Friday, August 19, 2005

After The Revolution
Why John Lennon's post-Beatles work works

Every year, on October 9th and December 8th (John Lennon's birth and death anniversary respectively), articles appear in the media about Lennon's incredible contribution to The Beatles and his inadequate solo work. The latter is utter nonsense. Despite Lennon's best solo albums having been released in India for a while now, none of these "with-it music critics" seem to have taken the trouble to listen to them closely. Or bothered to examine the life this music represents so completely, and gloriously.

They are just so many myths about Lennon's life after The Beatles. They completely obscure the truth and even the proof of the pudding - the music. Just a little homework can bring a little clarity, and it's well-worth the effort. Ray Coleman's fine biography and a marvellous 4CD set of his solo work entitled Lennon will doubtlessly be a revelation to anyone who suspects John Lennon lost it after The Beatles split up. Both are available in India.

In 1966, when John Lennon met Yoko Ono in an art exhibition, neither could have known how historic that meeting would be. As the unofficial leader of perhaps the world's most popular entity, John had the world at his feet long enough to be somewhat bored by it. After being instrumental in changing the face of popular music, the only way to go seemed to be downhill. His experimentation with drugs had also made him restless. Subsequently, things started going wrong. The beloved Beatles manager Brian Epstein died, then disillusionment set in with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh. As if to balance all this out, John and Yoko came together finally in 1968.

Myth: Yoko confused John. Fact is, John found clarity with Yoko. They were true soul-mates with similarly unique artistic sensibilities (though very different expressions). John's output would give evidence of their connection again and again over the years.

Myth: Yoko split up The Beatles. Seen superficially, it appears that way. Paul McCartney and George Harrison resented John bringing Yoko for all their recording sessions; they'd never had an outsider (even family or friends) sit in while they created music. But the fact is, in any case, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were writing songs increasingly on their own. They may have been recording together, but they weren't exchanging ideas as much as they used to while writing the songs. The “White Album” (1968) gave the first evidence of that. Yoko's presence may have added to the tension and perhaps hastened the split, but it would certainly have happened sooner or later even without Yoko. Indeed, John, Paul and George were their own men in the late '60s, with their own priorities and visions. Not very conducive to continue creating as a group.

Myth: John and Yoko did weird things because they were unhinged. They did "weird" things all right. Like posing nude for the cover of their album Two Virgins (full frontal pose on the front cover, rear view on the back cover). Or creating an album full of peculiar electronic sounds in the name of music. All this was basically the combination of 2 things - very heavy drug usage and the restless urge to experiment. But the "weirdest" thing they're remembered for is the "bed ins" they did all around the world. They just basically lolled in bed for days with TV cameras all around them, and spoke about peace. This is where the song "Give Peace A Chance" happened. John passionately believed in peace and wanted to use his fame to popularise its message. He saw things like "bed-ins" as advertising gimmicks. Unusual, but insane? Come on.

Myth: John Lennon started the Plastic Ono Band after The Beatles split up. Fact is, there was no band called Plastic Ono Band. It was a "conceptual" band, consisting of whoever played with John and Yoko, in the studio or live.

Myth: Lennon couldn't really write great songs without McCartney. Absolute bullshit. Since the mid-sixties, Lennon had decided to write more and more about himself, from his point-of-view. Near the late-sixties, almost all the songs he wrote represented his life. He would clearly become more "confessional" as he grew older. So, where did McCartney come into this scheme of things? Sure, the magic that happened sometimes when they merged two ideas together (eg. "We Can Work It Out", "A Day In The Life", "I've Got A Feeling" etc.) would not be there. But that was not the cornerstone of Lennon's music anymore, anyway. As John delved inside himself to articulate his deepest feelings through song, Paul no longer had a role to play. Yoko did.

Myth: Lennon's post-Beatles work was mostly weak. The most idiotic presumption of all. A fair amount of his solo work was a genuine progression from the Beatles music. He extended the boundaries of his muse on his own. From the complex, often drug-inspired (and brilliant) music he wrote during his last years as a Beatle, he now went down to the basics. Striving for simplicity, eschewing clever word-play, opting for clear-eyed, absolutely straight, no-nonsense communication. He'd written a scarily blunt song about his withdrawal from hardcore drugs called "Cold Turkey" while he was with The Beatles. Both McCartney and Harrison were not keen to put it out as a Beatles song. This had piqued John. Now, with his first real solo album, Plastic Ono Band (1970) Lennon gave an awesome demonstration of his confessional powers. Just before he wrote its songs, John had been going through famous psychiatrist Arthur Janov's primal therapy - a programme during which mentally disturbed patients were encouraged to scream and yell as a form of catharsis. The treatment spilt over into the album. He sung frightening (yet beautiful) songs about his troubled childhood ("Mother"), the bitterness he felt for the system he grew up in ("Working Class Hero"), the loneliness he and Yoko experienced despite having so many people around them ("Isolation"), the disillusionment with his past that he was feeling so strongly ("God"), the anger he felt because of past mistakes ("Remember"). There were quiet, reflective (and stunningly beautiful) moments too ("Love" and "Hold On"). All in all, this was blistering, fearless honesty that only someone of his immense stature could have even had the confidence to attempt. The simplicity and the starkness of the arrangements were in sharp contrast to all his previous work. He could never have done such deeply personal work with The Beatles. Despite the generous helpings of self-pity, Plastic Ono Band remains a classic, underrated and unique album that took popular music a few steps forward. Not surprisingly, the album sold poorly.

