Kronomyth 2.5: MOTHER GOOSE, YOU HAD ME BUT I NEVER HAD YOU. The idea has been advanced, not without merit, that both “All You Need Is Love” and “Instant Karma!” are based on the nursery rhyme, “Three Blind Mice.” When my musical elitism gets the better of me, I remind myself that I (apparently) have the same musical tastes as a two-year-old. This song has always held a special place in my heart and head. After four albums and two singles, John finally got serious. “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” is the first work from the man that actually holds up against the legacy of The Beatles. No hippy chants, no primal scream therapy, this is rock & roll magic at its finest. Alan White also hands in an inspired performance on the drums. Yoko delivers a lovely, complementary song on the B side, “Who Has Seen The Wind?” Featuring flute and harpsichord accompaniment, it’s a nearly beguiling number that presents Yoko as the antithesis of Nico.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1980 called this a “grand gesture,” and one was needed after the letdown of The Beatles’ breakup. None of the Fab Four had sketched out a roadmap for the future, McCartney opting to recycle ditties from the past, and All Things Must Pass became something of a beacon. Great works from John, Paul, even Ringo would follow, but it took George to call their bluff. Spread out across three albums (now two discs), All Things Must Pass confirmed what many already knew: George was a good songwriter just waiting for a patch of sun to call his own. No longer overshadowed by John and Paul, the quiet Beatle has a lot to say about the breakup, God, and (on the album of jams) his own guitar heroes. Phil Spector sometimes suffocates good ideas under too much varnish (“Wah-Wah,” “Awaiting On You All”), but more often elevates these acoustic songs into powerful statements (“My Sweet Lord,” “Beware of Darkness,” “Isn’t It A Pity”). With Bob Dylan contributing half of “I’d Have You Anytime” and “If Not For You” (given a more earnest reading on his own New Morning), it’s perhaps no surprise that All Things Must Pass sounds like a son of the Nashville skyline, all cool country charm when the mood strikes. You can imagine “Let It Down,” “Behind That Locked Door” and “All Things Must Pass” sharing a train ride with “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Maybe it’s the pedal steel guitar or the fertile arrangements, maybe it’s the easy way these songs just roll along with an offhand genius. And then there’s the joy apparent on All Things Must Pass. It’s at the heart of songs like “What Is Life,” “My Sweet Lord” and “Awaiting On You All,” a sort of revival-meeting energy that sweeps you up. Toss in some songs that recall the solo work of John (“Beware of Darkness” in its demo version) and Paul (compare “Art of Dying” to “Mrs. Vanderbilt”) plus a few nods to The Beatles (“I Dig Love,” the second version of “Isn’t It A Pity”) and you may have the most substantive solo musical statement in all of Beatledom. The album of instrumental jams, while often overlooked, show Harrison, Eric Clapton and Dave Mason blowing off some steam in various settings. Of course, Jimi Hendrix left vaults full of stuff like this behind, so they’re best seen as a bonus disc of curiosities rather than a balanced contribution.
Power to the people, right on! Not the people in power, or the people who voted for the people in power, but those other people. No, not the lazy ones who didn’t vote. To the right of them. The malcontents who voted for the wrong guy last time. Those people. Seems like a good idea in theory, and then one day you wake up and pumpkinhead is president. I never liked the politics of this song. Power is a gun, and you can argue endlessly that it’s a deterrent and not a weapon, but no one ever uses it that way. Musically, this song is another of John’s anthems, and I didn’t enjoy any of those except “Woman Is The Nigger of the World.” Brilliant track, that. The B side was Yoko Ono’s controversial “Open Your Box,” which was banned in the UK. The US single featured a different song in its place, “Touch Me” from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. “Open Your Box” and “Touch Me” are both pretty amazing avant-garde compositions and make a strong case for considering Yoko as a serious artist. It’s too bad she began writing pop songs instead, since her strengths clearly lie in the field of musique concrète.
