John Lennon's solo years: A major reissue campaign marks what would have been the Beatle's 70th birthday

John-LennonImage Credit: Globe PhotosJohn Lennon‘s 70th birthday this Oct. 9 ought to have been a chance to absorb whatever new sounds he was making as he entered old age. Since that is sadly impossible, why not honor his memory by listening again to the eight albums he recorded under his own name? A handsome if pricey new 11-CD box set presents all eight in freshly remastered form, plus another disc of slipshod demos and one more of non-album singles. (Also available is a separate new four-disc set that groups 72 songs thematically, as well as yet another one-disc hits compilation.) The reissues are also sold individually — or maybe you’d prefer to dig out the perfectly serviceable ­remasters that each album already received over the past 10 years. But however you choose to consume it, the time has never been better to rediscover the unpredictable, challenging music Lennon recorded in his 30s.

Plastic-Ono-Band-John-LennonLennon kicked off his post-Beatles career with back-to-back classics. Renouncing the band’s all-you-need-is-love optimism, he channeled his inner turmoil after the breakup into confrontational rock and introverted folk for 1970’s Plastic Ono Band. “I don’t believe in ­Beatles,” he stated flatly on “God.” Rough record­ings from this era dominate the new box set’s demo disc; his hoarse delivery of that line on an early take of “God” drives home just how ragged he was feeling.

Lennon followed that blast of shell-shocked honesty with an equally surprising return to pop uplift on 1971’s Imagine. Along with the sublime title track, songs like “Jealous Guy” and “Oh My Love” are as gorgeous and openhearted as anything the Beatles did. Together, these two discs — both essential parts of any ­serious ­record collection, and now sounding warmer and richer than ever — proved incontrovertibly that he was capable of greatness on his own.

But what to make of the four that followed? Emboldened by these triumphs, Lennon spent the next few years indulging seemingly every nutty idea that flashed across his brain. He vented radical politics on 1972’s Some Time in New York City (co-credited to wife Yoko Ono), pursued trippy tangents on 1973’s Mind Games, flirted with disco on 1974’s Walls and Bridges, and covered his favorite oldies in a boozy howl on 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Casual listeners should stick to the highlights on the new best-ofs. But digging deeper, particularly into the lushly ­remastered Mind Games and Walls and Bridges, will yield a wealth of beautiful and bizarre obscur­ities for more advanced Lennonites. Even when he didn’t quite achieve his far-­ranging ambitions during this period, it’s fascinating to hear him try.

Fantasy-StrippedAfter taking five years off to raise his son Sean, Lennon resurfaced in 1980 with some of his most resonant songs ever. Double Fantasy, a tribute to domesticity created in close collaboration with Ono, would have merited all its plaudits even without the added poignancy of his murder three weeks after its release. A ­bonus disc included with the new reissue (though — stick with us here! — not the box set) presents Double Fantasy in “stripped down” form, minus many vocal and instrumental overdubs. Appreciators of the ­album shouldn’t miss this intimate alternate mix — but be warned: Hearing Lennon’s barely adorned voice sing about how much he loved his family on songs like “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” can be truly heartbreaking.

Lennon’s planned follow-up, Milk and Honey, completed posthumously by Ono and released in 1984, rounds out the reissue campaign. Experiencing it again in context only adds to the impression that a midcareer renaissance was just beginning. That sense looms over all of Lennon’s solo output, in fact, giving the tunes a faint tragic cast even at their most purely joyful. The interrupted arc of the albums inside the box set’s pristine white cube makes it clear that he was nowhere near finished making ­music when a bullet forced him to stop.

For the millions of fans still grieving, the best and only consolation is to keep immersing themselves in the complicated catalog he left ­behind, year after year, decade after decade. Listen enough times and you might be able to imagine another, fairer world where his musical journey didn’t have to end so soon.

(Follow the Music Mix on Twitter: @EWMusicMix.)

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Woody Guthrie sings on NYC streets: Check out a cool photo gallery from 1943


Comments (27 total) Add your comment
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  • Christian

    A little annoying that the stripped down double fantasy isn’t included with the box set. Fortunately it’s pretty obvious which are the stripped down songs on Amazon, so I’ll just buy those individual mp3s of Lennon’s songs

  • Dana

    Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s only great solo album. Imagine has more weak tracks on it than strong ones. And the same is true of the rest of his solo work, with the exception of Walls and Bridges. Yoko might have made him personally happy but she somehow sapped his creativity and his confidence. He and Paul could probably have done great work together again if she hadn’t felt so threatened by Paul and discouraged their friendship. Instead, Yoko seemed to feed John’s anger and resentment at Paul. Sad what might have been.

    • talkin’

      Listen – yer not stating facts, mate, but opinions. You have a right to yer own crackpot prejudices but don’t state it as fact. Right? Stop projecting onto Yoko.

      • Dana

        Clearly it’s my opinion. Whose else would it be? And my opinion is that he did transcendent work, consistently, with Paul. And, after he married Yoko, he produced some great songs and a wealth of mediocre ones.

      • Dana

        One other thought: My personal opinion is that Yoko thought her art and music was more important and more interesting that John’s. She was always dismissive of the Beatles (until recently, of course, when she wanted to encourage sales of the remasters), but early on she was dismissive of rock and roll. He was a deeply insecure man and she sapped his confidence because her own ego was so huge. And yes, this is just my opinion.

