Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (1968)
You're here because you need relief. You've read the careful praise, the critics striving to do justice to the intensely personal work of a never-more-remembered Beatle (retroactively analyzing "Imagine" for the 20th time? Good luck, pal). After digesting John Lennon's more compatible sojourns -- first into himself, then the search for peace, then dubiously tactful politicking, then leaving Yoko Ono for the wild west, and finally back to the arms of domestic happiness -- it's natural and exciting to stumble upon the fact that the stark, declarative Plastic Ono Band wasn't his first record without his mates. Almost as exciting as seeing someone you've obsessed over bare all for the first time.
Lennon must have known his first release without the "McCartney" following his name would be scrutinized beyond all reason, so he shrouds artistic expression in experimentation as a defense. Oh, he reveals himself all right, and so does Ono; after the fact, he joked that the real reason people found the famous nude album cover offensive was that the gangly pair wasn't more attractive. As for the music, well, it was challenging.
Slowed-down gobbledygook? Extended silence for silence's sake? Wordless screeching? I'll be cliché and say I prefer his earlier work. With no individual tracks, just one continuous challenge per album side, Unfinished Music Vol. 1: Two Virgins goes full force with its anti-rock stance, like "Revolution 9" spread over 40 minutes. This is Lennon and Ono's sly checkmate: Two Virgins is so diffusive and off-putting, yet intentionally so, that even mild praise sounds hyperbolic, while harsh criticism feels predictable and obvious. And so after listening again and again to the shrieks, samples, and shivers of this first Unfinished Music, the only fair rating splits it down the middle. Lennon had awed us before, but now he was set on confusion.
The most controversial woman in rock 'n' roll doesn't get equal billing for nothing. This is as much an Ono concoction as a Lennon creation, and while it was recorded at Lennon's house, Ono has the true home-field advantage here. Her wails are the most piercing part of this work. Surely commercial viability had something to do with it. Still, perhaps partly because of her influence and participation, Two Virgins wasn't included in the batch of reissues celebrating Lennon's solo work on what would have been his 70th year (along with Unfinished Music Vol. 2: Life With the Lions and Wedding Album).
The recording was cobbled together on a night in May 1968, the morning after which Lennon and Ono supposedly made love for the first time. Just as only the most ardent Lennonphiles -- namely, graying novelty record store owners and a certain breed of fedora-wearing college student -- will find that bit of trivia creepily relevant, Two Virgins doesn't feel particularly historic or even necessary.
The atonality ends three minutes into the album, with pounded piano giving way to a distorted guitar. Lennon even locks into an innocuous strum for a few seconds before a piercing scream breaks the fog. However, any time the record hovers around an echo of a groove, Ono's avant-garde instincts snap it back into focus. Calling it "background music" almost gives Two Virgins too much credit, unless you host a fucking wild dinner party: this would have been more appropriate as the soundtrack to one of Ono's art installations.
Songwriting-wise, Lennon was on top of his game in 1968 even as the world's beloved Beatles began to splinter. Lennon appeared to be fraying on record sometime after the death of Brian Epstein. Beginning with songs like "Hey Bulldog" and blossoming on The Beatles, Lennon didn't so much twist and shout as writhe and scream on record. Two Virgins has no lyrics, but plenty of screaming. Despite the obvious pressure to make his first solo joint count, it's hard to hear Two Virgins as the sound of someone too full of fear to function. On the contrary, the John Lennon of the 1960s rarely sounded more liberated than he does here. He could have put out a great solo record that year with non-White Album cuts like "Child of Nature"; he just didn't care to.
It takes a man (and woman) with a great, great deal of clout to sell a stunt like this -- even Dylan didn't have the audacity for this. John's career would taper off into more streamlined sounds, and he would take Yoko with him for their final sessions before his death in 1980, with Lennon, in particular, laying the foundation for today's Adult Contemporary, but not before crawling further down the rabbit hole. Two Virgins may have been Lennon letting off steam, but it's like a Halloween funhouse mirror, only without fun or purpose, two things that Lennon's work rarely lacks. -- Alex Bahler
Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
A detour like this was bound to happen. After returning from India and partnering with Yoko Ono, John Lennon knocked out a series of them, recalling a sweaty morning puke session: blinding, excessively unpleasant, lingering. Perhaps he had excess goodwill as part of what Derek Taylor called "the 20th century's greatest romance", certainly too much to be completely wasted from a couple of off-the-wall sound collages but enough to burn a hole in his knickers. The second volume of Lennon and Yoko Ono's avant-garde throwdowns, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions marked the axial period where fans went from "hey, it's John!" to "not these weirdos again". Emphasis on the plural.
Like a cell that splits itself in two, Lennon had transformed by 1969, having virtually grown a second head. Ono was as much a studio presence as John for the tense summer sessions that would yield the Beatles' first double album, perching herself on Paul McCartney's bass amp and getting girlfriend backup duty with Patti Harrison on "Birthday".
Recorded around the time the White Album hit shelves, Life with the Lions finds the pair capitalizing on Beatlemania's ebb into the recesses of the public mind after flowing through the streets. This was not long before his band's January 1969 rooftop performance drew deer-in-headlights stares from bystanders rather than deafening hysteria. Had this appeared between A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale, Lennon's primary outlet would've had a lot to answer for. After the "bigger than Jesus" flap, Magical Mystery Tour's flop, and their association with LSD, a certain strain of puritan fan had been weeded out. The burgeoning rock world still watched; the rest just paid infrequent attention now.
When listeners last heard from John sans Beatles, the cacophonous media frenzy had more to do with the cover of his first non-Fab outing, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, than the challenges within it (each LP side featured a lengthy, parabolic piece). Life with the Lions initially appears more digestible. Instead of two long "songs", the recording is divided into tracks for easier consumption. They even have titles! But while Ono is kind enough to introduce opening cut "Cambridge 1969" by name, what follows is a brutal attack on the ears -- nearly eight minutes of her shrieking, pausing only for breath, backed by John's intermittent guitar feedback. Elsewhere, Lennon's contributions would add just the right amount of tension to a wracked love song. Accompanied solely by Yoko's damaged wails, this is positively unlistenable even for the most progressive ears. Where Two Virgins was a confusing confection, Life with the Lions is a bitter horse pill from the start.
