101 Albums You Should Die Before You Hear – John Lennon’s Rock’N’Roll

John Lennon Rock'N'Roll

To this day, I am not sure why I was so attracted to Lennon as a surly teen.

He was egotistical, sexist verging on misogynist, self-righteous, quite possibly racist, given to selfish excesses and a hipster braggadocio. He had a great voice, sure. He knew how to stand on occasion, on occasion. I liked the melodies, but – rightly or more simply wrongly – I credited him as being the main creative force in both The Beatles and The Plastic Ono Band. It was probably because he was so good at taking the credit. In each band, I preferred his partner (secretly, in the case of The Beatles because Macca looked so ridiculous on stage, mugging it up for the crowd like a bobbing head doll in a car window). It was Yoko’s voice and artistic expression that drew me into the Ono Band, not hoary macho reinvention of the blues.

You have to understand, I did not come to The Beatles like most people through the radio or TV. Our parents did not play The Beatles in the house. I came to “Lennon and McCartney” through a songbook for piano, The Compleat Beatles (the same one Daniel Johnston taught himself piano from). So I was a fan of the harmonies, the chords, the melodies…and yes, even Lennon’s lyrics, the bitter fucked-up not-understanding-the-outside-world teenage boy I was. His songs were full of twisted self-pitying self-regard. I was full of twisted self-pitying self-regard. It was a beautiful fit.

Appreciating The Beatles the way I did – through the music, not the performances – I knew they peaked years before most critics claim (i.e. sometime around their fourth album, not Revolver, and certainly not the over-polished hippie radish of a child’s play outing Sgt Pepper’s, an album marked mostly by its surfeit of lyrics so risible even Oasis were hard put to equal them in awfulness). Lennon was a washed-up artistic force by the time Yoko met him. The fact she managed to turn him around so startlingly is a testament to her creativity.

The first solo Lennon album – the one known as “the primal scream one”, rightly (not because it rings through with rehashed Stones riffs and stoned Weatherall remixes, but for the rawness of emotion) – is incredible. Not easy listening or chirpy or cynical at all (or perhaps it was so cynical that Lennon comes through the other side into some version of truth). Back when I was in the Sixth Form at a fifth-rate public school and was considered ‘cred’ by boys who only a few years’ previous had called me tramp because of my hand-me-down clothes, I would DJ at parties with this record, and Crass’ Feeding of the Five Thousand, in a bitter revenge fantasy that fast curtailed my sudden popularity.

The second solo album though, spawned the worst song ever – ‘Imagine’. You could argue that whether you like this song or not comes down to whether or not you believe John Lennon was being sincere when he sang it. Not so. I believe he was being sincere. The smug, self-deluded hypocrite. I hate this song. It is a weak, flimsy premise for a song: not thought-through, sappy, opportunistic, smug, the opposite of naïve… something that this song is often called by its defenders. Naïve can be defined as having or showing unaffected simplicity of nature or absence of artificiality. Unaffected? This song is more cynical, worked-out and produced (with all the gaps filled in) than Madonna at her brilliant height. I suppose you could take the word in its secondary meaning – having or showing a lack of judgment – but no, you can’t. This is a song designed to fill a need. I hate ‘Imagine’ because it teaches lowest common denominator sociology – playing to the balconies while pretending to be intimate. Above all else I hate this song because it so bluntly, clumsily, proves what you cannot do in a pop song. Near singlehandedly, this song spoiled an entire part of music for me: the lyrics. Since hearing ‘Imagine’, I rarely listened to lyrics. You want to know why? SING ALONG WITH THIS! Y’ dickheads.

Sorry.

Mind Games was as bad as its title suggests. Walls and Bridges was even worse. And ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’? Oh, please. (I’m talking with the benefit of four decades’ hindsight here. Back then, I lapped it up, unworldly fool I was.) We are not here to talk about those rampantly dire, shorn-of-Paul offerings, however. We are here to talk about the album that delayed my introduction into the delights of early rock’n’roll by a good two years (back then, the equivalent of two centuries) the contractual obligation of a tribute album, Rock’N’Roll.

