Memories of December 8, 1980

 

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We’ve arrived once again at that sad anniversary for much of an entire generation, as well as for many music fans regardless of their age. This is not a date I have to look up or be reminded of. As far as sudden losses of individual well-known people go, this is the one of my life to this day, 38 years on. I was nine years old and in the fourth grade when John Lennon was murdered, and every year since then I experience a period of reflection about John and what his and the Beatles’ music means to me. It’s sad and celebratory at the same time. The odd thing about it to me is that the day of John’s death is on my mind more than his birthday, whereas with George Harrison I’m much more aware of his birthday. My only explanation is that it’s due to the shocking nature of John’s passing, which happened when I was at such a young age, yet a huge fan and highly impressionable already.

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That fateful Monday evening, I watched the New England Patriots vs. the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football. My bed time on Mondays in the fall was extended to halftime of the games, in this case still not late enough for me to hear the announcement made by Howard Cosell. That’s probably a good thing.

The next morning I shuffled into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal before walking a block to school. Still waking up, I heard a reference to Lennon or the Beatles coming from the 12 inch black and white TV on our kitchen counter. I looked over to see footage of the Beatles stepping off a plane in Tokyo in 1966 wearing kimonos.  It took a minute for what was being reported to sink in. Stunned, I walked to school. It’s so vivid in my mind. I recall a couple of other kids who had heard. I wondered what the teachers thought.  I remember feeling very alone all day at school.

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Two of my biggest music influences growing up, my oft-mentioned older brothers, were away at college, which was an adjustment for me. Fortunately, Christmas break was upon us and they returned for a few weeks shortly after the murder so I had them around to process things. I understand if all this sounds strange for a little guy like I was at the time, but this is how it happened for me. I remember Paul and me walking to downtown Fulton over Christmas break. I begged him to buy me one of the many magazines with John on the cover from a drugstore. He did so, but on the walk back home he explained to me how many of these magazines were just making money off of John’s death – probably my first real-life lesson about the sometimes dark side of capitalism. I remember him playing the Shaved Fish compilation LP over and over those few weeks down in the basement.

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It’s so surreal to think about to this day: John had just released his fantastic comeback album, Double Fantasy (yes, despite having to hear Yoko’s tracks, it’s still a great album – and I don’t even mind Yoko’s songs on it anymore). As I learned years later, serious plans for a concert tour had been made. It was going to happen, and who knows how things would’ve gone down the road with a rejuvenated Lennon. An actual Beatles reunion, perhaps? We’ll never know. One thing is certain: Every year since then, I’ve felt a wistfulness during the month of December, but there is a sweetness to it. It’s a month I really dive back into John’s solo work, as I’m doing today. Some years are a little heavier than others, but not a year goes by without it to some extent.

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About fifteen years ago, Paul shared a real surprise with me. In December of 1980, he was a freshman in college in southwest Missouri. When he heard what had happened, he had the presence of mind in his dorm room to flip his stereo receiver to AM. On winter evenings in the Midwest, one can pick up radio stations from Chicago to Dallas, from Denver to New York City. He popped a blank cassette into his player, hit record, and started scrolling up and down the dial, where he found WABC in NYC coming in quite clearly at times, then fading out. They had a reporter on the scene at the Dakota and were playing Beatles music. He found other stations back east doing the same thing, all creepily fading in and out with their tributes. Down the line, he had converted that cassette to CD, and he gave me a copy which I usually end this date with.

In two years, John will have been gone as long as he was with us. If I’m still blogging then, I’ll probably have more to say.

-Stephen

 

 

November 22 – Thoughts on the White Album

The Beatles – The Beatles (The White Album)

We’ve finally arrived at the Big Anniversary of the Beatles’ sprawling, self-titled 1968 double album.  It’s the first Beatles album to be covered in this unabashed fanboy’s blog which I started at the beginning of the year.  Many of us have already greedily consumed the 50th anniversary release of the album, complete with the Esher Demos, session goodies, the famous individual portraits and lyrics poster, and a hardcover book.  Some have already published nice reviews in the blogosphere and elsewhere.  Somehow today feels a bit anticlimactic, though I’ll probably give it a spin before stuffing my face with turkey later in the day.

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It’s not that the anniversary hasn’t re-sparked my enthusiasm for the White Album, released this day in 1968.  It has.  It isn’t that I’m not thrilled with everything to do with the deluxe edition which I’ve been poring over these past couple of weeks.  I am.  But if you’ll excuse a bit of hyperbole, when I think about it, this entire year has been about the White Album as pertains to my perception of the Beatles, the music scene in general, and to some extent the year 1968 itself.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Stephen Goldblatt photo)

Looking back over the first eleven months of my blog, this record looms throughout.  The seed is probably found as far back as August of 1967 with the death of Brian Epstein.  The Magical Mystery Tour project in the immediate aftermath of his passing may have been their first attempt to carry on managing themselves, but with the White Album we see the fissures within the group and their individual future directions in full light.  Many of these songs were written in February during the Rishikesh retreat, and most of the band’s activities the rest of the year from that trip-onward led to this album or were an offshoot of it.

