Sunday, February 24, 2013

I'm Not Saying He's Not Talented, But Did The Estate Need More Money?

The Good: Good lyrics on some songs, Interesting music, Good social message
The Bad: Vocals often subdued to instrumentals, Some flat-out gibberish
The Basics: With an abundance of music, The John Lennon Collection showcases the diverse talents, successes and failures of an impressive singer-songwriter.

It's hip to love everything about John Lennon. As a slain artist, it has become something of a heresy to speak ill of the music or career of John Lennon. I think it's somewhat funny how the cult of personality - something Lennon himself seemed to reject in favor of his message - has sprung up around the artist. Looking through the discography of John Lennon, it seems he had a number of albums and almost an equal number of compilations of his hits and best songs released (many posthumously). I was not surprised to find The John Lennon Collection, released in 1989 available for a relatively inexpensive price. I'm baffled as to its purpose, though, as it seems there are other collections that have virtually the same - or more - of a selection of Lennon's hits.

With 19 tracks clocking in at just over 69 minutes, The John Lennon Collection is something like a "Best of" album featuring some of the most recognizable John Lennon songs. As someone who has only previously heard John Lennon's songs on the radio, I feel this is an excellent opportunity to get a layperson's opinion on a collection such as this. As such, this disc is an intriguing mix of instantly recognizable classics and songs I've never heard, nor heard anything like. They range from high minded lyrics down to absolute gibberish.

Opening with the classic Lennon/McCartney track "Give Peace A Chance," The John Lennon Collection consists of one cover song - Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" -, one Lennon/McCartney number and seventeen Lennon solo endeavors.

The stereotype about John Lennon's works is that after leaving the Beatles he became experimental and crazy. While there is a great deal of social activism in the songs on this album, most of it is remarkably mainstream as far as the music goes. "Move Over Ms. L" sounds a lot like "Roll Over Bethoven," "Cold Turkey" is a straight out rock and roll song, and "(Just Like) Starting Over" sounds like a classic '50s pop rock song. "Power To The People" is little more than a chant set to music, "Imagine" is a classic pop ballad, and "Instant Karma!" is an indistinct pop-rock track that is only superlative in the drumming.

My point here, other than to commit heresy, is to observe that far from being radically outside the musical mainstream, John Lennon's works, when put together on this album are rather safe, musically pedestrian. He is not a trendsetter here, but rather an embodiment of what pop-rock music is and was.

What is most impressive, and genuinely radical, are the lyrics of John Lennon. Without debating the music that backs the vocals, looking over the lyrics of John Lennon, hearing him sing them, it is hard to deny that he was a man with vision. Lennon's obsession on The John Lennon Collection is peace, love, and brotherhood. Yes, controversial subjects all, Lennon seems to believe that people should be treated as individuals and not slaughtered. Cleverly, he rebels against classifications with lyrics such as ". . . Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, / Ragism, Tagism, / This-ism, that-ism, is-m is-m is-m" ("Give Peace A Chance").

Sadly, many of his most popular anthems promoting peace and brotherhood are repetitive as anything on the radio now (some even more!). For example, "Power to the people" is repeated no less than twenty-four times in the song by that name. This is more problematic than in songs like "Love" where he uses the word frequently, but elaborated on, as in "Love is wanting / To be loved / Love is touch / Touch is love . . ."

Sadly, for all of his lyrical brilliance, John Lennon also has some absolute garbage. It's hard to believe that the artist who brilliantly wrote and sung, "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too . . ." ("Imagine") also penned the annoying singsongy lines "Whatever gets you through your life, 'salright, 'salright / Do it wrong or do it right 'salright 'salright . . . " ("Whatever Gets You Thru The Night"). And I'm still searching for the meaning of "Ah! bowakawa pousse, pousse" from "#9 Dream."

But the recognizable favorites like "Imagine," "Woman," and "Love" are here along the politically conscious tracks and overall the album works generally well as a decent mix of songs.

One of the problems with this recording, and it might have to do with the actual tracks not unique to this pressing, is that often John Lennon's vocals take a back seat to the music. In short, the instrumentation overwhelms the vocals. A perfect example is on "Give Peace A Chance." The heavy drums and the refrain are far louder than the stanzas in between. Lennon sounds like he is a great distance from the microphone and many of his vocals are garbled and while we hear rhyming words, were it not for the liner notes, the listener would not know what those words were.

If nothing else, The John Lennon Collection illustrates the rocky creative journey Lennon embarked on after his career with the Beatles. It's an interesting journey and a worthwhile listen, possibly even better than any single one of his solo efforts.

The best track is "Watching The Wheels," the weak link is "#9 Dream."

For other John Lennon-related albums, please visit my reviews of:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles Anthology - Volume 1
Music From And Inspired By I Am Sam


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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