John Lennon Goes Pop
A Case for Mind Games and Walls and Bridges
by Kurt Wildermuth
"Certain singers just sound like they're in pain. John Lennon had that . . . where you can hear it in his voice, like, 'Man what happened to that guy?'"
-Aimee Mann, Pitchfork, 2020
"Let us adopt a naive attitude towards it, as though we were hearing it for the first time; we shall be unable then to suppress a feeling of surprise and bewilderment."
-Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930; trans. by James Strachey, 1961)
Some things never get their due. Consider John Lennon's "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)," a track from his solo album Mind Games (1973). Some pop-rock music aficionados like to talk about "deep cuts," meaning worthy album tracks that get lost in the shuffle, and "Aisumasen" might be Lennon's deepest cut. Another hidden beauty is "Bless You," from Lennon's Walls and Bridges (1974). When was the last time you heard or heard about either of these songs?
If you're familiar with them, you're not the target audience for this article. This piece is for people who've never given Mind Games and Walls and Bridges a fair shake.
Maybe you're a Beatles fan but you feel the group's individual parts-each man's solo efforts-could seldom or never equal the whole. Maybe you're open to hearing the solo albums but you've seen Lennon's work--particularly the middle period, when these albums came out--denigrated as uninspired and spotty. Maybe you've taken Paul McCartney's or George Harrison's or even Ringo Starr's "side" over Lennon's. Maybe you've never listened beyond a Lennon best-of. Maybe you've tried Mind Games and Walls and Bridges but were disappointed because you were hoping for more of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971).
Those two albums were Lennon's first full-fledged studio albums after his work with the Beatles, sonic art projects with Yoko Ono, a few singles, and a live recording. Both Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, despite revisionism concerning Lennon's work, remain major achievements. They appear on lists of the best albums ever made. They serve as touchstones for pop-rock singer/songwriters of a confessional bent, such as Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple. It's hard to imagine Lenny Kravitz's Let Love Rule (1989), Robyn Hitchcock's Eye (1990), and Spoon's Gimme Fiction (2005) without them. They are the standards against which many "confessional" "singer/songwriter" albums and all other Lennon albums will be judged.
Plastic Ono Band represents Lennon's worldview stripped to the bone. In songs consistently about himself and his love for Ono, the former Beatle brought to fruition-or diminution-the approach he'd been taking, with detours, since, say, the Beatles' "I'm a Loser" (1964) or "Help!" (1965). Namely, he was going to sing you the truth about his feelings in the moment, as though they'd last forever, as though they deserved to be preserved in amber, no matter how much it hurt him or you. "I just believe in me," as he put it on Plastic Ono Band's "God." "Yoko and me / And that's reality."
The music on Plastic Ono Band matched that no-nonsense paring back. Drums, bass, and either guitar or piano delivered unsweetened rhythms meant to complement the singer's phrasing, end of story; but the story packs a powerful wallop.
Imagine built on that foundation by expanding outward lyrically and musically. John and Yoko were still the center of the universe, but the thematic concerns included utopian vision, antiwar sentiment, and denunciation of lies and manipulation. Worrisome, though, was Lennon's gleeful, undisguised assault on McCartney in "How Do You Sleep?" A focus on self, this track made clear, could lead the artist to believe that any unpleasantness was justified in the name of expression, and any expression could be justified by the claim of truth.
Meanwhile, the album's expanded instrumental palette, including strings and copious overdubs, provided the spoonsful of sugar that helped even the bitter pills go down.
After the artistic and commercial successes of his first two albums, Lennon crashed hard. He and Ono moved from England to New York City, where they allied themselves with Greenwich Village political activists. The causes Lennon and Ono championed were right on-in hindsight, even more so-but the mainstream marketplace rejected the broadsides the couple delivered on their joint album Some Time in New York City (1972). Few people bought it, and fewer wanted to hear it. Even to sympathetic listeners, Lennon's righteousness seemed to have bloated into self-righteousness, as if Imagine's venomous "How Do You Sleep?" was now directed at many "thems" who weren't "us"--that is, "the people."
