubtedly Lennon’s worst album but, despite that, worthy of an occasional listen, and it certainly has its chronological and cultural importance.

Mind Games (1973)

Released in 1973, this is a quite underrated John Lennon offering. I have long been an admirer of this album. Although Imagine will always be the critics' favourite, there are some fine compositions to be found here. Do not dismiss it lightly.

So, on to the album in more detail. Mind Games, the track, is often not discussed as one of Lennon’s greats, but I love it, with something irresistibly catchy in its strange keyboard sweeps. The lyrically clever Tight A$ is an appealing, upbeat rocker and, despite its somewhat sickly sentiments, (Lennon rather pathetically begging forgiveness from “Yoko San”) Aisumasen (I'm Sorry) is still a good song, featuring a searing guitar solo, as is One Day At A Time which has a great chorus and a fine saxophone outro. 

What is instantly clear on this album is that Lennon has scaled back on the primitivism, the political protest and the rancorous snipes at McCartney in favour of reflective, tender sentiments, inspired by Yoko, of course, albeit expressed in a slick, upbeat poppy style. Having said that, the cover shows a tiny Lennon, bags packed, walking away from a giant Yoko’s head, indicating that this was an album that reflected considerable inner turmoil between the two. Many of the songs would seem to back that up. Lennon is apologising with regularity and attempting to explain himself - classic lovers’ tiff stuff. His legendary eighteen-month “lost weekend” and his romantic dalliance with May Pang was coming up, so these signs proved portentous. 

Back to the songs - my own personal favourite is the chugging protest vibe of the oddly-titled Bring On The Lucie (what, exactly, were the “lucie?”. The track is actually the album's only radical number, so it sort of sticks out from the rest a bit. The bassy, powerful ballad Out The Blue is just one of those songs that just says “John Lennon” when you hear it. So typical of his seventies solo output. As also is the beautiful and quirkily catchy Intuition. In fact, they are all good. There isn’t a duff track on this album, in my opinion. Meat City is a raucous, pounding rocker to end the album with. Big booming bass on it. Listen to the 2002 version then the 2010 to hear the superiority of the former. No comparison. Nowhere is the difference better exemplified than on this particular track. The tracks I have not mentioned thus far are the chunky but poppy, vaguely funky Only People, the powerful, emotional I Know (I Know) and the rhythmically appealing, breezy love song to Yoko in You Are Here. It has an almost Hawaiian sound to it at times. Check out that lovely bass line on it too. 

A lot of people have said that this album contains maybe just a few decent songs. I have to disagree with that. In a year that saw so many excellent albums released, this one is more than worthy of standing up there with them. It is a fine album, one I have always liked. The fact that Lennon’s artistic reputation was at its lowest ebb at this point makes it an even better album. Indeed, it rescued his standing somewhat. At a time when the airwaves were choc-a-bloc with former pal Paul's Wings output the fact that this album flew above the clouds somewhat did it no harm, critically, over subsequent years. Many people are attracted to an undervalued nugget and time has served to soften quite a few opinions of this album. Lennon's friendship with Elton John and David Bowie at the time was helpful too. 

Walls And Bridges (1974)

It has been a thing, since this album’s release, to criticise it, like its predecessor, the underrated Mind Games, by saying “it only has a few good tracks on it”. I disagree, there is some good material on here. I actually like all the first phase of Lennon solo albums a lot. Apart from Some Time In New York City, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Mind Games and this one are all excellent pieces of work, easily up there with anything else released by an ex-Beatle during the same period. In the mid-seventies, the critical kudos was all going McCartney's way and it remained so until Lennon's  unfortunate demise led to an equally unfortunate raising of him to the role of the world's untouchable guru of peace, love and spiritualism. What we had here was a Lennon alienated from the rock media not caring much and putting out a good album. Their lack of interest seemed to spur him into producing his best work.

