“The Hickey Packet” for Patreon Backers

As you may know, people who back my blog and podcasts on Patreon get free ebook copies of all my books (and people on higher tiers get free paperback or hardback copies).

Partly to thank them — and also partly to encourage people to sign up for my Patreon (I lost a very important freelance client last month, through no fault of my own, and my income has dropped precipitously — I frankly need the money) — I’ve now posted a Patreon-only zip file of epub versions of all my released books (if you need other versions, this site should be able to do it — I don’t currently have copies of all of them in all formats). This is twenty-two files in total — all the books I currently have available for sale, plus a collection of some blog posts about Doctor Who, and another collection of a few short stories, neither of which are available for sale.

All my Patreon backers can find that collection here. It has all my self-published books — novels, books on music, books on comics, books on Doctor Who — plus the two full books I’ve written for Obverse, who very kindly allowed me to give copies to Patreon backers (the short stories I’ve written for Obverse collections are *not* there, because that would be unfair to the other authors and the editors).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

500 Songs Episode 2 Now Up!

Episode 2 of A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now up on the website, and should be on the podcast’s iTunes feed in a couple of hours.

This one is on “Roll ‘Em Pete” by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson and covers, among other things, the longest entertainment strike in US history, blues shouting, booglie wooglie piggies, a show sponsored by the Communist Party, and hokum songs. It covers a *lot* of ground, actually.

There’s also a Mixcloud playlist of all the music you hear excerpted in the episode, which you can stream here.

If you like the podcast, please tell someone about it, and if you can also support me on Patreon.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My Response to the “Consultation” on Changes to the Lib Dem Constitution

I have a very simple response to the proposals by a “leader” who got the job without actually being elected by the members of the party, and who is now trying to ensure that party members never again get to elect a leader.

I think these proposals are *grotesquely* wrongheaded, for the reasons set out in https://www.libdemvoice.org/oneemailaddressonevote-a-foolish-idea-58832.html . They amount to turning control of the party over to whichever special interest has the inclination to set up a botnet (and no, the supposed “safeguards” suggested, all of which would be trivial to circumvent, would do nothing at all to mitigate this. If the party can check that names are on the electoral register, so can any malicious actor).

This would be a bad idea even at the best of times, but at a time when interests opposed to everything the Lib Dems claim to stand for are known to be engaging in cyberattacks, one might as well just hang out a sign saying “the Lib Dems welcome our new authoritarian Russian-backed leadership!” and have done with it. (I am no believer in grand conspiracy theories, but I think extending open-handed invitations to have our electoral system compromised would *invite* conspiracies).

I think that even more than the proposals themselves being misguided, foolish, and potentially deadly to the party, the way in which the party is being railroaded into them is insulting to the party membership and the party’s traditions of internal democracy. And even more than that, I find the idea of spending more than £50,000 on this monument to one old man’s ego by holding a special conference on the proposals — at a time when one can barely go five minutes without another begging letter purportedly from a party luminary because the party is so short of funds — nothing less than obscene. 

I might have been persuadable to vote for a very amended version of these proposals — without the ludicrous idea of the botnet actually getting to choose the leader — were they brought to a normal conference as part of the normal order of business. But given the revelation that these are intended to be brought at a special conference — which will cost the party money and will likely also cost the individual attending members money many of us can’t afford, for a navel-gazing constitutional change that is in no way an emergency, and which seems designed to ripen the party for a takeover by illiberal Labour “centrists” if not by much worse elements — I will firmly oppose even those parts of the proposals which might, in isolation, otherwise not seem as utterly ludicrous as the proposal to turn over our party leadership to hackers does.

These proposals are being presented to us as faits accompli by a leader who was also presented to us as a fait accompli, and we are being asked to pay to give away the party to whoever can be bothered to take it from us. This is mismanagement at an epic scale, and proves that the party constitution *does* need to be changed — to take the power to make stupid decisions like this away from the unelected grandees who pack federal committees, and to ensure there is proper democratic accountability among those committees so we are never again threatened with having what’s left of the party democracy turned over to any of the party’s enemies who wants it because of one man’s folly.

I harbour no illusions that this response will make the slightest difference to anything — it’s very clear that consultation responses will be cherry-picked to present the predetermined conclusion that Vince Cable is the wise sage whose bright idea of a cargo-cult invocation of Canada will save the party — but at least if I respond like this you can’t say absolutely no-one opposed this.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Short Story: Terms and Conditions

Thank you for purchasing the TimeMaster 3000! Please read through these terms and conditions and signal your acceptance at the bottom by clicking “I accept”.

