John Lennon’s solo career was already underway before the end of The Beatles. As early as May 1968 he was moonlighting with new love Yoko Ono, recording a series of experimental tape loops at home in Surrey. Issued two weeks before the Fabs’ White Album, the largely improvised mess of Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins appeared to be a rejection of everything that the record-buying public expected of him. The fact that it was adorned with a full-frontal nude photo of the couple (requiring the album to be sold inside a brown paper bag) only confirmed the notion.
His post-Beatles work never quite reached the same degree of avant-gardism, but it was nevertheless just as wilful. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in 1970, was a stark, sometimes brutal, examination of his own past and the forces that both drove and tormented him. Imagine (1971) and Mind Games (1973) showed him to be a songwriter in the classic mould, creating utopian vistas that dared to envision a world without war, hunger, religion and all the rest of it. You may say he was a dreamer, but his lyrics often carried a bitter streak too. The years immediately following The Beatles’ demise found him involved in verbals with Paul McCartney, Lennon’s rancour all too apparent on songs like the vicious How Do You Sleep?.
Then there was Lennon the political rebel, in Che Guevara cap and shades, throwing his weight into any number of causes – women’s rights, penal injustice, political double-dealing, Northern Ireland. It was a stance that sought creative expression on 1972’s protest album Some Time In New York City and also landed him in bother with the Nixon Administration. After setting up home in the US in the early part of the decade, he found himself constantly monitored by the FBI and threatened with deportation. Lennon wasn’t granted American citizenship until 1976.
By then he had retired from the music business altogether. Having signed off where his Beatles career began - with a batch of old ’50s and ’60 tunes on the previous year’s Rock ’N’ Roll – he devoted himself instead to the life of a house husband, making bread, doing chores and looking after his new son, Sean. Lennon didn’t fully emerge again until the autum of 1980, when he and Yoko returned with comeback album, Double Fantasy. Tragically, just weeks after its release, he was gunned down in front of his apartment building in New York, aged just 40.
It’s a mark of his lasting quality that Lennon’s influence remains undimmed. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame seven years later, he is simply one of the most significant figures in post-war pop culture.
12. Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions (1969)
When it comes to the more ‘challenging’ stuff, there’s not much to choose between the three experimental albums that John and Yoko cut during The Beatles’ final years This second volume can be very heavy going indeed, as evinced by an avant-jazz shriek-out at Cambridge University and a 12-minute piece in which Yoko fiddles about with a radio dial and John makes a phone call. At other times it’s almost uncomfortably intimate. Baby’s Heartbeat, in particular, is a hospital bedside recording of Yoko’s palpitations during her miscarriage.
11. Unfinished Music No.3: Wedding Album (1969)
Essentially a celebration of the Lennons’ marriage in Gibraltar in March ’69, Wedding Album is split into two tracks, each running in excess of 20 minutes. The first, simply titled John & Yoko, is a succession of whispers, cries and screams of varying tempos, set to the combined rhythm of their heartbeats. Amsterdam, which takes up Side Two, features interviews from the couple’s first Bed-In for peace, plus recitals, Yoko’s Grow Your Hair and John’s solo rendition of The Beatles’ White Album tune, Good Night.
10. Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968)
So named because of Lennon’s assertion that he and Yoko were merely “two innocents, lost in a world gone mad”, Two Virgins is a spontaneous set made in the couple’s music room in Surrey (while John’s then-wife, Cynthia, was holidaying in Greece), comprising vocal improv, birdsong, feedback, chatter and various novelty tunes. The nude sleeve photo provoked much controversy on release, resulting in EMI’s decision to sell the album in a brown paper bag, adorned with several quotations from the Bible.
9. Milk And Honey (1984)
The productive sessions for Lennon’s final studio album, Double Fantasy, yielded 22 songs, but Yoko found the prospect of going through the unreleased material too stressful to contemplate after her husband’s death. It wasn’t until 1984 that she revived the remainder as Milk And Honey. While the format was essentially the same – both Lennons sharing the songwriting spoils – John’s compositions were mostly unfinished sketches that he’d planned to return to early in ’81. Wisely, Yoko elected to leave Lennon’s six efforts as works-in-progress, adding only a minimal amount of echo to his vocals. It lends tunes like I’m Stepping Out and Nobody Told Me (initially earmarked for Ringo Starr’s Stop And Smell The Roses album) an air of immediacy lacking in Yoko’s more considered ones.
8. Live Peace In Toronto 1969 (1969)
The hastily-convened Plastic Ono Band made their live debut at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in September ’69. Corralling good buddies Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and drummer Alan White, the Lennons offered two distinct musical flavours. John and the band tore through a trio of old chestnuts (Blue Suede Shoes; Money (That’s What I Want), Dizzy Miss Lizzy) alongside The Beatles’ Yer Blues and Bed-In anthem, Give Peace A Chance. Most interesting, especially in light of Lennon’s heroin addiction, was the unveiling of a new song, Cold Turkey. Lennon admitted later that he was so full of junk that he threw up for hours beforehand. Yoko’s two numbers, including avant-garde epic John, John (Let’s Hope For Peace), were less successful.
