In celebration of what would have been John Lennon’s seventieth birthday (a convenient excuse to milk the cash cow some more), Yoko Ono has seen fit to release a whole whack of stuff — mainly remastered versions of the studio albums (with a few strange omissions, like the Live in New York City album), a few home demos, a few superfluous compilations, and a box set to hold it all in one place. I was tempted to shell out for this thing, even though it seems a bit ridiculous to me. Then I found out the individual CDs were being sold separately in repackaged/remastered form. So I grabbed the four I really wanted, some of them albums that were always difficult to find on CD, and saved myself at least a hundred bucks in the process.
I’m sure the box set is a cool collector’s piece to have, but I can’t justify getting it. Yoko Ono already released remixed/remastered versions of some of these albums a few years back, which I thankfully never got around to picking up, so I can at least justify getting these new versions of a few albums since they’ve been remastered from the original analog tapes instead of using squashed-to-hell and cleaned-up new mixes.
It’s a bit of a relief to find the dynamics are intact, at least on the 1970s albums. The overall sound seems to be a marked improvement over a lot of the original CDs, which were muddy and leaned a bit too heavy on noise-reduction. I’ve never understood why some people have such a problem with a little bit of tape hiss. The same team that worked on the remastering campaign for all the recent Beatles reissues worked on most of these Lennon albums, and again they did a nice job of clarifying the sonic spectrum while preserving the dynamics and integrity of the original mixes. It’s a nice thing to hear when the Loudness War is still raging on around us.
I listened to Plastic Ono Band last night and heard things in it I never have before — and this is not an album with many layers or things tucked away in the stereo field. It’s raw and stripped-down to the core, and while Phil Spector has received production credit for decades, it turns out he barely showed up for any of the recording sessions. The true architect of the album’s sound was John himself, along with the two engineers sitting behind the mixing board.
This album had a huge impact on me. I’ve listened to it more times than I could count over the past fourteen or so years. But this is the first time I’ve been able to hear John’s fingernails striking his guitar on “Look at Me”. It’s the first time I’ve been able to distinguish between his and Billy Preston’s separate piano parts on “God” — a song I always liked, but has now become one of my favourite things Lennon ever wrote after hearing it in this remastered form. For the first time ever, I realized “Working Class Hero” is a composite of at least two different takes combined to make one complete song, because I could hear the change in acoustic guitar sound halfway through — something that was undetectable on the previous CD issue.
The hammond organ part on “Isolation” still has a muted, ghostly quality, but now I can hear that it’s an organ in no uncertain terms, when I used to think it was Yoko, who was mysteriously credited with “wind” in the liner notes. Klaus Voorman’s great bass-playing comes through clearer than ever before. The little walking lick he plays at the beginning of each chorus on “I Found Out” is brilliant stuff. I can hear the reverb tail on John’s piano in the first seconds of “Isolation” for the first time ever — and this is a very “dry” album, free of obvious effects for the most part, aside from some slapback echo.
At the same time, things don’t sound like they’ve been polished or digitally enhanced. It sounds the way the CD always should have sounded. And “I Found Out” and “Well Well Well” still sound far ahead of their time, like some sort of stark proto-grunge. This is the only album John ever made where he was the only guitar player. In the years ahead he would rely on session guitarists most of the time, relegating himself to background/rhythm parts, though he did play the slide guitar that’s pretty much the driving force behind “Mind Games”. His playing on Plastic Ono Band is wonderfully rough and jagged, with not one masturbatory solo in sight. It’s also hard to imagine a better drummer for these songs than Ringo, who never sets a foot wrong.
For me, listening to the remastered CD was almost like hearing the album for the first time again. Aside from the original vinyl LP, this is probably as close as anyone is going to get to the way things sounded in the studio when the recording sessions went down.
