[16 November 2010]
Wedding Album (with Yoko Ono)
When John Lennon finally married his newfound inspiration and publically proclaimed love of his life, Yoko Ono, he wanted to invite the entire world to his on-the-lam love-in. Armed with his own record label (a perfect co-conspirator to any bewildering Beatle inspiration), a pair of tickets to Gibraltar, and a public already bracing for his next serving of incomprehensible sonic slop, Lennon unleashed a valentine to his Japanese performance art mate… and the results remain baffling some 40-plus years later. Even on the heels of his quizzical ‘composition’ for the White Album (the aural collage “Revolution #9”) and a pair of perplexing collaborations with his bride to be, nothing could have prepared the faithful for this pre-sold souvenir of their hero’s disillusionment and dissatisfaction with being a cultural benchmark.
Indeed, all three of Lennon’s initial ‘statements’ in repudiation of his feuding bandmates were deeply personal and highly counterproductive. Even for an audience willing to accept almost anything a Beatle did, these meandering collections of song snippets, tape loops, vocal exorcisms, and acid-flashback examples of musical self-abuse were trials. In combination with the outright affront of some of the material (Lennon and his love naked on the cover of Two Virgins, the post-miscarriage hospital pic from Life with the Lions), the lad from Liverpool still believed that he had tapped into a new form of expression. It would take the personal psychological screams of Plastic Ono Band to ‘cure’ him of this delusion once and for all. In fact, it’s interesting to note that in the years following their release, Lennon never publicly went back to this kind of ballsy basement experiment.
As for Wedding Album, it’s your typical slice of self-aggrandizement wrapped in a series of head-scratching aural enigmas. Side One (remember, this is back in the day when music came in discernible LP parts) featured the newlywed and his divisive bride saying each other’s names—over and over again. Sort of like an acting experiment, the two use the various emotional interpretations of “John” and “Yoko” as expressions of their love, their fears, and the sex—the additional backing of their heartbeats adding a final sledgehammer sign of their passion. At 22 minutes, it’s a test for any novice Beatle acolyte. In fact, even the most fervid of fans tend to avoid Lennon’s performance pieces as dull, droning dreck. Side Two livens things up a bit as the famed couple stage their notorious “Bed-In” peace protest honeymoon in Amsterdam. Using the push of the press to provide snippets of interviews and other conversations, we get to hear the political awakening of a man who, for the longest time, was a well meaning mop top ready to rhetorically explode.
As insight into his mind, as declaration of affection and intent, Wedding Album is more than just a masturbatory mess. It’s a weird sort of proto-tabloid take, a precursor to the now prevalent public intrusion in to the lives of the celebrated, the privileged, and the famous. Lennon even went so far as to commission famed photographer and graphic artist John Kosh to create an elaborate box set for the album. In included a reproduction of the marriage certificate, various press clippings, a series of sketches and drawings, and perhaps most famously, a “slice” of cake (actually, a triangular photo), served up in a special white envelope. With Apple’s manufacturing arm at the ready to indulge such whims, Lennon was doing more than producing product: he was making a statement.
In fact, Wedding Album stands as a significant album in Lennon’s discography. While Plastic Ono Band would indeed be the final brick in his crypt of disillusionment, this piece in his initial trippy triptych was an clear announcement of intent. For those who didn’t like Ms. Ono—too damn bad! This was the woman he chose to spend the rest of his life with, and he was going to celebrate her in any way he felt appropriate. Similarly, the days of being a sidelined wallflower apologizing for name-checking Jesus and offending the teenyboppers was over. Lennon had opinions and Wedding Album was the vinyl primer of such mass communication sentiments. While he would eventually take his call to arms to weird, wonky places (Nutopia? Bagism? Really John?) Wedding Album introduced the newest incarnation of the once favored phenomenon—deeply in love and mad as Hell.
Of course, something like Wedding Album would never exist today. We no longer allow our pop artists, no matter how super their star, to “waste” our time with such seemingly trivial excess. We will let them make movies, star in silly TV shows, write meaningless memoirs (or even worse, psychobabble self-help books), and even champion their Money grubbing Madison Avenue savvy with a series of headphones, wines, and custom ringtones. But if Lady Gaga decided to release a 50-minute iTunes musing on the state of her complicated love life and political views, Fuse-nation would be wetting their hipster hiking shorts. Wedding Album is proof that The Beatles’ phenomenon reached far beyond the band’s power to make memorable music. There was a time when the individual members could do whatever they wanted—and for at least one of them, the intent was stereophonically clear. Bill Gibron
Live Peace in Toronto 1969 is the perfect summary of Lennon’s career—the musical influences of his past, the current ruminations of his self-indulgence, and the future of his relationship with Yoko Ono. It showcases the inspiration that transformed him musically and personally in the two most intense periods of life—at the birth of the Beatles, and the birth of John Lennon. Taking place at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, this was the first Lennon appearance post-Beatles’ recording of what would become Abbey Road. This gave him a chance to really express what had been in the works during the lo-fi offerings of the Unfinished Music recordings with Yoko, as well as explore the ruminations of his youthful inspirations.
Every man has his roots, and Lennon presented his when selecting the first four tracks on the recording, renditions of ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and early Beatles’ era covers such as “Money” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”—something all the members of the band (Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White) could feel comfortable banging out after little to no rehearsal behind a nerve-stricken Lennon. Exploding out of the gate with a cover of “Blue Suede Shoes”, and continuing through a barrage of familiar tunes, Lennon knew very few of the original lyrics to any of the songs he presented throughout the evening. Thanks to an explosive backing band that drove him to recreate lyrics and burst through with unforgettable choruses, Live Peace became a truly extraordinary documentation of Lennon’s fervor and showmanship.
In between the classics and the commotion are possibly the most revered and talked about songs of the evening: the debut of a stripped down, fuzz-ridden “Cold Turkey” and the communal sing-a-long of “Give Peace a Chance”. Before the crowd outrage and bottle throwing at Yoko, the audience got their first glance at what was the most accurate representation of Lennon’s near future—a forever advocate of peace, yet a turmoiled individual full of doubt—a set of polar opposites he would battle lyrically and emotionally for the duration of his solo career.
Frankly, don’t bother throwing in your two cents about Yoko’s presence in John’s career. She preserved a beast in Lennon that led him to further his notions of songwriting, noise, and the combination of the two. Instead of looking upon feedback as an error, Lennon welcomes it gladly on Live Peace with a barnburner of a track (“Don’t Worry Kyoko”) reminiscent of the fury of guitar mangler Ron Asheton fronted by the banshee wailing of Ono. Forty years removed from the scene, it’s still a challenge to put much wear on side B, but it warrants a hefty gratification from intense listens—specifically on the feedback ridden “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)”, where there are these beautiful moments of dissonance that reach bliss when Ono’s vocal meets the same frequency as the guitars. The audience reaction there was said to be less than responsive to such moments, but in response, the band left their guitars lying against their amps as they left the stage, still providing immense amounts of droning feedback as John switched them off one by one and Yoko wailed into the microphone. Heavy stuff for ‘69.
Live Peace in Toronto 1969 is an album known for its A-side, but really packs a punch in its sonic exploration on the B-side. Many choose to ignore these journeys in Lennon’s career, blaming Yoko for the infamous “breakup of the Beatles”. However, if there was more time spent listening and less time spent criticizing, the ambition on these recordings would speak for themselves. As the free-jazz forefather Ornette Coleman once said, “Don’t follow the sound, follow the idea.” That’s a simple concept that would open the avant-garde era Lennon recordings to a new world of listeners. John Bohannon