By PopMatters Staff
18 November 2010
Some Time in New York City
If there's an argument to be made in favor of environment playing a
significant role in the whole nature-nurture debate, consider John
Lennon in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the
Beatles, he released arguably one of the first Emo albums (John
Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) after a round of primal therapy, then
followed it with the pastoral hippie naïveté of Imagine. During this
period, Lennon was still living in relative isolation in his palatial
Tittenhurst estate, working out his personal issues and looking at
world peace through a decidedly pie-eyed lens.
But in late 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York City,
immersed themselves in political activism and released the weirdest
album in the former Beatle's post-Fab career.
Lennon had dipped his toe in the waters of musical political activism
before, including musical entries with the "Give Peace a Chance" and
"Power to the People" singles.
But unlike his two previous anthems, there's nothing on Some Time in
New York City tailor made for repeated chanting in the streets or
town squares. But with its overblown Phil Spector production and a
musical grandiosity that often belies the subject matter, Some Time
in New York City comes off as either the world's most expensive
underground newspaper or an unfocused attempt to come up with a
sequel to Hair. The album wasn't received well critically, and was
also a relative commercial flop, peaking at #48 on the Billboard 200
chart less than a year after Imagine hit the toppermost of the
poppermost around the globe.
Listening to Some Time in New York City nearly 40 years on, it's not
difficult to see why it failed to connect. Upon release, the album
featured a second disc of all-star live performances recorded in
London (Lyceum Ballroom, 15, December 1969) and New York (Fillmore
East, 6, June 1971), thereby making the entire package more
expensive than the album proper would have been. It's also possible a
great deal of the Lennon-buying general public who got on board with
the lush sounds of Imagine just didn't want to hear him share vocals
with Ono on songs about controversial people with controversial opinions.
Though it's difficult to remember these days when no one even knows
what the music industry is, but there was once a time where a catchy
radio hit could pull listeners in to the album. "Woman is the Nigger
of the World" was the lead single for Some Time in New York City, its
high mark at #57 that made even the stark Janovian confessional of
"Mother" seem like a relative smash when it charted at #43 in 1970.
"Woman is the Nigger of the World" opens Some Time in New York City
as an appropriately misguided attempt to speak to women's rights.
Whether by design or by allowing Spector to run roughshod as he often
did in the '70s, Lennon's vocals sound lower in the mix than even the
song's garden variety sax solo. While calling attention to the
relative plight to the world's women is certainly a noble concept,
the presentation is hesitant and awkward. "Sisters, O Sisters," the
Ono-fronted b-side to the single and the album's second track, was
supposedly meant to have a reggae feel, but it comes off like sock hop music.
"Attica State" follows next, and it's another song with its heart in
the right place, but which is ultimately another undercooked effort
by Lennon overcooked by Spector's production.
While Ono's musical strengths have been widely celebrated over the
decades since a bunch of ignoramuses blamed her for the breakup of
the Beatles, she's still given more short shrift than she's earned.
That's not to say she wasn't capable of being shrill and overbearing,
as on some of the live tracks which make up the second disc of the
album. But the first song to make any impact at all is "Born in a
Prison," a curiously beautiful melody over a rhythm like a heartbeat at rest.
Like a sequel to "The Ballad of John and Yoko," "New York City" is
effectively a play-by-play account of Lennon and Ono's life set to
rock & roll.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday," like the U2 song of the same name which
followed a decade later, is about ethno-political conflict in
Northern Ireland, as is "The Luck of the Irish," with the two
appearing back-to-back on the album. Musically, they're among the
album's best Lennon-fronted numbers, with the first an aggro-rocker,
and the latter an acoustic lament.
"John Sinclair" puts the story of the "10-for-2" incarceration of
activist and manager of the MC5 who was arrested and sentenced to 10
years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer.
Angela Davis, who was also the subject of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet
Black Angel," was the inspiration for Some Time in New York City's
lost gem, "Angela." A duet between Lennon and Ono, the song ebbs and
flows like the tide, rising and falling with more emotion than the
rest of the album combined, and may have at least been partially
responsible for the grand aesthetic of contemporary groups like the
Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree.
