Oct 092020

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

John Lennon (of the Beatles, the Quarrymen, the Dirty Mac, and the Plastic Ono Band, among others) was born on this day. He shares the birthday, oddly enough, with his youngest son, Sean. (Happy 45th, Sean!)

One way to celebrate the day is to sing the Beatles’ “Birthday” song (keeping in mind that Lennon considered the song, which he co-wrote, “a piece of garbage”). Another is to listen to his music with renewed appreciation. If we do that, we’re gonna have a good time, just like the song says.

John would be turning 80 today, an auspicious number: He lived for 40 years, and has been gone for 40 years (as of December). Forty years here, forty years gone: those are Biblical numbers. And how funny that this 40/40 business should happen in the year 2020.

John loved numbers and numerology, so it’s ok to fixate on this stuff for a minute. The number nine in particular held Lennon’s interest, the day of the month he was born on. Some of his song titles allude to the obsession: “One After 909,” “Revolution 9,” “#9 Dream” (which reached #9 on the charts). So guess how many covers we’ve lined up today?

No band has inspired more covers than the Beatles, but to uncover nine of the best Lennon covers was no easy feat. There are exactly 909 covers that qualify as “best,” so what we have collected here is only a sampler, touching on several different genres and generations of musicians.

I’m always proud and pleased when people do my songs. It gives me pleasure that they even attempt them, because a lot of my songs aren’t that doable. I go to restaurants and the groups always play “Yesterday.” I even signed a guy’s violin in Spain after he played us “Yesterday.” He couldn’t understand that I didn’t write the song. But I guess he couldn’t have gone from table to table playing “I Am the Walrus.” — John Lennon, from the 1980 Playboy interview

Within 10 years of signing a recording contract, John became one of the most successful and beloved musical artists of the 20th century. It’s no exaggeration to say his songs changed the course of music itself–and not just popular music, but countless forms of music across the globe. Pretty good for a guy who started out as a cover artist.

Lennon absorbed the best American music that he and his teenaged mates could get in economically-depressed Northern England. (It’s no coincidence that the owner of John’s favorite local record shop—where he used to listen to the latest singles without buying them—became his band’s manager and “the Fifth Beatle.”) Chuck Berry was Lennon’s favorite artist to revamp (all told, the Beatles covered around ten Chuck Berry numbers). John was also fond of soul artists like Arthur Alexander, and hillbillies from Carl Perkins to Elvis Presley. He loved covering songs in the vocal harmony group tradition, including those by so-called girl groups–a surprising choice for an insecure, leather-jacketed, wanna-be tough guy.

Let’s just cue the music right there, with Lennon channeling mid-century American rhythm and blues music as only he could.

John Lennon (with Yoko Ono and Frank Zappa)–Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) (The Olympics cover)

Trigger warning: Yoko haters, just skip this live version, and go listen to the uninspired but Yoko-free studio version. In this performance, Yoko is pretty much at peak Ono, and you cannot handle it.

One night in June, 1971, Frank Zappa puts on a show in New York City, and for the encore he brings out John and Yoko. They dive unrehearsed into a blues, a fairly obscure song by The Olympics. According to Lennon’s spoken intro to the song, the Beatles used to play this in their pre-fame Cavern Club period (1960-1962). Lennon’s further remark, that he hadn’t performed it since the Cavern days, is incorrect—studio versions of the song exist from the Imagine sessions earlier in ’71.

If you could never get enough of “Yer Blues” from the White Album, this song has that kind of vibe, so enjoy. Don’t miss Zappa calling audibles to the band, and attempting to conduct the ensemble toward the end of this madness.

Franz Ferdinand–It Won’t Be Long (Beatles cover)

This song may not be one of Lennon’s best efforts from the early Beatlemania period, but at that stage Lennon on an off day was still great. (Even Paul McCartney struggled to get material onto the Beatles’ albums in those days—Lennon just had the hot hand.) Curiously, the Beatles never played this song live; we’ll settle for this live treatment from Franz Ferdinand.

Don’t you think that if the folks at Google deployed their best neural networks and machine-learning experts to merge all videos of all U.K. bands from 1964 to 2004 into one deep fake video, you’d end up with something resembling this video? You can detect The Beatles, The Who, The Jam, maybe Roxy Music, Blur, and other suspects. (I guess another way to say this is that even in the early Beatles you have the seeds of what music would flower into decades later.)

Shawn Colvin with Mary Chapin Carpenter–I’ll Be Back (Beatles cover)

“I’ll Be Back,” from A Hard Day’s Night, is a surprisingly complicated Lennon song from the early period, and it points to where he’d go next—toward a more confessional mode of lyric writing.

Shawn Colvin, for her part, has an uncanny gift for tilting a song on its axis just enough to make a difference; she makes familiar songs audible in a new way. (Her all-covers project, Cover Girls, is a standout.) On “I’ll Be Back,” Colvin’s finger-picking is in contrast to the certitude and solidity of Lennon’s strumming on the original; her exotic chord voicings create a tentative, haunted mood. The harmony vocal from Mary Chapin Carpenter is the perfect complement to Colvin’s melody line.

You can find Colvin’s studio recording of “I’ll Be Back” on her greatest hits album, Polaroids.

Makaya McCraven–Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (Beatles cover)

Now we skip to Lennon’s psychedelic period, and his kaleidoscopic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Acronymically speaking, the song title references lysergic acid, though Lennon said this was purely coincidental. In that spirit, we offer up one of the trippier covers of the song–trippier than William Shatner’s version, if that’s even possible.

