“Boy, he sure does cover a lot of Beatles-related stuff in this blog.” – Yes, I Do
JOHN & YOKO got together in the late ’60s when they were still John Lennon, one of The Beatles, and Yoko Ono, fairly obscure avant garde artist. The kindred spirits not only made love together, but art and music, too. At the time they made 1972’s Sometime in New York City with their Plastic Ono Band the music and other aural delicacies they’d created were quite often looked upon as liberal rubbish. Sometime, though, was the first time they put out a record of actual songs and music under both of their names – so they were really laying it out on the line. Of course Lennon didn’t have a lot to lose; he was, after all, still considered a Beatle. Yoko, as we all know, willingly lured Lennon into a life of aural degradation (ahem) and broke-up her husband’s band, so she also had little to worry about as she was already the lowest of the low! Forty-five years ago today he and his wife committed this double album to wax (and 8-track tape) and let the dice fall where they may.
To call Sometime in New York City a political album would be putting it mildly. Nine of the ten songs that make up record one (the second is comprised of live cuts) are political in one way or another, whether it’s “John Sinclair” or “Angela” (about Sinclair and Davis, both who had been jailed [separately] for very minor offenses), or the main, lead off track, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” The fact that Lennon & Ono chose it as the album’s only single shows that they must have been ready to tackle all comers and (naturally, considering the title) go to lengths to defend its title and what it was actually about. And, not surprisingly given its name, the single pretty much tanked. (Released on 45 in the US, it made it only to number 57.) Not a bad song at all, “Woman…” catalogs some of the many crappy ways women are treated (“we make her paint her face and dance…/We insult her every day on TV and wonder why she has no guts or confidence”) and is one of Lennon’s most fully realized political messages. You might argue that its title is over the top, and by today’s standards it’s definitely politically incorrect, but you can’t argue that the song’s point isn’t clear. Other songs on the LP tackle “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “The Luck of the Irish” (both concerning then current events in Ireland), “Attica State” (about a prison riot and how the authorities poorly handled it) and a few other topics. Only “New York City” lets up on the polemics, coming at the end of side one and a nice 12-bar blues breather before getting back to business on the other side of the record.
As noted above, Sometime features both John and Yoko songs, and indeed, Ms. Ono sings lead on half of the studio tracks. This may be the one time before 1980’s Double Fantasy that Yoko’s singing isn’t difficult listening. In fact, her songs here are as pop as she ever got, even considering “Kiss Kiss Kiss” or 1981’s “Walking on Thin Ice.” Seriously, if you think all she was capable of was caterwauling you’re wrong. I’m not saying that her vocalizing isn’t an acquired taste to most of us, just that if ever there was an argument against the standard that ain’t singing, that’s noise line, this album is it.
Hampered somewhat by its mixes, the Lennon and Phil Spector-produced studio part of the album is a fairly murky presentation of John & Yoko’s latest. The second record, internally called Live Jam, sounds much better. It was recorded in concert in London, 1969 and at NYC’s Fillmore East in ’71 on a bill with Frank Zappa & The Mothers (that set resulting in The Mothers’ acclaimed Fillmore East – June 1971). A few of the songs here are of Lennon & Co. and Zappa & Co. together jamming (as we used to call it) on some blues and other concoctions.** In 2005 Yoko Ono oversaw a remix of the studio cuts and most of the live tracks for a single CD reissue, ending up with a much clearer, more palatable mix of the album. (She had all of Lennon’s albums remixed in that decade and they’re worth checking out if you don’t find the exercise completely sacrilegious.) While its not necessarily how Lennon would have wanted us to hear it, this version of Sometime in New York City does give new life to his and his wife’s early Seventies co-billed creation.
3/5 (Apple SVBB 3392 [2LP, 1972]; Capitol CDP 0946 3 40976 2 8 [CD, 2005])
* Full original credit: John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with Elephants Memory and Invisible Strings [sic]. ** Frank reissued these cuts in a more Zappa-centric mix on an early 1990s compilation called Playground Psychotics.
I spent a few weeks trying to get my head around this album awhile back. I’d never bought it as a kid because it was a double and pretty pricy. You’re quite generous with 3/5. While I actually enjoy the deranged mania of the live sides the studio sides are so heavy handed. However, the worst sin is the songs are boring and mostly suck. As a protest album I am sure it seemed anachronistic even when it was released and as a set of songs by one of the greatest ever that were meant to be enjoyed it stunk up the place.
Thanks for your thoughts Billhartnett. Yes, a 3/5 is probably being kind. But I was feeling generous. And “New York City” is one of my top Lennon tracks.