Sunday, 5 May 2013

John Lennon

Of all the ex-Beatles, it is John whose legacy has outdone the others. Nobody has ever given much thought about what Ringo has been up to since 1970, apart from “Thomas The Tank Engine”, Macca’s solo material has been flaky (although Wings were superb) and although George’s towering “All Things Must Pass” is now regarded as the best post-Beatles Beatles LP, it is Lennon who is still seen as the Cool Beatle. He was the most vocal peace campaigner in the band, returned his MBE in the late 60s, seen by some as an anti-Royalist statement, was viewed as the Avant Garde Beatle who wrote all the weird stuff on “The White Album” and has cemented his solo career reputation with songs like “Imagine”.

But, like Hendrix, Lennon’s solo career is a bit of a confusing body of work. There are solo singles that weren’t solo singles, albums that don’t seem to get a mention because John is seemingly absent on parts of them, whilst the man himself spent the entire second half of the 70s nowhere near the music industry. So I thought it would make sense - for my benefit at least - to look at Lennon’s output, and place into context what he released, where and when.


Whilst The Beatles were still an ongoing concern, John and Yoko Ono recorded three “experimental” albums in the late 60’s. Whilst most people are aware of these albums, few have ever actually heard them and even less have actually bought them. I think I have heard bits and pieces, maybe, but the general consensus is that they are unlistenable nonsense. For the record, the three albums were “Unfinished Music No 1” (the famous “nudes” cover), “Unfinished Music No 2” and “The Wedding Album”. All have been made available on CD if you so wish, but even the biggest Lennon or Avant Garde music fans have been known to be less than impressed by these efforts.

Lennon and Ono then formed a band, The Plastic Ono Band, ostensibly a five piece band including Eric Clapton, but which became more of an organisation consisting of anybody who happened to be recording with them at the time in later years. As such, Lennon’s debut 45 is not officially a solo single at all, as 1969’s “Give Peace A Chance” was simply credited to the “Plastic Ono Band”. But Lennon handles all the lead vocals on the song, with Ono offering nothing more than backing vocals and handclaps, and indeed the other “official” members of the band are not even present on the recording. The b-side was an Ono led track called “Remember Love”, and Lennon would continue this habit of releasing a single with a Yoko B-side for several years. A second Lennon/Plastic Ono Band 45, “Cold Turkey”, would be issued before years end.

In late 69, the band issued a live album, “Live Peace In Toronto 1969”, recorded at a gig the previous September, which also followed the half John/half Yoko approach, with the entire first half of the album featuring John on lead vocals, the second half featuring Yoko. The appearance of Yoko’s “wailing, pitchless, brainless, banshee vocalizing” (quote from Allmusic) has long led people to dismiss this album, and the first re-release of this record on CD didn’t occur until 1995, possibly due to a lack of interest until then.

1970’s “Instant Karma”, issued as The Beatles were collapsing, was released in some countries as a full blown solo single, with a sleeve depicting the legend “Lennon Instant Karma”, although officially, it was still a Plastic Ono Band recording. A Yoko track, again, adorned the B-side. It was then followed by the release of Lennon’s “official” debut LP, the clumsily titled “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”. A Yoko LP, in a near identical cover, called “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” was issued simultaneously. None of the three singles Lennon had released so far appeared on the record. It has long been seen as a post-Beatles classic, an angry and at times depressing record, but it’s not quite as violently aggressive as reviews make out. For every primal scream style wail that inhabits something like “Well Well Well”, there are beautiful Beatles-esque ditties like “Isolation”, and for every lo-fi tear stained moment of sadness like “My Mummy’s Dead”, there is a thrilling rock and roll moment like “I Found Out”. Later Lennon albums would “out-Beatle” it, but it’s a glorious LP, and far from the “disturbing” tag that sometimes follows it around.

There were no singles lifted from the LP in the UK (although a heavily edited “Mother” would appear as a US 45), and Lennon’s next UK 45, “Power To The People”, would be another new song, credited to “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”. Like all the previous singles, it was housed in a picture sleeve, a relative rarity in the UK at the time, using a brilliant image of Lennon as some sort of Japanese Miner. A remixed version of Lennon’s debut LP was issued on CD in 2000, with “Power To The People” added as a bonus track, along with the more obscure “Do The Oz”, a track which had appeared on the B-side of a Bill Elliot 45 on Apple in 1971.

