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A closer look at John Lennon's solo years

An excerpt from “John Lennon: Life Is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia” by John M. Borack

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “John Lennon: Life Is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia” by John M. Borack. Copyright 2010.

Lennon wasted no time kicking things into high gear as the ’70s began, teaming up with producer Phil Spector and writing, recording and releasing a new single (all within the space of 10 days in February) titled “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” This time around, The Plastic Ono Band’s lineup included Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, George Harrison, Yoko Ono and Beatles assistant Mal Evans (on chimes and handclaps). Spector’s production was uncharacteristically sparse, bringing Lennon’s passionate vocals to the front of the mix and letting the pianos and the drums (with plenty of echo) carry the tune. The result was a very catchy number that was destined to become a classic, with the en masse “we all shine on” chorus (courtesy of some pub crawlers who were overdubbed on the track) providing a major league hook and helping to push the track — credited to John Ono Lennon — into the Top 10 on both sides of the pond.

In March 1970, the title track from the final Beatles album was released as a single. “Let It Be” (on which John played bass) was a dramatic McCartney piano ballad that would go on to become one of the Beatles’ signature songs. As he did with the balance of the “Let It Be” album (which would be released on May 8, in tandem with the film), Phil Spector remixed and severely tweaked the tunes that were mainly recorded during January of ’69. That meant choirs and harps and string sections and all sorts of embellishments on tracks such as “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and Lennon’s disarmingly beautiful “Across the Universe.”

John Lennon would praise Spector’s efforts in performing what he felt was a salvage job on the original tapes, but McCartney was livid over what he saw as a desecration of his songs. In addition, McCartney was upset with the other Beatles for suggesting that he postpone the release of his solo debut, “McCartney,” so as not to conflict with the release of “Let It Be.”

McCartney stood his ground and announced his departure from the group in early April, shortly after the release of “McCartney.” In Philip Norman’s biography “John Lennon: The Life,” Lennon is quoted as saying, “[Paul] just did a great hype. I wanted to do it and I should have done it. I thought, ‘Damn, shit, what a fool I was’ … I was a fool not to do it, not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record.” McCartney ended up filing a lawsuit on Dec. 31, 1970, to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership, but the legal dissolution didn’t take place until nearly five years later.

When “Let It Be” finally arrived, most pundits focused on the band’s breakup and the fact that they sounded tired, dispirited and disinterested. While there are indeed a few less-than-inspired cuts (Lennon’s “Dig a Pony” and Harrison’s “I Me Mine” come to mind), there are certainly flashes of the old Beatle brilliance on Lennon’s pretty “Across the Universe,” “Let it Be” and the spunky Lennon/McCartney co-write “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Still, it was a rather inglorious way for the foursome to wrap up their storied career.

In late spring, John and Yoko traveled to Los Angeles to begin four months worth of intense primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. Lennon used the therapy as a tool to help him confront his demons and express his rage. His first true solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” released in December 1970, found him exorcising these demons on record, and the result was one of the most painful, dark, honest and ultimately uplifting albums of the rock and roll era.

The album led off with “Mother,” a somber ode to the parents that Lennon never really knew. When he sang, “Mother, you had me/but I never had you/I wanted you/you didn’t want me” and “Father, you left me/but I never left you/I needed you/you didn’t need me” over a leaden backbeat, his anguish was palpable. By the time the song reached its “Mama don’t go/daddy come home” climax, Lennon was in full primal scream mode. The overall effect was quite chilling.

“Mother” was released as a single in the U.S., and failed to make the top 40. It was certainly a curious choice for a single; a more commercially viable option would have been the gentle acoustic ballad “Love.” Elsewhere on “Plastic Ono,” Lennon hit the mark with unerring accuracy on the accusatory rocker “I Found Out,” the angry Dylan-esque ballad “Working Class Hero” and the tender “Hold on John” and “Isolation.”

The centerpiece of the record, though, was “God,” where Lennon intoned “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” followed by a laundry list of things he no longer believed in, with magic, mantra, Bible, kings, Elvis and Jesus among them. He was no longer Beatle John, feeling he had to apologize for claiming his band was “bigger than Jesus”; the “new Lennon” was now a free man and he was going to say what he wanted, critics and the public be damned. The last item on the “I don’t believe in …” checklist was Beatles, and Lennon practically spat out the word in disgust. He followed it up by informing listeners that he just believed in himself and Yoko, and that in fact “the dream is over.” One would be hard pressed to find a more powerful, personal statement in the annals of rock. “Plastic Ono Band” was a seminal album and one of the highlights of Lennon’s solo career.

