The Beatlefan Interview With Cynthia Lennon

Bill King wrote in his Publisher’s Notes for Beatlefan #213 about interviewing and meeting Cynthia Lennon. Here is that interview, originally published in early 1982. …

cyn john sepia

Cynthia Lennon Twist could never escape being known as the first Mrs. John Lennon, even if she wanted to — and she doesn’t. But the 42-year-old blonde has found a new way to make her unavoidable place in history work for her.

So it was that in the wake of a much-publicized art show in September (1981) at Long Island’s Tower Gallery, Cynthia Lennon (the name she uses professionally now) came to Atlanta the first week of December to launch a national tour of her artwork at the Limelight disco.

It’s a situation that finds her with one foot in the future and one in the past. The art shows open up the possibility of a belated career as an artist for her, but the subject of her exhibited works is her life with Lennon and The Beatles. She wants to be known for something she’s done on her own, yet she is using the last name of Lennon instead of the name of her estranged husband, John Twist. She laughed slightly with embarrassment when asked about that.

Speaking in a British accent devoid of any Liverpudlian drawl, she talked willingly about her work and her life with The Beatles. But her relationship with Lennon was put off-limits for the conversation Beatlefan Publisher Bill King had with her.

In addition to the exhibit of 15 cartoons, she brought with her to Atlanta a large, colorful painting of The Beatles (valued at $25,000), which she donated in Lennon’s memory to the Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital.

What follows is the Beatlefan interview with Cynthia Lennon, originally published in two parts in Vol. 4, No. 2 (February-March 1982) and Vol. 4, No. 3 (April-May 1982). …

What name are you using?

Well, the name I’m using is Lennon, mainly because I wrote the book “A Twist of Lennon” and it was Cynthia Lennon and, you know it seems to be with me.

Is that both professionally and personally?

Professionally.

How did this art exhibit and tour come about?

Oh, it was pure chance, really. I don’t know if you read about it, because I did a few interviews. No, it was just purely — I was running a restaurant at the time in North Wales and a friend of mine who is from the old days came to the restaurant, also with another friend, and saw my drawings from the book there on the walls.

Was that Peter Brown?

That’s right, Peter Brown, and Stephen Gaines is an author. He’s working on a book with him at the moment. And they came to have a chat, and they came to see the restaurant and see me. And the drawings were on the wall and Stephen Gaines said that he knew somebody on Long Island who had a gallery, it happened to be Gary Lajeski, and he took some photographs and sent them to Gary, and Gary liked them and invited me to come, so that’s how it all began.

Had you ever given any thought yourself to exhibiting your artwork?

No, I hadn’t really, because I’d been so busy. I’d been running a restaurant, you know, and all sorts of things, sorting out, looking after Julian, sorting things out. I’ve had a very heavy sort of two years, the last two years and this, for me, was a wonderful opportunity. It was out of the blue, really.

Is this the same artwork that was in your book?

A painting by Cynthia Lennon donated to Scottish Rite Children's Hospital in Atlanta in 1981.

A painting by Cynthia Lennon donated to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta in 1981.

Yes, it’s the cartoons. There are 15 cartoons. They didn’t put them all in the book. But I’m also doing a painting, a large painting.

The one you’re donating to the hospital?

Yes.

What is that painting about?

Well, it’s in the same vein. Of course, it’s very large and it’s on canvas. So it’s not a small drawing, a small cartoon, it’s a large painting.

What does it depict?

It’s the era, again the ’60s, the “Magical Mystery Tour” time.

The drawings you’re exhibiting, was this something you did particularly for the book?

Actually, I did them when I was writing the book. I thought it would be nice to illustrate, you know, because I hadn’t done any illustrations for years. But, I mean, all the memories were there, and in writing the book the memories came back. Being trained as an illustrator, I thought it would be nice to sort of slot in the illustrations.

Did you continue with your art at all after you left art school and got married?

When I was married to John? No, no, I was busy looking after Julian and, you know, it was an incredible time, so really I had very little time to carry on with art.

Didn’t you make a reference to your work in India, where you spent some time …

Oh, yes, yes. I did a lot of drawings and paintings there. Yes, because I had the peace and quiet to do it and the meditation and everything.

What was that whole experience like, that Indian adventure?

For me, it was a marvelous experience. I loved it. Purely because it gave us — well, it gave me a time to breathe. And it gave us all a time to breathe, you know, to relax, totally out of the glare of everything, you know, publicity and everything. And it was a marvelous time.

Did any of that stay with you, the meditation?

Not in great depth. I wouldn’t say I go into meditation in great depth. But now and again I do meditate because it’s a peaceful way of relaxing, it’s a good way of relaxing.

What’s it been like to re-enter the public eye?

Well, it’s quite amazing, really. But I think I’m a lot older and a lot wiser and, possibly, I think I can cope with it better now. Also, it’s something I’m enjoying because, hopefully, I’ll be successful in what I’m doing. It’ll give me the chance to start all over again, which is what I wanted to do. And it’s just, just the way it’s happened, I’m going with the tide, you can put it that way. But also doing what I want to do, what I wanted to do for years, anyway.

So, you would have liked to have had a career as an artist?

Oh, yes, I would have loved to. But life sort of didn’t deal me the cards.

Sort of makes choices for you, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does.

Is it difficult now, dealing with being a former Beatle wife or John’s ex-wife, in particular?

Well, I cope with who I am and what I am, not with, not a nametag, if you know what I mean. I know who I am and, no, it’s not difficult because I’m the same sort of person. I haven’t changed a great deal. I’ve just gotten a little older and a little wiser.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known 17 years ago?

Oh, gosh, that’s a difficult one. It’s just to take life a little easier and to … the fact is, I realize how precious each day is, and to make the most of it.

You and everyone involved with The Beatles lived sort of at full speed, didn’t you?

Absolutely, yes. Frenetically. So, now it’s nice to pick and choose, really.

Do you still run that restaurant in Wales?

No, that closed down. Well, that’s another experience in life. I’ve done it once. I could probably do it again if I have to.

Weren’t you involved with Mike McCartney’s ex-wife and doing some songwriting?

Yes, that’s right. She was working with us. Angie was always doing songwriting and I write words and she was putting the words to music. You know, she played the piano and I was the word person, but nothing evolved from it. It was just fun, really. It was fun. It was creative.

What is the book you’re working on now, a fairy tale?

Well, the idea is to do a fairy tale of the story of The Beatles. But for children as well as adults, not … it’s very hard to describe, but more fantasy as well as reality, do you know what I mean?

You mean telling the story of The Beatles in the style of a fairy tale?

Yes, yes. In pictures.

Will this be published in the U.S. as well as Britain?

I have to work on it yet [laughs].

Is this something that has come about just since you did the exhibit?

Yes, yes, this is evolving from it.

I understand you went to the New York Beatlefest.

Yes, it was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing because I’d never been to one before … I was just amazed by the whole experience.

Were you apprehensive about that?

Well, it happened quickly, like everything else has happend very quickly in the past sort of six months or so for me. And it just happened. And I just happened to be there and it was an experience I’d never had before. And it was fascinating.

What was the fans’ reaction?

They were lovely. They were wonderful. They were really super. And it was lovely to see them. I couldn’t believe that it was still all going on. You know, the Beatlefest, which I’d never been to before, but I couldn’t – I’d never been able to imagine what one would be like. And the devotion and the love from all different ages, it was just incredible.

Has your relationship with the fans changed over the years?

I think I’ve always had a good relationship.  I’ve had plenty of mail – fan mail. I don’t like to say fan mail. But I have lots of contacts and things from the old days. And it’s never really stopped.

Did it change at all when you first came out in the open as John’s wife? Any negative?

Very little. Very little. I seemed to have a lot of support at that time.

How about the divorce?

A lot of support then. I just can’t say I’ve ever had anything really negative at all.

You were in a position of observing the formative stages of The Beatles. Was John in the group before you met him?

John and Cynthia in the early days.

John and Cynthia in the early days.

Well, we were at college together. We were students and I was there when they formed the group.

So you knew him before they formed it?

Oh, yes, yes.

Did you have any feeling at that time they had any real future in entertainment?