Mind Games, Lennon's next album, can be seen as an attempt to reingratiate himself with his audience. As in: Forget that I put politics in your face; that faux-newspaper record never happened. Remember how much you liked Imagine?
Lennon might have tried any of numerous different approaches to making this "comeback." He might have reassembled the team that brought you Imagine. He might have hired a flashy new producer-say, Richard Perry, who'd helmed hits for Tiny Tim, Carly Simon, and Lennon's friend Harry Nilsson, and who would help Ringo Starr establish himself as a pop-rock chart-climber with the album Ringo (1973). For that matter, he might have reunited with the Beatles' producer, George Martin, and tried to get back to his 1960s roots; that scenario is hard to imagine but entertaining to contemplate. He might have taken a step lots of listeners wish he'd taken-in fact, two steps backward, by reverting to the lyrical and sonic minimalism of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. He might have aimed for speed, as when he'd bashed out the "Instant Karma" single (1970) in a burst of inspiration.
Instead, he jettisoned Phil Spector, who'd produced all three of Lennon's previous albums, and elected to produce himself. In place of the English friends and associates and New York rockers who'd played on those albums, he hired a small group of session players. While keeping himself the focus of his art, Lennon aimed to make a professional product. He was crafting Mind Games to be his most commercial solo venture to that point: a record the Beatles might have made if they'd lasted past 1970.
The album's detractors will recoil at that comparison, especially if they cling to the idea that the Beatles could do little wrong. But to put the Beatles' albums in context-one of approximately a gazillion possible contexts-consider how short their albums were and how collaborative their music was. Often, under contractual pressure to create enough content to last a half hour, the Fab Four relied on cover versions or cobbled together otherwise unfinished bits. Generally, they could rely on each other to figure something out.
As solo artists, they were thrown on their own resources. Sure, Ringo could count on a little help from his friends; but George, Paul, and John each needed to deliver the goods.
So whereas the Beatles' White Album (1968) consisted of full-band recordings and solo tracks, running such a gamut of musical styles that one critic lauded it as "the history and synthesis of Western music," Mind Games had to be all Lennon and was expected to be a coherent aesthetic statement. Critical knives were out, both because even ex-Beatles were expected to do little wrong and because Lennon had committed the unpardonable sin of offending listeners with Some Time in New York City. By 1973, people took their pop-rock very seriously. Lennon, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones-name your gods-were expected to deliver and to suffer the consequences if they let the audience down.
So the stakes were high. But decades later, to get at the music itself, let's put aside the personal pressures Lennon was under. Let's also assume you're coming to this album cold, without prior knowledge of his work.
The opening of the title track signals the care that Lennon put into the production. The first sound is an electronic pealing, like highly processed church bells, whose increasing volume creates the sensation of sound arriving from across a vast distance. This effect recalls the kind of electronic distortions George Martin helped the Beatles innovate. Now drummer Jim Keltner's pounding suggests feet quick-marching. On the album cover, which Lennon created by hand, a small John stands aloft in a green expanse, with Yoko's profile providing mountains in the distance, and the beginning of "Mind Games" feels like John has been joined by forces ushering in a message from across the universe or at least from somewhere out there.
The message could be seen as invitingly open-ended or frustratingly vague. Lennon took the phrase "mind games" from the 1973 book of that title, subtitled The Guide to Inner Space (by Robert E.L. Masters and Jean Houston). But whatever the authors' points about the raising or exploration of consciousness, Lennon employs what he once called "gobbledegook" in stringing together phrases such as "doing the ritual dance in the sun" and "some kind of druid dude lifting the veil."
Make what you will of particular lines; the takeaway, as so often in Beatles-related music, is that love and positivity can work wonders.
The melody is simple yet seems inevitable, and its singer sounds utterly convinced. Wave away the hocus pocus and listen for the flexing of vocal muscle as guitars hammer away at a staccato pattern that stands in for a string section.
