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

My Top 5 Debut Albums Turning 50

Earlier this week, I wrote about my top 5 studio albums turning 50 this year. That post was inspired by “Top 50 Albums Turning 50,” a fun program on SiriusXM, Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26) I had caught the other day. But capturing the greatness of 1971 with just five albums really doesn’t do justice to one of the most remarkable years in music, so I decided to have some more fun with it.

This time, I’m looking at great debut albums from 1971. While that caveat substantially narrowed the universe, an initial search still resulted in close to 10 records I could have listed here. Following are my five favorites from that group, again in no particular order.

Electric Light Orchestra/The Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO, were formed in Birmingham, England in 1970 by songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, along with drummer Bev Bevan, as an offshoot of British rock band The Move. The idea was to combine Beatlesque pop and rock with classical music. I always thought the result was somewhat weird, feeling like The Beatles and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on steroids; yet at the same time, ELO created a signature sound and songs that undoubtedly were catchy. The band’s debut album, the only record with Wood, first came out in the UK on December 3, 1971 as The Electric Light Orchestra. In the U.S., it appeared in March 1972, titled No Answer. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, that title was accidental when a representative from U.S. label United Artists Records unsuccessfully tried to reach an ELO contact in the UK and wrote down “no answer” in his notes. Here’s the record’s opener 10538 Overture, a tune Lynne wrote, which initially was recorded by The Move to become a B-side to one of their singles.

Bill Withers/Just As I Am

Bill Withers got a relatively late start in music. By the time his debut single Three Nights and a Morning appeared in 1967, Withers already was a 29 year-old man who previously had served in the U.S. Navy for nine years. It took another four years before his debut album Just As I Am was released in May 1971. Unlike his first single that went unnoticed, the record became a significant success, reaching no. 35 and no. 37 in the U.S. and Canadian mainstream charts, and peaking at no. 9 on the Billboard Soul charts. Much of the popularity was fueled by lead single Ain’t No Sunshine, one of Withers’ best known songs and biggest hits. Just As I Am was produced by Booker T. Jones, who also played keyboards and guitar. Some of the other musicians on the album included M.G.’s bassist and drummer Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., respectively, as well as Stephen Stills (guitar) and Jim Keltner (drums). While Ain’t No Sunshine is the crown jewel, there’s more to this record. Check out Do It Good, a soul tune with a cool jazzy groove, written by Withers.

ZZ Top/ZZ Top’s First Album

While guitarist Billy Gibbons recorded ZZ Tops’s first single Salt Lick (backed by Miller’s Farm) in 1969 with Lanier Greig (bass) and Dan Mitchell (drums), the band’s current line-up with Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) has existed since early 1970. This makes ZZ Top the longest-running group in music history with unchanged membership. It was also the current line-up that recorded the band’s debut ZZ Top’s First Album released on January 16, 1971. It was produced by Bill Ham, who was instrumental to ZZ Top’s success. Not only did he produce or co-produce all of their records until their 12th studio album Rhythmeen from September 1996, but he also served as the band’s manager until that year. Here’s the great blues rocker Brown Sugar, one of my favorite early ZZ Top tunes written by Gibbons.

Bonnie Raitt/Bonnie Raitt

As a long-time fan of the amazing Bonnie Raitt, picking her eponymous debut album for this post was an easy choice. According to Wikipedia, it was recorded at an empty summer camp located on an island on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. That location had been recommended to Raitt by John Koerner and Dave Ray, two close friends and fellow musicians. We recorded live on four tracks because we wanted a more spontaneous and natural feeling in the music, a feeling often sacrificed when the musicians know they can overdub their part on a separate track until it’s perfect, Raitt explained in the album’s liner notes. Here’s Mighty Tight Woman written and first recorded by Sippie Wallace as I’m a Mighty Tight Woman in 1926.

America/America

America sometimes are dismissed as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. I’ve loved this band since I was nine years old and listened for the first to their 1975 compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits, which my six-year older sister had on vinyl. The folk rock trio of Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar), Dan Peek (vocals, guitar, piano) and Gerry Beckley (vocals, bass, guitar, piano) released their eponymous debut album on December 26, 1971 in the U.K. That was the year after they had met in London where their parents were stationed with the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. version of the record, which appeared on January 12, 1972, included A Horse with No Name, a song that initially was released as the group’s first single and was not on the UK edition. Remarkably, that single became America’s biggest hit, topping the charts in the U.S., Canada and France, and surging to no. 3 in the UK. Here’s a track from the original UK edition: Sandman written by Bunnell. Beckley and Bunnell still perform as America to this day. Peek left the group in 1977, renewed his Christian faith, and pursued a Christian pop music career. He passed away in July 2011 at the age of 60.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Hall & Oates Bring Back That Lovin’ Feelin’ To Allentown Fairgrounds

Homecoming gig features duo’s hits from the ’70s and ’80s

Earlier this year, my wife saw Hall & Oates were going to tour the U.S. and suggested we get tickets. While I always liked the pop duo, especially for their smooth ’70s soul-oriented music, they weren’t exactly on my radar screen. Well, I’m glad my wife paid attention and convinced me to see them. In general, our music tastes are very different, and I end up going to most shows by myself. It’s nice when every now and then we find an act we both like. Last night was showtime at The Fairgrounds in Allentown, Pa. And, boy, I have to say Daryl Hall and John Oates, who are now in their early seventies, were in excellent shape, and we had a great time!