Well, it was very difficult because  we were studying a lot and they were doing it on the side, but I think once they started, once they went to Germany, and came back from Germany – they went to Hamburg – and John threw up his art studies and everything, then it all started happing in Liverpool. Then I did believe. You know, in the beginning, they were four young lads sort of trying their best and doing what they wanted to do most of all, which was play music.

What was the relationship between John and Paul like in those days?

Oh, very good. They were friends.

In some of the biographies, they try to picture it as sort of an adversary relationship even then.

As far as I can tell you, we were all friends, we were a group, we were friends and they were playing music together, and happily as far as I know. (As with) any other sort of relationship, they had their ups and downs. They were only kids.

Were they as close as brothers?

They were just close friends. I can’t say brothers, no. I wouldn’t say that, but very good friends with the same thing in common: music.

Did it change over the years with the fame, money and pressure?

No, I think during the pressure they even got closer together, you know.

Were they basically agreeable? Did they get along fairly well?

Yes, very well. In fact, they couldn’t have played such good music, I don’t think, if they didn’t.

Or stuck it out all those years.

No.

You went over to Hamburg some while they were playing there, didn’t you?

Yes, yes, yes.

The Hamburg experience is credited as a turning point for them as a band. Did you see that happening? Did they change?

Oh, gosh, yes. They had to work solidly for hours and hours and hours and their music evolved and they changed because they weren’t students or schoolboys anymore. They were in the big grown-up world of entertainment, even though it was in sort of the Reeperbahn of Hamburg. They were earning some brass.

What was your first perception of Brian Epstein when he offered to manage them?

I was thrilled to bits. I liked Brian very much. He was great fun. I loved Brian.

Revisionists, particularly in “Shout!”, make it seem Brian didn’t really know what he was doing.

Yes, well, I haven’t read that book yet. I’m sort of a quarter of the way through it. So I can’t really comment on what’s been said.

What is your impression of Epstein as a manager?

I think he had flair and was creative and perhaps not in the total business sense of the businessman, but he loved them and he did his best for them. And I think he did very well, don’t you? Listen, nobody’s perfect, are they? It’s afterwards that everyone wants to sort of … I don’t know, go into such fine detail about something, that it’s very hard to do. Cause if you’re there at the time, it’s a totally different situation.

Were he and the group members very close?

Oh, yes. They were a unit, you know, and a good unit.

You were the only wife to go on any American tours, weren’t you?

Yes, I came on the first one.

What was that like?

Oh, it was fantastic. I didn’t see much of New York, though … or anything else, quite honestly, but it was a fantastic experience. Unbelievable.

Were they still enjoying it at that point?

Oh, yes. They found it unbelievable as well.

Was it as grueling as it is nowadays?

Oh, yes, definitely. No, it was all grueling. It was very very hard work.

A lot of people like to tie in The Beatles stopping touring and branching out creatively with their introduction to drugs. What role did drugs play creatively?

Together at the height of Beatlemania.

Together at the height of Beatlemania.

Creatively, it’s very difficult to say. I think drugs were an escape at the time. And that’s my view, and they were still – no matter what they did, as far as drugs were concerned, I think they were creative in themselves. So the creativity would still be there. It might be heightened or lessened – but they were still very creative.

How about its effect personally on their lives?

Well, you have to read my book. [laughs]

You wrote that you thought in your case you thought drugs played a major role.

Oh, yes, it did.

I was thinking in broader terms of the group in general.

Again, that’s a difficult question because that was a time of sort of drifting apart, really, evolving more individually, I think, at that time, as opposed to the unit of four, because Brian wasn’t there anymore.

In other words, you think that would have happened anyway?

I’ve no idea, I’ve no idea.

You seem to have continued some relationships from that time. I know I read you’re still close to Maureen …

Yes, well, it’s very strange. It’s only – it’s almost full circle. Because I wasn’t close to them for a long, long time until this time last year, really.

So it wasn’t something that just continued unabated?

No, because I had my – I went separate ways, you know, trying to find different avenues and, of course, they were still involved in music and I was out of the music scene altogether for years.

How did you come back into contact?

Actually, through that meeting in the restaurant with Peter Brown, ‘cause I hadn’t got Maureen’s phone number. I had lost her address. And it was through that meeting that I saw Maureen again.

How about others from The Beatles’ family at large?

Yes, I’ve seen Pattie, who’s now married to Eric Clapton. I’ve seen George. See, but I live in North Wales and it’s a long way from London.

How did you end up in Wales?

I don’t know. I just took off one day in the car and I was looking for a little cottage to paint in – again, I wanted some isolation and privacy. And I found a place and it was for sale. I just ended up at the end of this sort of … through this forestry commission land, and I ended up looking at this place and it happened to be for sale, and that was it.

You mentioned George. After you were divorced from John, did you continue to have a relationship with the other three Beatles?

No, I saw them occasionally, sort of on the nightlife circuit, you know, bumped into them occasionally, but, no, we didn’t carry on a close relationship.

How did The Beatles’ wives and children get along with each other?

Oh, fine. You know, we were really one big happy family, because we were thrown together because of circumstances, but, I mean, luckily enough we all got on very well together.

You had similar backgrounds …

Two of us did – Maureen and I did. We’re from the North and I think Jane and Pattie were from the South. But, apart from that, we just got on very well together.

Doesn’t Julian know one of Ringo’s sons?

Through Julian and I going to stay with Maureen, he got to know Zak. Zak is Maureen’s oldest son, but Zak is still at school and he’s doing his own thing and Julian is doing his own thing as well. You know, Julian’s three years older than Zak.

I understand they’re both musically oriented.

Very, yeah. Very.

Did you ever have the urge to join in with the music and the performing?

No, no. I like writing and I like painting, but entertainment is … I had a dream once that I would have liked to have been a chorus girl, but that was when I was a little girl. [laughs]

When The Beatles were going, there was sort of an impression they had a thing going on which no one else could have fitted into.

That’s true. That’s true, because they evolved together from such an early  age and they went through so much together, that I think it would be impossible. It was impossible, really.

What are your feelings about having a son go into entertainment?

Well, I think entertainment’s wonderful, you know. I love entertainment. I think it makes people happy. And I think if Julian is lucky enough to be gifted musically, and he has the proper training, I believe he has to have the proper training first, not just thrown into it because of who he is and everything. But the thing is, Julian is musical and he is artistic and he’s working on it at the moment, and if he’s successful, then I’ll be very happy.

Is he studying music?

He’s studying music, yes.

So he’s actually going about it a different way from the way his father did.

Yes.

Can you separate yourself f from being his mother and tell me what you think his potential is?

Very good. [laughs] You mean, not be biased? Well, I also listen to what other people say. I sit back and see other people’s reaction to Julian’s music. And I do believe he’s got a great deal of talent and determination, which is very important.

Does he still plan on coming to New York?

Well, not at the moment, no. I think he’d probably like to come have a holiday.

I know that he got a lot of press.

I know. I know. Well, it was a very frantic time.

There were magazine articles that tried to make it look like you and Yoko were having a tug of war over Julian. Is that just sensationalism?

Obviously. I mean, you know, it’s ridiculous. But, I mean, these things are bound to happen.

Did being John Lennon’s son make it tough in any way for him growing up?

No, he’s been pretty well protected, really. I think he’s had a few hard times, but I think where we’ve lived – you know, Julian has been out of the limelight, really. And I’ve tried to give him a sort of quiet, normal sort of upbringing. And it’s only in the past year that he’s been thrown into the big, wide world with the press.

Like in school, did kids ever give him a rough time?

No, not a lot. Obviously, occasionally they did. There’d be different reactions, but I think on the whole he’s had a very good – he’s had it reasonably easy.

Do you still keep in touch with people in Liverpool, like Aunt Mimi?

Oh, yes, I’ve spoken to Mimi. I haven’t seen her because she lives in Bournemouth. She lives down south, but I have spoken to her. I do keep in contact.

Do you go back to Liverpool much?

Well, Liverpool’s only an hour from North Wales, and I’ve got friends in Liverpool as well, so I’m still based in the North.

Has it changed a lot?

