Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1998: The Lennon Box

In conjunction with John Lennon's 70th birthday last October, his estate has re-anthologized his work yet again, and re-re-issued his solo discs. Information on those releases are at his official website. This review of what was - at the time - mostly new material, appeared in the September 1998 Tucson Comic News.

Even before the release of the Beatles’ six-disc Anthology (mercifully sold two discs at a time), the estate of John Lennon had been working on a boxed set of his unreleased recordings. The material they had to work with was voluminous. Lennon left behind hundreds of hours of home recordings, demos, studio outtakes and live material. Much of this was showcased in the radio series “The Lost Lennon Tapes” back in the early nineties, but the estate had also been working towards a more formal release.

Work on the project was set aside due to Yoko Ono’s involvement in the Anthology project, representing her late husband’s interests (though some will still argue that Paul McCartney got his way a bit too much in terms of the track selection). With all of that behind her, Ono once again set to work on the Lennon box, a process that was emotionally agonizing for her.

Now we have the results of those years of labor, both on her part and his, and based on the highlights disc Wonsaponatime, it has been well worth the wait. Lennon fans are finally treated to his scabrous and foulmouthed parody of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Lennon’s version is titled “Serve Yourself,” and features large helpings of the razor-sharp wit missing from much of his solo work: “Well you may believe in devils/and you may believe in laws/But Christ you’re gonna have to serve yourself/It’s in the bloody fridge.”

Other highlights include “Grow Old With Me,” one of John’s sweetest ballads, with a new string/flute arrangement by Beatles producer Sir George Martin (recently named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Another standout track is a tight studio version of "Baby Please Don’t Go,” recorded as a birthday present for Yoko but later discarded (a looser live version, with Frank Zappa, is available on the Some Time In New York City album).

As for the box set, each of the four discs represents a distinct phase of Lennon’s solo career. “Ascot” covers the years after the Beatles broke up but before John left England, when Plastic Ono Band and Imagine were recorded. “New York City” covers the years 1972-74, and “The Lost Weekend” features material from his drunken 18-month separation from Yoko, recorded in LA with Phil Spector, Harry Nillsson, Keith Moon and other alcoholic layabouts. Even through all of that Lennon’s craftsmanship never deserted him, though his senses often did.

The final disc “Dakota” covers the years from 1975 until his assassination in 1980, a period during which Lennon had professed to be retired, but nonetheless continued to write and record at home. Outtakes from the Double Fantasy sessions are included here, along with what was said to be the last song Lennon ever wrote, “Dear John.”

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