“The Lennon Listen” is a project to listen to John Lennon’s recorded solo output in a roughly chronological order.
- Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
- The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
- Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions
- The Wedding Album
- Live Peace in Toronto 1969
- “Give Peace a Chance”
- “Cold Turkey”
- “Instant Karma!”
Before the Break-Up
When does John Lennon’s solo career begin?
It’s a good question. with Paul McCartney we’d point to McCartney, his solo album that definitively marked the beginning of the solo Beatles period, as its release made it clear that the Beatles, as a band, was no longer a collective entity.
But John Lennon had put out a wealth of material, without the other Beatles, in the year and a half prior to the release of McCartney in 1970. Material which both presaged his solo career post-1970, but which also reacted to and influenced what was happening with the Beatles at the same time.
Lennon, more than Paul, George, or Ringo, had established for himself a musical career parallel to the Beatles prior to the break-up of the Beatles.
To look at John’s solo career, then, we need to go back to 1968.
John Lennon had a good 1967. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need Is Love,” Sgt. Pepper’s, Magical Mystery Tour. Well, okay, maybe not the last, as John’s contribution to that was only “I Am The Walrus,” and the rest was Paul being, well, Paul. He discovered the meditations of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and he and the Beatles went to Rishikesh for study. But he also had a bad year — his drug intake increased, and long-time manager Brian Epstein died.
1968 was the year where Lennon began to separate himself from the Beatles. He’d taken tentative steps — the filming of Dick Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966, for instance — but in 1968 Lennon had something new in his life.
He had Yoko Ono.
They had met in 1966 at an exhibition she gave at the Indicia Gallery. And, in the strange way that happens when kindred spirits meet, they clicked. But John was married, as was Yoko, and they remained social acquaintances for a little more than a year and a half.
In May 1968 that changed.
The story is well-known, and I probably couldn’t retell it better than Mark Lewisohn from his book, The Complete Beatles Chronicle (which is, by the way, an essential book for any Beatle-fan’s library):
Sunday, May 19
The probable date (though it’s long proven impossible to corroborate) of the union of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Having met on 9 November 1966 and subsequently maintained occasional contact, it was now that they became a couple. Or, to precis a well-worn story, this is the night that John invited Yoko to his house in Surrey (wife Cynthia was abroad on holiday), when they made some sound-collage recordings together and then consummated their new-found love at dawn. Less than six months later John and Cynthia were divorced, less than nine months later Yoko was divorced from her husband (film-maker Tony Cox) and less than ten months later, on 20 March 1969, John and Yoko were married.
The night warrants an entry in this book strictly because of these recordings, which were issued as an album entitled Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins on Friday, 29 November credited to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It comprised an uninterrupted wash of avant-garde sound effects, beyond the ken of pretty much everyone, and was housed, as the whole world surely knows, inside a sleeve which featured, on the front side, the front view of John and Yoko naked, and on the other side the naked view of John and Yoko’s backside. Banned, mercilessly criticized and attacked, it made number 124 in Billboard and failed to chart at all in Britain, not that chart positions were relevant.
Two Virgins, then.
The first thing you notice, obviously, is the cover. If you can get past John Lennon’s penis and Yoko Ono’s obvious need for breast support, is there anything here worth hearing?
It’s a half an hour of noise. Occasionally, John and Yoko will play an instrument. John fiddles with his guitar. Or he’ll pound on a piano. There are birds chirping in the background. Yoko sounds like a funhouse ghost. And then she’ll howl. Or warble. Or screech. In places, it sounds like someone farting in a microphone.
In places it’s reminiscent of the way alien planets sounded on the original Star Trek. I doubt very much that that’s intentional. John liked Doctor Who, but it’s unlikely that he was familiar with Star Trek in 1968.
