John Lennon

      John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970; Capitol, 2000)
     Imagine (1971; Capitol, 2000)
     Mind Games (1973; Capitol, 2002)
    Walls and Bridges (Apple/Capitol, 1974)
     Rock 'n' Roll (Apple/Capitol, 1975)
    Shaved Fish (Apple/Capitol, 1975)
    Menlove Avenue (Capitol, 1986)
    John Lennon Live in New York City (Capitol, 1986)
     Lennon (Capitol, 1990)
      Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon (Capitol, 1997)
    John Lennon Anthology (Capitol, 1998)
     Wonsaponatime (Capitol, 1998)
    The U.S. vs. John Lennon (soundtrack)
(Capitol, 2006)

with Yoko Ono     Some Time in New York City (Apple, 1972)
     Double Fantasy (1980; Capitol, 2000)
     Milk and Honey (Geffen, 1984)
   Wedding Album (Rykodisc, 1997)
   Unfinished Music Vol. 1: Two Virgins (Rykodisc, 1997)
  Unfinished Music Vol. 2: Life With the Lions (Rykodisc, 1997)

The shorthand assessment of Lennon as the tough rock genius and McCartney as the sweet pop craftsman has always seemed facile (and unfair to Paul). But with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon brutally, brilliantly, and definitively underlined the differences between himself and his ex-Beatle brother. "Love" is one of John's prettiest songs, and "Look at Me" is all fragile yearning, but the rest isn't just antipop; rather, it's rock & roll as Lennon always understood it: anger, catharsis, deliverance. One of the most demanding albums ever made, Plastic Ono Band is also one of the finest—singing with more verve than he'd mustered since the Beatles' "Money," his urgency encouraged by primal scream therapy with Arthur Janov, Lennon bares his soul. The trio lineup—John on guitar and piano, Ringo on drums, and longtime Beatle ally Klaus Voorman on bass—keeps the playing fierce, spare, and commanding; the force is helped greatly by Phil Spector's vast, echoing production. "God," "Remember," and "Isolation" find John unburdening himself of an exhausting, mythic past and seeking—through harsh, nihilistic exhilaration—release. "Well, Well, Well" and "I Found Out" are tougher rock than nearly anything released before the Sex Pistols; "Mother" is painful, lovely, and spine-chilling. And with "Working Class Hero" Lennon shucks off his gigantic stardom and reclaims the black-leather spirit of his Liverpool youth.

After the focused intensity of Plastic Ono Band came the much steadier Imagine. The title track is perhaps Lennon's most popular song, but there are plenty of other highlights, including "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die" and "Gimme Some Truth." The famous savaging of Paul, "How Do You Sleep?," however, is John at his nastiest.

Some Time in New York City is a not-bad rocking collaboration with the capable band Elephant's Memory; the ponderous lyrics, about the Attica prison riots, feminism, and Angela Davis, are far below Lennon's standard. On Mind Games—distinguished primarily by its sweeping, Spector-ish title track—John rocked tough in places, but it's mainly a holding pattern. From Walls and Bridges, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," a duet with Elton John, gained Lennon his only Number One hit; even better is "#9 Dream," a heavily atmospheric number boasting cool cellos and fine singing.

Critically derided as a step backward, Rock 'n' Roll in fact offers delights for those true believers who share Lennon's lifelong insistence that early rock is the only music that really matters. Another Spector production, its standouts include takes on "Ain't That a Shame," "Just Because," and "Stand by Me." Its lack of forced fever ultimately only makes the record stronger—John lends dignity to these classics; his singing is tender, convincing, and fond.

Lennon had always insisted that he and Yoko were artistic equals. While Yoko had achieved distinction on her own as an avant-gardist, Double Fantasy, released just three weeks before Lennon was shot dead by Mark David Chapman, comes close to redeeming Lennon's claim on the pop front. John's "Starting Over," with its easy, Fats Domino–like roll, as well as "Watching the Wheels" and "Woman" are the highlights, and Yoko sounds better than she ever did. But this development took time, as the three formerly rare LPs reissued by Rykodisc show in abundance. Rather than the inert "avant-garde" conceptual sound pieces, the real subjects of these albums are the private art games of John and Yoko. If you are obsessed with the couple, enjoy. Most will settle for a glance at the once-scandalous cover of Two Virgins.

Much of Lennon's Eighties posthumous releases—the six Lennon songs on Milk and Honey, the raucous 1972 concert that makes up Live—are good but unspectacular. A bracing exception is the second half of Menlove Avenue, containing live and Walls and Bridges cuts starkly stripped of Spector's overkill production. It's Lennon as punky minimalist, although the first half is one of his soggiest. Those who come across unfamiliar Lennon albums should be careful to avoid the many all-interview releases out there.

The four-CD Lennon Anthology is a beat-the-bootlegs miscellany of studio and home rehearsals, live performances, alternate versions, jokes, and bits of dialogue with Yoko and Sean. The devoted need it, but few others will play it often. The overlooked Wonsaponatime, however, is the most magical Lennon release in many years, as it culls 21 potent or fascinating tracks from Anthology. Highlights include "I'm Losing You" with backup by Cheap Trick, "Real Love" (the demo that became the final "new" Beatles track after the other members of the band worked on it), and "Serve Yourself," a slap at born-again Bob Dylan in which Lennon is both caustic and witty. Shaved Fish is a good, though brief, best-of, but Lennon Legend, at least the third try at a single-disc overview, is flawless if a single album is all you need. The 74 songs that make up the Lennon box set constitute a comprehensive summary, while the The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a grab-bag soundtrack to a documentary.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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