By John M. Borack
Much of John Lennon’s solo oeuvre has been dissected every which way, and the world at large is certainly intimately familiar with Lennon classics such as “Mind Games,” “Imagine,” “Instant Karma” and “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” (to name just a few). On the occasion of John’s 75th birthday, let’s take a look at five “under the radar” Lennon solo tracks that have sort of been lost in the shuffle, but which still contain healthy doses of the wit, charm, and passion that helped seal John Lennon’s well-deserved reputation as one of the premier artists of the rock and roll era. In no particular order:
“Slippin’ and Slidin’” (from 1998’s "John Lennon Anthology" box set)
This is a previously unreleased take of the Little Richard rocker from the post-Phil Spector "Rock ‘n’ Roll" sessions, helmed by John himself in New York in 1974. It’s pretty similar to the officially released version, but this spirited run through features the piano much more prominently, due to the absence of the horn section found on the officially released 1975 recording. John’s lead vocals are a pure joy here, as he dives back into his rock 'n' roll roots with fire and raw energy as the session guys try their best to keep pace. As this was probably a rehearsal take, the production — or lack thereof — is spare enough to let the vocal cut right through. And as Yoko Ono has said, “Nobody can sing classic rock like John did.” Amen.
“I’m Losing You” (from 1998’s "John Lennon Anthology" box set)
Another choice selection from the stellar "Lennon Anthology" box set, this version was recorded during the "Double Fantasy" sessions, but remained unreleased until 1998. It’s especially notable due to the fact that Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos added their instrumental talents to the mix. Nielsen imbues the tune with slashing guitar riffs throughout and told author Ken Sharp that “We added a raw edge…a sound that harkens back to the Plastic Ono Band.” Indeed, the guitar very much recalls Lennon’s 1969 solo single “Cold Turkey,” while Carlos lays down his typical rock-solid backbeat as John’s often anguished vocals speak to marital issues he had encountered with Yoko. (“I know I hurt you then/but hell, that was way back when/do you still have to carry that cross?”) Although the cut rocked like mad, Lennon elected not to include it on "Double Fantasy," instead re-cutting it with the session men he used for the rest of the album. As Bun E. Carlos told Ken Sharp, “Sonically, our version didn’t fit in with the rest of the record. I thought the finished version was real slick. I thought our version was cooler.”
“Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” (from 1973’s "Mind Games" LP)
Lyrically recalling the political sloganeering of Sometime in New York City and musically falling somewhere between Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You” and Lennon’s own “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier,” “Bring on the Lucie” is a catchy-as-hell plea to “free the people now.” Lennon leads his backing band (including guitarist David Spinozza and drummer Jim Keltner) into battle by intoning, “All right boys! This is it, over the hill!” at the beginning of the tune, which is fueled by Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar, a chunky rhythm, and prominent female backing vocals on the chorus by a group called Something Different. The lyrics seem to speak to Richard Nixon’s presidency and the Vietnam War: “Well you were caught with your hands in the kill/And you still got to swallow your pill/As you slip and you slide down the hill/On the blood of the people you killed.” Of course, the melody is so damned inviting, the listener may hardly realize they’re singing along to lines such as “So while you're jerking off each other/You better bear this thought in mind/Your time is up, you better know it/But maybe you don't read the signs.” (Author’s note: Even after enjoying this song for 42 years, I still have no idea what the hell a “Lucie” is and why Lennon wanted to bring it on.)
"New York City” (from 1972’s "Sometime in New York City" LP)
There wasn’t much to love about the overblown "Sometime in New York City," but “New York City” – which author Paul Du Noyer has called “the great overlooked Lennon rocker” – is certainly one of the LP’s standout numbers. It’s pure Chuck Berry/Rolling Stones riff action, with John’s lyrical love letter to his new home namechecking Yoko, Jerry Rubin, David Peel, and his then-current backing band, Elephant’s Memory. Of course, given Lennon’s eventual fate, lines such as “Nobody came to bug us/Hustle us or shove us/So we decided to make it our home” have taken on a sad sort of poignancy. Still, it’s a rockin’ little record, sort of an updated “Ballad of John and Yoko.”
“Grow Old With Me” (from 1984’s "Milk and Honey" LP)
And speaking of sadly poignant, we end our brief journey with this stunning ballad, one that should no doubt stand as a classic for the ages. Inspired by a Robert Browning poem, Lennon never properly recorded this tune; the only existent versions are home demos, this one recorded with Lennon accompanying himself on piano and a rhythm box. In this iteration, it’s a stark, albeit lovely song with a beautiful sentiment (“Spending our lives together/Man and wife together/World without end”), and one that Lennon reportedly hoped would one day become a standard. A handful of artists have covered the tune over the years, with country/pop singer Mary Chapin Carpenter’s true-to-the-original 1995 reading being the finest. In 1998, a new version of “Grow Old With Me,” featuring gorgeous orchestration courtesy of former Beatles producer George Martin, was released on the "John Lennon Anthology" box set.