John Lennon would have been 70 years old this month.
I was six years old when Lennon was gunned down. I have no memories of him at all. My love affair with the Beatles didn’t start until nine years later, when I heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time. Lennon has always been something of a mystery to me. I’ve never had the chance to buy a new John Lennon album, or see him interviewed, or hear him play live. He’s a guy who made some of my favorite music of all time, and he died when I was a kid, before I could appreciate him.
In a very real sense, all I have is the music. I didn’t live through the social and political climate that shaped much of Lennon’s work. By the time I was walking, Lennon had essentially decided to disappear from public life, building a home with Yoko Ono and their son Sean. I turned six only a few months before the release of his final album, Double Fantasy. I’m an outsider gazing in on this remarkable time, and as much as I can read up on it, I’ll never have the experience of feeling what Lennon was singing so passionately about.
But that’s okay. He’s John Lennon, so he routinely paired his political statements with brilliant, tuneful music. And I love brilliant, tuneful music. Of all of the Beatles, I think Lennon’s solo career was the best. This isn’t a particularly high bar, you understand. Paul McCartney’s vast catalog is stunningly inconsistent and often too cutesy for words, George Harrison made one incredible record (All Things Must Pass) and then slipped into mediocrity for most of the rest of his life, and Ringo Starr, well, no one expected much from him, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
In its own way, Lennon’s solo catalog is also pretty inconsistent, but it is fascinating, and above all, utterly real. He was never able to recapture the magic he had with McCartney, and I think he spent a long time consciously avoiding that magic. Lennon always toughened up the twee McCartney, who in turn sweetened Lennon’s rebellious nature. When the Beatles split, the two ran away from each other in opposite directions. McCartney made several albums in a row that any right-thinking critic simply has to call featherweight and inconsequential, while Lennon stripped back to basics and made Grand Statements out of simplicity and honesty.
If you’re just dipping into Lennon’s solo music, this is a great time to do it. As a 70th birthday present, Yoko Ono has overseen a full remastering of Lennon’s catalog, and re-released it in a variety of interesting (and frustrating) incarnations. The eight albums have been released on their own, and in a massive Signature Box. You can also pick up Power to the People, a one-disc hits collection, or Gimme Some Truth, a four-disc mix-and-match anthology. All of these different options contain material not present on the others, which is kind of maddening.
Your best option, if you’re a completist like me, is the Signature Box. It’s a hefty thing, simply designed, and it includes a well-made hardcover book with photos and essays, a cardboard insert with personal reflections from Ono, Sean Lennon and Julian Lennon, and (in a secret compartment) a print of a drawing by John. It’s a lovely set, even though I expect I will take the individual albums out and shelve them separately. They’re all packaged exactly like the Beatles remasters from last year, in cardboard sleeves that mirror the original vinyl art. Needless to say, they’re beautiful.
I said this is your best bet if you’re a completist, but that’s not exactly true. Let’s quickly go over what isn’t in this set. Most glaringly, there’s the first four experimental Lennon/Ono albums (Two Virgins, The Wedding Album, Life With the Lions and Live Peace in Toronto 1969). One expects those will come out in a separate set before long, since they weren’t part of the remastering project either. You also do not get the new remix of Double Fantasy, called Stripped Down. But you do get the original version, and the new one is only available with the original on a second disc, meaning if you want Stripped Down, you’ll have to buy Double Fantasy twice. That’s just silliness.
You also don’t get any of the material that ended up on Menlove Ave. in 1986. Granted, the only essential track there is “Here We Go Again,” but that’s not in the box. It is, however, on Gimme Some Truth, in remastered form. As far as I know, that’s the only place to get this new master. Live in New York City isn’t in the box either, but one of its tracks, “Hound Dog,” appears on Gimme Some Truth too.
Want to hear something else infuriating? During his solo career, Lennon released five popular singles that didn’t appear on his albums. These are some of his most well-known tunes: “Instant Karma,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” “Power to the People” and “Cold Turkey.” These songs are in the box, on a separate disc called Singles. That disc is not available separately. If you want Lennon’s solo singles, you have to buy Power to the People, a collection of the hits. If you decided to splurge on the albums separately, that means you’re going to buy 10 songs twice, just to get the five you don’t have. The box is your best bet, but then you need the stripped-down Double Fantasy as well, and there’s just no way to do this without overlap.
