Covering all things vinyl, whether from digital or analog sources, with good music the only common denominator.
By Ken Micallef
More than any other Beatle after the band’s 1969 breakup, more than Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr, no single Beatle experienced greater musical peaks and bleaker musical lows than John Lennon. For every brilliant “Instant Karma,” “Imagine,” “Working Class Hero” and “#9 Dream,” there was the loutish “Stand By Me,” inane “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” dullard’s “Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox),” and forgotten “Going Down on Love.” While Lennon’s post Beatle output was unpredictable (unlike McCartney, who then and now remains entirely predictable), when his muse was fully engaged no songwriter attained loftier musical plateaus, reaching a plane of popularity and musical genius that no other Beatle, and few performers in popular music, could reach or match.
“Imagine” (from Imagine) remains the quintessential anthem of the New Age movement, and all movements that count peace, love, and understanding as founding principles. “Love” (from Plastic Ono Band) and its circular melody and childlike lyrics (“Love is real, real is love/Love is feeling, feeling love/Love is wanting to be loved”) finds perfect power through perfect simplicity. And these are but two of Lennon’s brilliant compositions. What continues to amaze is that Lennon reached these musical heights with apparently little effort, through those Eureka Moments reserved for genius, gifting the planet with songs rich with his unique sense of dichotomy and melodic and lyrical brilliance.
An early Plastic Ono Band single, composed while Lennon was still a Beatle, “Cold Turkey” expressed the horror of drug withdrawal as no song before or since. “Mother” soft-pedaled a lifelong open wound, wallowing in rejection and pain measured over a cadence so peaceful and sparse it sounds like mediation instead of madness. “How Do You Sleep?” channeled anger and disappointment in the most sarcastic, withering, anti love rock song ever written. Conversely, “#9 Dream” expressed bliss, freedom, satisfaction, and love from the viewpoint of both lover and child.
John Lennon was forever a man-child, essentially caught between the need for the mother’s love he never knew, yet with a macho chip on his shoulder so big, his ego thrusting out in such misogynist Beatles’ pop hits as “Run for Your Life,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Daytripper.” But upon finding the love he yearned for with Yoko Ono, Lennon reverted to a child-like state: baking bread, bathing baby Sean, a stay-at-home father going soft right up until his final great gasp of creativity, Double Fantasy.
It’s easy to compartmentalize the many John Lennons. It’s easier to grasp his genius if we cut him down to size: The hard-headed moptop storming through “Twist and Shout,” the Dylan-influenced folkie droning “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the eternal clown playing Mellotron in “Flying,” the hard-edged cynic of “Daytripper,” the philosopher of “In My Life,” the anti-war pro-violence punk rocker of “Revolution,” the peace and love spirit of “Across the Universe,” the social critic of “Instant Karma,” the larynx-shredding blues Beatle of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”), the Stockhausen-worthy musique concrete composer of “Revolution #9,” the heavenly saint of “Imagine.” But they’re all the same John Lennon.
I have a theory. Just as those theories purporting that William Shakespeare was a mythical figure (the “Anti-Stratfordians,” the “Baconian theory”), not a single man responsible for some of the greatest drama in English literature, I think a similar hypothesis will one day be attached to the music of The Beatles: How could four poor “lads” from one of England’s roughest seaside cities produce within a mere ten years the most enduring body of pop music of all time? Surely, these “Beatles” never existed in the flesh. “The Beatles” was simply an expression of the 1960s, a decade that experienced massive upheaval artistically, musically, politically, scientifically and philosophically. Theirs was a grand folk music, songs without literal origin, a body of collective song pooled together from the zeitgeist of that turbulent time.
Luckily, the newly reissued 8-LP LENNON box set (under $200 on Amazon) confirms that John Winston Lennon was indeed flesh and blood. Wearing his heart, his playfulness, his wit, and his anger on his sleeve, Lennon bared his soul for all to see in an inconsistent yet beautiful body of work that is ours to cherish. LENNON covers eight of his studio albums, “remastered from their original analogue masters, newly cut to vinyl from 96k digital files, printed on heavyweight, 180-gram vinyl with faithfully replicated original album art,” states the set’s Universal press release. Lennon’s catalog is out of print on vinyl. “LENNON is the first complete collection of John Lennon’s solo studio albums to be released on vinyl, and the individual LPs will be released on Friday, August 21.”
