John Lennon's "Cold Turkey" on the Run
A Cold Case of a Defective 45
By Kurt Wildermuth
You twenty-first-century kids, with your digital files and search engines and Internet savvy, have no idea what it was like to hunt for rare vinyl records without much information to guide you. Nowadays, if you want to hear a particular song, you have it easy. To get a sense of how different things were when all we had was analog, come with me and the late John Lennon down a record-collecting rabbit hole, a hole filled with warrens.
If you're familiar with John Lennon's music as a solo artist, not with the Beatles, you probably know his song "Cold Turkey," which appears on numerous Lennon compilations:
Fever is high
Can't see no future
Can't see no sky...
Has got me
On the run
Lennon wrote this cheerful little ditty in 1969, inspired either by withdrawing from heroin or vomiting from Thanksgiving leftovers (depending on which story you believe). He proposed recording it with the Beatles, but his bandmates turned it down as inappropriate for the group. So Lennon recorded it himself, with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo Starr behind the kit.
In October 1969, while the Beatles were still together, "Cold Turkey" was released as a single, a 7-inch 45-rpm record. It was credited to the Plastic Ono Band, Lennon and Yoko Ono's conceptual group--a group in name only, with ever-changing members (sometimes or maybe always including you, the listener).
Like Lennon's other early solo singles--"Give Peace a Chance," "Instant Karma," and "Power to the People"--the original, studio version of "Cold Turkey" wasn't included on any album until the first Lennon compilation, Shaved Fish, in 1975. Before that album came out, if you wanted to hear the original version of the song instead of a live cut, you had to buy the single.
Today, of course, you'd just add that track to your file collection, stream it, or cheap out and listen to it on YouTube. But in bygone days, you couldn't even order it and have it delivered. You had to visit a physical record store.
The 1969 single has always been beloved by Lennon devotees, but it didn't do terribly well in the marketplace. Strangely enough, pop-music listeners weren't so taken with a song "about pain" (as Lennon put it in concert), not even one with screaming guitar, throbbing bass, anguished cries, and condensed sound.
By the late '70s, you would never have heard "Cold Turkey" on commercial radio and whatever stock existed seemed to have dried up. At least, I've never heard it on any kind of airwaves, commercial or non-, and as a Beatles-obsessed teenager I couldn't find the single in the record stores of suburban Long Island, where I lived at the time.
Then one day, probably in the late '80s, at a chain record store in a Long Island shopping mall, I spotted a cache of maybe a dozen, maybe two dozen "Cold Turkey" 45s. WTF, as you kids say.
In those days, a store of this kind might have stocked some Beatles singles. Maybe there'd have been Lennon's most popular radio staples such as "Imagine," "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," or "Watching the Wheels." But these items would have been surrounded by the mainstream pop-rock hits of the day, most of which were not to my taste. I have no idea why I was even looking at the singles. Yet there they were, numerous copies of "Cold Turkey," this unfriendly outlier, an unglossy hard-rock nightmare, a hard-to-find blast from the past.
Record collectors sometimes dream about record stores. The dream might involve flipping through an array of LP's concocted by the dreaming brain. Once, fully awake, at a shopping center down the road from this particular mall, I had the dreamlike experience of browsing in a record store stocked entirely with bootleg LP's--collections of illegally obtained unreleased material, such as studio outtakes and concert recordings. There wasn't a single legitimate, recognizable release in the place. That improbable retailer closed very quickly, no doubt shut down by law enforcement. Sometimes I wonder if it didn't really exist and I just dreamed about it. While finding multiple copies of "Cold Turkey" wasn't as reality-defying as that illicit experience, it was very weird, like a record-store dream. Something was off. What had happened behind the scenes to deliver these 45's here?
Readers, I can't answer that question. I simply bought a copy, took it home, placed it on my turntable with great expectations, and... discovered it was defective. Toward the end of the song, when Lennon was supposed to sing the title phrase, the record skipped over the syllable "tur," so he sang, "Cold 'key / Has got me / On the run." I knew the song from the Shaved Fish collection, but even if I hadn't previously heard the whole thing I'd have detected this obvious flaw. (Why I no longer owned Shaved Fish and therefore wanted "Cold Turkey" on 45 is a record-collecting rabbit hole best left unexplored in this piece. Look for it in my forthcoming memoir...)
Back at the record store, I exchanged the defective single for a replacement. Back at home, I discovered that the replacement skipped in the exact same place. The stereo needle wasn't jumping, though, as you could see if you looked closely. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill skip, because the vinyl wasn't scratched, and the flaw wasn't simply a function of the record's grooves. No, the stylus was tracking correctly, so the defect was within the music itself, embedded and embodied in the grooves.
