Monday, 19 March 2018

Lindisfarne Essay: Keepin' The Rage On Behalf Of The Working Classes

Well done, you made it to the halfway part of the book (or halfway through our 'music' section at any rate!) We can't give you a prize to celebrate I'm afraid though you probably deserve one, but we can shake things up a bit by moving outside talking about our respective AAA bands' discography and moving on to what makes them stand out from their peers and offer something no other band can. In truth these essays kind of run across the whole book and you can read them in any order, but now we've reached the halfway point it's quite useful to take stock of where we've been and why before working out where we will go next. Which in Lindisfarne’s case is pretty much where they’d always been going – in a straight line, speaking up for the underprivileged and the oppressed, whatever their country, whatever their class, whatever the century. Like a Geordie CSNY, Lindisfarne made politics a natural part of their sound from day one and made a career out of lampooning authority figures who were so much more ignorant than the people they were trying to control. However it’s an under-rated facet of their work that often gets lost, drowned out by million-selling pop singles and cute novelty songs about fog and sickly sausage rolls…
Occasionally I forget, dear readers, that the rest of the world is not like us. At best the people around me think I’m a little bit eccentric for writing these books in such detail and at such length for so many years. At worst they think I’m insane. Very occasionally some misguided soul will ask me what I’m working on and then look confused by my horror that they’ve never heard what I’m working on. And even more when they try to patiently explain that it’s ‘only’ pop music. We know that isn’t true of course - music at its best is everything: it’s a way of explaining the world, of understanding it, of sympathising with those who would otherwise have no voice, of seeing how other people see the world, a way of feeling less alone and insane in a world that demands we be a certain way, a means of getting to grips with. But it’s hard to express that out loud.  ‘But…but…but, its important!’ I feebly squeak when people ask. The people around me just ask if it’s good to dance to. Sometimes I despair…
Sometimes I get lucky, well semi-lucky. Sometimes people have heard of a band I write about. Sometimes they’ll even be able to hum a few bars of their biggest hit singles. Which can be even more of a curse than when they know who the person I’m writing about it. Take Lindisfarne: everyone by default knows [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’, even those who claim never to have heard of it or been thirty years too late; it’s just everywhere from radios to football stadiums (Paul Gascoigne has a lot to answer for!) And if by any small slight chance nobody knows that one they’ll almost certainly know the cheery [27] ‘Meet Me On The Corner’. Everything else, though, and they haven’t got a clue. ‘Oh’ they say, ‘You’re reviewing a pop band! Is the rest of their stuff as catchy?’
Err, no. Lindisfarne must be one of the most misunderstood bands there ever was as you’ll know by now if you’ve got this far through the book. ‘Fog’ was written deliberately, as a funny parody of their usual sombre style (it even starts with the same sad slow opening to [31] ‘January Song’). ‘Corner’ was written as a sad folk lament before becoming a bit more commercial. Neither is the true spirit of Lindisfarne great as they are – this is a band who belong on the ‘adult’ shelf, dealing with intricate politics, debate and difficult subject matters. Nobody else was as vocal about problems in British class warfare, the Irish struggles and what the collapse of communism meant to the working class Russians (as opposed to celebrating the victory of Western capitalism). This difference can be summed up in one single album cover, that to 1989’s ‘Amigos’. There the band are grinning inanely, their arms around each other, on an album cover and title that screams ‘1980s pop cheese’. But the album itself is an angry, desperate tirade against how the impoverished were being treated at the end of the Thatcher and Reagan years, when money was poured into ‘star wars’ missile systems during a credit crunch that left so many people out of work. The ‘real’ Lindisfarne can be seen in the subtitle and the working title for the album hidden away underneath: ‘Keepin’ The Beacon Burnin’, a diluted version of their original tagline ‘Keepin’ The Rage’. This is the ‘real’ Lindisfarne and it’s a task no British band ever did better.
Lindisfarne came from some pretty impoverished backgrounds, in a part of Newcastle where nobody was expected to come to anything very much. Alan Hull wrote about this in his song [121] ‘The Bad Side Of The Town’, along side his belief that impoverished communities had something the posher estates never had – a sense of brotherhood, of unity, of compassion as people helped each other out where they could. It’s a feeling that Lindisfarne always took with them across their career as they expanded that community out to their fanbase in a way that not many other bands achieved. It didn’t matter where round the world you lived, or what you did or didn’t do – if you were a Lindisfan, then you were ‘one of us’. And Alan Hull frequently got outraged on their behalf, especially when speaking up for communities that weren’t given a voice in the mainstream media.
As early as his first single, before he ever joined Lindisfarne, Hull is singing about the divide of ‘us’ and them’ [11] ‘We Can Swing Together’ is a funny song if you take it that way, a ‘breakthrough’ song where the wannabe songwriter working as a window cleaner and psychiatric nurse paying for the upkeep of three small children was able to put into words how frustrated he was at being told what to do for a lifetime. A late baby boomer, he’d found that the world of peace and love and flowers hadn’t reached Newcastle, where he and his friends got booted out of a party and hauled up in a magistrate’s court for, shock horror, making tiny bit of noise on a Friday night. Hull never forgot the injustice, or the fact that posh men in wigs were judging his community for letting off steam after a hard week’s physical labour, something the judge and half the jury had never experienced. That ‘how dare they judge me!’ comes across in a lot of Hull’s work, long after every other band had caved in and started wearing suits or speaking in posh accents (Lindisfarne were always delightfully Geordie, right up to the very end). [48] ‘Court In The Act’ returns to the same scene with a series of false charges which didn’t happen but ‘sounded like fun!’ The judge, though, has a judge, man – against the person in the dock simply because of where he comes from and how he talks.
There were so many people in Lindisfarne’s sights over the years and what linked them all was that they saw the people they ‘controlled’ as statistics to be treated as cheaply as possible, rather than humans who were suffering. These include 1) town planners: architect [32] Peter Brophy was invited by Newcastle council member [115] Dan ‘The Plan’ T Smith to erect a new building to house as many dispossessed locals as possible for the cheapest possible price, The solution was a concrete monstrosity with few windows and no greenery which achieved its objective of being cheap but led to such ostracisation and ugliness that it made a bad situation worse. Many people ordered to move into the building claimed that they would rather have lived on the streets. I think it should be a law that every architect who designs a building has to live in it for a year to make it habitable and make sure that it is fit for human consumption! [39] ‘All Fall Down’ looks at the people who physically tore up Hull’s old Benwell estate, asking them to ‘tear down’ their prejudice along with the buildings and asking for some green to be set against the concrete.
2) People in charge of homelessness. There’s something of the vagabond gypsy in Lindisfarne’s nature as they lurch from one disaster to another. [15] ‘Winter Song’ imagines how life might have been for Hull had he not met his wife or his bandmates and had been stuck on the dole for eternity. Passing a tramp in the street just as his career is taking off during a harsh snow-filled Christmas Hull starts to think how easily his life could have been the same – and urges us to do the same.
3) Soldiers! It’s not just Hull. Si’s first song, written long before Lindisfarne were formed, is [29] ‘Uncle Sam’, where a Newcastle teen who would never have had a chance in the British army wonders what it might have been like had he been called up to serve in Vietnam or Korea, two spectacularly dunder-headed and un-necessary wars the Americans lost badly but still try to pretend they ‘won’. Si imagines someone just like him, weedy, short, poor of health and complexion, urged to ‘volunteer’ for a war that was itself voluntary and which only he can see through. Other Lindisfarne songs attack war in a more general sense: [72] ‘When War Is Over’ is about things returning to normal in peacetime, as if nothing had happened – which makes the war, whatever it is, utterly pointless for both sides. [171] ‘1983’, meanwhile, imagines the outbreak of World War Three ‘the biggest show I’ve ever seen’ – but that’s all it is, a show, as more innocent people suffer on both sides suffer because of the stupidity of war leaders.