LENNON’s eight albums were remastered from John Lennon’s original album mixes in 2010 by Yoko Ono and a team of engineers led by Allan Rouse at Abbey Road Studios in London and by George Marino at Avatar Studios in New York. The new vinyl masters were cut by Sean Magee at Abbey Road Studios. The LPs were pressed for the world by Optimal Media in Germany.
Each LP of the LENNON collection aims to replicate its music and original cover art. In keeping with the original album artwork, Imagine contains reproductions of its two postcards, poster and inner bag. Some Time In New York City includes reproductions of its original postcard and inner sleeve. Walls and Bridges includes its sleeve with two fold-over flaps, an eight-page booklet and inner sleeve, and Mind Games, Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey also include reproductions of their original inner sleeves.
LENNON includes John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), Imagine (1971), Some Time In New York City (1972), Mind Games (1973), Walls and Bridges (1974), Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975), Double Fantasy (1980), and Milk and Honey (1984).
What LENNON doesn’t include are Lennon’s first three solo albums (not counting Live Peace in Toronto 1969), the most controversial and experimental recordings of his career after The Beatles’ Revolution #9, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (1968), Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (1969), and Wedding Album (with Yoko Ono) (1969). Talk about rare and out of print! In all my days collecting records in New York City I have seen Two Virgins twice, and I’ve never seen Unfinished Music Nos. 1 and 2. You can hear these three Universal-shunned albums on YouTube, where their combination of tape loops, piano, organ, drums, reverb, delay, distortion and Yoko Ono vocal warbles are combined to both humorous and maddening effect. Of course, Two Virgins’ album cover revealed the LennOnos in their natural naked state, which freaked out the world at the time. Oh, how far we have either (a) come, or (b) fallen.
But Two Virgins is at least as interesting as the filler that occupies parts of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Mind Games and Walls and Bridges. Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions followed suit with more experimentation, recorded at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London (during Ono’s pregnancy) and live at Cambridge University. Here, humor is replaced with Yoko’s tortured vocals backed by Lennon’s guitar feedback, the heartbeat of what would be the couple’s dead baby, and bits of saxophonist John Tchicai, percussionist John Stevens and background conversations. Uneasy listening Beatle peoples! Wedding Album is intentionally hilarious. Side one consists of John and Yoko calling out each other’s name over the sound of squishy heartbeats. Interviews from the couple’s Toronto “Bed-In” and Ono’s “Grow Your Hair” round out side two. OK, maybe Universal was right not to reissue this rubbish!
So we know who Lennon is. How does LENNON sound?
As for all my LP reviews, I used my rig consisting of Kuzma Stogi/Stabi turntable with Ortofon Quintet Bronze cartridge and Shindo Allegro preamps, Shindo Haut Brion power amp, Shindo and Auditorium 23 cables, Ikea Aptitlig bamboo boards, Mapleshade IsoBlocks and Mapleshade Clearview Double Helix Mk II Power Conditioning Strip.
Used vinyl copies of Lennon albums were once plentiful, but finding a used Imagine or even Rock ‘n’ Roll these days is rare. I relied on my original copies of Plastic Ono Band and Mind Games. You might say I went by feel for the remainder of LENNON.
This is a beautifully pressed box set. The heavy sleeves are perfect reproductions, and it’s fun to discover the various postcards and posters hidden within the jackets. Every LP was flat, quiet and played beautifully with absolutely zero pressing issues! Thank you Sean Magee at Abbey Road Studios and by Optimal Media in Germany!
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
John and Yoko worked through Arthur Janov’s primal therapy in early 1970, and Lennon was soon ready to unload his newly liberated/tortured psyche to the world. Surrounding himself with friendly faces, from Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman to keyboard player Billy Preston (with Phil Spector loosely producing), Plastic Ono Band is a profound listen but also deeply intimate and even humorous. All of Lennon’s magical trademarks — the simple 1/8th note piano figures, circular lyrics, and the greatest scream in rock — are present in a handful of heart-wrenching, emotionally powerful, brutally honest songs that are unlike anything rock ever produced.
The sound of the original 1970s Plastic Ono Band pressing was “lo-fi” before the term had been invented. Drums and bass are muted; drums probably dampened with towels. The bass drum is more boom than 70s thud. The piano has a player piano-in-a-cathedral quality, all echo and long decays. Lennon’s voice is treated and effected throughout Plastic Ono Band, typically layered with echo or double tracked. The soundstage is small and tight but suits the intimate music.