It eases up, if only because it must. "No Bed for Beatle John" starts with Ono quietly singing topical lyrics on the couple's personal life, which was anything but normal inside and out. Where "Cambridge 1969" assailed the eardrums, "Baby's Heartbeat" coaxes them back in. The track has a curious gravity to it, all five minutes of their unborn child's heartbeat, sped up to cocaine-level mania. And suddenly there's nothing, with "Two Minutes Silence" not exactly bluffing about its modern art intentions (it's the equivalent of a painter putting up a blank white canvas and calling it his latest creation). Ono suffers what wouldn't be her last miscarriage, and the next two minutes is as empty as the couple's heart. There are olive branches for those who strive to interpret, even on the surface. A reference to a hospital's policy not to let the celebrity sleep next to Ono during her stay, "No Bed for Beatle John" provides a link to Lennon's increasing propensity for reflexive lyricism in his traditional work, starting with "Glass Onion" and culminating on "How Do You Sleep?" There's not only a method but a meaning to the madness here.
Whereas Two Virgins was ultimately peaceful, if not terribly interesting, Life with the Lions is horrific and unsettling, and all the better for it. It's the stronger twin that reflects the turmoil from that fucked up year, for the Beatles and the world, of 1968. "Radio Play" smashes airwave transmissions into shards, some melodic, some not, but likely influential (the introductory blips on Radiohead's "Sit down. Stand up." come to mind). The CD reissue added two tracks walking each side of the line: the brief "Song for John", which has a melody as basic as its title, and the plucky "Mulberry", whose closest sonic relative is (in complete seriousness) turtles mating. Many reissues offer a window to enhance the listener's understanding of the artist's mental state at the time; this one makes the glass cloudier. Regardless, Life with the Lions is far superior to the previous wankfest not because of increased hummability, but because of the clenched-fist sense of purpose. Lennon's got something to say here, they both do; they're just burying it in the same swamp that birthed Virgins.
"The sleeve has not been censored or altered in any way," Ono sings on "No Bed", being her own liner notes with Lennon's distant, priest-like vocals in back. In retrospect, Lennon's legacy wasn't significantly changed, either. We still love and remember him for his profound pop, but the Unfinished Music albums show he didn't strive to fake perfection or produce a failure as grand as his victories. Considering the man's sizable ego, that deserves more than a sigh. -- Alex Bahler
Wedding Album (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
When John Lennon finally married his newfound inspiration and publicly proclaimed love of his life, Yoko Ono, he wanted to invite the entire world to his on-the-lam love-in. Armed with his own record label (a perfect co-conspirator to any bewildering Beatle inspiration), a pair of tickets to Gibraltar, and a public already bracing for his next serving of incomprehensible sonic slop, Lennon unleashed a valentine to his Japanese performance art mate. The results remain baffling some 50-plus years later. Even on the heels of his quizzical 'composition' for the White Album (the aural collage "Revolution #9") and a pair of perplexing collaborations with his bride to be, nothing could have prepared the faithful for this pre-sold souvenir of their hero's disillusionment and dissatisfaction with being a cultural benchmark.
Indeed, all three of Lennon's initial 'statements' in repudiation of his feuding bandmates were deeply personal and highly counterproductive. Even for an audience willing to accept almost anything a Beatle did, these meandering collections of song snippets, tape loops, vocal exorcisms, and acid-flashback examples of musical self-abuse were trials. In combination with the outright affront of some of the material (Lennon and his love naked on the cover of Two Virgins, the post-miscarriage hospital pic from Life with the Lions), the lad from Liverpool still believed that he had tapped into a new form of expression. It would take the personal psychological screams of Plastic Ono Band to 'cure' him of this delusion once and for all. It's interesting to note that Lennon never publicly went back to this kind of bold basement experiment in the years following their release.
As for Wedding Album, it's your typical slice of self-aggrandizement wrapped in a series of head-scratching aural enigmas. Side One (remember, this is back in the day when music came in discernible LP parts) featured the newlywed and his divisive bride saying each other's names -- over and over again. Sort of like an acting experiment, the two use the various emotional interpretations of "John" and "Yoko" as expressions of their love, their fears, and the sex -- the additional backing of their heartbeats adding a final sledgehammer sign of their passion. At 22 minutes, it's a test for any novice Beatle acolyte. Even the most fervent of fans tend to avoid Lennon's performance pieces as dull, droning dreck. Side Two livens things up a bit like the famed couple stage their notorious "Bed-In" peace protest honeymoon in Amsterdam. Using the push of the press to provide snippets of interviews and other conversations, we get to hear the political awakening of a man who, for the longest time, was a well-meaning mop-top ready to explode rhetorically.
As an insight into his mind, as a declaration of affection and intent, Wedding Album is more than just a masturbatory mess. It's a weird sort of proto-tabloid take, a precursor to the now prevalent public intrusion into the lives of the celebrated, the privileged, and the famous. Lennon even went so far as to commission famed photographer and graphic artist John Kosh to create an elaborate box set for the album. In included a reproduction of the marriage certificate, various press clippings, a series of sketches and drawings, and perhaps most famously, a "slice" of cake (actually, a triangular photo), served up in a special white envelope. With Apple's manufacturing arm at the ready to indulge such whims, Lennon was doing more than producing product: he was making a statement.
In fact, Wedding Album stands as a significant album in Lennon's discography. While Plastic Ono Band would indeed be the final brick in his crypt of disillusionment, this piece in his initial trippy triptych was a clear announcement of intent. For those who didn't like Ms. Ono -- too damn bad! This was the woman he chose to spend the rest of his life with, and he was going to celebrate her in any way he felt appropriate. Similarly, the days of being a sidelined wallflower apologizing for name-checking Jesus and offending the teenyboppers were over. Lennon had opinions, and Wedding Album was the vinyl primer of such mass communication sentiments. While he would eventually take his call to arms to weird, wonky places (Nutopia? Bagism? Really John?) Wedding Album introduced the newest incarnation of the once favored phenomenon -- deeply in love and mad as Hell.