You are licensing this TimeMaster 3000 for your personal enjoyment. The time travel feature is provided purely for entertainment and demonstration purposes, and must not be operated in jurisdictions where this feature is illegal. Currently those jurisdictions include all countries in North and South America, all countries in Europe, all countries in Asia, all internationally-controlled areas of Antarctica, and all countries in Africa except for Somalia. By accepting these terms and conditions you are acknowledging that you will not use this feature in those jurisdictions. TimeMaster Inc accepts no liability for any loss or damage caused by illegal use of the TimeMaster 3000.

Any liability for damage caused by temporal paradoxes, including but not limited to the deaths of the user’s grandparents or other ancestors, the murder or non-birth of major historical figures such as dictators, or the death of insects in the Jurassic era, rests solely with the user. By accepting these terms and conditions you are accepting all liability for any such damage and indemnifying TimeMaster Inc against any legal action taken now, in the future, or in any alternate timelines.

The red button must not be pressed. Do not press the red button.

You acknowledge that the TimeMaster 3000 contains a safety feature which will activate if the user takes the TimeMaster back before July 31 2025. On all journeys before this time, any attempts by the user to upload the blueprints for the TimeMaster or to take it to a patent office, in any jurisdiction, will be met with sudden death. By accepting these terms and conditions you are accepting that you have no right to the intellectual property embodied in the TimeMaster 3000, in this or in any other timeline.

You acknowledge that you understand that the TimeMaster 3000, upon arrival in the past, causes minute deviations from the timeline you have previously experienced. You acknowledge that should you have purchased the TimeMaster 3000 on an installment plan, with the intention of using lottery winnings, proceeds from sports bets, or similar sources of funds to pay for the outstanding installments, you remain liable even should the results of said gambling not lead to the outcome you expect.

We repeat, the red button must not be pressed under any circumstances. TimeMaster Inc accepts no liability for loss of life, limb, or reproductive capability caused by pressing the red button.

By accepting these terms and conditions, you undertake not to bring any person or animal who has previously died into the present. You accept that resurrection of the dead is punishable by execution in many states, and that there are innumerable legal precedents regarding people who have previously been pronounced dead by a medical professional. You acknowledge that this applies to lost loved ones, to dead family pets from your childhood, and to estranged family members with whom you wish you had reconciled, as well as to all other people or animals.

You acknowledge that should agents for the Department of Temporal Security visit you upon switching on your TimeMaster 3000, you will not divulge the address of your TimeMaster 3000 supplier, and will not provide any details which will allow criminal enforcement actions to take place against TimeMaster Inc, its agents or employees.

Acceptance of these terms and conditions shall be taken as acceptance that TimeMaster Inc may take any action, up to and including, but not limited to, sending assassins into the torture chamber in which the DTS agents are holding you, to kill you before you provide the DTS with incriminating evidence. You accept full liability for any deaths caused by such a mission, including your own.

By clicking “Accept” you acknowledge that you hold full responsibility for your own medical or funeral expenses should you press the red button.

TimeMaster Inc may use any data collected on your travels to build up a complete biophysical profile of your timeline, and may use this for any purpose it sees fit, including but not limited to overthrowing democratically-elected governments and preventing the passage of the Time Travel Equipment (Criminalization) Act of 2028 by altering your votes in Congressional and Presidential elections after the fact.

By accepting these terms you are acknowledging that any changes that TimeMaster Inc has already made to your timeline, including the deaths of loved ones, the ending of intimate relationships, and the way you lost your last job and haven’t been able to get work in three years now, were all necessary for TimeMaster Inc’s end goals; that as without those changes to your timeline you would not have been willing to use dangerous and illegal technology for what you think are your own purposes but which actually serve a higher goal you will never understand; and that TimeMaster Inc bear no moral liability and should feel no guilt for what is about to happen.

To acknowledge that you have read and understood these conditions, just click below, and your TimeMaster 3000 will be ready for use! Be safe, and most importantly, have fun!

Your Friends At TimeMaster

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon, who will also be getting another short story, “A Sceptical Werewolf in New York”, that will be Patreon-exclusive for at least a month. Why not join them and get that story?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs Episode One Now Up

The first proper episode of my podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs is now live at https://www.500songs.com/e/episode-1-flying-home/ . It will shortly be up on iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/a-history-of-rock-in-five-hundred-songs/id1437402802.

