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Lennon's Music: A Range of Genius

December 7, 2010 12:10 PM ET
Lennon's Music: A Range of Genius
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

The night after John Lennon was murdered, I happened to attend the Broadway musical Evita. At the curtain call, the show's star, Patti LuPone, asked for a moment of silence for the slain ex-Beatle. Other than as a simple gesture of respect, it surprised me at first. While I couldn't think of a single rock & roll genre — from the most conservative crooning to the most radical punk rock — that hadn't drawn a good deal of inspiration from Lennon, I didn't quite understand this tribute from the Great White Way. Bruce Springsteen launching into a turbulent "Twist and Shout" from a Philadelphia stage that same night made perfect sense. But Evita? As I stood there, I began to realize the extent of John Lennon's artistic influence — that, even on Broadway (whose aesthetics are, for the most part, diametrically opposite every-thing Lennon stood for), he'd made some kind of mark that would not or could not be forgotten. Indeed, without Lennon's early and bold fusion of politics and pop, a play like Evita, in which Che Guevara is a major character, probably wouldn't exist. Truly, the man's stamp was everywhere.

Photos: John & Yoko: A New York Love Story

More than any other rock musician (with the possible exception of Bob Dylan), John Lennon personalized the political and politicized the personal, often making the two stances interchangeable but sometimes ripping out the seams altogether. Whereas Dylan expressed his personal and political iconoclasm mainly by expanding and exploding the narrative line (thus forcing the melody to accommodate a torrent of language and imagery), Lennon assaulted pop music from a dozen different directions. He not only attacked the war — any war — but questioned and confronted the very methods and structures he'd utilized in his attack, thereby pushing rock & roll up against the wall to test limits and demand answers. John Lennon believed passionately that popular music could and should do more than merely entertain, and by acting out this conviction, he changed the face of rock & roll forever. By taking such huge risks, he sometimes failed or seemed silly. Yet, in retrospect, even his failures take on the glow of nobility: the fact that he cared so much shines through his occasional shortcomings.

This article appears in the January 22nd, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

From the first, it was apparent to anyone with ears that both Lennon and the Beatles were originals. There was a big difference between the tunes they wrote and the Fifties rock classics they covered. "Please Please Me," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," et al., broke the rules of rock & roll's basic I-IV-V chordal mode with a jaunty casualness. John Lennon's unique sense of humor and intellectual keenness quickly revealed themselves, and his love of wordplay, puns and storybook nonsense became one of the Beatles' most cherished traits. Indeed, no modern songwriter brought such a spontaneous playfulness to pop lyrics. Lines like "Looking through the bent backed tulips" and "Fixing a hole in the ocean" (from "Glass Onion") could only have come from Lennon. But he did far more than fool around: when he put his mind to it, he could be a first-rate musical traditionalist (e.g., "In My Life," an incredibly direct and moving expression of friendship, and "Don't Let Me Down," that most stunningly sexual of love songs).

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Frank Zappa was probably as important as the Beatles in pioneering the sonic montage, but John Lennon created such memorable examples of the form — the tone poems "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus," for instance — that he practically owned it. While these compositions boasted recognizable melodies and lyrics, conventional song structures were generally shelved in favor of a more cinematic flow. Though aural montage soon gave way to newer experiments, Lennon's work in that area became the linchpin for the "free-form" and "progressive" FM-radio formats that lasted well into the Seventies. Songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever" changed the way we heard rock & roll by seducing us into listening through the surface to the secret meanings lurking below. Often, these "meanings" were synergetic sonic nuances that blended words and music into something that flirted with both but embraced neither.

Photos: "John Lennon: The New York City Years" Comes to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex

 

The Beatles — more commonly known as The White Album — displayed the full range of Lennon's exploratory talents better than any other Beatles record. "Back in the U.S.S.R." was great, straight-ahead rock & roll with a subversive twist (Chuck Berry goes Communist!), while "Julia," a plaintive acoustic number about Lennon's mother, quietly broke your heart. The ferocious "Yer Blues" sounded near-suicidal. "Revolution 9," the band's wildest collage, remains one of the decade's most terrifying pop artifacts — an aural litmus of unfocused paranoia. Many of Lennon's White Album tunes sardonically addressed issues: the hippie dream world ("Glass Onion"), gun toting ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill") and the group's short-term involvement with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ("Sexy Sadie"). More important, however, The White Album found John Lennon juggling two roles — major rock composer-performer and serious media artist (i.e., someone who uses his fame as part of his art) — that, by their very nature, threatened to cancel each other out. Lennon would spend the rest of his life trying to reconcile these philosophies.

