How much irony was there behind releasing two separate albums of John Lennon material, one entitled Acoustic and one entitled Rock 'N' Roll (RNR), together on the same day? Regardless of Capitol Records's motivation, John Lennon fans received an early Christmas present this year. Whereas Acoustic is a collection of tracks from throughout Lennon's decade-long solo career, RNR is a Remixed 'N' Remastered version of Lennon's 1975 album of early rock songs.
ACOUSTICMore than a third of Acoustic derives from the material comprising Lennon's first solo album, 1970's powerful, but sparsely recorded, Plastic Ono Band". At the time these songs were being written, Lennon was exploring Dr. Walter Janov's primal scream therapy. The raw emotion put John in touch with much of the bitterness and anger of his less-than-ideal childhood. The primal emotions stirred by this therapy resulted in Lennon's best album. Themes ranged from the simple, heartfelt Love to the cynicism of Working Class Hero, both presented in fine versions on this collection. On the other hand, the necessity of the 1-minute-17-second Well Well Well is questionable, given its poor recording. Another work in progress that appears on Acoustic is God, Lennon's cathartic proclamation that "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." Destroying all the images of idolatry and celebrity, Lennon concludes that the Beatles were dead, with his exclamatory: "I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me." This version shows more urgency and is a less-heartwrenching performance than the version on Plastic Ono Band.
Lennon's two most political statements on this album, Luck of the Irish and John Sinclair, were recorded live in Ann Arbor in 1971 at a protest rally. These versions were previously released on the 4-CD set Anthology.
The 42-second snippet of Woman is the Nigger of the World is too short to be worth anything. This is where the lack of liner notes is a big detriment to this collection. It would have been nice to understand why it was included in this collection. Does the snippet have any historical significance? Was it the first recording of this piece, as John worked out the chorus? We don't know. Acoustic also has a demo of What You Got, which later appeared on 1974's Walls and Bridges. The rockabilly beat and chorus ("You don't know what you got, until you lose it") make this a worthy contribution, although the vocals are too quiet in this demo recording.
The acoustic versions of two songs from John and Yoko's 1980 Double Fantasy album are highlights of the album. Watching the Wheels and Dear Yoko are worth the price of admission for this CD alone. This version of Dear Yoko is previously unreleased and features a clever Buddy Holly guitar riff.
Yoko Ono dedicates Acoustic to the future guitarists: "John always played from his heart. I hope you will learn to do the same." As a gift to the future guitarists, the booklet for Acoustic includes the chords and the lyrics. This is a unique surprise, given the large number of budding singer-songwriters who start by singing Beatles songs. Outside of this, the booklet is weak in terms of other source material. We are given little information about the origins of the tracks, or if they appeared previously on other collections. Given Lennon's immense legacy and his tendency to record nearly everything (for instance, the long-playing radio show "The Lost Lennon Tapes"), this substandard aspect of the liner notes is incomprehensible.
ROCK 'N' ROLL
The sessions that produced RNR are legendary in the chronicles of rock history. Faced with a potential lawsuit for plagiarizing lyrics from Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me in the Beatles' Come Together ("here comes flat top"), Lennon agreed to record three songs from the catalog owned by music publisher Morris Levy, including You Can't Catch Me. Lennon reunited with iconoclastic producer Phil Spector, who had previously produced Lennon's first two solo albums Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Despite the discipline that produced these masterpieces, chaos quickly erupted in the studio with Spector in charge this time. Drinking, partying, and occasionally gunfire characterized the RNR sessions. After a couple of months, two different studios, and dozens of session musicians, only nine songs were recorded and the sessions ended. Lennon eventually took four of those recordings, recorded nine more without Spector, remixed the album, and released it in 1975.
The album rips through 13 early rock classics including many that the Beatles honed their act on during the Hamburg years (Be-Bop-A-Lula, Sweet Little Sixteen). Stand By Me was the big hit form this album, and will be recognizable for many people. Personally, my favorite on the album is Rip It Up/Ready Teddy. Lennon shows reckless abandon with his performances on many of the tracks, his voice straining from what is quite possibly the loudest it has ever been recorded in a studio.
In general, I'm not in favor of remixing and remastering albums and throwing on bonus tracks for the sake of getting completists to purchase the albums again. Very few of these efforts seem worthwhile, with record companies taking advantage of the artists' biggest fans. RNR would seem like the perfect opportunity to scavenge the tapes from these sessions to get previously unreleased tracks, alternative arrangements, and spontaneous jams caught on tape, and assemble a top-notch aural tribute to early rock and roll and John Lennon.
Unfortunately, the remixed version of RNR only contains four bonus tracks. Angel Baby features Lennon crooning through Rosie Hamlin's 1960 track. To Know Her Is To Love Her, written by Spector, is almost unrecognizable compared to its original version---being too heavily instrumented and destroying the melody. Whether this was supposed to be a joke is not known. Since My Baby Left Me sounds like a giant party recording, with the screaming audience and background shouting seemingly out of place on this collection. The final track is an alternate fadeout, with Lennon wishing the best to his former bandmates George, Ringo, and Paul.
Given the loose nature of the RNR sessions, I wonder if there was anything else to salvage from them? Given that the third disc of Anthology had some alternate recordings, and a few other nuggets, could other material have been included? For example, one wonders why Be My Baby was omitted?
Like Acoustic, the booklet for RNR leaves much to be desired. Although the booklet contains the songwriters and publishers (perhaps as a nod to Levy), the musicians and recording history of each track are omitted.
SHOULD I BUY THEM?
Lennon completists will want to snap up both albums, although there are reasons to be disappointed with each release. For those unfamiliar with Lennon's legacy, Acoustic is a nice collection that will appeal to those who might be reading reviews on this web site (Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange). [Picking up a copy of Plastic Ono Band should be mandatory for those who have not already done so.] The appeal of having the chords and lyrics in the Acoustic booklet, too, is a big selling point. The song choices and the relative lack of new material leaves something to be desired. RNR is a throwback to Presley, Berry, and Holly. Given that this music is slowly losing its grip on the public consciousness, it's a pleasant listening to hear these great oldies again. The sound on RNR is a big improvement over the LP, although one could quibble with the choices of bonus tracks.
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