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CD Review: Anthology shows all sides of Lennon

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

There's nothing as ghoulish as "Free as a Bird" to pull you into this one.

No post-mortem Beatles reunion to draw your attention away from the fact that the last thing you probably need is another fistful of table scraps when you've already been to the banquet.


"The John Lennon Anthology," John Lennon. Capitol. 3 1/2 stars.


No Paulie-come-lately return of the Lennon-McCartney hit machine nearly 20 years after the Lennon assassination to redefine the way you look at ghost-writing.

In its place, what you get in these 94 unreleased cuts is an alternate take on the post-Fab years that's as raw and as honest as Lennon himself.

The only attempt at sweetening here is schmaltzy orchestration added to Lennon's sparse home demo of his poignant pledge of undying love, "Grow Old With Me." It's how he would have wanted it, we're told. And I'd hardly blame Yoko for thinking George Martin (the Beatles' producer) would be just the man for the job. But he isn't. As anyone who's heard his recent "In My Life" collection can tell you, the man has lost his touch, his taste and, I'd wager, his marbles. As the angry young Lennon of '71 would sneer, the sound he makes is Muzak to my ears.

The set begins with a disc of Lennon whipping his songs into shape for two of the most intensely personal (and greatest) albums of the rock 'n' roll era - "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine."

It speaks to the bracing immediacy of "Plastic Ono Band" that early, rough-edged demos of "Working Class Hero," "Mother" and "God" don't feel as raw or as intimate here as they do on the studio album.

A snippet of Lennon cutting straight from "Working Class Hero" to "Well Well Well" on acoustic guitar should bring a smile to fans familiar with the blistering primal-scream assault the tune would become on the album. An early rockabilly take of the self-helping ballad "Hold On" is a blast, and it's certainly entertaining to hear the exchanges between John and Ringo, who can't quite get the stops and starts on "Isolation." But the major revelation here is "I Found Out," a primal home recording on which the droning, distorted guitar can only be described as the world's first known blues-punk explosion. And no, Jon Spencer ain't got nothin' on this baby. Lennon's vocals have rarely sounded so edgy, so angry, so vital. The way he spits out the name of his pre-Yoko partner-in-crime on the line "I seen religion from Jesus to Paul" is brutal.

The cuts from "Imagine" are mostly alternate takes from the studio sessions, none of which prove to be very revealing. You get a harmonium riff on the title cut that sounds eerily reminiscent of Procol Harum, a version of "Jealous Guy" with Nicky Hopkins' piano playing an octave lower and an early take of the anti-McCartney "How Do You Sleep" with more of George Harrison's double-nasty slide guitar in the mix.

The non-album cuts on the first disc include a classic down 'n' dirty cover of "Well (Baby Please Don't Go)," a traditional fans will recognize from the version on "Some Time in New York City" cut live with Frank Zappa; a home recording of "Maggie Mae"; and two songs Lennon wrote for the Oz Band, "God Save Oz" and the Yoko-inspired proto grunge of "Do the Oz" (a one-chord classic, I swear).

You could argue that "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine" warrant a full-disc each and you'd be right.

But in terms of a warts-and-all portrait of the artist as a lad, I suppose you could say you need to hear the cause du jour political activism of "Sometime in New York City." And you'd be hard pressed to fault the sparse acoustic version of "Imagine" recorded live at a rally supporting the prisoners killed at Attica State in an uprising. Most of the live cuts on disc two are pretty amazing, in fact, especially "Come Together" with Lennon shouting "Stop the war" during one of the breaks.

The "Mind Games" album is best represented by "Bring on the Lucie (Freda People)," a rocker on which he cops a feel from the Velvet Underground standard "Sweet Jane." There's also two cuts of Lennon at home on piano, showing how he pieced the title track together from two ideas that don't have much in common, proving a good deal of insight into the mind of a legend at work.

The "Walls and Bridges" sessions yield a pleasant surprise in the disco groove of a sax-free take of "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" that puts the song you've known for all these years to shame.

The "Walls and Bridges" material shares a disc with the "Rock and Roll" sessions, represented here by a rollicking alternative take of Gene Vincent's "Be Bop a Lula" and horn-free blasts through Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Rip It Up" and "Ready Teddy." There's also a must-have version of Lennon drunkenly slurring his way through "Be My Baby" and three tracks of Lennon and legendary crackpot producer Phil Spector trading drunken quips in the studio.

Disc four captures Lennon's return to the life of a rock 'n' roll icon after five years of being a househusband. Kicking it in is a hard-rocking alternate take of "I'm Losing You," with Cheap Trick as a backing band. It rocks like you wouldn't believe, as does a better take of "Nobody Told Me" than the one that turned up on the posthumous "Milk and Honey." Rounding out the "Double Fantasy" outtakes on the final disc are a handful of charming exchanges with Sean and a series of Dylan parodies that offer insight into just how vicious Lennon could be.

At times, the Dylan swipes are funny, but more often than not, he just sounds bitter and oddly obsessed with Dylan's mother.

It's ugly stuff. But Ono says the goal here was to capture Lennon as he was, not as the media has you remembering him. And that's what they've accomplished here.

The man who wrote "Imagine," who staged a Bed-in for Peace, who tried to teach the world all you need is love is the man who attacked his friends in song.

He didn't want to be a saint anymore than he wanted to be a soldier.

That's what makes his records, from the Beatles to this brilliant box set, so compelling.

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