Category Archives: John Lennon

Rocks In The Attic #805: John Lennon & Yoko Ono – ‘Some Time In New York City’ (1972)

RITA#805After John and Yoko’s 1972 promotional film Imagine and 1988’s wider-focused Imagine: John Lennon, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 1971 album had been well and truly covered. But, as seems to happen when you least expect it, somebody stumbled on some unreleased footage and now we have another documentary to entertain us.

John And Yoko: Above Us Only Sky is a 90-minute film by director Michael Epstein, featuring documentary footage, both seen and unseen, from the recording of Imagine and the events that surrounded it. Unlike John and Yoko’s 1972 ‘home-movie’, Epstein’s documentary has the power of hindsight, plus a heap of talking heads, including Yoko Ono and Julian Lennon, to make sense of it all.

RITA#805aRight out of the bat, the highlight of the unseen footage is of Lennon and band recording with George ‘Double-Denim’ Harrison on Oh My Love, and audio outtakes of Lennon coaching King Curtis through his saxophone parts on It’s So Hard. George also lends some advice to Lennon recording the album’s penultimate song, How?, a collaboration that isn’t credited on the album and has never been alluded to.

An intimate and revealing documentary, for sure, but I’m still waiting for a documentary centred on the next stage in his career. The later sections of John And Yoko: Above Us Only Sky scratches the surface of their move from Tittenhurst to NYC, but it’s this phase of his career that’s always been of the most interest to me.

There’s a great quote of John’s I first saw in the John Lennon Anthology box-set, illustrated by a photo of him listening to the beat of the city with a stethoscope: ‘If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome. Today, America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself.’ This logic has always stuck with me, and perhaps because I devoured that box-set before I actually listened to the individual albums themselves, it’s this weird third record named after his favourite city that I’ve always gravitated towards.

RITA#805bYes, Plastic Ono Band is a belter, Imagine is the big, famous hit, and he still had a number of great albums after this one, but this one sticks out for being the most exciting – definitely until the newfound excitement of the duo’s return with Double Fantasy. It’s the hodge-podge feel of Some Time In New York City that I love the most, almost each song on the studio half of the record is a protest song in itself, on whatever cause the couple were fighting at the time of recording. Hearing these songs nearly fifty years later, it’s not hard to understand why the FBI had opened a file on the Lennons earlier that year and had begun intense surveillance on them. The fear was that John and Yoko were mobilising young people to vote, which could have endangered Richard Nixon’s chances of a second term in 1972. History speaks for itself as to who the real crook was.

I don’t often listen to the live half of the record (or the Bonus Live Jam LP as it’s described on the cover). It’s a great document of the band playing live at that time, but it’s not as interesting as the studio sides of the album and as much as I love her, there’s only so much of Yoko’s screaming I can tolerate.

RITA#805cI do love the insert cover of the live LP though, a replica of Frank Zappa’s 1971 live album with John’s red scrawl across it. This is genius, and even when you consider Zappa’s involvement on the records, it’s so far from anything that would happen in today’s world of music attorneys, trademarks and lawsuits.

Hopefully we’ll get a decent documentary on this era, from the end of Imagine until the start of Mind Games. His every move in New York would have been documented, if not by the press then definitely by the authorities.

Hit: Woman Is The Nigger Of The World

Hidden Gem: John Sinclair

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Rocks In The Attic #793: The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road (3LP Anniversary Edition)’ (1969/2019)

RITA#793Christmas continues to come twice a year for fans of the Fab Four, with 2019’s banner Beatles release. 50 years and a day after its original release on 26th September 1969, Abbey Road  has been given the same makeover afforded to last year’s White Album anniversary set.

Packaged in a similar sized box to the White Album / Esher Demos package, the set is comprised of the new 2019 mix by Giles Martin (with credit given to mix engineer Sam Okell on the hype sticker) in its own sleeve, two LPs of outtakes from the sessions presented in an ‘alternate’ cover sleeve, and a four-panel booklet of liner notes, featuring forewords by Paul McCartney and Giles Martin.

