Come 1970, the world found itself without Beatles. When the greatest songwriting duo in pop acrimoniously split in two, fans instinctively took sides: it was cool and progressive to favor Lennon, the intellectual/existentialist/jester, and write off McCartney as a sentimental softie who wrote silly love songs. But Lennon had his share of silly love songs, too, and the years have been incredibly kind to McCartney’s solo output. While McCartney continued to dabble in the merry-go-round segues of Abbey Road‘s B-side (“Band on the Run” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, for example), Lennon sought to distance himself far from the Beatles’ baggage and mystique. In both song and interview, Lennon looked back in anger, declaring his work in the group as rubbish and driving a stake through its cold, dead heart. Post-Beatles, Lennon became even more of a paradox. He preached peace, love, and understanding on one hand while delivering scathing character assassinations (“How Can You Sleep?”, a vicious stab at McCartney) and social indictments (“Working Class Hero”) on the other. (In his ode to ugly underbellies, “The Other Side of Summer”, Elvis Costello comically nudged these contradictions: “Was it a millionaire that said ‘Imagine no possessions’?”) Lennon’s best solo songs, like “God”, fused the two disparate elements of his persona into incredibly simple, gutsy statements of self.
An acoustic version of “God” is one of seven unreleased Lennon demos featured on the new collection Acoustic. This skeletal rendition of one of Lennon’s most unguarded solo ballads, liberated from the vaults by Yoko Ono, warbles and hisses from physical decay. Compared to the brooding patience of the piano-driven take on Plastic Ono Band, the demo is excitable and burgeoning, more a reflection of Lennon’s quizzical, childlike effervescence. During the song’s centerpiece of defiance (“I don’t believe in…”), Lennon doesn’t pause between each line, instead breathlessly riffing off the list like it was a moment of improvisation. While certainly not as sweepingly grand as the Plastic Ono Band version, the demo of “God” is a fascinating look at its gestation in a completely new context.
The other unreleased songs, however, don’t fare as well. “Well Well Well” and “Cold Turkey” are almost interesting as acoustic blues vamps that sound as if they were salvaged from a time warp wreck. Unfortunately, the former barely passes the one-minute mark and the latter is tainted with annoying vocal vibrato à la Grace Slick. “My Mummy’s Dead” (like the previously released demo of “Working Class Hero”, also included here) is a relatively useless carbon copy of the Plastic Ono Band version. “What You Got”, “Dear Yoko”, and “Real Love” are all minor Lennon compositions; all three feel like extra minutes of blatant filler on a compilation content to exploit the last few untouched recesses of the Beatles’ vault.
The other nine tracks on Acoustic (including live performances of “The Luck of the Irish”, “John Sinclair”, and “Imagine”) will be familiar to diehard fans, for they were all originally released on the Lennon Anthology box set (1998). 44% of Acoustic has never been officially issued, and it doesn’t make a resounding case for the record as a worthy whole. The continued emergence of Beatles outtakes helps to complete a mortal, warts-and-all portrait of the band, but it also serves to debunk its mystery. Acoustic doesn’t make Lennon any more or less human; it redundantly offers spare demos for songs that remained equally spare. Since records like Plastic Ono Band and Imagine saw Lennon get back to bare-boned recording practices, it’s not clear what these near-identical versions are meant to accomplish.
Acoustic does make one thing clear: Capitol/Parlophone should cease its fixation on unreleased material and finally remaster the Beatles’ official catalog. Seriously, it’s 2004 and the band’s output is in dire need of a facelift. Currently, the sale of Beatles CDs is a racket: the tapes were transferred to digital in 1987 (when CDs still came with proper care instructions and boxes around the track numbers), the inserts were severely butchered and cheaply replicated, and the retail prices are the most expensive selections at record stores. For goodness sake, the Beatles releases need to keep up with current standards of fidelity and packaging (I’m talking the whole enchilada, including the cut-outs in Sgt. Pepper). The Beatles as a collective unit—feuding or not—were more satisfying than their solo tangents. So why waste valuable time on mining demo tapes when my copy of Abbey Road doesn’t even contain the entire cover art?
Ultimately, the worth of Acoustic has nothing to do with whether you prefer Lennon or McCartney, and everything to do with the prudence of historical footnotes. Demos are worthwhile if they prompt you to rethink songs or bad albums—but do we really need another acoustic take of “Working Class Hero”? If Acoustic is supposed to be a gift to the fans, it’s the equivalent of a procrastinated, last minute convenience purchase, bereft of consideration of the recipient’s wants.
// Notes from the Road
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