After this supremely Lennonesque combination of ridiculous and sublime comes the down-to-earthy "Tight A$." From the spelling of its title to its seeming celebration of being or having in some sense a tight ass, this peppy bit of faux rockabilly puzzles. Who is it directed at, and why? Bassist Gordon Edwards keeps things moving with some compelling plunking; in fact, the band seems to be having a blast; and Lennon pours piss and vinegar on lines such as "tight a$ a dope fiend's fix" and "tight a$ got me laid," at one point even chuckling. Dismiss it as lightweight, or sequence it next to T. Rex on your next "coyly naughty '70s pop-rock" playlist.
As every old-fashioned record-sequencer--or person who's attentively consumed many old-fashioned records--knows, an opening song establishes a broad soundscape, and the second song tightens up and lightens up. The crucial third track tells the listener whether the album will go in a serious or frivolous direction. On Mind Games, the third track, "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)"--ai sumimasen is "I'm sorry" in Japanese--wears pain on its slightly damp sleeve. "When I'm down," Lennon sings, unaccompanied until a guitar lick kicks in, and the band does a little crash, then recovers into Lennon's version of singing the blues, in the sense of getting to its soul (unlike many of his peers, Lennon adored and absorbed music associated with Black people, such as blues and soul, without once attempting to mimic the vocal styles of those genres. He touched on this topic in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview).
The band settles into a skeletal death crawl as Lennon apologizes for unspecified misbehavior. He delivers "And when I hurt you / And cause you pain / Darling, I promise / I won't do it again" as though he means it, has meant it equally before, and knows how hollow the assurance is (little does the singer know what misery will befall him in the next year. Or perhaps he intuits it and is working hard to forestall it? But we're getting ahead of ourselves, when we're supposed to be listening in the moment).
When the band has subtly coiled up, out comes David Spinozza's lead guitar delivering the best solo, on any instrument, on any Lennon solo recording. Hell, there's nothing at stake for me but daggers in the eyes of Beatlemaniacs, so I'll go out on a limb to say Spinozza plays the best solo on any recording associated with Lennon.
All the misery expressed by the lyrics and music is translated into crystal clear notes that dig down and then twist up into a spiral of questioning that ends when the line gives out, the equivalent of a singer running out of breath. In other words, producer/arranger Lennon knew how expressively Spinozza had played, and so he let the guitarist's moment play out and say what singer Lennon had only hinted at. It's the only instance I know of when Lennon's vocal, as fine as it is, gets upstaged. Not for nothing did Lennon reportedly joke to Spinozza that the guitarist's playing on McCartney's Ram, two years earlier, was his "audition" for playing with Lennon.
You could imagine the next track, "One Day (at a Time)," being on a McCartney album from this period. It's a sweet, lighthearted love letter about how "you are my woman / And I am your man." Living "one day (at a time)" isn't exactly a radical program, but it's downright Nietzschean compared with the concerns of much other pop-rock.
The most noteworthy aspect of "One Day (at a Time)," the detail that lends its celebration of domesticity a hint of wistfulness and fragility, is that Lennon sings it in falsetto. This brave choice sets the song apart from anything else the man recorded. Interesting in a different way is that Elton John covered the song in 1974, when he reigned supreme as a pop-rocker. He pretty much followed Lennon's arrangement, but with a slickness or sleekness that emphasizes romance over cracks in the armor.
"All right, boys, this is it-over the hill," Lennon cracks in a 1940s-Hollywood-war-movie voice at the start of the bafflingly titled "Bring on the Lucie." The subtitle, "(Freda Peeple)," clarifies the subject, carries on the album's winning silliness (a quality in short supply on Lennon's previous solo work), but also suggests something's off about Lennon's writing here. Three parenthetical subtitles in a row means there are two too many and indicates indecisiveness, lack of clarity, and failure to weigh all the details. If he'd given every song a subtitle, that would have been funny!