It’s a wonderful package down to the smallest details. The blue font used on the hype sticker and in the ‘3LP Anniversary Edition’ labelling on the side of the box echoes the blue sky that takes up the negative space on the album’s world-famous cover shot. Or is it the blue of the dress worn by the girl blurrily walking out of shot on the rear cover? Maybe it’s just the same blue as gravedigger George’s double-denim?
RITA#793aAs with the White Album’s 2018 mix, the 2019 mix of Abbey Road is intimately revealing. Casual listeners probably won’t be able to spot the changes, but if you grew up listening to the album on headphones during your formative years, the differences are massive. Following on from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s remastering campaigns in recent years, the key words here are clarity and presence. It isn’t merely a money-grab release by simply making things LOUDER, although I’m sure the EMI accountants will all be in line for a sizable end-of-year bonus. Thankfully, Giles Martin and team have done more than just ‘make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder.’

John’s vocal on the first stop in Come Together – ‘got to be a joker, he just do what he please’ – reveals the first tweak. You can hear him bite down – or hold back? – on that last word even harder than before. George’s jangly guitar on Octopus’s Garden is even janglier, strengthening the song’s Country credentials. And Ringo’s fills, particularly on The End, have more weight in them. ‘The sound was the result of having new calfskin drum heads,’ Ringo explains in Kevin Howlett’s liner notes. ‘There’s a lot of tom-tom work on that record. I got the new heads and I naturally used them a lot – they were so great.’

The biggest change in the remix however is in the bottom end. Paul’s bass is pushed further into the front of this mix – if such a thing is possible given how front and centre it already was in the original 1969 mix. This is a good thing; the bass playing throughout the album represents the peak of McCartney’s playing, and his fluid, walking basslines are one of the album’s key ingredients.

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In terms of bonus content, it feels like a missed opportunity that Martin Jr. wasn’t tasked to produce a mono mix of the album. With the White Album being the last Beatles record to enjoy a mono mix upon release, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be have only been available in stereo, the decade’s eventual winning format (even though Martin Sr. and team were still mixing the singles in mono in 1969, with Get Back appearing in April of that year as the band’s final mono single in the UK). If mono mixes of Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be don’t already exist somewhere in the archive, even as reference mixes, then it seems a missed opportunity to not hand this challenge to Martin The Younger. Of course, nobody really needs a mono mix of these albums, but given his achievements, from 2006’s Love soundtrack album of the Cirque du Soleil show, to the remixes of Pepper, the White Album and now Abbey Road, he’s the perfect candidate to do something a little different sonically to compliment the respective stereo mixes.

What we do get as extras are still brilliant: twenty-three tracks of demos, outtakes and orchestral instrumentals. As with the outtakes in last year’s White Album set, some have seen the light of day in one form or another across the Anthology project, but the vast majority have been officially unreleased until now.

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The studio chatter preceding the first track – a run-through of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at Trident studios – offers a glimpse at the joys that lie ahead:

“Is it possible, without affecting yourselves too much, to turn down a little?” somebody politely asks in the background, off-mic. “Apparently there’s been a complaint.”

“From who?” asks John.

“Somebody outside the building,” comes the reply.

“Well, what are they doing here at this time of night? What guy?” fires back a frustrated John.

Several voices debate for a few seconds. In the background, Paul says ‘It’s his own fault for getting a house in such a lousy district!’

John then comes back on the microphone. “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud, and if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet….Last chance to be loud!”

As much as I love hearing the alternate versions of these fifty-year old songs, it’s the banter in the studio that’s just as revealing. As we’ve heard before, Paul is always the most playful in the studio. At the beginning of a take of You Never Give Me Your Money, a croaky Paul – at exactly half-past-two, he tells us, presumably in the A.M. – sings ‘You never give me your coffee.’ At the start of the first take of Golden Slumbers, he changes the piano chord from minor to major (specifically from Am7 to D6), singing ‘Day after day…’, the opening line of The Fool On The Hill, before stopping abruptly to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s annoying when the later, solo-years McCartney peppers his releases with this kind of studio tomfoolery. Listening to him larking about as a grown-up feels akin to tolerating a precocious child. Here, as a fresh-faced 27-year old, he’s just endearing.

