John Lennon’s Imagine Turns 50

Exactly 50 years ago today, on September 9, 1971, John Lennon released Imagine, his second solo album. Initially, I had not planned to cover this milestone, especially given how many other records that are arguably better are also hitting their 50th anniversary this year. Imagine sounds much more produced than Lennon’s solo debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – even lush at times, which isn’t surprising, given Phil Spector’s involvement. Still, listening to it the other day reminded me this is a pretty damn good album by a member of my all-time favorite band. Do I really need more justification to celebrate its 50th anniversary?

Let’s revisit some of the songs. Starting with the opening title track really is a no-brainer. Whether you agree that it’s a great tune or not, it’s undisputable Imagine is John Lennon’s signature song. One could criticize a certain degree of hypocrisy that Lennon sang about peace while at the same time he was ignoring his first son Julian. Yes, John Lennon wasn’t perfect, but tell me one music artist you consider to be one of your heroes who is! Plus, it doesn’t change the fact the tune is a beautiful ballad with thought-provoking lyrics. Imagine also appeared separately as a single in the U.S. in October 1971 and in the UK in 1975, reaching no. 3 and no. 6 on the national charts, respectively. It became the most successful single of Lennon’s solo career.

One of the nice things that can happen when revisiting albums is that you come across a song that you previously had not quite recognized. This is how I feel about Crippled Inside, the second track on side one (speaking in vinyl terms). I love how that tune sounds, in particular the salon style piano played by Nicky Hopkins. Another notable guest I’d like to call out is George Harrison, who played Dobro guitar. There was also Ted Turner. According to Songfacts, he received a phone call from Lennon at 11:00 pm while his band Wishbone Ash was recording their own album to ask whether Turner could join Lennon’s recording session right away. Turner did and provided acoustic rhythm guitar.

“When you’re in love with somebody, you tend to be jealous, and want to own them and possess them 100 percent, which I do,” Lennon said about Jealous Guy, as captured by Songfacts. “Intellectually, I thought owning a person is rubbish, but I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her. You have so little as a child, I think once you find it, you want to hang onto it. You grab it so much, you tend to kill it.” Songfacts also notes Yoko Ono told music magazine Uncut in 1998, “He was jealous about the fact that I had another language in my head, you know, Japanese, that he can’t share with me. It was almost on a very conceptual, spiritual level. It wasn’t on a level of physical or anything ’cause I just would never give him a reason for that.”

Time to move on to side two and Gimme Some Truth, a song about Lennon’s frustration with slick and deceptive politicians. Songfacts adds the tune also refers to cover-ups like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, with Lennon demanding simple truth. Lennon’s outspoken stance against America’s war engagement in Vietnam did not endear him to the Nixon Administration, which mounted deportation efforts against him. Ultimately, they failed and “Tricky Dicky” was forced to resign in disgrace! Once again, George Harrison guested, playing electric guitar and slide guitar. Sadly, sleazy politicians are still all too common, so these lyrics very much remain relevant today.

Perhaps the album’s most intense track is How Do You Sleep?, which Lennon wrote when his relationship with Paul McCartney was at rock bottom. The song was a response to what Lennon felt were McCartney’s attacks against him on the Ram album, including lines in the song Too Many People and a picture of two screwing beetles on the back cover – or as Songfacts puts it, as if Paul was telling John, ‘screw you from one Beatle to another.’ Songfacts also notes an interview Lennon gave to BBC Radio 1 on December 6, 1980, two days before he was killed, during which he said, “I used my resentment against Paul, that I have as a kind of sibling rivalry resentment from youth, to write a song. It was a creative rivalry… It was not a vicious vendetta.” How Do You Sleep? is another tune featuring nice slide guitar work by George Harrison. Lennon would revisit the melody of the chorus on Steel and Glass, a tune that appeared on his fourth solo album Walls and Bridges from September 1974.

