John Lennon’s solo career was as rich and turbulent as his years in the Beatles, a whirl of hits, adventure and emotional crisis. On the 30th anniversary of his passing and in conjunction with Rolling Stone‘s landmark publication of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” – Jonathan Cott’s epic interview just days before Lennon’s death – here are twenty tracks from the official studio albums that deserve extra limelight.
“Hold On,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970
Even as he swore “I don’t believe in Beatles,” on his solo debut, Lennon drew from that body of brilliance, as a bridge into the record’s raw confessions. This brief diamond opens with a melancholy run on tremolo guitar, echoing the R&B sigh of “Don’t Let Me Down,” his ’69 B-side to “Get Back.” The lyrics are a simple prescription, sung with comforting poise – a rare moment of assurance on a record wracked with pain and self-discovery.
“Remember,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970
Lennon charged back to the dashed ideals of childhood and abandonment by his father (“Remember how the man/Used to leave you empty handed/Always, always let you down”) with stark fistfuls of Little Richard-like piano across Ringo Starr’s strident beat. The cryptic reference at the end to “the 5th of November” – the British holiday Guy Fawkes Day – with an A-bomb-like explosion was Lennon having a last laugh: recalling a teenage prank involving his Quarrymen pal Pete Shotton and a bonfire that got out of control.
“Isolation,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970
Amid the blunt pronoucements about maternal need, renounced faith and eternal love for his wife and creative partner, Yoko Ono, unleashed by the couple’s experiences in primal-scream therapy, “Isolation” was Lennon at his most afraid, confronting his post-Beatle freedom with paranoia and insecurity. It’s “Help” without the electric-guitar chime, stripped to the barest piano gestures and, right before the bridge, a silence broken only by Ringo Starr’s kick-drum thump, sounding like the loudest heartbeat in the world.
“Crippled Inside,” Imagine, 1971
Lennon followed the opening peace anthem on his second album with this grenade wrapped in rockabilly rhythm and prairie-saloon piano, with a slinky country-boy solo on dobro by George Harrison. The chorus – “One thing you can’t hide/Is when you’re crippled inside” – may have been a slap at ex-bandmate Paul McCartney (who would get it full blast on Side Two, in “How Do You Sleep?”). But when Lennon wrote in the second person, he often did it staring into a mirror.
“It’s So Hard,” Imagine, 1971
This funky march is like “Yer Blues” from The Beatles, with an ironed-out beat and hearty blasts of tenor saxophone by King Curtis. “Sometimes I feel like goin’ down,” Lennon sings in a bitter growl. But the shove of the rhythm section and Lennon’s distinctive hammering on piano sound anything but defeated.
“I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die,” Imagine, 1971
This chant of refusal was barely a song – a couple of chords and variations on the title line (“rich man,” “lawyer,” “church man,” “failure”). The jamming was rare on a Lennon record – more like an outtake from a Rolling Stones session for Sticky Fingers, with Nicky Hopkins on piano for added authenticity. But King Curtis disrupts the churn with strafing peals of sax, and George Harrison’s slide guitar courses through the track like jungle vine.
“Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” Sometime in New York City, 1972
Before Patti Smith wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger” and black rappers claimed the racist epithet as a signifier for ghetto brotherhood, Lennon tested his privileges at Top 40 radio with the chorus of this feminist manifesto, written with Ono, as the first single from Sometime in New York City. For extra perversity, Lennon set his soapbox vocal and underground-wire-service lyrics to a hearty retro blast of American Fifties R&B. Nevertheless, the single made it to Number 57 on Billboard‘s Top 100 – which means it did get on the air. Mission accomplished.
“New York City,” Sometime in New York City, 1972
A delightful break from the protest rhymes and billboard-pop writing on this album, “New York City” combines the sunny-boogie autobiography of the ’68 Beatles single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” with Lennon’s enthusiasm for his adopted hometown. David Peel, Lennon’s new house band Elephant’s Memory and the Staten Island Ferry all get name checks, and the production, with Phil Spector, is what Rock ‘n’ Roll might have sounded like without the booze and excessive reverb.
“Tight A$,” Mind Games, 1973
For a record made on the eve of his greatest personal crisis – his estrangement from Ono and the so-called “Lost Weekend” – Mind Games has surprising jolts of fun, like this country-bar-band romp. The song and gait are Sun-era Elvis Presley, while the skidding pedal-steel guitar is L.A.-cowboy rock played by an expert – Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers.
“Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” Mind Games, 1973
Much of Lennon’s solo career was an ongoing examination of his relationship with Ono – the constant cycle of affection, passion, guilt and reconciliation – and he often wrote directly to her, as in this torch-soul song, partly sung in Japanese. “Darling I promise I won’t do it again,” Lennon swears, between splashes of ivory-rain piano and Kleinow’s short pedal-steel sighs, although it would be another year before Lennon could make that promise stick.
