JOHN LENNON Wonsaponatime (Capitol)
"Wonsaponatime" is a double vinyl sampler of material from the recent "Anthology" 4CD box set of previously unreleased Lennon recordings. (Frank Zappa had a similar idea with the "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Sampler", which cherry-picked from the six double CD sets in the "You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore" series and presented the findings as a double album.) The quality of the tracks contained herein highlights the shame of not releasing the whole "Anthology" set on vinyl: here are raw ramps through material from the entire extent of Lennon's solo career, none more stunning that the outtakes from the "Double Fantasy" sessions that suggest how that album could have been so much more than an exercise in mutual admiration on the part of its two protagonists. You may have read about "Serve Yourself", the vicious, caustic parody of the newly born again Dylan, and it's difficult to know just how serious Lennon is - surely even by his standards this track is a few taboos too far. It's little surprise that its languished in the vaults for so long, or that some of the song's more controversial lines have been excised from the printed lyrics.
Nevertheless, excluding a few brief asides capturing daily life for the Lennon family in the Dakota, "Wonsaponatime" stacks up as a vital document, another one of those great 'alternative career histories' that seem to be bursting out all over at the moment. Ignore the fact that only one top pop hit - "Imagine" - is represented here: "Wonsaponatime" will get you closer to the Lennon legend than any other single purchase.JOHN LENNON Anthology (Capitol)
"Anthology" is a handsome 4 CD box of previously unreleased material, wrapped up with a book containing informative essays and complete lyrics. Speaking as someone who is of the opinion that a) John Lennon's career went into qualitative freefall following his debut album proper, the fabulously stark "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" and b) the Beatles' Anthology albums were a scurrilous attempt at gift-wrapping studio sweepings and auctioning them off as national treasures, I'm surprised to report that "Anthology" is a great, great set.
This collection logically divides Lennon's solo career into four sections: "Ascot", "New York City", "The Lost Weekend" and "Dakota". There is much music here that will be familiar to any self-respecting rock fan, albeit presented in versions that are invariably tauter and more emotionally charged than the sanitised, sweetened takes that made it on to the original albums. And there is also a great deal of material that rock history seems to have forgotten about or wilfully ignored, much of which resides on the "New York City" and "Lost Weekend" discs. Most conventional compilations airbrush aside Lennon's political activism outside the familiar bed-ins, bagism and peace protests: "Anthology" goes for the jugular, with live versions of "Attica State", "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World", "Luck Of The Irish" and "John Sinclair" taped at benefit shows, as well as scraps of audio verite, one featuring a youthful David Frost, that emphasise Lennon's use of music as journalism, ensuring that injustice would not be forgotten. Other highlights include an unbearably poignant "Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out" and an almost funereal reading of "Be My Baby", as well as some inspired studio banter featuring Phil Spector (in full-on control-freak mode).
If the thought of wading through four hours of previously unreleased Lennon material seems like an trial of endurance, take courage: what shines out through these recordings, as if it were ever in doubt, is the man's boundless talent and unstoppable zeal and commitment. It makes me want to fill the gaps in my solo Lennon collection (and let's have a show of hands here, how many of us have actually got albums such as "Sometime In New York City" or "Walls And Bridges"? Thought so!) and I can't think of any higher recommendation for an album than the fact that it makes you want to go out and buy more albums.JOHN LENNON Walls And Bridges (Apple)
True to the promise I made in my review of the "Anthology" box set, my efforts to plug the gaps in my solo Lennon collection have borne their first fruit. "Walls And Bridges", his 1974 album, has been reissued as part of EMI's Millennium Vinyl Collection. According to the sticker on the cover, for the conscientious consumer this means, amongst other delights, a virgin audiophile (180gm) vinyl pressing and analogue cutting from analogue tapes, both indisputably a Good Thing in sonic terms. You also get the original issue's trick overlapping cover, a big booklet crammed with photos, lyrics, pictures and a lengthy extract from the book "Irish Families, Their Names, Arms And Origins", which, under the heading O'Lennon, Linnane, Leonard, (Linnegar, MacAlinion), suggests that "No person of the name Leonard has distinguished himself in the political, military or cultural life of Ireland (or for that matter in England either)" - next to a scrawled "Oh yeh?" riposte from the artist, and a plastic wallet to keep the whole kit caboodle in.