Rock’N’Roll is a sloppy, cynical affair from beginning to end, music included.

John Lennon only recorded Rock‘N’Roll so he would not be sued. Morris Levy, owner of the publishing rights to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, agreed not to take him to court over the similarity between parts of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ to the Berry composition if Lennon agreed to record some of Levy’s copyrights.

Rock’N’Roll was an unhappy collision between John Lennon and Phil Spector (who did his usual trick of kidnapping the album master tapes, and shooting off guns in the studio, before going into a coma, the result of a car crash). Walls and Bridges got recorded first so Levy sued Lennon, Capitol and EMI for breach of contract to the tune of $42 million (he ended up with $6,795 in damages – considerably less than Lennon). Lennon ended up recording the bulk of the album himself the following year.

Words cannot hope to express my disgust at this tired, doomed attempt to recapture a feeling Lennon long ago surrendered to the comfort of the whiskey bottle and cocaine, a feeling of being alive, of youth. The originals of the songs featured here – ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ (wonderfully reinvented by Ramones), Gene Vincent’s surly and terrific ‘Be Bop A Lula’, Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’ – are among the cornerstones of both rock’n’roll and rock music. Not that you would know it from Lennon’s bloated swagger or tired leer of a voice.

To this day, there are still songs on Rock’N’Roll I find it impossible to listen to without hearing Lennon’s distended belch of interpretation, same way I now find it hard to hear Diana Ross & The Supremes without seeing Phil Collins’ horrendous gurning smirk. ‘Bony Maronie’. Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’. ‘Ya Ya’ (God, that is one bad version).

And unforgivably, there is a Sam Cooke song there among the detritus and shit.

The nadir was reached when Lennon recorded ‘Just Because’ with a sickly-sweet sentimental voiceover introduction that belied his alcoholic consumption and little else, his love for socialite parties and the love of his cronies, his adherence to a male-dominated leather-jacketed way of life that was shortly and thankfully to disappear.

And just what the FUCK is that saxophone doing?

Only the full-on rolling Spector drum production on Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ enables it to survive the carnage (the vocals are a terrible Holly rip). One song. One song among THIRTEEN.

There was a record label back in the 1970s called Music For Pleasure, which would re-record version of popular classics very cheaply (to avoid copyright fees) and shove them out as budget compilations.

It is tempting to view Rock’N’Roll as the spawn of MfP, except there is very little pleasure indeed to be gained from this motley collection of tossed-off, unforgivably overproduced, cover versions from an old tosser.

11 Responses to 101 Albums You Should Die Before You Hear – John Lennon’s Rock’N’Roll

  1. Bobby Out Of Boney M says:

    ‘Working Class Hero’ may or may not be one of the worst songs ever, but it’s on the first solo album, not ‘Imagine’.

    You’re spot on about ‘Rock N Roll’ though. I picked it up on MFP for a couple of quid when I was a Lennon-idolising 12 year old and even then I couldn’t get through it (or ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Walls And Bridges’, for that matter).

  2. Suzy Ramone says:

    I loved this record when it came out. Later I read in May Pang’s book that it made John really happy to go back to his rock’n’roll influences, which Yoko considered immature. She wanted him to be increasingly more arty and repressed his rock’n’roll leanings. I thought the collaboration with Phil Spector was great, Ya Ya sounded fun. There’s so much reverb which my teenage brain really enjoyed. Do You Wanna Dance was one of my favourite songs and he did it well but I agree, Ramones did it much better. I loved the cover photo. It seemed like the coolest post-Beatles record. I was shocked when I listened to it recently, looking for a song to play on the radio, that it wasn’t wonderful anymore. What happened? Punk I guess – a stronger force that stripped back rock’n’roll in a more primal way and made this effort a bit irrelevant. That’s kinda sad but I’ll remember it as right for its time. The best collaboration between Lennon and Spector was Instant Karma.

