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Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Lennon: Mind Games


1) Mind Games; 2) Tight A$; 3) Aisumasen (I'm Sorry); 4) One Day (At A Time); 5) Bring On The Lucie (Freeda Peeple); 6) Nutopian International Anthem; 7) Intuition; 8) Out The Blue; 9) Only People; 10) I Know (I Know); 11) You Are Here; 12) Meat City.

General verdict: A middle-of-the-road album, but I'd still rather be in the middle of the road with John Lennon than at the end of the road with... with... WITHOUT John Lennon.

Time has not been very kind to Mind Games, an album recorded by John right at the start of his next personal crisis — just after Nixon's victory at the polls had taken all the wind out of his political sails, but a little before his inner demons started getting the better of him (to be strongly unleashed in about a year's time). Thus, in between the arrogant fight-for-your-right exuberance of Some Time In New York City and the deep dark depression of Walls And Bridges lies this album, usually thought of as the one that spawned a classic title track and ten pieces of mediocre surrounding filler.

But I do not like to think of it that way. More than any other solo Beatle, I regard John's solo career now as one continuous, unbreakable whole — a decade-long musical diary of psycho­logical change, mental growth, and emotional transformation — and from that point of view, Mind Games is just another step, a somewhat relaxed and slightly less tense «breather», whose virtues are subtly touching and whose flaws are amusingly instructive. Unlike quite a few com­plainers, I sense no general weakening of the spirit here, let alone «selling out», and John's melodic gift remains, on the whole, untainted, even if a few stylistic and substantial missteps might certainly influence one's judgment.

One of the missteps in question may have been John's new playing team: remnants of the Plastic Ono Band had scattered to the winds, and in the place of heavyweights like Nicky Hopkins and George Harrison, John was hiring relatively little-known session musicians, such as light-jazz player Ken Ascher on piano and David Spinozza on guitar (the latter, amusingly, had previously already worked with McCartney on Ram, but made sure to conceal it from John throughout the sessions). This move was far from tragic, since, under John's guidance, all the session musicians still deliver the goods, and there are plenty of classy keyboard, guitar, and bass licks throughout the record (see below); but it does hurt the album's identity, and pretty much lays all the blame for its flaws on John exclusively. From now on, he would almost always be working with «third tier» players, either being jealous of the stronger ones or, more probably, just because he didn't really give a damn about extra personality touches.

Another potential misstep is actually an illusion: the album is sometimes said to have been written in one week, but that was largely because John used up a lot of material he had hung out to dry over the previous three years. ʽMind Gamesʼ itself started out as two different tunes around 1969-70, and took some time to blossom into the epic gem that we know. I love this song deeply because, unlike ʽInstant Karmaʼ or any of those other rabble-rousing anthems that John typically selected for his singles, ʽMind Gamesʼ is not a sing-along, clap-along, everybody-get-along social ritual, but more of a personal epiphany: its big, pompous arrangement calls for you to celebrate the glory of existence without sacrificing your privacy and individuality. The simple three-chord riff that keeps spiraling upwards throughout the song is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and transcendental sequences John ever came up with — a straightahead stairway to heaven, making the "love is the answer" bridge every bit as credible as "all you need is love", and, because of the song's less pandering-to-crowd nature, even a little bit smarter. We can beat up the lyrics for being clumsy, pretentious, or naïve, but if I am climbing that stairway to heaven, what do I care about the questionable content of the billboards along the way?

Now, about that filler issue. It is true that John seems to be somewhat confused here, nowhere near as sharp about his message and general direction as he had been from 1970 to 1972. But that does not prevent him from still having scattered flashes of quite variegated emotional brilliance. Other than the title track, my two personal favorites here are ʽAisumasenʼ and ʽIntuitionʼ — two numbers that set two completely different moods and challenges, yet each succeeds brilliantly at its assigned task, and I would rate them just as high as any highlight on POB or Imagine.

On ʽAisumasenʼ, perhaps an intentionally ironic corruption of the required ʽsumimasenʼ (because it just has to be so tough for a foreigner to correctly pronounce a long Japanese word), John asks for forgiveness — double the irony in light of the fact that the song originally started life as ʽCall My Nameʼ, an anytime-at-all-all-you-gotta-do-is-call active pledge of assistance — triple the irony in light of the fact that the song was released right at the start of John's «lost weekend» separation from Yoko, rather than, as could be normally expected, at its end. Regardless of the context, it is quite a devastating confessional (not coincidentally, its chord sequence is very similar to the one used on ʽI Want Youʼ) — slow-burning, but tense, with a breathtaking plunge into even deeper waters on the bridge ("all that I know is just what you tell me..."), and culmi­nating in a screaming, all-but-suicidal guitar solo from Spinozza that, at the end, just leaves you hanging there, unresolved and unanswered. To this day, it remains one of the greatest pure expressions of guilty self-torture ever recorded.

