Sunday, November 21, 2010

Borrowed Time: Listening to John Lennon's Signature Box Set

“I’ve always been slightly jealous of the world for having had more time with my father than I did” – Sean Lennon

Sean Lennon makes a valid point considering that he was just 5 years old when his father died. Consequently, our own memories of John Lennon resonate differently. But, in considering the music, we have to take into account Lennon’s relationship with his family and his openly political activities. This is especially true when you examine his entire body of work, as collected in the recently released Signature Box Set. Remastered by the same team that did the excellent work on The Beatles’ mono and stereo box sets from last year, this collection reflects the same standard of audio excellence. The set features Lennon’s singles, demos and completed albums, including a brochure of essays from Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon and his half-brother, Sean.  The set also includes a book examining Lennon’s short life and a print of one of his ink illustrations. I took the time to listen to these albums once again in chronological order just as they were intended.

First, a few words about the Plastic Ono Band, and/or Elephant’s Memory, led by John on either guitar or keyboards. These two bands don't resemble The Beatles at all; they are a rather sloppy back-up unit in complete contrast to the Fab Four. This is particularly true due to the presence of Yoko Ono as a vocalist. Like McCartney, Lennon got his famous second wife involved at the get-go because both musicians missed one another on musical (and perhaps emotional) terms best left to a therapist to explain. If you consider where Lennon was in his career, he could have put together an excellent band of top-notch players, but he did not. I think he chose unknown players to either distinguish his sound, or to create a new one. Phil Spector, who produced most of Lennon’s albums, was a major factor in establishing Lennon’s post-Beatle sound.

As for the singles, "Give Peace a Chance" sounds brighter with a better feel for the bedroom in which it was recorded. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" is Yoko’s shining moment, as it were, and while she struggles to stay in tune, her passion overrides the deficiencies in her voice. "Instant Karma!" has a crisper remastering that chimes more clearly now. "Cold Turkey" comes across as much heavier with the guitar driving the bass line and Lennon’s poignant vocal. He really tries to make you “feel” the withdrawal symptoms in this one. Much more effective here than the original mix that made you feel distant from the experience. This one makes you shiver.

The box set also has a disc devoted to alternate/home recordings. His dirge “Mother” comes across as less-severe in Lennon’s alternate performance. The acoustic guitar is more prominent in the mix, but it sounds like a rehearsal; Lennon’s screaming in pain over her loss begins sooner in this version. “Love” features a solo acoustic guitar and John’s majestic voice: personal, private and sad. “God” is driven by an acoustic guitar and drums. Lennon rants from the front porch and changes the musical dynamics that are much more powerful when he goes to the piano for the final version on Plastic Ono Band. These demo/home recordings sounds quite “finished.” Lennon was good at getting right to the point with his music without messing with the writing. “I Found Out" has his double-tracked vocal front and center with the rhythm section barely keeping up. The final version on Plastic Ono Band is significantly better rehearsed. But Lennon’s vocal here is more memorable. The CD then fast forwards to 1980 with a demo version of the under-appreciated “Nobody Told Me” with a drum machine that just won’t quit. It's yet another example of Lennon’s strong focus of how a song should go. It's a pity that “One of the Boys, India, India” went unfinished but it does illustrate Lennon’s determination to record a demo, whether it was finished or not. The core of the song was solid and he knew it. Now we know it too. "Serve Yourself," his shot at Bob Dylan's 1979 conversion to Christianity, was initially issued on the collection Wonsaponatime in 1998 with Lennon on acoustic guitar. But this version features him on piano and he sounds like Dylan on his “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Speaking of Dylan, no song comes closer than Lennon's alternate version of "I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier," first featured on Imagine, which has the feel of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. On “Isolation,” Lennon is alone on vocal in this much stronger version, albeit unfinished due to the slower tempo and Lennon’s hesitancy at the end of it.