"We're All Water" closes the album proper with Ono using the title's
concept to explain that people like Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung
(who, adding to the controversial nature of the entire release, were
seen dancing naked together in a doctored photo on the cover) aren't
all that different. "We're all water from different rivers," Ono
sings, before the song devolves into a reasonably enjoyable
shriek-filled jam where one might imagine credits rolling down a screen.
Though the live disc serves as a decent quality artifact of Lennon's
brief forays into solo performance, the second side of that
particular piece of vinyl was also controversial in its own way.
Recorded at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of
Invention, the four songs included a cover of "Well (Baby Please
Don't Go)" by Walter Ward, along with songs credited differently when
remixed and re-released by Zappa on Playground Psychotics in 1992. As
presented on Some Time in New York City, the live tracks with Zappa
and those recorded in 1969 with such luminaries as Eric Clapton,
George Harrison, Keith Moon and Billy Preston are certainly worth a
listen, but aren't exactly essential, either. There's far too much
aimless jamming between far too many musicians for much of anything
to stand out above the mud, and if the notion of Ono's artistic
caterwauling in that context isn't your thing, you'd be best advised
to steer clear altogether.
Some Time in New York City didn't destroy Lennon's career, but the
album and its surrounding activism did cause the FBI to open a file
on him, resulting in a widely publicized deportation effort by the
United States government. Those events were covered in the 2006
documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
Lennon's next album, 1973's Mind Games toned down some of the
political rhetoric that Some Time in New York City was soaked in, and
as a result climbed to #9 in the U.S. Some Time in New York City
isn't Lennon's best album, not by a long shot. It's not even terribly
successful in its design, though it at the very least condenses some
of what activists were interested in into one mostly listenable
album. What the album mostly represents is where Lennon and Ono were
in their lives at a time when everything was changing for them. It's
an often forgotten or neglected chapter in Lennon's canon, an
uncomfortable period when even he didn't seem entirely certain of
what he was trying to say.
But in that sense, it works in tandem with earlier solo experiments
in soul searching, though in this case Lennon himself was too focused
on trying to convey a message of activism to know that he was still
revealing his own flaws and foibles. When the album is at its best,
though, is when none of that internal criticism matters, and it's why
Ono's efforts are often the album's best. Between the two, she
was surer of herself at this point, and it shows.
How would we tally up John Lennon's solo career had he died a retired
househusband? If he failed to rediscover his muse before being cut
down at the gates of the Dakota, our lasting image of John Lennon
would be the one of him sticking his tongue out at us on the back of
1975s Walls and Bridges. We would probably say that after the brutal
purgation of Plastic Ono Band and the splendid Imagine, Lennon was a
spent force who wisely hung it up before tarnishing his legacy
further. Of course Lennon did eventually take his guitars out of
storage and 1980s Double Fantasy, though mawkish and too eager to
please, was a remarkable creative rebirth. While the bookending
Double Fantasy gives Lennon's solo catalogue a major lift, it
completely buries 1973s Mind Games.
Over time, the stories behind Lennon's albums have become an integral
part of experiencing his music. We don't listen to John's Rock N'
Roll album without talking about how crazy Phil Spector used a pistol
to coax tighter performances out of his boozy ensemble. Mind Games
gets a harder shake than the rest because it's the only album to
offer only a slim chapter to the great Lennonography. Following his
first real creative and commercial failure (1972s still ugly Sometime
in New York City), Lennon was eager to get back to the business of
writing simple medium key pop songs. The man who lived his entire
life with his heart on his sleeve and the weight of the world on his
shoulders quickly found that people did in fact expect him to change
the world every time out.
On April Fool's Day 1973 John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a press
conference where they announced the creation of Nutopia, a conceptual
country that "has no land, no passports, no laws, only people".
Though dismissed as another PR stunt at the time, Nutopia was a cry
for mercy in Lennon's lengthy battle with the US Government. As a
result of his high profile anti-war activism, the Nixon
Administration moved to deport Lennon in early 1972 . With his
residency in jeopardy and his marriage to Ono disintegrating, Lennon
assembled The Plastic U.F.Ono Band and hit the Record Plant during
the summer of '73, hoping to find some sort of sanctuary in his music.
Given the squall of negativity blowing around Lennon at the time, one
might've expected another Plastic Ono Band-style exorcism from him.
Instead, Mind Games finds Lennon aiming squarely for middle ground.
