You’d have thought that after spending much of the last month finishing writing a book on the Beatles which required listening and relistening to every track they ever recorded multiple times, that I’d have had enough John Lennon for a while. And you’d be right. But then, a day after I finished my book and got it published, Lennon’s solo catalogue showed up on Spotify.
Lennon’s solo work gets a bad press these days, and his critical stock is very low. To some extent it’s justified – albums like Double Fantasy and Some Time In New York City would be weak by any standards, let alone when you know they’re the work of someone who could come up with songs like A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
But far more of it’s an over-reaction to the way that in the aftermath of his death, Lennon became the Great Untouchable in the eyes of that generation of rock critics, his every note perfection itself. And on top of that, for quite understandable reasons Yoko Ono has maintained a tight grip on Lennon’s public image, presenting St John The Martyr, Who Died For Peace. Frankly, I’d probably be doing something similar in her position – had I seen my spouse shot dead in front of me, I’d probably want to make sure everyone thought as well as possible of them, and not want to dwell on their faults.
But of course, naturally, then people find out about the man’s real faults (and he had some tremendous faults – he was at times a horrible person), presume that his public image now is how he presented himself in life, and conclude he was a horrible hypocrite, and let that judgement reflect on their view of his music.
But of course Lennon was neither a saint nor Satan, and nor did he ever claim to be either. He was, rather, someone who by instinct was an unpleasant, vicious, mysoginistic, near-psychopath, albeit one who was very charming, bright and funny. But he was someone who *didn’t want to be that way* and tried to change. Nobody desires peace quite as much as someone whose every instinct is telling him to go for the throat, and has seen where that gets you. Nobody is as sincere a feminist as a repentant former wife-beater.
And that complexity fuelled his music. While outside books like Ray Coleman’s hagiography nobody would claim Lennon was as good post-Beatles as during the 60s, and very few people would seriously argue his inspiration didn’t drop off, at the same time he *was* still one of the two or three greatest songwriters of his generation, and probably *the* greatest vocalist. Cutting this complex man down to the banality of Imagine and a load of songs about how much he loved his wife misses the point.
So I’ve put together this playlist of my personal favourite Lennon solo tracks. Listening to the new remasters via Spotify, they’re not the best mastering I’ve heard of this material – there’s a sheen to them I don’t like, and there’s even more reverb here than on the original recordings, which were already reverb-heavy thanks to Lennon’s desire to cover up his voice and Phil Spector’s obsession with echo. But I’m still glad to have Lennon’s music on Spotify, and I hope that when his critical reputation settles down, it will be higher than it is right now (though still not at the “Angela and John Sinclair are masterpieces” levels of the early 80s).
Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) is a live version of an old blues track by the Olympics, performed onstage live with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention (the “Flo & Eddie” line-up – this was actually recorded on the second of the two shows that became the Filmore East June 1971 album). In general, I prefer the mix of this show that Zappa put out on the Playground Psychotics album to the version on Some Time In New York City, but on this track I prefer Phil Spector’s mix, just because the massive reverb works so well with Zappa’s astonishing guitar solo.
#9 Dream is from Lennon’s other solo masterpiece (the first being Plastic Ono Band), Walls & Bridges. Lennon’s last great single, it’s actually a rewrite of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross. Lennon had recently produced a rather poor Harry Nilsson album, Pussycats, on which Nilsson covered that song, and Lennon took the string melody he’d written for the backing track and used it as his vocal melody here.
The other song I’ve included here from Walls & Bridges is Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out. Originally written for Frank Sinatra (who turned it down), I *love* Lennon’s vocal here, the hesitant, croaking, laid back verses contrasting with the screamed “When I get up in the morning” section, and the way the backing track is mostly going for a lounge singer kind of feel, except that the horns do the occasional dissonant squawk and the strings are being faux-Oriental. The whole thing’s wonderfully put together, down to the way that the “ooh wee”s and “what it is”s that Sinatra would have ad-libbed are actually part of the lyric proper.
Gimme Some Truth from Imagine is actually the last Lennon/McCartney song to be recorded, though not credited as such. If you listen to the Get Back sessions, you can clearly hear McCartney singing the “no short-haired yellow-bellied” part (originally “No freaked-out narrow-minded son of Gary Cooper”) in his Little Richard voice, and studio chat referring to it as Paul’s bit of the song. It’s one of those things that once heard can’t be unheard – of course McCartney wrote that bit. George Harrison provides the great slide solo on here.
Woman Is The Nigger Of The World is the one real song worthy of the name on Some Time In New York City. Inspired by a quote by Irish revolutionary leader James Connoly, via Yoko Ono, this rock & roll waltz, musically very like some of the later Beatles material, is the perfect example of the zeal of the recent convert, and one of the greatest feminist songs of all time. “We insult her every day on TV/And wonder why she has no guts or confidence” “If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man/While putting her down we pretend that she is above us”. These may be obvious sentiments now, at least to that proportion of people who hold “the radical belief that women are human beings”, but in 1972 they were not especially widely-voiced sentiments.