Of course, something like Wedding Album would never exist today. We no longer allow our pop artists to "waste" our time with such seemingly trivial excess no matter how super their star. We will let them make movies, star in silly TV shows, write meaningless memoirs (or even worse, psychobabble self-help books), and even champion their Money grubbing Madison Avenue savvy with a series of headphones, wines, and custom ringtones. But if Lady Gaga decided to release a 50-minute iTunes musing on the state of her complicated love life and political views, Fuse-nation would be wetting their hipster hiking shorts. Wedding Album is proof that the Beatles' phenomenon reached far beyond the band's power to make memorable music. There was a time when the individual members could do whatever they wanted -- and for at least one of them, the intent was stereophonically clear. -- Bill Gibron
Live Peace in Toronto (1969)
Live Peace in Toronto 1969 is the perfect summary of John Lennon's career -- the musical influences of his past, the current ruminations of his self-indulgence, and the future of his relationship with Yoko Ono. It showcases the inspiration that transformed him musically and personally in the two most intense periods of life -- at the birth of the Beatles and the rebirth of John Lennon. Taking place at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, this was the first Lennon appearance post-Beatles' recording of what would become Abbey Road. This gave him a chance to really express what had been in the works during the lo-fi offerings of the Unfinished Music recordings with Yoko, as well as explore the ruminations of his youthful inspirations.
Every man has his roots, and Lennon presented him when selecting the first four tracks on the recording, renditions of '50s rock 'n' roll and early Beatles' era covers such as "Money" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" -- something all the members of the band (Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White) could feel comfortable banging out after little to no rehearsal behind a nerve-stricken Lennon. Exploding out of the gate with a cover of "Blue Suede Shoes", and continuing through a barrage of familiar tunes, Lennon knew very few of the original lyrics to any of the songs he presented throughout the evening. Thanks to an explosive backing band that drove him to recreate lyrics and burst through with unforgettable choruses, Live Peace became truly extraordinary documentation of Lennon's fervor and showmanship.
In between the classics and the commotion are possibly the most revered and talked about songs of the evening: the debut of a stripped-down, fuzz-ridden "Cold Turkey" and the communal sing-a-long of "Give Peace a Chance". Before the crowd outrage and bottle-throwing at Yoko, the audience got their first glance at what was the most accurate representation of Lennon's near future -- a forever advocate of peace, yet a turmoiled individual full of doubt -- a set of polar opposites he would battle lyrically and emotionally for the duration of his solo career.
Frankly, don't bother throwing in your two cents about Yoko's presence in John's career. She preserved a beast in Lennon that led him to further his notions of songwriting, noise, and the combination of the two. Instead of looking upon feedback as an error, Lennon welcomes it gladly on Live Peace with a barnburner of a track ("Don't Worry Kyoko") reminiscent of the fury of guitar mangler Ron Asheton fronted by the banshee wailing of Ono. Forty years removed from the scene, it's still a challenge to put much wear on side B.
Still, it warrants a hefty gratification from intense listens -- specifically on the feedback ridden "John, John (Let's Hope for Peace)", where there are these beautiful moments of dissonance that reach bliss when Ono's vocal meets the same frequency as the guitars. The audience reaction there was said to be less than responsive to such moments. However, in response, the band left their guitars lying against their amps as they left the stage, still providing immense amounts of droning feedback as John switched them off one by one, and Yoko wailed into the microphone. Heavy stuff for 1969.
Live Peace in Toronto 1969 is an album known for its A-side, but really packs a punch in its sonic exploration on the B-side. Many choose to ignore these journeys in Lennon's career, blaming Ono for the infamous "breakup of the Beatles". However, if there was more time spent listening and less time spent criticizing, the ambition on these recordings would speak for themselves. As the free-jazz forefather, Ornette Coleman once said, "Don't follow the sound, follow the idea." That's a simple concept that would open the avant-garde era Lennon recordings to a new world of listeners. -- John Bohannon
Plastic Ono Band (1970)
The second to last track on the album did it, definitively putting a nail in the coffin of the dismantled Fab Four. The band had called it quits almost six months earlier, and this seemed to be the ultimate statement to Beatles fans; it was time for each of the members to go their separate ways.
"I don't believe in Beatles... I was the walrus / But now I am John / And so dear friends / You just have to carry on / The dream is over," John Lennon sang at the end of "God", a song from his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Although the record wasn't technically his first work outside of the Beatles -- he had recorded three avant-garde albums with Yoko Ono prior to that: Unfinished Music No. 1, Unfinished Music No. 2, and Wedding Album as well as Live Peace and Toronto 1969, from the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival -- it was the late rock legend's first proper solo LP.
Twenty days after the album's release date, 11 December 1970, Paul McCartney had begun court proceedings to end the Beatles partnership. Plastic Ono Band went hand in hand with the group's breakup and the record as a whole, supplanting Lennon's post-Beatles persona: a take-it-or-leave-it approach when it came to putting his feelings out in front.
In the latter half of their career, the Beatles had used psychedelic thought as a way of obscuring the message in their songs. But on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon was as clear as day regarding, among other things, his feelings towards his childhood, his religious beliefs, his relationship with Yoko, and the band that made him famous.
The album starts with the ringing church bells of "Mother", as John comes in shortly thereafter with a poignant letter to his parents. It wasn't easy for the rocker growing up in Liverpool. His father, Fred, left him before he was two years old and his mother, Julia, died from a car accident when he was still a teenager. That pain and raw emotion come to the forefront through Lennon's simple yet piercing lyrics: "Mother, you had me, but I never had you … Father, you left me, but I never left you." By the end of the song, he screams the final words over and over again: "Mama, don't go / Daddy come home."
What makes the album such a force is that it keeps the same vibrancy and personality from beginning to end. "I Found Out", with its pounding drums and thick bass line complements John's lyrics where he shows disdain towards religion and religious idols. "Now that I showed you what I been through / Don't take nobody's word what you can do / There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky / Now that I found out I know I can cry." "Isolation" expresses the loneliness John feels in regards to his and Yoko's relationship to the outside world, "People say we got it made / Don't they know we're so afraid?" Then there is the Dylanesque "Working Class Hero", an anthem influenced by John's upbringing in Liverpool. The song drew a good amount of criticism with Lennon's inclusion of two f-words in the lyrics, further solidifying the death of the clean-cut Beatle image that was bestowed on him and his fellow bandmates for nearly a decade.
