John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Walls and Bridges
Rock 'n' Roll
Lennon Legend: The Very Best Of John Lennon
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Capitol ‘70) Rating: A
After the breakup of The Beatles John released several singles (“Give Peace A Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma”) and "experimental" (i.e. unlistenable) albums with wife Yoko Ono (Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions, and Wedding Album) before delivering John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his bold first proper album statement. Using spare rock n’ roll as the backbone for baring his soul and greatly influenced by the primal scream therapy of Dr. Arthur Janov, Lennon angrily denounces his past (“God”), looks back at his painful relationship with his parents (“Mother,” “My Mummy’s Dead”), blasts hippy hanger ons always looking for a handout (“I Found Out”), and professes his love for Yoko (several songs) as he searches for peace of mind and a spiritual sense of self. Though the album is more impressive than enjoyable and it sometimes shows its age during its more corny hippy-ish sounding declarations (“love is wanting to be loved”), Lennon’s brilliantly pure vocal performance makes up for its shortcomings. The exceedingly spare musical instrumentation, based primarily around Lennon’s guitar or piano work (with occasional help from Billy Preston and co-producer Phil Spector), Klaus Voorman’s bass, and the backbeat of Ringo Starr, further distances himself from the lush sonics of Abbey Road and his former identity; he even claims at one point “I was the walrus but now I’m John.” In direct contrast to his usual grandiose productions, Spector is smart and ego-less enough to let these songs’ primitive strengths shine through, with the occasional electronic effect adding to the intensity at certain key moments. Some of the songs are overly simplistic and perhaps could’ve been further fleshed out, but at its devastating best (“Mother,” “Working Class Hero,” "God") these introspective narratives are intensely moving. Certainly “Mother” is one of John’s most affecting songs ever, especially its anguished, oft-repeated last line (“mother don’t go, daddy come home”), as Lennon’s mother was killed by a car just as they were getting closer (his aunt Mimi basically raised him), and his father deserted him and only reentered his life (hand extended) after John had become rich and famous. Another key track is “Working Class Hero,” which features Lennon "unplugged" and some bitingly cynical social commentary, while “God” is also indispensable as John denounces Jesus, Elvis, Dylan, and The Beatles (among many other things) before memorably declaring “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.” If The Beatles’ breakup and Altamont hadn’t signified the end of the ‘60s, John singing “the dream is over” certainly did, as Lennon looks to the future and urges his listeners to do the same. Elsewhere, grungy songs such as “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” are why this album is often described as “difficult,” but there are lighter, more melodic breaks from the overall bleakness (“Hold On,” “Isolation,” “Love”) as well. Still, the album’s enduring reputation (despite being a commercial failure, causing a change in strategy for the ever-competitive John’s next album) is primarily due to its admirable overall honesty and intensity. Though many of these songs are ballad-like and he rarely exceeds mid-tempo material, John would never give such a visceral performance again.