John was still a month away from creating “Revolution No. 9.” Did Two Virgins influence that sound collage? Truthfully, I don’t think so — the construction of the two is vastly different. Two Virgins sounds like two people tripping on acid with a tape recorder and nothing better to do with their time. “Revolution No. 9,” by contrast, was a carefully constructed sound collage of tape loops and other random nonsense.
The verdict on Two Virgins? I guess it depends on the novelty value of John Lennon’s penis and if you want to look at it. As something to listen to, though, it’s a half an hour of your life you won’t get back.
In the summer of 1968 the Beatles recorded the “White Album.” Yoko Ono became pregnant. She miscarried. (We’ll return to this.) Then, in December, John and Yoko participated in a film for the Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
In a way, it’s unfair to cite this album in a chronological listen of John’s solo career, as it wasn’t released until the 1990s. To the record buying public in 1968, this didn’t exist. But in retrospect, it’s vastly important in the development of John Lennon’s solo career.
In a way, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus represented the debut of the Plastic Ono Band.
It wasn’t called the Plastic Ono Band. It was the the Dirty Mac. John Lennon. Eric Clapton, late of Cream. Mitch Mitchell, drummer of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Keith Richards, borrowed from the Rolling Stones.
They played a single song, “Yer Blues,” from the “White Album.” John sometimes described “Yer Blues” as a parody of the British blues movement, and the song is a British blues song, yet he also claimed it was absolutely true. For this one-off concert appearance, John pulled out this song. Not “Revolution,” a song he felt so strongly about that he’d insisted on the Beatles recording it twice. This song. Which suggests that “Yer Blues” actually meant something to John.
Yes, I’m lonely
Yes, I’m lonely
If I ain’t dead already
Girl, you know the reason why
In the morning
In the evening
If I ain’t dead already
Girl, you know the reason why
And, of course, the late lyric, “Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll.”
It’s a driven performance. And dare I say it? It’s better in this live version than it is on the “White Album.” Keith Richards is better at a blues bass line than Paul McCartney. And Eric Clapton, himself a bluesman, is better at playing lead guitar on “Yer Blues” than George Harrison was on the album track.
We’re going to come back to “Yer Blues.” And Eric Clapton.
The Dirty Mac is the proto-Plastic Ono Band. The POB never had a consistent line-up, it was whomever John Lennon had at hand for recording or a live gig. (Indeed, one could argue that the Beatles’ song “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is more properly viewed as a Plastic Ono Band song, as John only had Paul McCartney at hand for the recording.) For The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, John had Keith Richards he could borrow, Eric Clapton was on hand (Cream was invited to participate, but they’d just broken up), and he snagged Mitch Mitchell.
John went out, performed a live gig, without the Beatles. He had some well-known sidemen. It’s the Plastic Ono Band, in all but name.
John’s song finished, the Dirty Mac brought violinist Ivry Gitlis on stage to accompany Yoko Ono for ten minutes of warbling and screeching. In the version on the CD, it’s been cut down to about four minutes of a hard-rocking blues groove jam. Truth to tell, the track would work for me completely without Yoko. It’s not a bad track at all, if hard British blues is your thing, but Yoko screeching is not always a good thing. But as we’re about to learn, if Yoko is going to screech, she’s needs some heavy back-up to play against. Here, the Dirty Mac provides it. This is possibly the only listenable track of its type.
John is still a rocker at heart, and it shows in his performance of “Yer Blues.” Listening to “Yer Blues” you have to wonder — what if Paul McCartney’s plan to go on the road and do a few shows from the “Get Back” project had worked? The Beatles had accumulated some material that would have worked live in the time since Candlestick Park in 1966. Clearly, John still had what it took to be in front of a live audience. You have to wonder.
That’s not the first counterfactual we’ll hit in this series.
Verdict on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus Dirty Mac tracks? They’re worth it. It’s an interesting live album all the way around — from a live performance by The Who of “A Quick One While He’s Away” to a Jethro Tull song to a nice set from the Stones. For the Lennon fan, this is more than just a curiosity. This is where his solo career well and truly begins.