His first solo album, Plastic Ono Band (1970), opens with a scratchy church bell sound that introduces "Mother." It either marks the end of The Beatles, or the beginning of Lennon’s woe. Perhaps it's a blend of both. Especially since it was recorded the year after the band broke up. "Mother" (like the album itself) alternates between anxiety and anger. Lennon was just shy of his 30th birthday when this record was released. Clearly he still had unresolved issues. Now that he was out from under the safety of The Beatles, all would be revealed. Revelation is what this first record is all about and it succeeds despite the pain, angst and his bearing of the soul. Lennon obviously needed to go through this phase and he deals openly with it. 

Plastic Ono Band reveals maturity due to self-discovery, primal scream theories notwithstanding. Lennon’s performance, despite the angst, is relaxed and completely focused. His vocal range reflects that focus, too, particularly on “Love,” “Isolation” and “Remember.” The latter track, with its drone-like piano, drives the sound with a firm yet gentle hand that builds the tension. What’s remarkable about Plastic Ono Band is how the 11 songs reflect Lennon the boy, the teen, the restless Beatle and finally the man. It’s his most autobiographical record and reflects his ego-driven self-centeredness. This was an album he had to make before he could, as a solo artist, take on the rest of the world.

Imagine (1971) was recorded a year later in Lennon’s estate in Tittenhurst Park outside of London. Unlike his debut, this is an album seeped in idealism, love and social commentary. And it's more palatable to a larger audience. It makes sense, too, because The Beatles also appealed to an international audience so why would Lennon seek a smaller crowd? Producer Phil Spector, who helmed Plastic Ono Band, was brought back to work on the album from the ground up and he was at the height of his commercial and musical powers. This is particularly evident on the pretty string arrangements for “Imagine” and “Jealous Guy.” The Flux Fiddlers never sounded better! So what we have here is an accessible album on the surface, but there’s much more meaning in the songs themselves. Consider the juxtaposition to "Imagine" of the up-tempo, skiffle song “Crippled Inside,” a humorous song, but with deeper, psychological insight. I’ve always found the lyrics profound: “You can hide your face behind a smile … you can live a lie until you die, one thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.” These ideas are a little more explicit in the blues number, “It’s So Hard,” where Lennon’s voice is buried in the mix like a voice inside your own head.

My favourite song, though, is “Gimme Some Truth” which features his best performance as a vocalist. He speaks for injustice here and the song reflects the political climate of the times in all its starkness. Although Lennon refers to Richard Nixon in the song, you can easily relate it to all the “neurotic-psychotic-pig-headed politicians.” It’s a pity that this remastered version has softened the edge of the original, vinyl mix. And while Imagine has a lot of worldly imagination in it, nothing gets as personal as Lennon’s shot at Paul McCartney on “How Do You Sleep?” This remastered version improves the original mix right from the start with the string ensemble tuning up that's similar to the start of Sgt. Pepper. Despite its anger, the beauty of this song comes out of George Harrison's slide guitar solo that had then become his signature sound on All Things Must Pass (1971). But right after this is Lennon’s confessional, “How?,” a well-written song that features a series of rhetorical questions that inspire deep reflection -- even though, on the surface, the words could be considered juvenile. The album closes with the up-tempo “Oh Yoko,” as charming a love song as you’d ever want to hear.

Sometime in New York City (1972), which is a collaborative album between Lennon and Ono, hits you smack in the face. Even to this day, Lennon’s explicit lyrics on “Woman is the Nigger of the World” make me feel uneasy. The song is immediately followed by Yoko’s vocal on “Sisters, Oh Sisters,” a delightful up-tempo pop song a la The Shirelles. Perhaps Phil Spector wanted something to lighten the mood after the opening track. But this highly charged political record strikes me as an anomaly. On the one hand, Lennon was desperately trying to assimilate into American society. He loved New York and struggled to get a Green Card for years. But some of the commentary fails to stir up much because Lennon's superficial political take on America reveals that he's still the outsider. Consider “Attica State”: a comment on the violence in that prison that was headline news in 1970. Even though the driving music grabs your attention, the lyrics fail to captivate because Lennon is trapped by the naive nature of the lyrics where he asserts in idealistic generalizations to “free all prisoners everywhere.” That said, the next track, “Born in a Prison,” sung by Yoko, takes a slightly more sincere idea, but she fails to develop it. It’s hard to listen to Ono’s singing anyway because she’s often out of tune in spite of Phil Spector’s efforts to bump up the wall of sound to protect her.