The Los Angeles band Love, on its classic psychedelic album Forever Changes (1967), playfully included a glitch of this kind. At the end of the song "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This," recording tape has been manipulated so that bits of sound jump all over the place. The "music" sounds exactly like a CD skipping, although of course Forever Changes was only on LP back in its day. When I heard the album for the first time, on a CD I'd just bought, I took the disc back to the store and got a refund. The clerk looked baffled as we listened, since the disc looked pristine, but he couldn't argue that the music sounded fine. Live and learn.
To this day, while I love Forever Changes, I can't get used to that elaborate skipping sound and am always convinced that the technology is malfunctioning. I have to override my physical, or psychological, response and remind myself that this effect was intended.
But while John Lennon hid all sorts of Easter eggs in his music, with the Beatles and solo, he didn't include a skip in "Cold Turkey."
Thus a chain record store was selling a stash of defective copies of Lennon's single, a record that the laws of the record-selling universe said shouldn't have been there at all, in any condition. Perhaps those records ended up in that place precisely because they were defective...?
For some thirty years, that 45 has remained in my collection. Now and then I've been willing to spin the A side, bracing myself for its mood-ruining skip. More often I've spun the B side, Ono's ferocious bluesy rocker "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow)." As a music listener, I've kept that defective record because it includes Ono's little sonic monster. As a record collector, I've kept the 45 as a placeholder until, or if, I encountered a replacement single in the wild. We all have secrets, and one of mine was that this oddity, this flawed gem, was lodged in my record collection.
A friend, who's more focused than I am on sonic imperfections in analog musical products, once looked through my singles. When he reached "Cold Turkey" and saw it was on Apple Records, the Beatles' record label, he said it was valuable. Inwardly I winced, but I kept my cool.
"No, it's not worth that much," I answered. "It's a later pressing." That was my best guess, having never investigated further. At some point, Apple had reissued the single and produced these flawed copies... right?
Cut to 2022. The pandemic has left some of us with extra time at home, and extra time at home has sent some of us to eBay. And because John Lennon and Yoko Ono have been much on my mind recently, I have toyed with using eBay to buy a replacement copy of "Cold Turkey." Finally, this tiny wound in my collection would be healed, just as when I replaced my awful later pressing of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols with an earlier, sonically sharper one.
Of course, I don't want to end up with another skipping copy of "Cold Turkey." For that reason, after all these years, I've done some web sleuthing to understand the copy I own and how to avoid it.
The first thing I discovered was that the defective copies I encountered in that Long Island shopping mall weren't the only ones of their kind. My initial web search led me to the 5th Edition of Applelog: U.S. and Canadian Price and Reference Guide, a book written and published by Jeffery Levy in 2006. In the early '70s, Levy was a member of the New York City band David Peel & the Lower East Side, whose 1972 album The Pope Smokes Dope was produced by Lennon and Ono and released by Apple Records.
In Applelog, Levy catalogs data on every Apple release in North America. He explains that the "first issue" in the U.S. of the "Cold Turkey" single "has a mastering defect causing the last chorus... to skip." A master is the version from which subsequent copies are made. For vinyl records, a master is literally a round platter with grooves. Something went wrong with this initial "Cold Turkey" master, yielding however many "Cold 'Key" copies.
According to Levy in 2006, this defective version was worth $20 in very good condition, $45 if near mint. The "second issue," the "corrected version," ranged from $6 to $12.
So it seems that my copy isn't a later pressing; it's U.S. East Coast "first issue." And its baked-in skip makes it more valuable as a collector's item, which goes to show how odd record-collecting or collectors can be. On eBay, you'll often see listings for records with pressing peculiarities, such as having the wrong music on one side, but many or most of these one-off oddities don't command big bucks as sought-after collectibles.
Part of the difference here is that the record was by John Lennon. Another part is that this flaw wasn't just a single accident (pun intended). It was an incident involving multiples and therefore part of history.
Listings at the Discogs database specify that this first issue was pressed at the Capitol Records plant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Capitol having been Apple's U.S. manufacturer and distributor. Other 1969 pressings were done at Capitol's plants in Jacksonville, Illinois, and in Los Angeles. Discogs doesn't mention the skip at all, but online commenters elsewhere indicate that this glitch was limited to the initial pressing from Scranton.
To judge whether a particular pressing came from Scranton, Jacksonville, or L.A., you can visit websites that literally depict the records' labels, with their differently colored Apple photos and their typographical differences. The reproductions are beautiful, and the documenting of minutiae is awe-inspiring, head-spinning, or mind-numbing, depending on your predilection. This material is truly a niche market.
Another difference among the pressings of "Cold Turkey" involves the paper sleeves they came in. According to friktech.com, some copies were "issued with a black 'x-ray' picture sleeve that has been widely counterfeited. The [picture sleeve] was rare before 1981, when numerous copies were discovered." It's interesting that counterfeit sleeves exist; we'll get back to that. The recovery of authentic sleeves as late as 1981 of course makes me think of my shopping mall 45 from the late '80s. However, this lead goes nowhere, because the Scranton copies with the skip didn't come with the picture sleeve. They were in Apple's standard black sleeve, blank but for the word "Apple" and a "Printed in U.S.A." logo.
Meanwhile, the pressing with the skip has a little life of its own. Videos of it are on YouTube. Online chroniclers of Beatles lore speculate about whether the skipping version should be considered an authentic variation of the song, an "alternative mix." One Internet denizen reports that back in the day, radio stations played the skipping version, so it is the one some listeners came to know. He searched for twenty years to find a nonskipping copy and celebrated when he finally played one.
Another netizen claims that some defective copies came from Capitol's plant in Winchester, VA, but other sources indicate that no copies were pressed there. Perhaps these are the so-called contract copies referred to at one site, which doesn't give their pressing location...?
In any case, this commenter claims to have copies from both Winchester and Scranton that skip. He managed to get what he calls the Winchester copy to play without skipping, but three loud pops occurred instead. The Scranton copy skips no matter what.
So let's assume there are no Winchester copies. The 45's with the baked-in skip all come from Scranton. To get a sense of how they happened, I turned to a music-business professional.
Recording and mixing engineer Tom Lord-Alge began his career at New York City's Hit Factory in the late '70s. He has mixed records for such notables as the Rolling Stones, U2, Peter Gabriel, OMD, Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne, and the Dave Matthews Band. His three engineering Grammy Awards are for Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life (1986) and "Roll with It" (1988) and Santana's Supernatural (1999). About the "Cold 'Key" error, he told me:I would speculate that if there is a version that does not have the skip the following may have happened. When the tape was being transferred to make the "stamper," the actual material that stamps out the records, perhaps the tape snapped while playing.The engineer's merry way proceeded into the marketplace (at which point the record company would have been FREAKING OUT). The initial solution to my mystery is that somehow a bunch of the flawed pressings made in Scranton in 1969 ended up at a Long Island record store in the '80s.
FREAKING OUT the [mastering] engineer may have decided that only a small amount of tape was lost, and therefore rather than alert the record company about the accident, spliced the tape back together and continued on his merry way.
That might be the end of this story. However, the sleeve of my 45 gives pause. Remember, we're down a rabbit hole.
One website depicts variations in the Apple sleeves throughout the years, and my single didn't come in the sleeve that it would have in 1969. Indeed, its sleeve doesn't correspond to any known version. "Apple" is correctly printed in white not green, but the printing is choppy, not smooth as on legitimate Apple sleeves. The stock is thin and matte black, lesser quality than the normal shiny ones. And there's no "Printed in the U.S.A" on the bottom righthand corner.
What's up here? Comparison with legitimate Apple sleeves suggests that this sleeve is a counterfeit. Therefore my 45 might also be a counterfeit--a reproduction of the defective Scranton pressing. If so, it would join my counterfeit copies of Lennon's Roots, Lennon and Ono's Two Virgins, the Beatles' Christmas album, and others. As I discussed in a 2015 article, "Duplicates of Duplicates," lots of collectible records are counterfeited. Prominent among the fakes are Beatles-related items, and I inadvertently bought a bunch of these at various Long Island stores in the '80s. I bet that someone with a copy of the Scranton pressing and access to a pressing plant made and distributed copies of the flawed "Cold Turkey." The goal might not have been to increase the number of Scranton skips. It might simply have been to sell copies of the hard-to-come-by "Cold Turkey," and the available copy just happened to have the skip.
One other possibility, I guess, is that a distributor found a bunch of legitimate Scranton pressings, printed up a bunch of serviceable "Apple" sleeves (good enough to fool people like me, anyway, in the days before smartphones), and put them into the world.
Whether or not my copy is counterfeit, it sounds great, as raw, claustrophobic, and avant-post-punk as Lennon intended, pretty much the same as every other copy of "Cold Turkey" until the latest remixes and remasters. Right up until that skip.
Many of us, fans, fanatics, tend to think of the Beatles, Lennon in particular, as godlike figures whose work towers over the doings of us mere mortals. So it's eye-opening, a dose of reality, to realize that such a slip-up, a built-in skip, could occur in the translation of the artist's vision into a physical reality. Thanks to my Internet research, which was by no means exhaustive or definitive, I have a newfound "respect" for this one misbegotten artifact. My embarrassment about owning it has been replaced with a warm feeling about an odd little part of Beatles lore.
I won't, however, become a collector of skipping copies. If I buy another copy of "Cold Turkey," it'll be a pressing from Jacksonville or L.A. This correct pressing will join my Scranton pressing, or counterfeit Scranton pressing, rather than replacing it. They'll be together, joined like my multiple copies of the Beatles' White Album. In other words, in a collection of artifacts it's all good. It's all interesting, especially because some of it is imperfect.
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