Let’s do one more: Oh Yoko!, the closer. The Beatles Bible notes Lennon started work on the love song in 1968 in India while The Beatles were visiting guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The melody was inspired by Lost John, a song by skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan, one of Lennon’s early influences. Additionally, Oh Yoko! holds the distinction of Lennon playing harmonica for the first time since Rocky Raccoon and The White Album. It also turned out to be his last recording using the instrument.

In addition to George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins and Ted Turner, Imagine featured many other guests. Some included drummer Alan White who in 1972 joined Yes and is a member of the band to this day; Klaus Voormann who had been brought in by Harrison and played bass on all tracks; as well as Badfinger’s Joey Molland and Tom Evans who provided acoustic guitar on Jealous Guy and another tune titled I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Mama.

Just like the title track, Imagine became Lennon’s most successful solo album, topping the charts in the U.S., the UK and various other European countries, as well as Australia and Japan. It has achieved 2X Platinum certification in the U.S. and Gold certification the UK. Imagine was ranked at no. 80 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 edition of the list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. As of 2020, it’s still on the list, coming in at no. 223.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

Today, John Lennon, one of my all-time favorite artists, would have turned 80 years old. He was born John Winston Lennon on October 9, 1940 in Liverpool, England. The former Beatles member’s life was tragically cut short on December 8, 1980 when he was shot to death by Mark David Chapman. A mentally unstable Beatles fan, Chapman had turned against Lennon over his lifestyle and public statements, including his comment during a March 1966 interview that the Fab Four were more popular than Jesus. Lennon was only 40 years old.

Instead of writing yet another biographical post, I’d like to celebrate the occasion with Lennon’s music by reposting a playlist I originally published in January 2018. It’s focused on his solo career.

My Playlist: John Lennon

I’m introducing a new feature to the blog with the ingenious name “My Playlist.” Why? Coz I write the bloody blog, so I can!😀

On a more serious note, there are many different ways how to enjoy music. Apart from listening to entire albums, I like creating playlists for my favorite artists. Oftentimes, they include tracks from multiple records and span their entire recording career. Typically, it’s a combination of popular tunes and deeper cuts. That’s really the basic idea behind what I envisage is going to become a recurrent feature.

First up: John Lennon, one of my biggest music heroes!

John Lennon & Yoko Ono

Following his marriage to Yoko Ono in March 1969, Lennon quietly left The Beatles in September. Around the same time, he and Ono were contacted by the promoters of the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival, and hastily put together a band to perform there. The result was the first incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band, which in addition to Lennon (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and Ono (vocals) included Eric Clapton (lead guitar, backing vocals), Klaus Voorman (bass) and Alan White (drums). Their performance at the festival was captured on the album Live Peace Toronto 1969, which appeared in December 1969.

After the official breakup of The Beatles in April 1970, Lennon recorded his first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and released it in December that year. Until his death in December 1980, six other solo records followed: Imagine (1971), Some Time In New York City (1972), Mind Games (1973), Walls And Bridges (1974), Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975) and Double Fantasy (1980). Milk And Honey (1984) was recorded during the final months of his life and appeared postmortem. Let’s get to some music!

Cold Turkey (Single 1969)

Cold Turkey was Lennon’s second solo single released in October 1969. Written by him and credited to the Plastic Ono Band, the tune was recorded right in the wake of their appearance at the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival, where it had been performed in public for the first time. In fact, the song had been so new that Lennon hadn’t memorized the lyrics yet, so Ono held up the words on a cheat sheet! Unlike Live Peace Toronto 1969, Ringo Starr played the drums on the studio recording. In addition, Ono’s wailing sounds were absent – frankly, something I don’t miss in particular.

Instant Karma! (Single 1970)

Instant Karma! was the third Lennon tune that appeared as a non-album single credited to the Plastic Ono Band. Peaking at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and UK Single Charts, respectively, it became the first solo single by a former Beatles member to sell one million copies in America. In addition to Lennon, Ono, Voorman and White, it featured George Harrison (guitar, piano, backing vocals), Billy Preston (Hammond organ, backing vocals) and Mal Evans (chimes, handclaps, backing vocals).