I have very mixed feelings about Yoko Ono. I’ll just say I think she’s a very smart businesswoman whose decisions don’t always make a whole lot of sense to me. At least she hasn’t pulled a Courtney Love and released Lennon’s private diaries for public consumption (after editing them herself to get rid of any negative comments directed at her, of course). Though I have to say, in spite of the murky moral implications, I would have a hard time not buying john Lennon’s private writings if they ever became available. Who doesn’t want to read the private thoughts of the man who was arguably the most interesting and human Beatle?
Anyway, there are a lot of things Yoko has done that I strongly disagree with, but two things she’s done win her some points in my book. The first was releasing the four-CD Anthology of alternate studio takes, private recordings, and home demos. While the full breadth of unreleased material could probably fill twenty CDs, if not more, I bought that box set the day it was released back in 1998 and found what was there deeply fascinating. I think it was a brilliant decision to strip all the overdubs, orchestration, and effects off of some of the overproduced mid-’70s material, because it reveals just how great a lot of those songs were — particularly the Lost Weekend era stuff. I think a lot of the Walls and Bridges songs on the Anthology set beat the more ornate album versions. “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” is so much more effective in stripped-down form, it’s kind of staggering. I always thought the bombastic take on “Be My Baby” was great too, and using John’s own artwork and doodles on all the packaging was a nice touch. I still listen to the music on that box set and enjoy it, which isn’t something I can say for too many box sets of out-takes and demos.
And now there are these remastered CDs. Yeah, on some level I’m pretty sure it’s just another attempt at cashing in. But at least the remastering was done right, and the music sounds the way it should have in the first place. You get the lyrics uncensored as well…though I have to say I did always get a laugh out of how the dirty words on Plastic Ono Band were represented by nothing more than asterisks in the lyric booklet the first time around — “Omitted at the insistence of EMI,” the booklet explained, because the words “cock” and “fucking” were too harsh for virgin eyes. I’d say if you have old issues of the albums on CD and you’re happy with the sound quality there’s no reason to pick any of this stuff up, but if you have a good hi-fi or a good pair of headphones and/or you’re missing some of John’s solo albums, it’s worth grabbing at least a few things individually.
Again, I’m sure the box set looks cool and all. I just can’t justify spending that amount of money on yet another box-shaped cash-in, and I don’t want to read any more drivel about what a beautiful fairytale the John and Yoko romance was and how idyllic John’s last days were when there’s more than a bit of evidence that all was not smiles and rainbows. To be fair, I can see how it would be tempting to rewrite history the way you would have liked it to be (or the way you’d like other people to believe it was) if you were in a position to do such a thing. Not that having the power to completely control or alter the public’s perception of someone else’s life eliminates the moral issues raised.
Now, if Yoko would release the professionally-shot video footage of the Double Fantasy recording sessions, that would be interesting to see. Alas, it doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon. But I guess you never know.
Stranger things have happened. I never in my life thought I’d get to see the fabled footage of Alex Chilton recording Like Flies on Sherbert in the studio. After a while I wasn’t sure it existed, even if what little I read about it was tantalizing. Not a week after he passed away, it suddenly appeared on the internet — some forty or fifty minutes of footage. It’s not as interesting as i built it up to be in my mind, but it’s still pretty cool to see. I now know, for instance, that the odd bass sound on “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” was achieved by slapping an upright bass with a large wooden stick. And there’s also this.
What about me, then? CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN now has lyrics, and a full-colour cover image, and stuff like that. I think it looks pretty neat. I’m not planning on phasing out the first design by any means, and I’m perfectly happy with the way it came out looking the first time. I didn’t have a ton of the new booklets/inserts made up. You could look at it as a “limited edition special reissue for no particular reason” that just happens to come along a little over two years after the album was first released. I’ll talk about it more in the next progress report video at the end of the month. In the interim, I’ll try to drop off a few copies of the colour version at Dr. Disc this weekend, and maybe at Phog too, if anyone wants them. At some point I might look at making lyric booklets for AN ABSENCE OF SWAY and IF I HAD A QUARTER as well.
I had no idea I would ever want to print my lyrics with my CDs at all, or that I would up enjoying it as much as I do. Now I kind of wish I started doing it sooner.