Next up, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions.
“Cambridge 1969” is twenty-six minutes of Yoko screeching and wailing, backed by John’s guitar feedback. Oh, and occasionally a cymbal or a flute or something. This is the sonic equivalent of a persistent ringing in the ears. Blech. I’ll quote from Lewisohn again:
Sunday 2 March
Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Ave, Cambridge, Cambs
The first concert appearance of a Beatle outside the group, before a Cambridge University audience of 500. It was not, however, quite the auspicious event it might seem, for this John Lennon stage appearance was far removed from any recognisable pop/rock performance. While Yoko contorted her larynx into screams, groans and cackles for the front-of-stage microphone, John provided the only suitable accompaniment: remaining in the half-shadows at the back of the stage, he spent the entire performance producing howling, ear-splitting feedback from his electric guitar and amplifier. Only at the very end of this commotion were they joined by anyone else: a saxophonist and a percussionist. Then, finally, Yoko’s unique contribution to this concert of “experimental music” was over.
John and Yoko, naturally, not only recorded the performance but considered it worthy of public issue….
Compared to “Whole Lotta Yoko” there’s nothing here to really grasp. There’s no drive to any of this. It sounds like it’s made up on the spot.
And there’s one thing that stands out. John Lennon may have been a brilliant songwriter and a gifted artist, but he’s merely competant with the guitar. Heresy, I know, but it’s obvious. Listen to “The End” on Abbey Road sometime, and his guitar solos are just fuzz-toned noise, compared to the majesty of Harrison’s guitar solos and the artistry of McCartney’s. Yes, there’s some artistry to John’s feedback in “Cambridge 1969,” but it’s mostly just noise.
Next, “No Bed for Beatle John.” Yoko was pregnant in 1968, and she miscarried the baby. While in the hospital John refused to leave her side, only there was no place for him to go. Hence, “no bed for Beatle John.” This track is four minutes of Yoko singing newspaper articles about herself and Lennon. It’s… amusing, in the “it’s so bizarre I can’t believe they did this” sort of way.
“Baby’s Heartbeat” is a recording of the (later) miscarried fetus’ heartbeat. There’s a good five minutes of this. This isn’t the first time that John and Yoko would record heartbeats.
Next up is “Two Minutes Silence.” It is exactly what the title suggests — a hundred and twenty seconds of silence for the miscarried baby.
Finally, what is perhaps the most excruciating track on the album, “Radio Play.” If “Cambridge 1969” is like a ringing in the ears, listening to John Lennon play with a radio dial for twelve minutes is like scraping fingers down a chalkboard. Occasionally John takes a phone call or talks with someone while he keeps fiddling with the dial, but even that can’t salvage this. Because, when you get right down to it, there’s nothing to salvage.
Clearly, John Lennon and Yoko Ono thought that Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins was an artistic triumph, so they went back to the drawing board and created yet another album of… aural crap. Is there anything here worth listening to? Okay, “No Bed for Beatle John” is amusing to listen to, just to hear Yoko put newspaper articles to music she’s making up as she goes, but the rest of it is flat-out pointless as hell. “Cambridge 1969” is an exercise is seeing who can produce the most excruciating sound, while something like “Radio Play” has nothing to commend it. Life with the Lions — I’d say I can’t believe I paid money for this, but then I’d be lying.
This is followed up with The Wedding Album. Not content to sucker people out of their money on two completely pointless albums, John and Yoko inflicted their pain on audiences a third time.
And what do we have? Two tracks.
“John & Yoko.” It’s twenty-plus minutes of John and Yoko shouting each others’ name, all while being backed by the sound of their heartbeats. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re shouty, sometimes they’re quiet. It’s not terrible to listen to, but it’s also pointless.