This one looks at Benny Goodman’s “Flying Home”, and at Charlie Christian.
When you’ve listened to it, you can listen to a mix of all the music I talk about at Mixcloud.

And remember, this podcast is backed by my supporters on Patreon.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

I probably won’t blog every week about my thoughts about Doctor Who — indeed, I probably won’t watch it every week, as I don’t have a TV — I was visiting friends to watch it this week, as the debut of a new Doctor, and a female Doctor at that, and a *Northern* female Doctor at that, is something we were all keen to see. But I did see it this week, and thought I’d get my initial thoughts down, before seeing what the more general reaction has been.

Overall, I’d say this is probably the best debut of a new Doctor since… well, “Rose” seemed pretty good at the time, but in retrospect I was probably giving it far more benefit of doubt than I should have, and since I’ve not rewatched it in thirteen years, I may well not think of it as highly if I saw it now, especially as I’m more aware of all Davies’ writing flaws.

Other than that, it’s the best debut of a new Doctor since “Castrovalva”.

Before people take that as overly high praise, remember I am not a fan of the post-2005 series in general, though I’ve enjoyed several individual episodes, that the McGann TV movie has some fairly basic structural problems, and that McCoy and Colin Baker both debuted with what it’s safe to say are generally considered their weakest stories. So I’m not holding this episode to a ridiculously high standard.

But it did easily clear the basic bar set for it, and it did some stuff that I wasn’t expecting (as well as some stuff that I was).

First, the one actual criticism I’d make is the YouTube framing sequence, where first we think that Ryan is talking about the Doctor but later it turns out that he was actually talking about his grandmother. This is hack and cliched, and was the one moment in the entire episode that felt entirely off to me.

But on the other hand there was another moment involving Ryan that gave me great hope that this series will be much better than it has been, and which almost made me cheer.

Ryan, for those who don’t watch the show or don’t remember details, is dyspraxic, as am I. And at nineteen years old he can’t ride a bike — I still can’t, at forty, and nor can I drive a car. At the start of the story, his grandmother and step-grandfather are patiently trying to teach him to ride, and he keeps falling off, and eventually gets frustrated and throws his bike off the top of a hill. This is entirely accurate and about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t given up on trying to ride a bike long before I turned nineteen.

But then, his grandmother dies, and he remembers her patience in trying to teach him this skill, and he’s determined to teach himself, so he goes back, and finds his bike, and still falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And that’s it.

We don’t see him suddenly, magically, get better through sheer force of will. We don’t see him manage to “overcome” his disability. He’s still disabled. He will remain disabled.

And this is impprtant for multiple reasons:

Firstly, disability representation matters, and dyspraxia is one of those disabilities that those who don’t have it don’t understand at all, and that even many dyspraxic people (at least when I was growing up) were unaware of — you don’t realise that no-one else has the same difficulties you do in doing seemingly simple tasks, you just think you’re rubbish (it’s like autism in that respect — and dyspraxia plus undiagnosed autism is a real bastard of a combination for self-esteem, in case you were wondering). It’s also great that Ryan is a *black* dyspraxic teenager — normally, to the extent that the whole cluster of disabilities like that (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia all seem to cluster — it’s comparatively likely that if you have one you’ll have a bunch of them) is represented at all, it’s represented by… well, someone like me. A white boy or man.

Secondly, people “overcoming” their disability is a dangerous, ableist, trope. It puts pressure on disabled people and says that if you’re still actually disabled it’s your own fault for not trying enough. It might, eventually, be possible for a dyspraxic person to learn to ride a bike, a bit. But it’s not something that can be done with just a little bit of extra trying — it might take literally years of practice, every day, the same amount of practice it might take someone else to become a concert pianist. Saying otherwise is obscenely harmful, and too many TV series do that kind of thing for a feelgood ending.

And thirdly, and in some ways least important but in other ways most, what I just said — most TV series would go for the cheap emotional boost of having the character succeed. It’s a cliche, and it’s dull. And this episode didn’t go for the cliche, and instead went for a more complex, more interesting, option.

There’s a lot more I liked about the episode as well — the little nod to Tomb of the Cybermen showing that this is still the same character as the second Doctor, the fact that the music is no longer by Murray Gold, the fact that it’s colour-graded to look like naturalistic TV drama rather than the unreal palettes of most of the post-2005 series, the fact that the characters were grounded in real working-class jobs (my dad has worked as both a nurse and a bus driver, so this feels grounded to me in a way that other series haven’t).