Lennon’s second solo LP, “Imagine”, was issued in 1971. Although the first release to be credited as a “pure” Lennon solo record, Yoko’s shadow still looms large, most noticeably on the song called “Oh Yoko”. Original copies included the record in an inner sleeve, with a poster and postcard insert (a famous photo of John and a Pig), later reissues - AFAIK - kept the inserts but used a plain white inner bag instead of the lyric adorned inner sleeve. Although the LP is seen as a more “pop” effort than it’s predecessor, at times, it actually seems more politicised - the snarling “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier”, the venom spitting “Gimme Some Truth”, the anti-Paul “How Do You Sleep” (later retracted by John)...there is some high octane rock and roll on here inbetween the genteel harmonies of “How” and “Jealous Guy”.

The title track was never issued as a single in the UK at the time, although a video was later created using footage filmed at John & Yoko’s home in England, and the single eventually got a UK release in 1975 to coincide with the “Shaved Fish” collection. And whilst it is difficult to take John seriously as he sings “imagine no possessions” whilst sitting at a grand piano in a huge country mansion (rock stars are supposed to be hypocritical, I suppose), there is no denying the melodic pull of this and the rest of the album, which fully justifies it’s “classic album” tag.

John returned to the “collaborative” world later in 71, when he recorded the “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” single with Yoko, who provided some notable high pitched vocals in the chorus of the song - the single appeared as a “John & Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band” release. A wonderful Christmas single, which is both joyous and uplifting musically, yet lyrically quite sombre, its UK release was delayed by a year, and thus appeared as a 1972 Christmas UK 45. Original copies were housed in a picture sleeve, and pressed on green vinyl, but later pressings were pressed on black vinyl and came in standard black die cut sleeves. Again, it was a Yoko song on the flip, but the single was reissued in 2003 in it’s original sleeve (and with the 7” edition again coming on green vinyl) but with John material on the b-side this time around.

1972 also saw the release of another “forgotten” Lennon LP, although like “Live Peace”, there is a reason. “Sometime In New York City” was another collaborative effort, again released as a “John & Yoko” album. It is a mix of studio and live material, sometimes with John on lead, sometimes Yoko, and again, this has led to most reviews of the album being less than agreeable. It spawned a now well known Lennon song in the form of “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”, and it has been made available on CD, but it has long been thought of as a side project LP, and not the follow up to “Imagine”. “Woman” did get a US single release, but the UK release was pulled.

The official follow up to "Imagine" was 1973’s “Mind Games”, the subject of a mix of both good and ho-hum reviews from critics, but another sterling piece of Beatles-style melodic fun, the title track in particular being a stone cold classic 45. The album, released just as they were splitting up, features a large image of Yoko’s face in the background, and a mini-John in the foreground. A later reissue on EMI’s budget label “Music For Pleasure”, reprinted this image multiple times across the cover for some reason, creating a sort of “psychedelic” effect (just like on the debut Pink Floyd LP), and with the artist name and album title reprinted in a huge font at the top middle, quite unlike the minimalist approach of the original. In keeping with his avant garde interest, the final song on side 1 was a 3 second long silent track called “Nutopian International Anthem”.

1974’s “Walls And Bridges” carried on where “Mind Games” left off, more great harmonies and more recently, something of a critically acclaimed long player, with “#9 Dream” another piece of superb Beatles-ish ultra-pop, and the storming “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” featuring some great boogie-woogie piano from Reg Dwight, and marvellous saxophone work from Bobby Keys. It was issued as the first single from the LP, and Elton famously claimed that it would give Lennon a chart topper. The pair had a bet - if Elton was right, Lennon would join Elton on stage to perform the song at a future gig. And so it came to be that on 28th November 1974, John dutifully joined Elton for a performance of this and two Beatles oldies at a show in New York. Although Lennon would later perform at a “filmed for TV” show, this gig famously was his last ever proper concert performance, Lennon having already shied away from gigging due to some form of stage fright. Not only that, but “Walls And Bridges” would turn out to be the final full album of (mostly) Lennon originals that he would release before his death. Like “Mind Games” that preceded it, it too was reissued in remixed form in the noughties with bonus tracks, and also in a new sleeve, but the current edition in the shops uses the original mixes, the original cover and minus all bonus tracks.

Lennon’s last “full length, proper solo” LP released before his death was 1975’s covers album “Rock N Roll”. Lennon was legally required to record several songs on a future LP that had originally been published by Big Seven, after admitting to “borrowing” a lyric from a Big Seven number (Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”) for “Come Together” on 1969’s “Abbey Road”. He decided to do a whole album of (rock and roll styled) covers, and “Rock N Roll” was duly born. Although it is seen as something of the black sheep of the Lennon family, I have always loved this album - the brilliant Hamburg era picture of John on the cover, the sheer thrill of “Slippin’ And Slidin’”, the magnificent horn filled attack on “Stand By Me”, it’s an album full of energy. Maybe, because I don’t own many of the originals, I am able to have a different viewpoint than others, but it’s always struck me as an album where John is having fun, he even re-covers “Ya Ya”, another version of which was taped for “Walls And Bridges”. Although Wikipedia claims it too was the recipient of an MFP reissue in a new sleeve a la “Mind Games”, the MFP reissue (from 1981) uses the same front cover. It too has since been reissued in remixed, and then un-remixed, form on CD.

And then, it all went quiet. Reunited with Yoko, John decided to have a life of domesticity, becoming a house husband in order to look after new born son Sean. Punk came and went, but during 1980, Lennon decided to make a new album, claiming that he wanted to make a record as good as Bowie’s “Heroes”. He decided to make a record with Yoko, with a John sung track alternating with a Yoko sung track, apparently so this would create “a musical dialogue” between “husband and wife”. And so, Lennon’s “sixth” (or thereabouts) solo album appeared in late 1980 on Geffen, credited to “John Lennon / Yoko Ono” and titled “Double Fantasy”. Whilst there is no denying the brilliance of Lennon’s contributions (the glorious doo-wop pastiche that is “Just Like Starting Over”, the ridiculously soppy but stunningly beautiful “Woman”), the album is - in my opinion - ruined by the fact that Yoko crops up in between each moment of John-ness. Critics tore it apart as well, many commenting that they cared not one jot for the husband and wife relationship the album was trying to describe.

Lennon was assassinated barely weeks after the album’s release, and history was thus re-written. Published reviews slating the album were withdrawn, and the album was re-evaluated, even ending up with a Grammy for “Album Of The Year”. Like the EMI albums, it was reissued with extra tracks in 2000, and the most recent edition comes in a new cover with a second disc of “stripped down” alternate versions of all tracks.

An album of outtakes called “Milk And Honey” appeared on Polydor in 1984. Very much a companion piece to “Double Fantasy”, it was actually taped after the sessions for that LP, but is another John & Yoko affair, with a similar cover. It too appeared with additional tracks some years ago, but the 2010 reissue is a bog standard reissue of the 1984 original. If, like me, you happen to care little for Yoko’s musical output, it’s difficult not to wonder what might have been if the sessions for the two albums had been merged, and that all of the John songs on these two records had appeared together on a proper solo LP. You can’t help but think just how good an album containing both “Watching The Wheels” AND “Nobody Told Me” would have been. Well, the long deleted 1990 boxset “Lennon” (4xCD, Parlophone CDP 795221 2), is where you should go - this 4 disc set includes nothing that rare, but does devote an entire CD to the Lennon material from “DF” and “MAH”, along with a version of Yoko’s “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him”, tossed away on a 1984 compilation LP.


In recent years, there seems to have been a disproportionate number of Lennon compilations issued, but unlike, say, some of the Stranglers ones, all of these have been given the nod by Yoko. But that doesn’t mean that 2005‘s “Working Class Hero” or 2010‘s “Power To The People” are any more use than the older best ofs that have already surfaced. If you have never bought a Lennon comp, then buying virtually any one you see should do the job, but in reality, the best best-ofs had been released long before those two.

1975’s “Shaved Fish” (LP, Apple PCS 7173), issued as it was between “Rock N Roll” and “Double Fantasy”, is thus almost an overview of Lennon’s entire career. It includes all of Lennon’s self penned singles from the 1969-75 period, although not necessarily in single form. Of all of Lennon’s non-LP singles, two of them appear in alternate form - only the opening minute of “Give Peace A Chance” opens the record, whilst “Happy Xmas” cross fades into a previously unreleased excerpt of a live version of "Peace" at the end. “Turkey”, “Karma” and “Power” all appear in their original form. The edited 7” mixes of “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World” (from the US single) and “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” appear, along with a unique new edit of “Mother”. The remaining three songs, “Imagine”, “Mind Games” and “#9 Dream” appear in their original 7”/LP mixes. The album was later issued on CD, and according to Wikipedia, several songs appear in slightly different form on the CD edition (CD, EMI 7 46642 2).

1997’s “Lennon Legend” (CD, Parlophone 7243 821954 2) doesn’t quite tick all the boxes, but does at least include most of the rarities missing from “Shaved Fish”. You get the full original “Give Peace A Chance” and “Happy Xmas” 45’s, as well as the never-before-on-CD US 7” edit of “Mother”. All of the other non album 45’s, “Instant Karma”, “Power” and “Cold Turkey” are on here as well, plus a lot of those Geffen/Polydor 45’s and selected album tracks. Also worth a mention is 1982’s “The John Lennon Collection”. It includes a unique edit of “#9 Dream” and also includes the 1970 album track “Love”, which appeared as a single at the time in totally remixed form (LP, EMI EMTV37).

Odds And Sods

Given Lennon’s legendary status, it is not a surprise that a number of outtakes have continued to surface post-”Milk And Honey”, although they don’t seem to have appeared at such an exhaustive rate as other acts. Maybe, as Lennon didn’t really tour that much, there isn’t that much in the vaults - and there can only be a finite number of alternate studio versions of the songs he released.

1986’s “Menlove Avenue” (LP, Parlophone PCS 7308) and 2004’s “Acoustic” (CD, EMI 874 4282) are the main albums as regards posthumous material. The former concentrates on never before heard songs, the latter - despite sounding like it might be an MTV Unplugged style event - is mostly a collection of acoustic demos of songs you already know.

1998’s “John Lennon Anthology” (4xCD, Capitol 7243 830 6142) was a boxset full of outtakes, and spawned a cheap “edited” CD of selections from the box at the same time called “Wonsaponatime” (CD, Capitol 497 6392). The most recent set of reissues, conducted in 2010 to celebrate what would have been John’s 70th birthday, were also collected together in a boxset called the “Signature Box” (9xCD, EMI 5099990650925), which also includes a bonus disc of more outtakes, and a singles disc, including the five non-album 45’s from 69-72 and the sole Lennon B-side issued during his career, “Move Over Ms L” from 1975‘s “Stand By Me“ (“Do The Oz”, as it was never credited to Lennon when first released, therefore doesn’t officially count).

Since the delayed “Imagine” single release in 1975, several Lennon singles have since re-emerged. “Imagine” appeared in 1999, as some sort of “best record of the millennium” tie in event, whilst there is a brilliant 1992 “Instant Karma” CD single, mirroring (some of) the original sleeve design(s). The discography below goes into greater detail.


The list below shows the original Lennon albums, and the now deleted remixed/extended CD editions that surfaced in 2000 onwards. The singles shown are the UK releases, covering all releases and reissues from 1969 until the present day.


Live Peace In Toronto 1969 (LP, Apple CORE 2001)
Plastic Ono Band (LP, Apple PCS 7124)
Imagine (LP, Apple PAS 10004)
Sometime In New York City (2xLP, Apple PCSP 716)
Mind Games (LP, Apple PCS 7165)
Walls And Bridges (LP, Apple PCTC 253)
Rock N Roll (LP, Apple PCS 7169)
Double Fantasy (LP, Geffen K 99131)
Milk And Honey (LP, Polydor POLH 5)

Note: a 2011 boxset reissue of “Imagine” exists, but includes nothing not already available. There also exists a live LP, taped on 30th August 1972, and released in 1986 as “Live In New York City” (LP, Parlophone PCS 7301). A VHS of the same show, including some Yoko solo performances, was also released.


Plastic Ono Band (CD, EMI 528 7402, adds 2 bonus tracks)
Imagine (CD, EMI 7243 5 24858 1 9, no bonus tracks)
Sometime In New York City (CD, EMI 0946 3409 7628, altered tracklisting, but adds 2 bonus tracks)
Mind Games (CD, EMI 7243 5 42425 2 6, adds 3 bonus tracks)
Walls And Bridges (CD, EMI 340 9712, new cover, adds 3 bonus tracks)
Rock N Roll (CD, EMI 7243 874330 2 1, adds 4 bonus tracks)
Double Fantasy (CD, Geffen 528 7392, adds 3 bonus tracks)
Milk And Honey (CD, EMI 535 9592, adds 3 bonus tracks)

Note: the 2010 reissues are all basically reissues of the original LP’s, without any extra tracks. The only one that is designed as a collector’s edition is the revamped “Double Fantasy Stripped Down”. All of the earlier “noughties” EMI releases shown above benefited from remixed sound on most songs, but “DM“ and “MAH“ were merely remastered, not remixed. Most/all of these albums were previously issued on CD in the 80’s, again these were un-remixed reissues of the original LP’s. “Live Peace” was issued some time after these original CD releases, but was not reissued again during either the noughties nor in 2010, and the current CD edition is the sole repressing from 1995 (CD, EMI CDP 790 4282). It also includes slightly different mixes to the 1969 original.

UK 45’s

Give Peace A Chance +1 (7”, Apple APPLE 13)
Cold Turkey +1 (7”, Apple APPLES 1001)
Instant Karma +1 (7”, Apple APPLES 1003)
Power To The People +1 (7”, Apple R 5892)
Happy Xmas (War Is Over) +1 (7”, Apple R 5970)
Mind Games/Meat City (7”, Apple R 5994)
Whatever Gets You Thru The Night/Beef Jerky (7”, Apple R 5998)
#9 Dream/What You Got (7”, Apple R 6003)
Stand By Me/Move Over Ms L (7”, Apple R 6005)
Imagine/Working Class Hero (7”, Apple R 6009, repressed in 1980)
Just Like Starting Over +1 (7”, Geffen K 79186)
Woman +1 (7”, Geffen K 79195)
Watching The Wheels +1 (7”, Geffen K 79207)
Love (Remix)/Gimme Some Truth (7”, Parlophone R 6059)
Nobody Told Me +1 (7”, Polydor POSP 700)
Borrowed Time +1 (7”, Polydor POSP 701, some in poster sleeve)
I’m Stepping Out +1 (7”, Polydor POSP 702)
Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him +1 (7”, Polydor POSP 712)
Jealous Guy/Going Down On Love (7”, Parlophone R 6117, from 1985)
Imagine/Jealous Guy/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (7”, Parlophone R 6199, also on picture disc and 12“, issued to coincide with the “Imagine John Lennon” soundtrack LP and VHS, from 1988)
Imagine/Jealous Guy/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance (CD, Parlophone CDR 6199)
Instant Karma/Oh My Love/Mother/Bless You (CD, Parlophone 880 084 2, technically Dutch only import, from 1992)
Imagine/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance/Imagine (Video) (CD, Parlophone CDR 6534, from 1999)
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Imagine (Green Vinyl 7”, Parlophone R 6627, from 2003)
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Imagine/Instant Karma/Imagine (Instrumental) (CD, Parlophone CDR 6627)

Note: the likes of “Imagine” got reissued after Lennon’s death, there is a 1985 repressing of this and “Happy Xmas” using the original catalogue numbers, both pressed on black vinyl with silver injection labels. There are also reissues of “Give Peace A Chance” on the EMI Golden 45’s label from 1984 and a 2010 “Special Edition” one sided reissue of - again - “Imagine” in a new sleeve. Some of the Geffen era 45's were reissued in die cut sleeves in America pressed on coloured vinyl in the early part of the noughties, but are not that easy to track down now.

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