John Lennon 101: Let's Experiment! (1968-1969)
Lost, in love, and unburdened by the demands of his oppressive fame, John Lennon joined his newfound soul mate on two experimental albums.
Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (1968)
You're here because you need a relief. You've read the careful praise, the critics striving to do justice to the intensely personal work of a never-more-remembered Beatle (retroactively analyzing "Imagine" for the 20th time? Good luck, pal). After digesting John Lennon's more compatible sojourns -- first into himself, then the search for peace, then dubiously tactful politicking, then leaving Yoko Ono for the wild west, and finally back to the arms of domestic happiness -- it's natural and exciting to stumble upon the fact that the stark, declarative Plastic Ono Band wasn't his first record without his mates. Almost as exciting as seeing someone you've obsessed over bare all for the first time.
Lennon must have known his first release without the "McCartney" following his name would be scrutinized beyond all reason, so he shrouds artistic expression in experimentation as a defense. Oh, he reveals himself all right, and so does Ono; after the fact, he joked that the real reason people found the famous nude album cover offensive was because the gangly pair weren't more attractive. As for the music, well… that's the problem. Most of it really isn't music.
Slowed-down gobbledygook? Extended silence for silence's sake? Wordless screeching? I'll be cliché and say I prefer his earlier work. With no individual tracks, just one continuous challenge per album side, Unfinished Music Vol. 1: Two Virgins goes full force with its anti-rock stance, like "Revolution 9" spread over 40 minutes. This is Lennon and Ono's sly checkmate: Two Virgins is so diffusive and off-putting, yet intentionally so, that even mild praise sounds hyperbolic, while harsh criticism feels predictable and obvious. And so after listening again and again to the shrieks, samples and shivers of this first Unfinished Music, the only fair rating splits it down the middle. Lennon had awed us before, but now he was set on confusion.
The most controversial woman in rock 'n' roll doesn't get equal billing for nothing. This is as much an Ono concoction as a Lennon creation, and while it was recorded at Lennon's house, Ono has the true home field advantage here. Her wails are the most piercing part of this work. Surely commercial viability had something to do with it, but perhaps partly because of her influence and participation Two Virgins wasn't included in the batch of reissues celebrating Lennon's solo work on what would have been his 70th year (along with Unfinished Music Vol. 2: Life With the Lions and Wedding Album).
The recording was cobbled together on a night in May 1968, the morning after which Lennon and Ono supposedly made love for the first time. Just as only the most ardent Lennonphiles -- namely, graying novelty record store owners and a certain breed of fedora-wearing college student -- will find that bit of trivia creepily relevant, Two Virgins doesn't feel particularly historic or even necessary.
The atonality ends three minutes into the album, with pounded piano giving way to distorted guitar. Lennon even locks into an innocuous strum for a few seconds before a piercing scream breaks the fog. However, any time the record hovers around an echo of a groove, Ono's avant-anything instincts snap it back into focus. Calling it "background music" almost gives Two Virgins too much credit, unless you host a fucking wild dinner party: this would have been more appropriate as the soundtrack to one of Ono's art installations.
Songwriting-wise, Lennon was on top of his game in 1968 even as the world's beloved Beatles began to splinter. Lennon himself appeared to be fraying on record sometime after the death of Brian Epstein: beginning with songs like "Hey Bulldog" and blossoming on The Beatles, Lennon didn't so much twist and shout as writhe and scream on record. Two Virgins has no lyrics, but plenty of screaming. Despite the obvious pressure to make his first solo joint count, it's hard to hear Two Virgins as the sound of someone too full of fear to function. On the contrary, the John Lennon of the '60s rarely sounded more liberated than he does here. He could have put out a great solo record that year with non-White Album cuts like "Child of Nature"; he just didn't care to.
It takes a man (and woman) with a great, great deal of clout to sell a stunt like this -- even Dylan didn't have the balls for this. John's career would taper off into more streamlined sounds, and he would take Yoko with him for their final sessions before his death in 1980, with Lennon in particular laying the foundation for today's Adult Contemporary, but not before crawling further down the rabbit hole. Two Virgins may have been Lennon letting off steam, but it's like a Halloween funhouse mirror, only without fun or purpose, two things that Lennon's work rarely lacks. -- Alex Bahler
Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
A detour like this was bound to happen, but after returning from India and partnering with a soon-to-be-notorious Japanese artist, John Lennon knocked out a series of them recalling a sweaty morning puke session: blinding, excessively unpleasant, lingering. Perhaps he simply had excess goodwill as part of what Derek Taylor called "the 20th century's greatest romance", certainly too much to be completely wasted from a couple off-the-wall sound collages but enough to burn a hole in his knickers. The second volume of Lennon and Yoko Ono's avant-garde throwdowns, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions marked the axial period where fans went from "hey, it's John!" to "not these weirdos again". Emphasis on the plural.
