John Lennon: Wonsaponatime
The Beatle they called the brainy one knew what he was talking about. Although in life Lennon once had the audacity to accurately state that the Beatles were a bigger influence on the youth of the day than organized religion, he also was acutely aware that death magnified the smallest of lives and gave a meaning to even the most insignificant of scribbles or scratches - a meaning that the dead themselves had no way of denouncing or contradicting. The martyring of John Lennon on a cold New York December evening some eighteen years ago, would have truly sickened the man who wanted nothing more than to be known for his own thoughts and actions, however conflicted they were, not for the one act of insanity spawned by the twisted fantasy of an insignificant yet malevolent insect.
Given the release of six CDs worth of unreleased and alternate-take Beatles' material on the Anthology series, it is not surprising that enterprising executive producer, Yoko Ono, could scrounge up four discs worth of John Lennon noodlings and curiosities for a deluxe box set. What is surprising is that the one disc of selected highlights, presented by Capitol Records under the playful moniker, Wonsaponatime, a compilation of what must, in their knowledgeable executive minds, pass for the best of the lot, lands on the listener with such a complete and annoying thud. In Yoko's hoard, we find twenty-one outtakes, alternates, works-in-progress, and meaningless snippets that vary in length from a few seconds to eternities of agony! Please understand before you read any further: this critic is an unabashed Beatles fan, and, in particular, a John Lennon admirer; as such, the news of this compilation was very exciting.
The material may be split readily into two categories, namely the unreleased tracks, and the larger grouping of been-there-heard-that-bought-the-original stuff! The unreleased material includes John And Yoko singing A Kiss Is Just A Kiss, a musical triviality about which the only good thing that may be said is that it is only twelve seconds long and disappears just before the unprepared listener can slam a finger down on the skip button! Also in this category of sheer self-indulgence (Ono-ism, if you will), is Sean's in the Sky - a ninety-second father/son chat that loses its charm after slightly less than one listen. All is not lost in this genre. Once the listener escapes the pointless sound-check God Save Oz, a mediocre little piano and saxophone riff with pointless lyrics, we discover two mildly interesting selections, and two that are of more than passing interest. Baby Please Don¹t Go was recorded during the Imagine sessions, but did not survive the final cut, and would have been largely out of place on that fine opus. It is a rough-hewn, angry, pleading number, driven by a choppy guitar and a standard saxophone coda with unspectacular but enthusiastic vocals; it would be more appropriate on the Rock'n'Roll album, although it would have been one of the lesser lights of that stellar collection. Also of interest is a song written by Lennon for Ringo Starr, Only You; this entry contains the exact instrumentation as is found on Starr¹s version, but with a guide vocal by Lennon. Again, not the strongest of Lennon's material, but then, if you were John, would you give your best songs to Ringo?
Of supreme interest, and by far the most entertaining cut on the CD, is Serve Yourself, Lennon's coarsely unrelenting attack on Bob Dylan's religious phase. A working-class vocal, replete with Liverpudlian slang, broad puns, and wry commentary, spits and roars around a frantically strummed guitar as Lennon plays with words and ideas. The quiet little chuckle at the end reminds the listener not to take things too seriously. The song, as presented here, is stunning in its simplicity; a stark, yet heartfelt lyric is accompanied by a piano track, the combination producing one of Lennon's tender moments that reveal the romantically poetic nature that he often tried to downplay. This track became the foundation of what was called a new Beatles song, augmented by that famous harmonizing we all know so well. This critic much prefers the unadorned Lennon version.
The alternate versions of more familiar material offer largely what one would expect from this sort of presentation. A rough version of I'm Losing You offers nothing more than the unpolished sound of a work in progress. True, the song does sound angrier than the remorseful version that made it on to Double Fantasy; but, like so many of the inclusions on this compilation, it only increases the listener's desire to rush off to the original recordings and relish their sincerity. Working Class Hero is just a bit faster than the original. God waltzes along adequately, not yet having accumulated the anger and power that cause the final version to sting and soar; nor has Lennon worked out the ending that strikes a stunning contrast to the first segment of the song. How Do You Sleep, John's slagging of Paul McCartney¹s commercialism, is as angry as the original, and does contain a few variant guitar licks, but is ultimately unnecessary, given the flawless production of the cut on Imagine. Imagine (the song, that is) is presented in its first-take form. Here, it is a little ballad without the strings and layers that lift it to anthem-like levels in its more familiar rendition.
My catalogue ends here, knowing that the discerning readers, unlike the producers, actually get the picture. So run, my children! Run like the wind to your nearest music emporium, or to your own collection, and listen to the originals. That is what God, and John Lennon intended.
A final thought: Denis Leary, comedian extraordinaire, once noted that the unfairness of life could be demonstrated by the fact that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were standing side by side when he was murdered, yet he took eight shots while she emerged unharmed. Wonsaponatime renders this observation less humorous, more thought provoking.
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