Whitaker was good — I could go into detail about her performance, but right now I think that any negatives I said would be taken as me being on the “the Doctor can’t be a girl, ewww!” side of things, and I don’t want to give an unbalanced assessment, so I’ll just leave that for now, except to say that I have no trouble believing her as the Doctor, which has not been the case with some other previous actors in the role.

But for me, other than the dyspraxic character and the realism of much of it (other than them getting the trains wrong, of course), the thing that struck me the most was that the script was *competent*. It’s not a great script (I wouldn’t expect greatness from Chibnall), but it was functional in a way that, frankly, most of the scripts by previous showrunners haven’t been — Davies because he didn’t care enough about plot mechanics to have plots actually make sense, and Moffat because he would try to be cleverer than he was.

It felt, actually, very Terrance Dicks — it had a baseline competence to it on the crafting level that much of the post-2005 series hasn’t had. The one moment of subverting the cliche and the one moment of going for the obvious cliche I talked about above sort of cancel each other out in that respect, and the rest of the episode went by, almost uniquely, without me noticing any horrendous failures of craft (the way the Doctor defeated the monster at the end wasn’t quite well enough set up, but it was papered over better than similar events in Davies scripts). 
In everything other than the areas of representation — of disability, gender, and ethnicity — this was a reassuringly traditional, competent, episode. It’s very wisely chosen to play everything safe except for the new stuff, but that’s what makes the most sense for something that has to introduce so many new parts. I don’t think it’ll go down as a classic episode, but it was an enjoyable episode, one I can imagine rewatching with pleasure, and one I can easily see as the opening to a classic series.
I liked it.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Imagine: The Ultimate Collection

Today sees the release of a new box set — Imagine: The Ultimate Collection. This is a new issue of John Lennon’s most popular (though not his most critically acclaimed) album, and I thought it would present a reasonable opportunity to look at an album that’s talked about rather less than it’s listened to.

Imagine is not Lennon’s best solo work — that’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and it’s not my favourite of his other solo works — that’s Walls and Bridges, which I consider a seriously underrated record. And that means that I, at least, haven’t paid it as much attention as I should. It’s that decent John Lennon solo album that’s a bit better than Mind Games and that has that overrated title song on it, to the extent that I think about it — but that’s even though it’s an album I have listened to hundreds of times, since I was a small child, and know as well as I know any record ever.

In part, that’s because it’s Lennon’s most *generic* record. There’s a type of record it fits neatly into — the post-Beatle album. These are mostly, but not only, made by ex-Beatles (though McCartney never made one, and we’ll get to that later). As well as Imagine, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Ringo’s Ringo fit into it — and so do Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, and to stretch a point most of Badfinger’s early work (in style if not personnel). You get Phil Spector or Richard Perry to produce, get at least one of George or Ringo in to the sessions, a couple of members of Badfinger, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, maybe Eric Clapton if he’s around. You have three or four really good songs, and a few bits of filler and half-written songs that can be made to sound better than they are by that group of musicians. It was an infallible formula for making records that would sell well, be regarded as “classics”, and indeed be very good records, but perhaps be a little soulless.

Imagine is an album that fits those parameters pretty much exactly. It’s an album with some magnificent music on it, but it’s a curiously characterless album at least on a casual listen. Which is odd, as diving deeply into the album, as this box set invites us to, shows that it is a deeply personal album, and possibly Lennon at his most Lennonesque. Far more than John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band it exposes Lennon’s own insecurities, often in ways he didn’t intend. It’s an album about Lennon’s own hypocrisies, about jealousy, and above all an album about the way in which Lennon collaborated with other people.

Before we get into that, it’s probably an idea to talk about the box set itself. Now, I’m here talking about the digital release, which is rather different. The box set itself contains six discs — four CDs, plus two Blu-Rays, which contain 5.1 mixes of material which is on the CDs in stereo, plus the original quadrophonic mix of the album. As I don’t have a Blu-Ray player — and frankly don’t have the ears to notice sound quality improvements past a certain point — I’ve bought the *much* cheaper MP3 version of the box set, which just contains the material on the CDs.