Two songs about the Irish Troubles also grace this album, namely “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Luck of the Irish.” I saw John & Yoko perform the latter on The Mike Douglas Show shortly after its release. The censors bleeped “God” from “Goddamn” in the refrain, so all you heard was “Damn! Damn!.” No less effective is Yoko’s decent performance on the middle 8 verses on this recording. "John Sinclair" comes off as the strongest song on the album: a decent acoustic set featuring Lennon on slide guitar. It’s an inspired country-blues about the American White Panther leader who was sentenced to 10 years for marijuana possession. "Angela" is a mid-tempo ode to Angela Davis, who was once on the FBI’s most wanted list for kidnapping and weapons possession. She, too, was a loud, dissenting voice in American politics in the early 70s. "We’re All Water" kicks up a storm, to say the least, in spite of Ono’s screeching on the song. But there’s nothing subtle about this record: it’s a cold slap in the face featuring Lennon and Ono at their most virulent. 

When Mind Games was released in 1973, Lennon had just turned 33 years of age and was suffering through a tumultuous year, personally and politically. Despite that, this record is bright, cheerful and well-played. Mind Games sounds like a collection of short stories. “Intuition,” “One Day (at a time),” and “Mind Games” are all songs of self-discovery and speak of living in the moment. There’s one political song, “Bring on the Lucie,” but most tunes involve his now strained relationship with Yoko. "Out the Blue," which reminds me a little of “Sexy Sadie,” could easily be considered a sequel, but it’s really about Yoko and what their union means to him. 

Yet Mind Games is a record that refuses to be mysterious in any way. All of the songs are uncomfortably explicit which now reflected Lennon’s songwriting strategy. His original approach worked brilliantly with McCartney because one writer tempered, if you will, the emotion of the other, creating songs that were balanced, imaginative and lyrical. For Lennon, by the time he was in his 30s, the only writing partner he had was Yoko, who probably never challenged him as much as McCartney. Mind Games is a record tipped completely in Lennon’s direction. He sings about love, forgiveness, and politics and continues themes established in the first two records. There is a lot of forgettable tracks such as “Meat City” and “Tight A$.” Thankfully, they are balanced by the strength of the title track.

When you listen to Lennon's collected works in chronological order, his music continually strives to be as un-British as possible. Walls and Bridges (1974) was released 6 months before David Bowie’s Young Americans. (Lennon co-wrote “Fame” on that record.) Like Young Americans, the street sounds of funk, gospel, blues and rock & roll drive this entire album. This is especially true on “What You Got,” the funkiest song on the record and far better than the number one hit, “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” This is immediately followed by the R&B inspired “Bless You” that sounds like Donny Hathaway, or Stevie Wonder, gone uptown. It’s a classy number rich in electric piano and percussion. The only anomaly is the inclusion of “Steel and Glass,” a tough-sounding indictment of his former manager, Allen Klein, that curiously borrows the same string arrangement from "How Do You Sleep?", his vicious attack on Paul McCartney.

Lennon’s tumultuous year, the so-called lost weekend of some 18 months, is perfectly captured in “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).” It’s a sad lament as Lennon effectively bears his soul one more time; sounding like Harrison on “Isn’t It A Pity.” But it’s no less effective in stirring some dark emotions for me. Walls and Bridges is a much stronger effort than Mind Games even though it was written and recorded under duress. Nevertheless, it pushed Lennon to his creative edge opening possibilities for even better music. Alas, the political and legal pressures that were constantly around him turned out too much for him to bear.

Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975) is an album of classic music from the 50s that could be considered Lennon’s “contractual obligation record.” Despite being wrapped in legal issues, this record (recorded between 1973 and 1974) still stands out for its musical honesty and for the simple reason that John Lennon was getting in touch with his roots. The album cover features one of my favourite images of Lennon taken in Hamburg, Germany in 1961, when The Beatles were building the foundation of their musical legacy. What is remarkable about Rock 'N' Roll is Lennon’s scratchy vocals. He sounds raw, youthful and full of energy. The band is especially tight and the arrangements crisp so it doesn’t sound as sloppy as it could have considering the nature of the recording conducted over a couple of days in October 1974. Rock 'N' Roll still kicks!

Double Fantasy (1980), which comes after Lennon's five year hiatus being a househusband and father, is another duet with Yoko. But unlike Sometime in New York City, where they exchanged political positions, Double Fantasy features a collection of songs that play like an exchange of love letters. (Its actual title includes the sub-title: A Heart Play.) Listening now, it's remarkable how youthful Ono’s songs are compared to Lennon’s on this record. Opening with a Presley/Orbison sound, Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” signifies his return to Yoko and equally important his return to music, while his songs mine the musical past that formed the basis of his artistry (although “Cleanup Time” is locked into a Philly-funk sound with sharply arranged horns). Ono, on the other hand, is more inspired by the music of the present. Her up-tempo “Give Me Something” borrows from the sounds of the late 70s New Wave -- especially the music of The B52s. For once, she sings in tune and the production values are strong with bits of electronica thrown in for good measure.

For Lennon, his songs, as always, are straight ahead with a few delicate musical touches such as the steel drums on “Beautiful Boy.” It stands out best for its line, “life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” as lovely and poignant a lyric as Lennon ever wrote. While “Watching the Wheels” has too much of a nostalgic feel, a far superior version is the demo that features Lennon on acoustic guitar. That one sends shivers down your spine. This version sounds a little cheeky to my ears. “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” with its cabaret-like presentation, seems silly as well in retrospect. Ono is less convincing on her performance here. Yet I can see her entertaining Lennon in the privacy of their living room singing this one. “Woman” is the perfect combination of Lennon’s confessional style with the right mix of musical hooks and double-tracked harmonies. If nothing else, Double Fantasy is a positive, inspired record. It remains Lennon’s last release in his lifetime and it still holds up against anything else in his collection. The remastering here, not to be confused with the stripped-down version released separately, is a lot warmer in tone.

Milk and Honey was released four years after his untimely death. This album continues the so-called conversation between Ono and Lennon that was started on Double Fantasy. Alas, since Lennon was not part of the final mixing and sequencing, it’s a one-sided conversation. And that’s the sad part. Nevertheless Lennon sounds just as buoyant on these songs as he does on Double Fantasy. Essentially the tracks are rehearsal material featuring Lennon counting in the band and directing the solos. What it lacks in artistic polish it makes up for in spontaneity with an off-the-floor spirit. This is particularly true on “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” a song about denial. The most polished track, though, is “Nobody Told Me” one of Lennon’s catchiest guitar-hooks with a great chorus that still lingers for its relevancy today. Lennon’s “Borrowed Time” with its reggae-influenced beat offers a truly contemporary sound for Lennon, who like many musicians at the time, was inspired by Bob Marley. Milk and Honey is a good album in spite of its unfinished quality. But that's what I like about this record; its rawness appeals to my ears and it marks one of the best qualities about John Lennon’s music: its unpretentiousness.

Once finished listening, I discovered what a pleasure it was to revisit this music and consider Lennon’s honesty in his art, an approach that carried on for years and never left him. He bore his soul in ways that juxtaposed embarrassment and inspiration. He took musical risks that either failed, or succeeded, but he didn’t care. And while that carefree attitude made me cringe a lot of the time, I respect that fact that Lennon never shied away from his own foibles. But what makes his death so tragic was the fact that he had come full circle in his personal struggles with an eye to a positive future. Now having spent time with the music of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, I can finally understand why Sean Lennon was so jealous of the world for having more time with his father than he did. It’s time that we, too have now sadly lost.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, writer, actor and theatre director.

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