Liverpool? Oh, gosh, yes. A great deal.

Bill Harry says he hardly recognizes it now …

It’s a very sad area at the moment, but they’re hoping to – they suddenly realized they sort of wrecked it. They pulled it apart, tried to modernize it, and took the heart out of the city. And now they’re going to have to put it back again. The planners’ dream didn’t work.

Do you ever read books about The Beatles?

I read a few. I usually read other people’s books who happened to have them. [laughs] No, because I know what’s going on without reading.

I was just wondering whether there were any books that you thought got the story right.

I suppose they’re all right in many facets. Everyone has something different to say, has a different outlook. And a bias towards the book they are writing, and I haven’t really read a lot about it, no.

Did Philip Norman interview you for “Shout!”?

No, he didn’t.

He tries to imply that he did.

I know, but he didn’t, and that’s the part that I’ve read, the first bit, the beginning of the book, and I was a little bit annoyed, because a lot of what he’s put in is sort of taken from the book that I wrote. That’s almost his interview with me. No, he didn’t contact me at all. I would have given him an interview, but he didn’t contact me.

Have you been asked to consult on any Beatles films or films about John?

No, there is a play on in Liverpool at the moment called “Lennon,” and they asked me if I could help them with that, but I couldn’t. I mean, I wanted to, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t even go to see it, because it’s too upsetting. I was hoping perhaps someone could video it for me. I just couldn’t watch it, you know, because apparently it’s, uh, very upsetting. I just couldn’t sit there and watch it. Perhaps I could on my own, but I couldn’t do it in an audience.

How did you come to be friends with May Pang?

May Pang and Cynthia Lennon at the Limelight in Atlanta, December 1981.

May Pang and Cynthia Lennon at the Limelight in Atlanta, December 1981.

Well, when May was with John for the 18 months, during that time I brought Julian over to stay with John and May, and I went off on holiday in L.A. But I wanted Julian to see his father and May was with him at the time and they got along beautifully. You know, we got on very well together. You know, when two people love the same person, it’s hard to describe, but it’s just that we get on very well together. And there’s no sort of bitterness or anything, and Julian loved May, and May was very kind with Julian, and so that’s how it evolved, came about.

What is your relationship with Yoko Ono?

I don’t really have a relationship with Yoko. It’s as simple as that.

You never see each other or have any contact?

No, no, there’s never been any reason to. Because any contact between Julian and his father was done between him and his father. And I had nothing to do with it.

What sort of relationship did he have with his father in later years?

It was getting very good.

Did he see a lot of him?

He went about once a year to stay with him.

Is Julian coming to Atlanta for your art show?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be wise for him to come, really.

How did it come about that you’re donating this painting to the children’s hospital?

Since it’s the Year of the Child, I decided to do it in memory of John.

The last year has been a difficult one for you.

Yes, it’s been difficult and very different.

Is it something you still have great difficulty dealing with?

Yes, I do [voice trembles noticeably], but life has to go on, doesn’t it?

Do you feel you’re at a turning point in your life?

A definite crossroads. Definitely.

What brought you to this point where you want to try something different?

I’ve no idea. It’s circumstances, again. It’s like, how did I find the cottage in Wales? Sometimes I feel I’m being sort of led. And when it’s right, I go with the tide. If it’s wrong, then. … It feels right at the moment.

Do you have any plans other than that book of drawings you’re working on?

I’m taking each day as it comes, and I’m making the most of it and whatever evolves, you know, will be very exciting. What is important to me is to be creative and to do something good. And if I have the opportunity to do that, then I’ll do it. And if this is the opportunity I have, then I’ll make the most of it.

 

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Some Time in New York City’

Our latest installment in an exclusive series of articles on solo Beatles albums of the past features Wally Podrazik’s  re-evaluation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s controversial 1972 collection “Some Time in New York City,” an album that still draws negative reviews but, nonetheless, is recommended for both musical and historical reasons. …

 some time album cover

The John & Yoko Show Hits the Mainstream

Paul McCartney has been the target of some angry fan jibes online for the collaborative company he’s been keeping lately, most vocally about releases with rapper Kanye West. Those comments might seem like an extraordinary reaction to his artistic choices until you flip back the calendar. In the immediate post-Beatles era of the early 1970s, McCartney was the target of snide comments about multiple musical matters, from Linda McCartney at his side on disc to the perceived fluffy nature of some of his compositions.

Those paled, though, in comparison with the unbridled takedown that accompanied John Lennon’s 1972 release, “Some Time in New York City.” That two-record set (credited to John & Yoko, backed by the Elephant’s Memory band) reflected the issues and ideologies of the company they were keeping at the time. The likes of Jerry Rubin (a central figure in the bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention protests) and David Peel (who recorded the album “The Pope Smokes Dope”). Radical artists. Street activists. War critics.

Such associations did not go down well. “Some Time in New York City” served as a lightning rod for everyone ready to share their annoyance at John and Yoko’s participation in those efforts. Or who just wanted to vent over the couple’s years of public posturing and/or offbeat art projects.

Under the headline “Banal Balladry,” the Milwaukee Sentinel opened its article on the album (back when local papers devoted time and space to their own original reviews) with the observation from the Heartland that “When music talk turns to pretension, sooner or later you arrive at the names of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In most cases, it will be sooner.” The article went on to dismiss the album contents as a “shrill superficial look at trendy leftist politics” with lyrics that ranged “from crude to bland.”

The passage of time hardly moderated the barbs. Marking the 2010 reissue of the remastered John Lennon catalog, the magazine Uncut described that set as “a contender for the worst LP by a major musical figure,” noting its 1970s left-wing clichés were “hamstrung by the utter absence of conviction within the melodies and lyrics.” The Rolling Stone retrospective at the same time called the original release “a disastrous double album of simplistic sloganeering.”

Even given that such negative judgments still linger, “Some Time in New York City” is nonetheless recommended here for both a musical and historical visit.

Here’s why:

Historically, “Some Time in New York City” held a special place of affection for John Lennon.

During David Sheff’s lengthy 1980 interviews with Lennon and Yoko Ono (for publication in Playboy  magazine), “Some Time in New York City” was the only album to earn a personal pause and callout as Lennon was reviewing his body of work, disc by disc. Sheff noted Lennon gazing at the jacket and observing, “Man, it’s nice to see this.”

With the impending release of “Double Fantasy” later in 1980, that nostalgic connection back eight years was understandable. To that point, the 1972 release of “Some Time in New York City” was the only other instance of John & Yoko issuing a mainstream music album together.

Not John on one side, Yoko on the other (as in “Live Peace in Toronto” or Lennon solo singles from “Give Peace a Chance” to “Power to the People”). Not simultaneous solo releases (as with the pair of 1970 John Lennon/Yoko Ono “Plastic Ono Band” albums, or the companion 1971 Lennon “Imagine” and Ono “Fly”). Those accommodations had allowed Lennon fans who did not care for Ono’s music to easily walk on by.

Previous releases credited to “John and Yoko” had been the experimental art pieces (“Two Virgins,” “Life with the Lions” and “Wedding Album”), which had been seen and heard by very few.

“Some Time in New York City” was different. This was a heavily promoted collection of rock and pop songs (many co-authored), co-produced with Phil Spector and presented as a true collaborative showcase by John and Yoko, who took turns on lead vocals throughout the album and even shared a few duets.

The first tease of their joint approach had hit late in 1971 with the successful Christmas single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” credited to John & Yoko (co-producing with Phil Spector). Although John’s vocal dominated, Yoko’s voice was also clearly in the mix throughout.

In fact, the popular success of that holiday release might have been seen as evidence that the world was ready at last for the John and Yoko show to take the mainstream record release stage.

It was not.

“Some Time in New York City” stalled on Billboard’s top album charts in July 1972, never cracking the Top 40 during its short four-month run. The lead single was even less successful and spent a mere five weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 without breaking into the Top 50.

Yet, some four decades later, it is still easy to appreciate John Lennon’s affection. The album perfectly captured the subject matter of the title: This was John and Yoko’s scrapbook clippings from the opening days of their very public lives in their adopted new home — a memorable inaugural time in New York City. Their words and music and activism reflected the people, places and influences in their lives.

