Squeezing a Lennon

A new boxed set tries to wring every last drop from the music of the late moptop.

Musically, most of Anthology's meat can be found on the first CD. None of the versions of songs that ultimately turned up on Plastic Ono Band outstrip those that made the final cut, but they're so naked and emotional that listeners probably won't mind. "I Found Out," heard on a home recording, is drenched in hoodoo reverb that echoes with danger; "Isolation" is delivered with poignant gentleness; and "Remember" practically collapses at its midpoint, when Lennon starts guffawing about the saminess of its rhythm. The Imagine tunes are somewhat less intriguing by comparison--with the exception of a surprisingly slinky "How Do You Sleep?" (Lennon's attack on old buddy Paul McCartney)--and oddities such as "God Save Oz" and "Do the Oz" don't add up to much. But of the four discs here, this first one provides the most pure sonic pleasure.

It's all downhill from there, and while the decline isn't precipitous, it's impossible to ignore. The second CD pulls together music from Lennon's political period, and it dates badly. "Attica State," about the infamous prison riots, is dragged down by lyrics that are numbing in their obviousness ("Join the movement/Take a stand for human rights"), and "Bring on the Lucie," "Luck of the Irish" and "John Sinclair" suffer from the same malady. "I'm the Greatest" and "Goodnight Vienna," two tunes Lennon wrote for Ringo Starr, are more tolerable because they sound lighthearted and off-the-cuff, but remainders left off the 1973 Mind Games album feel watered-down, tentative--a quality they share with the sloughed-off "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" that appears near the top of the third disc. Fortunately, outtakes from Rock 'n' Roll, a collection of throwbacks that hit stores in 1975, have more juice in them. Lennon at least sounds like he's having fun during "Be Bop a Lula," "Rip It Up/Ready Teddy" and "Move Over Ms. L," and he gets off his best joke on a parody of "Yesterday." In a BBC announcer's voice, he intones, "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be/'Cause now I'm an amputee."

The last of the set's discs is culled primarily from the sessions for 1980's Double Fantasy, a John-and-Yoko collaboration released shortly before Lennon was shot. At the time, grief-stricken rock aficionados dubbed it a classic, which was understandable but unjustified: Ono's songs on it are better than usual, but that doesn't mean they're all that good, and Lennon's compositions generally settle for merely pleasant when he was plainly capable of so much more. That said, full-band run-throughs of "Nobody Told Me" and "I Don't Wanna Face It" are lively, "I'm Losing You," featuring three members of Cheap Trick doing what they do best, has its fiery moments, and "Beautiful Boy" is as sweet as it ever was. Too bad these entries are surrounded by inconsequential demos of "Life Begins at 40," "Woman" and "Watching the Wheels," as well an overdose of curios that belong in a trunk in Ono's attic.

Would Lennon have given his blessing to the merchandising of such detritus under his name? Hard to say. From all available evidence, he loved Ono unreservedly and might well feel that her stated reasons for putting it into a box and selling it for around $60 a pop are excellent ones. But anyone who wants to revel in Lennon's musical accomplishments would be far better off spending the same amount of money to purchase copies of Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (aka The White Album) and, yes, Plastic Ono Band. As for those of you hoping to get your paws on Lennon's answering-machine messages, you'll just have to wait for Anthology 2.

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