Tag 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 #756: Various Artists – ‘Stax Does The Beatles’ (2008)

RITA#756This year’s Record Store Day was an embarrassment of riches. Not only did it deliver a bunch of sought-after soundtracks, but the funk and soul fan in me was well looked after too.

First released digitally back in 2008, a now double-LP of Stax artists doing Beatles covers sounds like something I’d make up in my dreams. Two of my favourite musical pillars colliding, the only thing that would beat this would be the unearthing of a secret LP of Stax songs recorded by the Fab Four themselves between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. I’ll keep dreaming about that one.

In fact, it doesn’t take much to imagine what Stax Does The Beatles sounds like. Much of the material collected here is available on the individual Stax releases they’re culled from, with only one or two hard to find tracks included. Probably the most famous cover, Otis Redding’s Day Tripper, is presented as an alternate take that’s just as rocking as the well-known version found on his Dictionary Of Soul from 1966. Another gem is a cover of And I Love Her, a b-side by Reggie Milner who only recorded two singles for Stax.

RITA#756aStax house-band Booker T. & The M.G.s  – once going so far as to record an entire LP in homage to the Beatles – turn in the highest number of performances on the album, responsible for four of its fifteen tracks (five if you include guitarist Steve Cropper’s solo effort of With A Little Help From My Friends, the title-track of his 1969 album).

The album’s liner notes make reference to the little-known fact that Brian Epstein once scouted the Stax studios as a potential place to record the Beatles. His visit to Memphis in March 1966 ultimately led to nothing – Epstein abandoned the idea due to fears over security – and the resulting album, 1966’s Revolver, was recorded back at Abbey Road like the majority of their work. It sounds like a match made in heaven though. “Who knows what it would have sounded like had we recorded it at Stax,” ponders Cropper.  Paul McCartney’s soulful Got To Get You Into My Life, covered here by Booker T. & The M.G.s, remains Revolver’s only glimpse of how close the Beatles came to recording a soul and R&B-influenced album in 1966.

The liner notes do make a glaring omission, however. Of all the records in the world, this really was the place to mention that John Lennon used to jokingly refer to the Stax house-band as Book-A-Table & The Maitre-D’s.

Hit: Day Tripper (Alternate Take) – Otis Redding

Hidden Gem: Something – Isaac Hayes

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Rocks In The Attic #724: George Harrison – ‘George Harrison’ (1979)

RITA#724You’d be forgiven for thinking that by the time of George’s eighth solo album, he was bereft of ideas. This 1979 effort finds him not only running out of ideas for album titles, but he also re-uses earlier material: the second-track, Not Guilty, is a leftover from the last self-titled album he was involved in, the Beatles’ eponymous 1968 release.

But there’s lots to like about this record. It’s a bit happier and a bit more laid-back than his previous work, having married Olivia Arias and become a father to Dhani a year earlier.

Side-two opener Faster – “inspired by Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda” – is perhaps one of the last hidden gems of George’s solo career – a non-charting single, released as a picture-disc (a first for a Beatle past or present) with all proceeds going to charity (a cancer fund set up following the death of Swedish F1 driver Gunnar Nilsson in 1978). George must have had enough invested into the song to go to the trouble of filming a promotional video for it.

RITA#724aSpeaking of chart positions, this album comes a full five years after George had a #1 single anywhere in the world – 1973’s Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth), the sole single from Living In The Material World, which topped the US Billboard. His poor chart performance through 1977 and 1978 correlates with the rise of punk, and his more mature songwriting was probably at odds with Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and the rest of the new breed of youth music.

Here Comes The Moon is lovely, the first single Blow Away is great, and there really isn’t a weak song on the album. But that’s probably the rub – while George might not write or record bad songs by this point, he also doesn’t write or record anything particularly outstanding. His next single, All Those Years Ago in 1981 performed much stronger in the wake of John Lennon’s death, and it wouldn’t be until 1987 before he topped the charts again (with his Jeff Lynne-produced cover of I’ve Got My Mind Set On You).

Mention must be made of George’s hairstyle during 1979. The rear cover image shows him walking across his garden, not only in the largest pair of flares this side of the 1960s, but with a perm long enough to make any poodle-breeder proud.

Hit: Blow Away

Hidden Gem: Faster

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Rocks In The Attic #718: The Beatles – ‘The Beatles & Esher Demos’ (1968)

RITA#718You can hear the differences straight away. Paul’s snare beat on Back In The U.S.S.R. is punchier and his vocal ad-libs in the fade-out are much clearer. Then John’s acoustic guitar fades into Dear Prudence and Paul’s pulsing bass sounds on top of everything, front and centre.