4) Taxmen. Lindisfarne were hit by more management problems than most – but a majority of their problems came from finding accountants who ‘allowed’ them it use their money for charitable ends instead of squirreling it away. Hull described [206] ‘Ode To The Taxman’ as ‘about a sneaky, evil, horrible, slimy sort of a person…’ and sets off on a tirade that takes his vitriol to a whole new tax bracket. The thing is, you see, the taxman is getting away with fiddling his own taxed because he’s one of ‘theirs’ and will never be caught, even after he chases the poor for every last penny. Goodness knows what he would have made of the credit crunch and the bankers’ meanness in the modern age had he lived, never mind the hypocrisy of making out that a non-regulated banking error committed by posh big-headed twonks behind the scenes was all the thought o a few ‘scroungers’ trying to live hand-to-mouth off a few pence. If I know Hull, there would have been entire concept albums about the recklessness and greed of the Conservative Government and a blow-up Ian Duncan Smith doll everyone got to behead night after night.
5) Posh people in general. [55] ‘Country Gentleman’s Wife’ pointedly uses the names of Gentlemen and Ladies, but they’re behaving more like the stereotypical chav: he’s out with his mistresses even though he’s got a wife half his age at home; she’s lonely and sexually frustrated and randy enough to make a play for the passing lowlife she sees outside her door. Only he’s more noble than either of them, protesting at her moral scruples and refusing to take part – until she dangles enough money in front of him. Also [166] ‘Marshall Riley’s Army’ for instance recalls a people’s march from Jarrow in the days of the great depression by so many working class people desperate to work to feed their families – and the politicians in London wouldn’t even read their petition. Alan-Rod collaboration [224] ‘Working For The Man’ also has a poverty stricken person leaving their family and travelling the world in search of work, which no one has. He’s struck by how similar the scheming politicians are in every continent though, always finding work for themselves and not for him and his ilk. Right up until the very end Hull was attacking a system he thought was unfair: ‘Put on your uniform, your top hat and tails’ he mocks as he tries to overthrow the aristocracy from the inside, starting with a song about ‘ne’er do wells’ like many a ‘posh’ band before turning on ‘aristocrats and fat cats’ instead. Everyone in power is too busy singing about statues from the past or liberties that mean nothing – but they don’t know what it really means to suffer. He does. And he has to say something. All of these songs are a sorry mess of the rich’s creating but where it’s the poor who suffer because of it and there’s a sense of many of these Lindisfarne songs that the working classes would be much better off in charge of the world than the rich – it would be a lot fairer for one thing…
6) Mostly though Hull saves his anger for politicians around the world. Hull looks on aghast as he watches the orders given during the ‘Bloody Sunday’ uprisings in Ireland in 1972, as innocent people are beaten up and killed for standing up for their rights. There are many AAA songs about the Irish troubles in this period – including three by ex-Beatles, no less – but Hull’s weary sad song [42] ‘Poor Old Ireland’ has it the best. ‘Imagine if this was you!’ he says to his English listeners, as he ‘sees through the lies’ and argues that no belief or cause is ever enough reason to make ‘blind children bleed’. Over in Russia, too, Hull is quick to point out amongst the gung-ho we-won spirit of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that the Russian people have been left with nothing. ‘Your sadness tears my heart out’ he sighs on [241 ‘Mother Russia’, seeing the atrocities first hand as he empties his pockets during a Russian Lindisfarne tour, ‘But it ain’t easy to explain’. Lindisfarne are the people’s band, no matter where around the world they are, ganging up on the politicians for hurting ‘his’ people. You can hear that wrath on other songs: ‘President Reagan ain’t thinking when he says he wants to teach the Russians good!’ he scowls on [188] ‘Cruisin’ To Disaster’ before turning on Thatcher as a ‘lunatic running the show’ on his angriest song [197] ‘Stormy Waters’. ‘Come on boys…come on girls…it’s time that we all stick together!’ urges Hull, desperate to see the unity in hardship he used to see on his estate, instead of being divided by politicians for their own evil ends. No wonder Hull also writes a song titled [41] ‘Bring The Government’ where ‘if you want your rights you’re gonna have to fight, so bring down the Government please!’
Throughout these songs is the growing gnawing feeling of injustice. Why should Lindisfarne pretend to be anything other than a Geordie band just to sell records – [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is as ‘local’ as a song can be and it still became a best-seller everywhere. Why shouldn’t they be proud of their working class roots – it’s not as if the rich people have anything to be proud about! Why should Lindisfarne let the powers that be go by unquestioned when their policies on war, homelessness, town planning and poverty create so much unnecessary evil in a world already full of it? Lindisfarne all turned to music as an ‘escape’ from their bleak surroundings – the difference to many bands is that they carried on and on and on demanding it. Long after the point where it was fashionable, or they became ‘rich’, or the first objects of their anger faded away from power. Instead Lindisfarne made it their life’s work to speak up for those who had no voice, to represent the grass-roots of what their fans were thinking, even and perhaps especially the people who could never actually afford their music (the problem that many political bands for the working classes have, as they are writing for the smallest possible income group). Yes [36] ‘Fog On The Tyne’ is cute and [30] ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ is pretty and [156] ‘Run For Home’ is sweet and there’s a place for all three of those songs in every self=-respecting catalogue of music. But it’s the politics and anger and the battle against prejudice of all kinds that’s the heartbeat of this band’s legacy, sometimes covered up and gentrified, often raw and sarcastic, that makes them an Alan’s Album Archives band with a catalogue to match any other group out there.
That’s why I’m proud to be a Lindisfan – and a good example of why I sigh everyone tells me that I am wasting my time writing about mere ‘pop’ music. Sometimes this stuff matters and everyone needs to see that there is more to life than what they tell you on the news or in the political party broadcasts. If people suffer, then their voices need to be heard, whether those people are speaking from a ne’er do well council estate in Newcastle’s poorest slum, are speaking on behalf of Russian and Irish citizens or were speaking from several decades ago and are all dead. It all matters, so very very very very much. Without bands like Lindisfarne to fight their corner and to shine a light in the darkness at times the world would be a very lonely place indeed. Instead they give us courage: if this band can come from nowhere to say something, if they can beat the class prejudice and get somewhere through talent, if they can then remember where they came from and help out where they can – well, that makes a difference, however small. ‘They’ say that politics doesn’t belong in music, that it puts off people who might listen to it and that music should ‘only’ be about escapism and dancing and ‘girl power’. ‘They’ are ‘wrong’. Instead music belongs in politics – it levels the playing fields, it encourages debate, it allows you to see things from someone else’s point of view you might never ever have understood in your own life and it really warms your heart when someone speaks up and says something you’re thinking, but nobody around you seems to agree with. As one of Britain’s most working class bands, from one of the most working class areas, who were all educated and intelligent and erudite, Lindisfarne (and CSNY) are often my first port of call when someone then asks me ‘so why is writing about music important exactly?...’ Sadly they never seem to ‘get’ it. But we do, dear reader. And sometimes that’s enough.
Other Lindisfarne related articles from this site can be read at:

'Nicely Out Of Tune' (L) (1970)

'Fog On The Tyne' (L) (1971)

'Dingly Dell' (L) (1972)

'Roll ON Ruby' (L) (1973)

'The Squire' (AH) (1975)

'The Old Straight Track' (JTL) (1975)

‘Jackpot’ (JTL) (1976)

'Magic In The Air' (L) (1978)

'Back and Fourth' (L) (1978)

‘The News’(L) (1979)

'Sleepless Nights' (L) (1982)

'Dance Your Life Away' (L) (1986)

‘Amigos’ (1989)

'Elvis Lives On The Moon' (L) (1993)

'Here Comes The Neighbourhood' (1998)

'Promenade' (2002)

Si Cowe Obituary and Tribute (2015)

Surviving TV Clips

Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part One 1970-1987
Live/Solo/Compilation Albums Part Two 1988-2015

George Harrison: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely! As for George, well he probably played less gigs than any other AAA artist (barring Lennon), with around seventy-five shows  in total across a thirty-one year solo career (with another 500-ish as a member of The Beatles of course, it's not as if he was sitting with his feet-up or had a phobia or anything) which has made picking out the most important ones a bit trickier. George wasn't a natural spot-light-loving performer either; he was, after all, the Beatle who first wanted to stop touring complaining that he couldn't be heard at gigs and only went back on his word for matters of great global significance (the BanglaDesh shows), slowing album sales (the 1974 'Dark Hoarse' tour) or when he really really needed the money (the 1991 Japanese tour). However the live concerts are an under-rated part of George's canon as a result and the fact that we have two live albums to enjoy at a ratio of 75 gigs played (with another show screened live on US telly) also means that Harrison's live career is better represented on record than most (though that half-planned live album from 1974 never did come out and probably never will!) Here, then, are five live shows, remember this is la-la-la-la-live!
1) Where: Madison Square Gardens, New York When: August 1st 1971 Why: First Charity Fundraiser and So Much More?! Setlist: [24] Wah-Wah [23] My Sweet Lord [34] Awaiting On You All [31] Beware Of Darkness 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' 'Here Comes The Sun' 'Something' [38] Hear Me Lord [45] Bangla-Desh (plus Dylan, Preston, Shankar and Russell songs)
We've already spent a whole review studying this gig, but it's too important not to mention again with so many 'firsts' about it: George's first live gig, the first time two Beatles were seen together on stage since 1966 and the first concert organised purely to raise funds for charity with none of the musicians getting paid a cent (not even travel expenses). Actually there were two gigs, at 2.30pm and 8pm, George figuring that as he had Madison Square booked for the whole day anyway the band might as well perform twice and raised double the funds with the exact same show repeated again (although, typically, Dylan's set was shorter the second time round!)The gigs were hard work to organise, especially at short notice, but it's measure of both the music world's big heart and their respect for George that he actually ended up with too many people on stage offering support and Harrison later talked about his grief at having to turn so many artists down (we don't know who though - presumably artists he hadn't worked with before given how many of his friends were on stage with him).  For the people who went one of the biggest surprises - not much remarked on now it happens all the time - was the presence of a 'film' taken from TV reports of the BanglaDesh disaster that was shown on the 'big screen' while the roadies were setting up the instruments in between Ravi's 'Eastern' set and George and co's 'Western' one. The music of course was largely great, despite the odd fluffed line and the clear speed with which the concerts had been arranged and everybody left feeling as if they'd seen a special show, maybe the first of many - which, sadly, legal hassles through Apple and the Inland Revenue put paid to, with George too grumpy and perhaps too shy to go through the whole thing again without his 'buddies' alongside him. Note though how many of the line-up will return for the 1974 Dark Hoarse tour and the Harrison tribute 'A Concert For George' in 2002, showing just how friendly George really was with the musicians who agreed to help him - and Ravi - out for this gig. The BanglaDesh shows may have taken a while to get the funds where they were needed, but it's the shows that keep on giving - literally with funds raised from the CD re-issues, the DVD and the first legal downloads all continuing to help UNICEF, not to mention all the other charity gigs the show inspired, Live Aid included. George remains the only Beatle mentioned by name at a meeting of the United Nations (when these gigs were singled out for praise by UN General Kofi Annan as an 'example' of what the world's artists should be doing) with at least $12 million raised to help UNICEF in BanglaDesh (this is a 1980s figure that misses out on those re-issues - the total is probably more like $20 million nowadays).
2) Where: Pacific Coloseum, Vancouver, Canada  When: November 2nd 1974 Why: First Gig Of First Tour Setlist: [59] Hari's On Tour (Express) [53] The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord [51] Who Can See It? 'Something' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' [48] Sue Me Sue You Blues 'For You Blue' [47] Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) 'In My Life' [63] Maya Love [65] Dark Horse [26] What Is Life? [23] My Sweet Lord
George put on the BanglaDesh shows in 1971 because he wanted to raise money and awareness for a good cause. He put on his North American 1974 tour because he couldn't stand being in an empty house without wife Patti anymore. Those facts alone spoke volumes about the mindset behind them and the way the shows were perceived, even though there wasn't actually that much difference between them (both sets of gigs featured Ravi and Billy as 'special guests' for instance). For crowds, though, there were a number of things that meant the 'Dark Horse' shows never quite hit the spot: George's new songs ('Dark Horse' was a far less popular album than 'All Things Must Pass' had been), the treatment of old songs (lines got tweaked for Beatle classics 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' and 'For You Blue' whilst Lennon's 'In My Life' was nearly unrecognisable as a brass-filled weepie ballad sung by Billy Preston) and George's failing vocals, which meant he largely stuck to guitar and all too often handed his vocals to his keyboard player. Throw in a couple of badly rehearsed jam instrumentals, the horrid 'The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord' right at the beginning and an overlong Ravi Shankar set partway through the show rather than beginning (as the BanglaDesh gigs had been) and a Beatle who was clearly a little lost, depressed and overwhelmed and you can see why this tour went down as such a disaster. Which is a shame because, at times, the shows really spark nicely on bootleg: 'What Is Life?' and 'Dark Horse' especially have a real gutsy rawness that really suits them and once you're used to them the renovations of old Beatle classics make some sense (even 'In My Life' which is, after all, a song about never being able to stand still that sadly never did get played in concert by its creator Lennon). Some of the audience loved it too - including an incognito Paul and Linda McCartney who happened to be in New Orleans recording the Wings album 'Venus and Mars' in early 1975 when George and co were passing through - they sat through the whole show in wigs and hats and through they'd gotten away without being spotted before the girl in the seat next to them turned round and said 'it was good wasn't it Paul?!' Loyally they spoke in the press about what fun they'd had, while Billy Preston (who never asked to sing any lead vocals) is the show's standout star, friend enough to lend a hand on the vocals and sounding great despite the boos he often received - but the press and some of the fans (heard booing throughout the set at some gigs, though admittedly others offer rapturous applause) weren't having it and this forty-five show tour (way too many for a nervy and often inebriated performer like George to get through) ended up being pegged a 'disaster' by fans, critics and George himself. He wouldn't be seen on stage for another eleven years and wouldn't set off on another tour for another seventeen. There is, so we think, a rough cut of at least one of the shows sitting in the Harrison vaults somewhere (with two songs leaked on the internet) probably with the soundtrack of a few others taped out there worthy of release - plus many a bootleg taped in poor sound by the fans in the audience (who actively grown whenever Ravi or Billy walk up to the microphone!)
3) Where: National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, UK When: March 15th 1986 Why: 'Heartbeat '86': Twelve Year Silence Broken! Setlist: 'Johnny B Goode'
Oddly, 'BanglaDesh' didn't set an immediate prescient for all-star musical fundraising shows. 'Live Aid' in 1985, however, did and it seems strange in retrospect that George and Ringo weren't at least asked to appear either alongside Paul's closing set or on their own (a measure, perhaps, of just how far George had sunk into anonymity in the years before 'Cloud Nine'). Harrison doesn't seem an obvious candidate to appear at this show either - a fairly low-key even organised to raise money for Birmingham's Children's Centre and mostly featuring Brummie bands. George probably got the call from two ways: a casual friendship with Denny Laine (then at war with McCartney) and organiser Bev Bevan of The Move, who knew George's current collaborator Jeff Lynne well (ELO reformed for the event and headlined, alongside The Moody Blues - marking their first time on stage with Laine since he left the band in 1966 - and UB40). Sadly George got rather lost amongst the throng, too nervous and out of practise to agree to playing his own set so he popped up on the all-star jam at the end instead, a rollicking version of Chuck Berry classic 'Johnny B Goode' (last performed by George as part of The Beatles on a Saturday Club show on February 15th 1964!) Sadly George doesn't appear on the fundraising single 'Action!' either. Largely forgotten by the history books, this is a key event in Harrison's career not so much for the show itself but because it started the process of George slowly coming out of his touring hibernation - a much higher profile 'birthday' gig for Carl perkins alongside Ringo followed shortly afterwards.

