“I’m not very good technically,” John Lennon once said about his guitar style, “but I can make it fuckin’ howl and move!” During the second half of his career – from the Beatles’ 1968 White Album to his final solo album in 1980 – John Lennon, sonic experimenter and self-described “primitive” lead player, recorded some of his most brilliant work.
Early in his career, Lennon was principally the Beatles’ rhythm guitarist and, for many fans, the band’s most compelling figure. He’d solidly plant his feet on the stage and flex his knees and bob his body in time with his strums. He occasionally played Chuck Berry-style leads, but gladly let George Harrison do most of the soloing onstage. In the studio, though, Lennon played many innovative guitar parts. Some standouts: the opening hook and unison parts with George in “I Feel Fine,” the rhythmic triplets in “All My Loving,” the solos in “You Can’t Do That” (his first solo on record) and the first solo in “Long Tall Sally.”
By 1968, the Beatles had abandoned touring and essentially become a studio band. On 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, the band had revolutionized rock and roll with an amazing rainbow palette of sounds produced with George Martin. Everyone anxiously awaited their next album.
Issued in November 1968, the sprawling, double-album known as “The Beatles” and the “White Album” gave listeners a sense of what each musician sounded like as a solo artist. Lennon contributed a pair of gorgeous ballads – the masterfully fingerpicked “Julia” and “Dear Prudence” – and played scorching electric guitar in his songs “Yer Blues” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” on which he soloed. Unlike anything he’d recorded, “Yer Blues” was powered with distorting Muddy Waters licks, tough-as-nails chords, and a heavily processed solo that just sounded other-worldly. The song shared its origins with countless blues tunes: “It was me up there reaching to God and feeling suicidal,” Lennon explained. His “Revolution” was a stinging, guitar-driven attack on would-be revolutionaries, and he played the heavy, heavy bass on “Helter Skelter.”
During their journey to India earlier in 1968, Lennon and McCartney had used Martin D-28 guitars to compose much of the White Album. In the studio, though, Lennon relied on the Gibson J-160E he’d had since 1964. In 1967, this guitar had been given a psychedelic paint job, but Lennon soon had it refinished back to its natural color. For his White Album electric guitar parts, John relied on the 335-shaped Epiphone Casino E230TD that had been his main guitar since the Revolver sessions. This guitar was originally a sunburst, but in 1968 Lennon had it sanded to a natural finish, which he said improved its tone. Fender had recently presented the Beatles with a sunburst Jazz Bass and a short-scale Bass VI with three pickups and a whammy. On “Back in the USSR,” Paul played drums and guitar, while John and George played these new Fender basses. The band relied on Fender amps for the White Album, using Twin Reverbs for the guitars.
In late 1968, Lennon teamed up with Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono to make the controversial Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins. The album’s cover featured nude photos of the couple, causing considerable controversy for store owners and for Lennon, who was still married to his first wife Cynthia. “My ex-wife was away in Italy, and Yoko came over to visit me and we took some acid,” Lennon recalled. “I was always shy with her, and she was shy, so instead of making love, we went upstairs and made tapes. I had this room full of different tapes where I would write and make strange loops and things like that for the Beatles’ stuff. So we made a tape all night. She was doing her funny voices and I was pushing all the buttons on my tape recorder and getting sound effects. And then as the sun rose we made love and that was Two Virgins. That was the first time.” In December 1968, John and Yoko, dressed as jester and witch, took part in the filming of the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus; Lennon played his Casino.
John’s next album with the Beatles, Yellow Submarine, was released in January 1969. While a substantial portion was soundtrack music, Lennon turned in hard-edged performance on “Hey Bulldog,” with its driving piano and fat-toned, raucous solo. “They wanted another song for the movie, so I knocked off ‘Hey Bulldog,’” Lennon recalled. “It’s a good-sounding record that means nothing.” The Beatles were soon in London’s cavernous Twickenham Film Studios working on the back-to-basics tracks that would eventually come out in 1970 as the Let It Be album. The sessions were fraught with tension, especially between McCartney and Harrison, and Yoko Ono was ever-present. This tension likely contributed to the visceral edge in John’s straight-ahead rockers “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” to which Lennon contributed the “Everybody Had a Hard Year” section. John had a low opinion of “Across the Universe,” claiming, “It’s a lousy track of a great song, and I was so disappointed by it. The guitars are out of tune and I’m singing out of tune because I’m psychologically destroyed and no one’s supporting me or helping me with it, and the song was never done properly.”