Released yesterday to celebrate the record’s fifty-year anniversary, Giles Martin’s new 2018 stereo remix of the Beatles’ ‘self-titled’ White Album is an early Christmas present for fans of the band.

Repeating the successful formula employed on last year’s stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s, Martin Jr. has broken down the White Album recordings, and built them back up again. Untrained ears might not be able to tell the difference, we’re talking subtle changes. Clarity and focus are the operative words, not revisionism.

RITA#718aThe sliding, uptempo bass line in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da transforms one of my least favourite Beatle songs into a stormer. Eric Clapton’s swirling guitar lines in George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps feel even more hypnotic. Paul’s bassline in Why Don’t We Do It In The Road sounds funkier. Birthday sounds as insane as the band probably intended it to. Paul’s screaming salvo into Helter Skelter sounds at war with Ringo’s drums. The horns in Savoy Truffle are sharper, the electronic piano line closer to the front of the mix.

The 2014 mono remaster was previously my favourite version of this album. I didn’t think anything could beat that. How wrong I was. All in all, this new release is like listening to the album for the first time, with fresh ears. And if that wasn’t enough, the other half of the box-set is just as revelatory.

In May 1968, fresh from their Rishikesh trip, the Beatles convened at Kinfauns, George’s house in Esher, Surrey. There, they recorded demo versions of 26 of the White Albums’s 40 tracks, plus songs that didn’t make the intended album.

Glimpsed on 1997’s Anthology 3, Giles Martin has now remixed these tapes and re-sequenced them into a double-LP with – where possible – the same running order as the 1968 album.

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Hearing McCartney doing a loosely double-tracked Back In The U.S.S.R. on an acoustic guitar – complete with a sung guitar solo – is just fantastic, and really fills me with hope that there’s more material like this yet to see an official release.

The songs that were worked out in the White Album studio sessions – Wild Honey Pie, Martha My Dear, Don’t Pass Me By, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, I Will, Birthday, Helter Skelter, Long, Long, Long, Savoy Truffle, Revolution 9 and Good Night – don’t appear here in demo form. Instead we get a raft of songs intended for the album, but which appeared elsewhere: George’s Sour Milk Sea (a single for Jackie Lomax), Not Guilty (re-recorded for his 1979 record, George Harrison), and Circles (re-recorded for 1982’s Gone Troppo), Paul’s Junk (soon to be heard on 1970’s McCartney), and John’s Child Of Nature (reworked as Jealous Guy from 1971’s Imagine). Two other Lennon demos presented here – Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam would be reworked into the medley on Abbey Road in 1969.

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The demos make for a fantastic listen. Complete with between-take chatter, coughs and sniffs, the sound quality is mostly very good with the occasional bit of tape-hiss evident on some tracks. In hindsight, the Beatles probably didn’t need to go to Abbey Road and Trident to re-record these demos – they could have just released this back in 1968.

While it now seems inevitable that Giles Martin will provide similar remix duties for next year’s half-century release of Abbey Road, followed by Let It Be in 2020, I really hope he continues with the pre-Pepper albums as they begin their sixty-year celebrations from 2023.

And hopefully he’s training his son in the finer techniques of audio engineering, ready for the next generation of reissues…

Hit: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Hidden Gem: Helter Skelter

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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 #669: Various Artists – ‘Stand By Me (O.S.T.)’ (1986)

RITA#669There were a number of films released through the 1980s which went some way in redefining the seminal singles of the 1950s and 1960s. Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill kicked off the nostalgia in 1983, before Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Oliver Stone’s Platoon landed in 1986. By the time of 1988’s Good Morning Vietnam, it was almost commonplace for a Hollywood film to feature a ‘golden oldies’ soundtrack.

Along the more obvious hits on this soundtrack – Buddy Holly’s Everyday, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls Of Fire, and of course, Ben E. King’s Stand By Me – there’s one very interesting addition. The Del-Viking’s Come Go With Me might sound like any other late-‘50s R&B, but it was actually the song that a teenage Paul McCartney first saw (a teenage) John Lennon playing with the Quarrymen on the fateful day that they met (July 6th 1957) in Liverpool.

RITA#669aIt’s hard not to like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Adapted from a Stephen King short-story, it has an impressive young cast (Wil Wheaton, River Pheonix, Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland) and a lovely, wry narration by Richard Dreyfuss. Reiner’s film almost perfectly balances nostalgia with the thrill of youth. The script’s perspective might be of an older man looking backwards, but instead the film is driven by the optimism of the young leads looking forward to the future.

Hit: Stand By Me – Ben E. King

Hidden Gem: Come Go With Me – The Del-Vikings