4) Where: Yokohama Arena, Japan When: December 1st 1991 Why: Second and Final Tour Setlist: 'I Want To Tell You' 'Old Brown Shoe' 'Taxman' [47] Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) 'If I Needed Someone' 'Something' [26] What Is Life? [65] Dark Horse 'Piggies' [137] Got My Mind Set On You [127] Cloud Nine 'Here Comes The Sun' [23] My Sweet Lord [101] All Those Years Ago [138] Cheer Down [133] Devil's Radio [25] Isn't It A Pity? 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'

By 1991 George was itching to go on tour again for various reasons: partly financial as the Handmade Films law suit was still hurting his pockets and Friar Park was costing a lot to upkeep, but also partly because son Dhani was by now a twelve-year-old music addict and had never actually seen his dad play a live show. George was still nervous after the pasting his last tour got though and wondered aloud to best friend Eric Clapton if it was really worth it organising a band and putting up with the press when he could just stay at home with the plants? Eric came up with the perfect compromise, 'loaning' his own band to George and teaching them Harrison's pick of songs himself so he wouldn't have so much work (as wel as playing the 'opening' act himself) and telling George that they could start the tour in Japan where reviewers were much kinder to bands from the West than in Europe or America (the idea being that George would love it so much he'd tour both of them as well - though in the end George put the tour on hold 'indefinitely' and the tour never did make it out of Japan). The tours were a big success financially and commercially, with George - the first Beatle to tour Japan since the mid-1970s given Paul's heroin bust there in 1980 and John's half-planned tour the same year sadly cut short by his murder - received like a God. Unfortunately, though, he didn't often play like one. Deeply rusty after so many years away and missing home and hearth (even if his family travelled with him) George sounded out of sorts the whole tour (judging by both the official live album recorded in the middle of the tour and the bootlegs around of the beginning and end). The biggest problem is that he still isn't rehearsed, ad libbing a few extra lines in his Beatle tunes that he hadn't bothered to remember and deliberately revising others (most notably changing 'It's only me and not my mind' to 'it's not me and just my mind' on 'I Want To Want To Tell You'), while leaving pretty much all the guitar solos to Clapton to perform. Shakey and wobbly throughout, George sounds like he'd rather be anywhere else but on stage and it's a sad way for his regular gigging days to come to an end. The fans and critics were kinder, but the best summary comes from Dhani's disappointed re-action to the first show: 'Why did you do so many of your own songs dad? They're boring. Why don't you play a set of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins instead?!' George, tickled, added 'Roll Over Beethoven' as an encore at every subsequent show!

5) Where: Madison Square Gardens, New York When: October 16th 1992 Why: Final Gig! Setlist: [27] If Not For You [142] Absolutely Sweet Marie

George's last ever stage performance was, typically, nothing much to do with George at all even though there were so many parallels with the first for 'Bangla Desh' twenty-one years earlier. George was back at Madison Square Gardens backing Bob Dylan as he decided to change the set-list on the spot again - it was as if no time has passed at all! This time round though George didn't have to organise a thing and the shows were there to celebrate Bob's thirtieth anniversary in show business - at the time something of a record! Sadly The Traveling Wilburys didn't perform their one and only live gig as rumoured before the shows and instead George and Bob together duetted on their old 'All Things Must Pass' co-write (never played live before) and then George sang a song of Bob's that was later released as on the official live recording 'The 309th Anniversary Collection'. Neil Young, also performing, dubbed the night 'Bobfest' during his show a nickname which stuck! Not the best way for George to bow out perhaps, but then he didn't know it was at the time, with the last songs Harrison sung on stage being the decidedly odd 'Now here I stand, looking at your yellow railroad, in the ruins of your balcony, wondering where you are tonight'.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) Most covers of George's songs are invariably of his Beatles' work: 'Here Comes The Sun' and 'Something', especially, are ripe for re-plucking being famous the world over, but we've decided to dig a little deeper and select a few from his solo catalogue instead. We've also ignored the plentiful cover versions of [137] 'Got My Mind Set On You', by far the most covered track associated with 'solo' George, because strictly speaking that was a cover anyway (though not that many people knew this Rudy Clark number before George sang it). There are, after all, lots of other lovely cover songs out there to list. George, in turn, was a keen practitioner of using covers to promote other people's music (with two Hoagy Carmichael covers in his discography plus an Everly Brothers and a lot of Dylan) so we're sure he'd have appreciated this little list more than most - and indeed played on quite a few of the best Harrisong covers around anyway!
1) [35] All Things Must Pass (Billy Preston, 'Encouraging Words' 1970)
George's 'apology' for taking [23] 'My Sweet Lord' off Billy and using it himself after first promising it as an 'exclusive' was offering him the pick of any other Harrisongs he fancied. Billy, already a participant in the 'Let It Be' sessions where 'All Things Must pass' had been rehearsed, asked for this song and it was duly produced for his second 'Apple' album released shortly before 'All Things Must Pass'. This is a very different version, arranged by Billy with George's knowledge and approval, featuring schmaltzy strings and an almost crooning kinda voice unusual for the soul singer. This version of the song sounds more like a 'standard', or an upbeat gospel number, and lacks the quiet intimacy and emotion of George's. It's still a strong reading through, especially the massed choir harmony and Billy's improvisations that interestingly focus on the 'happy' side of the song rather than the 'sad' ('I'm so glad that it's gonna pass!') I actually prefer it to the better known cover of [23] 'My Sweet Lord' from the same record, which is a little bit too clap-happy in its new arrangement (even if the new funky beat works surprisingly well!)
2) [25] Isn't It A Pity? (Nina Simone, 'Emergency Ward' 1972)
Actually it was Lennon who had the Nina Simone fetish growing up (the 'Nowhere Boy' film makes constant use of her 'I Put A Spell On You') but Harrison who got the 'cover' after the Civil Rights activist bought a copy of 'All Things Must Pass' and fell in love with this song. A simple olive branch of peace and equality regardless of gender, religion or race, it sounds like a lot of her own politicised work. George's song of weary resignation wasn't quite working for her as it stood though so Nina became one of the first people (other than Sinatra at least!) to change the lyrics to a Beatle composition. As well as altering the arrangement, making the song bluesy and upbeat and replacing Phil Spector's production with a simple piano part, Simone improvises 'Forgetting to give back, forgetting to say thankyou, forgetting to give a note right back, isn't it a pity?...We're all the same, we're all guilty...Mankind has been so programmed to have nothing to do with care...I don't think it's applicable to me, the beauty that surrounds them, child isn't it a pity?!' The main theme the song keeps returning to though: 'Can't they see we're all the same?' Some fans hate it for messing round with history, but to these ears it works, slowly building up verse by verse as Nina swaps the song around, picking and choosing the parts that resonate with her and throwing in a few of her own observations. The moment when a band finally kick in, some three and half minutes in, turning this into a singalong epic works pretty well too. Surprisingly this song is amongst the most covered of George's solo career, with another nine more recorded covers including one more straightforward version by Matt Monro at the end of his career and yet another version by Billy Preston. 
3) [24] Wah-Wah (Ocean Colour Scene, 'A Hyperactive Workout For The Flying Squad' 2005)
I like Ocean Colour Scene. While other reviewers tend to laugh at them a bit nowadays for switching so readily from the grunge with which they started to Britpop and most people only know them today for their best-selling 'Mosely Shoals' LP they shared Oasis' brilliance for updating the past to sound like the (then) present with enough of their own distinctive flavour to be more than just another 'nearly' Britpop band. They clearly owned a good record collection between them too with some excellent obscure covers, of which this one might just be the best. Caught halfway between George's simple demo and Phil Spector's fireworks factory, this spin on George's bitter tears makes a similar amount of noise merdly from the meshed guitars. The arrangement is simpler, the drumming is more basic and the guitars sound tinnier than usual, but the sudden surprise very 1990s horns and the power of the massed echoed vocals works really really well. Funkier and rawer than the 'Pass' take, singer Simon Fowler clearly finds something in George's lyrics that he identifies with too and the result is a highlight of perhaps the band's patchiest CD (though 1999's very CSN-ish moment 'Profit In Peace' is still their crowning glory).

