John Lennon wrote, recorded and released a lifetime’s worth of music in his solo years, more than he could fit on the official releases. As part of our Lennon celebration, on the 30th anniversary of his death, here is some deeper dynamite: five of my favorite outtakes and orphans from the roots and detours of Lennon’s rock & roll life.
“Yer Blues,” The Dirty Mac, Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, 1968
In 1968, the Beatles announced a return to live performance with three December shows at the Roundhouse in London. They never happened. Instead, on December 11th, John Lennon made his jump back to the stage, at the London taping for the Rolling Stones’ aborted ’68 TV special. Finally released in 1995, it is still killer entertainment, Lennon belting his acerbic death wish “Yer Blues” against the heavy swing of a proto-Plastic Ono Band: guitarist Eric Clapton (just out of Cream), Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell and the Stones’ Keith Richards on bass. The supergroup’s name was classic self-deprecating Lennon wit, British lingo for a smelly old raincoat.
“Baby Please Don’t Go,” from the 1971 Imagine sessions – on The John Lennon Anthology, 1998
Just as the Beatles broke the tension at the Get Back/Let It Be sessions by covering vintage rock & roll and R&B favorites, Lennon took a break from the peace anthems and broadsides against Paul McCartney on Imagine, cutting a muscle-rock version of the flipside to the Olympics’ 1958 single “Western Movies.” A live version, from Lennon and Ono’s 1971 surprise appearance with the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East, was issued on Sometime in New York City, but this is the better, tougher biscuit.
“Here We Go Again,” from the 1973 Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions – on Gimme Some Truth, 2010
Also first issued on Menlove Avenue, this song was the first and last Lennon co-wrote with Phil Spector. It was also the most honest thing the two cut during the lunacy-party sessions for Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Someone keeps movin’ the door,” Lennon sings, like a man lost and locked out of his home, which he was. Spector coats Lennon’s stare into the broken mirror of his “Lost Weekend” with a ghostly curtain of vibraphone and piano, wounded-march drumming and a bittersweet wall of brass. And when Lennon goes into the chorus, it is with the same rising shout that he let loose in “Mother” on Plastic Ono Band.
“Serve Yourself,” 1980 home recording, on The John Lennon Anthology, 1998
Bob Dylan’s brief conversion to fundamental Christianity, made public with his 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, was tailor-made for the vicious glee with which Lennon turned sacred cows into hamburger. But this talking-blues parody of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” – made at the Dakota, strummed at hardcore-folk speed and sung by Lennon in an exaggerated pub-grump accent – is also a scathing blast at punk-fashion nihilism and the guilt-less entitlement of then-emerging Yuppie culture. Best of all, it’s funny.
“(Just Like) Starting Over,” Double Fantasy Stripped Down, 2010
With its slick groove and Fifties sock-hop air, the initial single from Double Fantasy – Lennon’s first new music in five years, released six weeks before his death – was received with muted warmth. At first. But the dogged affable attraction of Lennon’s spin on doo-wop romance and Roy Orbison-style melodrama was, in a way, truer to his roots than the car-crash bluster of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Stripped Down version doesn’t take a whole lot away – some gloss, the background choir – but the result is more room up front for the pure delight in Lennon’s vocal. The additional whispered introduction – “This is for Gene, Eddie and Elvis,” as in Vincent, Cochran and Presley – shows that, in his rock & roll heart, Lennon knew there was no starting over unless you went all the way back, to the music and spirits that first inspired him to go out and remake the world.