So a great deal of tender loving care has been invested in the presentation of this latest model "Walls And Bridges", but the question has to be "Does the music deserve it?". Maybe, is my equivocal, fence-straddling answer. Certainly there's a surprisingly rich seam of classic Lennon to be mined here, such as the raucous rock-out of the Elton-assisted American chart topper "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night", an elongated take of "#9 Dream"'s wondrous blend of religion and soft psychedelia, the evil "Steel And Glass" (basically "How Do You Sleep?" rewritten for the benefit of Allen Klein) and the equally (self-)lacerating "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down And Out)", a telegram to Yoko from the heart of his lost weekend. Lesser league worthies include the paranoid blues shuffle of "Scared" and "Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)", at an ill-informed guess written about his then lover May Pang.
But on the other hand there's also a fair crock of filler. A brief cover of Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya", starring son Julian on drums might be interesting from a historical point of view (the two Lennon's only recorded appearance together, to my knowledge) but certainly not from a musical one. Equally the instrumental "Beef Jerky" seems to have no purpose other than to fill up a few spare minutes on side two. Add this to a heavy-handed production that saddles proceedings with an unfilterable mid-1970s feel, and the fact that far superior, uncluttered versions of these songs appear in the "Anthology" box and you have an album that, ultimately, promises more than it delivers.
THE PLASTIC ONO BAND Live Peace In Toronto 1969 (Apple)
Hastily convened to play at a "Rock 'N' Roll Revival" concert in Toronto following the completion of sessions for "Abbey Road", the first concrete realisation of The Plastic Ono Band consisted of John and Yoko, Eric Clapton (still just about a member of Blind Faith), Klaus Voorman (the ex-Manfred Mann bassist who drew the cover illustration for "Revolver") and drummer Alan White (later a member of Yes). The ensemble's only opportunity to rehearse was that afforded on the flight over, and "Live Peace In Toronto 1969" reflects that, the music running roughshod on nervous energy. The raw production and gritty, distorted sound jangle the senses even further: the album begins with what appears to be a soundcheck, and ends abruptly in the middle of an announcement by the MC.
In between well, in Lennon's words, "We're just gonna do numbers that we know cause we've never played together before". On the first side, that means basic, workmanlike covers of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", and a superior version of "Money" that rides along on a broiling, swampy groove. Of the Lennon originals aired, "Yer Blues" seems a natural for such a spiked environment, and ends up sounding surprisingly true to the studio version. A prototype of "Cold Turkey" appears comparatively anonymous without the stinging, syncopated guitar and drum work that graced the single. And naturally, "Give Peace A Chance" makes an appearance, presaged by the confession "I've forgotten all the bits in between but I know the chorus".
On the flip, "Now Yoko's gonna do her thing all over you". Which she does. Your enjoyment of her performance is, of course, inextricably linked to how you react to her singular singing style, a kind of free-form, strangulated weeping and wailing (not necessarily a criticism, of course, just an attempt at a description). "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)" at least has the band riffing like machines in the background to keep you entertained, but the lengthy "John, John (Let's Hope For Peace)" is likely to have even the most open-eared of listeners in league with its titular sentiment.
So "Live Peace In Toronto 1969" isn't exactly the gigantic, all-encompassing supergroup experience that you might expect/hope it to be from glancing at the cover, but it possesses battered charm by the bagful (pun unintended) and, being, at the time, the most conventional of Lennon's non-Beatle long-players it even went top 10 in America. What's more delightful is the fact that my copy seems to have been unearthed by Diverse in a warehouse that's been locked for the last 30 years, arriving shrink-wrapped and containing a postcard inviting the purchaser to apply for a free John and Yoko 1970 calendar.