Kronomyth 0.6: LIFE WITH THE LAYABOUTS. The opening moments of “Cambridge 1969,” featuring Yoko’s piercing wails and John’s atonal guitar feedback, set the stage for Life With The Lion’s calculatedly confrontational tone. Two Virgins was easily dismissed as folk art, a single concept (What is music?) not so much explored as stretched out in an interminable question. By contrast, Yoko and John actually sculpt their sonic clay to achieve a desired end here. “Cambridge 1969” is a precursor to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (it’s also mercifully shorter), a duet of pain from singer and guitarist that is harrowing in the extreme. Although this is a live recording, and it’s unlikely the pair was working from sheet music, it’s clear that they went into this performance with a good idea of the type of sounds they were going to make. “No Bed for Beatle John” is an Oriental plainchant, with Yoko singing about an incident during her miscarriage (the hospital’s refusal to give John a bed as he stayed with his wife) that somehow matter-of-factly becomes a discussion of Apple litigation and the infamous Two Virgins cover, while John sings counterpoint softly in the background about his upcoming divorce to Cynthia and other matters. It’s an interesting look at two minds on different planes, with a form that again suggests premeditation on the pair’s part. That’s followed by “Baby’s Heartbeat,” a recording of Yoko’s fetus that sounds remarkably alien, succeeded by two minutes of silence to represent the baby’s passing from this world. It may not be music, but it is art that makes a powerful statement. Yoko takes the controls (literally) for “Radio Play,” as she coaxes short bursts of sound from the radio by flipping the dial quickly (background conversation is also heard). This is the closest cut to Two Virgins, though the idea of using the radio as an instrument is very clever (predating everything from record “scratching” to the electronic experimentalists of the ‘70s and ‘80s). Of the three experimental albums that John and Yoko made, Life With The Lions is probably the most deserving of serious study. The Rykodisc reissue includes two bonus tracks: “Song for John” (think of it as Yoko’s take on Lennon’s “Julia”) and “Mulberry,” a nine-minute piece that features Yoko’s interpretive vocal wails and John’s guitar tunings (a la “Wild Honey Pie”). Although it’s not for everyone, this album does compare favorably to the work of modern composers like John Cage and George Crumb.
“The peace was in our minds, really. I mean, we did seven days press conference for peace in which we donated one week of our two week holiday for world peace. Now a lot of cynics have said, oh, it’s easy to sit in bed for seven days. But I’d like some of them to try it, and talk for seven days about peace. All we’re saying is give peace a chance.” – John Lennon in a 1969 interview at the Sacher Hotel.
Kronomyth 1.0: SUN QUEEN IN THE WAY SHE MOVES. Not to be confused with the Spongebob theme song (all they were saying was “give cheese some pants”). This, the first “normal” music from John and Yoko, comes in the form of an anti-war protest song. Fashioned loosely after The Beatles’ “All Together Now,” which had appeared in the Yellow Submarine film, “Give Peace A Chance” is an acoustic chant featuring astral traveller Timothy Leary (among other Earth-bound luminaries) and credited to Plastic Ono Band. The B side is one of Yoko’s prettiest songs, “Remember Love,” which suggests a feminine spin on John’s “Julia” or “Sun King.”
Bootlegs from the bedbugs at the Amsterdam hotel. The first “song” (you’ll understand why it’s in quotes later) features John calling Yoko’s name and Yoko calling John’s name and that’s it. The tone and intent change, from coo to cajole to command (koo koo kajoob), but at no point could this be considered music. In fact, I only made it about ten minutes into the track before turning it off. It’s that awful. The second side of music, entitled “Amsterdam,” begins with Yoko and John singing (okay, that word should have quotes around it too) about peace. Actually, just the word Peace. Then it segues into the interviews during the Bed-In at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam, with John and Yoko talking about peace and war. Listen to Yoko extemporize on war, and you’ll pray for her to sing. Not that John comes off any brighter, but at least English is his native tongue. Of the three experimental albums the pair recorded, this is the worst. So what did I do but by the digital remaster! Yes, I am an idiot. Not only do you not need to hear the digital remasters of this album, you don’t need to hear this album period. There must be interview discs out there with more to offer. The only snippet of music comes at the tail end of “Amsterdam,” which sounds like Yoko revisiting “Because.” If that’s a carrot, you know where it can go. However, the digital remaster does include three B sides from Yoko that deserve to be heard. “Who Has Seen The Wind?” appeared on the flip side of “Instant Karma!” and is a lovely little acoustic ballad. “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” is Yoko’s bookend to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” beginning like a children’s song before scaling Phil Spector’s wall of sound for a credible Christmas rock track. “Don’t Worry Kyoko” is a demo version dating from 1968 and not the version that appeared as the B side to “Cold Turkey.” Even the inclusion of the Yoko tracks at the end isn’t likely to entice all but the most ardent John Lennon collectors. Which still doesn’t explain my lapse in judgment. Oh well, time for a little well-earned peace…
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.