“I Found Out” is urgent and raw, Lennon rocking blues guitar over Ringo’s simple thwack two-and-four. The lyric “You heard about my mom and my paw/My folks didn’t want me so they made me a star,” still crushing. The sludgy mix of “Remember” amplifies the booming drums and buried electric bass pulsing under Lennon’s repetitive driving piano. “Mother” exposes raw pain, Lennon screaming the lyrics to where his voice becomes more bloody and potent with each refrain of “Mommy don’t go/Daddy come home” delivered over sparse, spooky, declarative piano chords.
LENNON’s Plastic Ono Band isn’t as much a remix as a reappraisal. The soundstage is much larger and better fleshed out. Bass drum is almost too much of a good thing, booming uncontrollably (though this may be my Ortofon Quintet Bronze which booms when tracking deep bass). The bass drum is warmer, as is the bass guitar which is now often lost within the bass drum. The opening, resounding bell of “Mother” is a clue to the upper transient edge of the Plastic Ono Band reissue: you can now hear the tape noise, distortion and wow and flutter of the old recording, where before you only heard the lonely, muted bell. “Mother”’s vocals are now cleaner, with better separation from the instruments. The piano now sounds like a grand piano, not an upright in a closet. The liquid guitar and stereo vocals of “Hold On” are now beautifully rendered, with much greater resolution of Lennon’s comfy vocals (“cookin”).
For a fun, in-studio look at the making of Imagine (including Lennon explaining to a homeless man why the two of them are not cosmically connected).
Sessions for Imagine happened all over the map, from Abbey Road in London to the Record Plant in LA to Lennon’s own tiny Ascot Sound Studios in his Tittenhurst Park mansion. The sound quality is variable on both the vintage and new reissue copies of Imagine. The band, including pianist Nicky Hopkin, drummer Alan White and guitarist George Harrison can be seen in the above documentary clowning and recording at Ascot Sound Studios, where one would assume the songs with a tiny soundstage – “How Do You Sleep?”, “Imagine,” for two — were recorded. Conversely, the soundstage is a massive, sludgy Phil Spector enabled wall-of-sound on “Gimme Some Truth,” “It’s So Hard,” and “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier.” It couldn’t have sounded worse if they’d recorded in a basketball arena. Lennon worshipped Spector so the mixes remained. Oddly enough, when Dani Harrison remixed George’s All Things Must Pass for its 2007 reissue, he thankfully removed the maddening reverb rain effect and you can finally hear the band. Too band Sean didn’t do the same for the LENNON reissue.
The single, “Imagine,” sounds sweetly small of soundstage but clean on the vintage pressing. Bass drum is tight and the snare drum pops. The trademark, layered winsome piano sound is foggy but lovely in its hard panned left/right channel stereo spread. “Gimme Some Truth” pours on the head-clanging reverb, like the Hindenburg crash set to music. Drums boom and tumble sloppily; Harrison’s slide guitar rises above the muck, only barely. “How Do You Sleep?” is in — get this – mono! The only mono track on the album. Small, tight and sludgy are its bywords.
On to the LENNON reissue, “Imagine” is perked up by slightly cleaner vocals, piano and drums are cleaner as well. The drums sound is warmer, and larger in the mix. The strings also sound bigger, their cleaner presentation making their stirring, bittersweet harmony lines more effective and noticeable. But the changes are very subtle compared to the original “Imagine” mix. “Gimme Some Truth” is certainly tweaked, clearly heard in the upper frequencies: hi-hat notes are much cleaner, as are cymbals in general and the song’s reverberating electric see-saw guitar. Also more evident is a keyboard, perhaps a Celeste, that couldn’t easily be picked out before on the vintage LP. Finally, “How Do You Sleep?” is still in mono, shockingly enough. But the soundstage is bigger, drums fatter, with more edge on guitars and Lennon’s vocal. A slightly tweaked Imagine that comes up roses.
Some Time In New York City (1972)
Oh no, Ono! Lennon’s off on his social activism kick and the music suffers for it, as does his career, and his standing with the FBI, who secretly planned to remove him from the US. Lennon, the musician, was a genius, not so much Lennon, the social activist.
The original double album contained the “Plastic Ono Supergroup”’s December 1969 live performance of “Cold Turkey” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)” recorded at the Lyceum Ballroom in London which appeared on side three. The “Supergroup” was comprised of George Harrison, The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, Delaney & Bonnie, and Billy Preston. Side four featured Lennon and Ono performing with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East in 1971.