On the heels of “Plastic Ono Band’s” release, Lennon gave an in-depth, brutally honest interview to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, which ran in the magazine in two parts in early 1971. In this frank discussion, Lennon was quite outspoken about his drug use and dissatisfaction with the Beatle years; later turned into a book, it served as an fascinating companion piece to the “Plastic Ono Band” record as a snapshot into Lennon’s mind at that particular time in his life.

In March 1971, Lennon’s next single was released, the rather strident “Power to the People.” In a broad, exaggerated vocal style completely lacking in subtlety or nuance, he offered up a fist-waving anthem for left-wing politicos. It just missed the Top 10 in the U.S. and made it to No. 6 in the U.K. The song was an unfortunate portent of things to come.

In June, Lennon and Yoko shared a stage with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East in New York City. The show was recorded and included as part of Lennon and Ono’s “Some Time in New York City” double album in 1972 (spelled “Sometime in New York City” on the record label, inner jacket, and original compact disc). While in New York on this trip, they met political radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin for the first time. In a 1975 Rolling Stone interview, Lennon remembered, “I’ll tell you what happened literally. I got off the boat, only it was an airplane, and landed in New York, and the first people who got in touch with me were Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It’s as simple as that. And the next thing you know, I’m doin’ John Sinclair benefits and one thing and another. I’m pretty movable, as an artist, you know. They almost greeted me off the plane and the next minute I’m involved, you know.”

By late 1971, Lennon would become immersed in political activism and anti-Vietnam war protests in America, something that definitely did not endear him to the U.S. government (nor, it is safe to assume, did lyrics such as “You say you want a revolution? We better get it on right away,” from “Power to the People”).

Lennon and Ono’s activism would reach its peak in 1972, but a few weeks after the 1971 Fillmore East gig with Zappa, they headed back to England, where John began work on what was to become his second consecutive masterpiece: the “Imagine” album. Recorded at his home studio at Tittenhurst Park (with additional recording taking place at the Record Plant in New York City), Lennon often referred to the album as a sugarcoated version of “Plastic Ono Band.” Indeed, some of the lyrical sentiments were similar, but the overall harshness of his tone had been tempered a bit, making “Imagine” more commercially accessible than its predecessor. The album went straight to No. 1 in the U.S. and U.K. upon its release in the fall of 1971.

The title track would quickly become John Lennon’s signature solo track; it was a lush, piano-based ballad with a sweet utopian sentiment (“Imagine all the people living life in peace”), gliding along on a bed of pillow-soft strings. “Jealous Guy” and “Oh My Love” were also exquisite piano ballads, with delicious melodies and sentiments that Lennon’s audience could relate to.
Lest anyone think Lennon had gone soft, there were a few obvious swipes at Paul McCartney on the jaunty “Crippled Inside” and the snarling, mean-spirited “How Do You Sleep?” (George Harrison made it abundantly clear whose camp he resided in by playing some nasty slide guitar on the latter.) “Gimme Some Truth” was another classic Lennon rocker, while the bluesy “It’s So Hard” and the sing-songy “Oh Yoko” were also well received. In short, “Imagine” was very close to a perfect album and one that Lennon would be hard pressed to top.

Right around the time of “Imagine’s” release, Lennon and Ono moved permanently to New York City. John was struck by the excitement of the city and the constant flurry of activity, and dove headlong into the political and social scene. In November 1971, he appeared at a benefit concert at the Apollo Theater for families of inmates at Attica State Prison, while on Dec. 10 he performed at a benefit show for former MC5 manager/political activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for 10 years for attempting to sell two marijuana joints to an undercover police officer. Unbeknownst to Lennon, FBI agents were in the audience that night, writing down the lyrics to his songs as he sang them. Even though Lennon had told talk show host Dick Cavett around this time that he and Yoko were “revolutionary artists, not gunmen,” the government was still keeping a close eye on the couple’s activities.

As 1971 drew to a close, John and Yoko released the classic holiday single “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” in the U.S. (The U.K. had to wait nearly a full year until it was released there, due to publishing issues.) Produced by John, Yoko and Phil Spector, the track harkened back to Spector’s famous “wall of sound” productions from the ’60s, with echo-laden vocals, guitars on top of guitars, and the Harlem Community Choir providing background vocals.