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We had the single, Lady Madonna/The Inner Light, released in March.  In May, the establishment of Apple Corps, Ltd. was announced.  This was to be the band’s business and musical apparatus, as well as a vehicle for them as individual artists – and isn’t that really what the White Album is, some group work but a lot of individual effort?  May was also the month sessions for the album began in earnest.  With the release of the stunning Hey Jude/Revolution single in August, they showed the world that the Beatles were still the Beatles despite the turmoil they always seemed to find themselves in.  Although those tracks were not included on the album, they are White Album session tracks.

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The Mad Day Out.  (Don McCullin photo)

Group and individual burnout is evident on this album.  Even Ringo walked out during his well-documented “I thought it was YOU three?” moment.  John’s behavior became predictably unpredictable, and the sad state of affairs (no pun intended, but yeah) surrounding his marriage to Cynthia finally came to an end as he officially transitioned to Yoko.  They immediately created their first vinyl baby, Unfinished Music No. 1:  Two Virgins, under the Apple umbrella, and she would be a permanent fixture within the group dynamic from that point on.

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Ringo’s personal copy of the White Album, edition numero uno, sold at auction in 2015 for $790,000.

George finally found his own creative outlet with Wonderwall Music (the inaugural release on the Apple label), the score to the Wonderwall movie which included Indian musicians who also performed on the Inner Light, as well as his buddy Eric Clapton, who participated on both the movie score and the White Album.  All of these factors – from India to Apple, from recording the demos at George’s house in Esher to the singles releases, from the “Mad Day Out” photo session in July to the individual side projects and contentious group studio sessions – all of them are woven into the double album we’re celebrating today, and all were played out over the course of the year leading up to its release.

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Some random personal thoughts about the record:

  • In 2018, if there’s any one member of the band I associate with the album more than the others, it’s George.  I freely admit this is due in large part to Hari gradually becoming my “favorite” Beatle over the years.  The White Album was perhaps his final chance to exert serious influence on the direction the Beatles would take, both musically and spiritually.  His creative input could no longer be ignored by John and Paul if he was going to remain in the group long-term.  It may not have gone as he had hoped, but his spirit is everywhere in these songs, including the ones which didn’t make the final cut.  As he mentioned in interviews, he tried to enter the studio the following January for the Get Back sessions with a positive mindset, but it was too late.  The Beatles were, for all intents and purposes, done, despite there being two albums yet to record.  Amazingly to me, George was only 25 when the White Album was released.

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  • As a child, even though I always loved most of its tracks, the White Album kind of creeped me out.  First, the “Paul is dead ‘clues'” in the grooves and album artwork were both fascinating and, to 9 or 10-year-old me, frightening.  My brother Paul would spin the vinyl backwards for me to hear voices supposedly saying “Paul is a dead man.  Miss him, miss him,” and “Turn me on, dead man.”  In that dimly lit basement I was glad not to be alone when listening.  To this day, Revolution 9 still gives me the heebie jeebies, and Good Night which follows sounds more funereal than lullaby because of it. Then there was the unfortunate, unintended  connection to the Manson murders. Even that shoddy collage of photos which makes up the poster insert was at best confusing to me.  But it’s So White Album, no?

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  • Their individual appearances fascinated me, as they did many others.  Overnight they transformed from the psychedelic, flower power Sgt. Pepper look to their disheveled appearances of ’68.  John looked tired and bitter, and it wasn’t until my teen years that I understood why that was.

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  • Yoko.  Yoko, Yoko, Yoko.  Yoko Ono…                                                                            Because I was born the year after the Beatles broke up, as a younger person I always accepted everything I saw, heard, and read as just part of the narrative of the group.  But wow, what an unforeseen shock her emergence in all their lives must have been!  Whether he’s simply taking the high road or being sincere, Paul made peace with Yoko in recent years as well as declared his perhaps overdue respect for John for making his stand with her.  I believe Paul is sincere.  It’s past time to remove those “I still blame Yoko” bumper stickers, folks.  There were plenty of other factors contributing to the split.

