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. …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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