Capitol (8-LP box set)
By John M. Borack
“Lennon” collects John Lennon’s eight remastered solo albums on vinyl for the very first time, with each being an authentic reproduction of the original U.K. pressing. This means that not only are the labels and inner sleeves replicated, but other details and ephemera are also not missed. For example, the “Walls and Bridges” album cover contains the two fold-over flaps, and “Imagine” includes the poster and the two postcards included in the original issue (including the infamous “John handing the pig” postcard that was a not-so-subtle dig at one James Paul McCartney).
Audiophiles take note: the LPs are pressed on heavyweight, 180-gram vinyl, sourced from the 2010 remasters (from the original analog tapes) that were previously available on CD only, and each new vinyl master has been cut from the 24/96 HD digital masters at Abbey Road Studios.
The beautifully packaged boxed set also provides an opportunity for a reassessment of Lennon’s solo catalog. Of course, both “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine” remain undisputed pop-rock classics, with the starkness of “Plastic Ono” and the relative lushness of “Imagine” both gaining sonic clarity and overall crispness here. The remastering job helps bring out the delicate beauty on many of the “Imagine” tunes (see “Oh My Love” and “Jealous Guy”), while the low end seems more present on cuts such as “How Do You Sleep?” On “Plastic Ono Band,” you can practically feel Lennon’s post-Beatles rage and anguish emanating from the grooves.
“Mind Games” and “Walls and Bridges” seem to have gained the most from the remastering, with the drums having more depth and “snap,” and the overall sound on both gaining a new richness and fullness. “Mind Games” has always seemed like a relatively underrated stop in Lennon’s discography, with tunes such as the jaunty “Only People,” the sweet “Out the Blue,” the sneering rocker “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” and the title track (among others) still sounding vibrant. “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” from “Walls and Bridges” is certainly one of Lennon’s most unjustly overlooked compositions, and its resigned lyric and late-night melody resonate wonderfully with the remastering. And, of course, when revisiting an artist’s back catalog, there are always new revelations for each listener; for this writer, one such moment was hearing how similar one of the guitar riffs in the instrumental “Beef Jerky” (from “Walls and Bridges”) is to the main riff in Lennon’s 1969 single “Cold Turkey.”
No amount of remastering can save the relative mess that is “Some Time in New York City,” but even so, there are some tasty Lennon melodies to be unearthed among the morass of political sloganeering (the Chuck Berry-isms of “New York City” are welcome, and “The Luck of the Irish” is a nice listen). Yoko Ono’s tracks are pretty entertaining, too, with “Sisters, O Sisters” sounding like a cute little melding of Lesley Gore and the B-52’s, and “We’re All Water” coming off like Connie Francis on crack.
It’s still difficult to listen to “Double Fantasy” and “Milk and Honey” without feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss, but they both contain a caché of wonderful tunes from both Lennon and Ono, and the remastering here makes many of the tracks fairly burst from the speakers. Hearing Lennon sound absolutely joyous and in love with rock ‘n’ roll on “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and listening to tracks such as “Borrowed Time” and “Beautiful Boy” make the events of Dec. 8, 1980, all the more heartbreaking.
The only issue with “Lennon” occurs on the “Rock ‘N’ Roll” album, where “Sweet Little Sixteen” is repeated twice on side one, and “You Can’t Catch Me” is omitted entirely. It’s a highly bizarre case of quality control – or lack thereof – but Universal Music has set up a website (http://claim.lennonvinylbox.com) where a corrected version of “Rock ‘N’ Roll” can be obtained by uploading a scan of your proof of purchase. The Lennon-produced tunes on “Rock ‘N’ Roll” hold up better than the soggy, Phil Spector-helmed cuts, but it’s still fun to hear Lennon run through the songs that inspired him as a young rocker.
Of course, there will always be the questions from Beatles/Lennon fanatics: Why not master these LPs from the original analog masters? Why are albums such as “Two Virgins,” “The Wedding Album,” “Life with the Lions,” “Menlove Ave.” or “Live Peace in Toronto” not included in the box? Are the previously-released MFSL and/or the Japanese vinyl releases better sounding than these new LPs? No matter. Lennon completists and vinyl hounds will still definitely want to get their hands on this set. These eight records are the core recordings of John Lennon’s all-too-brief solo career, and the “Lennon” box showcases them in a wonderful-sounding, beautifully presented manner.