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Back Tracks: John Lennon

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Whether you thought he was the smartest of The Beatles, the best writer, the most politically astute, the one with the most interesting solo career – or if you disagree with any of those statements – I daresay I cannot allow you to disagree with this one: it is not fair that John Lennon is not still alive today.

Regardless of your take on his input into the Fab Four (or their eventual demise), Lennon was very much an intelligent, caring, smart musician, who spent much of his career using those talents for good, whether it was good music or good causes. Those with a more centrist take may disagree, and that’s fine. But the fact that, on this day three decades ago, he was taken from his family and his fans by a man whose motives are still not entirely clear is not a way for anyone to go, let alone one of the more influential musicians of a generation.

This year, EMI reissued a good chunk of the Lennon discography in honor of what would have been the singer/songwriter’s 70th birthday (see The Second Disc’s review here). It was a slightly different approach from previous reissues and repackages. To that end, today’s Back Tracks takes a look at the legend of Lennon through various remasters, compilations and box sets. Imagine a world of catalogue riches after the jump.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (Apple, 1968 – reissued Rykodisc, 1997)

The second LP released on Apple Records is one of many studio experiments done by John and Yoko. But it’s obviously that cover – with both lovers fully nude – that was the big draw(back); even the CD reissues replicate that original brown wrapper that the LP sleeves had to be carried in. Unreleased by EMI or Capitol upon original release (Track handled distribution in the U.K. while Tetragrammaton handled Stateside distribution – although EMI had no problem pressing it), the wacky set hit the bottom half of the Billboard 200 and boasted an actual song on its Rykodisc reissue (the first official CD release, following years of grey-market reissues and part of the expansion of the Yoko Ono catalogue): “Remember Love,” which Ono released as the B-side to “Give Peace a Chance.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (Zapple, 1969 – reissued Rykodisc, 1997)

Another batch of experimental recordings, but this one was different for a few reasons. For one, it was more thematic (with experimental live recordings and more descriptive titles, as opposed to the whole whatever’s-on-the-tape-recorder nature of the previous set); for another, it was the premiere release on the Zapple offshoot, intended for avant-garde and spoken-word material. (Zapple never got too far after Allen Klein decided to fold the label.) The Rykodisc reissue added two unreleased recordings from the hospital suite where the second side of the record was recorded.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Wedding Album (Apple, 1969 – reissued Rykodisc, 1997)

Another experimental romp through the sonic minds of John and Yoko. It’s two sides of experimental noise, one (“John and Yoko”) dealing simply with the duo’s voices, the other (“Amsterdam”) taken from their honeymoon and bed-in from earlier in the year. Packed as a box set with a bunch of inserts and other goods upon initial release, the Rykodisc reissue added two Plastic Ono Band B-sides and an unreleased Ono demo.

Plastic Ono Band, Live Peace in Toronto 1969 (Apple, 1969 – reissued EMI, 1995)

The first Beatle solo hit record (Top 10 in the U.S.), probably since it’s a straightforward rocker, with Lennon and Ono backed by Eric Clapton, Beatles producer Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White (who joined Yes several years later) on drums. They surprised the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival with a set that covered mostly classic rock tracks (many of which had been done by The Beatles beforehand) and (predictably) some experimental stuff from Yoko. Like many of Lennon’s remasters, Ono supervised a remix of the record; the original mix was not included in the recent Lennon reissue set, much to the chagrin of fans.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple/EMI, 1971 – reissued EMI, 2000/2010)

John’s proper solo debut (following The Beatles’ breakup a year prior) is considered to be one of the finest efforts of a Beatle after The Beatles: stark and primal (a result of Lennon’s adoption of primal therapy with Arthur Janov), addressing his fears and issues with tracks like “Working Class Hero,” “Mother” and the stinging “God.” It’s no wonder the Japanese title of the LP translated to John’s Soul. Remixed by Yoko Ono in 2000, the reissue included non-LP single “Power to the People” and Lennon’s demo of “Do the Oz,” a protest song released by Bill Elliott on an Apple single (following the U.K. obscenity trial over Oz magazine). (The latter track was also previously released, having appeared on The John Lennon Anthology box set two years earlier.) The “Imagine Peace” reissues featured the original mix but no bonus tracks.