Disc one is “the Ultimate Mixes”. This is the latest in the recent habit of remixing old records so that they fit 2010s ideas of what “a good mix” sounds like rather than the ideas of when they were made. In general, I dislike this for much the same reason that film buffs dislike old black and white films being colourised, as it seems to me to be something of a rewriting of history and disrespecting the original artists (I make an exception for the new stereo mixes of the Beach Boys’ sixties music, for a variety of reasons).

Here Paul Hicks has created new stereo mixes of the whole Imagine album, plus the singles “Power to the People” and “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, the two sides of the Elastic Oz Band single plus Lennon’s demo of “God Save Oz”, and the studio recording of “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” that was originally released on the John Lennon Anthology box set in 1998.

These stereo mixes are very different to the original mixes of the album (which, surprisingly, aren’t included on the box set anywhere — presumably on the reasonable basis that anyone who wants to buy four or six discs devoted to Imagine probably already owns a copy). There’s a much wider stereo separation — the string overdubs, for example, were dumped in mono in the centre channel in the original mix. Here, they’re mixed across the whole stereo spectrum. There’s also more differentiation of instruments in the mix, more clarity, and Lennon’s voice is much more prominent in the mixes (as, also, are the backing vocals on some tracks).

Of course, the question is whether this is “respecting” the music and the artist’s intentions, or whether it’s going against them. I’d argue that it’s definitely the latter. Lennon chose Phil Spector to co-produce the album and, frankly, if you choose Phil Spector to produce your record, you know what you’re going for, and what you’re going for *isn’t* wide stereo separation, instrumental clarity, and prominent vocals. Spector’s whole aesthetic, on every record he ever made, was to go for a big blurry echoey mush, in mono or as close as he could get given the realities of the marketplace. It’s not like Lennon didn’t know that when they made the album. And in particular, Lennon never liked having his own voice sound clear and unadulterated, as it does on much of the new version of the album. He hated his own voice, and literally never put out a studio vocal, from the second Beatles album on, where it wasn’t altered in some way by studio trickery.

(On the other hand, the new mix was approved and supervised by Yoko Ono, who is the only co-producer of the original album not currently dead or in prison, and who also co-wrote at least two songs on the album. Given that Lennon was so emphatic in later years about her creative contributions to this album, we should assume that she has the right, if anyone does, to make editorial decisions about it. )

But leaving aside issues of creative intent, are the new mixes worthwhile? To my ears… sometimes. On songs like the title track, “Jealous Guy”, or “Crippled Inside” I found myself noticing a plethora of little details that were buried in the original mixes, and which improve the sound immensely. But on the harder-rocking songs, like “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Want to Die”, “Gimme Some Truth” and, especially, “It’s So Hard”, the additional space in the mix, and the comparative lack of reverb, make the whole track seem weak, diluted, and flaccid. Those tracks are meant to overpower you with their sheer sonic power, and they just don’t any more.

For example, look to “Power to the People”, the most Spectoresque of all the tracks on the collection (though it’s not a track from the album itself). That song, in its original Spector mix, has a choir on it, obviously, singing the chorus. What I had literally never noticed, though I’ve known the track intimately since I was four years old (I can date when I first heard the song to the day, as my mother bought my father The John Lennon Collection for Christmas 1982) is that the choir continue singing throughout. I’d not noticed this because they were singing simple “ooh”s, absolutely buried in the mix, providing chordal support but not at all prominent — I’d assumed that that was an organ, to the extent I was thinking about it at all.

(No doubt I will now get a myriad comments all saying “well I knew there was a choir there all along”. Well done, I didn’t, even though I must have listened to the song close to a thousand times.)

On the new mix, on the other hand, those “ooh” vocals are popping out of the mix, fully separate from everything else. They’re no longer one element adding to a general impression — a roar of saxophones and voices and guitars and pianos and drums — they’re a separate element, distinct and on their own. The effect is rather like printing an old four-colour comic on glossy white paper, but keeping the individual ink dots of the colouring, so what may have looked brown originally is now a red dot and a green dot next to each other. There’s a lot more clarity there, but the art wasn’t created with that clarity in mind.

Overall, I find the new mixes probably more good than bad — but that should be taken with the context that I’m not really a big one for bludgeoning sonic power, and will always choose subtlety, quietness, detail, and complexity over a wall of sound. I know a lot of people take the opposite view.