In any case, this track puts a different, less in-your-face spin on Lennon's politics. Think of it as Dylan's "Masters of War" (1963) but rewritten by Elvis Costello as an address to power brokers and performed by the Nick Lowe, who brought you the rhythm-guitar-driven pop perfection of "Cruel to Be Kind" (1978). You hardly expect the power brokers to listen, but you have a great time singing along.
You can't make that claim for the side 1 closer, "Nutopian International Anthem." This three seconds of silence tied in with a Lennon/Ono conceptual art venture about a new nation. Its value now is to contribute more silliness to the album. What the world has always needed, as the Monty Pythons throughout history have delightedly delivered, is intelligent play and playacting to tweak the beaks of tyrants and other jerks.
Even if the individual tracks have weak points, side 1 of Mind Games flows in the classic mode of so-called classic rock: starting strong with the "mission statement" (and single), taking us on a journey, and ending on firm footing with a promise of good things to come.
Flip the LP, and-again in the classic mode of classic rock-things aren't quite as good. You might end up wishing that Lennon had swapped in one of side 2's more innocuous tracks for one of the standouts on side 1. If you're more curious about the possibilities or more disappointed by side 2 than I am, try resequencing your digital tracks. However, side 1 provides such an enjoyable ride that you might give side 2 the benefit of the doubt and hope it'll be as successful, which is to say better than you remember it being.
The opener of side 2, "Intuition," wants to win you over. Its jaunty, even fruity, rhythm could be the Beatles reimagined as '70s bubblegum. "My intentions are good," Lennon announces, "I use my intuition / It takes me for a ride." Give him credit for singing the praises of a concept or capacity. The result intrigues enough that someone should cover this song but rethink the arrangement.
"Out the Blue," by contrast, is such a purely beautiful testament to being surprised by love's transformative power that it should be left as is, which is as compelling as solo Lennon gets. "All my life's been a long slow knife . . . Anyway I survived long enough to make you my wife." His voice slices through the air, not like a slow knife but like a swift hand gesture.
By contrast, "Only People" sounds overwrought. Having already, in a 1971 single, called for power to the people, Lennon now extols the power of people: "A million heads are better than one," and so on. But where the backup singers on "Power to the People" sounded a bit cheesy, redeemed by the crunching rhythm section and Lennon's indefatigable (if unpredictable) conviction, the multitudes here come across as processed cheese. This track alone, sagging in the middle of side 2, may suggest that Mind Games fails. Perhaps focus on Lennon's good intentions and trust that the song sounds better if you listen for him through the clutter.
(As powerful a side closer as "Bring on the Lucie" is, maybe try putting "Only People" there, where it will build on the sentiment of "One Day [at a Time]" and bookend the universalism of "Mind Games." Then "Bring on the Lucie" would open side 2 with a bang and be bookended by the ferocity of "Meat City," which we're approaching.)
"I Know (I Know)" really takes the cake, or beats the band, or just plain overdoes it when it comes to the parenthetical subtitles. The addition of "(I Know)" to "I Know" makes you wonder if Lennon had sacrificed a few too many brain cells to the drink and drugs. The song itself, however, returns side 2 to solid footing.
The lyrics carry on the confessionalism of "Aisumasen" and "Out the Blue." Given that he was only 32 going on 33, and especially knowing that he died at 40, it's moving to hear Lennon sing "The years have passed so quickly / One thing I've understood / I am only learning / To tell the trees from wood." The music comes the closest to folk-country that Lennon ever went.
Having stepped out of his sonic comfort zone, Lennon moves further with "You Are Here." As adept a creator of sonic landscapes as Brian Eno could not construct a richer representation of waves lapping against the sun-drenched beach on some faraway shore. "Wherever you are," Lennon croons, "you are here," and you could be in the womb, so comforting are the layers wrapped around you.
Not for nothing does the diversity of Lennon's arrangements leave me thinking of Mind Games as a one-man White Album. The album's biggest surprise comes last, when the calm of "You Are Here" is destroyed by the dense electric noise of "Meat City," with its jaggedly off-kilter rhythms. Devo should have covered this one.