The album's songs are split between vague attempts at producing
another compelling peace slogan and love songs that sound as if they
were written by someone in denial over the fact that their
relationship is falling apart. The lush title track was a Top 20 hit
yet the following 10 songs are almost all anonymous deep tracks that
are unfamiliar to the casual Lennon fan. While there are no out and
out duds, the album suffers from questionable production choices as
well as a dearth of the sort of seismic anthems that the public came
to somewhat unreasonably demand from John Lennon.
With a 60-day deportation notice hanging over his head, Lennon wisely
decided his safest bet would be to be to refrain from including
anything even remotely political in his music. With a rabble-rousing
album detailing his persecution by the US Government off the table,
Lennon turned to familiar themes of peace, personal freedom, and open
communication. As he did on his "Give Peace a Chance" and "War is
Over" campaigns, Lennon once again uses fundamental language to help
spread his message. It's easy to get behind "Love is the answer / and
you know that for sure", or even "only people realize the power of
the people", yet without a face to put with name, the impact of these
songs gets dulled considerably. Lennon gets all riled up on "Bring on
the Lucie (Freeda People)', but it isn't clear exactly who needs to
be freed. It doesn't help that Lennon couldn't come up with a more
compelling chorus than "Free the people now / Do it do it do it do it
do it now". The most effective protest song here, "The Nutopian
International Anthem", features four defiant seconds of silence.
Hearing John Lennon struggle to craft a catchy chorus is not unlike
hearing Jesus stammer through prayer service. But struggle he does
here, failing to create anything that's instantly memorable. Although
his marriage was foundering, Lennon still populated Mind Games with a
healthy ration of ballads, most of which sound hollow and uninspired.
"Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)" starts of like classic Lennon blues but he
never finds the conviction to carry the song across the finish line.
It's pretty obvious throughout that he simply doesn't have very much
to say. We're left to pick through rubbish lines like "I'm the fish
and you're the sea" or "Wherever you are / You are here". Lennon
fares better with "Out of the Blue", his only lighter waving 70s
monster ballad and a song that's often unfairly omitted from most
Greatest Hits compilations. Vintage rockers like "Tight As" and
"Intuition", while throwaways, offer up a dose of mindless fun and
"Meat City" features one of the nastiest riffs Lennon ever put to tape.
By the time Lennon recorded Mind Games he felt as though he could
effectively re-create Phil Spector's production style without
Spector's direct involvement. To create his own Wall of Sound, Lennon
brought in session hands who were ace performers and obvious Beatle
aficionados. Guitarist David Spinozza, bolstered by the legendary lap
steel of ex-Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete, ably mimics
Harrison's slide while Gordon Edward's bass takes a McCartney-esque
walk over every arrangement. The thrift store Spector approach
succeeds on tracks like "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)", which
sounds like it could've been cut during a session for All Things Must
Pass. The approach does a disservice to the album's hard driving
numbers, however, which end up sounding slightly punchless and
cluttered. Lennon's biggest folly as producer has to be his decision
to employ a background chorus billed suspiciously as Something
Different. This mysterious collection of jarring, sand-papery voiced
singers overwhelms Lennon almost every time they intrude on the
proceedings. There's no way Phil Spector would let Lennon's wounded
falsetto be shouted down by a background chorus the way it is on "One
Day (At a Time)".
The surviving Beatles all went on to enjoy careers that, while
fruitful, were all marked at some point by a precipitous decline in
quality. Our expectations of them lowered before evaporating
completely. At some point hearing new music from an ex-Beatle became
something that was no longer necessary to pass judgment on. We'll be
grateful for anything from the guys who are still with us. John
Lennon enjoyed no such luxury during his lifetime and we continue to
demand a lot from the studio albums he made during the 1970s. Every
scrap of music Lennon recorded throughout his tragically abbreviated
solo career will always remain under the microscope because it's all
we're left with. So while we can easily dismiss Sometime in New York
City as a true misfire, we'll always take Mind Games to task for
falling shy of brilliance. Were it possible to separate the man from
the music (it isn't) one would find a solid, workman-like collection
of mid-'70s rock 'n' roll. If we forget all that came before and
after it we're left with an album that, while inessential, is highly
listenable. Sometimes the greatest songwriter of all time's second
best needs to be enough.