In November of 1968, the same month The White Album was released, John Lennon and his new love, Yoko Ono, issued the first of their experimental, tapebuzz LPs, Unfinished Music No. 1 — Two Virgins. While the cover art — a photo of John and Yoko naked — was deemed scandalous by many, the record itself was the epitome of sweet, even shy, courtship. Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969) was painful, dealing in part with Ono's miscarriage. The couple's third collaboration, Wedding Album (1969), again included sonic collage, with the newlyweds speaking each other's name against a background of amplified heartbeats. Because of her avantgarde singing, Ono took quite a critical beating for these LPs. (Nowadays, she sounds positively New Wave, and her influence has been obvious on such contemporary rockers as Lene Lovich and the B-52's.) Throughout the attacks on his wife's talent and her "screeching" vocal style, Lennon demonstrated love, loyalty and a strong belief in both Yoko and her commitment to conceptual art. He was committed, too. Admittedly, Two Virgins, Life with the Lions and Wedding Album were somewhat maddening and clearly not for everybody. Still, they were an important formative ingredient in John Lennon's career as a non-Beatle. To offhandedly dismiss them is stupid.

On The Plastic Ono Band — Live Peace in Toronto 1969, Lennon, backed by a powerful pickup group that included guitarist Eric Clapton, reasserted his allegiance to rock & roll. Side one contained potent oldies ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Money," "Dizzy Miss Lizzie"), a slashing version of "Yer Blues" and fiery live renditions of two singles from this period. Bleak and scary, "Cold Turkey" knocked you down, while the antiwar chant, "Give Peace a Chance," Lennon's first and most stirring piece of street music, picked you up again. Side two consisted of two lengthy performances by Yoko Ono. In early 1970, "Instant Karma!," a pounding, Phil Spector-produced single, featured Lennon at his aphoristic best. Here, he turned the pop cliché that everyone's a star into a rousing, prolife anthem.

Later that same year, Lennon released his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a primal-scream shocker whose songs seemed to emerge directly from the therapy he had recently undergone. Critic Greil Marcus wrote of the LP: "The record was a full, blistering statement of fury, resentment and self-pity, and Lennon's proof that the true power of rock as music is to be found in stripping it as bare as primal therapy was supposed to strip the soul. Thus there was virtually no instrumentation beyond a primal rock band composed of Lennon on rough lead guitar, Ringo [Starr] on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass and Billy Preston's occasional keyboards: boards: the music didn't cut, it bit.... John's singing on the last verse of 'God' may be the finest in all of rock."

Despite — or may be because of — its monumental self-centeredness and the fact that it confronted a specific moment of pop cultural history, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was the artist's greatest album. The tunes had a stark eloquence that perfectly matched the lyrics' painful exorcism, and the raw emotions were as universal as they were frighteningly basic. The singer's furious howls of frustration in "Mother," "Well Well Well" and "Isolation" gave no quarter and had no precedent in rock & roll. Almost every track offered a shot of adrenalin. "God," a towering refutation of counter-cultural idealism and the idea of omniscient leaders, delivered the coup de grâce to the Beatles mystique with the shattering admission, "The dream is over." Perhaps the LP's best song was the Dylan-esque acoustic ballad, "Working Class Hero." This brutally tight-lipped put-down of the socialization process transcended even the issues of class with which it so fervently dealt. Still, there was tenderness, sadness and maybe envy here: one got the feeling that John Lennon wanted to be a working-class hero, but that his money and celebrity had now made it impossible. And the line, "Love is wanting to be loved" (subsequently adopted from Lennon's "Love" by Stevie Wonder for his Songs in the Key of Life), was both innocent and touching in its vulnerability.

 

An anomaly in rock history, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has never really been imitated, though it set off reverberations that affected such disparate genres as the singer/songwriter school of confession and the punk-rock blast of the late Seventies. To call the disc a masterpiece is not an overstatement.

Imagine (1971) didn't cut to the bone like its predecessor, but it was an excellent record. Lennon had pictured himself as an orphan of every kind on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. On Imagine, his utopian yearnings resurfaced, and he no longer sounded quite so isolated. True, there were bitter moments ("Gimme Some Truth" and the notorious attack on Paul McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?"), but the artist's petulance was far outweighed by his sweetness and his overriding love for his wife. Many of the compositions — "Oh Yoko!," "Oh, My Love," "Jealous Guy," "How?" — were written to her. If I had to pick one song that represented the finest aspects of John Lennon, I'd choose "Imagine," in which he asked us to share his vision of an idyllic world, with no religious, material or political boundaries. Even more than "Instant Karma!," "Imagine" was a wonderful fusion of pop music and conceptual art. As I listen to its simple folk melody, its gently rippling piano and Lennon's ethereal vocal, I find it hard not to get carried away by the power and magic of this rationalist's irrational yet beautiful dream of hope.

