When he died in 1980, John Lennon had been a solo artist for a decade — just a little longer than the Beatles had been popular. Alone, of course, he was never as popular or as prodigious as his old band had been, but his music proved just as challenging, for better or for worse. He released eight albums of provocative pop and caustic folk, sounding severe one moment and schmaltzy the next. But the man himself — or some aspect of him —comes through in every song, whether it’s a political-minded folk number like “Working Class Hero,” a lovestruck ode like “Oh Yoko” or a cover of a beloved rock classic like “Be-Bop-a-Lula.”
To commemorate what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday on October 9, Capitol Records is releasing his entire solo catalog in a mind-boggling variety of configurations — from his 1970 debut through the posthumous “Double Fantasy,” complete with a wealth of demos, outtakes and stripped-down tracks. Taken together, these albums tell a clear and often moving story: that of a talented musician not quite comfortable with the distractions of his own celebrity and intent on thwarting his own legend.
The Beatles began as a rock band, bred on ’50s rock and road-tested in basement clubs in England and Germany. But over a few short years, they moved away from those sounds into trippier, more experimental territory before coming out the other side as a professional-sounding pop band. Left to his own devices, Lennon did just the opposite: He moved away from the Beatles’ sound and began exploring the old rock hits that originally inspired him.
His first two albums remain his best: pointed statements about politics and peace, masculinity and responsibility. Inspired by his primal scream therapy, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” remains an occasionally uncomfortable self-portrait that lays bare his myriad contradictions. He grouses about the Beatles, prods his listeners to become working-class heroes and writes ode after ode to his wife (which itself was a provocative act, considering that she had so egregiously been cast as the villain in the Beatles’ story).
“Imagine” is even better, with its rustic, Yoko-smitten rootsiness and earnest uplift. The title track may be his best-known (and overplayed) solo hit, but its humanist scope underscores the personal confessionalism of songs like “Oh My Love” and “Jealous Guy.” Lennon was best when he was most playful: One of many paeans to his wife, “Oh Yoko” is perhaps the sweetest song he’s ever written, and the rambling piano and rambunctious harmonica only underscore that gleefully amorous tone.
On his next few albums, however, Lennon reverts to grittier rock and pseudo-R&B, and the results are never as revealing nor as personable as his previous work. 1972’s “Some Time in New York City” and 1974’s “Walls and Bridges” have their charms, but sound self-indulgent, inconsistent and misguided all these years later. He and Yoko spray paint provocative slogans on a wall of sound, but there’s little of his personality behind songs like “Woman Is the N****r of the World” and “Attica State.”
His 1975 album, “Rock n Roll,” proves pivotal both commercially and musically. Lennon resurrects his early favorites — such as “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Peggy Sue” — as if he’s lost his way somehow and is looking for familiar ground. The album is awful. The arrangements of his beloved classics are so busy and over the top that they nearly buckle under their own weight. “Slippin’ and Slidin'” is so busy that it saps the lyrics of all their subversive danger.
It’s not surprising that it took Lennon five years to follow up that dreadful effort with the sweet, straightforward “Double Fantasy” or that he opened with a song called “(Feels Like) Starting Over.” While the ’70s were notorious for rock-star excesses and drug-fueled grotesquerie, one of the decade’s biggest stars retreated into family life and made a revolutionary act out of raising his kids. The resulting music is indeed a fresh start, and while it’s not perfect, it nearly captures the effortlessness of “Imagine” as it revels in domestic bliss.
Three weeks after the album’s release, Lennon was shot and killed in front of his wife and son.
It was an abrupt, unfathomably tragic end to a story of celebrity, confusion and, ultimately, contentment. Instead of new records that continued that narrative arc, fans could only look forward to unreleased tracks and demos that merely fill in the details. His first posthumous release, 1984’s “Milk and Honey,” is a keen remembrance that shows just how deep his catalog went and even produced a classic in “Nobody Told Me.” More such outtakes and singles are collected on the remasters in this 70th anniversary set, offering new glimpses of this contradictory artist.
Listen to his wistful performance on this early version of “India” or to his barely sane howl on “God” as he proclaims, “I don’t believe in the Beatles! I just believe in me, me and Yoko.” It’s a telling moment that doesn’t come through so sharply on the album version: Lennon lived on the surface of his solo music, barely veiling himself against the intense glare of the public and not even attempting to disguise all of his flaws and weaknesses. And that spectacular candidness makes this set of albums a more revelatory autobiography than any book or documentary could ever be.
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photos courtesy Yoko Ono; Spud Murphy