The ’70s are rightly remembered for all the excruciatingly awful corporate rock, numbing disco and pablum-pop that blared from car radios, dorm rooms and just about any place anybody spun records in those pre-iPod days. But it was also an era in which several artists who had gotten started in the ‘60s produced masterpieces of raw feeling (hummable raw feeling, no less) that will be listened to and talked about as long as there is rock ‘n roll: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night,” Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks,” and the most magnificently wrenching of them all, John Lennon’s solo debut “Plastic Ono Band.” With its spare production, straight-ahead mix — Lennon’s voice and guitar (or piano) were right out front — and a remarkable collection of deeply-felt songs sung straight from the soul, “Plastic Ono” is an album in which the flimsiest of scrims divides the artist’s emotion from the audience’s experience; it’s as bracing to listen to today as when it was released some 40 years ago.
I was reminded of the magnificence of that album again while watching my colleague Michael Epstein’s powerfully moving documentary for PBS’s “American Masters” series, LENNONYC. The film covers roughly the period from shortly after the ex-Beatle recorded “Plastic Ono Band” (his last LP recorded solely in England) until the time of his death. It was the period in which he lived and recorded in New York and Los Angeles, and the period in which he made his worst records.
It’s not that they were terrible. And it’s not my purpose here to point out that “#9 Dream” isn’t as good a single as “Ticket To Ride” (there aren’t any singles as good as “Ticket To Ride”), or that Lennon’s songs on “Mind Games” are less memorable than his contributions to “Revolver” (how could they not be?). Nor is it to slag off his writing, singing or playing. It was the production of Lennon’s final four studio releases (“Mind Games,” “Walls and Bridges,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Double Fantasy”) that made them feel like such inferior efforts, then as now. His voice multi-tracked and awash in, to my ears, gratuitous reverb, his guitar buried in the mix, his songs arranged in a manner more studied than snarling, Lennon often felt like the proverbial guest at his own party. Much of the fault lay with Lennon himself: he produced the first two, co-produced the other two, and is said to have wanted extra effects on his vocals (he did so during the Beatle years, too) because he disliked the sound of a voice the rest of the world adored. He was awash himself too — in drink and drugs — through a good part of the era.
What was lost on those records was just how well he could sing and, especially, play. Lennon was no virtuoso on the guitar, and knew it. When asked how he regarded his own guitar-playing by Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner shortly after “Plastic Ono Band” was released, Lennon answered with simultaneous modesty and braggadocio: “I’m not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl…”.
The musical moments in LENNONYC are a wonderful reminder of that and more. Onstage performances (there were precious few of them in his post-Beatle years) show Lennon nastily riffing on his Les Paul Jr. on the “Plastic Ono”-era “Cold Turkey,” and having scraggly fun on the resonator guitar on “John Sinclair.” There are gentle demo moments as well, such as Lennon singing a plaintive and affecting early version of “Mind Games” (originally titled “Make Love Not War”) at the piano. The film gives you the feeling that Lennon, whether onstage or in the studio, spent much more of the era playing and singing like he meant it than ever came across on those later records.
LENNONYC isn’t the only place to hear unvarnished post-Beatles Lennon performances that reveal the soul lurking in the background of the originally-released versions of his songs. “The John Lennon Anthology” has a slashing version of “Bring On The Lucie (Freda People),” an impassioned number whose treatment on “Mind Games” buries the bite of the slide guitar, the sting of the vocals, and much of the aforementioned passion. “Menlove Avenue,” a collection of posthumous Lennon outtakes released in the mid ‘80s, has a version of “Scared” on which Lennon sounds a lot more scared than he does on the “Walls and Bridges” version. Even the recently released “stripped down” version of 1980’s “Double Fantasy,” a record more beloved for sentimental reasons (released just weeks before he was killed, its Lennon songs are mostly sweet portrayals of domestic pleasures) than for its musical genius, contains another example: when the vocals on “I’m Losing You,” are shorn of effects and pumped forward in the mix, they ring with conviction more “Plastic Ono”-like than ever sounded possible on the original.
Those performance are all well worth checking out if you’re a John Lennon fan, and like all great music, they are whole and satisfying as solely aural experiences — no video required. But getting to see as well as hear post-Beatles Lennon in LENNONYC is an added-value treat.
If you’re a fan, you’ll no doubt cry at the end. I remember that on the night he was murdered, I thought to myself that I’d never be able to listen to one of Lennon’s records again without being reminded of the awful way in which he died. I was wrong about that. I’ve listened to Beatles and Lennon solo records for years with nothing but pleasure (and a little annoyance at the late-period production). In this film, there is nothing but musical pleasure, period, with more than a few indelible reminders that even during a period when his records didn’t reflect it, John Lennon could play it like he meant it, could make you feel what he was feeling, could make it howl.