The box set, of course, contains a bevy of material not available elsewhere, including a remastered version of b-side “Move Over Ms. L” and an entire disc of home demos. But there are numerous other Lennon tracks (such as “Do the Oz”) that make no appearances in any version of this project.
Those frustrations aside, it’s great to have Lennon’s solo work all looking uniform, and sounding fantastic. Ono and her team made an interesting choice – they went with John’s original mixes, instead of the remixes done last decade. This means the sound is accurate to the times, but might strike more modern ears as less crisp and clear. This is not a reinvention of the sound, like the Beatles remasters were. In many cases, the new versions don’t sound as “good” as the remixed ones, but I think they sound more right, if that makes any sense.
I took a full tour through the box set over the last week. In some cases, it’s been years since I’ve heard these records, and in some cases, I have ‘em memorized. While Lennon’s solo material never quite hit the same heights as his Beatles songs, he did manage one stone classic, and three other excellent albums, and even the lesser stuff here is worth hearing. Plus, over 11 CDs, you can trace the arc of his final decade. Lennon was 30 when the Beatles broke up, and 40 when he was killed, and in that time, he went from activist and icon to husband and father, and found peace and happiness along the way.
How you feel about Lennon’s solo material will depend on two things. The first is your willingness to let one of the world’s greatest songwriters just relax and play fun, simple pop-rock tunes. John loved simple blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and there’s a lot of it in his catalog.
The second, of course, is Yoko Ono, who is credited equally with Lennon on three of these eight albums. I always say that Ono is better than you remember, but she’s not in Lennon’s class, and her contributions often tend toward the annoying. Still, they’re a package deal, and much of this catalog is about her, even if she doesn’t appear. If you still blame Yoko for breaking up the Beatles (an unjustified charge, in my opinion), much of Lennon’s material will rub you the wrong way.
If you’re good with those two things, though, there’s a lot to like in this box set. Let me take you down:
Plastic Ono Band, 1970.
I mentioned before that Lennon managed one classic in his solo career, and this is it. It appeared one year after the Beatles split, and in many ways, it’s the anti-Abbey Road. Stark nearly to the point of emptiness, stripped of anything fanciful or joyous, this is the bleakest record ever made by any Beatle. It is Lennon coming to terms with his life outside the band, tearing down his old image with solemn force. Even 40 years on, this record hurts.
It’s also incredibly good. You’re just going to want to steel yourself before you listen to it. This is an album that opens with the lines “Mother, you had me, but I never had you, I wanted you but you didn’t want me.” It moves on from there, Lennon taking on religion (“There ain’t no Jesus coming down from the sky, now that I found out I know I can cry…”), modern life (“When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years, then they expect you to pick a career”), and his own confusion (“Look at me, who am I supposed to be?”). “Working Class Hero” is a jaw-dropper, still, just Lennon and his guitar, taking apart the world in which he lives with some well-placed profanities and razor-sharp lyrics. It’s a masterpiece.
There are shafts of light here, certainly. “Hold On” is an island in the stormy sea, Lennon telling himself and Yoko that it’s all gonna be all right. “Love” is one of Lennon’s prettiest pieces, a simple poem (“Love is real, real is love”) played on piano. And despite its snarling blues backdrop, “Well Well Well” is hopeful: “We sat and talked of revolution just like two liberals in the sun, we talked of women’s liberation and how the hell we could get things done…”
But no one remembers those, and for good reason: the rest of Plastic Ono Band is dark and difficult and compelling. The album climaxes with “God,” still one of the boldest pieces of music I’ve ever heard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hear this in 1970, with memories of Beatle John still fresh. After dismissing God as “a concept by which we measure our pain,” Lennon begins a litany of things he no longer believes in: Jesus, Kennedy, Elvis, Buddha, Zimmerman (also known as Dylan). And then he drops the bomb: “I don’t believe in Beatles,” he spits, as the music evaporates behind him. Later he sings, “I was the walrus, but now I’m John, and so dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on, the dream is over…”
I know, unbelievable. It’s also fantastic. Like most of Plastic Ono Band, “God” is performed on very few instruments (piano, guitar, bass and drum, and that’s it), and the voice, full of anguish and anger, is front and center. You won’t soon forget hearing Lennon’s screams at the end of “Mother” and “Well Well Well,” or listening closely as he mutters his way through the chilling closer, “My Mummy’s Dead.” Even stripped of its context, this is a raw, seething disc of really great tunes, a stunning and remarkable album. John Lennon never bettered it.