That's not to say the album is full of despair. Both "Hold On" and "Love" serve as reminders to Lennon's more positive, peaceful side. Still, John's openness and emotion are what take center stage, best exhibited through the theme of repetition, which is constant throughout Plastic Ono Band. Whether it be uttering, over and over again, "Mama don't go / Daddy come home" in "Mother", or, "I don't believe in …" in "God" the message seemed clear: This was the real John Lennon, raw, uncensored and uncut. -- Alex Suskind
The second solo album released by John Lennon, Imagine, may also be his most well-known, and certainly its title track is the most identifiable solo Lennon tune. Released in 1971, just one year after John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, these ten tracks seem to define Lennon as a solo artist more than any other. Produced by Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Spector, the album also features George Harrison on several songs.
Beginning with the title track, "Imagine", Lennon immediately sets the tone for much of the rest of the album. As ubiquitous as this song is, "Imagine" still manages to surprise and deliver its message of peace in a sincere and frankly, touching manner. It is a song that could have easily devolved into a cloying, sentimental message that fades away over time. Yet, Lennon's words cut away any maudlin sentiments instantly: "Imagine there's no heaven / it's easy if you try / no hell below us / above us only sky." There is a nakedness to these lyrics, as well as a simple, repeating piano line throughout, that leaves only the core of what Lennon is trying to get across, and in turn, makes it that much more effective.
The third track on the album, "Jealous Guy", is one of Lennon's strongest songs. The music is comprised of a beautiful melody that, in many ways, runs counter to the song's lyrics. Lennon lends additional emotional weight to the song by surrounding his apologetic words in this softly sung tune. Some lines are striking in their simplicity and vulnerability, none more so than "I was feeling insecure / you might not love me anymore." Lennon has always had a gift for honesty in his lyrics, and "Jealous Guy" is another wonderful example of this.
Perhaps the most analyzed song on the album is Lennon's scathing Paul McCartney-directed "How Do You Sleep?". Lennon was responding to McCartney's second album, Ram, in which he felt there were various digs at both himself and Ono. While McCartney denied most of these accusations, he did admit to certain lines being about Lennon. Lennon answers by making direct reference to McCartney through his own compositions, such as Sgt. Pepper's, "Yesterday", and "Another Day". In using McCartney's songs somewhat against him, Lennon expresses a level of outrage that only hints at the two's problems. Although they would later reconcile, How Do You Sleep?" stills stands as one of Lennon's most mocking and caustic songs and serves as an honest account of his feelings at the time, as admittedly misplaced or scornful though they may be.
Imagine also contains two very political compositions, especially as it relates to war, "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" and "Gimme Some Truth". Lennon's passionate anti-war stance and his vehement opposition could not be more apparent here ("Well, I don't wanna be a soldier mama / I don't wanna die"). The former track is a bluesy number that repeatedly makes a case against war. He likens being a soldier to being a crybaby rich man and a lying lawyer, among others, while in "Gimme Some Truth", he wastes no time in calling out Nixon ("No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dick") and others he views in similar terms. Both are driving, noisy rock songs that are as lyrically unforgiving as it gets. For all of Lennon's gentleness in his love songs, his political ones never pull any punches, and these are no exception.
In what may be the most gorgeous moment on the album, Lennon's "Oh My Love" is as lovely as any song he's written. It is musically and vocally reminiscent of his haunting "Julia" from The Beatles, yet still feels completely new. Influenced by his time in therapy, it speaks of dreams and opening the mind, all the while professing a newfound clarity. It's a beautiful song and one that shows off Lennon's voice at his best.
Much like "Oh My Love" was affected by therapy, "How?" is a similar case. The lyrics could very readily read as some modern self-help mumbo jumbo ("How can I have feelings / when my feelings have always been denied? / oh no, oh no"), but Lennon never really lets the song reach that point. Again, much is in the completely genuine delivery of the words, perhaps one of Lennon's greatest gifts.
The album is rounded out by a couple of classic rock songs, "Crippled Inside" and "It's So Hard" that call to mind some of the Beatles' early rock covers in their energy and Lennon's obvious enthusiasm in performing them. Closing the whole thing out, "Oh, Yoko!" is another rollicking tune that's equal parts sweet ode to Ono and fun sing-a-long.
In the end, Imagine stands as an album of fully realized songs that run the gamut of Lennon's songwriting abilities. While it is his most commercially successful album, it also contains some of his most critically praised songs. "Imagine" may sometimes overshadow much of Lennon's solo work, but Imagine is as complete a statement as he ever made. -- J.M. Suarez
Some Time in New York City (1972)
If there's an argument to be made in favor of environment playing a significant role in the whole nature-nurture debate, consider John Lennon in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Beatles, he released arguably one of the first emo albums (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) after a round of primal therapy, then followed it with the pastoral hippie naïveté of Imagine. During this period, Lennon was still living in relative isolation in his palatial Tittenhurst estate, working out his issues and looking at world peace through a decidedly pie-eyed lens.
But in late 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York City, immersed themselves in political activism, and released the weirdest album in the former Beatle's post-Fab career. Lennon had dipped his toe in the waters of musical political activism before, including musical entries with the "Give Peace a Chance" and "Power to the People" singles.
But unlike his two previous anthems, there's nothing on Some Time in New York City tailor-made for repeated chanting in the streets or town squares. But with its overblown Phil Spector production and a musical grandiosity that often belies the subject matter, Some Time in New York City comes off as either the world's most expensive underground newspaper or an unfocused attempt to come up with a sequel to Hair. The album wasn't received well critically and was also a relative commercial flop, peaking at #48 on the Billboard 200 chart less than a year after Imagine hit the toppermost of the poppermost around the globe.