Other Harrison related articles from this website you might be interested in reading: 

'Extra Texture (Read All About It)' (1975)
'Thirty-Three And A Third' (1976)

'George Harrison' (1979)

‘Somewhere In England’ (1981)
‘Cloud Nine’ (1987)
'Brainwashed' (2002)
'Hidden Harrison - The Best Unreleased Recordings'
Live/Compilation/Spin-Off Albums Plus The Occasional Wilbury
Non-Album Recordings 1968-2001
Surviving TV Appearances 1971-2001

Monday, 12 March 2018

John Lennon Essay: 'Power To The Beatle!' - Why Lennon's Authenticity Makes Him So Special/Updates

All musicians’ careers tend to go in cycles. Heroes one minutes, zeroes the next, now that Alan’s Album Archives has been running a wee while itself now (a decade or so as I write these words) it’s interesting to note how much these patterns of popular thought have changed since we first put pen to paper (well ‘laptop to website’ technically, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it somehow). One of the biggest changes perhaps has been in the reputation of one Dr Winston O’Boogie, known to his enemies as Beatle John, known to his friends as Johnny, known to strangers he wished to avoid as The Honourable John St Johnson and known to his drinking buddies as the Rev Fred Gherkin. Naturally when John died so young and so suddenly he was revered as a patron saint of music and peace, an activist that nobody appreciated until he was gone. With his legacy left unfinished people flushed to appreciate what was there and hailed it as the Beatles solo catalogue that mattered, even though there was far less of it than that made by Paul, George or even Ringo. There was a bit of a spike of interest around when Lennon’s seventieth birthday would have been in 2010, but otherwise there’s been a feeling that Lennon’s legacy has been slightly overspent, with Lennon best-ofs and anthology box sets following Beatles sets doing the same into the shops. The last ten years have seen the rise of reputations of Paul (with his expensive but classy deluxe re-issues offering new comers a chance to hear his music afresh), George (his albums out on CD en masse at last) and Ringo (the most prolific Beatle decade for any of them since Paul in the 1970s, who saw that coming?!), but John’s career has been slightly parked. Even Oasis, Lennon’s disciples bar none, don’t have the clout they once had anymore.  Biographies have tried to look at the ‘saint’ lurking behind the ‘sinner’ (and to be honest didn’t have to scratch all that far below the surface) and as Lennon biopics become more and more common there’s a general acceptance that Lennon wasn’t quite the ‘working class hero’ the way he presented himself to be.
That is, however, to true fans, stuff and nonsense. Lennon would have been the first to be horrified at just how canonised he has become in death. In life part of what made him so fabulous, so brave, so pioneering, was the fact that he had so many contradictions and was so open about his failures, even while he dreamed of being rid of them. Technically he wasn’t working class and his Aunt Mimi was rich indeed as Liverpool families went, but then John never really claimed to be; it was a Southern-Northern divide prejudice that lumped The Beatles together as working class poor because Lennon had ‘that’ accent. What made Lennon unique was that when the papers said it he didn’t write to them in protest or anger, started talking with a received pronunciation accent or started hanging round with ‘posh’ celebrities, but instead delighted in his new role. The Beatles, he once said, were the first working class band who didn’t sell out their working class roots and became posh the minute they ‘made it’ and he has a good claim, even if he himself was rich for all of his life (bar a brief period in Hamburg when all The Beatles were penniless and Aunt Mini figured keeping money from John was the best way of teaching him some ‘sense’ in the hope he’d get a ‘proper’ job). Lennon delighted in being ‘working class’ from his earliest schooldays, most of his friends astonished to go round his house and learn that it was bigger than most of theirs: he loved the idea of getting by on cheek and charm, living by his waits, succeeding because of what he knew rather than who he knew. Aunt Mimi despaired of Lennon bringing his ‘poor’ friends round to ‘play’, including Paul and George, but John hated it more: he yearned to be like them, to escape the molly-coddling of his background and be ‘authentic’ driven rather than ‘money’ driven. John was the last person who would ever ‘sell out’ his supposed ‘roots’ even if they weren’t actually his; he’d worked too hard for most of his life to be a tough Liverpool worker and felt far more comfortable with similar people than posh arty types (that will, err, change after meeting Yoko!) Lennon was still one of our biggest working class heroes, even if technically he wasn’t working class, because he helped show people that there was a pride to be taken in who they were and – combined with the very Beatles-driven change of social climate in the 1960s – being true to who you were was more than enough to change the world.
People sometimes take umbridge at the word ‘hero’ too. Look, they say, at the way John is said to have beaten up first wife Cynthia on occasion when drunk and frustrated, the way he abandoned first son Julian when Yoko came along, the ‘lost weekend’ when he ran around America drunk insulting bar maids with a tampon on his head or when he was making sniping remarks about somebody (anybody) all day long. Surely, people say, this drug-addled musician who went a ‘bit weird’ after meeting Yoko (and who was always a bit weird before in retrospect) can’t possibly be heroic? Well, my definition of being heroic isn’t just doing heroic things but standing up and being brave even when you don’t want to or have to – and facing up to the things you get wrong when you try. On that score Lennon is one of the biggest heroes that ever lived, not because he never got things wrong or was entirely flawless, but because he faced up to the things he got wrong, tried to change them and embraced his flaws without being proud of them. It’s easy for rich kids with perfect families who end up working in daddy’s company to get the perfect family and job. It’s a lot harder when you’re a born cynic with a broken home, surrounded by multiple deaths in the family, that leave you feeling hurt and betrayed and who everyone has dismissed as ‘thick’ from childhood, when really all you are is curious (and not very keen on rules). Everyone dismissed John from birth: his aunt was secretly proud but his it well, his teachers thought he was awful, even his fellow musicians didn’t always see John’s talent in the way that they did for George (a hot guitarist) or Paul (a hot multi-instrumentalist). Yet John got there, by sheer nerve, creative talent, charisma, a refusal to back down from anything people threw at him. When the tough got going, Lennon got tougher, at least at first, ploughing his own furrow despite the people lining up to tell him ‘no’.
And yet, the even more remarkable thing is that Lennon got softer too. Not soft as in ‘weak’, but a whole different idea of soft to the one he grew up with. Back in the 1940s and 1950s if you grew up in Liverpool you had to be tough: you’d been born in a war when Germany had dropped bombs at you and where men had to be macho. At first Lennon lived the part superbly, out-macho-ing anybody around him, even in Liverpool and playing the role of a Northern Working Class Man, including the bits that, with retrospective eyes, he got ‘wrong’. There comes a change, though, one of the biggest in rock. By the mid 1960s Lennon had gone from a Liverpool drunk always waging war and skirmishes to one of the biggest peace advocates the psychedelic movement ever had. Lennon risked his career early on, denouncing the Vietnam war from almost the minute he stepped onto American soil in 1964 and The Beatles in general proving that they were better read about it than most Americans. Even before Yoko came along Lennon became one of the peace movement’s most erudite and learned intellectuals, arguing for a change to the inevitable ‘war every generation’ trend of the 20th century this far. What Yoko did was to encourage Lennon to use his platform to promote peace as a main even not just a subsidiary to what he was saying, with the couple even turning what should have been private (their honeymoon) into a publicity campaign for peace (because ‘if people wanted peace as badly they want a TV set then the world would have peace’, an idea that still sadly rings true today). He even wrote the peace movement’s most famous song [1] ‘Give Peace A Chance’, his first ‘statement’ as a solo act, promoting philosophy more than music, before hoping for a better future in [20] ‘Imagine’. In less than ten years Lennon went from being the Beatle you would least want to meet down a Liverpool alley in his working class leathers to the celebrity most people thought of when the word ‘peace’ was mentioned. Lennon never lost his inner temper, his inner rage or his uncontrollable frustration when things went wrong, but he tried to, every day, for most of his life to the point where his nicer tendencies are most of what people remember about him now. That’s one hell of an achievement.