Unfortunately, Imagine was followed by Some Time in New York City (1972), a disastrous double album of simplistic sloganeering (Lennon and Ono with the leftist bar band, Elephant's Memory) and senseless live jamming (Frank Zappa was among the players). Lennon's early wit and gift for aphorisms had temporarily turned into agitprop rhetoric that numbed the mind. Though its intentions were noble, Some Time in New York City just didn't work.

While neither Mind Games (1973) not Walls and Bridges (1974), Lennon's last two LPs of original material before his five-year withdrawal from the pop life, broke new ground, each contained its share of tunefulness and humor. "Mind Games" restated the ideas of "Imagine," but more didactically. The message was simple yet compelling: believing that something good can happen — e.g., peace on earth — is the first and most essential step in the process of making it happen. In the record's other highlight, the rockabilly novelty, "Tight A$," the singer reprised the cheeky, strutting style of some of his later-day Beatles rockers.

On much of Walls and Bridges, the mood was darker, undoubtedly because of the Lennons' marital problems at the time. A lot of the pain of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band welled up again in "Going Down on Love," "Nobody Loves You (when You're Down and Out)" and "Scared." Still, Walls and Bridges produced two hits, "#9 Dream" and a duet with Elton John, "Whatever Gets You thru the Night." Both were well-crafted pop tunes, the first strongly reminiscent of Lennon's great psychedelic ballad, "Across the Universe."

A collection of oldies and a moving attempt by Lennon to rediscover his rock roots, Rock 'n Roll (released in 1975 but recorded earlier than Walls and Bridges) never really caught fire. At times, Lennon's singing was as fierce and fine as ever — "Be-Bop-a-Lula." "Ain't That a Shame" and "Slippin' and Slidin'" stand out — but the effort was undermined by bloated arrangements, sluggish playing and poor production.

Shaved Fish (1975) was a compilation of singles from 1969 through 1975. As one would expect, "Give Peace a Chance," "Cold Turkey," "Instant Karma!," "Power to the People" and "Imagme" sounded especially good.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono's return to recording picks up where Imagine's tone of romantic celebration left off. Subtitled "A Heart Play," Double Fantasy consists of fourteen songs (seven by each singer), sequenced his-and-hers style as a dialogue on the (mostly) blissful state of their marriage and parenthood. Lennon's strongest numbers — "(Just like) Starting Over" and "I'm Losing You' — are characteristically terse, rooted in Fifties rock & roll and decorated with Beatles-type sound effects. Ono's compositions include the catchy "Kiss Kiss Kiss" and the charmingly flighty "I'm Your Angel" (in which she sounds like Marlene Dietrich singing "Makin' Whoopee"!).

On Double Fantasy, Lennon seems calm, confident and content. For the first time in ages, he doesn't appear driven to deliver a major statement — so, naturally, he does. In the LP's masterpiece, "Watching the Wheels," John Lennon tells us exactly why he stopped making music, why he never regretted that decision and how he looks at life: "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round/I really love to watch them roll/No longer riding on the merry-go-round/I just had to let it go."

Though it's somewhat slight, Double Fantasy is a wonderfully warm album. The docile domesticity that Lennon celebrates has become the utopia he'd dreamed of in "Imagine." And, of course, the act of publicly evoking his and Yoko Ono's personal joy is itself a political and aesthetic statement. The fact that they share the record equally embodies the couple's deeply felt sexual politics, as does Lennon's description of himself as a happy househusband in "Cleanup Time." The secret of true and lasting love, these songs seem to suggest, is the cultivation of a childlike coziness, trust and intimacy. This intimacy has apparently salved most of Lennon's private wounds, since he expresses almost no anger here.

"All you need is love," John Lennon proclaimed thirteen years ago, and Double Fantasy finally finds him comfortable with those words. As events proved, however, even love doesn't stop bullets. In Lennon's heartbreaking lullaby to his son, "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," he promises: "Close your eyes/Have no fear/The monster's gone/He's on the run and your daddy's here." But the monster hadn't gone. He was standing in the shadows, waiting to strike down one of the greatest men of this or any other time.

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