Listening to Some Time in New York City nearly 40 years on, it's not difficult to see why it failed to connect. Upon release, the album featured a second disc of all-star live performances recorded in London (Lyceum Ballroom, 15 December 1969) and New York (Fillmore East, 6 June 1971), thereby making the entire package more expensive than the album proper would have been. It's also possible a great deal of the Lennon-buying general public who got on board with the lush sounds of Imagine just didn't want to hear him share vocals with Ono on songs about controversial people with controversial opinions.
Though it's difficult to remember these days when no one even knows what the music industry is, there was once a time where a catchy radio hit could pull listeners into the album. "Woman is the Nigger of the World" was the lead single for Some Time in New York City, its high mark at #57 that made even the stark Janovian confessional of "Mother" seem like a relative smash when it charted at #43 in 1970.
"Woman Is the Nigger of the World" opens Some Time in New York City as an appropriately misguided attempt to speak to women's rights. Whether by design or by allowing Spector to run roughshod as he often did in the 1970s, Lennon's vocals sound lower in the mix than even the song's garden variety sax solo. While calling attention to the relative plight of the world's women is certainly a noble concept, the presentation is hesitant and awkward. "Sisters, O Sisters", the Ono-fronted b-side to the single and the album's second track, was supposedly meant to have a reggae feel, but it comes off like sock hop music.
"Attica State" follows next, and it's another song with its heart in the right place, but which is ultimately another undercooked effort by Lennon overcooked by Spector's production.
While Ono's musical strengths have been widely celebrated over the decades since a bunch of ignoramuses blamed her for the breakup of the Beatles, she's still given more short shrift than she's earned. That's not to say she wasn't capable of being overbearing, as on some of the live tracks that make up the album's second disc. But the first song to make an impact is "Born in a Prison", a curiously beautiful melody over a rhythm like a heartbeat at rest.
Like a sequel to "The Ballad of John and Yoko", "New York City" is effectively a play-by-play account of Lennon and Ono's life set to rock 'n' roll. "Sunday Bloody Sunday", like the U2 song of the same name that followed a decade later, is about ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, as is "The Luck of the Irish", with the two appearing back-to-back on the album. Musically, they're among the album's best Lennon-fronted numbers, with the first an aggro-rocker, and the latter an acoustic lament.
"John Sinclair" puts the story of the "10-for-2" incarceration of activist and manager of the MC5 who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer. Angela Davis, who was also the subject of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Black Angel", was the inspiration for Some Time in New York City's lost gem, "Angela". A duet between Lennon and Ono, the song ebbs and flows like the tide, rising and falling with more emotion than the rest of the album combined, and may have at least been partially responsible for the grand aesthetic of contemporary groups like the Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree.
"We're All Water" closes the album proper with Ono using the title's concept to explain that people like Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung (who, adding to the controversial nature of the entire release, were seen dancing naked together in a doctored photo on the cover) aren't all that different. "We're all water from different rivers," Ono sings before the song devolves into a reasonably enjoyable shriek-filled jam where one might imagine credits rolling down a screen.
Though the live disc serves as a decent quality artifact of Lennon's brief forays into solo performance, the second side of that particular piece of vinyl was also controversial in its way. Recorded at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the four songs included a cover of "Well (Baby Please Don't Go)" by Walter Ward, along with songs credited differently when remixed and re-released by Zappa on Playground Psychotics in 1992. As presented on Some Time in New York City, the live tracks with Zappa and those recorded in 1969 with such luminaries as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Moon, and Billy Preston are certainly worth a listen but aren't exactly essential, either. There's far too much aimless jamming between far too many musicians for much of anything to stand out above the mud, and if the notion of Ono's artistic caterwauling in that context isn't your thing, you'd be best advised to steer clear altogether.
Some Time in New York City didn't destroy Lennon's career, but the album and its surrounding activism did cause the FBI to open a file on him, resulting in a widely publicized deportation effort by the United States government. Those events were covered in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
Lennon's next album, 1973's Mind Games toned down some of the political rhetoric that Some Time in New York City was soaked in, and as a result, climbed to #9 in the U.S. Some Time in New York City isn't Lennon's best album, not by a long shot. It's not even terribly successful in its design, though it at the very least condenses some of what activists were interested in into one mostly listenable album. What the album mostly represents is where Lennon and Ono were in their lives at a time when everything was changing for them. It's an often forgotten or neglected chapter in Lennon's canon, an uncomfortable period when even he didn't seem entirely certain of what he was trying to say.
But in that sense, it works in tandem with earlier solo experiments in soul searching, though in this case, Lennon himself was too focused on trying to convey a message of activism to know that he was still revealing his own flaws and foibles. When the album is at its best, though, is when none of that internal criticism matters, and it's why Ono's efforts are often the album's best. Between the two, she was surer of herself at this point, and it shows. -- Crispin Kott
Mind Games (1973)
How would we tally up John Lennon's solo career had he died a retired househusband? If he failed to rediscover his muse before being cut down at the gates of the Dakota, our lasting image of John Lennon would be the one of him sticking his tongue out at us on the back of 1975's Walls and Bridges. We would probably say that after the brutal purgation of Plastic Ono Band and the splendid Imagine, Lennon was a spent force who wisely hung it up before tarnishing his legacy further. Of course, Lennon eventually took his guitars out of storage and 1980's Double Fantasy, though mawkish and too eager to please, was a remarkable creative rebirth. While the bookending Double Fantasy gives Lennon's solo catalogue a major lift, it completely buries 1973's Mind Games.
Over time, the stories behind Lennon's albums have become an integral part of experiencing his music. We don't listen to John's Rock 'n' Roll album without talking about how crazy Phil Spector used a pistol to coax tighter performances out of his boozy ensemble. Mind Games gets a harder shake than the rest because it's the only album to offer only a slim chapter to the great Lennonography. Following his first real creative and commercial failure (1972s still ugly Sometime in New York City), Lennon was eager to get back to the business of writing simple medium key pop songs. The man who lived his entire life with his heart on his sleeve and the weight of the world on his shoulders quickly found that people did expect him to change the world every time out.