For those who don’t get as obsessively interested in details of different mixes as I do — and to be honest, a casual listener probably wouldn’t notice much difference here, though I doubt a casual listener would buy the box in the first place — the main attraction on disc one will be “God Save Us”, the Elastic Oz Band single that Lennon wrote, which I believe has never been released on CD before with the original Bill Elliott lead vocal (a version with Lennon singing a guide vocal was released on the John Lennon Anthology in 1998 — that version is also on here). That track is not particularly special or interesting in itself, but it’s nice that it’s out in a completist sense.

Disc two is a mixture of demos, outtakes, and “elements mixes” — these are, for example, the isolated string section for “Imagine”. These vary from the pointless (a remix of “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” with Yoko’s chorus vocals brought up in the mix) to the fascinating (a demo of “Oh Yoko!” from 1969 which seems to show it was originally the same song as “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”).

Disc three is “raw studio mixes”, and is probably the disc that best balances the two opposing requirements of this kind of thing — of presenting a familiar album in a way that’s listenable, and of allowing the listener to dig into the construction of the record. These are the basic takes of each song on the album, presented as live, as they were originally recorded, in the same order as on the final album. They’re the master takes, but with no effects and no overdubs, just the basic tracks, so “Imagine”, for example, is Lennon on vocal and piano, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Alan White on drums, without the strings and without the reverb applied to Lennon’s voice. You’ll occasionally get a bit of Lennon talking to the musicians during a solo and so on, but what these reveal more than anything else is how tightly these musicians were playing together — these are live takes, with live vocals, and yet even without the post-production work they sound like strong tracks. It’s an interesting, and very listenable, disc that basically amounts to a live performance of the album. This disc is filled out with a few outtake versions, mixed in the same way.

And disc four is an interesting experiment — “evolution documentary” versions of each song. Usually starting with Lennon discussing the song in question in an interview, they then proceed through snippets of demo, studio recordings of Lennon teaching the song to the other musicians, false starts and so on. Each seven-minute track becomes a mini-documentary on the making of one track. There are some annoyances about these — most importantly, the way they repeat bits of audio we’ve already heard on discs two or three, relatively frequently — but they paint a fascinating picture of Lennon’s working process. Primarily they show Lennon being annoyed at the unprofessionalism of the people he was working with, who seem constantly to be chatting or watching TV in the next room while he’s trying to work, but they also show the way he worked in collaboration with the other musicians, going in with a definite idea, but letting the musicians find their way to where he wants them to be, shaping their performances between takes rather than telling them at the start what to play.

They also show that Phil Spector was, unsurprisingly for an evil misogynist murderer like him, a sexist dick towards Yoko Ono. She can often be heard giving constructive feedback to the musicians — and it is, at least from what we hear here, sensible commentary of precisely the type a producer should be giving, things like “you’re playing softer in the bridge, try to stay at the same level throughout” (not an exact quote, but quotes of that nature) — and Spector will repeatedly talk over her, repeat what she’s just said, ignore her, or all the other ways in which misogynist men make women feel like they have no value.

But I said earlier that this box has made me reevaluate the album, and it has, in a number of ways, many of which can be summed up by looking at the title track.

There are a few quotes in the documentary part of the box that I think bear pointing out here, before I go any further:

On “Imagine”: “And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics, but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it, so that song was actually written by John and Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it. Because I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with four guys and always having to share everything, share shirts, share the same dry cleaner, the same everything”.

On “Jealous Guy”: “Intellectually, before that, I thought you know owning a person is rubbish, but I love Yoko, I want to possess her, completely… I don’t want to stifle her. That’s the danger is you want to possess them to death.”

On “How Do You Sleep?”: “Somebody said the other day, it’s about me… it’s not about Paul, it’s about me, I’m really attacking meself…. the only thing that matters is how he and I feel about those things and not what the writer or the commentator thinks about it. Him and me are OK.”

I’d read those comments in the interviews they’re from (I’ve probably read every Lennon interview ever — he didn’t give that many, sadly) but they resonated a lot when I got to them in my listen, in this new context, because I’d already formulated some ideas about what Imagine the album was about, and they tend to reinforce it.

Of course, the big criticism of “Imagine”, the song, is that it’s Lennon being a hypocrite. As Elvis Costello wrote in one of his songs “was it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions?'” Lennon was an immensely rich man, and yet the song advocates getting rid of property rights, at least as a thought experiment (I assume, at least, that Lennon and Ono were talking about getting rid of property rather than or as well as getting rid of possessions — i don’t think either of them were particularly up on Proudhonite distinctions between the two concepts). Surely that makes him a hypocrite?