Even more important, it reflected what seemed to be a newcomer’s enthusiastic embrace of the American way. They were eager to be part of it all, to devote their artists’ sensibilities to political pursuits on the issues of the day, residing in the hip and politically active circles in and around New York City.

The gatefold record package looked like a newspaper, with the album title set in New York Times-like typeface, from “JOKO Press,” “Late City Edition.” Seven columns of text (the song lyrics) covered the front and back sides, peppered with photos and oblique drop-in poetry and verse (“There are no birds in Viet-Nam”), along with a call to action (“Register to Vote”).

The mailing side of the petition and a card included in the album package.

The mailing side of the petition and a card included in the album package.

Appropriately, a pre-printed “Justice for John and Yoko” petition was part of the original “Some Time in New York City” album packaging, urging fans to show their support for allowing “John Lennon and Yoko Ono to live and work freely in our country.” (All of these details are best appreciated via the original 12-inch vinyl LP-size release)

By 1972, though, John Lennon and Yoko Ono had been staging art events and promoting various causes for half a decade. For some, there was John and Yoko fatigue, a sense of “enough already.”

In their separate record releases, they had managed to sidestep such reactions by focusing on poetic imagery (as in John’s “Imagine”), abstract sound play (as in Yoko’s vocal gymnastics), and classic rock riffs (as on “Live Peace in Toronto”).

With “Some Time in New York City” they brought a newspaper op-ed page to life against a volatile backdrop of generational and social conflict: racial tensions, the Vietnam war, anti-war protests, the celebration of drugs, free speech conflicts, and the ongoing re-election campaign of U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Among the general public, there were strong opinions on all sides of these topics.

For record buyers looking for a new John Lennon music collection (or at least collaborations more like “Happy Xmas”), the approach taken by “Some Time in New York City” was akin to a contemporary TV viewer looking for a favorite entertainment channel and instead being stuck spending some time with an MSNBC or a Fox cable news diatribe. The music was solid enough, but the lyrics throughout the album pushed aside a sense of decorum in favor of activist engagement.

“Some Time in New York City” offered blunt polemics on such topics as activist Angela Davis (“Angela”), headline-grabbing American prison confrontations (“Attica State”), a life-is-a-prison lament (“Born in a Prison”), feminism set to a pop beat (“Sisters O Sisters”), repressive marijuana laws (“John Sinclair”), generations of conflict between the Irish and the English (“Luck of the Irish”), and the specific events of the January 1972 shooting of protesting civilians by British soldiers in Northern Ireland (“Sunday Bloody Sunday”).

Picture sleeve for the album's single.

Picture sleeve for the album’s single.

However, the track that probably sealed the sales fate of “Some Time in New York City” was its one-and-only single. With the deliberately provocative use in the title and main chorus of what is now usually referenced as just “the N-word,” Lennon virtually guaranteed that “Woman Is the N*gger of the World” would not receive radio play. It may well have been intended as an artistic allegory about suppression and exploitation (first expressed by co-author Ono), but it came off as highly charged and inappropriate.

As just another track, perhaps buried deep in the two-disc set, it might have slipped by, but as the album opener and promoted single, the song struck some as uncomfortable and in-your-face. Lennon and Ono brought the song to Dick Cavett’s show in May 1972 to promote the album, and only strong efforts by the host kept it from being excised from the pre-taped program.

And yet … scattered throughout this album were moments of aching beauty (“Luck of the Irish”), lyrical playfulness (“New York City”), and killer craft (“John Sinclair”). Yoko Ono’s best solo composition came in the driving dance number “We’re All Water” with its “can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head” imagery of President Nixon and Chairman Mao Tse-tung dancing naked (a doctored photo of the political leaders appeared on the front cover, itself another source of controversy, leading to stickers covering the image).

Oddly, the “bonus” second disc of the set provided one of the more accessible and radio-friendly offerings, a live cover version of the decidedly nonpolitical oldie “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” (a 1958 hit by The Olympics). That was part of a guest appearance by John and Yoko at a 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention concert at the Fillmore East. Lennon described the number as one he had not performed since his days at the Cavern.

The 1992 Frank Zappa album that included John and Yoko's performance.

The 1992 Frank Zappa album that included John and Yoko’s performance.

The remainder of the bonus disc included additional riffs from Zappa’s show on one side, experimental sound collages that blended one to another. (Two decades after the “Some Time in New York City” release, Zappa issued his own full version of this concert night on the album “Playground Psychotics,” marking the times and titles differently, including a retitle for Yoko Ono’s “Au” as “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono.”)

The other side of the bonus disc featured “Cold Turkey” and “Don’t Worry Kyoko” as performed live in December 1969 at the Lyceum Ballroom in London for a UNICEF charity concert, with George Harrison as one of the backing musicians.

Still, the perceived preachy nature of the studio songs left the album with its reputation for being “a tough listen,” then and now. The short chart life of “Some Time in New York City” in 1972 also brought to an end a continuous eight-year run (back to February 1964) by Beatles and solo releases on Billboard’s top albums chart, another strike against the set.

But could “Some Time in New York City” have been saved? With a different lead single, say the “Ballad of John and Yoko”-like “New York City”? Additional tracks? Fewer tracks?  For a 2005 reissue, Yoko Ono took one alternative approach: cutting the release to a single CD. In the process, some of the running times were trimmed and most of the live Zappa concert material on the original Disc 2 was jettisoned, leaving only the live “Cold Turkey,” “Don’t Worry Kyoko” and the oldie “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).” In addition, both sides of the “Happy Xmas” single were added. For the 2010 remastering, though, the set was restored to its full length.

That really is the way to go today, because it is true to the original intent of the album. You may not agree with all of what’s sung, but there’s no doubt that it represents a glimpse into the creative souls of John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the time.

The front and back of the album's gatefold cover.

The front and back of the album’s gatefold cover.

Lennon’s participation in the early 1970s political era has also drawn the attention of admiring scholars, chroniclers and artists such as writer Jon Wiener (“Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files”) and filmmaker John Scheinfeld (“The U.S. vs. John Lennon”), in part because it was an authentic and wholly unnecessary commitment to issues by a star. It resulted in far more than generating whining Internet complaints. There were real personal consequences to this political involvement, in critical and sales popularity and, most importantly, in personal well-being, as government forces pushed back, through official and unofficial channels.

All those issues aside, though, how do the songs stack up in the 21st century?

A number of the studio tracks ultimately lost the battle against their own lyrics (“Sisters O Sisters,” “Born in a Prison” and “Angela”). However, four are unqualified keepers: “New York City” (for its rapid fire autobiographical narrative), “John Sinclair” (for its killer Lennon slide guitar licks), “Luck of the Irish” (with its evocative music and imagery that manages to weave lyrics about torture and genocide into pure poetry, sung by both Lennon and Ono), and the live “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go).”

In the next tier down, “N-word” aside, “Woman Is” confidently shows off the brassy, wall-of-sound Phil Spector producing style. Both “Attica State” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” have an aggressive driving edge, turning their chronicles of authority outrage into rallying rhythmic chants. “We’re All Water” gives Yoko Ono the closing number, though its dance club riffs go on (and on) to “Hey Jude” length.”

Perhaps the best reason to listen to “Some Time in New York City,” though, is that it stands as a helpful guide to better appreciating the finesse of “Double Fantasy” in 1980. Without overt political posturing, that later album pulled off an even more aggressive back-and-forth programming approach between Lennon and Ono lead vocals, to far less consternation.

By then, it seemed that the world was ready at last for the John and Yoko show to return and take the mainstream record-release stage. Looking to the future, but informed by the past. Still in New York City, but in a very different time.

Walter J. Podrazik

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Living in the Material World’

Our latest installment in a series of articles looking back at solo Beatles albums of the past features Brad Hundt’s re-evaluation of George Harrison’s 1973 collection “Living in the Material World,” an album once bashed by some as sour and sanctimonious. Viewed now in the context of Harrison’s complete canon, Hundt thinks it showcases many of George’s best virtues …

living album cover

 

A Visit to Harrison’s Spiritual World

As I noted in an article for Beatlefan two years ago to mark the 40th anniversary of George Harrison’s “Living in the Material World,” the first copy of that album I purchased reeked of incense for years after I brought it home, thanks to its having lingered in the bins at a head shop in Toledo, Ohio, where the scented sticks burned at levels one would typically associate with an industrial site.