On April Fool's Day 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a press conference where they announced the creation of Nutopia, a conceptual country that "has no land, no passports, no laws, only people". Though dismissed as another PR stunt at the time, Nutopia was a cry for mercy in Lennon's lengthy battle with the US Government. As a result of his high profile anti-war activism, the Nixon Administration moved to deport Lennon in early 1972. With his residency in jeopardy and his marriage to Ono disintegrating, Lennon assembled The Plastic U.F.Ono Band and hit the Record Plant during the summer of 1973, hoping to find sanctuary in his music.
Given the squall of negativity blowing around Lennon at the time, one might've expected another Plastic Ono Band-style exorcism from him. Instead, Mind Games finds Lennon aiming squarely for middle ground. The album's songs are split between vague attempts at producing another compelling peace slogan and love songs that sound as if they were written by someone in denial that their relationship is falling apart. The lush title track was a Top 20 hit, yet the following ten songs are almost anonymous deep tracks unfamiliar to the casual Lennon fan. While there are no out and out duds, the album suffers from questionable production choices as well as a dearth of the sort of seismic anthems that the public came to demand from John Lennon somewhat unreasonably.
With a 60-day deportation notice hanging over his head, Lennon wisely decided his safest bet would be to refrain from including anything even remotely political in his music. With a rabble-rousing album detailing his persecution by the US Government off the table, Lennon turned to familiar themes of peace, personal freedom, and open communication. As he did on his "Give Peace a Chance" and "War Is Over" campaigns, Lennon once again uses fundamental language to help spread his message. It's easy to get behind "Love is the answer / and you know that for sure", or even "only people realize the power of the people", yet without a face to put with a name, the impact of these songs gets dulled considerably. Lennon gets all riled up on "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)", but it isn't clear exactly who needs to be freed. It doesn't help that Lennon couldn't come up with a more compelling chorus than "Free the people now / Do it do it do it do it do it now." The most effective protest song here, "The Nutopian International Anthem", features four defiant seconds of silence.
Hearing John Lennon struggle to craft a catchy chorus is not unlike hearing Jesus stammer through prayer service. But struggle he does here, failing to create anything that's instantly memorable. Although his marriage was foundering, Lennon still populated Mind Games with a healthy ration of ballads, most of which sound hollow and uninspired. "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)" starts off like classic Lennon blues but he never finds the conviction to carry the song across the finish line. It's pretty obvious throughout that he doesn't have very much to say. We're left to pick through rubbish lines like "I'm the fish and you're the sea" or "Wherever you are / You are here". Lennon fares better with "Out of the Blue", his only lighter waving 70s monster ballad and a song that's often unfairly omitted from most greatest hits compilations. Vintage rockers like "Tight As" and "Intuition", while throwaways, offer up a dose of mindless fun, and "Meat City" features one of the nastiest riffs Lennon ever put to tape.
By the time Lennon recorded Mind Games, he felt as though he could effectively re-create Phil Spector's production style without Spector's direct involvement. To create his own Wall of Sound, Lennon brought in session hands who were ace performers and obvious Beatle aficionados. Guitarist David Spinozza, bolstered by the legendary lap steel of ex-Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete, ably mimics Harrison's slide while Gordon Edward's bass takes a McCartney-esque walk over every arrangement. The thrift store Spector approach succeeds on tracks like "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)", which sounds like it could've been cut during a session for All Things Must Pass. The approach does a disservice to the album's hard-driving numbers, however, which end up sounding slightly punchless and cluttered. Lennon's biggest folly as a producer has to be his decision to employ a background chorus billed suspiciously as Something Different. This mysterious collection of jarring, sand-papery voiced singers overwhelms Lennon almost every time they intrude on the proceedings. There's no way Phil Spector would let Lennon's wounded falsetto be shouted down by a background chorus the way it is on "One Day (At a Time)".
The surviving Beatles all went on to enjoy careers that, while fruitful, were all marked at some point by a precipitous decline in quality. Our expectations of them lowered before evaporating completely. At some point, hearing new music from an ex-Beatle became something that was no longer necessary to pass judgment on. We'll be grateful for anything from the guys who are still with us. John Lennon enjoyed no such luxury during his lifetime and we continue to demand a lot from the studio albums he made during the 1970s. Every scrap of music Lennon recorded throughout his tragically abbreviated solo career will always remain under the microscope because it's all we're left with. So while we can easily dismiss Sometime in New York City as a true misfire, we'll always take Mind Games to task for falling shy of brilliance. Were it possible to separate the man from the music (it isn't) one would find a solid, workman-like collection of mid-'70s rock 'n' roll. If we forget all that came before and after it, we're left with an album that, while inessential, is highly listenable. Sometimes the greatest songwriter of all time's second-best needs to be enough. -- Daniel Tebo
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Recorded during John Lennon's infamous "Lost Weekend", in which he and Yoko Ono separated for 18 months, Walls and Bridges shows the insecurities and fleeting jubilations of a man adrift. Many of the album's songs deconstruct older musical forms, including doo-wop, gospel, and ragtime. Irregular time signatures and dynamic variability are coupled with lush harmonies, Lennon's honky-tonk inflected piano, a forward-mixed brass section, and gorgeously arranged strings. The album's moods run the gamut, sounding tensely restless in "What You Got" and "Whatever Gets You Through the Night", and calm as in "Bless You", "Old Dirt Road", and "Dream #9".
As is typical of Lennon's more experimental fare, his inborn rock sensibilities and experimental forms only occasionally piece together to comprise an effective pastiche. While Walls and Bridges' orchestrations and formal experimentations are always interesting, the album is perhaps most notable in filling in the emotional landscape of this important moment in Lennon's biography. Only on "Dream #9" does the album scale the brilliance of which the artist was so eminently capable.