Lennon made a rare appearance playing slide on a Hofner 5140 Hawaiian Standard lap steel for “For You Blue,” a 12-bar blues written by Harrison and recorded in a single day. Lennon used the Fender Bass VI for the low-end chords on “Dig It,” and soloed on McCartney’s “Get Back.” Session photos show the band sitting around in a large circle, with Lennon playing his Epiphone Casino through a small Fender amp.
The six-week sessions were filmed for a television special. “It was hell making the Let It Be film,” Lennon said. “When it came out, a lot of people complained about Yoko looking miserable in it. But even the biggest Beatle fan couldn’t have sat through those six weeks of misery. It was the most miserable session on earth.” Lennon also insisted on releasing the record as-is, without studio gimmicks. As George Martin recalled, “John actually said to me: ‘I don’t want any of your production shit. We want this to be an honest album. I don’t want any editing, I don’t want any overdubbing. It’s got to be like it is.” The band capped the sessions in January with an impromptu performance atop the roof of Abbey Road studios, astonishing passersby. The rooftop version of “Dig a Pony,” with some editing and overdubs, was used on the album. Once again, Lennon used his Epiphone Casino through a Fender amp.
In March 1969 John Lennon became the first Beatle to perform in public without the band when he accompanied Yoko Ono at an avant-garde concert at Cambridge University. John’s howling feedback compositions were dismissed by jazz fans as being too non-jazzy, while rock fans felt he’d “sold out” his roots. John and Yoko fled to Paris and got married in Gibraltar. They spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam, staging a “Bed-In” for peace and recording Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions on a small cassette player. Like Two Virgins, this album was critically panned as being “unlistenable.”
Later in 1969, a surprised George Martin got a call from Paul McCartney asking if he’d be willing to help the Beatles make an album “the way we used to be.” The result was the immaculately produced Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded. “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” were among the heaviest tracks Lennon recorded. Lennon cited “Come Together,” featuring his sleazy blues rhythms and solo, as a personal favorite. “It was a funky record,” Lennon remembered in 1980. “It’s one of my favorite Beatle tracks – or one of my favorite Lennon tracks, let’s say that. It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it!” John used his Casino and D-28 for his final Beatles sessions. Paul, George, and John all took part in the round of guitar solos on the prophetically named “The End,” with Lennon playing the final solo. Lennon remembered, “Abbey Road was really unfinished songs all stuck together. Everybody praises the album so much, but none of the songs had anything to do with each other, no thread at all, only the fact that we stuck them together.” Within months of releasing Abbey Road, the Beatles had parted ways.
After the Beatles
Soon after the Abbey Roads sessions, John and Yoko staged another “Bed-In” in Toronto, recording the single “Give Peace a Chance” with others at the demonstration. John played the song’s chugging rhythm on his 1964 Gibson J-160E, into the face of which he’d scratched caricatures of himself and Yoko. The song became a hit, prompting the couple to assemble a real Plastic Ono Band for an important concert appearance at Toronto’s Rock and Roll Revival, which was released as the album Live Peace in Toronto 1969. The lineup – Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton (in his first post-Blind Faith appearance), Klaus Voorman on bass, and Alan White on drums – had only one rehearsal. “We’re just going to do numbers we know, you know,” John told the audience of 30,000, “because we’ve never played together before.” Yoko has just suffered a miscarriage, and Lennon’s performance was raw and primal. The musicians laid down a scrappy set of covers (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) and Lennon originals (a heavy “Yer Blues,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Give Peace a Chance) in a glorious garage band manner, much to the delight of the crowd packed into Varsity Stadium. Lennon played some of the solos. Less well received was Yoko’s “artful” caterwauling and wailing over bedrock rhythms and feedback on the tracks “Don’t Worry Kyoko” and “John John (Let’s Hope for Peace),” which took up a whole side the album. Lennon played the concert with his Epiphone Casino. While in Toronto, Lennon gave the Martin D-28 he’d used while writing the White Album to rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins, from whom it was later stolen.
Later that year, the Plastic Ono Band released its best-known single, the studio version of “Cold Turkey,” a rough, heavy song about drug withdrawl. Lennon and Eric Clapton played the song’s distorted rhythm bursts, after which Clapton departed to form Derek & The Dominos. In December, a revamped Plastic Ono Band featuring Clapton, George Harrison, and Who drummer Keith Moon played in London. John and Yoko also released the conceptual Wedding Album, featuring recordings of heartbeats from the Amsterdam sit-in.