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As for the album itself, fifty years young, for me it represents their artistic peak. It’s always been in my top 3 Beatles albums, and contests that top spot on an almost daily basis with Revolver and the White Album. It has such a magical vibe, and seems to be full to the brim with positivity. Even John’s default songwriting setting – pessimist – doesn’t seem to derail the proceedings.

Speaking of which, forget other contenders (The Who, The Byrds, and the Beatles’ own Helter Skelter) for the first heavy, heavy sound. Surely the roots of heavy metal can be traced back to John’s doom-laden arpeggios in I Want You (She’s So Heavy). It’s surely the song that feels it’s opening the door for Black Sabbath’s debut just five months later. Lennon and Harrison’s use of arpeggios thoughout their Beatles career – from songs as varied as And I Love Her to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer – feel like one of least celebrated aspects of their musicianship. Mark Lewisohn, in the first volume of his Beatles mega-biography, goes to great pains to point out that it was the band’s vocal harmonies that made them stand out from their contemporaries in their early years. I hope Lewisohn will give the band as much credit for their intricate rhythm guitar lines, in the eagerly anticipated next volume of his biography (currently due in 2020).

Abbey Road also represents the songwriting peak of George Harrison, with two of the album’s songs penned by him. It’s a peak that would last at least as long as his debut record, arguably longer, but there’s no debate that in terms of maturity, both Something and Here Comes The Sun are miles ahead of anything he submitted to the White Album or the Let It Be sessions.

Those calfskin toms on Ringo’s drums get the spotlight at the end of the record, with the break leading into The End serving as a brilliantly held-back bit of drumming. Some might see it as a half-hearted drum-solo, but Ringo’s subtlety and less-is-more ethos, as always, works wonders.

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More than anything, it sounds like McCartney’s enthusiasm – the driving force of the band since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967 – has led the band to this point, from movie-making and the aborted attempts to get back to their roots as a performing band, to getting together to record again with George Martin. The studio banter on the sessions discs sound as good natured as the biographies would have us believe all these years, and there doesn’t sound to be any kind of tension from the business affairs that were looming in the background.

The album’s very special to me for one specific reason. Once, during my teens, I was on a holiday over Christmas in the snowy highlands of Scotland. My parents fell sick with food poisoning for a few days, and so I was left to my own company. Out of boredom one day, I decided to walk to the next village and back – a 6-mile round trip, through heavy snow. I took off, with the last Beatles album to be unlocked in my brain – Abbey Road – sitting in my portable CD player. I probably listened to the album 6 or 7 times, back to back, as I made my way through the snow. Those magical elements to the album seemed to be heightened in the landscape and even now I associate it with that hike from Newtonmore to Kingussie and back. In terms of location, it’s not a million miles away from the Mull Of Kintyre, where McCartney might have been wintering with Linda at the time, and so the connection feels just right.

Hit: Here Comes The Sun

Hidden Gem: Goodbye (Home Demo)

Rocks In The Attic #679: John Lennon & Yoko Ono – ‘Milk And Honey’ (1984)

RITA#679One of the saddest things about losing John Lennon is that his return to recording was starting to produce some really interesting music, first with 1980’s Double Fantasy, and then this, the posthumously released follow-up, Milk And Honey, from 1984.

Lennon’s post-Beatles albums from the ‘70s sometimes make for a hard listen. Awash with the reverb of Phil Spector, they’re often angry, yet balanced with some overly sentimental singles. Finding a musical companion in Yoko Ono seems to have rejuvenated his output, waking him up from an arguably misdirected post-Beatles decade. Ono might not be a writing partner like McCartney was, but the relationship seems to have energised his writing and awakened his competitive spirit.

It’s difficult to imagine what his next studio record would have sounded like. This release was cobbled together from sessions following Double Fantasy, so it makes for a great companion piece to that record. Who knows – a year or two later, Lennon might have tired from the post-punk leanings of that record, and gone in a different direction. His decision to record a version of I’m Losing You backed by Cheap Trick (available on the John Lennon Anthology box-set) perhaps indicates that the 1980s would have been a rockier, band-oriented decade.