    • Hey Now!!!

      His Imagine Album is brilliant. Every song is great. Mind Games is an extremely underated album. Out the Blue is one of the most beautiful songs he ever wrote.

      • Dana

        Sorry Mind Games is crap, and so is at least half of Imagine. But this is all subjective. This is just my opinion as Mr. Talkin so helpfully pointed out.

      • Hey Now!!!

        Mind Games is crap?!!! You mean to tell me I’ve waisted years enjoying how beautiful that album is? I feel like an idiot!!!!

  • charles

    “as he entered old age.” Um, he was only 40 when he died. I realize that may seem ancient to EW’s preschool-age writing staff, but give me a break.

    • Christian

      The writer was suggesting if he were still alive today. I would think 70 qualifies as old age.

    • Mole

      Yet still above your preschool-level reading comprehension. “John Lennon‘s 70th birthday this Oct. 9 ought to have been a chance to absorb whatever new sounds he was making as he entered old age. Since that is sadly impossible…” It’s a hypothetical statement. And yes, spry though we may still be, 70 is generally regarded as old-age.

  • SHORESLADY

    Well,well,well. Oh, well.
    We miss him and no amount of reissued music will fix that. Yoko’s timing has less to do with John than with marketing John. In my humble opinion.

    • Terry

      have to agree with you there, sadly.

  • Ken

    Remember the line “and no religion to”from the song Imagine and yet here we are in the midst of a religious war.War is peace and peace is war.The people that were responsible for the assassination of John Lennon will be held accountable one day.What would Mr.Lennon say if he were a witness to the world today.

  • couchgrouch

    POB is the only good Lennon solo lp and even that has some duds. Imagine has a few good songs but Oh Yoko is so poppy it makes McCartney sound like Tom Waits. and songs from Double Fantasy like Starting Over and Woman are the kind of flacid radio pop he long derided Paul for making(which The Beatles excelled at, truth be told). so is Nobody Told Me. the remasters are $$$ exploitation of his birthday. nothing more.

  • Circus Guy

    Vozick-Levinson’s assessments are correct, as are the responses, and it all just scratches the surface. Relative merits and demerits of his evolving work only sting here because the needless violence that will never make sense interrupts the narrative flow of Lennon’s autobiographical artistic arc in progress. Every point of view would have been satisfied had he lived out his days in the light of day which is why we’re stuck with arguments about Yoko because, like her, since 1980 we share the times of John Lennon but not the life… our confused culture cost us one true artist that shouldn’t have been stopped midstream and she and we are left with each other and without John, who put us together in the first place. Awkward! But I like the way this piece ended. We can share the music. Starting with “Stripped” I will buy these, as I have every version since JL released them himself.
    Ya shoulda been there. — MC

  • Ben

    Once again, Simon Vozick-Levinson shows himself to be an idiot: “Lennon‘s 70th birthday this Oct. 9 ought to have been a chance to absorb whatever new sounds he was making as he entered old age.” OLD AGE? Lennon was FORTY when he was murdered – nowhere near ‘entering old age.’

    • Simon Vozick-Levinson

      Hi Ben! Thanks for reading. Did you catch the words “70th birthday” and “ought to have been”? This sentence refers to the hypothetical music Lennon might have been making right now if he were still alive, as he reached his 70th birthday, which I think most would consider to be part of “old age.” Cheers!

  • philip freeman

    yesterday I bought the POB album (again) cos its one of my favourites.
    I actually bought the LP the day it came out in the UK in 1970. so last night I compared the new release to the one from 2005 and the original vinyl – the 2005 cd is far better than the new one, crisper and clearer, once again Yoko can’t keep her hands off Lennon’s music. what will be the next anniversary release? the day he married his first wife perhaps?

    • philip freeman

      oops, meant ‘when’ not ‘what’ is the anniversary date. and if you read the original credits on POB yoko is credited with providing ‘wind’ and that just about says it all

  • RichB56

    I a huge collector of Beatles stuff but I have been boycotting any and all John Lennon stuff since his death. I am not giving any money to Yoko Oh No.

  • Shiva

    its good to celebrate the life of John Lennon and the Beatles- the world is a better place because of them

  • Anna

    O.k, I’m 16 and even I know Yoko had nothing to do with the Beatles break up. John left of his own accord because he thought Paul was controlling. He didn’t even get credit for the songs he wrote by himself. Paul got partial credit. John wanted the world to recognize he was creative by himself. He didn’t need the Beatles. Yoko just so happened to be the love of his life, and if you were TRUE fans you would realize he wouldn’t like the derogatory comments about the mmother of his child and the person who supported him in all his endevours. You weren’t there throughout their marriage so don’t make assumptions. John’s single albums burn ahead of any of his songs with the Beatles. Plain and simple.

  • Anna

    *mother.

    Oh and another thing, the single albums are better because he was able to express his true raw feelings. I’m honored to have been priviledged to listen to raw, undiluted Lennon. I just wish I had been able to experience his music while he was still alive. Unfortanatly, my parents hadn’t even met before he was harshly ripped from this world. -.-
    Lennon FOREVER!

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