Lennon and Ono, with the assistance of studio drummer Jim Keltner, hired Elephant’s Memory, a local NYC band of hairy rock and roll revelers to back them for studio and live performances; they appear on the studio-only sides one and two. Never one to drop a security blanket, Lennon again hired Phil Spector co-produce.
Taken as a whole, and if your ears can accept avant-garde music, Some Time in New York City is a solid C+ of an album. Let’s stick to the high points, shall we?
“Cold Turkey” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)” are brilliant performance art. Performed with Frank Zappa and the Mothers, whose penchant for blistering blues solos and excellent support, mesh well with Lennon’s rock and roll and Yoko’s caterwauling cries. “Cold Turkey” is fairly straight with a killer Zappa solo, while “Don’t Worry . . .” is an avant-garde revelation. Like some Black Sabbath death march, with dissonant, disturbing guitar by Zappa and Yoko’s out-of-body cries, the song has the smell of violence and death. This is truly the soundtrack to the Manson murders, not “Helter Skelter.” Yoko and Zappa duel, the guitarist aping her manic ululations like strafing gunfire. “Baby Please Don’t Go” is a simple rock and roll rave up, though the Mothers are powerful in their groove assault. “Jamrag” is classic Zappa, burning and scorching his guitar, while Yoko adds counterpoint. “Scumbag” is followed by “Au,” both unmemorable jams.
The studio sides are equally uneven. “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” has the makings of a great single, but buried in Spector’s passive/aggressive production, what’s the point? But there’s no denying that Lennon’s stance on feminism, informed by Yoko, was as ahead of its time as Yoko’s vocal screams and bleeps, which were perfectly rational within New York City’s avant garde community which included John Cage and Lamonte Young. Yoko’s rocking “Sisters, O Sisters” forecast the B-52s, note for note. Lennon’s “New York City” is boring but inspired. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is passionate, if tuneless, while “The Luck of the Irish” is a criminally ignored gem, the kind of song Lennon could toss off in an afternoon, capturing the message and spirit of an event (Irish nationalism) in a perfect three-minute pop gem. Why this song is not sun at Irish football games I will never understand.
Mind Games (1973)
Determined to recapture his rock reputation, Lennon self-produced Mind Games at NYC’s Record Plant joined by heavyweight session cats including drummer Jim Keltner, guitarist David Spinozza, bassist Gordon Edwards and the great Sneaky Pete on steel guitar, with Yoko Ono and Phil Spector nowhere in sight.
Consequentially, this is Lennon’s best album since Imagine, with tightly focused songs and clean production (by early 1970s standards) helping to reestablish Lennon’s songwriting skills and sorely battered reputation. “Mind Games” was a hit on US radio, and for those lucky enough to grab the Japanese single, the B side contained the almighty blistering “Meat City,” one of Lennon’s unacknowledged masterpieces. Snarling in true wild man style, Lennon scowls “Snake doctors shaking like there’s no tomorrow in Freak City/Chickensuckin mothertruckin shookdown Meat City USA Pig Meat City.”
Written, like the rest of the album, at the beginning of his immigration battles and breakup with Ono, “Meat City” directs all the sourness and scorn Lennon could muster in an odd-metered, clanging punch-drunk rock attack complete with backwards tape loops, white noise, sampled baby gobbledygook, and scorching guitar. “Meat City” reportedly contains a Lennon curse, “Fuck a pig!,” sped up and ran backwards. Mind Games also offers lovely Lennon dream vehicles “One Day At A Time” and “I Know You Are Here,” which recall such earlier Lennon pure bliss songs as “Because,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “Across the Universe.”
Walls and Bridges (1974)
With Ono entirely gone from the picture, Lennon embraces rock and roll (“Whatever Gets You Through The Night”), dream states (“#9 Dream,” “Bless You”), self-pity “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” and self-revulsion (“I’m Scared.”) “#9 Dream” and its nonsense lyrics: “Ah! Bowakawa pousse, pousse” was a minor radio hit, while the gleeful rock and roll of “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” with Elton John was Lennon’s only #1 US hit.
Overall a rather sad release, with its odd dichotomy of wishful, woozy songs, rock and roll, and sarcasm.
