It's weird to think that it's taken this long for the box set community to get around to John Lennon. Yet it has been eighteen years this week since he was gunned down in front of his apartment in New York City. His recording career from the time he released his first single with the Beatles to his death was only slightly longer than that. The amount of music he made is sizable, the overall caliber staggering.
Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, compiled The John Lennon Anthology, a four-disc collection of studio outtakes, home recordings, live cuts, and TV appearances. The contents vary greatly in quality and surely would have made a sensational two-disc retrospective. (A one-disc collection, Wonsaponatime, which was released simultaneously and distills the set down to 21 tracks, comes close but, alas, no cigar.) As a box set of exclusively unreleased material, Anthology is as sloppy and thorny, as brilliant and silly, as the man it honors. The accompanying promotional material proclaims that it contains "nearly 100 previously unreleased tracks," adopting the accountant's trick of rounding up from the 94 numbered tracks. It was John Lennon who once sang "Gimme Some Truth," so in the spirit of full disclosure, let me add that once you remove such priceless gibberish as the three tracks dedicated to John Lennon and Phil Spector yelling at each other through an intercom during the 1973 Rock 'n' Roll sessions (why did these guys work together? and how?), the seven pitiable home recording scraps from the Dakota apartment where Lennon spent his last days, and a few other odds and ends (including Jerry Lewis thanking John for coming down to his Muscular Dystrophy marathon and leading a leaden chant) that could hardly be considered "songs," the number of unreleased tracks drops to the neighborhood of 75.
Lennon managed to make music as lasting as a Volvo while completely immersing himself in the moment at hand. You were never really sure whether he was changing with the times or whether the times were changing with him. Other dead rock stars pale in comparison. Kurt Cobain is our Nineties punk martyr; Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin are among the many from the Sixties' live-fast-and-die-young school. They each made their impact and moved on. But Lennon had the time to establish himself in our consciousness as someone who would be there, someone who would grow up alongside us, from a member of an enviable gang to the grownup who kept a hip jukebox in his basement. From the frolic of Beatlemania, through the lysergic passing of psychedelia, to his bed-in-for-peace honeymoon with Yoko, to Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, to his lost weekend in Los Angeles, to his retirement into family life and his subsequent return to performing life, Lennon sculpted a public persona that seemed natural as it scaled terrain larger than life. Unlike Elvis, who never formally retired but spent his post-Army career sleepwalking, Lennon seemed blessed with the ability to stay awake for the challenges, to charm as he threatened, to smile as he killed. Even when he was off getting drunk and sloppy with Harry Nilsson, Lennon seemed far more reliable than our other drunken casualties. It wasn't that John Lennon was necessarily more complex than the stars who preceded or followed him; it was that he was able to turn that complexity into his most reliable asset. He had the best PR in the business. He was indestructible.
The music he made on his own throughout the Seventies didn't come close to meeting the standards he'd set in the Sixties with the Beatles. He knew that. But as a person he continued to fascinate. His interviews were clever, contrived but honest. His humor never failed him, while his sentimental moments were always balanced with a respectable level of melancholia. He was a rich bohemian who accepted the crown but always let us know that it made him feel guilty. Yet he never gave it back. Elvis Costello once asked, "Was it a millionaire who said 'imagine no possessions'?" Costello savored the irony; Lennon lived it.
So The John Lennon Anthology comes to us in a world different from the one in which Lennon lived. Yet the best material here defies such space. It remains timeless and influential. When John Lennon was good, he was unbeatable, a rock-and-roll singer with arguably the very best rock-and-roll voice. You can hear it as he tears up "I'm Losing You," a track from the 1980 Double Fantasy sessions. Backed by the Seventies' Cheap Trick, hard rockers who replicate the buzz-saw guitar attack of Lennon's first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, Lennon howls with a vengeance, letting go of the demons at the tip of his tongue. He eventually chose a muted version of the song for official release, one more in keeping with the house-husband image he was interested in cultivating for his return to the public eye, but here it's shown that at age 40, Lennon could still get it up.