John Lennon, Imagine (Apple/EMI, 1971 – reissued EMI, 2000/2010)

Lennon’s second proper LP had three songs really well-known for various reasons. “Gimme Some Truth” is one of the best straight-up rock tunes Lennon ever did, while “Imagine” is the pretty, oft-played ballad with a slightly cynical streak (you probably know this already, but the lyrics advocate not only the end to war and possession, but religion as well, which did not sit well with many). And then there’s “How Do You Sleep?” – the five-and-a-half minute ass-kicking from Lennon to former partner McCartney. (Though the two later reconciled, the vitriol level was high, to the point that even Ringo, visiting John in the studio, was perturbed.) The 2000 remix featured no bonus tracks, nor did the 2010 reissue of the original LP mix.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Some Time in New York City (Apple/EMI, 1972 – reissued EMI, 2005/2010)

A deeply confusing, reactionary album, hindered by an unfortunately titled single (“Woman is the Nigger of the World”) and quite a few other politicized cuts, Some Time in New York City is possibly the least-loved of all Lennon’s solo albums. The original vinyl issue has an extra disc of live sides (one recorded in 1969 for a UNICEF concert, the other from a 1971 show at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention). The 2005 remix cut three of the Zappa tracks (they were remixed and reissued by Zappa on the 1992 set Playground Psychotics) and added the holiday evergreen single “Happy XMas (War is Over)” b/w “Listen, the Snow is Falling.” The 2010 remaster reorganized the album to its original double-length, with studio tracks on one disc and the live jams on the other.

John Lennon, Mind Games (Apple/EMI, 1973 – reissued EMI, 2002/2010)

Mind Games is warmer than its political predecessor, but unusual in that it’s Lennon’s first “lost weekend” album, recorded when he and Ono split up and – with Ono’s approval – he entered an 18-month relationship with his assistant May Pang. Perhaps it is not as essential as the other LPs in Lennon’s catalogue, compared to its successor Walls and Bridges. The 2002 reissue included three unreleased demos.

John Lennon, Walls and Bridges (Apple/EMI, 1974 – reissued EMI, 2005/2010)

The better of the “Lost Weekend” albums thanks to rejuvenations both personal (a reconciliation with son Julian) and professional (work with Elton John yielded chart-topper “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” Lennon’s only U.S. No. 1), Walls and Bridges is a satisfactory affair. It even has more than a few passing references to his former musical brethren on cuts like “Beef Jerky” and “Surprise Surprise.” The remix included a live track with Elton John (the others were released by John himself), an alternate take and an interview snippet.

John Lennon, Rock ‘n’ Roll (Apple/EMI, 1975 – reissued EMI, 2004/2010)

Lennon covers the great rock songs of the ’50s. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Two years in the making (its beginnings actually precede Walls and Bridges), the record was thwarted by several bizarre happenings. Producer Phil Spector stole the master tapes from Lennon and only gave them back to Capitol after being injured in a car accident. Then the album’s release was sabotaged by Morris Levy, founder of Roulette Records; Levy had an ongoing lawsuit with Lennon over “Come Together” and its similarity to a Chuck Berry song which Levy owned the publishing rights to. Several botched attempts to smooth things over (peaking with Lennon considering – but deciding against – releasing the record on Levy’s Adam VIII mail-order label) led to Levy’s releasing of rough mixes of the sessions as a full album, cutting into eventual sales of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Remixed by Ono in 2004, it featured four outtakes from the Spector sessions (more had been released on other posthumous Lennon compilations).

