John Lennon's musical quest after the Beatles
October 7, 2010
By Greig Dymond
John Lennon would have turned 70 on Oct. 9. Thanks to a series of
Yoko Ono-approved events special concerts, CD reissues, museum
exhibits, a ceremony at the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland the
occasion has been hard to miss.
Of course, any talk of Lennon anniversaries leads to the bitter
memory of his murder in 1980, shortly after he turned 40. We know
that a seismic musical force was lost, but it's impossible to gauge
what Lennon might have achieved in the past 30 years. Would the
senior citizen still be making music? Would he have weighed in
against the U.S. military campaign in Iraq? Would he be sharing his
thoughts via Twitter? Would he God forbid have done a duets album
George Harrison once claimed that his former bandmate would have
gladly joined The Traveling Wilburys, the late-'80s band that
featured rock icons Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and
Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne. One can imagine Lennon
salivating at the chance to play with Orbison, but the ex-Fab had
openly derided Dylan's embrace of Christianity in the late '70s,
which could have made things a bit thorny in the studio. And would he
really have wanted to work alongside Beatle-wannabe Lynne?
It's tantalizing to consider the possibilities, given Lennon's
towering genius and the fact that his solo career was so short it
lasted just over five years, when you take into account his
self-imposed exile from the music biz between 1975 and 1980. In
contrast, Lennon's longtime creative partner/rival, Paul McCartney,
is still recording new material 40 years after the Beatles' breakup.
Lennon's solo career contains several peaks, but nothing that matches
the breathtaking sonic innovation of Strawberry Fields Forever or I
Am the Walrus. Beatles producer George Martin once observed, "John
and Paul were equal talents who collaborated but, more important, who
competed. When one guy did something, the other would say, 'My God,
that's good. I wonder if I can do better?' That spurred them on. They
were great individually, but they never quite reached the Olympian
heights that they achieved when they were the Beatles."
Neither Lennon nor McCartney ever found a collaborator that could
inspire them in quite the same way. Lennon partnered briefly (and
effectively) with Elton John (on the single Whatever Gets You Thru
the Night) and David Bowie (Fame), but those unions didn't last. Yoko
Ono was of course Lennon's long-time muse and bed-in partner, but she
hardly possessed McCartney's melodic gifts.
While the master craftsman McCartney has chugged along without
serious interruption specializing in sunny pop confections, while
making occasional forays into electronica and classical music
Lennon became disenchanted with the business. He made fewer
concessions to the marketplace than his ex-partner, seeking instead
to bare his soul relentlessly through autobiographical songs.
Tracks like Mother (from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970), Jealous
Guy (Imagine, 1971) and Steel and Glass (Walls and Bridges, 1974) are
masterpieces of emotional vulnerability, each featuring a gorgeous
melody and a heart-wrenching Lennon vocal. But Lennon could also seem
lost, creatively. On the largely forgotten Some Time in New York City
(1972), he forsakes poetry for simplistic sloganeering, while Mind
Games (1973) and his 1950s oldies album, Rock 'n' Roll (1975), are
curiously uninspired. After dealing with the personal betrayals and
financial complexities of the extended Beatles breakup, various
lawsuits and a period of marital discord, Lennon needed a break.
So where was he heading musically at the end of his life? After his
five-year hiatus, Lennon returned in November of 1980 with Double
Fantasy, a collaboration with Yoko. (Subtitled A Heart Play, husband
and wife each performed seven songs on the album.) John's
contributions including Woman, Watching the Wheels and Beautiful
Boy (Darling Boy) are pleasant and tuneful odes to domestic bliss,
but less adventurous and energetic than his wife's efforts. On songs
like Kiss Kiss Kiss, Yoko's sound was in sync with the then-prevalent
"new wave," while Lennon seemed to be moving backwards in time,
channelling Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison on (Just Like) Starting Over.
The immediate reaction to Double Fantasy was mixed. "The time spent
in seclusion and semi-retirement appears to have dulled the man's
sensibilities," observed the British music paper Melody Maker. "It's
a godawful yawn." That's probably an over-reaction from a publication
besotted with punk and Adam and the Ants, but there was a palpable
sense of anti-climax in the critical response to John's mid-tempo ballads.
I remember the great anticipation surrounding the album's release
five years had felt like an eternity, and like many music fans, I
waited with bated breath to hear Lennon's pronouncements on the
intervening half-decade. It was great to have him back, but the fact
that the social campaigner was relying so heavily on his blissed-out
family situation for lyrical inspiration threw many of us for a loop.
At the time of Lennon's death, Double Fantasy was at No. 11 on the
U.S. album charts and at No. 46 in the U.K. After his death, it rose
to No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in his native land.
Thirty years later, the album still sounds as if Lennon was taking
tentative first steps back into the world of commercial music making.
One can't help but think that his material would have once again
become edgier as time passed. Surely he would have shifted his
creative focus outside the four walls of his apartment in Manhattan's
Dakota building, where he lived with Yoko and son Sean. On the last
night of his life, Lennon was at the Hit Factory recording studio in
New York, adding some scorching guitar riffs to Yoko's dance track
Walking on Thin Ice. It was more vibrant and kinetic than anything on
Amid all the conjecture about his future musical plans, one thing is
certain Lennon had planned to do a tour in 1981. On Dec. 8, 1980,
that plan changed horribly, unexpectedly, irrevocably.