7. Some Time In New York City (1972)
Easily the most undervalued album in Lennon’s solo canon, Some Time In New York City is often dismissed as little more than naiive sloganeering. Yes it’s flawed (and there’s not a whole lot going for the two live sets that make up its second half), but the mix of radical politics and ebullient rock‘n’roll is occassionally thrilling. John and Yoko’s move to the Big Apple in September 1971 led to the embrace of a number of social causes, reflected in controversial songs like Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (which brought out the US censors in their droves), Attica State, Sunday Bloody Sunday and John Sinclair. The best moment, however, was New York City, a diaristic account of life in their new home.
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6. Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975)
A stolen line from Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me, used for The Beatles’ Come Together, resulted in a lawsuit from publisher Morris Levy. Rather than go to court, Lennon agreed to record at least three Levy-owned tunes on an album of ‘50s and ‘60s covers that found him reconnecting with the music of his teenhood. After the initial LA sessions were marred by drunken excess from the extended party and erratic behaviour from producer Phil Spector, who ran off with the master tapes, Lennon repaired to New York and finished Rock ‘N’ Roll himself. The animated urgency of Slippin’ And Slidin’ and Stand By Me were standouts on an album that struck a fine balance between reverence and pure devil-may-care.
5. Double Fantasy (1980)
Intended as a triumphant comeback after a five-year hiatus, Double Fantasy instead served as a teary elegy in the wake of Lennon’s murder three weeks after its release. Its Grammy-winning commercial success wasn’t just a result of sentimentality either. Credited to both John and Yoko, the album serves as a musical dialogue whose plain affirmations find an ideal contrast in the richness of the arrangements and Lennon’s sure songcraft. Indeed, he seems like a man at peace, his usual anguish replaced by a loved-up domesticity. Woman and (Just Like) Starting Over were both posthumous number one singles, while Watching The Wheels and Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) – written for five-year-old son Sean – documented Lennon’s life during his extended bout of househusbandry.
4. Walls And Bridges (1974)
“If you listen to Walls And Bridges you hear somebody that’s depressed,” Lennon said some years later. “It showed where I was, it’s a reflection of the time.” He was, in fact, in the midst of his infamous ‘lost weekend’, holed up in LA with May Pang and boozing the nights away with Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson. The self-hating Going Down On Love and bleakly beautiful Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out), which he hoped Frank Sinatra might record, give a fair indication as to his malaise. These moods were offset by the defiant uplift of US chart-topper Whatever Gets You Thru’ The Night (one of two tunes featuring Elton John) and the gorgeous, free-floating #9 Dream.
3. Mind Games (1973)
Issued after the commercial failure of Some Time In New York City, Mind Games was a return to the less politically-engaged, songwriterly feel of Imagine. All was not well in Lennon’s private life though. The album sessions coincided with the start of an 18-month separation from Yoko and the onset of his relationship (at his wife’s prompting) with the couple’s assistant, May Pang. Some of the songs sound like the work of a man distracted by marital strife, while others - I Know (I Know), Out The Blue and One Day (At A Time) deal with the lovelorn fallout. Lennon is at his most persuasive on the bucolic title track, its origins in the Beatles-era tune, Make Love Not War.
2. Imagine (1971)
A whole raft of talent – George Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Nicky Hopkins, Jim Keltner, Badfinger and more – were at hand for the richer-sounding follow-up to Plastic Ono Band. Mostly recorded at Lennon’s home studio at Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, Imagine is dominated by its title track, a visionary utopian dream (liked to the national anthem by co-producer Phil Spector) that became the biggest-selling single of his career. There are also two of his finest romantic songs: Jealous Guy and Oh My Love. He hadn’t completed softened though. Gimme Some Truth, revived from The Beatles’ Let It Be sessions, is a caustic protest tune aimed at Nixon-era politicos. And estranged ex-bandmate Paul McCartney is the target of the withering How Do You Sleep?.
1. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
After three albums of avant-garde noodlings with Yoko, Lennon’s first ‘proper’ post-Beatles album was remarkable for both its candour and intensity. The couple’s primal scream sessions with US therapist Arthur Janov unlocked the ghosts in his closet, with Lennon addressing childhood loss (Mother; My Mummy’s Dead), the British caste system (an expletive-ridden Working Class Hero), his disillusionment with the ideals of the ‘60s (I Found Out) and even his own past (God). Klaus Voormann, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and co-producer Phil Spector stopped by to add some accompaniment, but this is mostly all Lennon’s work. The musical backdrops are suitably raw too, ranging from spare acoustics to inflammatory rock with heaps of echo. It would prove to be the most confessional work of his life.