Early in 1972, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond from South Carolina sent a secret memo to the White House, intimating that Lennon was involved with a radical group that was planning a concert in San Diego, where the Republican National Convention was scheduled to be held. Even though there was no hard evidence that Lennon was planning anything of the sort, Thurmond suggested that Lennon’s deportation would be a “strategic counter-measure.”

In March, Lennon’s non-immigrant U.S. visa expired, and deportation proceedings against him began after an extension was granted and then quickly revoked. Even though the government claimed the deportation stemmed from his and Yoko’s 1968 cannabis bust in England, Lennon (correctly) believed that his political activism and anti-war sentiments were behind efforts to remove him from the country. One of Lennon’s old mates took up his cause in the press: “Don’t you think it’s time to end all this silliness and give John his visa?” Ringo Starr asked. “He’s one of the greatest, and America should be proud that John wants to live here.”

Around this time, Lennon and Ono served a four-day stint as guest hosts on the syndicated television variety program, “The Mike Douglas Show.” On the first show, Douglas began the proceedings by singing an incredibly cornball, easy listening version of “Michelle.” He then introduced John and Yoko, with John telling him with a straight face, “You sang it very well … I wrote the middle eight.”

Douglas, who was well known in the business for being a genuinely nice guy, was effusive in his praise of the Lennons (“they’re not only superstars, but super people”). Casually dressed in a baseball jersey, Lennon played “Imagine” and “It’s So Hard,” backed by Elephant’s Memory, a New York-based band that he and Yoko would soon head into the studio with. The eclectic roster of guests during the Lennons’ stay included the Chambers Brothers, Chuck Berry (who sang “Johnny B. Goode” with Lennon), Ralph Nader and actor Louis Nye.

Lennon’s next recorded effort would be a collaboration with Yoko: the “Some Time in New York City” double album was released on June 12, 1972, in the U.S. and Sept. 15 in the U.K., with the three-month delay due to publishing issues with Yoko’s songwriting credits. The album was an enormous failure musically, critically and sales-wise, reaching only No. 48 on the U.S. album charts, although it did manage to get to No. 11 in the U.K. The album was a sprawling, heavy-handed, overtly political mess, with songs written about radicals John Sinclair and Angela Davis, the 1972 massacre in Northern Ireland, women’s liberation and the 1971 Attica Prison riots. The only brief glimmer of light was found in “New York City,” Lennon’s joyous, ’50s rock-favored musical love letter to his new adopted hometown. Otherwise, “Some Time in New York City” will deservedly stand as one of the most spectacular flops by a major artist in rock history.

One single was pulled from the album in the U.S. only, the truly awful “Woman is the Nigger of the World” only made it to No. 57 on the Billboard singles charts after being banned by many radio stations for obvious reasons. Lennon would discuss this controversial time in his solo career in a 1975 interview; after being asked how his political activism affected his work, Lennon replied, “It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism and not poetry.”

No doubt reeling from “Some Time’s” poor chart showing, Lennon would not release a new album for almost a year and a half. In the meantime, he and Yoko busied themselves with a variety of projects and continued to fight John’s ongoing immigration battles. On Aug. 30, 1972, the couple played two shows at Madison Square Garden as part of the “One to One” benefit fundraiser for mentally challenged children. Backed by Elephant’s Memory, they ran through a set list that included tracks from each of Lennon’s solo albums to date, as well as “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” The Beatles’ “Come Together” and a take of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” among others. The performance was recorded and later released as “Live in New York City” in 1986.

Although Lennon’s solo career had taken a turn for the worse, there was renewed interest in his former band in April 1973, as two double album compilations — titled “The Beatles/1962-1966” (aka “the Red Album”) and “The Beatles/1967-1970” (aka “the Blue Album”) — were released. Both would land in the top five on the U.S. album charts.

Also in April, the Lennons moved to the Dakota Building in New York City. Located on Central Park West and West 72nd Street, the 12-room apartment was formerly owned by actor Robert Ryan, an Oscar-nominee who ironically was also active in various political causes. Less than six months after setting up house at the Dakota, though, John abruptly moved out after Yoko suggested a trial separation. Their relationship had become fraught with tension, not only due to Lennon’s immigration fight and the fact that Yoko felt that she had lost herself as an artist, but also because of her increasing distress over being vilified by John’s (and Beatles’) fans as the “dragon lady” who had stolen their hero from them. The fact that they had spent nearly five years constantly in each other’s company was another source of stress. (In the booklet that accompanied 1998’s “John Lennon Anthology” box set, Yoko also spoke of a November 1972 incident where a drunk Lennon pulled a girl into a bedroom at Jerry Rubin’s apartment and had sex with her while Yoko sat uncomfortably in the next room.)

