Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

John Lennon: Life With The Lions


1) Cambridge 1969; 2) No Bed For Beatle John; 3) Baby's Heartbeat; 4) Two Minutes Silence; 5) Radio Play; 6*) Song For John; 7*) Mulberry.

General verdict: Curious as an audio document, controversial as a piece of art, useless as a listening experience.

Although this record is subtitled Unfinished Music No. 2, implying a thematic unity with the No. 1 of Two Virgins, the goals of the two are actually quite distinct. Two Virgins was simply a spontaneous gesture of defiance; by the time John and Yoko got ready to produce a second record, they seem to have worked out an explicit purpose — make a series of audio-documents that would trace their life together, a life now ripe with adventure, excitement, sociopolitical activity (as the Stooges put it succinctly about 1969 — "another year for me and you, another year with nothing to do"), and all sorts of stuff that John could have never gotten from his previous wife (Paul McCartney). Consequently, Life With The Lions (apparently a pun on the British sitcom Life With The Lyons, but also a nifty way to self-aggrandize) is... well, not listenable as such, but at least, er, uhm, acquaintable, and is a good travel companion if you want to learn more details about ʽThe Ballad Of John And Yokoʼ, or are busy reading one of Lennon's biographies.

Granted, I have only ever been able once to sit through the entirety of ʽCambridge 1969ʼ, which is essentially Two Virgins taken to the stage — twenty-six minutes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's revenge on decadent Western society, exacted March 2, 1969, before a living and breathing audience that largely consisted of condemned students at the University of Cambridge. Yoko is screaming, John is producing mountains of feedback that would put Lou Reed to shame, and later on, a couple jazz musicians, including the well-known avantgarde saxophonist John Tchicai, join them because apparently they had nothing better to do. The best I can say about this piece is that it is at least better recorded than Two Virgins, and even has faint hints of thematic development... well, at least the screaming gets more intense towards the end. As a document, though, it is important — marking the beginning of John and Yoko as a public live act, and laying the ground for the subsequent creation of the Plastic Ono Band.

The second side of the album brings in diversity. ʽNo Bed For Beatle Johnʼ is even marginally hilarious — featuring John and Yoko chanting press clippings about themselves from their suite in Queen Charlotte's Hospital. ʽBaby's Heartbeatʼ is a recording of the palpitations of Yoko's miscarried child. ʽTwo Minutes Silenceʼ is, understandably, a tribute to Cage. And ʽRadio Playʼ features twelve minutes of toying and tampering with radio knobs, as John makes additional phone calls in the background and life goes on as usual. Now, ain't that some major diversity we got going over here? Theater, nature sounds, musique concrète, industrial?...

Maybe the biggest problem was that, unlike Two Virgins, Life With The Lions no longer had the chance to bring on true shock value. Its sleeve was far more conventional, its (anti-)musical content was no longer surprising, and it did not even begin to match the US sales of its pre­decessor, because, well, the record buyers already knew far more about John and Yoko than they ever wanted to know. The fact that a special sub-label of Apple, Zapple Records, was set up to manufacture and promote albums like those never helped anybody either (in a few months, Allen Klein would come into the business and, as befits a solid businessman, stamp out all that non­sense anyway). But, once again, it is kind of fun to look back at it half a century later, just to remember through how much crazy stuff these guys were ripping at the time. As a work of modern art, Life With The Lions will probably not find a lot of support even among those who pretend to be able to distinguish good modern art from bad modern art. But as a document, it does a nice job of bringing that era, already so distant, back to life for a bit — even if I still prefer to do it through 15-second snippets of each track rather than go for suicidal overkill.

Once again, the CD reissue somewhat naïvely tries to «musicalize» proceedings, by throwing on the very brief ʽSong For Johnʼ (another ʽJuliaʼ-type song — apparently, John was unwilling to lend more than one chord sequence to anything Yoko was trying to co-write at the time) and the 9-minute freakout ʽMulberryʼ, where, instead of feedback, John goes apeshit on acoustic slide, which is at least a more novel approach. However, this time the additions do not even give the impression of a proper coda; they simply add to the overall rag-taggy nature of the entire experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment