In the relatively brief history of pop music there has rarely — if ever — been a figure as simultaneously polarizing and influential, while at the same time being as wildly popular as John Lennon.
Let's look at the competition at the time. Paul McCartney was too busy being the "cute one." Mick Jagger, for whatever lip service he paid to the sixties revolution on "Street Fighting Man," was far more interested in playing a contrived Satanic popstar role that eventually bit him on the ass at Altamont.
And Bob Dylan? Both the media and the heart-struck teens of the sixties found Lennon far more interesting. That is unless you count a lot of girls in berets (and a few guys in turtlenecks), who followed Dylan around at the time.
Even so, I have to be honest here. Somewhat reluctantly, I have to admit I was a little bit disappointed with the much ballyhooed John Lennon documentary film, The US vs John Lennon, after seeing it last week. Not that it isn't a good film because it most certainly is. I'm not sure how long this movie actually is, but it has a great pace to it. It tells the story of John Lennon's rise from innocent Beatle to political activist both succinctly and well in what seems to go by in about ninety minutes.
Actually, this is my one relatively minor beef with the film. Given it's rather weighty subject, and in particular the period of his life this film zeroes in on — when Lennon was the subject of some very dubious political hijinx because of his outspoken views — the movie just seems to zip by not unlike the way a VH1 Behind The Music episode does. Which I guess shouldn't be too surprising given VH1's name being prominent in the production credits.
But most of the information revealed here in interviews and stock footage, is hardly new to anyone who has followed Lennon (or this story) through the years. It's pretty much a matter of public record nowadays that Lennon was harassed by the FBI — through every means from personal surveillance to wiretaps — because of his associations with figures of the radical left. People like John Sinclair, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. It also eventually came to light in the post-Watergate years that Lennon's much publicized Immigration problems (until he finally got his green card) could be directly traced to people close to Richard Nixon and the Republican Party.
So none of this is exactly new. In fact, for those of you really interested in the conspiracy theories this movie only scratches the surface of, I'd recommend reading Fenton Bresler's bizarre, yet riveting book Who Killed John Lennon?.
Still, as an insight into a fascinating historical period, and into one of the most truly enigmatic and influential men of his time, The US vs John Lennon is an absolutely fascinating and entertaining ride. Part of what makes the trip worthwhile are the interviews with people from both sides — right and left — who were there in the sixties. Former Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy tells a particularly funny story about how he made practical use of a candle carried by one of those no-good peaceniks during a protest march.
That one made me laugh so loud I got a few stares in the theatre.
But what really makes The US vs John Lennon a good, if not quite great, movie is its soundtrack. And despite the fact I was able to sneak a (maybe not-so) quickie review of the movie in here, the soundtrack to The US vs John Lennon, now out on CD, is what we are really here to talk about.
Are there better career retrospectives of John Lennon out there?
Sure. Look no further than Working Class Hero: The Definitive John Lennon or even Shaved Fish, Lennon's solo hits compilation from the seventies. For the completist, I'm sure you can even find one of those pricey boxed sets. But as a soundtrack to a film about John Lennon's so-called "political years" from the late sixties to the mid-seventies, this CD wraps things up in a very nice little package. Yes it does, thank you very much.
All of the obvious song choices are included here, from "Power To The People," to "Instant Karma," and of course, the anthem "Give Peace A Chance" itself. In addition to Lennon's mostly seventies solo output, The Beatles are also represented here with "The Ballad Of John & Yoko."
But there are also some choices here from that period which, while far less obvious commercially speaking, really complete the picture of just who John Lennon really was at that time. While "Working Class Hero" and "I Don't Wanna be A Soldier Mama (I Don't Wanna Die)" leave little room for doubt as to Lennon's political leanings, a song like "God," (from his so-called Primal Scream Therapy period) reveals so much more about Lennon the man, that it's almost painful to listen to.
The choice of the song "Scared" here is even more interesting, especially in the context of how it is used in this film. Here the song becomes a backdrop for Lennon discussing his growing paranoia over the US government's increasing surveillance. By this time, Lennon had various spooks shadowing his every step.
But the unreleased rarities are of course what the diehard Lennon fan will really seek out here. And for the most part, they are an interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering lot. From the 1971 Sinclair Rally, we get Lennon's live performances of "Attica State" and "John Sinclair."
Perhaps most interesting to the hardcore Lennon fan, is the alternate instrumental track for "How Do You Sleep," a song widely believed to be a scathing attack on his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney when it was first released on Lennon's Imagine album. The track, when it is stripped to its bare essentials, is both sparse and minimal. There is a haunted sort of quality to the music here that is as revealing in its own way, as the lyrics about his old Beatles feud would later prove to be.
As soundtracks go, The US vs John Lennon compliments it's celluloid counterpart perfectly and serves as an all too brief, yet very effective snapshot of where Lennon's head was at during those volatile sixties and early seventies years.
A time when certain people in high places viewed John Lennon as a national threat.