It never bothered me, though. In fact, it seemed wholly appropriate, given the nature of “Living in the Material World.”

As Harrison’s musical career hit the shoals in the latter half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, fans and critics tended to see “Living in the Material World” as the point where the decline began. Sure, it contained a No. 1 hit single, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” and the album itself was a chart-topper, but they bemoaned the sour mood that hangs over parts of  it, the occasional bursts of sanctimoniousness, and its heavy infusion of Krishna consciousness.

From “All Things Must Pass” to “Brainwashed,” Harrison explored his spiritual inclinations, but never to the extent that he did on “Living in the Material World.”

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

Four decades later, and with Harrison’s canon now complete (unless a trove of unreleased material emerges), it’s possible to see “Living in the Material World” in a different light. While not attaining the grandeur of “All Things Must Pass” or possessing the warmth and accessibility of “Cloud Nine,” “Living in the Material World” showcases many of Harrison’s best virtues — tasteful production, top-tier guitar playing and songs that are insistently melodic.

“Living in the Material World” opens with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” probably the only song ever to go to No. 1 that was about the desire to be free of the cycle of birth and rebirth that figures so heavily in Eastern philosophy. It has a piano part by Nicky Hopkins that echoes Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” and is the first showcase for Harrison’s slide guitar on the disc.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

The album moves on to “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” which finds Harrison in a more humorous — and more biting — mode. Originally given to guitarist Jesse Ed Davis for his album “Ululu,” the slide guitar stings as Harrison offers up an ode to the legal problems swirling around Apple Corps and The Beatles, with the lines “court receiver / laughs and thrills  / but in the end, we just pay those lawyers their bills…” It’s one of the album’s most memorable – and best – tracks.

“The Light That Has Lighted the World,” originally offered to fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black, finds Harrison musing how “some people have said that I’ve changed” and these same people are “so hateful of anyone who is happy or free.”

“Who Can See It,” also on the album’s first side, continues in this vein, using a gospel-style piano and organ introduction for a reflection on how he has been “held up” and “run down” and how he’d been “towing the line” for years. However, Harrison offers defiance in saying that “my life belongs to me…”

What led Harrison to this defensive posture after the triumphs of “All Things Must Pass” and “The Concert for Bangladesh” is something for an in-depth biography to explore.

Sandwiched between those two songs is “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long,” the single-that-never-was from the album. A breezy, simple offering, with touches of Phil Spector-style grandiosity, it demonstrates Harrison’s ongoing affection for soul and rhythm & blues.

The album’s first side closes with the title track, a rocking statement about Harrison’s desire to slip the bounds of earthly yearning and head to “the spiritual sky.” It contains autobiographical elements, including references to the other three Beatles, with Ringo Starr offering a drum fillip after Harrison sings that they “got Richie on a tour.”

More album art from "Living in the Material World."

More album art from “Living in the Material World.”

The second side of “Living in the Material World” opens with “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord),” the album’s nadir and one of the low points of Harrison’s career. It’s a finger-pointing exercise in sanctimony, and Harrison sounds like a fundamentalist minister railing about how we all must get right with the Lord, otherwise if we don’t give, “then (we) won’t get lovin,” along with cliched admonishments that the Lord “helps those that help themselves.” This would have been one better left for the cutting-room floor.

However, the album gets back on track with the lovely “Be Here Now,” an underrated Harrisong that, like The Beatles’ “The Inner Light” five years before, puts Eastern philosophizing to music. This, however, is much simpler than “The Inner Light,” using a minimal setting with an acoustic guitar in the foreground.

The relaxed, reflective mood is broken by Harrison’s rendition of “Try Some, Buy Some,” which was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector and released as a single on the Apple label in 1971, with Harrison and Phil Spector splitting production credits. Harrison must have felt the song deserved wider exposure, so he decided to try his hand with it, placing his own vocals atop the instrumental track that was originally cut. It’s not a bad song, but feels somewhat out of place. Coincidentally — or, perhaps not so coincidentally — it’s followed by “The Day the World Gets Round,” which has a Spectoresque sweep.

The album closes, appropriately enough, with “That Is All,” a plaintive love song that caught the fancy of Andy Williams, who recorded it that year for his album “Solitaire,” which was produced by Richard Perry, a Harrison pal who also produced Starr’s album “Ringo” in 1973.

Soon enough, Harrison fell from favor with critics and segments of the record-buying public. Though some of the albums he released later in the 1970s, like “Thirty Three and a Third” and “George Harrison,” are arguably better, “Living in the Material World” was the last point, until “Cloud Nine” 14 years later, that Harrison seemed unassailable.

— Brad Hundt

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Exclusive Preview of Ringo’s ‘Postcards From Paradise’ Album

Here, excerpted from Bill King’s latest Quick Cuts column, is an advance review of Ringo Starr’s “Postcards From Paradise,” which is due for release March 31:

ringo postcards

This latest collection of 11 songs, on which Ringo also has acted as producer, is a very pleasant and enjoyable fellow traveler with his two previous efforts, consisting largely of midtempo rockers that lyrically offer 12-step-worthy tidbits of Ringo’s upbeat philosophy on life, and musically feature some top-notch playing by the celebrated drummer and his friends — including Joe Walsh, Benmont Tench and Peter Frampton, plus his current All Starr Band members, including Steve Lukather and Todd Rundgren.

The thing I like about Ringo producing himself, as he’s done on his three most recent albums, is the organic feel of the recordings, which I find refreshing after years of former producer Mark Hudson’s catchy but sometimes cloying faux-Beatles pop. There’s a comfortable groove to these tracks that makes it sound as if the musicians had a lot of fun making the album.

The downside, though, is this album, like his other recent efforts, misses those earworm musical hooks that were Hudson’s trademark.

The album gets off to a strong start with the fourth installment of Ringo’s ongoing musical autobiography-in-song, a track called “Rory and the Hurricanes.” With its guitars and organ and prominent use of female backing vocalists, the number has a suitably early ’60s feel, as Ringo sings of visiting London with his old band. He namechecks the legendary Two i’s coffeebar and U.K. proto rock star Tommy Steele, but plays it coy when he notes that the next time he hit London, “I was with you know who.”

Also one of the album’s stronger efforts is the next track, “You Bring the Party Down,” on which Ringo appears to be making a sales pitch for clean-living to someone who is “still living off your memories of when you were in the band.” This one is notable for a taste of what sounds like sitar, and for a strong guitar solo.

The momentum falls off a bit with “Bridges,” which offers one of Ringo’s obvious metaphors for dealing with life’s choices (“crossing bridges is the best way to grow”). Not a great tune, but there’s some really stinging guitar work showcased in an extended solo.

Next up is the title track, which Universal sent out as an advance promotional digital “single.” Unfortunately, “Postcards From Paradise” is the album’s weakest song, a plodding rocker on which Ringo and his cohorts have created lyrics by stringing together lots of Beatles and solo Beatle song titles. An example: “And I ain’t going nowhere man / Because I want to hold your hand / It’s like I said the night before / I’ll love you when I’m 64.”

That tells you pretty much all you need to know about it.

(You can watch a “lyric video” for the song here. The video is a lot more clever than the song itself.)

The next chapter in Ringo’s musical testimony for a post-rehab life comes in “Right Side of the Road,” a lyrical cousin of “Bridges.” The musical backing is the highlight, with another extended guitar solo.

Next up are a pair of tracks that are among the album’s best, and it’s worth noting that on both of them Ringo departs a bit from his usual musical formula. “Not Looking Back” is a piano-driven ballad with strings on which Ringo sings about preferring to look forward. It has a nice violin solo. And “Bamboula” is a fun, moderately upbeat number about New Orleans, with some horns and accordion mixed in for Creole-Cajun flavor, along with very danceable percussion. (The title comes from the name of a type of bamboo drum that slaves brought over from Africa.) It’s good enough to make you overlook a few tortured rhymes in the lyrics.