Imagine (Capitol ’71) Rating: A-
Lennon declared that “Imagine had the same message as Plastic Ono Band, but it was sugar-coated,” and musically this lush, melodic album is more fully fleshed out and accessible than Plastic Ono Band. It’s still pretty edgy at times, but songs such as the utopian title track and love ballads like the sweet, tender “Oh My Love” and the breezy, singable “Oh Yoko!” have an optimistic outlook. This contrasts with the wonderfully cynical rocker “Gimme Some Truth” and the confused, questioning ballad “How?,” but what all of these songs have in common are John’s impassioned, heart-on-his-sleeves vocals and simple, unobtrusive melodies. His (and guest George Harrison’s) guitar playing is as emotional as his lyrics, too, but some of these sparse songs (notwithstanding the occasionally overbearing orchestrations of producer Phil Spector) are again overly repetitive and somewhat slight musically. Also, two of his more ambitious efforts, the long, spacey, self-explanatory “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die” and the famously mean-spirited and quite petty Paul McCartney savaging “How Do You Sleep?”, are musically overblown and boring despite the pointed political and personal daggers tossed. Legendary saxophonist King Curtis and members of Badfinger back him on the former track, and Curtis (who would be tragically stabbed to death soon afterwards) also highlights "It's So Hard," a short, string-heavy blues that's only semi-successful. The lyrically dark but musically bright and upbeat "Crippled Inside" is a charmingly catchy album track with ragtime piano and country-ish guitars, while "Imagine" and "Jealous Guy" see John at his absolute best. The title track is a naive but beautiful piano ballad that became John's most beloved song (yes, even including The Beatles; it's hard not to think of its famous video when listening to it), even more so now since its idyllic message made it a post-9/11 anthem. "Jealous Guy," later successfully covered by Roxy Music, is an equally lovely ballad whose musical lushness again contrasts with its bitingly self-introspective lyrics (and we critics eat up such contradictions, which is why I guess Lennon's solo work is generally more praised than McCartney's). Anyway, he may be a jealous guy, and this album is as flawed as he apparently was as a person, but I can’t imagine any John Lennon fan not being largely satisfied by Imagine.
Mind Games (Capitol ’73) Rating: B
After the classic "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" single and the Sometime In New York City album, which sucked (sorry for not reviewing it in detail, you crazy completists out there), Lennon released Mind Games not because he was inspired but because he was contractually obligated to do so. Following a period during which he was extremely active politically, Lennon steps back from any controversial stances, as perhaps he was tired of agitating the U.S. authorities who were trying to deport him and hadn't yet granted him the U.S. citizenship that he so desperately sought. As such, there's a tired, flat feel to much of Mind Games, which nevertheless has some strong songs and is rarely less than well-crafted and professional sounding, despite being self-produced this time rather than being overseen by Phil Spector. Of course, the standout song here is the classic title track, with its lush, ethereal wall of sound, weeping guitars, and an outstanding John vocal that's easy to sing along with. Although revisiting common themes ("love is the answer"), "Mind Games" is easily one of John's finest solo songs, and in truth it's worlds better than any other song here, none of which attain classic status. I suppose the best of the rest are "Tight A$," which doesn't say much but delivers good simple rock n' roll, "Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple)," a rare political song (unsurprising targets are old nemesis Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam) that's propped up by its good groove and catchy, energetic, gospel-flavored chants, and "Out Of The Blue," a stellar ballad. Looking over the rest of the set list, few songs stand out, though "I Know (I Know)" is another solid ballad about Yoko, though it doesn't have the lovey-dovey tone of previous attempts as he and Yoko had grown apart. "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)" is another ballad on which Lennon comes across as being something of a whipped wimp, though the otherwise nondescript song is at least salvaged by its bluesy, soulful guitar solo. John's falsetto vocal on "One Day (At A Time)" doesn't really work and its sparse melody is so lightweight that it threatens to float away (I would've liked to have heard more sax on this one), and "Intuition" is likewise an insubstantial throwaway, as perhaps John shouldn't have been so quick to criticize Paul McCartney for his whimsical tendencies. "You Are Here" is pleasantly melodic, but the mantra of "Only People" ("only people can change the world") is both trite and obvious, and its somewhat funky melody is muddled, though it wins points for earnest energy, as does "Meat City," a rare balls out rocker that makes a loud racket but isn't much of a tune. Really, there's no getting around the fact that Mind Games on the whole was an often-dispirited and disappointing album whose failures stood out all the more given that Paul's post-Beatles career was hitting a peak with Band On The Run. That said, this is John Lennon we're talking about, so even an uninspired, going through the motions effort is still worthy of a "good" B rating; it's just that he was capable of much better.
