Turns out, John Lennon was just as mercurially intriguing to those who shared studio time with the late Beatles star as he was to those who simply purchased the music.
Lennon remains an enigma, decades after his awful murder: A peace-loving street fighter, a house-husband activist, as inscrutable as he is compulsively listenable.
He’s remembered for his flinty impulse to create (Lennon wanted to write, record and release 1970′s “Instant Karma” in a single day), and his sometimes shocking honesty (not just when he was angry, but also within his lover’s admission on “Jealous Guy.”)
He could be strikingly upbeat (releasing a goofball oldies set Rock ‘n’ Roll on this day in 1975, just before quitting the business for five years), and remarkably vindictive (who can forget the biting critique of his former band mate Paul McCartney on “How Do You Sleep?”).
Collaborators like guitarist Joey Molland, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Alan White were passengers on this amazing post-Beatles creative journey, contributing to signature moments from both the earliest and the last projects in Lennon’s far-too-short solo career.
Each joined us to provide new insight into both the man and those times, as part of an exclusive SER Sitdown …
“INSTANT KARMA,” (single, 1970): This appropriately named tune, Lennon’s third solo single, was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios the same day it was written. “Instant Karma” didn’t, as hoped, hit the shelves at record stores within 24 hours of completion — but it did arrive just 10 days later.
White, who’d previously sat in for a 1969 concert that would mark Lennon’s first solo appearance, says his involvement with the song seemed similarly improvisational: “I was just waking up in the morning when I got a call from [longtime Beatles assistant] Mal Evans. He said John had just written this song and he wanted to record it today and release it next week.”
He rushed over just in time to make an indelible contribution to “Instant Karma,” which peaked at No. 3 in the U.S. as the Beatles’ “Let It Be” was rising to the top of the charts. The song is driven along by a final piece of in-the-moment creativity from White, who contributed this rumbling cadence. He then made an often-overlooked addition to complete the final recording.
“We all met at Abbey Road, and I had an idea of what I wanted to do. It was kind of one of those things where you are playing a rhythm, but when it comes to a drum break, you play in a different meter,” White tells us. “It came naturally — and John said: ‘Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It’s wonderful.’ There were only a few of us in there. John, myself, [pianist] Gary Wright and [bassist] Klaus Voorman. He and I played piano overdubs afterward. I was on a piano with John, and Klaus was on the other. [Legendarily eccentric producer] Phil Spector liked to take multiple sounds and make them sound like one. He’d never put one tambourine on a record — he had to have 15 of them.”
“I’M LOSING YOU,” ANTHOLOGY, (1998): Skip the more polished version found on Double Fantasy, which doesn’t — for some reason — include the original take’s crack group of sidemen: Guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick, and do-anything bassist Tony Levin.
There’s a crunchy, kinetic sizzle here, as John looks back at his own alcohol-induced mid-1970s dumbassed-ness. We get an even deeper sense of the return of Lennon’s muse — the vibrant, angry yang to his bread-making house-husband yin. Levin’s chunky bass part is also far more prominent in this mix: “Playing with John, that was great — an honor and a huge musical pleasure for me,” Levin tells us. “Not a lot to report about it except that, of course, I wish there had been more.”
That this version somehow ended up on the cutting-room floor is another reason to reconsider Double Fantasy, which often ended up more gossamer than necessarily great. Lennon was, at his zenith, a scratched-and-dented treasure, laconic and all edge, and too often on this project he seemed to have settled into middle-aged domesticity — both figuratively and, by employing the prevailing pop veneer, literally.
That’s blown apart by his muscular alternate take on “I’m Losing You,” which emerges with a sinewy new grit. We hear more distinctly the way Lennon was beginning to understand what lay before him — middle age, a settled life, marriage and parenthood — and, how much fight was still left in him. Lennon, blessedly clearer of voice, sounds like a rebel again.
“JEALOUS GUY,” (IMAGINE, 1971): One of the most covered of Lennon’s solo tracks, “Jealous Guy” has been reinterpreted some 100 times — most notably perhaps by Roxy Music, who had a huge hit with it just atfter Lennon’s murder. And yet, it still utterly belongs to its author, who sings with an unmatched fragility over an atmospheric track that included Voormann, drummer Jim Keltner, Molland and Evans on guitars and John Barham on harmonium.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?,” said Molland, who had recently worked with his late Badfinger bandmate Tom Evans on George Harrison’s post-Beatles solo debut. “They just called up and invited us down there. John wanted to try out some things with acoustic guitars, and George had just come off All Things Must Pass. Phil Spector was also producing John’s record, so they asked us to play a bit. We went down and it was a great evening — one of the highlights of my life.”
On the other side of the coin, Molland and Evans also contributed to Lennon’s anti-Vietnam screed, “I Don’t Want To Be a Soldier.” “We just played the guitar like we normally did, really simply,” Molland adds. “We didn’t try to put in too many accents, or all the rubbish that you can do. It worked out. I think that’s why they used us: They knew we’d learn the songs quickly, and we’d understand the song and be empathetic. It turned out to be a good experience for everybody.
“I DON’T WANNA FACE IT,” MILK AND HONEY, (1984): A still-resonant tune with biting introspection, the track begins with the smeared sound of a tape machine engaging — this powerful reminder that Milk and Honey includes the incomplete, posthumous recordings of a murdered genius. Even so, you’ll find that all of the parts are still there, though they are scattered about, in this half-chiseled monument to creative rebirth for Lennon: He works in antithesis, throws away a bit of ageless wisdom, acts a little silly.
From the first, “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” is prototypical Lennon, beginning with an intro that is this dazzling absurdity, Lennon at his wackadoo best: He counts off, in made-up gibberish melding Old World-sounding language with a drunken Lewis Carroll: “Un, deux, eins-zwei-hickel-pickel!” There follows a grinding guitar and Levin’s utterly nasty bass line — underscoring the idea that Lennon’s illuminatingly personal lyricism, despite that jokey turn to start, was still in tact after five years away.
That very disassociative, brutally frank, toss-off attitude — found in Milk and Honey in general, and “I Don’t Wanna Face It” in particular — has ultimately made it more memorably in keeping with Lennon’s uneven solo career than did the sometimes too-slick Double Fantasy from four years before. The song’s ending is transitional, and probably needed one more take. That works, too, in its way: This is another searing reminder of the fate that lay just around the corner for Lennon on a New York City street.
HOW DO YOU SLEEP,” (IMAGINE, 1971): A sharp jab at Paul McCartney, Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep” couldn’t have been more different in tone or texture from sensitive moments like the album’s title track — which has been completed, White said, in just three takes. Elsewhere, White had to ramp up into a heavy-metal political vibe on “Gimme Some Truth” too, making this album one of his most complete efforts as a drummer.
Still, there were some uncomfortable moments as White scanned the content for “How Do You Sleep,” which included a number of biting insults directed by Lennon’s former writing partner, including: “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday.’”
“That was one of the songs that John gave me all of the lyrics beforehand,” White tells us. “He said: ‘This is what we are about today. This is my message. Tell me if you want to play on it.’ I read it, and thought: ‘Oh God, I know who this is about!’ But it wasn’t my place to tell him not to say it. Besides, it was a great number.”
George Harrison provides this track’s scalding slide guitar, but Ringo Starr — who was in the studio as an observer at the time of its recording — reportedly blanched at the swipes being made at their former band mate. Lennon and McCartney later reconciled before that awful day in 1980.