Whole Lotta Lennon

Celebrating both John Lennon’s 80th birthday and the release of an ultimate new collection by day tripping through his history of compiled work

John Lennon is 80 (Art: Ron Hart)

The just released GIMME SOME TRUTH is the latest compilation of John Lennon’s solo tracks, one in a long line of Lennon collections that go back to Shaved Fish (1975).

With one exception, every track on Shaved Fish was a Top 40 hit. By 1984, Lennon had 13 singles that reached the US Top 40, a bit on the thin side for a greatest hits set. So Lennon compilations became “best ofs,” releases endeavoring to give a more well-rounded view of the artist by including other notable songs that weren’t released as singles.

John Lennon’s Shaved Fish (1975)

The John Lennon Collection (1982) was the first posthumous Lennon set to emerge. It’s a tasteful updating of Shaved Fish, dropping harsher tracks like the problematically titled “Woman is the ‘N-word’ of the World” and “Cold Turkey,” his harrowing account of heroin addiction, in favor of all his Double Fantasy songs (though “Cold Turkey” was added to the expanded CD in 1989). This emphasized the latter day, “househusband”-era Lennon, playing down the overall complexities of his work. Lennon was a songwriter who sang as much about agony and despair as he did about love and the joys of family life. Indeed, even his views on love and family were conflicted, as neatly summarized in a line from “I Don’t Want to Face It” (from Milk and Honey), which contrasted his social justice warrior impulses with the mundanity of dealing with day-to-day relationships: “You wanna save humanity, but it’s people that you just can’t stand.”

Which is why, as far as single CD collections are concerned, Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon (1997) presents a better all-around view of Lennon’s musical accomplishments, adding two essential John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band tracks (“Mother” and “Working Class Hero”) as well as two songs from the Double Fantasy follow-up, Milk and Honey (“Nobody Told Me” and “Borrowed Time”). It’s a more comprehensive look at Lennon that takes in more of his rawer work.

Two-CD sets hit a midway point between single disc and multi disc collections, for people who want more than the hits, but aren’t sure they want to spring for a larger set. Here, Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon (2005) faces off with the new GIMME SOME TRUTH. Both draw on the same solo albums — John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, Some Time In New York City, Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Double Fantasy, and Milk and Honey, along with solo singles and a few live tracks.

John Lennon GIMME SOME TRUTH. THE ULTIMATE MIXES. (Capitol/UMe)

The number of songs taken from each album are fairly similar, though there are some differences. Working Class Hero has more songs from Plastic Ono Band, New York City, Mind Games, and Walls and Bridges. GIMME SOME TRUTH emphasizes the mythologized, utopian Lennon, having more tracks from Imagine and Double Fantasy

GIMME SOME TRUTH also punts when dealing with the Sometime In New York City album. It was Lennon and Ono’s most politically outspoken album, but also their most derided ’70s record. And though not as awful as its detractors claim, neither does it show Lennon at his lyrical best. He later said he wanted to write and record quickly, akin to newspaper reporting. He was certainly capable turning out good work that way, as song like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (a “Beatles” record, though only recorded by Lennon and Paul McCartney) and his own “Instant Karma” demonstrate. But both of those tracks have more wit and clever turns of phrase than the sloganeering found on Sometime In New York City

An exception is “Woman is the ‘N-word’ of the World,” a strong feminist statement that Lennon wrote, working off a title conceived by his wife, Yoko Ono. But its use today wouldn’t be acceptable. “New York City” is a good, lively track, that captures the energy of the couple’s early days in the city. But perhaps it wasn’t considered to have enough of a political element. So “Angela” (a message of support for African American activist Angela Davis) was chosen, though “John Sinclair” may have been the stronger song.

 

VIDEO: John Lennon performs “Woman Is The ‘N-word’ Of The World” on Dick Cavett

Working Class Hero also has a bit more diversity by including a live track from Live in New York City (1986), and a couple of songs from the 1998 Anthology box, such as “Real Love,” which the surviving Fabs later transformed into a “Beatles” track; the original has a simplicity that’s more poignant. So, for song selection, Working Class Hero is the stronger choice.