Conversely, ʽIntuitionʼ, opening the album's second side, is brighter, sprightlier, and a superb way to get you out of bed on a brand new morning — cheerful, but intelligent; optimistic, but thought­ful; somewhat martial, but friendly and homely. Everything about it is wonderfully cute, from Jim Keltner's «slightly drunk» drum pattern to Gordon Edwards' «back-of-my-mind» bass lick that opens the song to Ascher's delightfully disciplined music-hall keyboard solo. It's also got quite an impressive set of lyrics for a song that has to remain tied to continous usage of words that end in -tion by design, although it would have been just as impressive as a pure instrumental: it is not often that we catch John in such a perky mood (actually, in the long run the song would fit in perfectly on Double Fantasy, as the perkiest album of his entire career).

The same perkiness, however, can be misplaced; arguably the biggest weakness of Mind Games is that it still contains, more due to artistic inertia rather than artistic inspiration, several attempts at rabble-rousing that do not work because it does not feel like the artist really continues to believe in this type of action. The chief culprit is ʽOnly Peopleʼ, a song that has always struck me as the definition of «phoney» — and not even because it has a bad / unmemorable melody, but because its arrangement is completely misguided. Instead of bringing in the big band touch, with thunder-drums, bombastic brass, gospel choirs and all things Phil Spectorian, John goes here for a more restrained type of «party atmosphere», providing most of the vocals himself, including all the whoopees, hey-heys, and come-on-everybody's — which backfires severely, because in the end it seems as if he is here all alone, trying to raise to action a crowd of nobodys. In the overall context of his political disillusionment after all the wasted efforts of 1972, ʽOnly Peopleʼ feels especially hollow, like something that he still felt obliged to put on this record without actually wanting to do it one bit. (As far as I know, he would later end up pretty much disowning the song in his own words, so he might have felt the same way relistening to it).

Slightly more effective is ʽBring On The Lucie (Freeda Peeple)ʼ, with its bigger arrangement and an actual musical hook (the funny little slide riff, apparently played by Sneaky Pete Kleinow him­self). Its main problem is that it wobbles in between seriously hateful protest and a merry carnivalesque atmosphere, meaning that it could never have the same psychological effect as ʽGimme Some Truthʼ or ʽWoman Is The Nigger Of The Worldʼ; but melody-wise, it is a fine effort, and, besides, some people might actually prefer their political Lennon more poppy and carnivalesque, keeping the venom restricted to the lyrics.

But if, on the whole, John Lennon, The Political Animal, is on the wane in 1973, John Lennon the bare-bones pop-rocker is doing fine. ʽOut The Blueʼ is a simple and nice love ballad, pushed up over the mediocrity threshold by its powerful bridge section (there's a really great bit out there when the solo piano and bass soar sky-high right before the "like a UFO you came to me" line). ʽI Know (I Know)ʼ and ʽYou Are Hereʼ are two consecutive ballads that might take some time to grow in your mind, but the former can eventually win you over with its sheer sincerity, and the latter is really all about Sneaky Pete and how his pedal steel can be such a perfect companion to John's vocal tenderness. Speaking of vocal tenderness, though, that other ballad, ʽOne Day (At A Time)ʼ, kind of overdoes the tender thing — it is hard for me to throttle the cringe reaction hearing John go "you are my woman, I am your man" in that falsetto. (This is one Beatle song that I actually prefer hearing in the Elton John version).

If you want to remind yourself of John the rocker, ʽTight A$ʼ might do the trick just fine — a simple, unpretentious, solid piece of Carl Perkins-ish boogie with fun guitar solos and spooky lyrical innuendos. But if you want to remind yourself of John the weird rocker, treat yourself to ʽMeat Cityʼ, a real hot mess of a track: glam-rock with an avantgarde twist, danceable, dissonant, and befuddling. I used to hate it, now I feel more amused by it — a bit of a slap-in-yer-face after all the softness and normalness of the rest of the record. "Chicken-suckin', mother-truckin', Meat City shookdown USA" — not sure if Chuck Berry would have appreciated this attitude, but I guess that after all he thought he'd done for those people, John felt himself rightfully entitled for a bit of an anti-American poke here. Still, he never had the time to make good on his "I'm going to China to see for myself" promise, though; apparently, it was much easier to go L.A. and drown himself in alcohol for a year instead.

Bottomline is — Mind Games is not a great album (by Lennon standards, that is), but it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is probably the only LP in his catalog that has no overriding general purpose, and could be said to have been made just because John's profession demanded it at the time. But no purpose is still better than, say, the purpose of Some Time In New York City; and this is frickin' John Lennon — the man that is theoretically capable to inspire you by writing a song about getting out of bed and brushing his teeth, if he so desires.


  1. Great review. This one took a LONG time for me to understand (I think it helps to be around the same age as John when he recorded it). It's not a statement record, or a big record. As you say, it's "purpose" seems confused... Maybe the first record John had ever released with such small stakes. I think it was confusing for the audience, too, because we want John to be the "rocker," and the rockers on this record are all uninspired at best. But the ballads! I'd put em up against his best. Beautifully written and sung. Especially "You are Here," which is what Jimmy Buffett sounds like in heaven.

  2. This is an awesome review for a good album. It, the album, definitely feels like a 'breather'. Salutations; and a very belated happy birthday.