Wherever you are, you're in a hellish but exciting metropolis where nothing makes sense and the Lennonesque wordplay leads alternately down a hole to China or off to "get me some rock and roll." Write the track off as meaningless, but remember that when Lennon was learning his trade, before people started taking rock and roll so seriously and thinking of its lyrics as poetry, Little Richard could tear the roof off singing "a wop bop a loo bop / a wop bam boom," or however you transcribe those "Tutti Frutti" syllables.
Lennon had quoted those syllables in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview, in answering a question about his musical taste. "I like rock and roll, man," he said. "I don't like much else." He probably meant it in the moment-which is where he meant a lot of things-and his taste most likely never broadened much beyond the point where rock and roll became rock. (In one of his posthumously published cartoons, dated 1979, a long-haired musician tells Lennon, "I've been getting into jazz, man." Lennon cracks, "I've been trying to avoid it all my life!") So as much as we might like, even love, Lennon's use of softer styles, we may still wonder why as a solo artist he didn't rock more, when he was so good at it.
Maybe he asked himself the same question. Lennon's next recording sessions were the start of what became Rock 'N' Roll, his 1975 collection of fifties covers.
Getting back to basics was derailed, however, by calamities in 1973-74. Lennon's protestations of "I'm sorry" failing to carry enough weight, Ono kicked him out, sending him and their assistant, May Pang, to Los Angeles. The Rock 'N' Roll sessions devolved into chaos as Lennon and producer Phil Spector lost their minds to substance abuse. The album was postponed. Lennon made tabloid headlines as what others called an "asshole" on what he called, in reference to Billy Wilder's 1945 movie about an alcoholic bender, his "Lost Weekend."
Eventually, to get back on his feet, Lennon got back to the recording studio. Again producing himself, and displaying the status quo-questioning sense of humor that had helped make him a living legend, he crafted Walls and Bridges.
If Mind Games represented Lennon's attempt to win back his base by being Beatlesque (even in its sonic diversity), Walls and Bridges exuded more self-confidence. Not everything on it worked, but each part felt like Lennon was giving everything he had. Time, substances, legal woes, marital troubles, and psychology had taken their toll, but the talent could still shine brightly.
How does the soundworld of Walls and Bridges differ from that of Mind Games? It simply has more richness and texture, less thinness and awkwardness. I'm hard-pressed to think of examples (Father John Misty, maybe?), but occasionally in the 2000s I've heard new tracks that conjure 1974-75, and I've thought, "Sounds like Walls and Bridges!" By contrast, apart from Elton John's cover of "One Day (at a Time)," I've never seen a sign of Mind Games having influenced anyone (if you know of such influence, please send word).
The bongos that open "Going Down on Love" (thank you, Arthur Jenkins!) announce that something new has arrived: Lennon does soul! On Imagine and Some Time in New York City, he'd shown an awareness of Isaac Hayes, the psychedelicized Temptations, maybe even Funkadelic, but here we're talking Marvin Gaye as Lennon engages in the bawdy double-entendre of the title. "Got to get down / Down on my knees," he details. It's a shame Prince never covered this one-unless his slow jam on it is stored in the vault at Paisley Park. Prince would have brought to it a lasciviousness that Lennon isn't after. He may be feeling sexy, but that feeling arises out of a world-weariness ("Somebody please, please help me / You know I'm drowning in a sea of hatred") conveyed by the track's relaxed tempo and lazy, hazy horns.
Prince might also have worked wonders with "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." This blast of good cheer features a jumped-up rhythm that seems to have neither precedent nor antecedent. It's not funk; it's not R&B; what is it? It is propelled by honking sax (thanks, Little Big Horns!) and chemistry between Lennon and his guest, none other than Elton John. (There's an oft-told anecdote about John promising Elton that if this single hit #1 on the Billboard chart, which he never thought it would, he'd join the latter in concert at Madison Square Garden. The song topped the chart, Lennon fulfilled his promise, and an extended standing ovation made clear to the ex-Beatle that he was still loved--still loved! despite Some Time in New York City! despite the "Lost Weekend" headlines! despite everything!--by an audience of pop-rock fans in New York City. In addition, he and Ono reunited that night. He was still loved!)
