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.
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.