That changed with the next album. It began with the song most associated with John Lennon - the title track that he actually wrote it in a plane on a hotel bill. Imagine (1971) was a mellower, lusher album - gently reflective, even happy. There were a few tracks, however, that didn't seem to stay with the general plot - the angry "Give Me Some Truth" about the Watergate scandal and "How Do You Sleep" - a petty personal attack on Paul McCartney. The album closer was one of the finest love songs ever written - "Oh Yoko", not sentimental, not even reflective, just plain happy. Simplicity was the key ingredient in Imagine and it worked beautifully, critically and commercially. The latter, John was slightly surprised about. He felt Plastic Ono Band and Imagine were very similar albums, except that the latter was "sugar-coated". So this was the formula for success, he noted wryly.

1971 ended with John and Yoko's classic Christmas song "Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)". Drawing from his pacifist ideals, Lennon created a classic song that reverberates all around the world even now. John and Yoko left England in 1972 and settled down in New York. The thrust of his music changed again. He became very politically - conscious, going back to his days of "Revolution" and "Give Peace A Chance". His style changed, this time from an introspective poet's to a dynamic journalist's . He wrote songs about things and people and moved on immediately, without dwelling on them. The music suffered. Sometime In New York City (1972) was probably his weakest solo album. Yet, snappy singles like "Instant Karma"(written, recorded and mixed in one single day) and "Power To The People" worked in their own way. His next album Mind Games (1973) despite the remarkable title track and the lovely "Out The Blue" was not very satisfying either. Things weren't quite working out for John at this stage. Then. he and Yoko separated. John fled to Los Angeles and hit the bottle. A new album Walls And Bridges (1974) happened there (this period, very aptly, is called "The Lost Weekend"). Lennon co-wrote with Elton John ("Whatever Gets You Thru The Night" - that, surprise, surprise, would be Lennon's first no 1 hit), and Harry Nilsson, recording a decent album with a few gems (like the moody" #9 Dream"). But still, he was nowhere near his best. Yoko and he were soon reunited and the exuberance returned. In 1975, Lennon brought out Rock 'n Roll, where he did covers of his favourite songs that influenced him during his formative years. With an infectious enthusiasm and a familiar wit, the album captured John Lennon's spirit beautifully. Affectionately, he made the songs his own. Anybody who loves good old-fashioned rock 'n roll will love this album. Soon after this, John and Yoko became parents. John decided that he was going to bring up the baby since Yoko had gone through enough. Yoko went to work and John became the world's most famous house-husband.

John stayed away from music for 5 years. During this time he literally reared his son Sean and obviously enjoyed it thoroughly. Finally, he couldn't ignore his muse anymore. With Yoko, he brought out a collaborative album called Double Fantasy (1980). John had 7 songs in it and most of them were fabulous. Yoko's songs were weaker and this brought down the general standard of the album. But John was in sparkling form. "Starting All Over", where he used his "Elvis" voice, was happy and optimistic. "I'm Losing You" was interestingly moody. "Woman" was tender. "Dear Yoko" was exuberant and rocky. The album's finest songs were "Watching The Wheels" - a breathtakingly beautiful song about premature retirement (my favourite Lennon song, Beatles or otherwise) and "Beautiful Boy" - a touching song dedicated to the 5-year-old Sean. In the latter, John sang, "I can hardly wait/to see you come of age/ but I guess we'll both just have to be patient/cause it’s a long way to go/a hard road ahead/but in the meantime/before you cross the street/take my hand/life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans…" Barely 2 months later, John was gone - shot dead by a crazed lunatic. The world grieved for one man like never before. It would take Yoko Ono 4 years to release Milk And Honey (1984) - a collection of songs she and John had worked out roughly for their next album. Again, John's songs were superb. "I'm Stepping Out" and "Nobody Told Me" were tuneful and witty. "Borrowed Time" was introspective, yet so very accessible. The last track on the album was a home demo of an achingly beautiful "marriage" song called "Grow Old With Me". Life doesn't get more ironic than this.

Myth: Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey did well because of sentimental reasons. Just listen to the songs. And judge them on their merit, not the baggage Lennon came with. What an absurdity it is that Lennon's solo work has to be measured only against his Beatles work. Compare it with the work of his contemporaries. Fact is, if John Lennon's solo music was all that he ever recorded, he would still be right up there on its merit.

Myth: Albert Goldman's 1988 book exposed Lennon. Goldman was a hack who made a living by trashing dead legends. He painted John as a helpless, paranoid drug addict completely under Yoko's control (who practiced witchcraft, it seems). The stupidity of his "controversial" book is this: John's music was his soul's diary since 1965. Nothing reflected his feelings more accurately than his songs. Why on earth would that change in 1980? His Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey songs are so joyous and full of life, you have to be completely whacked-out to think they emanate from a tortured, paranoid, has-been musician. Goldman's career ended with this book.

In its short life of 45 odd years, pop music's greatest loss till date has been the death of John Lennon. It's been a bigger blow than Jim Morrison's untimely death, or Janis Joplin's, or Jerry Garcia's or Kurt Cobain's. Even Jimi Hendrix's or indeed Elvis Presley's. John Lennon's contribution as a songwriter was greater than theirs, despite Presley's pioneering impetus. The biggest tragedy is that John was taken away when he was at the height of his powers, at the age of 40 when, like the old saying, life had really seemed to begin for him.

John Lennon loved irony. Even in death he achieved it.

February 1999


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Interesting read. Although I've never really heard people say Lennon's music after the Beatles was crap. His first POB is an acknowledged masterpiece and IMAGINE is also critically praised. I have heard he lost his edge after his two post-Beatles and something could be said for that, I guess, but most agree POB is a masterpiece- even Rolling Stone had it in their top 30 for greatest albums of all time. But people do think he burned out after IMAGINE and it seemed like he might have a comeback with Double Fantasy if you look at the demos he was making at the time.

10:35 AM  

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