Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, July 13, 2006

leading the band

On the recommendation of my brother and Robert Christgau, I recently bought John Lennon’s 1998 posthumous collection “Wonsaponatime.” The singing is unsurprisingly great, and the alternate versions of classic solo tunes show different approaches to the songs, different arrangements to some of them; even though in most cases I prefer the originals, I’m glad to hear these too -- no need to choose.

The disc includes home recordings, which shed floodlights on Lennon’s main shortcoming on most of his stuff after “Imagine”: He lost interest in being a bandleader. His first two solo albums have sharp and distinctive ensemble sounds, but after that he goes generic and bland -- as a bandleader. The solo tunes: a gorgeously melodic piano-song “Real Love” (later Beatle-ized by the remaining Fabs & Jeff Lynne -- I don’t remember that version); and the antic, hyped-up, funny anti-Dylan’s-Christian-phase song “Serve Yourself,” with manic acoustic rhythm guitar & an exaggerated, almost brogue accent and hyperactive comedic asides. These two tunes, more than anything else post-“Imagine” of his I know, show that he never lost it, as a singer or a songwriter. But he lost it as a bandleader.

Some people have heard virtue in the bland studio rock of “Double Fantasy” -- maybe because the domesticity of bland studio rock is supposed to vibe with the easy-going happiness of loving-coupledom? I don’t know, and I struggled to avoid the word “complacency.” I just think he didn’t have a vision for the band-sound, and he wanted to have hits, so he trend-hopped, blandly. Interesting that for most of his (horribly shortened) solo career, he strikes me as the worst bandleader of the four. (Actually, I shouldn’t say that, since I’ve never heard any of Ringo’s stuff after his eponymous album, full of hits and misses, but the band sound on that one, I like better than anything Lennon got after 1971.) Lennon’s latter-day mediocrity interests me because in so many ways he’s my fave Fab -- the most passionate singer, the widest-ranging songwriter (one of the widest ranging of the 20th century, from the careening wordplay of the surreal & moving “I Am the Walrus” to the magnificent “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which limits itself to 12 words). He didn’t lose his way as a songwriter, and at home in the living room he still sounded great.

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Got Caetano Veloso’s relatively recent CD A Foreign Sound from the library today, and it’s a dreamy & mostly minimal collection of American songs, heavy on the Tin Pan Alley / Broadway / Hollywood tradition. He sings very prettily, and the arrangements swoop from minimal, modern-dance-y percussion grooves to a cappella to lush with orchestra to modern electronic funk to minimal acoustic accompaniment, always ear-provoking. Lively collection of songs too, with covers of Brazilian-music boosters David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, as well as a bit of faux-Brasiliana from Hollywood, songs by Nirvana & Dylan & Paul Anka (who’s Canadian) -- I’m going to go listen to it again now.

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Taking a few days away from Blogville -- have A Good One, and then have A Good Nother.

Photo by Betsy Lehr, found courtesy of Google.

You're right on target with the Lennon comments. You've got your finger on the problem: he was best just laying it down himself -- it was the band that blanded him out. After he'd blanded out the band.

Except nothing is absolute -- I don't know if "Wonsauponatime" has the alternate of "I'm Losing You," but it's on the "Lennon Anthology" box. Backed by Bun E. Carlos and Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick, it's incredible rock, with a vocal that evokes rusty nails being pulled from hard wood. John sounds tense and engaged as he says, "Somebody count it in and let's go." But Yoko evidently nixed the Tricksters and for the album John went with the safe, studio-hacky version.

Whenever I wonder if he'd lost "it" in those last years, given it up to Yoko and the Dakota, simply run out of ideas and deep feeling, I think of that track, and "Serve Yourself" (unholy anger and humor in that), and "Real Love." No, he still had it.
I saw Bun E. at a drum seminar in LA once and he mentioned how he was disappointed about being replaced at the last minute by Andy Newmark. and others. Still a decent choice, but less earthyness to his drumming style. Still, it's great we have the recordings, will seek out wonsauponatime.

"Wonsaponatime" has that "Losing You" with Cheap Trick, and it IS great -- thanks for mentioning it. I don't know that it makes sense to "blame" Yoko; even if she argued for a more consistent album sound on the original release (meaning, no all-star guests on some songs) and won the argument, Lennon still agreed (as I'm sure you'd agree). And, Yoko did authorize the posthumous release w/ the guest stars.

I like some later Lennon hits, but it's usually despite the band. "Starting Over" is sweet & catchy & nicely campy; not listless.
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