John Lennon, Shaved Fish (Apple/EMI, 1975 – reissued EMI, 1990)

A compilation of nearly all Lennon’s singles up to that point, it’s been out of print for two decades and has been more or less outmoded by newer compilations. At the time, though, it was vital for its premieres of some singles on a full album (“Instant Karma!” “Happy XMas” – now crossfaded with part of a live performance of “Give Peace a Chance”). Lennon would more or less retire from music after this release, taking care of his family until 1980, when he began a new record that inadvertently became a memorial to his too-short life.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (Geffen, 1980 – reissued EMI, 2000/2010)

If you can believe it, Double Fantasy – Lennon’s first work in five years and another collaboration with Yoko – was initially seen as a flop. Lennon’s messages and experiments were increasingly baffling to critics (especially in a time when Paul was, with Wings, a pop darling once more), and Boston’s The Real Paper actually called it a “self-obsessed disaster.” That wasn’t entirely true then – some of Lennon’s best pop writing is present on the record, including “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Woman,” both of which were U.K. chart-toppers – but no critic dare write such opinions when, mere weeks after the album’s release, Lennon was murdered. Since then, critics have taken to viewing the album as a fitting epitaph for Lennon’s life and relationship with Yoko Ono.

The initial remaster in 2000 added three bonus tracks, including an outtake, “Help Me to Help Myself” and Yoko’s hit “Walking on Thin Ice.” The newest reissue of the record actually saw the most bonus material of any of the new Lennon catalogue projects: a bonus mix of the whole album, Double Fantasy Stripped Down, which was more of an acoustic, vocal-heavy take on the music.

John Lennon, The John Lennon Collection (Parlophone (U.K.)/Geffen (U.S.), 1982 – reissued Capitol, 1989)

The first career-spanning disc from Lennon was basically an expanded Shaved Fish, collating most of the hits and singles (barring “Stand by Me” and “Happy XMas”). The 1989 CD version is slightly more interesting to American collectors, since it included not only the original track listing but two extra tracks, including “Cold Turkey” and B-side “Move Over Ms. L,” which had not appeared on any Lennon album at the time.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Milk and Honey (Polydor, 1984 – reissued EMI, 2001/2010)

Double Fantasy was intended as the first half of a new John/Yoko project. It took three years for Ono to be up to the task of completing the second half, which was a respectable hit in the U.S. (if not as well-received as its predecessor). “Nobody Told Me” was the major hit, going Top 5 in the U.S., but “Borrowed Time” and “I’m Stepping Out” were other notable cuts culled from the best of Lennon’s surviving outtakes intended for the original album. The 2001 remaster included demos of “I’m Stepping Out” and “I’m Moving On,” an alternate take of “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him” from the previous LP and a 22-minute excerpt of an interview with Lennon conducted 30 years ago today – the day he died.

John Lennon, Live in New York City (Parlophone, 1986)

Believe it or not, John Lennon only did two full-fledged live shows in his solo career. Both were on August 30, 1972 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The first of those sets was released on CD and video in 1986, and while it’s a fine enough set, fans are still clamoring for an expansion featuring the (by all accounts) superior second set or the guest performances from the same show of Stevie Wonder, Sha Na Na and Roberta Flack. Perhaps if a second round of new Lennon remasters comes around?

John Lennon, Menlove Ave. (Parlophone, 1986)

Named for the street upon which Lennon grew up in Liverpool, this outtakes set is comprised mostly of outtakes from Walls and Bridges and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Three of them were included on subsequent remasters and expansions, meaning there’s still a very short album to be enjoyed here for future generations of collectors.

John Lennon, Imagine: John Lennon (Parlophone, 1988)

The soundtrack to a documentary of the same name, this set of Beatles and solo recordings (initially released as a two-disc set but now available on one CD) has two notable vault tracks: a rehearsal version of “Imagine” and a then-unheard demo, “Real Love.” This would be one of two Lennon demos that, with overdubbing by Paul, George and Ringo, would become “new” Beatles songs in the Anthology series from 1993.