Mother (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band 1970)

Mother is the opener of Lennon’s first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which came out in December 1970. The painful cry to his parents, who abandoned him as a child, is one of the most powerful tunes he wrote. The relative sparse instrumentation of just piano, drums and bass, combined with Lennon’s screaming voice, still gives me goose bumps every time I listen to the song.

Jealous Guy (Imagine 1971)

Jealous Guy first appeared on Lennon’s second studio album Imagine released in September 1971 in the U.S. While that record is best known for its beautiful and timeless title track, which became the top-selling single of his solo career, to me Jealous Guy is an equal. Interestingly, it didn’t come out as a single until November 1985, four and a half years after Roxy Music had scored a no. 1 hit with their great cover.

New York City (Some Time In New York City 1972)

To me, Lennon was one of the greatest rock & roll singers. I just love this original tune from Some Time In New York City, his third solo album from June 1972, credited to John & Yoko, Plastic Ono Band and American rock band Elephant’s Memory, best known for backing Lennon and Ono in the early ’70s. The autobiographic track is both an anthem to the city, which had become Lennon’s and Ono’s home in September 1971, and a middle finger to the Nixon Administration. Concerned about their political activism, President Nixon was looking for ways to kick Lennon and Ono out of the country. Instead, he turned out to be a crook and was forced to resign. Maybe another Lennon would come in handy these days!

Mind Games (Mind Games 1973)

Mind Games is the title track and lead single of Lennon’s fourth solo album from October 1973. According to Wikipedia, he started work on the song in 1969, which originally was titled Make Love, Not War. Lennon finished the tune after he had read the 1972 book Mind Games: The Guide To Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. The track was recorded around the time Lennon separated from Ono and with her encouragement had an 18-month relationship with May Pang. Let’s just leave it at that!

Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (Walls And Bridges 1974)

Included on Lennon’s fifth solo album Wall And Bridges from September 1974, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night also was the record’s first single. It became his first no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, a chart success that was only achieved one more time with (Just Like) Starting Over from the Double Fantasy album in the wake of his death. The above clip shows Lennon joining Elton John live at New York’s Madison Square Garden in November 1974, his last major concert appearance. While the quality of the video is poor, not including it would have been a great miss. John also played piano and provided harmony vocals on the studio version.

Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’ (Rock ‘N’ Roll 1975)

As previously noted, I’ve always thought Lennon was great at singing rock & roll. He also loved the genre, and this record is an homage. The medley of Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me and Send Me Some Lovin’, co-written by John Marascalso and Leo Price for Little Richard, is one of my favorites on the album. Rock ‘N’ Roll was Lennon’s last studio release prior to his five-year family hiatus, following his reunification with Ono and the birth of their son Sean.

Watching The Wheels (Double Fantasy 1980)

Watching The Wheels is from Double Fantasy, which came out in November 1980 – the first studio album after Lennon had reemerged from secluded family life. Credited to him and Ono, it is sadly the last release that appeared during his life time. The tune also became the record’s third single in March 1981, following Lennon’s death in New York City on December 8, 1980. While the song couldn’t match the chart success of the album’s first two singles (Just Like) Starting Over and Woman, I like it just as much.

Borrowed Time (Milk And Honey 1984)

I’ve always dug the cool groove Borrowed Time Lennon’s last studio album Milk And Honey that appeared postmortem in January 1984. According to Wikipedia, the song was inspired by a frightening sailing trip through rough seas from Newport, R.I. to Bermuda in 1980. After pretty much everybody else on board had become incapacitated due to sea sickness, Lennon who wasn’t impacted ended up taking the yacht’s wheel for many hours by himself. It’s crazy if you think about it – the man survived what clearly were much lower odds than being shot to death by some nutcase!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Celebration Day All Over Again

Led Zeppelin’s 2007 tribute concert at London’s O2 arena to stream on band’s YouTube channel this Saturday

In 2007, the surviving members of Led ZeppelinRobert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – reunited for a tribute concert for Ahmet ErtegĂźn, which they performed on December 10 that year at London’s O2 Arena, together with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham. This Saturday, that show will stream live on Led Zeppelin’s YouTube channel at 8:00 p.m. BST (3:00 p.m. EST).

