January 30 – Beatles on the Roof

So, this happened 50 years ago today…

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We’re also starting to get a good idea of what to expect with regard to the 50th anniversary of the Let it Be documentary. I actually find this to be exciting news, as it will shed a different light on the project. I don’t think it will be a revisionist light, as there’s no reversing the fact that the group was slowly dissolving while being filmed, but it will apparently illustrate that the Get Back sessions in January of 1969 as shown in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s original film weren’t dreary and depressing all the time. There were 55 hours of unused film taken that month! I don’t care if Yoko’s in 99% of it – she was there a lot, after all. I just hope Billy Preston gets his due. And, fear not, we’ll also get the original film, restored in all its bleak glory.

-Stephen

 

 

 

 

January 13 – A Meanie of a Soundtrack

The Beatles – Yellow Submarine (soundtrack)

To anyone who may scoff at the notion that what the Beatles pulled off during their relatively short existence was anything less than miraculous, and that they were under constant pressure to produce more, more, and more, I offer the example of the sometimes unfairly disregarded soundtrack to the animated film, Yellow Submarine, released this day 50 years ago (January 17 in the UK).

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The soundtrack contained four “new” songs, two previously released tracks (the title track had been around for almost three years), plus George Martin’s orchestral score on side two.  Its release was delayed so that it wouldn’t interfere with their double album release in November of ’68. The film and album were considered a contract obligation, hence the Beatles didn’t give it the full studio treatment after spending many contentious hours in the studio over the previous two years. Negative to ambivalent critical assessments of the album are a reflection of the group’s attitude toward the project. But is it really an album to be dismissed? Personally, I feel the four previously unreleased songs alone make it worthwhile.

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George Harrison’s much-maligned Only a Northern Song had been rejected for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This turned out to be a good decision, as its replacement was the slightly less-disparaged Harrison track, Within You Without You (as fun as it can be to play the Beatles revisionist “what-if” game, I would never remove Within You Without You from Pepper!). As will surprise nobody who knows my music tastes, I love both of those songs. Yes, Only a Northern Song is cranky George complaining about his place on the group’s songwriting ladder, but it’s a trippy number with a cool organ and sound effects. It fit in well at the time it was recorded, but was already somewhat outdated (by late 60’s standards) by the time the soundtrack was released. McCartney’s All Together Now, written with old dance hall calls for a singalong in mind, may not have been his most creative songwriting effort, but again, look at the standard he had set for himself. Paul considered it a throwaway, but if ever one needs a peppy tune to get a jump-start out of a malaise, this is it.

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George’s It’s All Too Much was inspired by the Summer of Love vibe, and is one of my favorite Beatles songs of all time. To me, it’s a perfect combination of grungy guitar, flower power, and a typically positive Beatles message. In my mind, the song’s psychedelic musical soul mate is the Byrds’ Eight Miles High. I only wish they were both ten-plus minutes long.* George’s song was originally eight minutes long but trimmed to a still lengthy for the era 6:25. Only a Northern Song, All Together Now, and It’s All Too Much were all recorded in early 1967. Only John’s Hey Bulldog, which he liked but said was about nothing, was recorded in 1968. Anyone want to remove this song from the Beatles canon? Not I.

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It’s hard to get too worked up over contemporary critics’ dismissive attitudes toward this record since the Beatles themselves mostly mailed it in, though they were reportedly more enthusiastic about it after previewing the film. John was vocally opposed to the inclusion of George Martin’s orchestral score, but judging by Lennon’s lackluster participation on the Get Back sessions concurrently taking place at the time of this soundtrack’s release, I don’t know that he had much to offer that would’ve been an improvement in his mind. An EP was considered which would’ve included Across the Universe, but was ditched. With 1999’s reissue of the film came the Yellow Submarine Songtrack, which includes all the Beatles songs used in the film and excludes Martin’s score. I never bothered to pick it up, I guess confirming I’m not the completist I once considered myself to be. Occasionally I let the soundtrack CD play out and find myself enjoying the orchestral tracks. Perhaps I should paint big black holes on my walls for a fuller effect.

*In later incarnations, the Byrds would stretch Eight Miles High into a nearly twenty minute jam session on stage, but Roger McGuinn would only sing the first verse for some reason. I digress.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Yellow Submarine
  2. Only a Northern Song
  3. All Together Now
  4. Hey Bulldog
  5. It’s All Too Much
  6. All You Need is Love

Side Two:

  1. Pepperland
  2. Sea of Time
  3. Sea of Holes
  4. Sea of Monsters
  5. March of the Meanies
  6. Pepperland Laid Waste
  7. Yellow Submarine in Pepperland

-Stephen

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

Album Review: The Beatles – Yellow Submarine [Remastered]

https://www.allmusic.com/album/yellow-submarine-mw0000668441

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

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