"Dream #9" is interesting for being a song written from Lennon's biography while not referencing any of the familiar characters, Yoko, Paul, Julia, or Sean. The song recounts a dream in which spirits "called out [his] name", while chanting a chorus of an imagined language, "Ah! Bowakawa pousse, pousse!" His recounting is as dreamy as the scene described lyrically, spoken in half-sentences and repetitions. However, the song's great emotional impact comes from the strings' narrative involvement. Sometimes, mirroring the lead vocals in call and response, other times offering harmonistic textures, the strings invoke the spirits that Lennon describes as always hovering nearby, speaking a language all their own. -- Nathan Pensky
Rock 'n' Roll (1975)
Quick, name any John Lennon album. Chances are, you said Imagine, Double Fantasy, or Mind Games, or if you are really into it, Sometime in New York City or maybe Walls And Bridges. Either way, Rock 'n' Roll is not a world-famous album. It should be, though. Rock 'n' Roll is really something: John Lennon, singing the hits that inspired him as a teenager. But emotional turmoil, a crazed atmosphere, legal red tape, and bad timing would turn the album into a rare, overlooked gem in Lennon's catalogue.
In 1973, John Lennon just wanted to have a little fun. After recording music that consisted of serious artistic experimentation, emotional venting, and social-minded political anthems, his latest album, Mind Games, marked a return to a more mainstream sound. However, before it was even released, Lennon had already moved on to another idea: an album made up of the songs he performed as a teenager. In 1969, the Beatles briefly discussed trying the same concept during recording what eventually became Let It Be, but now Lennon was serious. Adding to the album's appeal was the lawsuit-ending decision for John to record three songs from music publisher Morris Levy's catalogue. This became the easy way to end claims that the Beatles' "Come Together" infringed upon Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me".
That October, recording began in Los Angeles' A&M studios and Record Plant West, with producer Phil Spector given total control over the project. (Despite the controversy surrounding Spector's tinkering with the Beatles' Let It Be, John mostly liked his work, frequently hiring him throughout his solo career.) Of course, this all took place during Lennon's "lost weekend" period, when John and Yoko's trial separation resulted in a downward spiral of drugs, booze, idiotic behavior, and wasted opportunity. Drummer Jim Keltner once confessed, "The sessions could have been absolutely brilliant, but towards the end of each evening, it would just waste away because of the drinking and the drugs all of us were taking…, by the end of the night, John would be singing all slow and slurry."
The atmosphere was that of an out of control, drunken party, with as much as 28 people recording in the studio simultaneously, sometimes completely out of sync with one another. Rumors about Spector's dangerous behavior at the sessions also spread throughout the years. Rolling Stone reported that he had pointed guns at guest Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson said that Spector had once tied Lennon to a chair overnight, and Jim Keltner said that Phil had shot a gun off in the men's bathroom, leaving a bullet lodged in the ceiling. This reckless behavior got them kicked out of Record Plant studios and in A&M studios, where a spilled bottle of whiskey damaged a mixing console.
After he was supposedly in a coma after a car accident, the original master tapes were lost in Spector's hands. A more sober John moved on to his next project, the Walls And Bridges album. But the unresolved matter of the Levy lawsuit led Lennon into going back to work on Rock 'n' Roll. By this point, it was the summer of 1974, and John finished the album with different session musicians and himself as the producer.
John's well-intentioned tribute to the music of his childhood and early career had lost some of its appeal by the time of the album's release in February 1975, though. The early 1970s saw a rise in 1950s nostalgia, with several other albums using the same concept. Lennon worried that his album would be seen as a tired cliché, but Morris Levy offered an interesting idea: selling the album via mail order through TV commercials. John was intrigued, but his record label was against it, vowing to release Rock 'n' Roll on their terms. Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock & Roll Hits, Levy's alternate version, was offered to customers months prior to Rock 'n' Roll's release. Its bonus tracks and low price lured buyers, but its poor quality and the terrible customer service behind it became the basis of a lawsuit filed by Lennon and his record labels. Perhaps part of the reason why Rock 'n' Roll sold so poorly (as of 1985 it was Lennon's second-worst selling album) was buyer confusion.
Music critics often praise Lennon for his raw lyrical intensity. Every emotion he had about every situation in his life reflected in his music. However, an album full of somewhat lighthearted rock covers still showed the anguished state he seemed to be in at the time. What started a sweet ode to the music that he loved, apparent in the spirited take on "Be Bop a Lula", and the loving rendition of "Stand By Me", spiraled into an outright party. This resulted in the charged up covers of "Rip It Up/Ready Teddy", "You Can't Catch Me", and "Ain't That a Shame". But by the time we get to a reggaefied "Do You Want to Dance" and a somewhat sloppy "Sweet Little Sixteen", the cracks are starting to show.
As if someone realized this, the next few tracks (including a cover of "Peggy Sue") are incredibly focused. "Slippin' and Slidin'" downright rocks, while "Bring It on Home to Me/Send Me Some Lovin'" is arguably the album's best track. A chugging "Bony Moronie" and a snappy "Ya Ya" follow, but the most revelatory song here is "Just Because". A pained, strained take on a song about someone trying, rather unsuccessfully, to hide their heartbreak is sung as if Lennon had written it himself just seconds ago. Given the emotional state he was in, this comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, in the bonus tracks version, sluggish, sad versions of "Angel Baby" and "To Know Her Is to Love Her" has the uneven party-from-Hell-sounding stomper "Since My Baby Left Me" following them. However, a revealing snippet of another take of "Just Because" closes the album, with a telling message at the end. "…, I'd like to say hi to Ringo, Paul, and George... how are you? Everybody back home, in England... what's cookin'?", he says, knowing that it is time to close this chapter in his life and start a new one.
Rock 'n' Roll still doesn't get the respect it deserves. Originally released on CD in 1990, it was remastered and released in 2004 along with four bonus tracks. Unfortunately, its recent 2010 re-release oddly didn't feature those four extra songs. The album did become critically praised, with Billboard saying that it featured "..., quite possibly the best and most emotional singing Lennon has come up with in years". Decades later, however, Rolling Stone may have described it best by concluding, "It's not the album anyone will most remember him for, but these songs may well have meant the most to him." -- Jessy Krupa
Shaved Fish (1975)
By 1975, John Lennon wasn't really interested in making music anymore. His years-long struggle with US immigration was finally coming to a close, and after a series of personal conflicts, his renewed commitment to Yoko Ono was about to yield another son, Sean. So armed with a contract demanding one final album and a malaise that would see him shun the spotlight to place house-husband, the least prolific major Beatle bequeathed the world a greatest hits package and slowly slipped off into five years of obscurity.