ErtegĂźn was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, the label that issued the band’s first five albums. Zep’s tribute gig was their first full-length show in almost three decades. The tribute opened with an all-star band, including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White and Simon Kirke, who were backed by the brass section from Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. The concert also featured Paul Rodgers, Paolo Nutini and Foreigner as supporting acts, who played together with the Rhythm Kings as well. Other guests on the Rhythm Kings’ set were Maggie Bell and Alvin Lee.

Zep’s show, the headliner of the event, has been captured in various formats, including a limited big screen release in October 2012, DVD, home audio and CD. My streaming music provider includes the latter, and I listened to it this morning. While perhaps not quite as outstanding as Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s pretty great stuff, especially, once you get past the opener Good Times Bad Times, where to me Plant sounds like he’s holding back a bit.

I’m certainly planning to watch this Saturday. Apparently, the stream will be up for two or three days. Here are two clips – a little appetizer, if you want! First up: Black Dog, from Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s forth studio album released in November 1971. The song was co-written by Page, Plant and Jones.

And here’s Kashmir, from Physical Graffiti. Co-written by Bonham, Page and Plant, I’ve always found this tune both a bit weird, yet brilliant at the same time. Physical Graffiti, which appeared in February 1975, was Zep’s sixth studio album, and the first record they released on their own label Swan Song Records, which the band had launched in May 1974.

Sources: Wikipedia; Facebook; YouTube

Beware Of Mr. Baker

In memoriam of a drumming giant with a 60-year-plus career

When I saw the name of Ginger Baker pop up in a CNN news alert on my phone yesterday morning, I immediately knew what had happened. Just a few days ago, I had spotted a story on Facebook, reporting Baker was in the hospital and critically ill. The legendary drummer passed away on October 6 at age 80.

Baker was a pretty wild character. His constant fights with Jack Bruce while they played together in The Graham Bond Organisation and lateron in “supergroup” Cream have widely been reported. Once he even pulled a knife on Bruce – yikes! Baker’s volatile behavior is also impressively captured in the fascinating 2012 American documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. At some point, he hits film maker Jay Bulger in the nose with his walking stick – a terrifying thought, especially coming from a drummer.

So, yes, Baker wasn’t exactly a saint. But I don’t feel it’s my place to judge. Plus, let’s be honest here: The same can be said about some other music artists, including one of my biggest heroes of all time, John Lennon. He certainly was a less than perfect husband to his first wife Cynthia Powell and father to Julian, his son from that marriage. Still, the fact Lennon’s behavior fell short doesn’t change my admiration for him as an artist. The same is true for Ginger Baker.

Ginger Baker 2

There are already many obituaries out there, and undoubtedly, there will be many more. I don’t want to add yet another such piece. If you feel like reading an obituary for Baker, you can do so here at Rolling Stone, for example. Instead, I’d like to commemorate Baker with some of his music. And there is quite a lot over a career that spanned more than 60 years.

Less than two years after Baker had started picking up the drums at age 16, he was initially playing Dixieland on London’s Soho jazz scene. He was also influenced by bebop and artists like Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. In fact, during a 2013 interview with jazz.fm91 he said, “Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock.” He also insisted Cream was a jazz band. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music. We never played the same thing two nights running…It was jazz.” Oh, well, I guess it all depends on how you define jazz. In any case, at the end of the day, who cares what you call it when you’re talking about Cream, one of the greatest bands of the 60s.

In 1962, following Charlie Watts’ departure to The Rolling Stones, 23-year-old Baker joined Blues Incorporated. The English blues band was led by guitarist Alexis Korner, who is often called “a founding father of British blues.” It is also there where Baker first met Jack Bruce. Here’s a great 1962 instrumental called Up-Town, which in addition to Korner (guitar), Bruce (bass) and Baker (drums) also featured Cyril Davies (harmonica), Dick Heckstall-Smith (tenor saxophone) and Johnny Parker (piano).