"Old Dirt Road," like Mind Games's "Tight A$" but more meaningful, leaves you wondering about its genesis. After McCartney, Lennon seldom cowrote, and then it was mostly with Ono; yet here he shares credit with Harry Nilsson on a deliciously languorous, acutely sensitive, haunting, yet humorous meditation on time and loneliness. Segue from "Aisumasen" into this on your playlist, but do so at your own emotional risk.
Lennon the singer tries to sell "What You Got," but Lennon the arranger can't disguise the song's paucity. It's most notable for partly quoting Little Richard's "Rip It Up," which Lennon subsequently covered on Rock 'N' Roll. Maybe "What You Got" could have been weirder or rocked more or had more soul. Maybe it would have worked as a duet with David Bowie or Stevie Wonder.
(In 1975, Lennon made guest appearances on Bowie's glam-soul excursion, Young Americans, leading to the hit single "Fame." From 1974, there's a dreadful bootleg of Lennon, Wonder, and McCartney "jamming" in the studio, basically wasting time and money under the influence of this or that.)
For Lennon at his most soulful, try "Bless You" ("Wherever you are / Windswept child / On a shooting star"). The groove of "Going Down on Love" meets the sonic richness of "You Are Here" meets the bared heart of "Aisumasen." Lennon once claimed to hear an echo of this track's jazzy melody in the Stones' "Miss You" (1978), and at the very least the songs share a feel from New York City streets. The air is thick on a hot summer night.
Wolves don't howl in NYC as they do at the start of "Scared," so now we're transported by this song to somewhere sinister, a Transylvania of the mind. The howling also brings to mind the doom-laden tolling church bells at the start of "Mother," John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band's harrowing first song. "Scared" -exploring fear, marching at a heartbeatlike pace-could be a more fleshed-out version of that album's confessional dirges. It gives you chills to hear Lennon excoriate himself: "Sing out about love and peace / Don't want to see the red, raw meat / The green-eyed goddamn straight from your heart."
(Would it be overstating the merits of Walls and Bridges to say that Lennon was presenting pain equal to that of Plastic Ono Band but from a different, more jaded perspective? Instead of the release he experienced from that initial creative burst, he now sounded a bit trapped within the pop concoctions he used to make his bitter and self-lacerating sentiments palatable to what he hoped would be a mass audience. Even as Walls and Bridges exudes confidence, it feels fascinatingly compromised. Lennon sometimes choked artistically--in a way that, say, Ono never did, because she had nothing to prove. This aside may seem far afield from the case for giving Walls and Bridges a chance, but it's really saying: listen repeatedly!)
Thus endeth side 1, which makes clear that Lennon had a formula for sequencing his records. As on Mind Games, we travel through (mostly) strengths on the first side, until the closer sets us up with anticipation. But whereas "Intuition" might not have gripped listeners as tightly as its creator hoped, side 2 of Walls and Bridges opens with-no exaggeration-one of the all-time best side 2 openers.
From its first brief guitar lick (thank you, Jesse Ed Davis!) to its echoey vocal ("So long ago / Was it in a dream?") to its combination of plainspokenness and invented (reportedly dreamed-up) language, "#9 Dream" encapsulates much of what we love about Lennon's music. Lennon once said the melody was based on a string arrangement he did for Harry Nilsson's album Pussy Cats (1974), which he produced, that it was too beautiful not to reuse. It is our good fortune that he gave in to the impulse. Where "Mind Games" explores a vast landscape, "#9 Dream" floats atop a single white cloud across a brilliant blue sky.
"Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)" deepens the sexiness of "Going Down on Love": "Sweet as the smell of success / Her body's warm and wet." But again the physicality is complicated; the next line, "She gets me through this godawful loneliness," is not the compliment most lovers want to hear. To make sense of the lyrics, consider Lennon's life circumstances. Meanwhile, give the song a chance, and it may lodge in your consciousness.