The most notable aspect of the next track, “Island in the Sun,” is that it’s the first time Ringo has recorded with his current All Starr Band. Loping along to an almost-reggae beat and with some tropical-sounding percussion, it is enlivened mainly by its sax solo.

“Touch and Go” is a decent slice of neo mid-’60s rock. Better is “Confirmation,” a slightly upbeat, horn-backed love song about living life with no regrets. As Ringo sings (presumably to wife Barbara), “If I had known then what I know now / I’d do it all again with you anyhow.” He again makes nice use of his female backing vocalists on the title chorus.

The album concludes with “Let Love Lead,” which provides another summing up of Ringo’s philosophy: When in doubt … (see title). This one offers more tasty guitar licks in an extended instrumental portion that closes it out.

All in all, this album is goodtime, unchallenging listening that is no more musically relevant than what any other stars Ringo’s age are doing. But, if you’ve liked his music in the past, I think you’ll enjoy it.

— Bill King

(This review is adapted from one originally sent to Beatlefan/EXTRA! subscribers. For information on how you can receive Beatlefan/EXTRA! and be the first to read such exclusives, just email beatlefanmagazine@gmail.com.)

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Walls and Bridges’

In the latest installment in our exclusive series on solo Beatles albums from the past, Robert Rodriguez, author of “Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll,” takes another look at John Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges,” a work he finds worthy of re-evaluation. …

walls and bridges cover

John Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’ Triumph

“The work of a semi-sick craftsman” — John Lennon, 1980 on 1974’s “Walls and Bridges”

“Half of what I say is meaningless” — John Lennon, 1968 (cribbed from Kahlil Gibran)

“Walls and Bridges” is unique in the Lennon canon as his only post-Beatles musical statement comprised of his own words and music crafted entirely without Yoko Ono at his side.

It therefore merits special attention not only for the music contained within but also because of how it was received and his own regard for it. As to its reception, this much is striking: It was the only Lennon album that topped the U.S. charts and begat a #1 U.S. single — in his lifetime. (The much-loved “Imagine” did not achieve this, and when singles culled from “Double Fantasy” topped charts on either side of the Atlantic, it was under an entirely different circumstance; one John would not have chosen for himself.)

When the creator of “Walls and Bridges” articulated his dismissive assessment six years later, it was in the context of talking up the marvel that was his artistic and romantic partnership with Ono. After five years’ commercial silence, his comeback was about to be released: “Double Fantasy,” a collaborative follow-up to the universally pilloried 1972 joint effort, “Some Time in New York City.” It took a particular amount of nerve, daring or naiveté to deliberately blunt the impact of a certain public welcome by resuming his career pairing with an artist whose appeal had somehow eluded fans thus far. Answering the question, “What was he thinking?” is a subject for another day; what we address here is why his public pronouncements about his last collection of original work were so pointedly negative.

Lennon publicity shot.

Lennon publicity shot.

Some background: Between 1974 and 1980, much had changed in the pop-rock world. As far as John was concerned, the raw, edgy sounds that had been coming out of England for at least the past four years — then in vogue in the clubs of New York — were a sign that Yoko’s time had come, public acceptance-wise. With so much to gain by suggesting her current work showed that the world had caught up with her, John wasted no opportunity in his final round of interviews to talk up Yoko’s artistry, even if it came at the expense of his own. Part and parcel of that clearing-of-the-decks approach was throwing “Walls and Bridges” — the last collection of Lennon songs — under the bus. (That period also saw the release in 1975 of the long-brewing oldies project, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a collection that brought him little more than a series of headaches both during its creation and after its release.)

Indeed, the entire period of their separation would be characterized during the “Double Fantasy” interviews as “the Lost Weekend” — a reference to the 1945 Billy Wilder film starring Ray Milland, detailing a New York writer’s downward spiral in an alcoholic haze. While the episode where John and Harry Nilsson, sailing on Brandy Alexanders, were tossed from the Troubadour club during a Smothers Brothers set caught the public’s imagination, and tales of drunken mayhem during the Phil Spector-produced “Rock ‘n’ Roll” sessions were rife throughout the industry, by the spring of 1974, John had sobered up. He channeled his considerable energies into work on Harry’s “Pussy Cats” album, followed by his own “Walls and Bridges” and then, Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna” sessions. He not only penned the title track, but also gifted Ringo the inspiration and arrangement for a remake of The Platters’ “Only You,” giving the drummer another Top 10 hit.

Out on the town in Hollywood with May Pang.

Out on the town in Hollywood with May Pang.

Implicit but unmentioned during John’s later recounting of this period of his life was the fact that he was romantically involved with former personal assistant May Pang, a woman who encouraged John to re-connect with old friends and peers (as well as rebuild his damaged relationship with his son Julian). Once John got the hard-partying “I’m a bachelor again!” behavior out of his system, he demonstrated seriousness toward his craft and got down to business, belying the 1980 stories of how despondent and incapable of functioning he was without Yoko. That he was capable of producing some of the finest work of his post-Beatles career without his wife’s presence or influence ran counter to the latter-day myth being laid down and therefore had to be swept under the rug.

All told, achievements during this era included releasing two albums under his own name, plus “Pussy Cats” and collaborations with Ringo, Mick Jagger (“Too Many Cooks”), Elton John (a remake of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) and David Bowie (co-writing credit and vocals on “Fame”). The latter two singles went to #1: If this was someone’s idea of a “lost weekend,” all our binges should be so fruitful.

Though he was first among the four Beatles to issue singles with a spin-off act, it took John the longest to score a stateside chart-topper. When it did come, it was aided immeasurably by the presence of the planet’s biggest rock star on co-lead vocals. Elton John’s contributions to the lead-off “Walls and Bridges” single, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” surely helped its chart fortunes, but given how far John had to come back from his last offering – 1973’s anthemic “Mind Games,” which had stalled at #23  — anywhere within the Top 10 was a bonus. The song’s own merits were considerable, Elton or not: Loosely inspired groove-wise by George McCrae’s own 1974 chart-topper, “Rock Your Baby,” John took the title from a late-night TV sermon and turned it into the most exuberant, energetic song he’d issued in this form since 1971’s “Power to the People” — an altogether different animal. From (the late) Bobby Keys’ opening sax wail to the juked-up piano banging by Elton heard in the song’s fade, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” revealed its maker’s dormant command of the hit single, an art form he’d sought to master from his earliest days as a songwriter.

From "Walls and Bridges."

From “Walls and Bridges.”

It offered a taste of the thematic unity that followed in the parent elpee: like Frank Sinatra’s series of concept releases throughout the 1950s, John had assembled a collection of material roughly unified around an adult premise — in this case, coming to grips with one’s maturation while letting go of one’s youthful abandon. “Walls and Bridges” contains songs of morning-after dissipation (“What You Got”), ruminations on love lost (“Going Down on Love,” “Bless You”), wistful nostalgia (“#9 Dream”), newfound romance (“Surprise Surprise”) and betrayal (“Steel and Glass”). Two pleasant but lightweight placeholders space out the weightier material: the subdued Harry Nilsson co-write on Side 1, “Old Dirt Road,” and the funky instrumental on Side 2, “Beef Jerky.” This latter song offers something for Beatle trainspotters: a central guitar motif that echoes the riff Paul wrote “Let Me Roll It” around. Recall: that was the “Band on the Run” track many saw as his gentle closure to the tit-for-tat feuding going back-and-forth on alternate McCartney and Lennon releases throughout 1971. With “Let Me Roll It,” Paul offered a spot-on impression of Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon; “Beef Jerky” comes off like a subtle “message received, Paul” reply.

The album’s two side-closers (excepting Side 2’s “Ya Ya” coda) serve as the collection’s thematic  keystones: “Scared” and “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).” Though presented here with the production gloss befitting someone striving to make his most personal statements accessible, either composition could’ve easily fit on the stark “Plastic Ono Band” album, being direct windows into John’s inner life, nearly bereft of metaphor. “Scared” is self-explanatory: an admission of fear stirred by awareness of loss in life’s ongoing battles. He is weary but not defeated, and the recognition that this will be a constant going forward resolves itself with resigned determination (“Steady, babe!”).

“Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)” — its title evoking the blues standard “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” — is not exactly the exercise in maudlin self-pity that one might conclude. The first song written for the album, John was at his lowest point in the wake of the disastrous “Rock ‘n’ Roll” sessions when he began pulling himself up and out of his existential crisis. But his companion during this odyssey, May Pang, records that the song began life as a sort of send-up of the once popular entertainer, now bottoming out, as depicted in any number of films. That people would read it as a take on himself, given the headlines of drunken escapades in Los Angeles reported earlier that year, was one valid interpretation, but the one John preferred was as a big, Vegas-styled closing number for — to circle back to the earlier comparison — Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra's themed albums provided a template (knowing or not) for Lennon's approach.

Frank Sinatra’s themed albums provided a template (knowing or not) for Lennon’s approach.

It was Frank who’d produced those thematic Capitol albums (1955’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” particularly) a generation earlier that served as — consciously or not — a sort of template for “Walls and Bridges.” John’s song cycle wasn’t as narrowly focused as Frank’s had been, but the theme expressed here carried enough of that after-the-party mood and reflection in the wake of romantic loss to appreciate the similitude. On that latter subject, “Bless You” — not so explicit as to call out Yoko by name — remains one of John’s finest love songs largely because it’s not marred by the specificity that stifles universal appeal. Additionally, it expresses a mature perspective beyond what had become his somewhat predictable songs of devotion or apology to his now-estranged wife. While lamenting their parting, it also reassured that the love between them would always be. For a man accustomed to expressing himself in explicitly black-and-white terms, the unresolved ambiguity was striking.

Lest anyone forget John had been a Beatle, the album’s second hit single — the lovely “#9 Dream,” with its tasteful arrangement and somnambulistic vibe (evocative of John’s earlier “I’m Only Sleeping”) — reminded listeners that politics and Yoko paeans aside, he was still capable of crafting timeless, memorable melodies with the best of them. While relentlessly engaging, it also possessed a fragile beauty, supported by a string arrangement he’d first tried out on Nilsson’s cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross.” (Pang, occupying the muse slot in John’s life once held exclusively by Yoko, made an appearance here, calling out “John” like some kind of ghostly apparition. In the revisionist music video produced years later by Yoko, May was, of course, supplanted visually.)

The other partner John may have felt moved to publicly make amends with at this juncture was Paul McCartney. Relations between the two estranged ex-Beatles were warmer that year than at any time since 1968, and every opportunity to spend time together was taken when they found themselves in the same place in 1974. Aside from the subtle musical response noted above that John may have purposely crafted, “Steel and Glass” can be seen as another positive peace-making move directed toward Paul, being what was widely regarded as a slam at the man who’d been Paul’s nemesis from the start, Allen Klein. The fact that its horn and string arrangement was particularly evocative of “How Do You Sleep” — the ill-conceived character assassination directed at Paul on 1971’s “Imagine” album  — could not have escaped anyone with ears. The song may have been John’s attempt at a mea culpa, however oblique.

From the promotional campaign.

From the promotional campaign.

Promotion of “Walls and Bridges” throughout the fall of ’74 saw John in a good place, no matter how great the depths he’d started the year in. As heard in numerous interviews on radio and TV, he was relaxed and warm, speaking fondly of the past and positively of the future. The hectoring, irritable and defensive tone often heard in conversations up till now was replaced by something approaching the John of old: at peace with himself and his Beatle legacy. Maybe within the mindset of competition he’d had for years toward Paul and his work, he felt he’d at last reached parity: the milestone of a #1 single, plus a #1 album putting him on par with the successes Wings had had for two straight years.

It may have been this that led him to conclude it was possible to work with Paul again — as equals — and from a position of strength. Anecdotal evidence suggests John was sounding out opinion on whether others thought it was a good idea. He must have concluded that it was worth exploring, given the plans that were made to join Paul in New Orleans in early 1975 as Wings were at work on “Venus and Mars.” However, the ending of John’s estrangement from Yoko lowered the boom on the scheduled visit.

“Walls and Bridges” does not readily lend itself to the label “classic” in the way that “All Things Must Pass,” “Band on the Run” or “Plastic Ono Band” do. Unlike those releases, it did not make (or appear to make) a “grand statement.” But what it did do was showcase a mature artist on an upward arc. John’s solo output to this point had swung wildly from the personal (“Plastic Ono Band”) to the political (“Some Time in New York City”) to somewhere in between (“Imagine”). “Mind Games,” marred by — in some instances — subpar material (“Only people know just how to change the world …”) and a rushed production, represented a step in the right direction. It reined in the more misguided impulses while showcasing what had been his traditional strengths: passionate, soulful vocals; superlative melodies, and lyrics that took the personal and made it universal.

After a false start with “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” John regained his groove and consolidated all his skills. “Pussy Cats” gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his production and arranging chops, while the nurturing influence of Pang helped him regain his confidence. The songs he wrote for “Walls and Bridges” represented a return to form — the lack of anthemic statements some had grown accustomed to expect from him did not diminish the smaller themes. The collection brims with energy, conviction and the explicit presentation of an artist revealing his innermost feelings while trying, without pandering, to make that message as appealing as possible. It was an album one could enjoy on one level for the sonic pleasures it provided (you could dance to a good portion of it!); on another for marking a return to Lennon songcraft — that sweet spot he’d hit back on “Rubber Soul.”

It pointed the way to better things in 1975, even if the unfulfilled get-together with his former songwriting partner didn’t amount to anything more than a one-off. (Before reconciling with Yoko and unexpectedly finding himself about to become a father again, John had begun crafting songs for a follow-up to “Walls and Bridges,” tentatively to be titled “Between the Lines.” Demos laid down around this time were later re-purposed into material for “Double Fantasy,” notably “Watching the Wheels.”)

What’s important to know about the Lennon of this time, contrary to self-spun myth generated to serve a later agenda, was that he was fully in control of his craft, producing songs that recalled his talents before the effects of heavy drug use and psychological damage had taken his art in another direction. He was on a roll and at the top of his game; his ex-Beatle cachet eroded by this time, “Walls and Bridges” was a success on its own merits.

It warrants a second listen today, to let audiences judge for themselves what a semi-sick craftsman can do when unencumbered by a none-too-subtly projected message.

— Robert Rodriguez

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Kanye-Rihanna-Gaga: What’s at the root of negative fan reaction?

Did you think some of the negative fan reaction to Paul McCartney working with Kanye West and Rihanna and even Lady Gaga was a bit over-the-top? Why do you think that was? Al Sussman addresses that question in this thought-provoking new article exclusive to SOMETHING NEW …

The cover of the single, "FourFive Seconds."

The cover of the single, “FourFive Seconds.”

I’m writing this on the morning after the Grammy Awards telecast, amid all of the post-show analysis of around-two-dozen musical numbers in the show. Among those performances announced in advance was a live debut of “FourFiveSeconds,” a Top 10 collaboration between the R&B/pop star Rihanna and hip-hop headline-maker/celebrity husband Kanye West, with accompaniment from one Paul McCartney. It became the most successful “single” carrying the name Paul McCartney since his last Top 10 single, “Spies Like Us,” in 1986.

That followed the recent release of a McCartney-West collaboration, “Only One,” a Top 40 hit.

Macca and Lady Gaga.

Macca and Lady Gaga.

And, just a few days before his Grammy appearance, Lady Gaga announced that she is also involved with a studio project of McCartney’s.

One would think that all of this involvement with 21st century pop luminaries would produce a good deal of excitement among Paul’s fandom. But, at least on social media, it’s been quite the opposite.

On two recent episodes of “Things We Said Today,” the Beatles news-history discussion podcast, my fellow panelists and I ruminated about this strange reaction. The Grammy show and post-show reaction is going to produce more discussion between us.

To put it succinctly, elements of McCartney’s core fandom, at least those who use social media, have reacted to these collaborations — especially in the case of Kanye and Rhianna — as if Paul’s going to catch hip-hop cooties from working with them. The response hasn’t all been negative, and the social media critics may not be reflective of the feelings of McCartney fandom overall, but a vocal cross-section is quite unhappy with his decision to work outside of his musical milieu.

