From the “garage band” of Live Peace in Toronto to the timeless polish of Imagine and Double Fantasy
“Weren’t the 1970s a drag?”
That’s one of the observations John Lennon made traveling the interview circuit in 1980 to promote his Double Fantasy return to the pop music scene.
Lennon’s sentiment has lingered with me over the years. I realize he was putting one decade behind him and looking forward to fresh opportunities in the 1980s. But now, thirty years later, it almost seems odd.
The 1970s? A drag? The era of Happy Days and Charlie’s Angels and the U.S. Bicentennial and goofy Monty Python antics?
Well, yes. For John and Yoko, the decade might have ended well, with a new child, a green card, and quiet years of “baking bread.” But before then, the 1970s had been tumultuous both personally and politically. There had been the “lost weekend” split from Yoko. Earlier, Lennon had been flexing his political activism muscles during the height of protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Ultimately, he had been pursued by the U.S. government itself and, at one point, ordered out of the country.
Describing that era as “a drag” was almost classic understatement.
But does any of that matter in appreciating his music today?
There are core Lennon recordings that have now become more-or-less detached from their original context. “Imagine” is now a standard, but even political anthems such as “Power to the People” and “Give Peace a Chance” have taken on a similar timeless quality. In part, that reflects Yoko Ono’s very effective guardianship and promotion of John Lennon’s legacy. Artwork. Films. Books. Music. All have been consistently and continuously showcased for three decades, and in the process, his work has stepped out of its time and become the John Lennon Canon, the product of a respected artist of the twentieth century.
I can’t argue with the results of that approach. Multiple generations still embrace Lennon, apart from The Beatles, and will continue to do so.
However, at a milestone moment like this (70 years since his birth, 30 years since his murder), stepping back into the context, if only briefly, helps us to reconnect with the man, and to better appreciate his body of work.
Quite personally, my affection for Lennon the artist is inevitably rooted in both the context and the art. To me, following John Lennon was appreciating a never ending sense of discovery, looking in on his “growing up” in public as an engaged adult. Lennon publicly shared his sense of humor and playfulness, his willingness to try things out, even if some projects ended up discarded as “interesting” experiments that fizzled while others took hold. The John Lennon of the 1970s was someone who dared to “fail” in sales or popular opinion, but who could then slyly turn around and make everything work on the next venture.
All that directly counters the inevitable tendency to honor (even venerate) an artist’s body of work as complete and sacred and almost beyond criticism, especially when it has now stood the test of several decades time. The feeling is often that it must be great because it lasted so long.
That’s so wrong for John Lennon’s work. At times, it was simply messy. And that’s good.
To that point, two of my favorite albums to look back on to counter the polished Lennon of Imagine and Double Fantasy are Live Peace in Toronto and Some Time In New York City.
In Live Peace, there was John Lennon rediscovering live performance and being center stage for what, in some ways, was the world’s most prestigious garage pick-up band, featuring a couple of superstars that happened to be Lennon and Eric Clapton. My favorite moment: Lennon confessing that for “Give Peace A Chance,” even he didn’t remember all the delightfully complicated verses, but that he sure knew the chorus.
It was a far more confident Lennon that presented Some Time In New York City, so the “grounding” there came in devoting obvious loving production to such polemics as “Angela” and “Woman Is The Nigger of the World” and in making a true, intermixed John and Yoko album (an approach that would not be repeated until Double Fantasy). Yet even here in time-stamped political manifests, Lennon still nailed such songs as the gently evocative “Luck of the Irish,” the hard edge protest blues of “John Sinclair” (with Lennon’s own killer slide guitar riffs), and the welcome-to-America excitement of “New York City.” This was John Lennon in his times, bursting with artistic excitement. Maybe some tracks did not work, but all of them were worthy of a listen.
And worthy of a look. That’s obvious looking at the new “Box Of Vision,” which is an authorized collector’s storage box for gathering your Lennon CDs, including a hardcover book with full album size reproductions of the original artwork. Putting all the artwork in one place helps to emphasize another aspect of John Lennon’s solo efforts. He treated these album packages as something artistically special. For example, in its original release, Live Peace came with a full blown month-by-month calendar of photos and notes. Some Time In New York City was even more impressive in its gatefold album form, an elaborate faux newspaper (“Ono News That’s Fit To Print”) showcasing the lyrics, photos of John and Yoko and their friends, and including a clever reworking of a Frank Zappa live album cover to highlight a guest appearance by John and Yoko onstage with him.
The same held true for Lennon’s other albums, each with its own artistic sensibility, from label images to inner sleeve artwork. The consistent message always seemed to be: Look what I’ve come up with! Give it a look. Give it a listen. Hope you like it. If not, maybe next time.
With Lennon there always seemed to be a next time just around the corner.
Those next times, of course, ended in 1980. Still, I have to credit Yoko Ono with finding different ways of trying to capture that elusive energy and bring it to new generations. On one level, she has consistently reminded those of us who followed Lennon back then why we cared. At the same time, she has also kept the general public in mind with a variety of professionally practical John Lennon “greatest hits” sets.
This latest round of new and old packaging (a boxed set, remastered discs, new greatest hits collections) stirs the energy mix one more time. Oddly, such frankly unnecessary gambits as the “stripped” Double Fantasy (removing most of the production/echo from each track, showcasing Lennon’s unadorned voice) work quite well, not only evoking a less-than-perfect Lennon, but also giving the impression we’re right there in the studio with him. Along with the remastered audio on the Lennon catalog, there is also elaborate new packaging combining the originally released artwork with new material, harkening back to the eye for detail in Lennon’s original releases.
These will no doubt connect with new generations of fans, and also with those who were there the first time.
But even if you do not purchase any of the new releases, they provide a wonderful excuse to look back to the originals, perhaps sitting there (in album form!) on your shelf.
That’s what I’ve been doing. Not just as nostalgia, but out of historical appreciation. “Starting Over” so to speak. Treating these releases as if seeing them for the first time. Then connecting them with their history to once again remember and appreciate the Lennon legacy. In context. Straight to the heart.
© Copyright 2010 by Walter J. Podrazik