Lennon would head to Los Angeles where his partner became his and Yoko’s personal assistant, May Pang, ironically, at Yoko’s suggestion. In short order they moved to a beach house in Santa Monica that had been built by noted film producer Louis B. Mayer and formerly owned by actor Peter Lawford. While in L.A., Lennon would spend much of his time drinking, hanging out and getting in varying degrees of trouble with music biz pals such as Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and others. Lennon would eventually refer to this 18-month period in his life as his “Lost Weekend.”

In the middle of this personal turmoil, Lennon’s fourth solo album, “Mind Games,” was released in November 1973. The album was a partial return to form after the “Some Time in New York City” debacle, with the overall vibe being much closer to the “Imagine” album. The songs weren’t as across-the-board wonderful as those on “Imagine,” though, with only about half of them having any real staying power. There are certainly some gems to be found, however. The title track, which began life as a tune called “Make Love, Not War,” was an airy-yet-forceful number that found Lennon backing off from his ultra-political musings to deliver hopeful lines such as “love is the answer/and you know that for sure.” The playfully naughty rocker “Tight A$” had a loose, Tex-Mex feel to it, while the album’s only politically-themed track, “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple),” was so infectious that the lyrics were almost secondary. (This was thanks in part to a slide guitar section that sounded not dissimilar to a co-mingling of Harrison’s “Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth]” and Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” and soaring background vocals of the Something Different choir.) A heartfelt love song written for Yoko, “Out the Blue,” was another highlight, but too many of the songs came off as rather bland and ordinary. The album made it to No. 9 on the U.S. charts, while the title track stalled at No. 18; both did slightly worse in the U.K.

In late 1973, Lennon decided to get back to his roots by recording an album of ’50s rock classics in L.A. with Phil Spector at the helm. Not wanting to serve as co-producer, it was John’s wish to simply sing and let Spector work his magic behind the board, as he had done during his glory days producing the Ronettes. Sadly, both Lennon and Spector were not in the best of shape during this period, so the sessions rapidly disintegrated into drunken, out-of-tune chaos, evidence of which can be heard on the three “Phil and John” dialogue snippets included on the “John Lennon Anthology.”

Eventually Spector would mysteriously vanish amid rumors of an automobile accident, and the project would not be completed until 1975, as Lennon explained to New York City DJ Scott Muni of WNEW-FM in February of ’75: “I started with Phil Spector, and the tracks that I did with him, he produced. I just wanted to be a singer. And to put it simply, there was some psychodrama and it fell apart. So there was a long spell, for one reason or another, that I couldn’t get hold of the tapes. I got the tapes back the day I was to go in and start (the 1974 album) “Walls and Bridges.” So I did that, and afterwards started sorting through the tapes I did with Phil, and I chose the ones I thought were good enough. Then, after a few weeks rest, I went back into the studio (in New York City) and cut enough to make a full album.”

In March 1974, Lennon and Harry Nilsson made headlines after being forcibly removed from the Troubadour in Los Angeles after a drunken incident at a Smothers Brothers show. The realization that he was quickly spiraling out of control led Lennon to throw himself back into his work: he began producing an album for Nilsson, titled “Pussy Cats.” (In addition to his work with Nilsson, Lennon also performed other extracurricular work during the early to mid-’70s: he wrote some songs specifically for Ringo, most notably the minor hit “Goodnight Vienna” and the cheeky, semi-autobiographical “I’m the Greatest”; he co-wrote, sang and played guitar on David Bowie’s U.S. no. 1 hit “Fame”; and he played guitar and provided vocals on Elton John’s 1974 cover of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which also reached No. 1 in America.)

In the spring of 1974, Lennon headed back to New York with May Pang and began work on a new album, titled “Walls and Bridges.” The album was released on Sept. 26 in the U.S. (a week later in the U.K.), and surprisingly shot to the No. 1 position, buoyed by the chart action of the album’s first single, the good-timey rocker “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” which featured Elton John on harmony vocals and piano. The track, which also included some prominent saxophone by Bobby Keys, became Lennon’s first No. 1 solo single. It barely scratched the Top 40 in Britain and the album ended up reaching No. 6, which continued the recent trend of Lennon’s music performing better chart-wise in America than in his native Britain.

