Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)
Quick, name any John Lennon album. Chances are, you said Imagine, Double Fantasy, or Mind Games, or if you are really into it, Sometime in New York City or maybe Walls And Bridges. Either way, Rock ‘n’ Roll is not a world-famous album. It should be, though. Rock ‘n’ Roll is really something: John Lennon, singing the hits that inspired him as a teenager. But emotional turmoil, a crazed atmosphere, legal red tape, and bad timing would turn the album into a rare, overlooked gem in Lennon’s catalogue.
In 1973, John Lennon just wanted to have a little fun. After recording music that consisted of serious artistic experimentation, emotional venting, and social-minded political anthems, his latest album, Mind Games, marked a return to a more mainstream sound. However, before it was even released, Lennon had already moved on to another idea: an album made up of the songs he performed as a teenager. In 1969, the Beatles briefly discussed trying the same concept during recording what eventually became Let It Be, but now Lennon was serious. Adding to the album’s appeal was the lawsuit-ending decision for John to record three songs from music publisher Morris Levy’s catalogue. This became the easy way to end claims that the Beatles’ “Come Together” infringed upon Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”.
That October, recording began in Los Angeles’ A&M studios and Record Plant West, with producer Phil Spector given total control over the project. (Despite the controversy surrounding Spector’s tinkering with the Beatles’ Let It Be, John mostly liked his work, frequently hiring him throughout his solo career.) Of course, this all took place during Lennon’s “lost weekend” period, when John and Yoko’s trial separation resulted in a downward spiral of drugs, booze, idiotic behavior, and wasted opportunity. Drummer Jim Keltner once confessed, “The sessions could have been absolutely brilliant, but towards the end of each evening, it would just waste away because of the drinking and the drugs all of us were taking…, by the end of the night, John would be singing all slow and slurry.”
The atmosphere was that of an out of control, drunken party, with as much as 28 people recording in the studio simultaneously, sometimes completely out of sync with one another. Rumors about Spector’s dangerous behavior at the sessions also spread throughout the years. Rolling Stone reported that he had pointed guns at guest Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson said that Spector had once tied Lennon to a chair overnight, and Jim Keltner said that Phil had shot a gun off in the men’s bathroom, leaving a bullet lodged in the ceiling. This reckless behavior got them kicked out of Record Plant studios and in A&M studios, where a spilled bottle of whiskey damaged a mixing console.
After he was supposedly in a coma after a car accident, the original master tapes were lost in Spector’s hands. A more sober John moved on to his next project, the Walls And Bridges album. But the unresolved matter of the Levy lawsuit led Lennon into going back to work on Rock ‘n’ Roll. By this point, it was the summer of 1974, and John finished the album with different session musicians and himself as the producer.
John’s well-intentioned tribute to the music of his childhood and early career had lost some of its appeal by the time of the album’s release in February 1975, though. The early 1970s saw a rise in 1950s nostalgia, with several other albums using the same concept. Lennon worried that his album would be seen as a tired cliché, but Morris Levy offered an interesting idea: selling the album via mail order through TV commercials. John was intrigued, but his record label was against it, vowing to release Rock ‘n’ Roll on their terms. Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock & Roll Hits, Levy’s alternate version, was offered to customers months prior to Rock ‘n’ Roll‘s release. Its bonus tracks and low price lured buyers, but its poor quality and the terrible customer service behind it became the basis of a lawsuit filed by Lennon and his record labels. Perhaps part of the reason why Rock ‘n’ Roll sold so poorly (as of 1985 it was Lennon’s second-worst selling album) was buyer confusion.
Music critics often praise Lennon for his raw lyrical intensity. Every emotion he had about every situation in his life reflected in his music. However, an album full of somewhat lighthearted rock covers still showed the anguished state he seemed to be in at the time. What started a sweet ode to the music that he loved, apparent in the spirited take on “Be Bop a Lula”, and the loving rendition of “Stand By Me”, spiraled into an outright party. This resulted in the charged up covers of “Rip It Up/Ready Teddy”, “You Can’t Catch Me”, and “Ain’t That a Shame”. But by the time we get to a reggaefied “Do You Want to Dance” and a somewhat sloppy “Sweet Little Sixteen”, the cracks are starting to show.
As if someone realized this, the next few tracks (including a cover of “Peggy Sue”) are incredibly focused. “Slippin’ and Slidin'” downright rocks, while “Bring It on Home to Me/Send Me Some Lovin'” is arguably the album’s best track. A chugging “Bony Moronie” and a snappy “Ya Ya” follow, but the most revelatory song here is “Just Because”. A pained, strained take on a song about someone trying, rather unsuccessfully, to hide their heartbreak is sung as if Lennon had written it himself just seconds ago. Given the emotional state he was in, this comes as no surprise. Unfortunately, in the bonus tracks version, sluggish, sad versions of “Angel Baby” and “To Know Her Is to Love Her” has the uneven party-from-Hell-sounding stomper “Since My Baby Left Me” following them. However, a revealing snippet of another take of “Just Because” closes the album, with a telling message at the end. “…, I’d like to say hi to Ringo, Paul, and George… how are you? Everybody back home, in England… what’s cookin’?”, he says, knowing that it is time to close this chapter in his life and start a new one.
Rock ‘n’ Roll still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Originally released on CD in 1990, it was remastered and released in 2004 along with four bonus tracks. Unfortunately, its recent 2010 re-release oddly didn’t feature those four extra songs. The album did become critically praised, with Billboard saying that it featured “…, quite possibly the best and most emotional singing Lennon has come up with in years”. Decades later, however, Rolling Stone may have described it best by concluding, “It’s not the album anyone will most remember him for, but these songs may well have meant the most to him.” — Jessy Krupa