All right, it’s no Plastic Ono Band, but Lennon’s second proper solo album starts with “Imagine” and ends with “Oh Yoko,” and it includes “Jealous Guy” and “Gimme Some Truth.” So how bad could it possibly be?
Truthfully, it’s not bad at all, though the quality does drop somewhat. Imagine finds Lennon mellowing out, especially on the gentle title track. I’m constantly surprised at this song’s near-universal acceptance as an anthem for peace, given the anti-religion sentiments at its core. But Lennon’s very clever about it, saying “imagine there’s no heaven” instead of out-and-out denying it, like he did on “I Found Out.” It’s no wonder, though, that the song’s iconic piano part and gorgeous vocal have stood the test of time.
About half of Imagine’s songs are of similar quality. I don’t need to tell you how good “Jealous Guy” is, despite an overstuffed arrangement. This is a heart-on-your-sleeve confession that nearly makes me cry every time. “Gimme Some Truth” is great, as is Lennon’s swipe at McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” “Oh My Love” is strikingly lovely. And “Oh Yoko” is the most rollicking, joyous piece of music ever to bear Lennon’s name. Man, I love this song, and when Wes Anderson made terrific use of it in Rushmore, I cheered.
So that’s the really good stuff, and the rest is sort of… there. Many of the other songs, like “Crippled Inside” and “It’s So Hard,” fall back on the blues, and from a guy with such a prodigious gift for melody, these songs are disappointing. And “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” is repetitive and nearly unlistenable, its anti-war sentiments notwithstanding. The remaster preserves John’s original mix, all tape hiss included, but sounds wonderful. I just wish I liked every song on here as much as I like “Oh Yoko.”
But really, Imagine is a fine album, particularly when compared with some of the later stuff. To many people, it’s his last true classic. (I think there are a couple more to come.) It is, perhaps, his most fully realized pop effort, the flip side of Plastic Ono Band, and an album that is virtually impossible to dislike.
Some Time in New York City, 1972.
And then there’s this, the only one of these albums I genuinely dislike. Recorded at the height of John and Yoko’s anti-war protests, this album takes on every societal ill the Lennons could think of, with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. Then the songs were recorded with Springsteen-esque flair by bar band Elephant’s Memory, and the whole thing lands with a thud. It’s graceless, it’s often tuneless, and it was roundly rejected by the buying public at the time.
Okay, there are a few songs I like. None of them are by Ono, who doesn’t exactly suck the life out of things (there’s not much life to suck), but drags the record down each time she appears. I always get a little chuckle out of “The Luck of the Irish,” a much snarkier take on McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” I also like “John Sinclair,” with its folksy stomp and its repeated “gotta.” But there is literally nothing here worthy of John Lennon.
And then there’s the second disc, a bonus “live jam LP” that no one really needs to hear. When John is singing “Cold Turkey” and “Well,” it’s fine. When Yoko is warbling atonally over squalling feedback, it’s hideous. It’s like someone said, “What could make this oscillating, teeth-grinding guitar noise even worse? Wait, I know!” The second half of the disc features Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Frank’s mixes of those tracks appear on his Playground Psychotics album, with different titles. One of them, a six-minute banshee wail called “Au,” was re-named “A Small Eternity with Yoko Ono.”
‘Nuff said. This record is the only one of these I might never listen to again.
Mind Games, 1973.
A beautifully-produced piece of mediocrity, Mind Games is the very definition of an average pop-rock album. There’s nothing wrong with it as it’s playing, but it doesn’t stick. The hooks are few and far between, the songs basic and sweet without being extraordinary. The first of these songs that really struck me was “One Day at a Time,” and that one wouldn’t have stood out on Imagine. It’s nice pop music, but you can hear Lennon turning soft before your ears.
Is that such a bad thing? I don’t know. Like I said, Mind Games is beautifully produced, a cornucopia of sounds. There’s that iconic slide guitar on “Bring On the Lucie (Freda People),” the organs on “Intuition,” Michael Brecker’s saxophone on numerous tracks. And there is one song I love here, the underrated “Out the Blue,” a paean to Yoko with some nice turns. The remaster is terrific, bringing out the colors of the sound. And John sounds happier here, more content than he ever has.
