John Lennon’s Boozy Pain, Naked Love Songs Revealed on New CDs

The cover art of "Power to the People: the Hits" by John Lennon. The CD is a new greatest-hits collection by John Lennon, and contains many of the former Beatle's best-known solo songs. Source: EMI Music via Bloomberg

John Lennon thrives, at least when it comes to the industry surrounding him.

The former Beatle was shot dead in 1980, aged 40. He would have celebrated his 70th birthday on Oct. 9 this year. Apart from the television specials, books, new monuments and “Nowhere Boy” movie, there’s a huge amount of music on offer -- remastered CDs and newly released songs.

“Power to the People: the Hits” comes as a single-disc introduction or a deluxe edition with a DVD of all its songs. The compilation is similar to “Lennon Legend” from 1997, with five fewer tracks. Just about all Lennon collections have “Give Peace a Chance,” “Instant Karma!” and (if you must) “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Rating: ***.

Those wanting more can opt for “Gimme Some Truth,” a new box with four themed CDs: Working Class Hero (politics), Woman (love songs), Roots (rock ‘n’ roll) and Borrowed Time (personal tracks). Rating: **. Still, the 1991 four-CD set “Lennon” did it better with its simple chronological approach. Rating: ****.

Lennon’s best work was with the Beatles, and the band’s albums were reissued in an improved form last year. Fans already will have marked Oct. 19 for the re-release of the two compilations “1962-1966” and “1967-1970.” Rating: ****.

His solo discs are available separately or as part of a “Signature” 11-CD box set. Wisely, the reissues don’t include the experimental “Unfinished Music” LPs, “The Wedding Album” or the raw “Live Peace in Toronto” with Yoko Ono in 1968-69.

Tender Ballads

Instead, we start with “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.” The 1970 release is known for its expletive-laden lyrics and declaration “the dream is over.” The true gems are tender ballads such as “Love” and “Look at Me.” Rating: ****.

If the joys of the song “Imagine” have soured through repetition, the rest of the 1971 record of the same name shows Lennon emerging from his personal hell, mocking Paul McCartney (“How Do You Sleep”), loving his wife (“Oh Yoko!”) and maturing in reflective numbers such as “Jealous Guy.” Rating: ****.

The double LP “Some Time in New York City” from 1972 remains a sloppy ragbag of frazzled jams and slogans from every trendy left-wing bandwagon that Lennon jumped on. Only “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” endures. Rating: *.

After this abrasive effort, “Mind Games” was unashamedly commercial. It was recorded in 1973 at the start of Lennon’s split from Ono, yet betrays little of this turmoil on numbers such as “Out the Blue.” Rating: ***.

Lost Weekend

“Walls and Bridges,” from 1974, is a fine effort given that it was done during Lennon’s 18-month boozy “lost weekend.” There’s the Elton John duet “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “#9 Dream” and the heartfelt “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).” Rating: ***½.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” from 1975 was a patchy return to Lennon’s first love, rock, and contains his excellent cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Rating: **½.

After a reconciliation with Ono, the birth of their son Sean and five years as a house-husband, the comeback “Double Fantasy” from 1980 alternates between Lennon and Ono compositions. The best, “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels,” outweigh sugary pap such as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” There’s now a “Stripped Down” version of the LP, shorn of many sound effects and with an affecting simplicity. Rating: ***.

Lennon wrote “Grow Old With Me,” inspired by Robert Browning, for Ono. He aimed it as a standard for weddings. It gained significance with his murder and can be found on the posthumous “Milk and Honey,” finished by Ono in 1984. Rating: **.

Home Recordings

The “Signature” box adds two CDs of singles, home recordings and studio outtakes such as a coruscating version of “God.” Still, there are tracks missing: Lennon devotees still will need “Live in New York City,” the 1988 four-CD set “Anthology,” other reissues with bonus tracks and “Menlove Ave.” from 1986. It’s a shame that these rarities aren’t included as extras on the respective records.

For all this, the box is beautifully presented, with essays by Ono, Sean and Julian Lennon. The discs were last remastered about six years ago, and both are a vast improvement on the flat sound of the first rushed CD versions. The Janovian primal screams on “Mother” are crystal clear and all the scarier for that. Rating: ***½.

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

“Power to the People: the Hits” is $9.99 or $20.99 for the deluxe version. The individual remastered albums are $11.99, “Gimme Some Truth” is $30.99 and the “John Lennon Signature Box’ is $151.99. All are on EMI Records. Download prices vary across services.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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