Some of this, of course, is generational. Much of McCartney’s fandom is made up of people who, on average, are now older than our parents were 51 years ago this week as they scowled and tut-tutted while we watched The Beatles’ live American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” These fans are taking on the same sort of narrow viewpoint.

From the video for "FourFive Seconds."

From the video for “FourFive Seconds.”

They don’t listen to any current pop music and many take the attitude that “today’s music sucks” without having heard any of it. All they know about Kanye or Rhianna or Gaga is the negative media coverage they get — in Kanye’s case, much of it self-inflicted (see his post-Grammy show comments about Beck winning Album of the Year) — so they’re not going to look favorably on McCartney working with acts they perceive to be inferior to him.

However, there’s also more than a bit of musical racism going on here. That sizable older portion of McCartney’s core audience had no problem with Paul working with black pop stars Stevie Wonder and the pre-Wacko Jacko Michael Jackson in the early ‘80s. But they do seem to have a problem with him venturing into the world of hip-hop.

Many social media commenters have refused to listen to “Only One” for no other reason than it’s a Kanye West recording. Again, he’s a lightning rod, due to his celebrity and self-aggrandizing public persona, but some also have refused to listen to “FourFiveSeconds,” despite the fact that Rihanna has more natural talent than West and the song is more immediately accessible. Indeed, the general reaction to the Grammy performance of “FourFiveSeconds” had very little to do with the song itself, but instead dealt mainly with whether McCartney’s mic was on, since no one seemed to able to hear him in the mix.

But there were also comments about McCartney lowering his standards to be onstage with these “hip-hop no talents.”

Macca onstage at the Grammys with Rihanna and Kanye West.

Macca onstage at the Grammys with Rihanna and Kanye West.

And, make no mistake, this racism is not limited to music. The same types who make vile comments about the mixed-race president of the United States aim similar comments at celebrity hip-hoppers like Kanye and Rihanna.

But most of the disapproval appears to be stylistic, rather than race-based, with the target being hip-hop. Many in that older portion of McCartney’s core constituency are not fans of alternative rock bands like Foo Fighters and even fewer were fans of Nirvana in the ‘90s salad days of grunge. Yet, I’ve heard very few, if any, fans complain about McCartney’s work over the past couple of years with Dave Grohl, including the 2012 semi-reunion of Nirvana. It’s been suggested that Grohl has the persona of a classic rocker and that may account for the easy acceptance of him as a collaborator with McCartney. Also, the harder-to-musically-categorize Lady Gaga has yet to receive much in the way of scorn for her announcement that she’s working with Paul since the never-satisfied segment of Beatles fandom has been too busy obsessing over Paul’s foray into what they perceive as hip-hop land.

Anyone familiar with the entirety of McCartney’s career knows that he’s prone to exploring various musical forms, and while neither “Only One” nor “FourFiveSeconds” falls in the realm of true hip-hop, it remains to be seen what will come out of his ongoing collaboration with West.

But, given the morning-after slagging Kanye took in the wake of his Grammy night, McCartney fandom isn’t likely to be much more receptive to him in the future.

The never-satisfieds are likely to have plenty pf grist for the mill in the coming weeks.

— Al Sussman

 

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PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

We’re pleased to present the second installment in a new series of articles exclusive to the SOMETHING NEW blog, in which some of our writers re-evaluate solo Beatles albums from the past. This issue, Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman takes another run at Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt,” which he initially dismissed in 1989 as “just pleasant.” On listening again, he now finds that it’s an album that is aging quite nicely. …

flowers in dirt cover

Hard as it is to believe, November 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of Paul McCartney embarking on his first American tour since 1976. That tour was preceded a few months by a 12-song collection (13 on the original CD) “Flowers in the Dirt,” his first studio album of original material since 1986’s “Press to Play.”

This is actually the third time I’ve explored “Flowers in the Dirt” for Beatlefan. In the June-July 1989 issue of the magazine, I basically gave the album the back of my hand, dismissing it as being “just pleasant.” Indeed, my review was so dismissive that Bill King chimed in with a counterpoint that, while admitting this was one of McCartney’s “least rocking efforts,” rated “Flowers” as Paul’s “most satisfying work since 1982’s ‘Tug of War.’” Some 13 ½ years later, in the Nov.-Dec. 2002 issue, I took a look back at “Flowers” and 1993’s “Off the Ground,” largely within the context of the studio albums that preceded what were, at that point in time, McCartney’s most recent tours.

That means it’s been a dozen years since my last assessment of “Flowers,” and McCartney has hardly been off the road since then. But he hasn’t played a note from the album since the 1989-90 tour, and it’s been largely forgotten by all but Paul’s hardcore constituency.
So how does “Flowers in the Dirt” fare, better than a quarter-century after its first release?

Actually, it’s aged quite nicely, thank you. The complaints that some of us made about a lack of direction owing to the multi-producer format McCartney used has been rendered moot because many well-known acts since have gone that route, including McCartney, who used four producers on his generally well-received 2013 album, “New.”

macca 89Of course, the 1989 album’s best-remembered track was “My Brave Face,” one of four collaborations with Elvis Costello on “Flowers” and a U.S. Top 25 single, McCartney’s last one to date. It still pops up occasionally in a store via satellite radio or digital music services and is as catchy and delightful a listen as it was in 1989.

Of the three other McCartney-Costello tunes, “You Want Her Too,” with its Paul-Elvis lyrical conversation, and “That Day Is Done,” featuring Nicky Hopkins’ stately keyboard work, are still quite effective. “Don’t Be Careless Love,” not so much.

By now, we’ve gotten used to McCartney’s meanderings into various musical genres. In 1989, though, his expeditions into classical, ambient dance forms, etc. lay ahead. His core audience was still reeling from the synth-laden tracks on “Press to Play,” so the appearance here of the stripped-down, bluesy “Rough Ride” and jazzy “Distractions” took some getting used to. They’re not overly memorable, but they also don’t sound as dated as does so much of “Press to Play.”

Neither does “Motor of Love,” which still conjures up the ’70s Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s post-Beach Boys work, though that was just beginning when “Flowers in the Dirt” first appeared. Also, “Ou Est Le Soleil,” the “bonus” track on the original 1989 CD, was one of the first indications of the dance music experiments that would be a considerable part of the McCartney musical palette over the next quarter century.

The reggae-driven message song “How Many People” was less of a musical shock to the system, since McCartney’s love of reggae and Caribbean sounds could be traced all the way back to his Beatles days. It’s a lovely song, but unfortunately has fallen victim to the same cynicism that has eliminated as massive a hit as 1982’s “Ebony and Ivory” from radio airplay in the 21st century.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

The McCartney band circa 1989.

Then there’s “We Got Married,” which has all the slow-building elements of a classic rock track, including lead guitar from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Indeed, it became the arena/stadium “heavy” first set number in the 1989-90 tour shows, the only time that “Let Me Roll It” hasn’t held that spot since it was first done live on the 1975-76 Wings world tour.

The three remaining songs from the original “Flowers” album would be included in the set list for the 1989-90 world tour.

The lovely “Put It There,” inspired by Paul’s dad, would be a popular part of the mid-show acoustic set on that tour and retains its charm and warmth.

“This One” is a typical, totally accessible McCartney earworm that still pops up from time to time on Beatles radio shows.

And “Figure of Eight” would be the show-opener on the ’89-’90 tour, the last time that a non-Beatles or Wings favorite would serve as a McCartney concert opener. However, the “peace and love/get together” theme of the song has rendered it unfashionable in these cynical times, so it rarely gets a call, even on those Beatles radio shows. And, when “Figure of Eight” is played, it’s usually either the subsequent single version or the live recording from the ’89-’90 tour document, “Tripping the Live Fantastic,” rather than the seemingly unfinished “Flowers” version.

Overall, 25 years later, “Flowers in the Dirt” is an interesting reflection of a transitional period in McCartney’s career and, in retrospect, it does indeed stand with “Tug of War” as McCartney’s only fully-realized album projects of the ’80s.

— Al Sussman

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