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  • And lastly, as for the great debate about whether or not it should’ve been condensed down to a single LP, my answer is a resounding HELL NO!  It’s great just the way it is, but if anything could’ve improved it, it wouldn’t have been making it a single album or two separate releases (the White and Whiter Album as Ringo quipped in the Anthology).  In my mind, this could easily have been a triple album.  I think it’s a crime that George’s Sour Milk Sea wasn’t properly recorded and included (nothing against Jackie Lomax’s version).  The same goes for Not Guilty.  Sprinkle those tracks, plus Hey JudeRevolution, and Circles throughout Sides 1-5, and make Side 6 all about John and Yoko’s madness with What’s the New Mary Jane and Revolution 9, and presto!, The Grand and Mega-Blindingly White Album!  It was all free-form craziness anyway, and we’d be celebrating it the same as we are today.  That still would’ve left Lady Madonna/The Inner Light as the non-album single between Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album.

But I’ll defer to Sir Paul for the final word on the matter:

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  2. Dear Prudence
  3. Glass Onion
  4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  5. Wild Honey Pie
  6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  8. Happiness is a Warm Gun

Side Two:

  1. Martha My Dear
  2. I’m So Tired
  3. Blackbird
  4. Piggies
  5. Rocky Raccoon
  6. Don’t Pass Me By
  7. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
  8. I Will
  9. Julia

Side Three:

  1. Birthday
  2. Yer Blues
  3. Mother Nature’s Son
  4. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)
  5. Sexie Sadie
  6. Helter Skelter
  7. Long, Long, Long

Side Four:

  1. Revolution 1
  2. Honey Pie
  3. Savoy Truffle
  4. Cry Baby Cry
  5. Revolution 9
  6. Good Night

-Stephen

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/ringo-starrs-personal-white-album-sells-for-world-record-790000-62410/

 

 

 

My Album Rankings – Solo Beatles Top 25

I’ll wrap up my solo Beatles album rankings by putting it together in a tidy and very scientific Top 25 list.  My thoughts on each album can be found in my individual posts for George, Paul, John, and Ringo.  Other than my choice for #1, this is a rather absurd exercise to undertake, but what the hey.  It’s got me thinking of some mighty good albums I haven’t listened to in a while.  Just a reminder:  the only reason choices such as #’s 25 and 22 aren’t rated higher is because John and George, respectively, are featured on only half the album or less.

25.  Double Fantasy

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24.  Ringo

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23.  Wonderwall Music

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22.  Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

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21.  Brainwashed

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20.  Dark Horse

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19.  Tug of War

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18.  Flaming Pie

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17.  Shaved Fish

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16.  Wings Over America

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15.  Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard

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14.  Thirty-Three and 1/3

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13.  Imagine

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12.  Red Rose Speedway

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11.  Band on the Run

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10.  George Harrison

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9.  Cloud Nine

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8.  Mind Games

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7.  Back to the Egg

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6.  McCartney

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5.  Plastic Ono Band

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4.  Living in the Material World

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3.  Walls and Bridges

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2.  Ram

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1.  All Things Must Pass

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Alright, now you can let me have it!

-Stephen

My Album Rankings – John Lennon

Criteria for this list and all my rankings going forward include but are not limited to:

  • May include “Best Of” compilations
  • May include albums produced by the artist, even if their playing or singing on the album is minimal
  • May include live albums
  • May include box sets
  • Number of albums listed may vary depending on catalog
  • I reserve the right to change my mind about the order down the line
  • In short, my silly subjective rankings, my silly subjective rules

Today I present my favorite John Lennon albums.  For the obvious reason, this list won’t be as long as my rankings of George Harrison or Paul McCartney albums, but a few of Lennon’s solo albums have been very important to me as a music fan.  As I write this, with a tinge of guilt I’m whittling my list down even further to maintain the spirit of my rankings, i.e., I’m listing albums I actually like, not just releases by important artists whom I like, no matter what.  With that in mind:

7.  Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)

I wasn’t familiar with this album until my teenage years.  I’d heard a couple of songs and liked them, but it took me a few years to realize why:  John sounds like he’s having fun.  A buddy in high school gave me the album on cassette as a gift, and I have it still.  Most of the tunes are covered in his box set, which is where I hear them most often.

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6.  Double Fantasy (1980)

Ugh, so much wistfulness attached to this one.  I received the LP for my birthday a few months after his death and played it repeatedly.  Since it was vinyl, it meant I listened to Yoko’s songs as well, and to be honest I was able to listen to them without banging my nine-year-old skull into my bedroom wall each time.  I chuckle when I think about Yoko’s screaming orgasm at the end of Kiss Kiss Kiss blaring down the hallway into the kitchen after school where my mom could be found preparing dinner.  I had no clue – all of Yoko’s screaming sounded the same to my innocent ears – and luckily Mom was pretty good at tuning out noise when she wanted to.

After the advent of CD’s, I began programming her songs out of it whenever I wanted to listen to John’s.  But a couple of months ago I played the whole thing for my wife so she could hear for herself what I’d been trying to describe.  A funny thing happened when I did:  the new wave influence on Yoko’s songs – mainly the oft-mentioned B-52’s – jumped out of the speakers at us.  Her tunes on this record are not something I would choose to listen to very often, but they aren’t, um, that bad(?)  John sounds refreshed and all his songs are very good, and if they had been combined with his songs which appeared on the posthumous Milk and Honey (’84) as a stand alone record without the missus it would’ve vied for #1 in this ranking order.