The second track, “Amsterdam” isn’t even music. It’s John and Yoko talking to reporters from their “Bed-In For Peace.” Believe it or not, this track has some merit to it — it shows how “fuzzy” their thinking was in wanting to achieve peace. Yoko, in particular, voices some incredibly vapid thoughts. I’ve no doubt that she’s a fiercely intelligent woman, yet some of the things she uttered here are in the vein of Miss Teen South Carolina. They’re that bad. But lest you think I’m letting John off, I’m not. He’s got some howlers, too. Only I don’t want to suffer through twenty minutes of fuzzy babble just to find them.
What’s our takeaway? John Lennon should probably stick with music. It’s what he knows. Sound collages, or random things he can record aren’t helping his career. The Wedding Album is the most pointless of the three noise albums. Two Virgins at least had John and Yoko doing some experimentation with sound recording. There’s an attempt at music on Life With the Lions. But The Wedding Album is nonsense. Nonsense!
There’s another takeaway, too. Don’t do drugs, kids. Because when you do, you’ll create things like Two Virgins. Or you’ll think that shouting the name of your lover into a microphone is something that everyone wants to hear for twenty minutes straight. Two Virgins may be a better anti-drug message than the “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs” commercials.
It occurs to me, after listening to these albums that John Lennon would very probably be a blogger and/or podcaster today. The performance art aspect of blogging — and yes, there’s a definite component of performance art to writing a blog — would appeal to him. So, maybe something like “Amsterdam” is a proto-podcast, in the way that the promo films the Beatles made for some of their later songs are like proto-music videos. It’s an interesting thought.
As we move into mid-1969 John Lennon returned to his roots and penned a few songs. Beginning with “Give Peace a Chance.”
Recorded at one of John and Yoko’s Bed-Ins for Peace, this time in Montreal, “Give Peace a Chance” is one of John’s most famous solo songs. (It’s also the only one credited to “Lennon/McCartney,” or at least it was until a few years ago.) I can’t imagine that there’s a reader out there who hasn’t heard “Give Peace a Chance,” but on the off-chance…
“Give Peace a Chance” was recorded in John’s hotel room, with a bunch of actors and reporters who happened to be there. “All we are saying… is give peace a chance.” It’s catchy. It’s memorable. The lyrics are shite. As an encapsulation of John’s Bed-In peace philosophy, it’s fine. As a song, it sounds like something he cooked up in about ten minutes. And the lyrics are largely improvised, as we’ll soon see.
My take? I don’t like “Give Peace a Chance.” When I hear it on the radio, I change the station immediately. The song annoys me to no end. Because, it really just sounds like noise and gibberish to me, combined with “Kumbaya” like you’d sing at a church camp when you’re little. Yes, it’s one of John Lennon’s most famous solo songs, but it’s also trite and pointless. It has the same problem as “Revolution,” actually — rather than suggest actually doing something to change the world, the song merely hopes for change. “Revolution” is all “revolution won’t work to change things, but things will change for the better nonetheless” (which is the song’s message, even though it’s so often overlooked in the guitar noise and the snarling vocal). “Give Peace a Chance” is simply a mantra, not a call to action. It’s all cause, no effect.
“Give Peace a Chance” was John Lennon’s first solo single. Next up, “Cold Turkey.”
First, some background.
To say that John Lennon had a drug problem is like saying that George Bush is a moron — yes, it’s quite obvious, and yes, the problem influenced the person’s decisions. In Lennon’s case, his use of LSD was influential on Sgt. Pepper and “Strawberry Fields,” while his heroin use influenced his work on Let It Be and Abbey Road.
And his heroin use influenced “Cold Turkey” as well — it’s the song about how John went “cold turkey” on heroin.
John wrote the song and brought it to Paul, offered it as a potential Beatles single. Imagine, for a moment, the counterfactual where Paul McCartney said, “Y’know, John, let’s do that. We’ll round up Ringo and George, and we’ll put out a rockin’ song. Now I have to whip up something for the B-side.” Had Paul McCartney done that, would the Beatles have carried on into 1970? Would Paul have gone with John to the Toronto Rock-n-Roll Festival, which was released as Live Peace in Toronto? We’ll never know.