“Walls and Bridges” was a rather schizophrenic album, and one that reportedly found Lennon writing the bulk of the tunes in a one-week blitz. On one hand there was the peppy “Night,” a breezy mid-tempo ode to May Pang called “Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox),” a brassy instrumental in “Beef Jerky” and the album’s second single, the wonderfully evocative, almost prayer-like “#9 Dream.” On the flip side were tunes that seemed almost frighteningly autobiographical: the mournful ballad “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out),” a funky ode to his relationship with Yoko, “What You Got” (as in “you don’t know what you got until you lose it”), and most tellingly, the harrowing “Scared,” where Lennon sang “I just wanna stay alive” and “hatred and jealousy gonna be the death of me.” Other curiosities included the “How Do You Sleep?” rewrite “Steel and Glass” and a brief snippet of the Lee Dorsey oldie “Ya Ya,” with 11-year-old Julian Lennon on drums. (With the help of May Pang, Lennon had re-established his relationship with his son.)

The 2005 re-mastered version of “Walls and Bridges” included an interview with John conducted by Bob Mercer around the time of the original album’s release. During the course of the brief chat, Lennon talked about his immigration woes: “I’m a stubborn thing, so I dug me heels in here (America) ’til I get what I want, which is a green card.” Lennon’s persistence would eventually pay off, but not for awhile.

On Nov. 28, 1974, Lennon’s final concert appearance took place when he appeared at New York’s Madison Square Garden with Elton John. Lennon made good on a wager the two had placed, saying that he would appear onstage with Elton if “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” became a No. 1 hit. A nervous yet confident-looking Lennon performed three songs with Elton that evening: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (which Elton introduced as “one of the greatest songs ever written”) and “I Saw Her Standing There,” which Lennon humorously called “a number of an old, estranged fiancée of mine called Paul.” Yoko Ono surprised John by visiting him backstage after the show, setting the wheels in motion for their reconciliation in early 1975. (Lennon would later say the separation was “not a success.”) Not long thereafter, there was more exciting news for the newly reunited couple: Yoko was pregnant with the Lennons’ first child.

In February 1975, the “Rock ’N’ Roll” album was finally released. The cover shot of a young, virile, leather jacket-wearing John Lennon hinted at the music inside, which found him covering Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and singing the songs that influenced him as a young man. While the Spector-produced tracks were a turgid, murky, nearly un-listenable mess, the tracks Lennon cut in NYC with members of his “Walls and Bridges” band were at the opposite end of the spectrum. “Peggy Sue,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” the medley of “Rip it Up/Ready Teddy,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Stand By Me” were all sprightly, reverent homages to the music Lennon loved most, and he sang the hell out of them. Cheap Trick later utilized Lennon’s arrangement of “Ain’t That a Shame” when they covered it on their “Live at Budokan” album, while “Stand By Me” reached No. 20 on the Billboard singles chart and No. 30 in the U.K. (The “Rock ’N’ Roll” album’s highest chart position was no. 6 in both countries.)

For most of 1975, Lennon and Ono maintained a low profile, although John appeared at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards in March, where he presented the Record of the Year award with Paul Simon. Joined at the podium by Art Garfunkel (who was accepting the award on behalf of Olivia Newton-John), the proceedings quickly devolved into free-form hilarity as Lennon jokingly asked Garfunkel, “Where’s Linda?” and “Are you ever getting back together again?” By this time, Lennon felt comfortable joking about the inevitable Beatles reunion questions that he constantly fielded. He also was able at this point to look back on his Beatle past with pride and affection, something he couldn’t do in 1970. As he said to a French television interviewer in 1975, “Beatles records can stand up in any period unless music really changes. Most of them sound pretty au courant …. ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’…when it gets down to the nitty gritty, it’s the songs.” Lennon also performed three songs on the “Salute to Sir Lew Grade” television special that aired in June. It would be his final TV appearance.

On Oct. 9, 1975, Yoko gave birth to Sean Taro Ono Lennon on John’s 35th birthday. Sean’s birth was obviously a source of great joy to the Lennons, who had been unsuccessful in their previous attempts to have children. The desire to spend quality time with Sean led John to retire from the music business for five years while he became a “househusband” and cared for Sean at the Lennons’ home at the Dakota. Although no new John Lennon music would be released during this period (a best-of collection titled “Shaved Fish” would be released a few weeks after Sean’s birth), it’s safe to assume that the five years John Lennon spent at home with his son were the most fulfilling of his legendary life.