And it’s not the only one as, closer to home, Lennon’s views of feminism changed considerably. From a culture where he was encouraged, nay expected, to beat up his significant other during his life Lennon began thinking and questioning what was expected of him and people like him. Lennon, remember, was surrounded by tough female figures throughout his life and had a sneaking respect for them – he didn’t really know his dad and his ‘father figure’ Uncle George was a sweet soul (compared to his harridan aunty anybody would have been!) Even so, the change in Lennon’s (indeed The Beatles and all their peers’) attitudes to girls wasn’t certain. The 1960s rock and rollers came together out of a love for 1950s music – and as a very wide generalisation there was no more misogynistic genre than 1950s rock and roll. Did Elvis ever care about his girl once he’d seduced her or wiggled his hips at her? Did Chuck Berry ever think about what would happen after he got his girl across state lines and his lust was spent? Did even the seemingly sweet Buddy Holly think about Peggy Sue as much as he thought about himself and his own pleasure? Jerry Lee Lewis treating his beloved with kindness? Great balls of fire!  The Beatles, though, were different and kick-started a tradition of being kinder to girls than characters in the 1950s had been – even if it’s a tradition that starts slowly – and as usual its Lennon leading the way. In The Beatles ‘Girl’ (Rubber Soul, 1965) starts seeing women as being not just the equal but in many ways the superior of men. ‘Getting Better’ (‘Sgt Peppers’, 1967), though started by McCartney, is in many ways a Lennon breakthrough song: ‘I used to be cruel to my woman and beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves, man I was mean but I’m changing my scene...’, a middle eight that’s meant to be John’s contribution to the song. ‘Julia’ (White Album, 1968) finally stops trying to win a girl over and accepts her for who she is (and she, clearly, is Yoko the ‘ocean child’ of the song). By 1969 and ‘Let It Be/Abbey Road’ Lennon is howling out his dependency on a girl, revealing a vulnerable side a million light years away from where he started (‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘I Want You’ particularly). Yoko’s feminist friends lead him to pen a song that still sees jaws drop today ([36] ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’) – it would have made Lennon’s old Liverpool drinking buddies faint! By the end of his life Lennon has embraced his teenage polar opposite, becoming to all intents and purposes a ‘house husband’, bringing up second son Sean ‘properly’ as a very hands-on daddy while Yoko went to work. Lennon may not have been a hero at the beginning – and he probably burnt the bread occasionally and shouted at Sean occasionally and did all the rubbish things parents do every day without meaning to, never mind a ‘lost weekend’ where he acted like a complete jerk in pubs and clubs in a repeat of his wild early days – but he tried and in the end he came through it all. That too is one hell of an achievement.
It’s worth remembering also how brave Lennon had to be to do all of these things. He wasn’t just some two-bit musician nobody paid attention to: he had the world’s eyes focussed on the back of his head at all times. Every small mistake he made was front page news. But Lennon was content to make big mistakes, talking his philosophies out loud to a public so far removed from them they couldn’t understand them. The Lennon’s first concert appearance wasn’t in an arena singing old Beatles hits for millions but a Cambridge art party with John playing feedback behind Yoko’s squawks. Whatever you think of it as ‘music’, its certainly not playing things ‘safe’. Lennon’s first mainstream concert? It’s at a peace festival in Canada organised at such a last minute rush that the ad hoc Plastic Ono Band hadn’t even met each other until the plane ride over. On television Lennon never took the easy way out to sell records: he talked about peace, about political prisoners, about working class men who wanted to do nothing more than smoke a joint or riot about prison food or the Irish kicking out the English for invading their Sceptered isle, sticking up for the working classes of the world whether the world wanted him to or not. He talked up radicals who would never have appeared in the national consciousness any other way, spoke up for feminists who were a punchline for bad jokes when discussed by other musicians and promoted new ideas against racism (I still say the ‘bagism’ idea of everybody being in bags is the best solution to job interviews, boycotting prejudice of gender, colour and class and focussing on ability, all that ever mattered to Lennon). People often laughed at John and Yoko doing ‘nutty’ things that seemed a bit daft, but it was a brave crusade all the same that neither John nor Yoko had to do: it wasn’t for a career (indeed it hurt their career) but was done in the name of ‘peace’, whether people ‘got’ it or not. Personally I love the many weird developments in the John and Yoko story – the acorns sent to every world leader to plant in their gardens, the balloons with hopeful messages inside released to everyone in, er, Suffolk and the self indulgent avant garde videos and records that tried to make their pop-loving public think in a different way. Even if some of it, maybe a lot of it, failed, The Lennons tried to stamp their own personal brand on the gigantic coat-hook of peace and did more to make being nice to each other and kind to people who ‘weren’t like you’ popular than any other couple.
John also wore his heart on his sleeve, speaking for ‘us’ every time he opened his mouth, refusing to play the showbiz game of singing about ‘us’ before becoming one of ‘them’, amongst the first truly uncontrollable celebrities with enough of a following to make the institutions really scared. Of course they were going to come after him (he should have been warier over the fake drugs bust in 1969 or the Nixon FBI infiltration of his political rallies of 1972 and though Lennon never spoke about it he clearly got scared off by someone circa 1973 when his songs got softer and he stopped talking about politics in his interviews) – Lennon was a threat, in a way no ‘musician’ had ever really been a threat before. Because Lennon was in a unique situation: he was one of the most famous people on the planet, with a guaranteed platform, who was always brave enough to speak from the heart, no matter how stupid or petty or wrong it very occasionally made him sound, with an erudite voice that people would always listen to, even if they didn’t always follow.
That’s what made it all the more devastating when he was taken from us. Not by someone who got cross at him. Not by a Government who felt threatened by him (or did they?...There is evidence that the FBI were involved somewhere along the line). Not by a war-mongerer or a chauvinist sticking up for their rights, but by a fan. One of the reasons Lennon was so canonised wasn’t just how he lived but how he was taken away, so needlessly, so horribly. Lennon hadn’t coveted celebrity in the same way as most celebrities: he hadn’t used it to promote empty pop records (though, you know, some of his comeback singles weren’t that great), he hadn’t used it to promote a self-less cash-in ghostwritten book he probably hadn’t even flicked through before printing, there were no Lennon brand anything until after he died and he most certainly didn’t have a fitness video out. He used his celebrity to promote peace and tolerance and whatever radical crusade was flavour of the month that month. Even at his worst, even at his most big-headed and mean-mouthed, Lennon had never ever used his celebrity against ‘us’ – instead he used it to ‘help’ us, to make the world a fairer safer place. It also hurts that a man who had already known such violence in his life, yet had overcome it to promote peace, died in such a violent way. I think a lot of the monumental out-pouring of grief over Lennon’s death in the 1980s was a combination of shock, grief, loss that we wouldn’t have Lennon around to speak for ‘us’ anymore and a little bit of guilt at laughing at someone we should have taken more seriously.
The end result is a fascinating contradictory character who wasn’t a Working Class Hero and yet most certainly was; who would make mistakes repeatedly but then talk about them and try to overcome them; a war baby who was frustrated and violent who turned into a giant peace advocate; a Northern male working class misogynist who did more to help the feminist movement than any man before him; the timid and shy introspective songwriter who still yelled his unpopular ideas to the world because he cared about them so. Lennon never shied away from being a collection of glorious contradictions – the violent drunk who could drink anyone under the table before singing songs about peace from the heart, the lost little boy pretending to act like a tough guy, the down-to-earth cynical realist who embraced avant garde art or the man who’d never really known love who enjoyed one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century. What made Lennon more special than anything, though, was that he managed to stay authentic and true to himself, despite the fame, despite the attention, despite the groupies, despite the money, despite the endless posh people trying to make him ‘one of them’, despite the rockstar culture of keeping your missus at home in the kitchen instead of up on stage in a plastic bag howling while you backed her on guitar in some giant art installation madness. Every word Lennon sang (except, perhaps ‘Cookin’ In The Kitchen Of Love’) was always from the heart, whether it made him look like a saint, a sinner, a loser or a winner. Lennon expected the truth from all people and always tried to give it himself, no matter the cost to his career, his marriage or to his fanbase.
Lennon may not have been a ‘working class hero’ on paper. He was often too cross, too rude, too violent, too drunk and his own wife accused him of ‘getting phoney’ on their last LP. But that was why we loved him: it wasn’t as if Lennon kept that side of himself hidden. He lived out his ‘lost weekend’ in public (a time that was only boozy at night anyway – Lennon did a lot of good away from the cameras during the day). He had petty fights with other musicians including other Beatles. He wasn’t always kind and courteous and many people had run-ins with Lennon when he was in a devilish mood and came a cropper (including many of his musician peers). But Lennon never claimed to be any ‘better’ than any of us – he was indeed adamant that he was always one of us, stripping away the idea of cult or celebrity as early as [14] ‘God’ on his first solo album and teaching us, often and always, that he was ‘nothing special’ and that we could do what he did too. And yet he was special, for what other person that big and famous refused to believe their own publicity? And then used that publicity anyway to promote peace, love and any radical idea of the month. His most famous solo song [20] ‘Imagine’ really isn’t his best, but its popular because it sums Lennon up so well: he’s a dreamer who wants to be a better person and wants us all to be better people too. He thinks he’s found a way to make his idealist vision come true – but he falls short, never mind the people around him. Still, though, Lennon keeps dreaming. Despite his horrific background of loss, divorce and death (not just mother Julia but Uncle George and best pal Stuart Sutcliffe, a lot for any one human to contend with and all before he hit his twenties), despite the teachers who told him ‘no’, despite the background that could have made him like every other war-toting chauvinist, despite problems with drink and drugs that were there long before fame came a-calling, despite a marriage that most fans viewed with suspicion and a bunch of releases best described as ‘really really weird’, Lennon stayed true to himself and tried to better himself, while owning up to all the mistakes he made along the way. That surely makes him a working class hero in my eyes – and a braver and nobler figure than many people realise. Power to the Beatle indeed, who overcame more than anyone really gives him credit for, while staying as authentic as anyone with that much fame possibly could.

