Tuesday , June 18 2024

Music Reviews: An ‘Ultimate’ Edition of John Lennon’s First Major Solo Album, Plus Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—which first appeared in December 1970 and has just been reissued as a vastly expanded box set—was Lennon’s first major post-Beatles release. (A trio of slightly earlier and rarely heard avant-garde records that he made with Yoko Ono hardly qualify as “major.”) He would make some excellent music in the decade that followed but little that proved quite as intense, challenging, and ultimately satisfying as this LP.

Throughout, his approach is direct, candid, and highly personal. As he told BBC Radio in an interview transcribed for my book, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon: “I started from the ‘Mother’ album [as he often called the record] onwards, trying to shave off all imagery, pretentions of poetry, illusions of grandeur, a la Dylan, Dylanesque. I didn’t want any of that. Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme, and put a backbeat on it and express yourself as simply and straightforward as possible.”

And so he did. The record—a well-deserved hit that Phil Spector coproduced with the former Beatle and Ono—features a back-to-basics band consisting mostly of just Lennon on guitars and piano, Ringo Starr on drums, and Klaus Voorman on bass. Even the song titles are stripped down: five are just a single word and none are more than three. 

But Lennon did a lot with a little, offering rock- and folk-based songs that overflow with emotion. The album features several numbers that appear to reflect his experiences with psychiatrist Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy, though a few such tracks were actually written about a year earlier. At any rate, there’s lots of pain here; in fact, that word pops up in four of the 11 tracks: “I Found Out” (“feel your own pain”), “Isolation” (“you caused so much pain”), “My Mummy’s Dead” (“so much pain, I could never show it”), and “God” (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”).

When Lennon isn’t bubbling over with emotion on this album, he turns to bursting bubbles. In “God,” for example, he sings, “I don’t believe in Beatles” and adds, in some of the record’s most often-quoted lines: “The dream is over, what can I say / The dream is over, yesterday / …I was the walrus, but now I’m John / And so dear friends, you just have to carry on.” There’s also “Working Class Hero,” where Lennon talks about how society encourages conformity, and “I Found Out,” where he appears to describe religion and drugs as distractions that get in the way of self-understanding. But it’s not all gloom and doom. The album also embraces such sweet, hopeful numbers as “Love” (with piano by Spector) and “Hold On,” a couple of sweet, hopeful numbers.

The new box set that marks the 50th anniversary of the original release of this material is the work of the same audio team that assembled 2018’s Imagine: The Ultimate Collection. To an even greater extent than that package, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection targets serious fans—though perhaps “serious” is too mild a word for this offering, which includes six CDs, two Blu-rays, and a hardcover book.

Let’s put it this way: if you’re the sort of listener who might say something like, “‘Imagine’—isn’t that a John Lennon song?,” this box is definitely not for you. It’s aimed more at fans who might ask, “Which version of ‘Mother’ do you prefer—the home demo or the No. 91 outtake?” Both of those renditions are here, not to mention six other variations of that song and enough additional material to make clear that the box title’s use of the word “ultimate” is anything but hyperbole.

This is not to suggest that the album doesn’t deserve the exhaustive treatment it receives on this release; it does, and those who love Lennon’s music will savor what constitutes one of the most creatively assembled box sets of recent years. For starters, it includes the array of goodies you’d expect from a collection like this. But there are also a couple of noteworthy unusual attractions, which we’ll discuss shortly. 

Disc one starts the party with a remix of the original 11-track album and Lennon’s first three post-Beatles singles: “Give Peace a Chance,” the pre-rap rap that became a peace-movement anthem; “Cold Turkey,” one of the most realistic musical looks at hard drugs this side of early Velvet Underground; and the infectious “Instant Karma (We All Shine On),” which clearly benefits from Spector’s involvement. Three other discs feature alternate versions of these 14 numbers, including outtakes, demos, and raw studio mixes that present the songs as they were heard in the sessions, without tape delays, reverb, or other effects. 

There are also informal jams and lots of covers, among them Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” and Carl Perkins’s “Glad All Over” (incorrectly credited here to Dave Clark and Mike Smith, whose identically titled song was a Dave Clark Five hit). And there are nods to the Fab Four, including “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” as well as Perkins’s “Matchbox,” which the Beatles recorded. There’s even a wacky Elvis Presley parody, which finds Lennon hamming it up on “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and the relatively obscure “When I’m Over You.”

All of this material is likable, but the proceedings become particularly fascinating on the two discs that feature a so-called “elements mix” and an “evolution documentary.” As the liner notes explain, the former “brings some of the buried elements not otherwise heard, or in some cases used, up to the surface…to reveal deeper levels of detail and clarity.” There are some truly stunning moments here, such as on “Hold On,” which makes Lennon’s voice and guitar more predominant than on the familiar recording, and “Mother,” which features a must-hear a cappella vocal.

As for the “evolution documentary,” this series of extended tracks incorporates studio patter and takes us through the sessions for each song, to show how they evolved from early takes to a final mix. “Mother,” for example, begins with Lennon talking about how he has tried the number on piano and guitar and just wants to “keep it simple.” He samples various approaches over nine minutes, ending with something close to the final version.

The box’s pair of Blu-rays are notable, too. One duplicates the program of the first CD, but with high-definition 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos mixes. The other, also with hi-def surround sound, features jam sessions by Lennon, Ono, Voorman, and Starr. 

All told, you get 159 tracks with more than 11 hours of audio, including 87 previously unreleased recordings. And while you’re listening, you can peruse a 132-page hardcover book that includes a ton of photos; extensive comments by John and Yoko on the original album and each of its songs; lyrics; personnel information for every track; and surround-sound maps, to show what sounds are coming from where on the Blu-rays. Completing the package are a “War Is Over!” poster and a couple of postcards.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection is all any fan could ask for.

Also Noteworthy 

Al StewartYear of the Cat (45th Anniversary Edition). Al Stewart had already issued some great music (most notably Past, Present, and Future) by the time he delivered 1976’s Year of the Cat, but this is the album that turned him into a star—and rightly so. The record, beautifully produced by Alan Parsons, is highlighted by its nearly seven-minute title cut, which features a soaring sax solo and a memorable lyric that begins, “In a morning from a Bogart movie, in a country where they turn back time…” Almost as impressive are “Lord Grenville” and the immersive “On the Border.” 

Such songs sound better than ever on this two-CD reissue, which boasts Parsons’s first-ever remaster from the original master tapes, plus nine tracks from a 1976 Seattle concert. For those who want more, there’s also a four-disc edition that includes all 16 songs from the Seattle show plus a DVD with a surround-sound mix of the original album. 

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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