Lennon began the 1970s surrounded by controversy. His London exhibitions of lithographs had been judged obscene, and he’d released a film of his penis. He also had moments of undeniable brilliance, such as when he wrote and recorded “Instant Karma” in a single day, setting the song to driving rhythm guitar and using Phil Spector as his producer. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney announced his decision to leave the Beatles, effectively ending the band, and John responded by taking primal scream therapy with Yoko. Amidst the chaos, Let It Be was released, with Phil Spector’s lush orchestral and choir overdubs dominating several tracks. In late 2003, a new remix of the album – without the Spector overdubs – was issued as Let It Be . . . Naked. The acoustic guitars on “For You Blue,” “Two of Us,” and “Across the Universe” are rich and full, and the electric guitars on “Get Back” and “Dig a Pony” are sharper than before.
In December 1970, Lennon issued his first “official” solo album, John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band. The stark, brutally honest songs ranged from the Bob Dylanesque folk of “Working Class Hero” and the “Julia”-like “Look at Me” to cathartic rock and rollers. Phil Spector had the wisdom to not frame the songs in his usual “wall of sound” production. Lennon played all of the album’s solos, turning in especially poignant performances with the reverb-drenched “Hold On” and bad-ass “I Found Out,” with its terrific scratch-rhythm buildup. Roots-simple and fat-toned, “Well Well Well” featured postwar-Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi blues licks and screaming vocals. This would be the last Lennon album to extensively feature his solos; on subsequent projects Lennon typically let other guitarists do the soloing.
During the early 1970s, John continued to rely on the Epiphone Casino and Gibson J-160 he’d used with the Beatles. He also played a yellow Gibson Les Paul Special with a Charlie Christian pickup installed in the neck position, as well as a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Special with a cherry-red finish. He still had most of his other Beatles guitars, including his 1958 Rickenbacker 325 Capri, 1964 Rickenbacker 325 Jetglo, and Rickenbacker 325 12-string with a non-vibrato tailpiece. By 1974 he was also playing a black Telecaster with a humbucker pickup, and his assistant, May Pang, had given him a Coral Electric Sitar. Throughout the 1970s, Lennon favored Fender amps, and kept a favorite blackface Deluxe in his apartment at the Dakota Hotel in New York City.
In the summer of 1971, Spector and The Plastic Ono Band recorded Lennon’s beloved Imagine album. Framed by piano, the title track showcased John’s wistful poetic beauty. “Oh Yoko” showed his considerable finesse with acoustic strumming, while “Crippled Inside” was framed in a rollicking skiffle arrangement. John’s crunching Jimmy Reed-style blues licks powered “It’s So Hard.” “How Do You Sleep?” was a scathing attack on Paul McCartney, who taken jabs at John in a song he’d written. George Harrison’s stunning slide solo reinforced the bitterness of Lennon’s lyrics. “It was like Dylan doing ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ one of his nasty songs,” Lennon recalled. “I was using my resentment towards Paul to create a song.” George Harrison played lead on about half the tracks, giving another terse slide performance in “It’s So Hard.”
In September 1971 John and Yoko moved to New York City, and Lennon would never see England again. The pair became increasingly involved in demonstrations and campaigns as John entered what’s become known as his “political phase.” His next album, Some Time In New York City, featured unabashed protest songs – “Angela Davis,” “Attica State,” and “John Sinclair,” which Lennon played bottleneck style on an open-tuned acoustic guitar. His electrified “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” tapped into the same deep bluesy vein as “Yer Blues” and “Revolution,” while “New York City” was a Chuck Berry-influenced hard rocker.
On August 30, 1972, the Plastic Ono Elephants Memory Band – Lennon, Ono, drummer Jim Keltner, and a group of lesser-known musicians – played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden. Lennon laid down the rhythm on his Gibson Les Paul Special, while Wayne “Tex” Gabriel played lead guitar. (Fourteen years later, Capitol released the set as John Lennon’s Live in New York City album.) In November 1972, John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band released the single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” with a large choir soaring above John’s acoustic strums; the song has become a perennial Christmas favorite.
Lennon changed direction for 1973’s Mind Games, which had a slick production sheen and featured studio guitarist David Spinozza and pedal steeler Sneaky Pete Kleinow. “Out of the Blue” framed another classic Lennon fingerpicking display. Lennon displayed his raunchy rock and roll edge on “Meat City” and “Tight A$,” but today the album is remembered mostly for its Phil Spectoresque title track. Around this time, Lennon acquired a Hofner Club 50 Model, which he gave to his son Julian the following year.
In 1974, Lennon separated from Yoko and moved to California to share lodgings with Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and Keith Moon. Lennon referred to this period as his “lost weekend.” He appeared on Nilsson’s dark, intense Pussy Cats album, covering Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Lennon then went to work with Phil Spector on an album of rock and roll covers, which he was contractually obligated to do. Lennon was in terrible shape at this time. Frightening reports circulated of drunken fights in the studio, guns being fired, and John falling into an alcoholic haze. The sessions ended when Spector barricaded himself in his mansion and refused to turn over the tapes.