Going Down On Love is lyrically sparse, I guess, but it has a quirky appeal, with Lennon showing what a naughty lad he was by referencing a sex act and hoping no-one would notice, and a good bongo percussion bit. It has a pleasingly thumping beat to it as well. The rousing, saxophone-dominated Whatever Gets You Through The Night was a fine choice for a single (a number one in the USA). Old Dirt Road is a typical slow, thoughtful Lennon song, that would have fitted in well on the previous album. What You Got is a heady, funked-up and horn-powered number with Lennon in trademark throat-straining voice. Bless You is a beautiful, slower number, as indeed is Scared. Lennon has been criticised on this album for lacking direction and conviction. These two tracks would seem to disprove that theory as they are full of sensitive, personal lyrics and are very musically mature, too. Use the jazzy brass bit on Bless You as a fine example of the latter.

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.

Rock 'n' Roll (1975)

Recorded as part of a legal agreement resulting from the "here come old flat top" line in The Beatles' Come Together, John Lennon revisits his old rock 'n' roll favourites. Produced by Phil Spector, it does not have the muffled, muddy production that Some Time In New York City or George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, although the 2012 remaster is far more trebly and tinny than its 2002 predecessor, which is far warmer and bassier, which suits my taste.
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.

The highlights are plenty. I like all of it, basically, and it is well played by Lennon's faithful band, but Be-Bop-A-LulaStand By Me, the Chuck Berry song You Can't Catch Me that contained the "flat top" line, the downright unbridled fun of Slippin' And Slidin' and the bluesy, slow grind of Bony Moronie are favourites of mine. 

The "medley" songs - Rip It Up/Ready Teddy and Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin' are excellent, effervescent and rocking too. The mega slowed-down Do You Wanna Dance doesn't quite work, for me, although Sweet Little Sixteen comes off as a slow saxophone-driven groove. Buddy Holly's Peggy Sue is played pretty straight.

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.

* Another reviewer who agrees is the always eminently readable and informative Mark Barry :-

Double Fantasy (1980)
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.

Lennon's late fifties pastiche (Just Like) Starting Over is well known as a catchy hit single. Yoko's Kiss Kiss Kiss has a staccato, quirky appeal, but could do without the lovemaking noises! Lennon's Clean Up Time is a punchy, brass-driven upbeat number with a big, thumping bass line. The punky, Grace Jones-influenced Give Me Something is most underrated. I'm Losing You is a soulful Lennon mid-paced, muscular rocker and one of his best on the album. Yoko's I'm Moving On is one of her best too, featuring a killer guitar riff and a convincing sound overall. No need for the monkey impersonation at the end, though, Yoko. While Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) is a tender song from Lennon to his son, it is a bit syrupy, to be honest. Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart subsequently recorded songs like this to their young children. Not very rock 'n' roll. 

The Lennon-Yoko pattern is halted with Lennon's excellent Watching The Wheels with its typically catchy hook line. Yoko's quality unfortunately deteriorates with the throwaway, jazzy Yes I'm Your Angel with its awful "tra-la-la-la" part. Woman was a huge posthumous hit, deservedly so. It probably would have been a success anyway. It has a great refrain and guitar riff. One of Lennon's best, despite its blissful romantic nature. Beautiful Boys has Yoko utilising some traditional Japanese music to back a song to her son. Her vocal is a bit discordant, however. Do we need another song to their son? Probably not. It was quite clever in the way it switches to address her for year-old "boy" though. Dear Yoko is an update on Oh Yoko!, with a guitar relaxing a piano on the same catchy musical refrain. Yes, I know these songs to Yoko are somewhat irritating, but I actually like both of them, enjoying their jaunty melodies. Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him is another Grace Jones-ish haunting number from Yoko. I really like this one. A poignant end to the album drives in Hard Times Are Over. Unfortunately, as we know, they were not, tragically.

** (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).

Related posts :-
George Harrison
Bob Dylan
Elton John

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