This rendition is from a 2018 jazz collection, A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper. The guiding force here is “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven. McCraven’s web site puts it better than we could: “The cutting edge drummer, producer, and sonic collagist is a multi-talented force whose inventive process & intuitive style of performance defy categorization.” That phrase “sonic collagist” is a tag that could apply to Lennon circa 1966-68. McCraven was born some years after Lennon’s death, but transcendent music played with skill and imagination brings the artists together.

Side note: Elton John covered “Lucy” in 1974 (with Lennon’s help), and the recording reached #1 on the Billboard charts—the only Beatles cover to achieve this. Lennon’s last public show was an appearance with Elton at Madison Square Garden. They played “Lucy.” And last song Lennon played in public, joined by Elton, was Paul McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There.” (Lennon had co-write credit, but all actual credit goes to McCartney, by all accounts.) Further: That night with Elton was something of a reunion for John and Yoko (after an 18-month separation). The following year saw the birth of Sean Lennon. Sean’s godfather: Elton John.

Marcia Griffiths–Don’t Let Me Down (Beatles cover)

This is a Lennon gem that fell through the cracks a little bit. Producer Phil Spector cut it from the Let it Be album, even though the band played the song twice during the rooftop concert that capped off the whole project–one of many regrettable decisions Spector made. Anyway, given the song’s relative lack of visibility, it’s surprising that reggae artist Marcia Griffiths covered it in 1969. That’s the same year the original came out, as the B side to the “Get Back” single. Reggae itself was still fairly new in ’69—maybe this helps to explain why Griffiths’ rendition feels so fresh over 50 years later.

If you aren’t a fan of the reggae, or even if you are, have a listen to an isolation track of Billie Preston’s electric piano from on the original. What a gift he had. No wonder Lennon wanted him to join the band.

David Grisman Quintet–Because (Beatles cover)

“Because” was the last song the Beatles recorded for Abbey Road, their final album. John’s inspiration: listening to Yoko playing a Beethoven sonata. The chord progression is cool, but the song’s heart has to be the intensely beautiful vocal harmonies by John, Paul, and George. Let’s see: three Beatles singing, each vocal overdubbed twice, that’s… 9-part harmony vocals! But that’s not due to Lennon’s fixation on the number nine. Or is it?

In mandolinist David Grisman’s arrangement, two (or three?) mandolins replace the vocals–that’s at least 16 mandolin strings in all. The treatment is so delicately majestic you never miss the voices (or the Moog synthesizer, or the harpsichord). The mandolin says “bluegrass” to most people, but there’s nothing remotely Americana in this rendition. An exquisite take on the song.

Bill Frisell–Mother (John Lennon cover)

The mercurial Bill Frisell released a full-album tribute to John Lennon in 2011, All We Are Saying. While Frisell can be as confrontational and strange as any artist, his Lennon reworkings felt pretty tame—mainly he took on Lennon’s gentler material in a dreamy and peaceful spirit. We’re all for giving peace a chance, of course, but it was the guitarist’s raucous take on “Mother”–Lennon’s most anguished song–that felt like the truest homage to John. The son was recorded in 1970, when the ex-Beatle was fresh from primal scream therapy sessions (and probably still reeling from his band’s acrimonious break up). Indeed, by the song’s end the ex-Beatle is literally screaming in desperation—hard to sing, harder to listen to.

Frisell strips his quintet band down to a power trio for this one, and nudges up the intensity with each iteration of the verse. As the drum kit takes a harder and harder beating, and the bass becomes gradually more thunderous, Frisell’s guitar screams out with Lennon’s demand, “mama don’t go, daddy come home” over and over and over. The cover is not exactly primal in its energy, but it is crushing enough and delivers soulfully.

Patti Smith with Tony Shanahan–Oh Yoko! (John Lennon cover)

“Oh Yoko!” is a highlight on the Imagine album (1971), but it dates back to the time the Beatles spent in India. It’s of the same vintage as popular White Album tracks like “Dear Prudence” and “Julia”—Lennon at his sweetest. His ode to Yoko is a simple song, a swinging feel-good number worth hearing more of. Maybe it has been relegated to the margins by the anti-Yoko thing that many Beatle fans feel. Yoko’s friend and collaborator Patti Smith brings the song out to center stage, after giving praise to Ono as a role model.

BTW: Has any living person inspired as many great songs as Yoko Ono? (You might have to count “Rock Lobster” as one of the songs she inspired.)

R.E.M.–#9 Dream (John Lennon cover)

The members of R.E.M. named their band after the dreaming stage of sleep (though apparently Michael Stipe disputes this). So, they are a good choice to redo Lennon’s 1974 hit, which came to him in a dream. Thus the song title, and thus the gobbledygook lyrics of the chorus.

Lennon loved and had a great knack for nonsense. As a writer, Lennon belongs in the same lineage that includes Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Goo goo g’joob. For certain writers, the musicality of language is an end in itself, and words don’t have to mean a thing.

R.E.M.’s lyricist and singer Michael Stipe also had a facility with wordplay and nonsense. (He also had as a fascination with the number nine. Consider R.E.M.’s debut release Murmur, which has a song titled “9-9” as record’s 9th track.) But R.E.M.’s cover of #9 Dream is a solid, no-nonsense rendition of the song. No one can sing as dreamily as Lennon, but Stipe’s voice has its charms too. If he misses a note here and there on this version, it’s not the end of the world as we know it. (Ok, if it annoys you that much, go listen to A-ha’s very fine take on it.)

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  One Response to “In Memoriam: John Lennon at 80”

Comments (1)
  1. Old guy time: I recall getting a 45 with the Elton/John MSG songs in some other Elton album -Caribou or Rock of the Westies, or something. Also, the Shawn Colvin studio version has some stunning guitar work. Very dark, and very moody.

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