I just find the whole thing underwhelming. If this album hadn’t been made by John Lennon, it would have disappeared without a trace, and no one would miss it.
Walls and Bridges, 1974.
Now this one I like. Released just a few months after I was born, Walls and Bridges is the quintessential mid-period John Lennon album. In contrast to Mind Games, the songs on this record sparkle, and the production, again by Lennon himself, is marvelous. This is the album that contains his first solo number one single, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” which features piano and organ by Elton John (back when Elton John was cool). That tune’s an invigorating shuffle, one that pulses with more life than anything on its predecessor.
But that’s just the tip of the proverbial. “What You Got” is his one convincing stab at whipping out the funk, Stevie Wonder style, and it works. Walls and Bridges was recorded during Lennon’s famous “lost weekend,” his year of separation from Ono, and her specter appears throughout. “You don’t know what you got until you lose it, oh baby baby baby give me one more chance,” Lennon shouts, and in the next song, the tender “Bless You,” he addresses the man he imagines she’s shacked up with: “Bless you, whoever you are, holding her now, be warm and kind-hearted.” As he says on “Scared,” “Hatred and jealousy gonna be the death of me…”
Walls and Bridges also contains one of Lennon’s very best solo songs, “#9 Dream.” Over lush strings and soaring guitar, Lennon whips out a multi-part little pop suite of sweeping grace. “Ah bowakawa pousse pousse” doesn’t really mean anything, and reportedly came to Lennon in a dream, but you’ll be singing along with it anyway. “#9 Dream” is the highlight of this album, but the whole thing is pretty great. And 10-year-old Julian Lennon makes his musical debut on the closing track, a snippet of oldie “Ya Ya” on which he plays the snare drum. It’s a sweet way to end this very sweet record, one that practically cries out for the reconciliation that was right around the corner.
Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1975.
If any of these records could be considered inessential, it’s this one, but I quite like it.
It was born out of a lawsuit – “Come Together” was judged to be a little too close to a Chuck Berry song called “You Can’t Catch Me,” and as part of the settlement, Lennon agreed to record a few oldies to give the copyright holders some royalties. Since those old songs probably wouldn’t sit well on a typical Lennon record, he decided to create a tribute album to the music of his youth.
Nothing about Rock ‘n’ Roll betrays its contractual origins, though. These are delightful old songs, including “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” “Stand By Me,” “Peggy Sue,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and others. (Yes, including “You Can’t Catch Me,” which does sound pretty close to “Come Together.”) And John sings his little heart out. If you want to hear one of rock’s all-time greatest singers in his absolute prime, give this one a listen. It’s fun, if a little inconsequential, and his band just slams through this thing. It’s a fine reminder of Lennon’s roots as a rocker in Liverpool, and an interesting way for him to enter middle age.
Double Fantasy, 1980.
And enter it he did, taking five years off to be a husband to Yoko and a father to their son, Sean. He’d retired from the world. It’s unclear whether he considered Double Fantasy, his return to recording, as a one-off or the kickoff of the next phase of his career. Either way, it’s a remarkable record, the last one released during his lifetime, and contains several of his very best solo songs.
It’s also credited to Yoko Ono equally, and it’s designed like a dialogue between the lovers – seven John songs, seven Yoko songs, alternating back and forth. Some were, no doubt, miffed by this. They waited five years to hear new John Lennon, and they were forced to buy new Yoko Ono at the same time. But the Lennons saw it as the perfect statement of their union. Yoko even called John brave for sticking with her throughout this process.
Let me say this right up front: I like the Yoko Ono songs here, a lot. For the first time in their partnership, Ono steps up here and writes songs to complement Lennon’s. “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” “I’m Moving On,” “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” “Beautiful Boys” – these are all fine tunes, melodic and catchy and sonically interesting. I never feel the urge to skip Ono’s songs on this record, and I never have.
But Lennon’s songs are the attraction here, and they’re wonderful. His seven songs are a miniature suite about settling into domesticity, about growing old gracefully, and they’re his most comfortable, most tuneful songs since Imagine. “(Just Like) Starting Over” was a hit, and is a fine pastiche of ‘50s soul. But I am in love with “Watching the Wheels,” and “Beautiful Boy,” and “Woman,” and “Dear Yoko,” numbers about calmly and contentedly disappearing into family and home life. Even the incongruous “I’m Losing You” is terrific.