John Lennon, Lennon (Parlophone, 1990)

The first Lennon box set has nothing new on the audio side and is now out of print, but it is notable for being not only the first box from a Beatle in the CD era but also one compiled and annotated by Mark Lewisohn, the world’s leading authority on all things Beatles.

John Lennon, Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon (Parlophone, 1997)

The first single-disc compilation to cover all the major Lennon albums up to Milk and Honey, this disc also included for the first time on CD the U.S. single version of “Mother.”

John Lennon, John Lennon Anthology / Wonsuponatime (EMI/Capitol, 1998)

Now here’s the collection for hardcore fans who may have already purchased the Signature Box: four discs of peripheral demos, outtakes and alternates, culled from live shows, rehearsals, rough mixes, home demos and elsewhere. There’s tracks from the “better” set of Live in New York City, alternate versions of familiar songs cut with members of Cheap Trick and scores more. The meatiest outtakes were distilled into another single-disc compilation, Wonsuponatime.

John Lennon, Acoustic (EMI/Capitol, 2004)

A not wildly essential compilation of previously released demos and rough versions with a handful of unreleased demos and rough versions. Few of them lack the sparks of the originals.

John Lennon, Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon (EMI/Capitol, 2005)

The only compilation to utilize outtakes from the Anthology box or the remixes from the mid-’00s remasters, making it the ultimate taster for anyone who’d like to test those waters.

John Lennon, The U.S. vs. John Lennon: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (EMI/Capitol, 2006)

This soundtrack to the documentary of the same name is really just another Lennon compilation, with two unreleased tracks: a live take of “Attica State” from the John Sinclair freedom rally in Ann Arbor in 1971 (other tracks from this show are on the Acoustic compilation) and an instrumental of “How Do You Sleep.”

John Lennon, Power to the People: The Hits / Gimme Some Truth / Signature Box (EMI, 2010)

The latest compilations as part of the new reissue campaign of 2010, Power to the People is a single-disc hits comp, Gimme Some Truth is a four-disc anthology of themed discs and the Signature Box combines all the 2010 remasters (save for the Double Fantasy Stripped Down disc, perplexingly) alongside two bonus discs of mostly previously-released material. There’s a disc of home demos (with merely three unheard cuts) and a disc of non-LP singles and B-sides included therein.

Written by Mike Duquette

December 8, 2010 at 10:09

6 Responses

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  1. Nice overview. Why no mention of Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band? John is all over this, and it contains some of his best guitar work post-Beatles.


    December 8, 2010 at 10:18

  2. Great write-up. Just a couple of things:

    –“Do The Oz” on the POB reissue is the original B-side, sung by John. A less annoying mix is on Anthology. (It was the A-side, “God Save Us” that was sung by Bill Elliot on the single; John’s version of that is also on Anthology.)
    –The 1990 Lennon box does include all three songs from John’s appearance with Elton, and nicely puts all his Fantasy/Milk songs on the same disc, with the remix of “Every Man Has A Woman”.

    More minutiae about these albums can be read here:


    December 8, 2010 at 10:26

  3. “(Just Like) Starting Over” was also a #1 single. It hit #1 after his death, but still.


    December 8, 2010 at 21:35

  4. “The first Lennon box set has nothing new on the audio side and is now out of print,”

    True about it being out of print, but there’s one other great perk to the LENNON boxed set: The full three-song set John played with Elton John at MSG – John’s final concert performance.

    Even though the sound of the 2010 remasters is far superior to that 1990 boxed set, I’m still glad that I have it.


    December 8, 2010 at 21:43

    • Ah, Ward beat me to that comment… He’s also right about the Fantasy/Milk & Honey songs and “Every Man Has a Woman” too.


      December 8, 2010 at 21:44

  5. I don’t own it but as I understand, the current CD issue of Two Virgins is missing the last 30 seconds of the original LP. I’m not exactly in a hurry to buy it but from people tell me that’s the best part of the whole record…


    December 8, 2010 at 23:01

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