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Five for Friday: John Lennon Deep Cuts

Long considered the pinnacle of John Lennon's solo career, Imagine has been re-imagined. The newly released Imagine: The Ultimate Mixes includes, among its multiple configurations, a six-disc box set featuring four CDs, two Blu-ray discs, and a 120-page book. A new mix by Paul Hicks, overseen by Yoko Ono, seeks to bring greater clarity to Lennon's vocals. (He was known for layering and burying his voice with effects.) And a slew of outtakes present the songs of Imagine, painstakingly worked on in the studio, in their rawest form. The archival release also marks the first of two significant Beatles-related reissues coming this fall/winter. A large box set and 4LP package dedicated to the Beatles' so-called The White Album arrives in November. For now, we dive into some of Lennon's greatest, but lesser-known, solo cuts.

"I Found Out"
A biting, bluesy number on Lennon's proper solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, "I Found Out" finds Lennon moving in a joltingly aggressive direction – at least when compared to latter-day Beatles albums. But it also feels free, the sound of a songwriter getting things off his chest, and exploring a gritty, urban tone. Indeed, the static-drenched guitar feels as if it reverberates off concrete. Its bold, electric pulse can hang with today's toughest rock n' roll. And Lennon doesn't hold back with the song's R-rated lyrics, either, hollering "don't let them fool you with dope and cocaine" near the song's end as he compares religion to a drug.

One of the joys of listening to solo Lennon relates to how open and upfront he sounds in his songs. "Scared," written and recorded in 1974 for Walls and Bridges, largely documents a period in which Lennon was estranged from Ono and, when not making a music, said to be living a self-destructive hedonistic lifestyle that he later dubbed "the lost weekend" (it lasted about 18 months). After beginning with the sound of a howling wolf, "Scared" delves deep into the fear and pain that accompany loneliness. Lennon peppers the first couple verses with metaphors, then gets naked near song's end: "Every day of my life/I just manage to survive/I just want to stay alive." A string section heightens the drama, and brass notes highlight the despair.

"Cleanup Time"
After taking about a five-year recording hiatus to reconcile with Ono and spend time with his son, Sean, Lennon returned to the studio to recorded Double Fantasy with Ono. Initially poorly received – many negative reviews were withheld due to Lennon's assassination – Double Fantasy has aged rather well, largely thanks to it taking an all-too-rare look at married life. "Cleanup Time" carries a double meaning, referencing domestic chores – "The king is in the kitchen/Making bread and honey" – while also standing as a nod to maturing, getting sober, and settling down. In turn, this may be one of the few songs that celebrates the role of a house-husband, and does so with a lively, soulful aura that feels fit for an off-Broadway revue.

"Crippled Inside"
Nestled on Imagine between two of Lennon's best-known tunes – the title track and "Jealous Guy" – "Crippled Inside" appears slighter compared to the emotional weight carried by the pair of more famous songs. But it's a blast, with scathingly bleak albeit sarcastic lyrics that include, "You can wear a collar and a tie/One thing you can't hide/Is when you're crippled inside." Lennon opts for a rockabilly-influenced country arrangement, and while his vocal twang sounds more silly than natural, the swinging tune rewards repeat listens. For on the lush Imagine, even when Lennon does folk and country, he make sure it all feels rich. A piano possesses a saloon-like vibe, and George Harrison, on the dobro, cooks up the equivalent of a wild, back-porch party.

"It's So Hard"
Lennon always felt comfortable playing the blues. To wit, "It's So Hard," a powerful tale from Imagine about what it simply takes to survive. The singer growls in the opening verse, "You gotta love/You gotta be somebody/You gotta shove." The layered vocals lend an air of significance, but the sax from horn great King Curtis serves as the secret weapon. The R&B titan – that's him on Aretha Franklin's "Respect" – plays call and response with Lennon, providing an exclamation point to each of his lyrics while also bringing uplift to the chorus. The string arrangement that arrives in the song's final half exudes optimism, but King Curtis' sax keeps bringing everything back down to earth.

October 5, 2018

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