Walls and Bridges (Capitol ’74) Rating: B+
Better but certainly not up to his peak standards, in part because too many obtrusive string arrangements and horns muddle too many of these melodies. Where's the rock n' roll? See the next review for that I guess, but in the meantime Walls and Bridges basically chronicled John's famous 18-month "lost weekend" during which he was separated from Yoko and indulged in a hedonistic lifestyle of rabble rousing with pal Harry Nilsson, whose Pussy Cats album he recorded earlier in the year and who co-wrote this album's "Old Dirt Road," a pretty, lush, if not quite substantial piano ballad with some tasty guitar from session guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Really, as is often the case, John "partied" to dull the pain of his separation from Yoko, who was never far from his heart even as he began an affair with personal assistant May Pang, who he sweetly pays tribute to in the light and breezy (but again insubstantial) "Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)." Most of the rest of the songs are about or to Yoko, though, and as such the album has a lonely air of despair that's hard to really embrace but is often quite affecting. John was feeling lost at the time, drifted aimlessly through life, and these feelings come through clearly on "Going Down On Love," which musically has its moments but overall is a fairly forgettable, reggaefied album opener. Much better is the energetic, danceable "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," which became John's first #1 solo single, in no small part due to stellar contributions from Elton John and Bobby Keys on piano and sax, respectively. The song may not say much, but it sure is a toe tapper; Elton was so sure that it was a smash hit that he bet John (who wasn't nearly as sure and didn't want to release it as a single) that if it went to #1 he would have to join Elton onstage. Famously, it would do just that and John would keep his promise, and the night would prove to be a memorable one as it turned out to be John's last appearance onstage and he reconciled with Yoko after the show. But back to Walls and Bridges. "What You Got" delivers some Stevie Wonder influenced hard funk with shouted vocals, but though John is many things funky isn't one of them. Fortunately, though his strained vocal isn't among his best, "Bless You" takes him back to the ballad style he does so well, with jazzy late night keyboards, acoustic guitar, and trumpet adding to the enticing overall atmosphere. Next, the bluesy, brooding "Scared" works effectively as a dark and pessimistic mood piece before the album's highlight commences. "#9 Dream" returns John to the lush sonics of "Mind Games" but is more low-key vocally. Damn I love those weepy George Harrison-like slide guitars (again supplied by Davis), and his dreamy vocals also hit the spot on what amounts to one of his very best solo songs. Alas, aside from the affecting "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)," a weary, battered ballad, the latter part of the album is rather weak. "Steel and Glass" sees John venomously attacking notorious business manager Allen Klein but is musically mediocre, while "Beef Jerky" is a riff-based instrumental filler, and "Ya Ya" is a short waste of time as John attempted to appease Morris Levy (more about that in the next review). In summary, Walls and Bridges has a pair of classic cuts and several strong album tracks, but the majority of the album is merely workmanlike. However, despite being too "soft rock" for my tastes, this album has more depth to it than the apathetic Mind Games (which was apathetically received by the public), as John seemed to try harder on this one and his tortured persona gives the album a readily identifiable personality.