For many, including a teenage fanbase who were teething when Lennon was taking over the world, Shaved Fish was a revelation. While they had grown up with tracks like "Whatever Gets You Through the Night", "Mind Games", and "Imagine", selections like "Cold Turkey", "Mother", and "Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)" exposed a previously unheard side of the former phenom. Indeed, the biggest disclosure was that, given his limited output as a solo and singles artist, there was enough material here for any kind of Best-of. Unlike his previous writing partner, Lennon was a considered musician. Paul McCartney had completed seven albums of original material in the same time frame and put at least 20 45rpm releases out. Lennon managed six, with one being a '50s rocker cover collection.
Yet Shaved Fish was far from perfect. Fans only got a snippet of the seminal "Give Peace a Chance", the track cut off in mid-chorus to drive directly into the addiction drama of "Turkey". Another surreal move saw the sensational seasonal protest song "Happy X-mas (War is Over)" muddled by the inclusion of more "Peace" parts at the end. Truth be told, had the material not been so strong, had Lennon not been such a commanding cultural fixture, many would feel betrayed by such a corporate write-off. But because newfound fans got a chance to hear Lennon's famous familial lament on "Mother", experience his death pangs performance with "Turkey", or celebrate the giddy joys of "Karma", Shaved Fish became more than just a money grab.
Equally important is the notion that, for all intents and purposes, it looked like Lennon was done with music for the time being. Walls and Bridges was sloppy and incomplete feeling ("Night" and the stunning "#9 Dream" as exceptions) and his foray into his past -- 1975's Rock 'n' Roll -- was a reminder of his debt to the mentors of his past. Indeed, of all the Beatles, Lennon clearly loved the rockabilly feel of old school sources like Chuck Berry. When he finally came back to the limelight in 1980, his first single "(Just Like) Starting Over" could have been a glorified Grease outtake.
That was the dichotomy inherent in Lennon's entire career -- the forward thinker constantly connected to his youth, a Wing-less part of pop culture who, while not as prolific, was clearly more popular (or at the very least, socially relevant). When McCartney released his own greatest hits album in 1978, his fortunes were also fading. The package was sandwiched in between two of his lesser efforts (London Town and Back to the Egg) and argued for his lack of true substance. With Shaved Fish, you got such strong statements as "Women is the Nigger of the World." McCartney gave the world "Hi, Hi, Hi".
While other MIA material -- "How Do You Sleep?", "God", "Jealous Guy", and "Working Class Hero" -- could have easily been included, there's a balance with this end of the '70s release that's reassuring. Just when you can't take the terrors of "Turkey" any longer, the buoyant message of "Karma" steps in to assuage your fears. In fact, Shaved Fish shows that for most of his career, Lennon walked a precarious public tightrope between angry young man and amiable adult. He could vent with the best of them and then easily slip into the kind of sentimentality that McCartney drown in. For those who only knew him as the former superstar whose wife broke up the Beatles, John Lennon was an enigma. More than any other release in his catalog, Shaved Fish proved this, track after track. -- Bill Gibron
Double Fantasy (1980)
It's impossible not to listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy without feeling a tremendous sense of foreboding, if not downright fear and loathing. The album was recorded during the late summer and early fall of 1980, shortly after Lennon emerged from his five years of self-imposed reclusion, and was released on the 17th of November of the same year, only three weeks before Lennon's murder. Lennon signed a copy of the album for Mark David Chapman only hours before Chapman shot him to death. Our knowledge of what happened to Lennon in the weeks following the release of the album, of course, strongly influences the way we now listen to it, understand it, and evaluate it.
Whenever I listen to it -- and I've given it a solid 40 or 50 listenings over the past years -- I can't help but think, "he has no idea what's coming to him, does he?" Listening to Double Fantasy is like watching or reading Hamlet for the second or any subsequent time; you listen with the tragic realization that the bright, brilliant man you're listening to is soon about to die. Hence the album now contains a measure of pathos far beyond what Lennon must have intended. When you separate the album from the context that came to surround it, Double Fantasy is a decidedly uplifting, contemplative, and ultimately peaceful and forward-looking album that marked, at least for a matter of a few weeks, an entirely new self-perspective and self-awareness on Lennon's part.
Interestingly, Double Fantasy was not an overwhelming critical success when it first appeared. While some critics praised its quality and Lennon's songwriting and performance abilities, some critics found the album to be self-indulgent, thematically domestic and plain, too Ono heavy, and a bit too poppy and mainstream. These complaints were not unfounded. The album certainly lacks Lennon's past displays of irony, absurdist humor, political awareness, and willingness to engage in lyrical experimentation. Further, the strongest songs on the album are those penned by Lennon rather than Ono.
The album, while thematically interesting, also lacks much in the way of structure. Moreover, while the album offers some terrific insight into the Lennon the world had been missing for five years, some songs, particularly "I'm Losing You", seem to ultimately serve as public apologies to Ono for Lennon's past marital misdeeds. Further, much of the music shows the influence of new wave music -- something which Lennon admitted was an influence -- and sounds less like an attempt to make new wave music new again but, rather, Lennon's attempt to appeal to listeners accustomed to a different type of sound. The album's greatest fault, then, is the decidedly uncharacteristic lack of confidence and willingness to experiment that Lennon projects throughout it.
However, that's not to suggest that the album doesn't have its share of strengths. "Watching the Wheels," for all of its domesticity, stands as one of Lennon's strongest and most self-reflective, not to mention catchy, songs. For all of its underlying self-loathing, "I'm Losing You", is certainly heartfelt and nevertheless quite moving as is "Beautiful Boy", Lennon's ode to his son Sean. "Just Like Starting Over", is among Lennon's warmest and most joyful recordings and "Woman", which is a decidedly pleasant and mature sequel, of sorts, to the Beatles' "Girl". While the album does not fully come together or function well as a whole, it nevertheless presents us with a sense of a new, more reflective, and peaceful John Lennon and, ultimately, a now heartbreaking suggestion of the sort of musical artist Lennon might have become if he had lived longer and come to confront the electro, synthetic, poppy and decidedly ironic and weird music of the decade to come. -- James Fleming