We live in this world, though. And in this world, John took Paul’s rejection, rounded up a band to back him, and went his own way. Again, Lewisohn:
Thursday 25 September
Studio Three, EMI Studios, London
Then, returning for a 7.00pm-1.30 am session, the band — on this occasion comprising John (guitar/vocal), Eric Clapton (guitar), Klaus Voormann (bass), Ringo (drums) and Yoko (unspecified) — recorded the first basic studio version of ‘Cold Turkey’, taping 26 takes of the basic track and a simultaneous lead vocal, with John producing.
John had played this song live at the “Live Peace in Toronto” event about two weeks previous. His Plastic Ono Band line-up was almost the same — Alan White played drums live instead of Ringo.
John Lennon was, at heart, a rock-n-roller, and “Cold Turkey” features a scorching guitar riff from God, err I mean, Eric Clapton. The lyric, in contrast to the pablum of “Give Peace a Chance,” while not memorable, is vivid in its directness and imagery. There’s anger, there’s bargaining, there’s grief, there’s acceptance. And John’s vocal goes a long way toward selling it.
The irony of Clapton providing stinging guitar work on a song about the pain of weaning oneself from heroin doesn’t escape me, given Clapton’s own difficulty in kicking his heroin habit several years later.
“Cold Turkey” is a damned good song. It’s rough to listen to, because of the vocal, the intensity, and the guitar work. It’s lyrically inventive, and it’s solid in its musicianship. This may be one of the unjustly overlooked Lennon solo songs — overlooked as much for the reasons for why it was written as for the anger in the song, an anger that doesn’t fit the image of John Lennon as the icon of love and peace. Because there’s no love and peace in “Cold Turkey.” It’s all about getting fucked by the withdrawal, and it is angry and it is hateful. And it’s fucking good.
Now we’re going to jump back in time two weeks, to the Toronto Rock-n-Roll Festival.
The story is this. John Lennon received a phone call one day from a rock promoter. He was putting together a festival in Toronto, ticket sales were soft, and would John like to come? So John rounded up a band — Clapton, White, Voormann, Yoko — and off to Toronto they went, practicing on the plane. The John/Yoko set from the festival was released as Plastic Ono Band — Live Peace in Toronto 1969.
I generally don’t like live albums, yet I do like Live Peace in Toronto. The set list was this:
- Blue Suede Shoes
- Dizzy Miss Lizzie
- Yer Blues
- Cold Turkey
- Give Peace a Chance
- Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)
- John John (Let’s Hope For Peace)
I think it’s interesting to look at John’s set for this album. The first three songs were straight from John’s days playing Hamburg in the Beatles’ early days, days that bassist Klaus Voormann had experienced firsthand as one of the Beatles’ first fans. They were easy songs that they’d all played at one time or another. “Blue Suede Shoes” was a song that the Beatles played during the Let It Be debacle. “Money” was a Hamburg staple, and a version was recorded for With the Beatles. “Dizzie Miss Lizzie” was a song that John probably would have liked (and I thought he’d recorded it for Rock and Roll, but I see that he didn’t). “Yer Blues” clearly meant something to John, that he’d pull this song out twice for live venues nearly a year apart; it’s not inconceivable that John Lennon, as his identity as a Beatle was disintegrating and his identity as part of johnandyoko was still forming, would turn to a song about his own ambivalence toward his talent, his role in the universe, and his own self-worth. “Cold Turkey” was a song straight from Lennon’s recent experience, and “Give Peace a chance” was an encapsulation of his peace philosophy, no matter how fuzzy it was.
The retro songs — “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money,” “Dizzie Miss Lizzie” — are fine. There’s not really remarkable about them, but the Plastic Ono Band does a good job with them.