    • everetttrue says:

      Agree about Instant Karma. Agree about how it felt right at the time, but I now believe that was more down to not knowing what the alternatives were than anything else.

  3. I think ‘ Imagine’ only seems like the worst song ever because of the sheer number of people dumb enough to think it’s one of the best. It’s actually just a lyrically clumsy & ill thought out song with a catchy tune. I always suspected that because Lennon had earlier in his solo efforts, thrown together a protest song in ten minutes & everyone loved it ( ‘ Give peace a chance ‘ ) he figured the same casual slapdash approach would keep working. It didn’t & that’s why we ended up with Imagine & Power to the people etc.
    Rock ‘n’ Roll is an absolute drunken mess of an album though.
    Having said all that I do like a fair bit of Lennon stuff even from his solo years but my favourite Beatle will always be Yoko.

  4. Tommy Mack says:

    The only thing I’ve heard from this album is Stand By Me which sounded a bit tossed-off even to my Beatle-worshipping teenage ears. I suppose the nicest thing you can say about it is that his thin, reedy voice brings out the neediness in the song.

    I don’t buy your argument that Pepper is a lesser album because it didn’t work as well as the early stuff when you tried to play it on the piano. Aren’t you getting into Mojo/Uncut “a good song should work on an acoustic guitar” territory there? Exactly the sort of back to basics thinking that led to the lame covers album you’re dissing?

    I agree with you that The Beatles’ early stuff is bafflingly overlooked (I was chatting to a bloke at a party who blithely quoth ‘well Rubber Soul was the first proper Beatles album’ and my jaw nearly hit the floor and not in a good way). I can’t fathom your dismissal of Pepper though. Childlike in places, yes (maybe that’s why I still love it so much – cos I heard it repeatedly when I was a kid) but darkness is lurking around every corner: the guy who dies on the operating table in “Good Morning, Good Morning,” the anguished, abandoned parents in “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In The Life”

    if you’re a fan of The Beatles harmonies, chords and melodies and Lennon’s bitter and twisted lyrics, there are plenty of them on Pepper (most of the moon/June stuff is Paul’s iirc and even most of that doesn’t bother me in the context) I wouldn’t call Pepper over-polished either: over-polished to me is like mid-70s LA AOR: everything double-tracked, every drum beat sounding the same etc. Where there is ornate instrumentation on Pepper, it feels to me like it’s doing a job, not just ‘lets put strings on it because we’ve got the money for it’.

    Regarding Lennon: yes he was a monster but, at his best (in The Beatles, I can take or leave most of his solo stuff), there’s something so commanding in his egomania that makes you believe in him. In Rain when he sneers at the hoi poloi scampering out of the rain and sings “I can show you, I can SHOW YOU!” – it’s the most terrifically arrogant pomposity you can imagine but the way he sings it, it doesn’t sound like Bono or Michael Stipe pontificating, it sounds like…he really can fucking show you! I don’t buy this ‘Paul was the talented one’ business that seems to be so fashionable these days. They were all pretty special (and I include Ringo in that) but never so much as when they were bouncing off each other.

  5. Jackson says:

    >He was egotistical, sexist verging on misogynist, self-righteous, quite possibly racist, given to selfish excesses and a hipster braggadocio.

    Yeah. Mother Theresa and the Pope make that much better music.

  6. Jackson says:

    >It was Yoko’s voice and artistic expression that drew me into the Ono Band, not hoary macho reinvention of the blues.

    Yeah, we get it. You’re sensitive. And progressive. And a true feminist.

  7. Jackson says:

    >I knew they peaked years before most critics claim (i.e. sometime around their fourth album, not Revolver

    How rad too! So much better than the average man (and/or woman).

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