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).
With a little help from his friends, Ringo delivered a pop album that put to rest questions of whether he would succeed as a solo artist. The self-titled Ringo spawned three Top 20 singles: “Photograph” (cowritten by George Harrison), “You’re Sixteen” (which included vocal backing from Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney) and “Oh My My” (cowritten by Vini Poncia). Ringo doesn’t have a great voice, but his everyman charm is winning, deferential where John Lennon was egotistical, grounded where Harrison could seem celestial. Ringo’s records (like Lennon’s) always seemed to be loosely aggregated parties, with guests coming and going, some staying only briefly (Marc Bolan, John Lennon, Billy Preston, The Band) while others hang around long enough to help clean up afterwards (Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Tom Scott). These are the same circle of friends who formed the extended Beatles family, supporting Lennon and Harrison throughout their solo careers as well, so it’s no surprise that Ringo feels like the work of John and George from this period (e.g., Walls & Bridges, Dark Horse), which is referred to as “boogaloo” (whatever that means). But where fans had set expectations for the other Beatles, it’s fair to say that anything Ringo added was pure gravy; after all, Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues hardly boded well for the future, though the singles “It Don’t Come Easy” (which was added to this disc for the 1991 reissue) and “Back Off Boogaloo” did show promise. Starting with the Lennon-penned “I’m The Greatest,” Ringo gets out of the gate quickly, reprising his role as Billy Shears in order to remind folks of whence he came (Lennon obviously perceived the importance of Ringo’s first serious commercial album). Material from George [“Sunshine Life For Me,” “You And Me (Babe)”] and the McCartneys (“Six O’Clock”) added to the album’s cachet, with Starr (a.k.a. Richard Starkey) ably filling in the holes on “Devil Woman,” “Step Lightly” and “Oh My My.” Although his next albums would follow the same formula, it was on Ringo that listeners became starr-struck all over again, and for most fans this remains his best solo album.
Given the uneven nature of John’s recorded output, this stands as one of his better solo efforts. It’s not the stunning artistic statement of Plastic Ono Band or Imagine, merely a collection of likeable songs that tone down the politics and the pain in favor of pleasing melodies and a certain playfulness. Where “Imagine” was stark and powerful, “Mind Games” is saturated and sweeping; in lieu of the minimalist approach that “Love” took, Lennon offers the chatty “One Day (At A Time).” The title track has since entered the hallowed hall of career keepers, while “Bring On The Lucie” and “Out The Blue” scratch at the door on any given day. The rest of the record is simply pleasant pop (“Only People,” “Intuition”) and affectionate tokens (“You Are Here”), perhaps slightly better than what George and Paul were writing around the same time. Mind Games has been aligned with the lamentable Lost Weekend (a term I’ve always found distastefully trite), a glimpse of which is given in the powerful “Aisumasen,” where John invokes better times (“Oh Yoko!”) in the line “All I had to do was call your name.” Mind Games only offers glimpses of genius like this, but enough of the old Beatles magic sparkles in the seams to make some of these songs feel like minor miracles (at least to the faithful). The only unflattering wrinkles occur on “Tight A$” and “Meat City,” a pair of noisy tracks unbefitting the polished pop around them. Yes, there are better albums from John to choose from, but only a few.
Kronomyth 6:01: I, ME, MIND. The music of The Beatles and, by extension, John Lennon has been so over-analyzed, picked at and picked over, that there’s almost no joy of discovery anymore in hearing this music. It’s a shame, since I don’t believe that contemporary listeners will ever experience a “Mind Games” or “Meat City” without immediately being told what it really means, where it really came from and a dozen other annoying realities foisted upon you. Part of the problem, I suppose, is man’s intrinsic need to rationalize everything a posteriori. Genius, they say, is a process, and inspiration is an accumulation. What I see and hear in “Mind Games” is the hand of God, the author of music and millipedes and everything else. And I wonder sometimes if all of these facts and opinions aren’t like so many silver crosses to ward off the “demon” of a divine will that doesn’t need you or me or John Lennon to make things happen. Then again, it’s 3:30 in the morning, and I probably shouldn’t pontificate after three cups of coffee.
