Forty-five years down the line, it’s remarkable how many gems are hidden on these albums, which Lennon made in the post-Beatles era between 1970 and 1980. Examining them individually, rather than in an expensive boxed set, is more rewarding.
This past June John Lennon’s remastered post-Beatles oeuvre became available on 180-gram vinyl as a nine-LP box set, John Lennon, ‘Lennon’ (Capitol). This week, the albums can be purchased as individual LPs.
By his own admission an impulsive, shoot-from-the-hip songwriter, Lennon often mined the same musical territory — that chord change from C major to E major in “Imagine,” for example, or Chuck Berry’s motivatin’ guitar riff — yet he, or Yoko Ono — almost always added some new twist.
Even on the so-so albums, his mix of earthy sexuality, tart irreverence, sentimentality, self-pity, anger and oh, such tenderness, come through in wonderfully unpredictable gusts. Forty-five years down the line, it’s remarkable how many gems are hidden on these albums, recorded between 1970 and 1980.
Let’s agree at the outset that of these eight (one is a double LP), you should (and probably already do) own the second and the seventh — “Imagine” (1971) and “Double Fantasy” (1980) — and we’ll examine in detail the ones you may have passed over.
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“Plastic Ono Band” (1970), a confessional documenting the couple’s primal therapy, shares way too much information, but has anyone ever summed up analysis more tautly? “Mother, you had me, but I didn’t have you/Father, you left me, but I never left you.” A bonus here is the classic “Working Class Hero” (which Marianne Faithfull covered brilliantly).
The agitprop double album “Sometime in New York City” (1972) is not so easy to love. A sprawling, self-indulgent mess in the “let-it-all-hang-out” spirit of the times, it boils over with admirable sentiments about war, the Attica prison massacre and John Sinclair’s imprisonment, but apart from “Woman is the N- of the World,” the songs don’t hold up. The jam sessions with Frank Zappa’s bunch are expendable.
Lennon was angry and hurt when critics didn’t care for his albums, but “Mind Games” (1973) didn’t help. No doubt still influenced by Ono’s contempt for traditional song form, Lennon offers stabs at songs minus his intuition for structure, though the bouncy “Intuition” is a close call.
The idiosyncratic “Walls and Bridges” (1974) was an improvement, especially the packaging featuring Lennon’s childhood artwork. “Old Dirt Road,” written with Harry Nilsson (who sings background), is a lovely pastoral ballad; “Bless You,” a dreamy oddity with jazzy Mellotron, could be Stevie Wonder; “#9 Dream,” with its mysterious refrain of “Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé,” whispers Rimbaud; and “Steel and Glass” rivals Bob Dylan for vitriolic fury.
Finding few allies outside the galaxy, Lennon returned to Earth with “Rock’n’Roll” (1975) though, ironically, this retro album was actually a sop to settle a lawsuit over Lennon having clipped Berry’s line “here come old flat top” on “Come Together.” Lennon sounds thoroughly reinvigorated singing “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Stand By Me,” “Rip It Up,” “Peggy Sue” and other rock classics he and Paul McCartney cut their teeth on. This is an easy third must-have, though buyers beware. Some copies of the album went out with a track missing.
The sessions for “Double Fantasy,” which came out shortly before Lennon was murdered on Dec. 8, 1980, produced enough material for two albums, though it was four years before Ono could bring herself to release “Milk and Honey” (1984).
Ono’s odd, fragile voice is much better-enhanced than on previous efforts and Lennon is exuberant on “I’m Stepping Out,” brutally self-critical on “I Don’t Wanna Face It” and as deaconly as Jerry Lee Lewis, spitting out the lyric to “Nobody Told Me.” But it’s that final love letter to Ono, emitting from a tinny cassette, “Grow Old With Me,” that will break your heart.