Each of the discs is titled: "Ascot," "New York City," "The Lost Weekend," and "Dakota." Not surprisingly, Anthology's best moments come early. The nine alternate takes from Plastic Ono Band, that first and finest solo album, are extremely telling. The versions here are all definitely weaker than those on the finished album. (Lennon's ears never failed him the way Dylan's have wreaked havoc on his official releases.) The process, however, is fascinating. "God," Plastic Ono Band's chilling denouncement of the Beatles and all of Lennon's previous beliefs, is played not on the piano but on the guitar. Poorly miked, the guitar sounds tinny. Ringo's drums explode all over the place. Lennon sings with conviction but without finesse. The angelic coda where he tells the world he's no longer the dreamweaver is sung straight, without the flight into falsetto that gives the song its supernatural luminance. Instead, the song passes quickly, without the majesty it would claim on the album. "Working Class Hero" is similar. The vocal phrasing is tenuous, and Lennon's strumming isn't as forceful as it needs to be. The other components are there -- the melody, his voice, the chords -- just the feel is off.
Only "How Do You Sleep?" from Lennon's second solo album, Imagine, benefits from a lack of production. Without the Phil Spectorian polish in place, Lennon's swipe against McCartney has a stronger anguish. "Imagine" suffers in comparison. Nearly everything is in place, but John Barham's harmonium grounds the track with an ambient buzz. The difference between these unvarnished takes and the official tracks that seemed so raw and off the cuff is alarming. Lennon was such a pro that he could mask his perfectionism as something spontaneous.
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Which is what makes the New York City disc so infuriating. It's as if all his critical faculties left at once. The material is laughable. "Attica State," recorded live at the Apollo, is raunchy, but what a terrible song. "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" never improves with age. The home version here suggests that had Lennon listened to the playback, he might have realized this. "Luck of the Irish" and "John Sinclair," both recorded live in Ann Arbor, are witless polemical devices with the barest of melodies. By the time Lennon returned to crafting melodies again, he was losing ground with Yoko, as evidenced by the home recordings of "Mind Games," and was growing increasingly unsure of his musical future.
By disc three, "The Lost Weekend," he's out in L.A., dredging up old Fifties rock-and-roll standards and a collection of tunes that would be among his most desperate on the much underrated Walls & Bridges album. "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out" is presented in an appealingly stripped-down version that accentuates the bitter portrait of the lyric. Lennon's gruff vocal comes across like sandpaper, telling us, "I'll scratch your back and you knife mine." The arrangement is tasteful, unlike the over-the-top crescendo of the official version. A "Yesterday" parody from these sessions shows both his lingering annoyance with the Beatles' mythology and his amusement with the sappier tendencies of his former co-conspirator Paul McCartney.
After five years of shutting down, Lennon came back revitalized. "Beautiful Boy" and "Woman" were Lennon at his sappiest, but with "Nobody Told Me," "I Don't Wanna Face It," "Watching the Wheels," "I'm Stepping Out," and "Borrowed Time," he had a selection of songs as melodically powerful and lyrically substantial as needed to begin the Eighties. The acoustic guitar demo of "Wheels" shows he was in good form. He gooses lively performances out of his crack band of sterile studio pros, Earl Slick and Hugh McCracken on guitars, Tony Levin on bass, and Andy Newmark on drums. He sounds loose, like a prizefighter anxiously pacing the ring, glad to be back and ready to take on all comers.
Sadly, the box set can't leave well enough alone. Beatles' producer George Martin takes on the impossible task of marrying Lennon's rudimentary piano demo of "Grow Old With Me" with the sophisticated string arrangement Lennon imagined for the song. But Lennon's shaky demo and the professional clarity of Martin's string section can never be successfully fused. Technology allows us many things. This isn't one of them. Other home demos vary, too. The unadorned piano demo for "Real Love" is pretty. "Serve Yourself," a cranky take on Bob Dylan's born-again phase, is funny enough and tongue-in-cheek in the way you imagine the private Lennon to be. But the closing "Satire" series is impossible to listen to: unfunny quips and impromptu Dylan impersonations, the equivalent of fart jokes. You imagine Lennon rolling in his grave, wondering why they can't leave him in what he always claimed he stood for: peace.