Lennon pulled it together for his next project, his solo album Walls and Bridges. “Going Down on Love” had moments of brilliance when Lennon’s guitar echoed his voice, but was mostly set to an overblown arrangement, a fate shared by most of the album. The flatpicked underpinning of “Steel and Glass” was among Lennon’s more effective acoustic guitar performances. The album’s solos, notably the brilliant performances on “Scared,” “Bless You,” and “Old Dirt Road,” were played with great skill by teenage guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who’d played lead and slide guitar with Taj Mahal. Elton John came in for a duet on the disco-y “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” Lennon promised Elton that he’d share a stage with him if the song made it to #1. When the song became John Lennon’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, he made good on his promise, appearing with Elton John at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974. Lennon played his black Telecaster at what was to be his last public performance. Yoko Ono was in the audience, the couple reconciled, and Lennon soon moved back in with his wife.
Once again sober and confident, Lennon retrieved the Rock ‘n’ Roll tapes from Spector. “I was presented with a hundred million hours’ worth of these mad Phil Spector tapes where I’d been drunk performing,” Lennon recalled in 1980, “and I salvaged that album, re-sang a lot of it, tried to remix down forty guys all playing out of tune because nobody was in control. And I quickly knocked off about five or six more tracks with a different group in New York that I’d been working with on Walls and Bridges. So the last five or six tracks – which sound completely different if you ever check the album out – were all done in about four days, you know. Two a night, like ‘Peggy Sue’ and others I really knew backwards. It was the worst time of my life, that record!” Jesse Ed Davis played on most tracks – delivering a spectacular slide solo in “Stand By Me” – and Steve Cropper and Jose Feliciano also guested. (For more on Davis: Jesse Ed Davis: “I Just Play the Notes That Sound Good.)
When Yoko Ono announced her pregnancy, plans for further albums were shelved. The birth of Sean Lennon in October 1975 prompted his father to take five years off from music to stay home to raise his son. A Lennon collection called Shaved Fish was released, but nothing could compel Lennon to return to music. When Paul McCartney turned up at the Dakota with guitar in hand, Lennon turned him away, explaining that he had a child to take care of. In 1979, John presented his son Julian with his Gibson 25/50 Anniversary Les Paul guitar.
In 1980 John ended his hiatus to record for David Geffen’s newly formed label. The resulting album, Double Fantasy, featured songs written individually by Lennon and Ono. With its easy strums, slap echo, and rockabilly-influenced vocals, the appropriately named “(Just Like) Starting Over” reached the Top 10. New York studio veterans Earl Slick and Hugh McCracken contributed many of the album’s guitar tracks. Session photos show Lennon playing a white Hamer Rick Nielsen solidbody with two humbuckers; this was given to him by Cheap Trick’s Nielsen, who also played on the record. Lennon was photographed for Rolling Stone magazine playing a cherry-red Stratocaster-style guitar with a rosewood fingerboard; perhaps this was the Roger Sadowsky custom guitar he was reported to have played on “Starting Over.” For “I’m Stepping Out” and Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice,” Lennon pulled out the long-retired 1958 Rickenbacker Capri that he’d used with the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Believed to be the last track Lennon recorded, “Walking on Thin Ice” shows his self-described “primitive” lead playing at its best, a fitting finale for an unsurpassed career.
Lennon, inspired and optimistic, began planning a follow-up album to be called Milk and Honey. Tragically, he was murdered by a deranged fan on December 8, 1980, outside his New York apartment. In his hand, Lennon held a tape of “Walking on Thin Ice.” As the world mourned, “Woman,” John’s tribute to his wife Yoko, and “Watching the Wheels” became hits. To this day, John Lennon remains as much beloved for what he stood for as for the songs he wrote and sang.
What happened to John Lennon’s guitars? Last I heard, his 1964 Rickenbacker 325 Jetglo and Epiphone Casino are owned by the Lennon estate and have been on display in the John Lennon Museum in Japan. His 1958 Rickenbacker Capri is owned by his son Sean. Lennon gave his 1964 Rickenbacker 325 to Ringo Starr. His 1964 Rickenbacker 325-12 is owned by the Lennon estate and has, along with the Hamer, been displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Lennon’s 1964 Gibson J-160 E, on which he’d written many of his most famous songs, belongs to the Lennon estate.
For John Lennon’s insights into how many of his songs were created, I highly recommend David Sheff’s outstanding 1981 book, The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono.
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© 2013 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.