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

What’s My Name…Ringo!

Starr’s new album is full of energy and features impressive friends

Last Friday, Ringo Starr released What’s My Name, his 20th studio album. After having listened to it a few times, I’m quite excited about the record. Admittedly, as a huge fan of The Beatles, I may not be entirely objective here – so be it! I said it before and I say it again: While Ringo isn’t the greatest vocalist and songwriter and perhaps even not the most sophisticated drummer, he is one of the coolest musicians in my book. I just dig the man who at age 79 remains pretty vibrant and just delivered what may be his best work in many years.

Appearing on UMe, What’s My Name was produced by Starr, with longtime collaborator Bruce Sugar handling recording and mixing. The album was recorded at Ringo’s home studio known as Roccabella West. “I don’t want to be in an old-fashioned recording studio anymore, really,” Starr pointed out on his website. “I’ve had enough of the big glass wall and the separation.  We are all together in here, whoever I invite over. This is the smallest club in town. And I love it, being at home, being able to say hi to Barb [referring to his wife, actress Barbara Bach], it’s just been good for me and the music.”

Ringo Starr

The album features an impressive array of other artists, including Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Dave Stewart, Benmont Tench, Steve Lukather, Nathan East, Colin Hay, Richard Page, Warren Ham, Windy Wagner and Kari Kimmel, among others. Most of the songs on this record are collaborations between Ringo and others. Let’s get to some music!

Previously, I already featured the album’s nice title track, so here I’d like to kick things off with the opener Gotta Get Up to Get Down. The nice mid-tempo rocker was co-written by Starr and his brother-in-law and guitarist extraordinaire Joe Walsh. In addition to Ringo (drums, vocals) and Walsh (guitar, vocals), the tune features Edgar Winter (clavinet, synthesizer, vocals), Nathan East (bass), Bruce Sugar (synthesizer) and backing vocalists Richard Page, Warren Ham, Windy Wagner and Kari Kimmel.

The most remarkable song on the album is Ringo’s version of Grow Old With Me, one of the last tunes written by John Lennon. It was recorded as a demo in Bermuda in 1980 and later appeared on his first posthumous album Milk And Honey from January 1984. The inspiration for Ringo to cover the song came during an encounter with Jack Douglas, the producer of Double Fantasy, the 1980 studio album by Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the last released by Lennon during his lifetime. “Jack asked if I ever heard The Bermuda Tapes, John’s demos from that time,” Ringo recalled. “And I had never heard all this. The idea that John was talking about me in that time before he died, well, I’m an emotional person. And I just loved this song.”

“I sang it the best that I could,” Ringo went on. “I do well up when I think of John this deeply. And I’ve done my best. We’ve done our best. The other good thing is that I really wanted Paul [McCartney] to play on it, and he said yes. Paul came over and he played bass and sings a little bit on this with me. So John’s on it in a way. I’m on it and Paul’s on it. It’s not a publicity stunt. This is just what I wanted. And the strings that Jack [Douglas] arranged for this track, if you really listen, they do one line from “Here Comes The Sun.” So in a way, it’s the four of us.” Apart from Ringo (drums, vocals) and McCartney (bass, backing vocals), the recording features Walsh (guitar); Jim Cox (piano); Rhea Fowler and Bianca McClure (violin); Lauren Baba (viola); Isaiah Gage (cello); and Allison Lovejoy (accordion).

Another nice track on this album is Magic, which was co-written by Starr and Steve Lukather.  “I wrote that with Steve Lukather, who is magic,” commented Ringo. “I made a mistake of telling Steve, “You’re my last best friend,” and so that how we’re live now. And he’s a beautiful guy. He sometimes puts out a hard shell, but he is so soulful. We work well together. And he’s even better when he’s not playing a thousand notes a minute – which he can. He’s the man. I love the man. Don’t tell him. Sometimes Steve’s so happy playing with me, I say, “You’re having too much fun.” In addition to Ringo (drums, percussion, vocals) and Lukather (guitar, piano), other musicians on the recording include John Pierce (bass), Bruce Sugar (synthesizer), as well as Richard Page, Warren Ham, Windy Wagner and Kari Kimmel on backing vocals.

Money (That’s What I Want) is the second cover on the album. I always liked this tune, which was co-written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford. Initially recorded by Barrett Strong in 1959, it became the first hit for Motown. In addition to Ringo, the song has been covered by many other artists including The Beatles in 1963. This latest cover features Starr (drums, percussion, vocals), Lukather (guitar), East (bass), Sugar (piano, organ, synthesizer), as well as Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Better Days written by songwriter Sam Hollander. “He [Hollander] had written a song out of things I said in an interview in Rolling Stone,” noted Starr. “I loved the sentiment of it – he had one verse about spending too much time in hospitals, but I didn’t want to even sing that verse – the pity verse. Sam came over and I put the vocals on, and said, `You produce this one,’ but Sam said, “Well, you’re going to do drums.” So, I went in and played it through twice.” I like two takes. And he took “Better Days” away and did it.” Performing on Better Days are Starr (drums, percussion, vocals), Grant Michaels (piano), Peter Levin (organ), Kaveh Rastegar (bass), Pete Min (guitar), James King (horns), as well as Zelma Davis and Garen Gueyikian (backing vocals).

The last word shall belong to Ringo. “When I was a teenager, my mom always said, “Son, you’re at your happiest when you’re playing.” And it’s still true to this day. I’m blessed. I had a dream back when I was thirteen, and just last night I played with all my friends at the Greek, and I’ve been putting together All-Starr bands for 30 years. And it’s still a thrill.” Well said. And it shows!

Sources: Wikipedia, Ringo Starr website, YouTube