But as you can see, this album came out in 1980, and it sounds like it. The production is bright to the point of blinding, the drums have that ‘80s hollowness to them, and the whole thing is somewhat over-polished. That’s why, even though it’ll cost you more money, you absolutely have to hear the Stripped Down version. It’s a beautiful thing. The voices are front and center, the arrangements uncluttered, the drums brought back in the mix, the songs emphasized. The new takes of “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching the Wheels” should be considered definitive. The whole thing is breathtaking.
And finally, finally, the Stripped Down mix reveals what a splendid little album Double Fantasy is. In every note, you can hear just how happy Lennon and Ono are to be with each other, and recording together. It’s exactly the kind of happiness Lennon’s been yearning for since Plastic Ono Band, and it’s so sweet to hear him express it. I’ve always loved this album, and now, in this unfussy, pristine form, I love it more.
Double Fantasy was released in November of 1980. Less than one month later, John Lennon was dead, killed by an obsessive man named Mark Chapman.
Milk and Honey, 1984.
And four years later, Ono released this, the second half of the Double Fantasy sessions. It’s designed the same way, as a dialogue between Lennon and Ono, who each get six songs. It treads the same ground as its predecessor, but isn’t nearly as good, and by the end of the record, it’s clear many of these songs were unfinished at the time of Lennon’s death.
Given that, there are a few classics here. Opener “I’m Stepping Out” is one of them, a fully fleshed-out rocker about rejoining the human race. It contains what might be Lennon’s late-life mantra: “After all is said and done, you can’t go pleasing everyone, so screw it.” The biggest and best reason to hear Milk and Honey, though, is “Nobody Told Me,” his final masterpiece. Originally written for Ringo Starr, this tune is eminently singable, and its lyric is a nice contrast to “I’m Stepping Out”: “Everybody’s smoking, no one’s getting high, everybody’s flying and never touch the sky, there’s UFOs over New York and I ain’t too surprised…”
The other landmark here is “Grow Old With Me,” an enduring love song that stands as Lennon’s final number here. The version on Milk and Honey is clearly a demo, but the sweet tune shines clearly even through the murk. Since its release, this has gone on to be a favorite at weddings, and it’s easy to see why: “Grow old along with me, whatever fate decrees, we will see it through, for our love is true.” Trite? Maybe, but it’s heartfelt, and it’s a lovely sentiment for Lennon to go out on.
I haven’t mentioned Ono’s songs, mainly because, like a lot of Lennon’s here, they’re mediocre and forgettable. It’s nice to have a final visit with John and Yoko, but I wish Milk and Honey were a stronger record. As the capper to Lennon’s official discography, it should have been better.
Singles and Home Tapes.
Which brings us to the pair of bonus discs. The first is positively essential, as it contains Lennon’s five non-album singles. Included here are his protest anthem trilogy (“Power to the People,” “Happy X-Mas” and the immortal “Give Peace a Chance”), the absurdly good “Instant Karma,” and the rollicking “Cold Turkey.” The b-side “Move Over Ms. L” is here as well, for some reason. All of them sound great in their remastered forms.
But the second disc is revelatory. In the spirit of 2004’s Acoustic collection, Home Tapes collects 13 raw versions of Lennon songs, recorded mainly solo. The quality isn’t great, as you’d expect, but the performances… damn. It opens with four songs from Plastic Ono Band, and amazingly, the versions of “Mother,” “God” and “I Found Out” are even more vitriolic than those on the album proper. This take of “Nobody Told Me” is marvelous, and the solo acoustic read of “Beautiful Boy” is lovely. Home Tapes also includes embryonic versions of three songs I’d never heard: “One of the Boys,” “India, India” and “Serve Yourself.” If there’s no other reason to buy this box set, it’s this disc.
And there you have it. The frustrating, inconsistent, brilliant and bold solo career of John Lennon. He started it angry and full of dread, and ended it content and blissful. Lennon died too soon, but his solo catalog is just the right length, tracing an arc that is all too human. Buy the box set, pick up the Stripped Down version of Double Fantasy, and listen. You’ll never hear its like again.
See you in line Tuesday morning.