Tuesday, October 12, 2010

John Lennon 1940-1980

John Lennon would have turned 70 a few days ago, and naturally it was time to release a giant remastered box set of his entire catalog. But it's not quite his entire catalog, since some of the crazier John and Yoko records are omitted, and no Live Peace In Toronto. Still, a good looking set for Lennonophiles. I have not heard it. But I own all of the original Lennon solo records on LP anyway.

Of all the Beatles' solo releases, I like John's the best. Paul's records always had some moments, and certainly Band On The Run and Venus And Mars were darn good. George's All Things Must Pass was a classic, even if Phil Spector overdid it, and the Live In Japan release with Eric Clapton's band is excellent. Ringo's stuff is fun, and he certainly has plenty of famous help.

But Lennon's work, while flawed, always seemed closest to maintaining Beatles-quality standards of songwriting and performance. Mind you, it does not rival Beatles records, but it seems to come closer than any other band members' output.

Lennon's first official solo record was Live Peace In Toronto 1969. Side one was John's set, and there are a few keepers, especially the oldies covers of Blue Suede Shoes, Money and Dizzy Miss Lizzy. Clapton plays guitar. Side two is Yoko screaming. No one ever listens to side 2 twice.

Lennon really hit the ground running with Plastic Ono Band 1970, arguably his best effort. Most of us have heard the primal scream therapy stories that helped John expres his anger on this record. It surely worked. Working Class Hero, Mother, I Found Out, God, Isolation and Well, Well, Well are standouts. The stripped bare sound was a revelation in 1970, and it still sounds raw today. Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, and John on guitar and piano. It laid a foundation for punk later every bit as much as the Velvet Underground's ealier work. A richly emotional record, but not always easy to listen to.

1971's Imagine is Lennon's most successful record comercially, a worldwide #1, and it deserves it. The title track, Jealous Guy, Gimme Some Truth, and the Paul-bashing How Do You Sleep? are all great, and the production values are excellent. There are few weaker songs, but generally it's all listenable. The closest thing to a pop gem in his catalog.

1972 saw the release of Some Time In New York City, easily Lennon's worst work. All of the songs are political rants. It's really a tough listen. It's not just the angry lyrics, but the songs themselves are not up to Lennon's usual standards. It deserves the bad press it recieved, and fans were generally and understandably disapointed. The original release included an extra record of live recordings that are entirely irrelevant.

Mind Games 1973 was a good Lennon record that made the US top 10 and contained several great tracks, Mind Games, Bring On The Lucie (Freda People), Intuition and Only People topping the list. Not his strongest songwriting, there are more than a few weaker tracks, but as a mostly neglected slice of Lennon history, it's not bad to hear.

Walls And Bridges was Lennon's 1974 venture, and contained the hit Whatever Gets You Through The Night, with Elton John on piano and duet vocal. #9 Dream, Nobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out), and What You Got are highlights, and many consider it among his best. It's definately more consistent, and varied in sound, than Mind Games at least.

Rock 'N' Roll came out in 1975, just before Lennon retired to raise Sean. A record of 50s and 60s covers, it holds up remarkably well. The songs are filled with a few too many musicians, giving it a less raw sound than might be perfect, but Lennon obviously loves the material and sings his heart out on these oldies. The press on this one ranges from "terrible" to "classic". I lean towards the later.

In 1980 Lennon came out of retirement with Double Fantasy, an album shared with Yoko, so it's only half a John Lennon record. The Lennon material is some of his best. Watching The Wheels, Woman, (Just Like ) Starting Over, and Dear Yoko are all very good songs. The Yoko songs are more pop than she ever displayed before, so they don't spoil the show completely.

In 1984, Milk And Honey was cobbled together from recordings made during the Double Fantasy sessions, and it sounds like just that. I'm Stepping Out and Nobody Told Me are good, but the record would never have happened without John's untimely murder in 1980.

There have been numerous repackagings of Lennon's solo output, and some of these are very good. There were several singles that never made to any of the above, such as Power To The People, Instant Karma and Happy Xmas (War Is Over), and these are included on almost any of the compilations. The new four CD set Gimme Some Truth looks like a good way to go deeper than a single CD, and get almost everything of importance and quality. The new Power To The People: The Hits is about as good as the single discs get.

For me, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Rock 'N' Roll, and the early singles compilation Shaved Fish are essential.

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