"Steel and Glass" is where side 2 of Walls and Bridges, like that of Mind Games, starts to drag. It is basically a rewrite of "How Do You Sleep?" but with an unspecified target. Best, perhaps, to pay less attention to the lyrics ("You're gonna wish you wasn't born at all"? hmm... maybe) and focus on the intricate arrangement, the reggaefied rhythm, and the conviction in Lennon's voice. Whoever the song was about, Lennon did not like this person!
What did he like about the instrumental "Beef Jerky"? Part of the appeal of this faux-soul workout is wondering where Lennon's ears perked up, such as in the interweaving of horns and electric guitars. The Beatles, as a group and as solo artists, never excelled at instrumentals. But if this inoffensive couple of minutes ended up being the only piece of music you'd hear for the rest of your life, you could have done worse.
You'd be damn lucky to be left with the side's elegant, dynamic closer, "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)." Although it's fun to imagine this one being sung by Frank Sinatra, whom Lennon said he wrote it for, it's impossible to separate the song from Lennon's razor-sharp vocal, plus a drum break (thanks, Jim Keltner!) that is both pure Vegas and pure adrenaline. "All I can tell you is / It's all show biz" ain't deep, but the woozy horns that follow (thanks again, Little Big Horns!) are like a painter's adding just the right daubs to give depth to a portrait or dimensionality to a landscape. Best of all, Lennon sounds like he's having fun, lamenting misery--oh, woe is me--with tongue in cheek.
Finally there's "Ya Ya." People complain about this tacked-on snippet of a Lee Dorsey cover, as though an obvious rehearsal or run-through was meant to bear the same weight as Lennon's real version of the song, on Rock 'N' Roll. The complainers might be the same people who don't get why the Beatles put the acoustic fragment "Her Majesty" at the end of Abbey Road (1969), where the medley has lofted us into the heavens; why Cream launched into the Cockney a capella "Mother's Lament" after all the bluesy psychedelic heavy rock on Disraeli Gears (1967); why Van Halen launched into the barbershop-quartet "Happy Trails" at the end of the rocking Diver Down (1983).
The detractors, poor sods, take their rock too seriously. Here they are missing the joke of John "taking the piss," as the English put it, out of "Nobody Loves You." They are also disregarding the charm of dad John having his 11-year-old son, Julian, playing drums. While that interaction could hardly make up for Julian's overall paternal neglect, it shows the warmth, humor, and good intentions that suffuse this album. Consider that the original LP cover was a gatefold with multiple flaps that enabled you to play around with pieces of artwork John created in childhood. The credits employed many witty pseudonyms, such as Dr. Winston O'Boogie, Mel Torment (a play on the singer Mel Tormé), and Booker Table and the Maitre D's (um, the soul outfit Booker T. and the MG's).
If I've piqued your interest in middle-period solo Lennon, I suggest you forget everything you've just read, erase expectations, and perform a thought experiment akin to the one in Danny Boyle's movie Yesterday (2019). There, the Beatles never existed, and John Lennon lived into old age. In the experiment I'm proposing, the Beatles' music exists, but John Lennon didn't contribute to it. Maybe he emerged from Liverpool in the early '60s as a solo artist who influenced the group's sound. Let's say you've heard the Beatles, but you haven't heard Lennon's other solo work. You found your copies of Mind Games and Walls and Bridges in a thrift shop and thought they looked promising.
In other words, turn John Lennon into unknown territory as much as possible. Thinking of him not as an ex-Beatle with baggage but as a singer-songwriter in the marketplace alongside, say, his friends Elton John, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and even Paul McCartney (by '74, they were at least friendly again), listen to Mind Games and Walls and Bridges. Both albums include objectively successful musical art in the pop-rock vein, right? The guy had potential, and we're lucky he gave us these two flawed gems.
Also see Kurt Wildermuth's website
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