Graham Reid | | 4 min read
Had he lived, John Lennon would turn 75 on October 9. Which means – because he had 17 years on the world stage before his murder in 80 – that he's been dead twice as long as he was alive and famous.
Recently Paul McCartney noted that Lennon's death turned him into a martyr, and its also true that – perhaps largely through Lennon and Yoko Ono's self-mythologising – that this complex man has been reduced to some broad strokes, notably as that of a peace campaigner.
But it's worth remembering that on the Imagine album which featured that wishful song Lennon also sang the bitter How Do You Sleep? which was an astonishing personal attack on McCartney.
Peace out, brother?
If you take out Lennon's solo projects during the final years of the Beatles – largely unlistenable and now time-locked avant-garde work with Ono, aside from the Live Peace in Toronto album – he recorded seven studio albums in the final decade of his life (not bad given he took five years off after his Rock'n'Roll covers albums in 75).
All of those albums and the posthumous Milk and Honey which was almost complete at the time of his death have long been out of print on vinyl, so the nine album box set Lennon (Sometime in New York City a double record) of the whole lot on 180gm virgin vinyl has been welcomed by collectors and those who just want to hear this music afresh.
This is a reduced-content version of the CD set which came out five years ago and included two extra CDs of non-album singles and outtakes. (For a full consideration of that, which obviously overlaps with this article, see here).
It's a hefty chunk of Lennon although Live Peace in Toronto deserved inclusion. That album is like a history of rock'n'roll as the scratched-together band which included Eric Clapton rip through old rock standards, a couple of Lennon's Beatles and post-Beatle songs and then Ono takes us into a pre-punk/avant-garde future with a whole side of screaming over rough guitar jamming and riffery.
Some have complained that other Lennon albums should have been included also (the posthumous Menlove Avenue and Live in New York) but it's already a whopping price way north of $150 so any more would make it even more prohibitive.
And these are all the studio albums from his still astonishing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band through Imagine, the wobbly double Some Time in New York City, somewhat uneven Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, the obligation covers album Rock'n'Roll then the final in his lifetime Double Fantasy (co-credited with Ono) and Milk and Honey (also co-credited to Ono).
They are also available separately as are the CDs of course) which is good because things like the agit-prop Some Time in New York City have dated badly (what does Rockefeller mean to anyone today?) and the final two are musically less interesting (aside from Ono's songs, but she's an acquired taste) so . . .
FOUR OF THE BEST FROM A FORMER FAB FOUR MAN
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970): His first major statement post-Beatles remains and extraordinary, musically spare and emotionally bare collection. From “Mother, you had me but I never had you” through to “I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me, Yoko and me” this was therapy in song. This was the most un-Spector production by Phil ever, Lennon's guitar playing is a searing revelation (he wouldn't return to anything this raw until Ono's Walking on Thin Ice at the end of his life) and Ringo Starr's drum fills are inventive.
Open-heart surgery on the soul and unique in popular music. (And Ono's companion piece Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is absolutely essential, for those with very open ears)
Imagine (1971): Yes, the album with That Hit-cum-Anthem but also the revealing Crippled Inside, Jealous Guy (consider how many of his songs in the Beatles period were about being jealous) and How?, the angry Gimme Some Truth and gentle Oh My Love. Then of course there is How Do You Sleep? which is a brutal stab at former pal McCartney (“The only thing you done was yesterday”).
Further proof of what a complex, emotionally volatile man he was. But also memorable tunes. For a more complete consideration of this album in the context of its period go here).
Walls and Bridges (1974): The album which divided critics, sold reasonably well, included the hit Whatever Gets You Through the Night with Elton John and which has aged better than others in his catalogue. If his emotions were still bouncing around – Steel and Glass is a rewrite of How Do You Sleep? with former manager Allen Klein in the crosshairs, Bless You a lovely and heartfelt ballad – his musical gifts were assured. #9 Dream boasts a glorious melody, Old Dirt Road co-written with Harry Nilsson is unique in his songbook and Scared another of his personally revealing songs set to a simple but effective tune. There's a bit of filler (Beef Jerky, What You Got) but the best (and Nobody Loves You) make this one well worth discovering.
Rock'n'Roll (1975): Obliged to record three songs for allegedly ripping off Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch me (for Come Together), Lennon – separated from Ono, drinking heavily – employed Phil Spector (also out of control) to oversee some rock'n'roll sessions in Los Angeles.
Out of the ensuing chaos, headlines about drunken behaviour and Spector making off with the master tapes Lennon eventually managed to salvage an album that was nowhere as bad as it might have been . . . and at its best (Stand By Me, Ain't That a Shame, Slippin' and Slidin', Bony Moronie) was actually terrific party music from a man who had little to prove and was obviously enjoying himself.
For much more on John Lennon (Beatle and solo) plus interviews with Yoko Ono and rare tracks at Elsewhere see here.