Kronomyth 7.1: CARIBOUGIE. John Lennon and Elton John come together, what(ever)’s not to love? When this came on the radio, it was like being invited to a three-and-a-half-minute party. The sax solo from Bobby Keys is pure magic (not bad for a first take). Elton bet Lennon that the song would reach #1 (until that point, Lennon was the only member of The Beatles not to achieve the feat) and Lennon agreed if it did to join Elton John on stage. Two months later, John Lennon appeared on stage during Elton’s Madison Square Garden performance and played “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” The flip side is “Beef Jerky” from the same album, Walls and Bridges. It’s an instrumental with horns and a pulsating rhythm; reminds me of the half-baked treats that Paul included on his early albums. “Beef Jerky” is credited to John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band with Little Big Horns and Booker Table and the Maitre D’s, that last name being a playful twist on Booker T. and the M.G.’s.
I was 11 years old when I bought this album, the same age as Lennon when he drew the pictures that adorn Walls and Bridges. My Beatles fantasies in full blossom, every album from John, Paul, George and Ringo was a treasure box to be opened. Walls and Bridges, with its unique tri-strip album cover—this is still one of the best packaged albums I own, from the full-size picture booklet to the build-a-Lennon cover—promised much and didn’t disappoint: “Going Down on Love,” “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “What You Got,” “#9 Dream,” “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox).” As a boy, I didn’t have any inkling into the Lennons’ personal affairs and still have no interest today. When the books came out after John’s death, I couldn’t have cared less for them; the man was gone, the story was written. As I grew older, I let my appreciation for Walls be dimmed by dull critics who lumped this under Lennon’s Lost Weekend and docked it a star or two with a disapproving tongue cluck as an unremarkable album from a remarkable artist. Then came this lovely 2010 remaster, and my faith in Walls And Bridges was restored. While it’s one of his least philosophical albums, it’s also his most musical, with terrific accompaniment from old friends (Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Arthur Jenkins, Nicky Hopkins, Ken Ascher) and new faces (Little Big Horns, Jesse Ed Davis, Eddie Mottau). It’s still a personal record, with love songs to Yoko (“Bless You”), confessionals (“Scared,” “What You Got,” “Going Down On Love”) and a caustic swipe at estranged manager Allen Klein (“Steel And Glass”). And yet it manages to be one of Lennon’s most fun records to listen to, aided in large part by upbeat arrangements. Although the tactile experience of the original elpee is one of my fondest memories in album collecting, I’d have to give the 2010 paper sleeve remaster the nod just for its vastly superior sound quality.
Kronomyth 4.0: KLAATU BARADA RINGO. It was da-da-down to Ringo and John at this point, but the old Snookeroo still managed to deliver more actual, honest-to-goodness hits on Goodnight Vienna. “No No Song,” “(It’s All Da-Da-Down To) Goodnight Vienna” and “Only You” did well on the charts, and only the last could be credited to post-Beatlemania inflation — the rest of these are actually really catchy. Funkier and more electric than his last record (and thus, I guess, more boogalooey), Goodnight Vienna starts on familiar footing with a new song from John Lennon (although you may wonder why he says goodbye when he should be saying hello). Ringo carries the rest of the record with the usual stalwarts (Harry Nilsson, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston, Vini Poncia) and a peck of pianists (Elton John, Dr. John, David Foster, Lincoln Mayorga). The Starr of the show again manages to pull a few good ideas from his melon and chooses some interesting covers, including Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives” and Allen Toussaint’s “Occapella.” His voice hasn’t improved, and yet it’s oddly compelling on songs like “Easy For Me,” almost as if Ringo had grown comfortable enough with his voice to render songs in his own idiom (think Frank Sinatra with a head cold). The horn sections and backing vocalists further sweeten the nasally roughness of Ringo’s voice, which seemed a little dry on his last album, all of which lends to the impression that Goodnight Vienna is a more musical-sounding album than its predecessor. It is more lively by a little, but that doesn’t compensate for the lack of The Beatles’ participation. Thus, without George Harrison contributing harmony vocals or Paul McCartney’s romantic ballads in the mix, there might be a little too much Ringo in this strawberry tart for some tastes. Still, compared to what was expected from the man, Goodnight Vienna is another commercial triumph.