Well, yes. But that’s the thing about Lennon that drives his entire artistry. He was a massive hypocrite, and he knew it, and his work was mostly him analysing his own hypocrisy and failings. That’s what gives Lennon’s best work its power, and means that even his weaker work (and I think “Imagine”, as a song, is actually one of his relatively weaker pieces) is often more interesting than one might expect at first glance.

Lennon was a man who spent his whole life in a battle between his instincts and his intellect. He was a bad man, with vicious, violent, instincts, but who was trying constantly to become a good man. His music is a record of that process, of his constant attempts to rise above his instincts and upbringing, and to become the person that he intellectually knew he should be.

We talk a *lot* at the moment about whether it’s ever appropriate to separate the art from the artist, and whether good art can be made by bad people, and whether the existence of that good art can ever be redemptive. I think in Lennon, far more than most, we see the optimal case for the defence there — we see a man who acknowledges his own flaws, tries to overcome them, and records the process of that attempt.

That doesn’t make him a good person, but it does make the case for the art slightly different than for an artist who either celebrated their own flaws or tried to pretend they didn’t exist at all.

And this tension between instincts and intellect is there in Lennon’s work in all sorts of ways. Perhaps most interestingly for our purposes here, it’s there in his views on what art should be.

If you read any Lennon interviews from the last decade or so of his life, you see a rather consistent theme in his attitudes to his own work. He belittles things like “I Am The Walrus”, even while saying how good they are, because he found them easy to write — he sees writing that kind of thing as a trick, and regards other artists who traffic in obscurity as having found the trick themselves, as being conmen. It’s something he finds easy, so he thinks anyone can do it.

What Lennon comes to believe over the course of that last decade is that the only valid art is art that’s very specifically about the artist themselves — that it needs to be as accurate as possible about the artist’s feelings, and that anything else is frippery. For a brief time in the seventies he also believed that it was worthwhile to treat music like a piece of journalism — to write songs about current political events — but he later said that this was something he was persuaded into by his friends in the Marxist counterculture, rather than something he thought was actually a good idea.

And certainly, almost all of the lyrics in Imagine fit with Lennon’s intellectually-espoused ideas. But we’ll look at the music in a second, and I think that tells a slightly different story. And I think that part of the story it tells is hinted at in the line from “How Do You Sleep?” “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday’, and since you’re gone you’re just ‘Another Day'”.

Now here’s the thing about that line. “Another Day” is actually an absolutely fantastic song, but it is pretty much the epitome of the kind of McCartney song Lennon was defining himself against — it’s absolutely joyous, it has a chorus that goes “doo doo doo doo doo doo”, and most importantly as far as Lennon’s intellect was concerned it’s telling a story about someone else, a fictional character. This was something that Lennon would always happily define himself as against — “Paul said ‘come and see the show’ while I said ‘I read the news today oh boy'”.

Except it was all a little more complicated than that, wasn’t it? Because Lennon *also* said “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?”, he *also* wrote about Old Flattop and Mean Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam and Bungalow Bill and Mr Kite. His criticism (one shared by George Harrison, who played the fantastic guitar on “How Do You Sleep?” that you can only write honestly about yourself, not about fictional characters, certainly doesn’t seem to have applied to his own work, does it? And it wasn’t as if he disclaimed those songs — the only Beatles songs he played live in his post-breakup live performances were “Come Together”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There” — another of McCartney’s story songs.

Almost as if he were drawn to that kind of songwriting but thought he shouldn’t be, because of authenticity. Authenticity that, paradoxically, forced him to go against his own instincts.

And the thing about McCartney is that in many ways he’s far *more* authentic than Lennon. For better or worse, most of his songs are first-draft, top-of-the-head things. The man who would, shortly after Imagine, record Wild Life with its songs like “Bip Bop” (“Bip bop/Bip bop bop/Bip bop bip bop band”) is not someone who let his head overrule his heart. His records show no sign of having second thoughts — they barely show signs of first thought. They’re pure instinct, and that’s both the best and the worst thing about them — McCartney when he’s coasting is still good enough often enough that he never needs *not* to coast. And “Another Day”, as pure distilled McCartney as it is, sounds effortless even as it’s a wonderful track. McCartney wasn’t torturing himself to make records like that.

But what does “authenticity” mean when it comes to art? And in particular, what does it mean when you’re dealing with songs, which have both words *and* music?