Yoko Ono "Take Me To The Land Of Hell"
(Chimera Music, September 17th 2013)
Moonbeams/Cheshire Cat Cry/Tabetai/Bad Dancer/Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone/There's No Goodbye Between Us/7th Floor/NY Noodle Town/Take Me To The Land Of Hell/Watching The Dawn/Leaving Tim/Shine Shine/Hawk's Call
CD Bonus Tracks: Story Of An Oak Tree/Ai
"If one day we slip away  - and that may be in the cards - we will know deep in our hearts that there's no goodbye between us"
Yoko's most recent record at the time of writing, 'Hell' is nicely upbeat and positive despite the title. The record opens with new age style sound effects that 's only missing the whale to become the sort of thing that plays when you're getting a massage and much of the record feels like unwinding in a hot bath, far calmer and gentler than Yoko usually is. Overall it's another strong album that shows off Yoko's range and features a 'revival' of the Plastic Ono Band name again (with Sean on guitar). 'Cheshire Cat Cry' is Yoko's best non-ballad in decades, a witty surreal song with Yoko returning to her theme of her reserve holding her strong emotions in check with some cracking guitar, bass and drum work. Other highlights include the playful 'Tabetai' (translation: 'excuse') and the title track which is another strong Yoko piano ballad. Lennon is still Yoko's favourite subject though and her latest batch of songs for her husband are truly moving: the indescribable contemporary dance track 'Little Boy Blue Your Daddy's Gone' about trying to tell Sean his dad had died (a song which starts with a long sigh that speaks volumes), the sweet 'There's No Goodbye Between Us' about John and Yoko’s last walk through Central Park together which sounds very much at one with the gritted-teeth-strength of Yoko's 'Season Of Glass' album and the powerful 'Watch The Dawn' in which Yoko asks John to wait for her up there because she's still got a bit more to do back on Earth first. Admittedly there isn't much happening on the rest of the LP, but considering how quickly Yoko released this album after her last and how often she's gone down these roads before this is still an impressively inventive and moving listen. Yoko seems to be getting better with age, returning to the promising career that got cut short by the 'lost weekend' era and the poor reception to her lesser 1980s work. Lennon would have been very proud and it will be fascinating to see where Yoko might go from here.
The album opens in the most slow-moving way possible, with six minutes of the new agey ‘Moonbeams’. There is some gorgeous guitarwork on this atmospheric song and this is one of the few times I want Yoko to be quiet so I can hear trhe backing.
‘Cheshire Cat Cry’ is fabulous, a slinky funky song where the Cheshire Cat is (I think) our subsconscious, taking us out into imagination and escape every time life gets too nasty. You don’t quite know whether to pet this pussy or give it a wide berth as The Plastic Ono Band hit a groove that’s cute yet scary all at the same time.
‘Tabetai’ is about greed, with a long list of food-stuffs standing in for other kinds of mankind demanding things it really doesn’t need. This is an intriguing, rule-breaking song as Yoko remembers where she and John made love against a sparse funky backdrop.
‘Bad Dancer’ is unfortunately a truly awful club song. Yoko is a bad writer of dance tracks too it seems, though her self-deprecating lyrics about being hopeless and how her partner will have to ‘watch their step’  is a great accompaniment to the usual club 18-30 beat!
‘Little Boy Your Daddy’s Gone’ is awful, but in a good way. Yoko remembers having to tell five-year-old Sean his daddy’s not coming home so she tries to turn it into a nursery rhyme that’s dumb yet uplifting all at the same time. The sigh which continues throughout the song speaks volumes before Yoko tumbles into a whole long jumble of words, desperate to convey the meaning to go with the sigh that strikes all children everywhere with fright that something really bad has happened.
Yoko’s latest John ballad is ‘There’s No Goodbye Between Us’. Building on ‘Never Said Goodbye’ Yoko has been worrying all this time that she never got to have a final word with her husband – and yet she now realises that the rest of her life has been one long goodbye. She’s poorly, fearing she’ll never be well enough to walk their beloved Central park again, but strangely at peace as she looks forward to being with John  again. The backing and melody aren’t as strong as other Yoko songs on the same theme, but these poetic lyrics are beautiful.
‘7th Floor’ picks up where ‘Memory Of Footsteps’ left off, but this time its Yoko staring down from the Dakota to the pavement below. She sees a body chalked on the pavement as a crime scene and wonders if it’s her own and she’s somehow died but stayed in her favourite place. This narrated song isn’t as good as it would have been if she’d sung it and the backing is very weird even for Yoko.
‘Ny Noodle Town’ is a love song to Yoko’s adopted home city and a long list of all the things she loves and hates side by side: ‘confusion and depression bred by manipulation’ and yet the citizens ‘drink and dance’. Yoko sounds much happier than she did on ‘Midsummer New York’ and it sounds to me as if she’s healing the wounds of what was said after Lennon’s death, that it was the danger in the city that killed John rather than an individual who actually came from Hawaii.
‘Take Me To The Land Of Hell’ has Yoko again remembering the day John died, most specifically the moment she gazed into John’s eyes and ‘knew’ that he’d gone. She recalls the ‘fivers of blood’ on the pavement, her choked cries, her tears – and most of all her realisation that they would never ever be together again. This ballad is hard to take, though Yoko’s vocal (reserved but not as detached as on earlier songs) is haunting.
‘Watching The Dawn’ is a return to the classical ballads that ended ‘Between My Head And The Sky’. Another of Yoko’s better songs, this is a philosophical tale that wonders what happens to us as adults. Everyone is born out of some form of love and ‘dream’, even if its lust and yet by the time we’re ready to have children of our own most of us are having offspring ‘born into neglect’. Yoko mourns everyone who ever had a messed up childhood like her own and the result is another powerful haunting ballad.
‘Leaving Tim’ is awful, though, a return to the cod music hall of [98] ‘Yes I’m Angel’. Yoko recalls not her third husband as normal (Lennon) but her first and how badly it ended, ‘always in despair, no way to repair’. Yoko realises that her husband expected her  to ‘put him on a pedestal’ and that’s not the way she works at all! This song too is about the defining moment when Yoko ‘knew’ definitively that their love was over, but the jaunty backing isn’t right for this sad song.
‘Shine, Shine’ is four minutes of noisy modern music with Yoko squawking over the top which is every bit as hard going as it sounds. I would rather listen to Yoko being a fly for an hour or twenty minutes of [4] ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ than this – at least that song came with 1960s sounds beneath the screams!
The album ends with ‘Hawk’s Call’, fifteen seconds of silence that recalls [54] ‘The Nutopian National Anthem’ and seems a bit pointless without explanation at the end of a CD when most people assume their player has just picked up a fault and hasn’t stopped yet.
A horrid beginning and ending, then, but much of what’s in the middle is actually rather good and there’s a run of four songs towards the end that’s the best Yoko’s come up with since at least 1974. Brave enough to talk about growing older whilst still being young enough to take chances, this is an often brilliant set that’s far better than any set released after someone’s eightieth birthday has any right to be. I await the next Yoko album with baited breath – and a hand out for the CD player skip button admittedly – but there’s a lot of worth here and the tributes for Lennon are heartbreakingly good and worth owning the CD for alone.