Hit: Nobody Told Me

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Wanna Face It

Rocks In The Attic #645: John Lennon & Yoko Ono – ‘Double Fantasy’ (1980)

RITA#645I enjoyed the recent Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049. When it was first mooted, I, like many others, expressed anger at why Hollywood was daring to mess with something so sacred. This type of revisionism generally ends poorly, but director Denis Villeneuve had a good track record, and the resulting film felt more like a genuine follow up to the 1982 original than I could possibly have imagined.

One thing I read online around the time of the film’s release was somebody claiming that Ryan Gosling is the new Nicolas Cage. Not in looks or acting style, but in his scene-stealing buffoonery that shines through in every film. I used to love Nic Cage – his turn as H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona is one of my favourite cinematic performances of all time – and while he occasionally redeems himself with a great role (Big Daddy in Kick Ass, for example), his performances are generally as woeful as the films he chooses.

But in no way is Ryan Gosling the new Nicolas Cage. Gosling may suffer sometimes from the same level of screen charisma as a vase of flowers, but at least he’s watchable, particularly when he turns his best attribute – moody silence – to brilliant effect in films such as Drive and the aforementioned Blade Runner 2049.

I posit another theory – that the new Nicolas Cage is none other than Gosling’s Blade Runner 2049 co-star, Jared Leto. To take the mantle of the silver screen’s new Nic Cage, his successor must be a recidivist over-actor. Luckily for us, Leto has this in spades.

Not only does he chew the scenery as Blade Runner 2049’s blind villain, Niander Wallace, but he comes across as so self-absorbed that one gets the feeling he’d be more at home performing the film as a one-man stage-play.

RITA#645aLast week I also watched Chapter 27, the film about the murder of John Lennon. Inspired by Won’t You Take Me Down, Jack Jones’ book of interviews with Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, the film is a tough watch, as tough as Jones’ book is to read.

I’m not sure if it glamorises Chapman, but it definitely doesn’t seek to explain why he did what he did – something that he himself was so conflicted about (if Jones’ interviews are to be believed). As a result, the film has a horrible foreboding sense of resignation to it.

Of course, Chapter 27 gives Jared Leto the opportunity to pull out all the stops in his portrayal of Chapman, putting on a great deal of weight for the role and changing his voice to mimic the killer’s childlike whisper. I’m on the fence about whether it’s a great performance, as we really only have Leto’s interpretation to go by. Let’s just say that he definitely earned his salary. Chapman does come across as a creepy motherfucker, and I was quite happy when the film ended as I genuinely couldn’t bear any more time in his company.

It’s so heartbreaking to listen to this record when you consider what happened to Lennon just three weeks after its release. There’s a strong sense of optimism throughout both John and Yoko’s songs, as the couple looked ahead into the new decade.

Hit: Woman

Hidden Gem: I’m Losing You

Rocks In The Attic #494: Various Artists – ‘Every Man Has A Woman’ (1984)

RITA#494Yoko Ono got a raw deal, didn’t she? Known to the entire globe as ‘the woman who split up the Beatles’, she didn’t really do anything malicious or wilful to break up the band (and if anything, they would have split up whether she was in the picture or not). Her only crime was to exist as far as some people are concerned. Well, that’s not very nice, is it? ‘All you need is love’, John sang in 1967, but half of his fans have a hatred for his wife usually reserved for their personal enemies.

While some of her high-pitched wailing puts me off, some of her songwriting is great. I might like her contributions to Double Fantasy far less than I like John’s, but they still stand up. And who knows what might have happened next, had John not been gunned down. Half of Double Fantasy – admittedly Yoko’s half – is very much new wave, and I wonder if John would have gone down that route in the early ‘80s (as McCartney did with McCartney II in 1981).

Every Man Has A Woman is a collection of Yoko Ono covers put together to mark her 50th birthday. Devised by John, but completed by others after his death, it features the likes of Elvis Costello, Harry Nilsson, Lennon himself, Roseanne Cash, Roberta Flack, and a young Sean Lennon covering songs from Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), Double Fantasy (1980), Season Of Glass (1981), and It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) (1982). Nilsson appears three times throughout the course of the record, perhaps in an attempt to apologies to Yoko for leading John astray during his long weekend of 1973 to 1975.