Christian & Frances
The music muser with his sweet wife

Before getting to Hall & Oates, I’d like to say a few words about opening act G. Love & Special Sauce. I had never heard of this trio from Philadelphia, featuring frontman Garrett Dutton, a.k.a G. Love (lead vocals, guitar, harmonica), Jeffrey Clemens (drums) and Jim Prescott (double bass). Wikipedia describes them as “an alternative hip hop band…known for their unique “sloppy” and “laid back” blues sound that encompasses classic R&B. Well, last night, I particularly heard and liked blues-oriented music with the occasional touch of hip hop. Playing as a trio is challenging, but these guys were really bringing it. There was even a bit of on-stage drama when Prescott broke a bass string – yikes! While he was calmly replacing the string and tuning, the two other guys carried on as a duo, as if nothing had happened. After a few songs into their set, I randomly decided to capture this tune called Shooting Hoops. It’s from their eponymous debut album released in May 1994.

On to Hall & Oates. Their gig last night was a homecoming. Daryl Hall was born in Pottstown, Pa., about 30 miles south of Allentown, while John Oates grew up in Philly suburb North Wales, which is approximately 40 miles southeast of Allentown. He was born in New York City. The duo opened their set with one of their biggest hits from the ’80s: Maneater. If I recall it correctly, that song was the first time I heard of Hall & Oates back in Germany. Co-written by John Oates, Daryl Hall and his then-girlfriend Sara Allen, it appeared on Hall & Oates’ 11th studio album H2O from October 1982. The track was also released separately as the record’s lead single and became their fifth no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100

As noted above, I particularly dig Hall & Oates’ more soul-oriented tunes. Apart from loving the genre in general, I feel this type of music perfectly fits Daryl Hall’s vocals. Here’s their great rendition of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.  Co-written by songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, together with producer Phil Spector, this classic was first recorded by The Righteous Brothers in 1964 and became their first major and biggest hit topping the charts in U.S., U.K. and Canada. Hall & Oates recorded their beautiful version for the Voices album from July 1980, their ninth studio release. It also became one of four singles from that record and a top 10 hit in the U.S.

Here’s another Hall & Oates classic and perhaps my favorite: She’s Gone, from their sophomore album Abandoned Luncheonette that came out in November 1973. Co-written by John Oates and Daryl Hall, the tune was also released as a single and became their first song to chart in the U.S., peaking at no. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100. While making the charts for a then-young pop duo in and of itself was a significant accomplishment, I find it somewhat mind-boggling the tune didn’t climb higher. The album fared better, hitting no. 33 on the Billboard 200, which was then called Top LPs and Tapes chart. After their debut Whole Oates had failed to make an impact, this was actually a quite important early milestone for Hall & Oates – certainly a nice consolation!

After 11 songs and I would say just over an hour, it was already time for the encore – perhaps the only thing I found a bit measly about the show. But Hall & Oates made it count with four additional nice tracks. Here’s the first: Rich Girl, another ’70s tune and one of my favorites. Written by Daryl Hall for their fifth studio album Bigger Than Both Of Us from August 1976, it became the duo’s first no. 1 hit in the U.S. Apparently, the song was written about an ex-boyfriend from Sara Allen who then was together in a relationship with Hall. But Hall didn’t feel rich boy sounded right, so he changed the lyrics.

The last track I’d to highlight is You Make My Dreams, the final song of the encore. Another track from the Voices album, it was co-written by Sara Allen, John Oates and Daryl Hall. It also became the album’s lead single in May 1981 and another hit, climbing to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hall & Oates were a hit machine during the first half of the ’80s, especially in the U.S. Between 1981 and 1984, they scored 10 top ten singles there, including five that reached no. 1.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging Hall & Oates’ great backing band – except it’s tricky to find info on the musicians on the Internet. On the duo’s official website, there is a section about band members, which when you click on it cheerfully reveals the comment “Coming soon…” Are you kidding me? According to setlist.fm, the U.S. leg of their tour titled Real Deal 2019 kicked off August 15. When exactly are you planning to list your touring musicians, the guys that help you sound as great as you do?! Luckily, this recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune has some of the details.

One of the standouts to me was multi-instrumentalist Charles DeChant, who plays saxophone, flute, keyboards and guitar. In addition to Hall & Oates, DeChant’s impressive credits include Mick Jagger, The Temptations, Tina Turner and Bonnie Raitt, among others. Shane Theriot handled lead guitar. He used to be musical director for the TV show Live from Daryl’s House. He has also recorded or performed with many other artists like The Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Little Feat. The backing band also included a drummer, bassist, second keyboarder (in addition to guitar, Hall played keys as well) and a percussionist. Perhaps once the touring musicians are added to Hall & Oates’ official website, I’d be happy to name them. Yes, Daryl and John you can go for that, yes can do. Just tell your website guy to fix what was probably an oversight!

Setlist
1. Maneater
2. Out Of Touch
3. Adult Education
4. Method of Modern Love
5. Say It Isn’t So
6. One On One
7. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’
8. (The Righteous Brothers cover)
9. She’s Gone
10. Sara Smile
11. Is It a Star
12. I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)

Encore
13. Rich Girl
14. Kiss on My List
15. Private Eyes
16. You Make My Dreams

On a more cheerful note about the Hall & Oates website, it does list upcoming U.S. gigs, which include Reno, Nev. (Sep 12), Puyallyp, Wash. (Sep 14) and Charleston, S.C. (Sep. 19). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, YouTube