“Out the Blue,” Mind Games, 1973
The opening seconds – just Lennon’s voice and acoustic guitar – are like a deep breath before the dramatic exhale of this strangely underrated ballad. It is another song to Ono, and the desperation is rising: “All my life’s been a long slow knife/I was born just to get to you.” More fascinating and moving is Lennon’s rapturous production, an uncanny echo of Spector’s pocket-symphony arrangement of “The Long and Winding Road” on the Beatles’ Let It Be – but with the emphasis on poignance.
“Scared,” Walls and Bridges, 1974
Lennon’s painful exile from Ono was still in effect when he recorded this frank assessment of how far he had fallen. It was as if he had turned the bleak-R&B ire of “How Do You Sleep?” on himself. “No bell book or candle/Can get you out of this,” he sings, an allusion to excommunication in the medieval church, mocked by the weeping volume-knob effect on Jesse Ed Davis’ guitar fills. Lennon’s idea of salvation – reunion with Ono – was just a few months down the road. Here it sounds a million miles away.
“Bless You,” Walls and Bridges, 1974
In this overlooked Walls and Bridges song, Lennon makes no secret of his stubborn anticipation of a return home: “Some people say it’s over/Now that we spread our wings/But we know better darling/The hollow ring is only last year’s echo.” A revealing rehearsal take, issued on the 1986 compilation, Menlove Avenue, may be the better performance: Lennon singing in a charged quiet with the spare jangle of his and Davis’ guitars and the click of drummer Jim Keltner’s stick on the rim of his snare, like time passing slowly but surely, in the right direction.
“Steel and Glass,” Walls and Bridges, 1974
Whatever admiration and gratitude he had for Allen Klein – the New York executive who ruthlessly fixed the Beatles’ runaway finances at Apple in the early Seventies – was gone, with extreme prejudice, by the time Lennon recorded this song for Walls and Bridges. Ultimately, “Steel and Glass” was less about Klein than Lennon’s accumulated loathing for the businessmen and con artists who had been feeding off him and his old band since Beatles lunchboxes. The strings are scored like piercing needles, and the phasing on Lennon’s voice makes him sound like a hissing snake.
“Cleanup Time,” Double Fantasy, 1980
Lennon obviously had the radio on while he was cooking and caring for his son Sean at the Dakota. This playful rendering of the daily routine in his house-husband years – “The queen is in the counting house/Counting out the money/The king is in the kitchen, making bread and money” – rolls like a Chic single, with a cocky disco-rhythm bridge and a brass section that sounds like it just got off work at a burlesque house.
“I’m Losing You,” Double Fantasy, 1980
Domestic life did not come without complications: “Can’t even get you on the telephone,” Lennon sings in this worried blues, written while he was vacationing with Sean in Bermuda and Ono was in New York, attending to business. The harmonized guitars come with a dirty sting, and Lennon’s vocal turns from seething frustration to frantic command – “Stop the bleeding now!” – just before the instrumental break.
“Dear Yoko,” Double Fantasy, 1980
Lennon loved singing his wife’s name. The treat here is the Buddy Holly effect he puts on his voice as he goes into this love letter – a cheerful strut with perky buzzing guitars – and the exhilaration in his voice all the way through, a remarkable show of the pleasure and security Lennon still found in Yoko’s company.
“Borrowed Time,” Milk and Honey, 1984
“Good to be older/Would not exchange a single day or a year,” Lennon sang in this pop-reggae outtake from the Double Fantasy sessions, written by Lennon in Bermuda with a title inspired by Bob Marley’s “Hallelujah Time.” The comic recitation in the middle might have been something to fill the instrumental break until someone played a proper guitar solo. But Lennon’s impromptu stab at Jamaican-DJ patois – in a harsh Liverpool accent – is a warming snapshot of the ex-Beatles in his middle years, aging far but gracefully.
“I’m Stepping Out,” Milk and Honey, 1984
“One more … Hold it down”: You can hear Lennon calling out instructions to the studio band on this unfinished song from the Double Fantasy sessions. But the attitude in all there: the spoken opening, about a house husband itching to bolt the premises and get some action; the impatient stride and Lennon’s edgy singing, skipping up to falsetto in the chorus. “After all is said and done/You can’t go pleasin’ everyone/So screw it,” he sings, stretching the last line with dismissive relish. Long hours at the oven had not dulled that acerbic charm.
“Grow Old With Me,” from Milk and Honey, 1984
This song was Lennon’s half of a pair of songs he and Ono wrote near the end of the Double Fantasy sessions, inspired by the poems of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browinig. The imminent deadline for finishing that album forced Lennon and Ono to hold both tunes (Ono’s was called “Let Me Count the Ways”) for a followup LP. Lennon’s death ensured thar his cassette demo of “Grow Old With Me” would be his only recording of the song. Beatles producer George Martin later created a version with new orchestration, draped over that tape, for The John Lennon Anthology. But Lennon’s simple plea for the only kind of long life that matters is best heard the way he left it: a fragile high-pitched vocal, piano-lesson-like accompaniment and a cheap rhythm machine, counting the minutes like a hallway clock – one that, in a perfect world, had never stopped.