Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rock 'N' Roll - John Lennon

Rock 'N' Roll
John Lennon
Apple SK 3419

Last year I finally got around to reading Philip Norman's epic biography of John Lennon.  I've had it for years but could not bring myself to read it, partly because it is so freaking long (more than 800 pages) but mostly because I was afraid of what I might learn about my longtime hero.  Having read lots of Beatles books (including Norman's own excellent one) I knew Lennon was no choirboy and I was worried about reading things that might make me think less of him.  In actuality I came away from the book feeling even better about Lennon as a person.  Norman paints a sympathetic portrait of the man, he doesn't shy away from his bad behavior but puts it in context and I found myself respecting and liking Lennon more than ever.  It is a very informative book, I finally learned the backstory of this album which has always puzzled me.  I assumed that Lennon was returning to his roots in search of inspiration, but in fact the motives behind the album were a lot crasser.  Record mogul Morris Levy, a guy I've always despised for stealing copyrights and exploiting artists, sued Lennon for the resemblance of "Come Together" to Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" which he owned.  As part of the legal settlement Lennon agreed to record three songs from Levy's massive publishing catalog of oldies.  Lennon decided to make an entire album of oldies and brought in Phil Spector to produce.  Spector in full maniac mode made the sessions difficult even firing a gun in the studio and eventually walked off the project taking the master tapes with him.  Lennon took a break and recorded "Walls and Bridges" and then resumed the project without Spector, recording most of the album from scratch although the Spector tracks were eventually recovered and a few of them made the final album.  Prior to release Lennon gave a rough mix to Levy who promptly bootlegged it on an album sold on television.  The story behind the album is a lot more interesting than the album itself which consists entirely of well-known oldies given mostly faithful interpretations by Lennon.  He performs with affection and enthusiasm, there is no doubt that he loves the music and is good at it, but the album seems like a waste of time to me.  Back when it came out, I was very disappointed by it.  The Beatles had done such a great job energizing the many oldies they covered early in their career and they had recorded songs that weren't necessarily big hits or really well-known.  This album would be better I think if it had a few obscure or lesser known songs on it.  Instead just about every song is a famous classic.  I like it better now than I did back in the 1970s but I still don't play it much.  My favorite cut is his version of "Stand By Me" which comes close to besting Ben E. King's original thanks to Lennon's passionate vocal and a robust arrangement.  I'm charmed by his heartfelt performance of Lloyd Price's "Just Because" which benefits from a spoken intro and conclusion by Lennon.  I wish there was more of this informal quality to the album which is entirely too slick for my taste.  I also like his punchy version of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" although Cheap Trick's cover a few years later is better.  The most interesting track is a reggae influenced re-working of "Do You Want To Dance" which revitalizes the song the way a good cover should.  On the negative side there is a lackluster medley of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" and "Send Me Some Lovin'."  Lennon's uninspired take on Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" is even weaker.  I think the rockers mostly come off the worst on the album.  "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Ready Teddy/Rip It Up," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "Bony Moronie" lack the manic intensity and urgency the Beatles would have brought to them (if you don't believe me listen to the Beatles' Star-Club recordings or the BBC sessions.)  Lennon's vocals are undermined by the lifeless, polished arrangements delivered by the studio pros backing him.  The songs remind me of Sha Na Na which is not a compliment.  The exceptions are "Peggy Sue" which slavishly imitates the Buddy Holly original and the Spectorized cover of "You Can't Catch Me" which thanks to the noisy arrangement and Lennon's crazed vocal I prefer to Chuck Berry's original.  It really captures the energy that makes early rock and roll so exciting unlike most of the rest of the album.  I think the best thing about the album is the cover photo of Lennon taken by Jurgen Vollmer during one of the Beatles' visits to Hamburg.  It says more about rock and roll than the music on the album.  One thing that really strikes me about the record now that I didn't notice when it came out is how 1970s the thing sounds, more "Crocodile Rock" than "Rock Around the Clock."  Since I don't really dig the 1970s I don't think that is a good thing, but I suppose it beats pure imitation.  Recommended to people who think it would be cool if Jerry Lee Lewis jammed with Steely Dan. 

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