Hit: Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him – John Lennon

Hidden Gem: I’m Moving On – Eddie Money

Rocks In The Attic #490: John Lennon – ‘Imagine’ (1971)

RITA#490Post-Beatles album number two finds John hitting his stride as a solo artist. I love his first record, the minimalist John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band; there’s a certain charm to it, but it’s by no means a record for the Beatle-loving masses. Here we find him producing a piece of work as commercial – but still as artistically valid – as anything released by the Beatles from 1965 onwards.

The only sour note on the record is How Do You Sleep?, a nasty attack on McCartney in retaliation for comments he had made in public about John and Yoko. I’ve never heard these comments, nor have I ever deciphered McCartney’s lyrics on Ram, which are supposed to be just as negative.

Still, if you’re going to have a go at somebody, at least be subtle about it. Lennon’s lyrics on How Do You Sleep? just make him out to sound nasty and childish. He even precedes the song by a short blast of an orchestra tuning up, the same idea thought up and used by McCartney on the intro to the title song on Sgt. Pepper’s.

One of the points stressed by Mark Lewisohn in his fantastic Beatles biography, Tune In: The Beatles – All These Years, Vol 1, was that Lennon could be so brutal and nasty in the way he would ridicule others. Usually, it would be people outside his circle of friends who would feel the brunt of his antagonism, but from time to time those close to him would get a earful too. How Do You Sleep? finds him completely unrestrained, doing everything except actually mentioning McCartney by name. The lyrics are so thinly veiled that he might as well have called the song ‘Paul Is A Douchebag’. In fact, a more Beatle-y insult might have been to name it ‘The Wally Was Paul’.

Always the most honest Beatle, Imagine finds John admitting that he doesn’t have all the answers on songs such as How? and Crippled Inside. It’s refreshing to hear such uncertainty from a ‘rock star’, and it’s almost the exact opposite of what you would hear from a global superstar in the twenty first century. It’s hard to imagine somebody as egotistical as Kanye West writing a song like How? Kanye knows everything of course, yet it’s strange how he couldn’t stop that knowledge from preventing his descent into bankruptcy.

One of my favourite moments on Imagine, the closing track Oh Yoko!, was included on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 1998 masterpiece Rushmore. It’s a lovely song, and used to great effect in the film when Max and Herman decide to join forces to win Rosemary’s affections. A song like that shouldn’t work in a film; it’s a love song written for somebody in particular – Yoko Ono, of course – and she’s name-checked repeatedly in the song. It should only really make sense if the love interest in the film is named Yoko.  I’m not sure if the lovely Olivia Williams could pass for Japanese though.

Imagine represents an artistic peak for Lennon. His later albums would find him trying to repeat the success of this record, not least on its (official) follow-up, Mind Games, in 1973. Imagine is a fantastic record, and one of the reasons he never managed to match it is that it’s so bloody good – the curse of perfection.

Hit: Imagine

Hidden Gem: Oh Yoko!

Rocks In The Attic #370: John Lennon – ‘Mind Games’ (1973)

RITA#370In terms of a timeline, it really depends where you consider this album in Lennon’s career. It’s actually solo record #7. First there was the three albums of noise with Yoko, then there’s the first post-Beatles album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Then there’s the odds and ends political album, Some Time In New York City, and then finally this, 1973’s Mind Games.

You could argue though that it feels like solo record #2, after Imagine, if you disregard those experimental albums with Yoko, the omnibus feel of Some Time In New York City and – hold tight – the starkness of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Being the first post-Beatles release, of course that one is the first solo album, but Imagine always feels like his first proper stab at matching the output of his previous band. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, despite how much I love it, always comes across as something intended for Lennon’s therapist, not the record-buying public of 1970.

When discussing Mind Games before its release, Lennon talked it up as “like Imagine on speed”. It isn’t as accessible as Imagine, and without that album’s iconic song it struggles to hold its head above his other solo albums. There are fewer moments of brilliance on this album, but they’re still there regardless – just check out that fantastic piano break on Out The Blue.

It’s interesting that Lennon used an upper in his analogy. To me, Mind Games feels like much more of a chilled out record. I guess “like Imagine on a downer” doesn’t sound as attractive.

Hit: Mind Games

Hidden Gem: Meat City