Rock 'n' Roll (Capitol ’75) Rating: B+
This album was actually started before Walls and Bridges but was abandoned because Lennon was a drunken mess during the disastrous recording sessions. Actually, the album likely only exists at all due to litigation between Lennon and Morris Levy, who owned the publishing rights to Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me," which Lennon had cribbed from in writing "Come Together" years earlier. Levy sued for copyright infringement and an agreement was reached whereby Lennon would record three songs Levy "owned" on his next album. Levy was none too pleased when Walls and Bridges was released instead, and the half-assed version of "Ya Ya" did little to appease him, but Lennon tried to rectify things with his next album, Rock 'n' Roll. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, this album was put on hold in the first place because Phil Spector, who Lennon had brought in to produce the album, had run off with the master tapes after firing a pistol in the recording studio. Spector eventually returned the tapes (for a price) and a few of those songs even ended up on Rock 'n' Roll, most of which was self-produced and was recorded after Walls and Bridges was already out. So, that convoluted history lesson out of the way, let's talk about this album, which, though born out of unusual circumstances, is actually fresher and more rocking than either one of Lennon's last two "proper" albums. It's no secret that early rock n' roll, and by that I mean '50s rockers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, remained near and dear to John's heart, so it should come as no surprise that these 13 "oldies" covers are performed with passion. Simply put, though perhaps this album is comprised of too many overly familiar selections that are arranged too faithfully to the original versions, Rock 'n' Roll nevertheless is a fun listen from start to finish, with some real highlights. The obvious standout is John's pained, pleading take on Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," which became a top 20 U.S. hit and contains one of his most intense vocal performances. I'm also partial to the raw and energetic "Rip It Up/Ready Teddy" Little Richard medley and the reggaefield rendition of "Do You Wanna Dance," the album's most adventurous reworking, though the slower, horn heavy version of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" is also notably different from the original. The inclusion of "You Can't Catch Me," tongue planted firmly in cheek, shows that John hadn't lost his sense of humor, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if it was this album version that inspired Cheap Trick's take on Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame." I'm less impressed with the Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke, and Larry Williams songs, and "Ya Ya" still sucks only it's twice as long, but Buddy Holly's "Peggie Sue" is a propulsive, percussive powerhouse, and Lloyd Price's "Just Because" is a melodic, easy going finale that has Spector's fingerprints all over it. All in all, I'm no rock 'n' roll oldies guy, but I do enjoy these songs and this album, even if John again goes overboard on the horns. It's certainly better than it had any right to be given the circumstances behind it, and it works so well in large part because John's rough vocals mark these as his own songs even though he didn't write them. This contractual obligation out of the way, John then retired to be a "house-husband" for five long years (at least he remembered to say goodbye at the end of "Just Because"), though he did take the time to co-write and perform on "Fame," a funky #1 hit for David Bowie.
Double Fantasy (Capitol ’80) Rating: B+
After five years out of the spotlight during which John devoted time to his family, he returned with his best batch of songs since Imagine. Of course, Yoko receives co-billing on this album for good reason, as the album's 14 tracks are split evenly between John and Yoko, whose songs unsurprisingly aren't nearly as impressive (John always maintained that Yoko was his creative equal but let's face it he was kidding himself). Then again, I actually kinda like most of Yoko's surprisingly accessible songs, though there are some serious misfires on her part (like the ridiculous show tune "Yes, I'm Your Angel") and vocally she can't carry a tune to save her life. Even some of her better songs, such as "Kiss Kiss Kiss," with its edgy, danceable new wave melody, are at times submarined by her shrill shrieks (her orgasmic squeals at the end there are pretty excruciating, actually). But "Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him" is another moody, melodic, and danceable new wave jingle that I rather enjoy, and "Hard Times Are Over," about John and Yoko kicking their drug habits, ends the album on a joyous high that's all the more affecting given what soon happened. Yoko's best song here is the righteously rocking "Moving On," which actually shares a similar melody and is an "answer song" to John's bluesily atmospheric and intense "I'm Losing You." Both of these dark entries stick out like sore thumbs given the upbeat mood of the rest of the album, but they're really good songs so I'm glad they decided to include them even though they don't really fit. Man, I really like those harmonized guitars on "I'm Losing You," and John’s other contributions, most of which are autobiographical as John lets us peer in on his optimistic world of peaceful domesticity, are also generally excellent for the most part. The lesser John songs are "Cleanup Time," which is kinda funky and pretty good but not particularly memorable, and "Dear Yoko," a catchy but almost embarrassingly sentimental sequel to the earlier, superior "Oh Yoko!" Really good but not quite classic (a description I'd also apply to "I'm Losing You"), "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" is a simple but delightful acoustic ditty about son Sean that contains the following words of wisdom: "life is what happens to you when you're making other plans." Which leaves us with the three truly classic tracks and major hit singles: “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Watching The Wheels,” and “Woman.” A fitting introduction to the album, “(Just Like) Starting Over” delivers slightly funky, light pop with delectable backing vocals obviously inspired by '50s doo-wop. Even better is "Woman," a beautifully heartfelt ballad that's a perhaps a bit too AOR "soft rock" (a charge that can be leveled at the album on the whole, or at least John's contributions to it) and might be a bit icky if you're not a Yoko fan (though you can take its sentiments to be about women in general rather than specifically about Yoko), but how can anyone deny its wonderful melody and airy backing vocals? I certainly can't, and “Watching The Wheels” is even better and to me represents the true heart of the album. Basically, this mid-tempo piano ballad, which features another fantastic melody and some fabulous falsetto vocalizing, sees Lennon answering his critics who view him as having wasted his talent during his five-year sabbatical. "Leave me be to live my life as I so choose, I'm perfectly content being a family man, thank you very much" he seems to be saying, and he sounds plenty convincing on this peaceful, laid-back pop wonder. The entire album was a convincing comeback, in fact, as I even like Yoko's songs more than I would have ever expected, though these honest-to-a-fault paeans to domestic bliss and fatherly (and motherly) love can be embarrassingly earnest at times. Still, even at its most sentimental and cloying the album has real personality, making it a worthwhile purchase even for those who already own The John Lennon Collection, which borrows six of John’s seven songs from here. Alas, what should’ve been an artistic rebirth turned out to be an epitaph when John was shockingly gunned down by a madman in his adopted hometown of New York City.
Lennon Legend: The Very Best Of John Lennon (EMI ’97) Rating: A
The best of three easily recommendable single disc "greatest hits" compilations, following 1975's Shaved Fish (skimpy but side two is one of my all-time favorites) and 1982's The John Lennon Collection, the 20-track Lennon Legend: The Very Best Of John Lennon contains most of the essential solo songs from John Lennon's post-Beatles career. Truth is, after Lennon’s initial burst of creativity following his departure from The Beatles, his career was frustratingly erratic (when he was actually recording, that is, which wasn't often enough), and of course he was murdered in 1980 just as his career seemed to be taking off again. However, Lennon Legend largely rectifies this problem by grouping together most of the best songs from his less essential solo albums, while also taking three of the most important tracks from Plastic Ono Band ("Love," "Working Class Hero," and the single edit of "Mother") and the two best tunes from Imagine ("Imagine" and "Jealous Guy"), his two best solo albums which should be heard in their entirety. What really makes this compilation essential is its inclusion of early non-album singles, including popular early hippy anthems such as “Give Peace A Chance” and “Power To The People,” which are really little more than repeated chants but are representative of what John the activist was about at the time. Far superior from a musical standpoint are the classic singles “Instant Karma!” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The former was his first solo collaboration with Phil Spector and is the Lennon solo song where Phil really unleashes his famous "Wall Of Sound," with a massive drum beat from Alan White (later of Yes) and a fantastic, rousing chorus of inclusion and solidarity. A holiday standard, for my money “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” rivals Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" (also produced by Spector) as the all-time Christmas song, with a big assist from the Harlem Community Choir who provide the song's most memorable moments throughout. Also appearing are the vividly autobiographical, harrowing anti-drug tale “Cold Turkey,” another non-album single that features some searing guitar from Eric Clapton, and familiar hits and/or album tracks such as “Mind Games,” “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” "#9 Dream," “Stand By Me,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” and “Watching The Wheels.” Unlike The John Lennon Collection, which leaned too heavily on Double Fantasy, this album also includes two notable tracks from the posthumously released Milk and Honey, "Borrowed Time" and "Nobody Told Me," neither of which had been released when the previous compilation came out. Anyway, this collection isn't perfect, starting with its non-chronological sequencing (which would've worked very well in Lennon's case) and continuing with its lack of substantial liner notes. Still, this is a stellar grouping of most of John’s most accessible solo efforts, and as such Lennon Legend can rightfully claim to be the third essential John Lennon solo album.
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