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)
It’s the era of Happy Days and American Graffiti, and nostalgia is in. What better way to capitalize on the nostalgia craze than cover an album’s worth of classic rock and roll gems. And don’t forget, The Beatles cut their teeth on “Please Mr. Postman,” “Baby It’s You” and “Chains,” hits straight out of the Spector catalog, so of course, Spector was brought in as producer. The wall of sound approach is present, but thankfully contained.
The rock and roll material was also chosen to settle certain legal obligations, but Lennon obviously delights in straight renditions of “Peggy Sue,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” ”Ain’t That A Shame,” “Bony Maronie” and the US hit “Stand By Me.”
The sessions are legend for the alcohol consumption and violence that ensued, Spector literally stealing the master tapes and at one point shooting up the studio. He had a car crash and the tapes were retrieved. Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded before Walls and Bridges, but released after, causing more legal hassles for John Lennon.
The overall sound is rather foggy, and soft, as if they had to bring rock and roll back from the dead, while it clung to its afterlife carcass.
Double Fantasy (1980)
Double Fantasy smacks you over the head as soon as the needle drops. In a scant five years audio quality and recording technology had advanced incredibly; the overall LP sound natural, present, palpable and with an extremely fat low-end.
Produced by Jack Douglas using studio musicians Lennon didn’t know at the time, Double Fantasy is of variable songwriting quality, but, released after Lennon’s death, the album went straight to number one and won the Grammy for best album.
“Starting Over” does have a kind of sweet grace in its tightly played shuffle beat and lyrics describing marital bliss and romance rekindled. But it’s Yoko who provided the heat, her boisterous, off-kilter avant-garde pop providing Double Fantasy’s true edge. It’s tough to rock when you’re a stay at home dad, but not when you’re a wealthy artist traversing the world and running a music empire.
Yoko takes control in “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and “Give Me Something” before Lennon turns back the noise for the rocking flow of “I’m Losing You.” But Lennon ultimately reclaims the album with “Watching the Wheels” and “Woman,” masterful pop gems written by an aging master of the game. And the record sounds fantastic!
Milk and Honey (1984)
Music Quality 7 Audio Quality 8
Milk and Honey is, perhaps, the most unusual posthumous album ever released. Songs by the lover, and the loved, dearly departed. Yoko’s songs aching in loss, separation, and anguish bordered by a rock and roll legend getting his sea legs back. Even in death, Lennon could hit the charts — “Nobody Told Me” entering the top ten worldwide.
Ono’s songs are more thoughtful than in the past. Lennon’s songs have a demo quality. Produced by Ono and David Geffen, the album lacks the superior sonics of Double Fantasy, and generally sounds pieced-together. Ono’s songs are touching, pondering the loss of so much, and all the details: in her case, John’s hands, her sanity, her loneliness and emptiness. Lennon’s songs were recorded not long after Double Fantasy; Ono’s songs, after Lennon’s death. Lennon’s “Grow Old with Me” is particularly poignant, sung in demo form, as if a nursery rhyme. The final song is Yoko’s ominous “You’re the One,” singing “In the world’s eye we were Laurel and Hardy/In our little minds/We were Heathcliff and Cathy….We were really just a boy and a girl/who never looked back.”
LENNON is a powerful remembrance of one of rock and roll’s greatest emissaries. John Lennon gave more than he ever got, and educated the world in love, peace, women’s rights, rock and roll, and the ability to change.
Do you need the entire set? It’s beautifully realized, one of the best box sets I’ve seen with amazing attention paid to every detail. But as some LPs are better than others perhaps purchase of the individual LPs (available August 21st) is a better value.
But if you’re a completist, grab LENNON, and get happy all over again.
About the Autbor
When not rustling words for DownBeat, Electronic Musician, Bass Player and Modern Drummer magazines, Ken Micallef feeds his vinyl LP habit, photographs New York City’s remaining neighborhoods, and reviews audio equipment for PFO. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Ken currently resides in Greenwich Village, New York City, a swift subway ride to the city’s well stocked and overpriced used vinyl stores. His LP prizes often find their way to his Facebook page, Jazz Vinyl Lovers, where love of jazz and the occasional turntable photo keeps heads turning and the conversation buzzing.
Raised in the Deep South, educated as a commercial artist, Micallef is also a regular contributor to Autodesk’s lineshapespace.com online business magazine, where Smart Buildings, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things provide grist for the mill of future design and cloud-based and 3D manufacturing.
Ken’s current rig includes Shindo electronics, DeVore Fidelity and Snell speakers, a Kuzma turntable and various cartridges.
Financial Interests: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.