If you don’t understand why so many people love John Lennon, you don’t lack imagination, you lack Imagine. Like his last record, John continues to tear down the barrier between artist and audience, making another personal record but without the pain this time. The result is stunning in its simplicity; Phil Spector’s saturated and resounding “wall of sound” is a fair match for George Martin’s baroque production, yet it’s ultimately a transparent technique. For as many times as we’ve heard it, “Imagine” never felt like more than John and a piano and a ray of inspiration. If John turned the studio into a psychiatrist’s office on Plastic Ono Band, here it’s a cross between confessional and bully pulpit. “Jealous Guy” is as wide a window as you can fit into the human heart, “Oh Yoko!” as silly and endearing a song as John has recorded. Because this is John Lennon, there is a darker side, sometimes done like Dylan’s burlesque of country (“Crippled Inside”), and sometimes delivered in a searing hot brand of disdain (“How Do You Sleep?,” “Give Me Some Truth”). Any one of the aforementioned tracks is a classic in the canon; add the open, orchestrated “How?” and you’ve got, well, maybe not the works, but more great John Lennon than you’ll find anywhere else I’ll wager. Since Plastic Ono Band seemed to purge a number of personal demons, Imagine was free to be a more positive album. A song like “Oh Yoko!” would have seemed out of place on his last album; here it’s a natural part of one human being’s celebration of his highs and lows. Note that the Mobile Fidelity vinyl pressing sounds very good (when don’t they?), but you’d probably do as well with a compact disc (after all, this wasn’t Sgt. Pepper’s sonically speaking).
Worried that Ramshackled is a boondoggle? Relax. Alan White’s first (and only) solo album garnered its share of criticism, both from critics (because it was associated with Yes) and Yes fans (because it didn’t sound enough like Yes). But remembering for the moment that White had only been with Yes a short while, his music naturally draws equally from past employers such as John Lennon, Gary Wright and Joe Cocker. It’s an eclectic mix, sampling soul, rock, jazz, classical and even a little reggae (on the pleasant trifle, “Silly Woman”). You could say the same about Steve Howe’s Beginnings or the side of music Carl Palmer contributed to ELP’s Works Volume One. Ramshackled isn’t as good as all that, with White ceding the songwriting to his old Griffin bandmates Ken Craddock, Colin Gibson and Pete Kirtley. (Not to be confused with the Gryphon that supported Howe on his first album.) If Ramshackled fails, it’s because the rest of Yes were talented musicians with a vision. White might just as well have gone fishing during Yes’ hiatus. Instead, he recorded this low-key album of songs, including a few (“Avakak,” “Song of Innocence”) that tap into Yes’ vibe. Ramshackled’s great sin may be that Yes fans, who were curious for a window into what made White tick, know as little about his muse now as they did before. The revealing science of percussion it isn’t, but approaching this with realistic expectations will go a long way toward appreciating Ramshackled for what it is: a solo album from a ‘70s session drummer who had only recently hitched up with Yes.
Kronomyth 2.0: THE SIX WIRES OF STEVEN THE GREAT. Steve’s second solo album follows the format of his first, minus the singing (hooray!), with rapid-fire ideas rendered in musical rapture. The attendant kronomyth is a nod to the notion that this and Wakeman’s Six Wives are analogous in their relation to their creator’s muse as their most musical expressions. The Steve Howe Album is also a remarkably good-humored record. The guitar lines in Yes often leapt with joy, and you can hear the source of that joy on this record: “Pennants,” “Cactus Boogie,” “Diary of a Man Who Vanished,” “The Continental.” You could also hear it on “The Clap,” which again gets a kind of reprise on “Meadow Rag,” much as “Ram” before it. While nothing on here is as insidiously tuneful as “Lost Symphony,” “All’s A Chord” is awfully close and marks the only occasion on TSHA when Steve sings. A cameo from Claire Hamill on “Look Over Your Shoulder” is a tasteful addition, inviting comparison to the work of Renaissance (due to a dearth of female prog singers and my general laziness in these matters). The album closes with not one but two classical pieces: “Double Rondo” and a reverent version of Vivaldi’s “Concerto In D (2nd Movement).” Steve pulls out all of the stops (and an impressive stringed arsenal) on The Steve Howe Album, making this record a real showcase for his talents as a player and composer. Beginnings may be the better place to begin simply because it was Steve’s first solo record, and a very good one at that, but this is the Steve Howe album to play for your friends, if only because you won’t have to defend his questionable singing.