(Apple/Capitol, September 14th 2014)
Imagine/(Just Like) Starting Over/Instant Karma/Stand By Me/Watching The Wheels/Mind Games/Jealous Guy/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Love/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)/Give Peace A Chance
"I want you to make love not war, I know you’ve heard it before…”
How odd that the first Lennon compilation on a budget – the Working Class Hero for the Working Classes you could say – is the softest, most gutless Lennon set on the market, Heaven forefend there should be any controversial moments here like ‘Working Class Hero’ ‘Woman Is The Nigger Of The World’ or even ‘Power To The People’. Instead we get Lennon’s ten least controversial hits plus the sweet ballad ‘Love’, which is just daft. Anyone intrigued enough by talk of Lennon as the ‘brave Beatle’ who feels compelled to try this album for a fiver or so is unlikely to be converted, while the ‘Icon’ of the title doesn’t really fit either: ‘Lennon: Autopilot’ would be a better name I fear. Even so, the price offers a valuable beginner’s guide and the ‘Icon’ series as a whole is a good one, offering fans on low budgets a taste of an artist’s wares before having to commit to a whole pricey CD. The Lennon set though is one of the weaker entries in the series and even the cover picture of Dr Winston O’Boogie looks really cheap and tacky. Even on a budget fans deserve better. 

Yoko Ono “Yes I’m A Witch Too!”
 (Manimal Vinyl Records, February 16th 2016)
Walking On Thin Ice/Forgive Me My Love/Mrs Lennon/Give Me Something/She Gets Down On Her Knees/Dogtown/Wouldn’t/Move On Fast/Soul Got Out Of The Box/Approximately Infinite Universe/Yes I’m Your Angel/Warrior Woman/Coffin Car/I Have A Woman Inside My Soul/Catman/No Bed For Beatle John/Hell In Paradise
"Wind of now blows off her cool, telling her there’s something she missed”
Yoko’s first remix album had done rather well nine years earlier – people who would never normally go anywhere near a Yoko LP but were intrigued by the list of names they worked with discovered a catalogue that was generally much more musical, innovative and inventive than they ever realised. This second version may be even more interesting, moving on from Yoko’s semi-famous songs to her rarer and much more interesting songs and attracting several bigger names. Highlights here include a marvellous grungy take on ‘Move On Fast’ by Jack Douglas, Sparks adding their retro-rock-with-1980s vibe to Double Fantasy’s ‘Give Me Something’ and a modern hand-clapping punk version of ‘Approximately Infinite Universe’ by ‘Blow-Up’. Son Sean appears and interestingly passes on all the obvious choices for a playful version of his mum’s ‘Dogtown’, intercut with eerie echoey Yokos intoning ‘No Bed For Beatle John!’ Not everything here is good – remixes can only enhance what’s there not create it and the songs from lesser albums like ‘Feeling A Space’ still sound horrid, while ‘Hell In Paradise’ is a good description of what is going in the last number as unbelievably Moby (the biggest name here?) takes Yoko’s 1980s sonic mess and makes it even more unlistenable by taking even the tiny bit of a tune away! The biggest missed opportunity, though, is the talented John Palumbo completely missing the point of one of Yoko’s most talent-filled songs ‘I Have A Woman Inside My Soul’ and turning an exquisite ballad about vulnerability into a noisy drum ‘n’ bass dance number! Oh well, the cleverly titled ‘I’m A Witch Too’ casts more magical spells than curses and continues the gradually re-appreciation of Yoko Ono as an artist in the 21st century, an icon for so many big names in music even here, at the age of eighty-three.

A complete list of Lennon articles from this site for you to read:

'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey'  (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980