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5.  Shaved Fish (1975)

Shaved Fish rates this highly despite being a compilation due to the fact that almost half of it consists of tracks that were previously only released as singles, including Cold Turkey, Instant Karma!, and Power to the People.  It was also the mournful soundtrack to Christmas break a few weeks after John’s murder when my brother was home from college and played it a handful of times.

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4.  Imagine (1971)

Imagine is another good album of John’s in the early aftermath of the Beatles.  Though I’ve known the song Imagine my whole life, I got into the entire LP in high school in the late 80’s, and it’s held up for me quite well.  He mixes songs of love for Yoko with songs of anger for pretty much everything else, including Nixon, Vietnam, and of course Paul.  Favorites of mine include Crippled Inside, Jealous Guy (re-worked from the White Album-era Child of Nature), I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, Give Me Some Truth, and the title track.  I don’t say this as a sycophantic defense of Paul, but I do feel John embarrassed himself with the ultra-petty How Do You Sleep?

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3.  Mind Games (1973)

Any of my final three Lennon albums could be #1, and Mind Games is another example of critics being just as full of themselves as the artists they lambast.  Jon Landau in Rolling Stone called it Lennon’s “worst writing yet,” and that Lennon was “helplessly trying to impose his own gargantuan ego upon an audience … [that] is waiting hopefully for him to chart a new course.”  I have to remind myself that much of the harsh criticism for the Beatles as solo artists was due to the then relatively recent demise of the group, and people expected each of them to be as individually good as the sum of their parts, which was never going to happen.  But there’s not a song on this album that I don’t like.

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2.  Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Perfectly underproduced, stark, raw, scab-peeling, and primal (as in primal scream) – that’s how I think of Lennon’s first post-Beatles album.  As a result of the primal scream therapy he was undergoing, John unleashed 30 years of verbal payback to society in general and lament for personal losses.  It’s not an easy listen, but man is it good.  Even critics agree.

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1.  Walls and Bridges (1974)

Walls and Bridges was recorded at the tail end of Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” of debauchery in L.A., exiled there by Yoko and accompanied by their assistant (and for 18 months John’s keeper and concubine) May Pang.  He recorded this album when they returned to New York, but before he moved back home with Yoko.

It’s sort of odd to celebrate somebody around the anniversary of their death, but that’s how it’s worked out for me with John, as opposed to George whose birthday I think of more.  I usually listen to John’s music – especially my top three – in December and January, Walls and Bridges possibly more than the rest.  Whatever Gets You Through the Night – his duet with Elton – is a great track, Steel and Glass a shot at Allen Klein (a few years too late?), and #9 Dream is one of my all-time favorite Lennon songs.

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I feel obligated to explain the omissions from my Lennon rankings.  I find Live Peace in Toronto 1969 and Live in New York City to be dreadful.  On the Toronto album, Lennon sounds every bit as wasted and unrehearsed as he actually was, and Yoko is unlistenable.  It’s a shame, because he had a good band with Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Alan White, but they rehearsed only twice:  once on the plane from London to Toronto and once right before the show.  Clapton didn’t even know about the show until the day before – from across the ocean and while he was in his own haze at the time.  A few day’s worth of practice would’ve done wonders.

On NYC, John is visibly nervous on the video, chomping on gum the whole time, and he forgot some lyrics.  Furthermore, Jim Keltner is the only other established musician on stage with John.  The others are Yoko and a street band called Elephant’s Memory.  And those stupid hard hats!  As for 1972’s Some Time in New York City, I’ve honestly never listened to it and I have little interest.  A few of John’s decent songs from the set are on his box set which I own, and that’s enough for me.  And with Milk and Honey, his tracks are also on the box set in different versions, which are all very good, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually listened to that album.

BONUS LIST!

1.  Ringo Starr – Ringo (1973)

I promise I’m not just throwing Ringo a bone here.  I really like this album, especially with the inclusion of It Don’t Come Easy, Early 1970, and Down and Out as bonus tracks on the 1991 reissue.  Its quality is due to the participation of his three former band mates throughout, though not on the same songs.  In fact, it’s a great roster of musicians on the record that also includes Marc Bolan, Robbie Robertson, Steve Cropper, Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, Garth Hudson, Klaus Voormann, Tom Scott, Bobby Keys, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, David Bromberg, Harry Nilsson, Martha Reeves, Merry Clayton, and oh look, there’s Jim Keltner again!

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_Games_(John_Lennon_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_and_Glass

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringo_(album)

-Stephen