But — and this is a big but — GIMME SOME TRUTH has something no other compilation written about here has: newly remixed tracks. All 36 songs are presented in spiffy new remixes, by the same team that performed the same task on the 2018 Imagine reissue. How do they sound? Fantastic. Will there be more releases coming from this enterprising group of wizards? We’ll have to wait and see. The two CD deluxe edition also comes with a Blu-ray audio disc offering three High Definition mixes, giving you even more sonic bang for your buck. The compilation is also available in single CD, and two and four LP editions. 

And so on to the four CD boxes. Lennon (1990) is weighted towards his best work (the entire Plastic Ono Band album, all but one from Imagine), and latter day Lennon (all of his Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey tracks). But that nonetheless seems to get the balance right. You still get all the best tracks from the other albums, and this set reaches back further than other collections, presenting five tracks from the Live Peace in Toronto (1969) album. And it’s the only place I know of where you can get the three songs Lennon performed with Elton John at the latter’s November 28, 1974 gig on CD. 

John Lennon Lennon, Capitol 1990

In 2010 came a four CD box set called — Gimme Some Truth. Yes, the same name as the just released two CD set. The latter set capitalizes its title to distinguish it from the earlier collection, but you have to wonder — wouldn’t it have been easier to just pick another name? 

Moving along, this set arranges the tracks thematically, with the discs entitled: “Working Class Hero” (politics), “Woman” (relationships), “Borrowed Time” (life experience), and “Roots” (rock ‘n’ roll). It’s an approach that puts Lennon’s work in better context, as opposed to the straight chronological format of the Lennon box. By identifying the recurrent themes in his songs, you’re pushed to evaluate him as an artist. 

 

VIDEO: Gimme Some Truth 2010 advert

For example, “Meat City” might not seem an obvious choice for the “Working Class Hero” disc. But listen again, and how can you not hear a critique of America in its lines about “Chicken suckin’, mother truckin’, Meat City, Shookdown USA”? Having the funereal bells of “Mother” open the “Woman” disc is a clear sign that it’s going to encompass a lot more than love songs. The “Borrowed Time” disc is the most insightful, as far as Lennon’s own personal worldview is concerned. This most autobiographical of songwriters had no hesitation about opening himself up in his work. And, for all its upbeat tracks like “I’m Stepping Out” and “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” what stands out here are the songs express Lennon’s vulnerability: “Look at Me,” “How?,” “What You Got,” “Scared.” Even the lively “Nobody Told Me” has a sense of unease percolating underneath. Not to mention his vitriolic attack on McCartney in “How Do You Sleep?”; only someone feeling threatened could sound so defensive.

As an addendum, here’s a must purchase for any Lennonophile; the 1998 box set variously known as Anthology, The Lennon Anthology, and The John Lennon Anthology (all three titles are featured on the set’s cover and the liner notes). It’s an alternative history of Lennon’s career with a wealth of previously unreleased tracks spread over four CDs. Take 1 of “Imagine.” Alternative versions of “God” and “Jealous Guy.” Demos of “I’m the Greatest” and “Goodnight Vienna,” later recorded by Ringo Starr. “I’m Losing You” with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson, and Bun E. Carlos. The wickedly funny Dylan parody “Serve Yourself.” The liner notes are scant on some specifics and contain a few errors. But the music offered here is a treasure trove, a tantalizing look at Lennon’s creative process. “This is the John I knew,” Ono writes in the liner notes, “not the John that you knew through the press, the records, and the films. I am saying to you, here’s my John. I wish to share my knowledge of him with you.” 

Lennon was a searcher, keen to make sense of himself and the world around him. It was a journey of discovery he continued on to the last day of his life. “He was brilliant, he was happy, he was angry, he was sad,” Ono says of her husband in Anthology’s liner notes, and all of those aspects are evident in his work. “Above all, he was a genius who worked hard to give his best to the world,” she adds.

However he’s packaged, John Lennon still has more to tell us about himself. And ourselves.

 

VIDEO: John Lennon GIMME SOME TRUTH ad 2020

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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