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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

John Lennon: Rock'n'Roll

1) Be-Bop-A-Lula; 2) Stand By Me; 3) Rip It Up/Ready Teddy; 4) You Can't Catch Me; 5) Ain't That A Shame; 6) Do You Want To Dance?; 7) Sweet Little Sixteen; 8) Slippin' And Slidin'; 9) Peggy Sue; 10) Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin'; 11) Bony Moronie; 12) Ya Ya; 13) Just Because.

General verdict: For those who like their rockabilly greased-up, coked-up, and injected with a strain of tortured and wasted personality.

For the sakes of lady impartial objectivity, it must be confessed that Rock'n'Roll, John Lennon's last album before his retreatment into self-imposed musical exile, was never intended to be much more than an irrelevant toss-off — a record forced on the artist by a lawsuit: in order to atone for the sin of ripping off Chuck Berry's ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ with his own ʽCome Togetherʼ, John had to promise to record several oldies from the backlog of major publishing companies and hand over the royalties. Apparently he disliked the idea so much that he intentionally stalled the project, prioritizing Walls And Bridges over this kind of indentured servitude, but in the end, justice was served, and it could all be arranged under the banner of Fifties' nostalgia, triggered by the likes of American Graffiti and symbolically depicted by a stock photo of a young John in Hamburg on the album sleeve.

One could imagine that getting totally wasted in mid-1970s L.A. in a company of equally crazed-out loonies would be a good setting for a retro rock'n'roll party, even one that you had to throw on somebody else's orders. The main problem, however, was that John hadn't really done proper rock'n'roll in ages — the last time the man let loose at full speed might have been a decade earlier, when the Beatles were still touring; and even back then, the man never felt completely comfor­table when emulating the likes of Gene Vincent or Larry Williams. In addition, having Phil Spector produce your record when aiming for something like All Things Must Pass is one thing, but when covering old time rockabilly... maybe not such a good idea, no matter how much personal adoration you have for walls of sound.

With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Rock'n'Roll rarely gets sufficient accolades even from those who do not regard John's solo career in the mid-1970s as a total failure. But on a personal level, I have always liked the record anyway. It may not be true «rock and roll» in form — too bombastic, too overproduced, and even too slow for that — but it is still very rock and roll in spirit, and while it is hard to imagine John enjoying being forced to do something like this, it is just as hard admitting that he did not have fun while recording it. Because it all sounds like fourty minutes of wasted, demented, over-the-top, glammy musical orgy — letting many more inches of hair down than, for instance, McCartney's similar experience with his Back In USSR.

This bigness of the sound does have to be embraced, though. There is no question that the pure raw energy and the ferocious vocal magic of Little Richard's ʽSlippin' And Slidin'ʼ could not be matched by this coked-out band of depraved rock stars. But that does not prevent the coked-out band of depraved rock stars from hitting the zone anyway — and when they all manage to sound in tune and keep the fire well-stoked, the result is a veritable tornado of sound that nobody in his right mind could resist (at least definitely not while inebriated). Likewise, ʽBe-Bop-A-Lulaʼ here takes the echoey essentials of Gene Vincent's rockabilly style and spinal-tappishly pushes them to eleven — the entire two minutes and thirty seconds are just one big sonic wobble, with the bass, piano, and vocals trembling like a camera with Parkinson's, and only the shrill guitar solo (Jesse Ed Davis? I am never sure about individual players here because there are so many of them in the credits) emerging from the quake with untampered precision. First time around, it's a mess. Give it a couple more spins, and it coalesces into a jello ball of insane energy — overdriven to excess, but still true to the spirit of the original. Fun!

The decision to slow down so much of the material was weird, almost as if John decided to take petty revenge on Chuck Berry by turning his fast dance numbers (ʽYou Can't Catch Meʼ and ʽSweet Little Sixteenʼ) into slow shuffling drags — let alone something like ʽDo You Want To Dance?ʼ, somewhat more of a ʽDo You Want To Limp?ʼ. But even these slow shuffling drags can be fascinating, if only for the novelty of the approach: I do not think that anybody else had ever tried this «slow 'em down while slapping on the wall-of-sound» approach before, and there is a strange shamanistic magic here as John slowly, but steadily, whips himself up into a raging screaming frenzy on both of the Berry numbers; by the end of ʽSweet Little Sixteenʼ, it is as if he is madly whipping himself against the steady and unnerving brass riff, loving and hating this material in masochistic rage. In the same way, he transforms Larry Williams' flimsy joke number ʽBony Moronieʼ into a bubbling witches' brew, screaming at the top of his lungs as if trying to break out of a padded cell — where they supposedly keep him away from being able to make love to her underneath that apple tree.

Arguably the most famous track from the album, largely because it was released as the lead single, is his take on Ben E. King's ʽStand By Meʼ — deservedly so, I believe, because it is the only track here that completely annihilates the original, elevating it from a pretty, but formulaic, one-out-of-many R&B ballad to the status of bombastic personal prayer. Production helps a lot (deep bass and earth-shaking brass tones create an almost lava-like atmosphere of rumbling tectonic plates), but mainly it is just the vocal performance, one of John's very finest from that decade and visibly much more personal here than on the other tracks, though his reading of the Sam Cooke / Buddy Holly ʽBring It On Home / Send Me Some Lovin'ʼ medley comes close — all having to do with staying out of reach of his one true love, I am sure.

In the end, Rock'n'Roll is a unique experience — a unique failure, some might insist, but then again, even a unique failure from John Lennon can be so much more fascinating than a set of triumphs from much lesser artists. These days, it certainly sounds dated, but it does not cease to sound unique — and, like Bob Dylan's Self Portrait, it somehow manages to convey a familiar, but different side of a great artist's personality through the prism of somebody else's work. Also, anybody who would like to check it out in a larger context should either buy the expanded new edition (with bonus tracks) or, rather, hunt down the archival release Menlove Ave., which we will get around to eventually: be warned, however, that this larger context will be more about John's love affair with Phil Spector than with Chuck Berry and Little Richard.


  1. Best wishes for 2019. Good to have you back.

  2. С Новым Годом and welcome back!

  3. Good to see you back George, and Happy New Year!

  4. Welcome back, George, and Happy New Year. I've never bee crazy about this album - the overproduction, the buried vocals when vocals are basically the whole point of the album - but as always, you put it in a thoughtful context. Looking forward to more.

  5. Hope you are good, and hoping to see more constant reviews

  6. Have always liked this album. I don’t think it’s all Spector though; didn’t the original sessions get abandoned having degenerated into a drunken mess, the album being completed some months later by the same team that were responsible for Walls & Bridges?

  7. With that lunatic on board all music is spector... love it!

  8. Great to have you back, George! And for anyone who's interested in further details on the litigation over You Can't Catch Me/Come Together, my article on the songwriting dispute between Berry and his piano man Johnnie Johnson ( delves into it in an extensive footnote (see p. 167 n.160). Relevance: You Can't Catch Me was one of the songs that Johnson claimed to have co-written.

  9. Glad you are back George! Happy New Year!

  10. Missed this! Good to see new reviews again.