Like a cell that splits itself in two, Lennon had transformed by 1969, having virtually grown a second head. Ono was as much a studio presence as John for the tense summer sessions that would yield the Beatles' first double album, perching herself on Paul McCartney's bass amp and getting girlfriend backup duty with Patti Harrison on "Birthday".
Recorded around the time the White Album hit shelves, Life with the Lions finds the pair capitalizing on Beatlemania's ebb into the recesses of the public mind after flowing through the streets (this was not long before his band's January 1969 rooftop performance drew deer-in-headlights stares from bystanders rather than deafening hysteria). Had this appeared between A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale, Lennon's primary outlet would've had a lot to answer for. After the "bigger than Jesus" flap, Magical Mystery Tour's flop, and their association with LSD, a certain strain of puritan fan had been weeded out. The burgeoning rock world still watched; the rest just paid infrequent attention now.
When listeners last heard from John sans Beatles, the cacophonous media frenzy had more to do with the cover of his first non-Fab outing, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, than the challenges within it (each LP side featured a lengthy, parabolic piece). Life with the Lions initially appears more digestible. Instead of two long "songs", the recording is divided into tracks for easier consumption. They even have titles! But while Ono is kind enough to introduce opening cut "Cambridge 1969" by name, what follows is a brutal attack on the ears -- nearly eight minutes of her shrieking, pausing only for breath, backed by John's intermittent guitar feedback. Elsewhere, Lennon's contributions would add just the right amount of tension to a wracked love song. Accompanied solely by Yoko's damaged wails, this is positively unlistenable even for the most progressive ears. Where Two Virgins was a confusing confection, Life with the Lions is a bitter horse pill from the start.
It eases up, if only because it must. "No Bed for Beatle John" starts with Ono quietly singing topical lyrics on the couple's personal life, which was anything but normal inside and out. Where "Cambridge 1969" assailed the eardrums, "Baby's Heartbeat" coaxes them back in. The track has a curious gravity to it, all five minutes of their unborn child's heartbeat, sped up to cocaine-level mania. And suddenly there's nothing, with "Two Minutes Silence" not exactly bluffing about its modern art intentions (it's the equivalent of a painter putting up a blank white canvas and calling it his latest creation). Ono suffers what wouldn't be her last miscarriage, and the next two minutes is as empty as the couple's heart. There are olive branches for those who strive to interpret, even on the surface. A reference to a hospital's policy not to let the celebrity sleep next to Ono during her stay, "No Bed for Beatle John" provides a link to Lennon's increasing propensity for reflexive lyricism in his traditional work, starting with "Glass Onion" and culminating on "How Do You Sleep?" There's not only a method but a meaning to the madness here.
Whereas Two Virgins was ultimately peaceful, if not terribly interesting, Life with the Lions is horrific and unsettling, and all the better for it. It's the stronger twin that reflects the turmoil from that fucked up year, for the Beatles and the world, of 1968. "Radio Play" smashes airwave transmissions into shards, some melodic, some not, but likely influential (the introductory blips on Radiohead's "Sit down. Stand up." come to mind). The CD reissue added two tracks walking each side of the line: the brief "Song for John," which has a melody as basic as its title, and the plucky "Mulberry", whose closest sonic relative is (in complete seriousness) turtles mating. Many reissues offer a window to enhance the listener's understanding of the artist's mental state at the time; this one makes the glass cloudier. Regardless, Life with the Lions is far superior to the previous wankfest not because of increased hummability, but because of the clenched-fist sense of purpose. Lennon's got something to say here, they both do; they're just burying it in the same swamp that birthed Virgins.
"The sleeve has not been censored or altered in any way," Ono sings on "No Bed", being her own liner notes with Lennon's distant, priest-like vocals in back. In retrospect, Lennon's legacy wasn't significantly changed, either. We still love and remember him for his profound pop, but the Unfinished Music albums show he didn't strive to fake perfection or produce a failure as grand as his victories. Considering the man's sizable ego, that deserves more than a sigh. -- Alex Bahler