Mind Games (1973)
How would we tally up John Lennon’s solo career had he died a retired househusband? If he failed to rediscover his muse before being cut down at the gates of the Dakota, our lasting image of John Lennon would be the one of him sticking his tongue out at us on the back of 1975’s Walls and Bridges. We would probably say that after the brutal purgation of Plastic Ono Band and the splendid Imagine, Lennon was a spent force who wisely hung it up before tarnishing his legacy further. Of course, Lennon eventually took his guitars out of storage and 1980’s Double Fantasy, though mawkish and too eager to please, was a remarkable creative rebirth. While the bookending Double Fantasy gives Lennon’s solo catalogue a major lift, it completely buries 1973’s Mind Games.
Over time, the stories behind Lennon’s albums have become an integral part of experiencing his music. We don’t listen to John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album without talking about how crazy Phil Spector used a pistol to coax tighter performances out of his boozy ensemble. Mind Games gets a harder shake than the rest because it’s the only album to offer only a slim chapter to the great Lennonography. Following his first real creative and commercial failure (1972s still ugly Sometime in New York City), Lennon was eager to get back to the business of writing simple medium key pop songs. The man who lived his entire life with his heart on his sleeve and the weight of the world on his shoulders quickly found that people did expect him to change the world every time out.
On April Fool’s Day 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a press conference where they announced the creation of Nutopia, a conceptual country that “has no land, no passports, no laws, only people”. Though dismissed as another PR stunt at the time, Nutopia was a cry for mercy in Lennon’s lengthy battle with the US Government. As a result of his high profile anti-war activism, the Nixon Administration moved to deport Lennon in early 1972. With his residency in jeopardy and his marriage to Ono disintegrating, Lennon assembled The Plastic U.F.Ono Band and hit the Record Plant during the summer of 1973, hoping to find sanctuary in his music.
Given the squall of negativity blowing around Lennon at the time, one might’ve expected another Plastic Ono Band-style exorcism from him. Instead, Mind Games finds Lennon aiming squarely for middle ground. The album’s songs are split between vague attempts at producing another compelling peace slogan and love songs that sound as if they were written by someone in denial that their relationship is falling apart. The lush title track was a Top 20 hit, yet the following ten songs are almost anonymous deep tracks unfamiliar to the casual Lennon fan. While there are no out and out duds, the album suffers from questionable production choices as well as a dearth of the sort of seismic anthems that the public came to demand from John Lennon somewhat unreasonably.
With a 60-day deportation notice hanging over his head, Lennon wisely decided his safest bet would be to refrain from including anything even remotely political in his music. With a rabble-rousing album detailing his persecution by the US Government off the table, Lennon turned to familiar themes of peace, personal freedom, and open communication. As he did on his “Give Peace a Chance” and “War Is Over” campaigns, Lennon once again uses fundamental language to help spread his message. It’s easy to get behind “Love is the answer / and you know that for sure”, or even “only people realize the power of the people”, yet without a face to put with a name, the impact of these songs gets dulled considerably. Lennon gets all riled up on “Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)”, but it isn’t clear exactly who needs to be freed. It doesn’t help that Lennon couldn’t come up with a more compelling chorus than “Free the people now / Do it do it do it do it do it now.” The most effective protest song here, “The Nutopian International Anthem”, features four defiant seconds of silence.
Hearing John Lennon struggle to craft a catchy chorus is not unlike hearing Jesus stammer through prayer service. But struggle he does here, failing to create anything that’s instantly memorable. Although his marriage was foundering, Lennon still populated Mind Games with a healthy ration of ballads, most of which sound hollow and uninspired. “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)” starts off like classic Lennon blues but he never finds the conviction to carry the song across the finish line. It’s pretty obvious throughout that he doesn’t have very much to say. We’re left to pick through rubbish lines like “I’m the fish and you’re the sea” or “Wherever you are / You are here”. Lennon fares better with “Out of the Blue”, his only lighter waving 70s monster ballad and a song that’s often unfairly omitted from most greatest hits compilations. Vintage rockers like “Tight As” and “Intuition”, while throwaways, offer up a dose of mindless fun, and “Meat City” features one of the nastiest riffs Lennon ever put to tape.
By the time Lennon recorded Mind Games, he felt as though he could effectively re-create Phil Spector’s production style without Spector’s direct involvement. To create his own Wall of Sound, Lennon brought in session hands who were ace performers and obvious Beatle aficionados. Guitarist David Spinozza, bolstered by the legendary lap steel of ex-Flying Burrito Brother Sneaky Pete, ably mimics Harrison’s slide while Gordon Edward’s bass takes a McCartney-esque walk over every arrangement. The thrift store Spector approach succeeds on tracks like “Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)”, which sounds like it could’ve been cut during a session for All Things Must Pass. The approach does a disservice to the album’s hard-driving numbers, however, which end up sounding slightly punchless and cluttered. Lennon’s biggest folly as a producer has to be his decision to employ a background chorus billed suspiciously as Something Different. This mysterious collection of jarring, sand-papery voiced singers overwhelms Lennon almost every time they intrude on the proceedings. There’s no way Phil Spector would let Lennon’s wounded falsetto be shouted down by a background chorus the way it is on “One Day (At a Time)”.
The surviving Beatles all went on to enjoy careers that, while fruitful, were all marked at some point by a precipitous decline in quality. Our expectations of them lowered before evaporating completely. At some point, hearing new music from an ex-Beatle became something that was no longer necessary to pass judgment on. We’ll be grateful for anything from the guys who are still with us. John Lennon enjoyed no such luxury during his lifetime and we continue to demand a lot from the studio albums he made during the 1970s. Every scrap of music Lennon recorded throughout his tragically abbreviated solo career will always remain under the microscope because it’s all we’re left with. So while we can easily dismiss Sometime in New York City as a true misfire, we’ll always take Mind Games to task for falling shy of brilliance. Were it possible to separate the man from the music (it isn’t) one would find a solid, workman-like collection of mid-’70s rock ‘n’ roll. If we forget all that came before and after it, we’re left with an album that, while inessential, is highly listenable. Sometimes the greatest songwriter of all time’s second-best needs to be enough. — Daniel Tebo