“Yer Blues” isn’t as focused here as it was on The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus. Clapton delivers some very bluesy guitar licks, but John’s vocal isn’t as strong or as angry as it was a year before.
“Cold Turkey,” in this live performance, is actually better than the single. It’s sped up, as compared to the single. Clapton’s guitar work is more inventive here. And Lennon’s vocal, without the single effects, is somehow more sincere. I know that many Lennon fans don’t like “Cold Turkey,” yet I think they haven’t heard this live version. The only thing that really mars it is Yoko’s warbling backing vocals.
“Give Peace a Chance” live is slightly more interesting than the single. The problem I have with the single is that it feels endless, yet in front of an audience John gets through the song in a brisk three minutes. It’s done in a laid-back singalong way, and the song’s faults are readily apparent — the verses don’t make sense, and John forgets them several times because they were largely improvised when he wrote the song originally, and here he fills in the beats with gibberish — but I suppose one doesn’t listen to “Give Peace a Chance” for the verses. One listens for the refrain — “All we are saying is… give peace a chance.” John is certainly sincere in performing the song, and with a band backing him the song has some sonic interest that is lacking in the single.
Should I talk about Yoko’s two contributions? Essentially, it’s more of the same from Yoko. Combine “Whole Lotta Yoko” with “Cambridge 1969,” and that’s roughly what these two “songs” are.
The importance of Live Peace in Toronto 1969 can’t be over-estimated. It was only a month prior to this that the Beatles were working together on the finishing touches for Abbey Road. But in that month, Paul had rejected “Cold Turkey” as a potential Beatles single, and John was given an opportunity to strike out on his own. If the Beatles were on shaky ground in 1969, the point where John Lennon felt that he didn’t need the Beatles any more probably began here. I generally avoid live albums like the plague, but this is one live album that every Beatles fan should probably have, even if only for its historical importance. Even if you’re never going to listen to the two Yoko Ono tracks. 😉
But the Beatles weren’t done yet. Let It Be hadn’t been released, and they hadn’t recorded “I Me Mine” yet.
In January 1970, John Lennon recorded “Instant Karma!” Produced by Phil Spector, the song featured George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, and Billy Preston.
This may sound odd, but for some reason this song makes me feel… happy. Yet, it’s really rather an angry song. I’m not even sure what the song is about — I think it’s about the epiphany one feels when he feels connected to the universe, that shock that there’s more to life than the self. At least, that’s what I take away from the song. And, as I said, “Instant Karma!” makes me feel happy. It’s certainly a more listenable single than “Cold Turkey,” more pop, I suppose.
Taking a look at the singles, if “Give Peace a Chance” is the famous song, and “Instant Karma!” the memorable one, “Cold Turkey” is probably the most challenging one. Compared to John’s work on Abbey Road, though, these songs are probably not quite as good. “Cold Turkey,” as compared to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” has the intensity but not the sonic creativity, for instance. Yet, John Lennon produced work that could have been Beatle-worthy with “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma!” (and he was backed by Beatles on both songs). Maybe not as singles, per se, maybe as album tracks, but they’re still quite good.
On April 10, 1970 Paul McCartney announced to the world that he was leaving the Beatles. Let It Be was still a month in the future. For all intents and purposes, though, the Beatles were over.
What did the future hold in store for John Winston Ono Lennon on April 10, 1970? At a guess, the future looked very bright for John Lennon. If you looked at where John Lennon’s career separate from the Beatles was at that moment, you’d have had three non-commercial albums of noise, one worthwhile live album, two very good singles, and one single of some import if not particularly good on its own terms. In other words, John Lennon had shown that he could produce quality work outside of being a Beatle (if you discount the three noise albums). John was already out-of-the-gate on his solo career.
And then he went to California. He met Arthur Janov. He discovered “Primal Scream Therapy.” And what would that do to his muse?