John Lennon 101 – Day 6: Then… and Now (1975 – 1980)

Shaved Fish (1975)

By 1975, John Lennon wasn’t really interested in making music anymore. His years-long struggle with US immigration was finally coming to a close, and after a series of personal conflicts, his renewed commitment to Yoko Ono was about to yield another son, Sean. So armed with a contract demanding one final album and a malaise that would see him shun the spotlight to place house-husband, the least prolific major Beatle bequeathed the world a greatest hits package and slowly slipped off into five years of obscurity.

For many, including a teenage fanbase who were teething when Lennon was taking over the world, Shaved Fish was a revelation. While they had grown up with tracks like “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, “Mind Games”, and “Imagine”, selections like “Cold Turkey”, “Mother”, and “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” exposed a previously unheard side of the former phenom. Indeed, the biggest disclosure was that, given his limited output as a solo and singles artist, there was enough material here for any kind of Best-of. Unlike his previous writing partner, Lennon was a considered musician. Paul McCartney had completed seven albums of original material in the same time frame and put at least 20 45rpm releases out. Lennon managed six, with one being a ’50s rocker cover collection.

Yet Shaved Fish was far from perfect. Fans only got a snippet of the seminal “Give Peace a Chance”, the track cut off in mid-chorus to drive directly into the addiction drama of “Turkey”. Another surreal move saw the sensational seasonal protest song “Happy X-mas (War is Over)” muddled by the inclusion of more “Peace” parts at the end. Truth be told, had the material not been so strong, had Lennon not been such a commanding cultural fixture, many would feel betrayed by such a corporate write-off. But because newfound fans got a chance to hear Lennon’s famous familial lament on “Mother”, experience his death pangs performance with “Turkey”, or celebrate the giddy joys of “Karma”, Shaved Fish became more than just a money grab.

Equally important is the notion that, for all intents and purposes, it looked like Lennon was done with music for the time being. Walls and Bridges was sloppy and incomplete feeling (“Night” and the stunning “#9 Dream” as exceptions) and his foray into his past — 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll — was a reminder of his debt to the mentors of his past. Indeed, of all the Beatles, Lennon clearly loved the rockabilly feel of old school sources like Chuck Berry. When he finally came back to the limelight in 1980, his first single “(Just Like) Starting Over” could have been a glorified Grease outtake.

That was the dichotomy inherent in Lennon’s entire career — the forward thinker constantly connected to his youth, a Wing-less part of pop culture who, while not as prolific, was clearly more popular (or at the very least, socially relevant). When McCartney released his own greatest hits album in 1978, his fortunes were also fading. The package was sandwiched in between two of his lesser efforts (London Town and Back to the Egg) and argued for his lack of true substance. With Shaved Fish, you got such strong statements as “Women is the Nigger of the World.” McCartney gave the world “Hi, Hi, Hi”.

While other MIA material — “How Do You Sleep?”, “God”, “Jealous Guy”, and “Working Class Hero” — could have easily been included, there’s a balance with this end of the ’70s release that’s reassuring. Just when you can’t take the terrors of “Turkey” any longer, the buoyant message of “Karma” steps in to assuage your fears. In fact, Shaved Fish shows that for most of his career, Lennon walked a precarious public tightrope between angry young man and amiable adult. He could vent with the best of them and then easily slip into the kind of sentimentality that McCartney drown in. For those who only knew him as the former superstar whose wife broke up the Beatles, John Lennon was an enigma. More than any other release in his catalog, Shaved Fish proved this, track after track. — Bill Gibron

Double Fantasy (1980)

It’s impossible not to listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy without feeling a tremendous sense of foreboding, if not downright fear and loathing. The album was recorded during the late summer and early fall of 1980, shortly after Lennon emerged from his five years of self-imposed reclusion, and was released on the 17th of November of the same year, only three weeks before Lennon’s murder. In fact, Lennon signed a copy of the album for Mark David Chapman only hours before Chapman shot him to death. Our knowledge of what happened to Lennon in the weeks following the release of the album, of course, strongly influences the way we now listen to it, understand it, and evaluate it.

Whenever I listen to it — and I’ve given it a solid 40 or 50 listenings over the past 25 years — I can’t help but think, “he has no idea what’s coming to him, does he?” Listening to Double Fantasy is like watching or reading Hamlet for the second or any subsequent time; you listen with the tragic realization that the bright, brilliant man you’re listening to is soon about to die, hence the album now contains a measure of pathos far beyond what Lennon must have intended for it. In fact, when you separate the album from the context that came to surround it, Double Fantasy is a decidedly uplifting, contemplative, and ultimately peaceful and forward-looking album that marked, at least for a matter of a few weeks, an entirely new self-perspective and self-awareness on Lennon’s part.

Interestingly, the album was not an overwhelming critical success when it first appeared. While some critics praised its quality and Lennon’s songwriting and performance abilities, a number of critics found the album to be self-indulgent, thematically domestic and plain, too Ono heavy, and a bit too poppy and mainstream. These complaints were not unfounded. The album certainly lacks Lennon’s past displays of irony, absurdist humor, political awareness, and willingness to engage in lyrical experimentation. Further, the strongest songs on the album are those penned by Lennon rather than Ono.

The album, while thematically interesting, also lacks much in the way of structure. Moreover, while the album offers some terrific insight into the Lennon the world had been missing for five years, some songs, particularly “I’m Losing You”, seems to ultimately serve as public apologies to Ono for Lennon’s past marital misdeeds. Further, much of the music obviously itself shows the influence of new wave music — something which Lennon admitted was an influence — and sounds less like an attempt to make new wave music new again but, rather, an attempt by Lennon to appeal to listeners accustomed to a different type of sound. The album’s greatest fault, then, is the decidedly uncharacteristic lack of confidence and willingness to experiment that Lennon projects throughout it.

However, that’s not to suggest that the album doesn’t have its share of strengths. “Watching the Wheels,” for all of its domesticity, stands as one of Lennon’s strongest and most self-reflective, not to mention catchy, songs. For all of its underlying self-loathing, “I’m Losing You,” is certainly heartfelt and nevertheless quite moving as is “Beautiful Boy”, Lennon’s ode to his son Sean. “Just Like Starting Over”, is among Lennon’s warmest and most joyful recordings and “Woman”, which is a decidedly pleasant and mature sequel, of sorts, to the Beatles’ “Girl”. While the album does not fully come together or function well as a whole, it nevertheless presents us with a sense of a new, more reflective, and peaceful John Lennon and, ultimately, a now heartbreaking suggestion of the sort of musical artist Lennon might have become if he had lived longer and come to confront the electro, synthetic, poppy and decidedly ironic and weird music of the decade to come. — James Fleming