And Lennon includes himself in his condemnation – every line is “we”, not “you” – he’s not preaching to other men from a better position, he’s a member of the patriarchy saying “this is what we’re doing”. But this would mean nothing were the music not so good, from the great sax part at the start to the end, where Lennon screams “we make her paint her face and dance!” over relentless, driving, horns and strings.
Crippled Inside is an almost-perfect track. An upbeat skiffle-flavoured 12-bar, with some lovely dobro work by George Harrison and some nice piano playing by Nicky Hopkins, it manages to turn what lyrically is a vicious put-down of person or persons unknown (probably McCartney, though as with many of Lennon’s attack songs he later admitted the lyrics seem aimed far more at himself than anyone else) into a jaunty country track.
Jealous Guy is one of Lennon’s best ballads, and one that I’m sure almost everyone can identify with. What’s amazing is that this started during the White Album sessions as Child Of Nature, with a totally different feel and different lyrics (“I’m just a child of nature/I don’t need much to set me free”) and still worked almost as well. One touch I particularly like is that he sings “thought that you was trying to hide” rather than you were. That little bit of vernacular Scouse sells the whole lyric as being honest.
Nobody Told Me is a wonderful little piece of nonsense (“There’s Nazis in the bathroom, just below the stairs”, “Everybody’s running and no one makes a move/Everyone’s a winner and no one seems to lose/There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu”) from the posthumous Milk And Honey album. Clearly a guide vocal, it’s entirely possible that had Lennon lived, he’d have added a much more polished, but much less fun, finished vocal. But as it is, his wit shines through here in a way it does all too little on his later recordings generally.
Grow Old With Me is a piano-and-beatbox demo of a song Lennon never got round to recording properly, and you can hear how even though he was only recording on a boombox for himself, he nevertheless still double-tracked his vocal to disguise what he thought were its flaws. Actually, it’s astonishing how different his voice is here – right at the top of his falsetto range, this sounds vocally like the Bonzo Dog Band track Piggy Bank Love. This song, one of my very favourites of his later tracks, was written in response to Ono writing the song “Let Me Count The Ways” – Ono’s song was based on a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so Lennon wrote a song starting with a line by Robert Browning.
Look At Me is an acoustic track from Plastic Ono Band that was writen in Rishikesh when the Beatles went there in 1968, and is very much of a piece with other songs from that era that made the White Album, like Mother Nature’s Son and Julia, that are based around a finger-picking technique Donovan taught them while they were there.
God is one of the most well-known songs here, the climax of the Plastic Ono Band album where, over “Love Letters” piano, Lennon throws away his past and all his beliefs, climaxing with “I just believe in me/Yoko and me/that’s reality”. This has been seen as the worst kind of navel-gazing solipsism, but in fact it’s Lennon trying to get away from his own past mistakes and his own worst attributes – Lennon was always looking for a father figure, a leader, whether that be Elvis or the Maharishi, and was disillusioned by all of them. And he was, after all, singing “I don’t believe in Beatles” while Ringo Starr was drumming behind him (and indeed ‘fifth Beatle’ Billy Preston was on piano, and Klaus Voorman, who played bass, was the cover designer for Revolver. For someone who wanted to leave the past and the Beatles behind he wasn’t doing a very good job)…
Mother, the opener of Plastic Ono Band is another song that comes in for criticism for being too self-centred. But while it is very obviously based in Lennon’s traumatic upbringing – and since when did it become a bad thing to draw on personal experiences to create art? – it was, as Lennon said when introducing it in his 1972 New York concert, “about 90% of all the parents”. While I am lucky enough to have had a relatively (all things considered) stable upbringing, those people I know who haven’t can identify *VERY* strongly with this song (about Lennon’s memory of being forced to choose which parent to stay with – the father who abandoned him, or the mother who left him to be brought up by her sister). And even I am utterly astonished by the feeling when Lennon screams “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home”. One of the truly great vocal performances of all time.
Working Class Hero is essentially a rewrite of Dylan’s Masters Of War. A lot of people misread this title as triumphalist, but in fact the song is not even about class, as such, but about the way society harms everybody – “then they expect you to pick a career/when you can’t even function you’re so full of fear”, “there’s room at the top they are telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill”.
Cold Turkey is one of the greatest singles ever made. The arrangement is one of the simplest ever – Ringo’s kit damped to the point where it’s almost a click track, Voorman’s bass low in the mix, leaving empty space for that vocal and Eric Clapton’s greatest guitar part ever. What’s fascinating is to compare this to the version on the Live Peace In Toronto album (with Clapton, Voorman, Alan “the one from Yes not the one from Oasis” White, and Yoko on extra screams), which is far rawer, faster and more primal than this one, and a near-perfect performance in itself (even though none of the band had heard the song til the plane trip over). But whereas that one was angry and exciting, this is tense and scary. What amazes me is that Clapton actually started taking heroin after recording this – what kind of fool makes a record like this and then thinks “That sounds like a good idea!”?
And finally, from Lennon’s Rock & Roll covers album we have Just Because, a Lloyd Price song that Lennon probably knew from Larry Williams’ version. This is mostly fun for Lennon’s intro and outro banter as “Doctor Winston O’Boogie”.