It’s hard to imagine, borrowing a completely overused pun in this context, what John Lennon would be doing at 70. Speculation from those who knew him best seems to waver. Some believe he’d be outraged by the problems plaguing the world today. Others say he’d be in sync with the Internet and new technology. We all want to believe that Lennon would have buried the hatchet and reunited with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at some point in the last four decades. Someone will probably write a book about everything Lennon would have become. Truth be known, we’ll never know.
Perhaps Lennon would have stepped back, away from the spotlight as he did during the late 70s. Maybe he'd have taken up golf (there’s a really nice course across the street from his childhood 251 Menlove Avenue home in Liverpool) and enjoyed his golden years as a rich legend without anything else to prove. He might have played the occasional concert, made the occasional record. In all liklihood, no matter what else may or may not have happened, Lennon would have been up for remastering his catalog. Whatever you want to believe, it’s not hard to imagine — oops, there I go again — he would have been thrilled with what his wife Yoko Ono has done with the music to honor her husband’s 70th birthday.
Throw away the coffee mugs and neckties with John Lennon doodles, trade in your old Parlophone CDs (but hang on to Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, The Wedding Album, Live Peace in Toronto and the previously released anthologies and box sets) and rejoice in the glory of the 2010 John Lennon remasters. As part of Yoko Ono’s Gimme Some Truth campaign, crisp and refurbished editions of Lennon’s solo albums — Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Some Time In New York City, Mind Games, Walls And Bridges, Rock N’ Roll, Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey — are ripe for the taking.
Double Fantasy gets a double dose — remastered and “Stripped Down,” cast in a rawer, less glossy mix. The campaign includes two compilations — a 15-song single CD called Power To The People: The Hits and the four-CD thematic box set Gimme Some Truth. The remastered CDs are available separately or as part of the John Lennon Signature Box, which includes a six-song disc of singles and a second bonus disc of Lennon's home demo tapes.
Each CD is housed in a cardboard double sleeve with original front and back cover artwork, There’s a small CD booklet with each disc that dishes on the album and its songs. Lyrics are also included. As for the sound, the remasters are faithful to Lennon’s original mixes, clearly scrubbed up and given a sonic boost — possibly utilizing similar technologies and techniques applied to the Beatles 2009 Remasters.
Like his ex-Beatle mates, Lennon’s solo output was an odd mixture of brilliance and mediocrity. Early on, of course, he was an untamed dervish, screaming for “Instant Karma!” “Mother,” “God” and “Love.” When you put the brutal honesty of Plastic Ono Band and its slightly more user-friendly follow-up, Imagine, together — you might be talking about two of the better Beatle solo records of the bunch.
Sometime In New York City was a political smear from its cover to its songs. Even so, you have to appreciate the spirit of “The Luck Of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” featuring one of Yoko’s better vocal contributions. The live bonus disc contains a live medley of "Cold Turkey" and Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko," from an antiwar rally at the Lyceum in London with George Harrison, along with a slice of the Lennons with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East. Once you get past the tedium, you chalk it up to history.
What may be surprising is how good the remasters of Mind Games and Walls And Bridges came out. Somewhat forgotten notches in Lennon’s discography, deep spirited cuts like “Tight AS,” “Bring On The Lucie (Freda People),” “Out The Blue,” “Meat City” are well worth the effort, in addition to the engaging title track, in buying Mind Games.
The same goes for Walls And Bridges. Highlighted by the opening “Going Down On Love,” a morose tone eggs on the dramatic grooves that skip over the hits “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” and “#9 Dream.” Pianist Nicky Hopkins adds his own rollicking, bluesy feel to “Old Dirt Road” and a withdrawn, smoky nightclub mood shrouds “Bless You.” So-called downers like “Scared” and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)” may not live up Lennon’s potential, but “Steel And Glass” remains one of the great underrated treasures in the vast selection of soul-bearing confessionals in Lennon’s cache.
Rock N’ Roll, the last album released in the 70s before a five-year hiatus, stacks up well enough to get an obligatory spin or two. Mired in controversy, this all-covers album taps into Lennon’s roots, as well as the singer’s own permissive vocal power — arguably one of the greatest voices in rock and roll. Paul McCartney would replicate the same idea in 1999 with his own rock and roll tribute, Run Devil Run. The similarities are not surprising. Lennon covered Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A-Lula” and Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie” and McCartney took a stab at Vincent’s “Blue Jean Bop” and Williams’ “She Said Yeah.” The most memorable of all, however, is Lennon’s ”Stand By Me” — a song he’s as closely associated with as Ben E. King, who co-wrote and originally sang it.
Double Fantasy, John and Yoko’s comeback album for the 80s, gets scrubbed down and “stripped” of its glittery production. The album’s original mix wasn’t nothing to sneeze at (it's included on the second disc), but the Stripped Down mix has less reverb, bells, whistles, effects and more in your face. Even Ono’s songs, hotly debated and often eliminated from homemade hack jobs, sizzle and snap. The starkness of “Watching The Wheels” underscores its sincerity and charm, while the embellishments tacked onto “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him” provide an unexpected ethereal lift.
The posthumous release, Milk And Honey, equally benefits from the remastering. A sobering reminder that Lennon was raring to go and make more music before tragedy intervened, Milk And Honey's liner notes acknowledge the fact that the singer didn’t necessarily “sign off” on the final record, fueling speculation it doesn’t belong at the 2010 remastering party. But then you'd be denied funky rockers like “I’m Stepping Out” and “Nobody Told Me,” which only tell half the story. Tracks like “Borrowed Time” and “Grow Old With Me” dim the lights, driving home the startling realization that optimism, in the lives of anyone, can sometimes dissolve and fade away without a moment’s notice during the best of times.
Power To The People: The Hits and the Gimme Some Truth box capably serve the casual and eclectically discriminating types unmotivated to dig any deeper than necessary. Fans of the original albums may be put off by the bland and obvious themes used to compartmentalize Lennon’s music, and are advised to avoid Gimme Some Truth altogether. But Beatle completists will as easily scoop it up as they will the Signature box with 13 previously unreleased home recordings and personal essays from Ono and Lennon’s sons, Sean and Julian. The choices are vast and varied, with the music at the heart of the celebration, making the John Lennon remasters a fitting and heartfelt tribute to one of rock’s brightest beacons.
~ Shawn Perry