After 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.
Right 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.
Yes, 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.
I 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.
Hidden Gem: John Sinclair