George loved God, Paul loved Linda, Ringo loved a good time and John loved a good fight. As Apple was sinking, they fired off a pair of parting shots from John and Ringo. Blast From Your Past was a blast all right, but Shaved Fish gave us food for thought. Just take a look at the cover: a naked, hooded woman attacked by lipstick missiles; a tearful John dressed as his mother; John with eight eyes, a face growing out of his head, a face disappearing in ever-present clouds. A mind unchained, an individual locked in the human condition, this was the enigma of John Lennon. The songs on Shaved Fish are nothing if not enigmatic. Enjoyable? Sure, some of the time. But more often uncomfortable. They played “A Dose of Rock ‘N’ Roll” on the radio, but they didn’t play “Mother” or “Cold Turkey” or “Woman Is The Nigger of the World.” That last song, incidentally, might be just about the best thing John has written since The Beatles, barring maybe “Instant Karma.” Of course, Shaved Fish is nothing more than holiday product released by a withering Apple. But it’s also the single best representation of John Lennon’s difficult muse up to this point. Unfortunately, it would be followed by five silent-as-snow years. Speaking of silence, to honor an old debt, here’s a look at what a 1972 Beatles album might have looked like: Hi Hi Hi / Woman is the Nigger of the World / Back Off Boogaloo / Give Ireland Back to the Irish / While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Live) / Wild Life / C Moon / John Sinclair / Here Comes the Sun (Live) / Happy Xmas (War Is Over). They don’t usually shake out as well as you’d think.
Kronomyth 6.0: THE WRITING ON THE WALL. At first glance, Ringo’s Rotogravure had all the ingredients for another hit album: contributions from John, Paul, George and Eric Clapton (!), a readymade hit (“A Dose of Rock ‘N’ Roll”), another golden oldie (the Lennon favorite, “Hey Baby”) and a little help from a lot of friends including Peter Frampton and the Brecker brothers. On closer inspection, however, Rotogravure was a weak copy of Ringo’s last two records. The trouble rests squarely with Ringo, who hands in a performance so perfunctory it would make Krusty the Clown blush. In what could be perceived as a vampiric move, Ringo robs Ring o’Records artist Carl Grossman of “A Dose of Rock ‘N’ Roll” and contributes three songs, one of them co-written with his girlfriend at the time (Nancy Andrews), none of them any good. His version of “Hey Baby” is cold-bloodedly bad. And what Ringo did to George Harrison’s “I’ll Still Love You,” a leftover from the fertile All Things Must Pass sessions, should be a crime; no wonder Harrison later sued him over it. Then there’s the left-it-unnamed-and-didn’t-even-bother-to-use-good-grammar-over “This Be Called A Song” from Clapton, which at least is not (because it could not possibly be) as bad as it sounds. On the brighter side of things, Lennon’s “Cookin’ In The Kitchen of Love” is a treat and Paul McCartney’s “Pure Gold” makes for a nice trinket. As the last of the Ringo records to feature The Beatles, Ringo’s Rotogravure will still hold appeal for collectors, although it’s clearly the weakest of the three.
“Like Paul, (John) was extremely intelligent and aware of what he wanted in the studio. But you’d never find two more diametrically opposed personalities. I was working on Double Fantasy at the time of his death. How long did it take me to recover from that night? I still haven’t recovered.” – Hugh McCracken, as quoted in his obituary in The Independent.
A toast to a new beginning, an epitaph to a surprise ending. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, yadda yadda yadda. It’s hard to hear this song today without a twinge of sadness, and yet, when I first heard this song, I wasn’t impressed. After all the speculation of what Lennon might sound like in the 80s, he’d changed so very little, returning to the rock & roll roots of his youth while David Bowie was force-feeding us the future on Scary Monsters. (I had a similar reaction to Let’s Dance, so maybe I was just miserable in the 1980s.) The real surprise here is Yoko Ono’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” which accepts the challenge of the new decade. In fact, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” would have worked better interleaved between “It’s No Game” and “Up The Hill Backwards.”