In 1963, Baker joined The Graham Bond Organisation, where he again played with Bruce, as well as other former Blues Incorporated members Graham Bond (vocals, keyboards, alto-saxophone) and Heckstall-Smith (tenor & soprano saxophone). Guitarist John McLaughlin rounded out the line-up of this jazz and R&B group. Here is Camels & Elephants, a tune featuring a Baker drum solo reminiscent of Toad, except it’s much shorter! 🙂

While Baker made a name for himself in The Graham Bond Organisation, it was his affiliation with next band that cemented his status as a legendary drummer: Cream. Most of the band’s orginal songs were written by Bruce and Eric Clapton. Between the two, they typically also handled vocals. But here is one Cream tune that not only was soley written by Baker but also sung by him: Blue Condition. The song appeared on their second studio album Disraeli Gears from May 1967.

Following the break-up of Cream and Baker’s participation in the short-lived Blind Faith, he founded jazz rock fusion group Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Apart from Baker, the supergroup’s initial formidable lineup included Steve Winwood (organ, vocals), Ric Grech (violin, bass), Jeanette Jacobs (vocals), Denny Laine (guitar, vocals), Chris Wood (tenor saxophone, flute), Graham Bond (alto saxophone), Harold McNair (tenor saxophone), Remi Kabaka (percussion), Alan White (drums) and jazz drummer Phil Seamen with whom Baker had taken lessons in the early ’60s. Here is Do What You Like, a tune Baker originally had written for Blind Faith, featuring Steve Winwood on lead vocals. It appeared on Air Force’s eponymous debut from March 1970, a live recording of a show at the Royal Albert Hall from January 15, 1970.

Just like Baker’s other music ventures, Air Force was short-lived, lasting only for a couple of years. In November 1971, he decided to move to Lagos, Nigeria where he set up a recording studio. It operated through the ’70s. One of the albums produced there was Band On The Run by Paul McCartney and Wings. In addition to putting out various solo albums during that time, Baker worked with Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and composer Fela Kuti, a pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre. One of these albums, Stratavarious, appeared in 1972 and included a track written by Kuti called Tiwa (It’s Our Own).

In 1974, Baker teamed up with brothers Adrian Gurvitz (guitar, vocals) and Paul Gurvitz (bass, vocals) to form Baker Gurvitz Army. Here is the title track and a Baker composition from the band’s third and last album Hearts On Fire, which was released in 1976.

After the demise of his recording studio in Nigeria, Baker relocated to Italy in the early 1980s. In 1987, he released African Force, a jazz fusion album. Here’s the opener Brain Damage, which was co-written by Baker and Jan Kazda.

In 1993, Baker teamed up with Bruce (amazing how often these two guys kept reuniting, despite all their bad past fights) and guitarist Gary Moore to form BBM (Bruce, Baker, Moore). Predictably, the power trio didn’t last long either, but they managed to release one album, Around The Next Dream. Here is Why Does Love (Have To Go Wrong?), which is credited to all three musicians.

The last track I’d like to highlight is from Baker’s final studio album Why?, another jazz  record that appeared in May 2014. It was his first solo record in 16 years. Here is Cyril Davis written by Baker. Other musicians on the album included Pee Wee Ellis (saxophone), Alec Dankworth (bass) and Abass Dodoo (percussion).

This post would be incomplete without a few thoughts from other music artists. Mick Jagger called Baker “a fiery but extremely talented drummer.” Recalling his work on the Band On The Run album in Baker’s studio in Nigeria, Paul McCartney characterized him as a “great drummer, wild and lovely guy.” Steven Van Zandt noted “Baker was one of the greatest drummers of all time” and recommended the album Disraeli Gears to those unfamiliar with him.

There were also some heartfelt words from Baker’s son Kofi Baker, the drummer in Cream tribute band Music Of Cream: “The other day, I had a beautiful visit with my dad…we talked about memories and music and he’s happy I’m keeping his legacy alive. Our relationship was mended and he was in a pieceful place.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Jazz.fm91; YouTube