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. …
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.
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”).
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”).
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 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.
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