Because the music on Imagine… well, firstly, it’s substantially better than the lyrics, which are generally not among Lennon’s best, but it’s also… well, it’s Lennon putting on a series of masks and playing games. Being inauthentic, if you will. It’s pastiche. You’ve got “It’s So Hard”, which is by-the-numbers white blues, you’ve got “Crippled Inside” which is one fiddle away from being a Buck Owens record, and you’ve got “Imagine” itself which… well look… it’s a stately, hymnal, rather plodding, gospel-inspired, piano-based ballad with a bit of a “Bridge Over Troubled Water” feel to it… just like “Let It Be”, a song that Lennon said was “Nothing to do with the Beatles” and “Could have been Wings”.

Because McCartney hangs over this album in all sorts of ways, and a close listen to the album shows it’s far more about exorcising the ghost of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration than Plastic Ono Band ever was. Not only do you have both “How Do You Sleep?” and “Crippled Inside” — the latter of which is another song that was at least partly aimed at McCartney but which Lennon later admitted would apply more to him — and not only do you have the McCartney pastiche of “Imagine” (which, I will grant, is possibly a stretch. It certainly feels to *me* like an attempt to do “Let it Be 2”, but that’s not necessarily backed up by any evidence other than my own ears) — you also have the last ever Lennon/McCartney song to be recorded. And, just like he didn’t credit Yoko for “Imagine” — because he needed to be by himself, to stand alone, to not be a collaborator any more — Lennon didn’t credit McCartney for “Gimme Some Truth”:

“Another ‘oldie’ with words finished recently (if you think ah ha! he’s running out of songs – no chance) The middle eight was written with Paul – he’s getting half the money anyway and vice versa. I was wondering what truth I was after in India. George does a sharp solo with his steel finger (he’s not proud of it – but I like it). I like the overall sound on this track tho’ I’m not sure if I’d go out and buy it.” — John Lennon.

Anyone who has listened to the Get Back session recordings will have heard Lennon and McCartney *collaborating* on that song — something that was later admitted in writing when the book The John Lennon Letters (from which the above quote comes) was published, but which was obvious to anyone who had ears from the moment they first heard the tapes that have leaked. The song, as the Beatles recorded it in 1969, was a duet between Lennon and McCartney, with Lennon singing the bulk of the song — the verses and choruses — while McCartney sang the bridges: “no freaked out narrow-minded son of Gary Cooper’s gonna mother hubbard soft soap…” in his Little Richard voice.

Once you’ve heard that — even if you’ve not heard the studio dialogue, even if you’ve not seen the proof in writing that McCartney was a co-writer — anyone who has ever heard a Beatles record will know, that bit was written by McCartney. It’s got the man’s fingerprints all over it. Lennon changed the lyrics slightly when he rerecorded it — to “no short-haired yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky…” — but he keeps McCartney’s music and much of the lyric from his section. It’s a Lennon/McCartney collaboration. Uncredited. On an album where he included one and a bit songs (“Crippled Inside” isn’t *only* about McCartney) attacking McCartney, and included a postcard of himself parodying the cover of McCartney’s last album.

That McCartney has literally never mentioned this lack of credit that I have seen, and that his reply to those songs was the rather touching “Dear Friend”, says a lot about him, I think.

That Lennon lied in the songwriting credits, to a song called “Gimme Some Truth”, says a lot about him and his songwriting. About the gap between imagination and reality. And the fact that he would admit to that lie, and to the distortions in his songs, and to his desire for credit he didn’t deserve, and his erasure of his wife’s credits, also says a lot.

Imagine is an album in which a flawed man tries to examine his own flaws, and tries to imagine a better world where he’s flawless, but still manages to sabotage himself with his own insecurities, his jealousy, his desire for possession in all the different meanings of that word, and with the difference between his instincts and his intellectual beliefs  — and this comes out in every bar, in every note. After all, it’s only that level of deep conflict that allows you to write a hymn and start it with “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

Imagine is disguised as a bland early-70s pop-rock album, but it’s a darker, stranger, more interesting album than that. It’s self-loathing externalised and rebounding on the originator. And it’s got some absolutely great music. This box set is flawed, but then that’s appropriate for the album. But it’s an album with a lot more depth to it than its reputation, or even my own longstanding opinion, would suggest, and this box set proves that.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Also, if you like my music writing, check out my new podcast, A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, at 500songs.com or on iTunes. An intro episode is up now, and episode one, on Benny Goodman, will be up on Monday morning.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments