Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: 'Lennon' Vinyl Box

If one phrase sums up how John, Paul, George, and Ringo returned after The Beatles split up it must be “without compromise.” Paul made no effort to tidy up his farm-grown mess McCartney. George let his thoughts on God and religion hang out further than the great, bushy beard he sports on the cover of All Things Must Pass. Ringo thumbed his schnoz at the Rock & Roll world that made his career with a disc of ancient standards called Sentimental Journey. However, no former Beatle began his solo career as uncompromisingly as John Lennon. With John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he tossed a lit match on the life he’d lived up until that point, tearing into religion and former partner Paul, railing at the mother and father who’d abandoned him and the misogynist he’d been in his younger years, and declaring that all he needed now was himself, his wife, and maybe a little “Sesame Street” (“Cookie!”). Without a lick of the hominess of Paul’s debut, the spirituality of George’s, or the comfy familiarity of Ringo’s, John made a record that was devastating, honest, raw, and more than a little abrasive. In other words, John made a record that was very John.

The solo career that followed was loaded with unpredictable moves. Imagine was lush compared to Plastic Ono Band, but fanged material such as “Gimme Some Truth”, “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama”, “Crippled Inside”, and “How Do You Sleep?” (which, to be honest, spills too much venom… did Paul really deserve this?) proves John hadn’t gone soft when imagining “all the people living life in peace.” Living life in peace is barely a motivation behind Some Time in New York City, Lennon’s least-loved album because of its hard-line revolutionary politics and because for the first, but not last, time he allotted half the disc to mate and cohort Yoko Ono. The record is not nearly the disaster it has often been labeled. While the politics may alienate middle-of-the-roaders and right-wingers (boo-hoo for them), the music slams hard as Lennon draws on his Rock & Roll roots and Phil Spector delivers a production reminiscent of his early work. As for Yoko, her contributions can be a bit strident (her vocals on the chorus of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and the whole of “We’re All Water”), but she comports herself quite beautifully on the lovely yet horrific “Luck of the Irish” and “Sisters, O Sisters”, on which she gets into the Wall-of-Sound spirit with a classic girl-groupish vocal. With the exceptions of strong performances of “Cold Turkey” and “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)”, the bonus live LP requires a great deal of tolerance.  

After a challenging opening trio of records, John Lennon once again did the unexpected by making a poppy, jolly, melodious record worthy of old-partner Paul. One should hardly miss the absence of swipes at God, Paul, and British Imperialists on Mind Games when the music is so consistently pleasing. Walls and Bridges is another very fine album, containing his most exhilarating single since “Instant Karma”—the Elton John duet “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”—and well-crafted pieces, such “Old Dirt Road”, “Scared”, “Steel and Glass”, and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)”, that sacrifice none of his honesty and grit despite a sweeter approach. However, “What You Got” is the only track on which Lennon works himself up into a Rock & Roll froth, an urge that never completely returned to him again. This fact is never more apparent than on the covers LP Rock ‘n’ Roll. Some of its versions are memorable—an impassioned “Stand by Me”, a crazed “Rip It Up”, a fuzzy and funky “Bony Moronie” –but versions of “Be-Bop-a-Lula”, “Ya Ya”, and “Do You Wanna Dance” are too polite. The excess of reggae and N.O. blues rhythms leaves much of the record lethargic. On some tracks, such as “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Just Because”, and “Bring It on Home”, Lennon manages an intense vocal that rises above/clashes with the boring backing tracks. The opposite is true of “Peggy Sue” on which Lennon sounds unengaged with the roaring drums and guitars.

Then came a long period of self-imposed house arrest, and a last minute return in 1980 with the second proper John & Yoko collaboration, Double Fantasy. Considering what happened a few weeks after its release, the album is painful to criticize, though that post-rocker complacency is very evident in songs such as “(Just Like) Starting Over”, “Watching the Wheels”, “Beautiful Boy”, and “Woman”. They’re perfectly professional, perfectly listenable pieces of work, but John’s rebel fire is entirely absent. In contrast, Yoko’s songs swirl with inspiration. This is particularly true of the spectacular new-wave rave “Kiss Kiss Kiss”, the disco-punk “Give Me Something”, and the enchanting “Beautiful Boys” and “Yes, I’m Your Angel”, which Snow White could have covered convincingly. Three years later, Yoko released the final recordings she made with John on Milk and Honey. This time there aren’t many thrills from either member of the duo, though John’s uproarious “Nobody Told Me” blows away his Double Fantasy cuts. On “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess” he taps into some of Yoko’s new-wave energy, and his and her lo-fi adaptations of Robert and Elizabeth Browning poems are moving indeed.

In 2010, EMI remastered all eight of John Lennon’s studio albums from the original analog tapes, complimented them with an additional disc of singles and home recordings, and issued the lot in the John Lennon Signature Box CD set in Japan. Five years later, these remasters are finally being released in the U.S., though on vinyl and without that valuable bonus disc, which sadly deprives UMe/EMI’s new Lennon box set of essentials like “Instant Karma”, “Power to the People”, and the studio version of “Cold Turkey”. Audiophiles might also question UMe’s decision to drop those digital remasters onto vinyl instead of going the all-analog route of last year’s monumental Mono Beatles vinyl box. It’s a legitimate question, though Sean Magee’s remastering job still sounds fabulous on vinyl (hold onto something stable when Klaus Voormann’s bass starts rumbling on “I Found Out”). There’s also one major-league blunder on Rock & Roll: on Side A, “Sweet Little Sixteen” appears twice while “You Can’t Catch Me” is a total no-show.

The packaging copies the box art of the Signature Box, though it does not reproduce the booklet included in that Japanese set. Included instead are all of the goodies that came with the original vinyl releases—the lyric sleeves (incidentally, the censorious asterisks are gone and the “fucks” are back in “Working Class Hero”), the bonus postcards included with Imagine and Some Time in New York City, the Imagine poster, and the Walls and Bridges lyric booklet. That album also reproduces the original’s weird front cover flaps, which need to be handled carefully to prevent damage, especially when fitting the LP back into the box, which is on the tight side. All in all, Lennon has its flaws but remains very rewarding—much like Lennon’s solo career itself.

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