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