Gun or I Am The Walrus, they were good enough to suggest that, once he had worked himself back into the groove, there would be better to come.
A new version of the album is among the latest set of reissues, stripped back to the original basic rhythm tracks and unadorned vocals and making it even more apparent that with these last songs, including (Just Like) Starting Over, Watching The Wheels, I’m Losing You and Woman, he was consciously harking back to the music he loved in his early teenage years.
Rockabilly and doowop provide the sturdy structures, with a nod to the skiffle of the Quarrymen as he sings “Long, long lost John” over the fade of I’m Losing You, in a deliberate echo of Lonnie Donegan’s version of a song borrowed from Woody Guthrie.
Now, too, we can hear him prefacing (Just Like) Starting Over with: “This one’s for Gene and Eddie and Elvis ... and Buddy!” This was Lennon excavating his roots and he might have carried on with that for a while. He would certainly have admired the way some of his contemporaries make new music while retaining the integrity of the sounds that first inspired them. The chances are, however, that – after effectively missing out on punk and the new wave, which happened during his voluntary engagement with house-husbandry while Yoko worked at consolidating their fortune – he would have found a way to engage with more innovative sounds, rather than settling for the kind of traditional AOR textures that were added in the final stages of the production of Double Fantasy.
His views on Auto-Tuning would have been interesting. Jack Douglas, the producer of Double Fantasy, in which John’s songs were alternated with Yoko’s, remembered barring them from each other’s sessions, not least because John was unable to restrain himself from pointing out when Yoko was singing flat. But he was a big fan of something called ADT – automatic double tracking – a device which split a singer’s voice in two to create the sort of effect that distinguished many pop records in the late 1950s and early 60s.
If it made him sound like the records he admired, it was OK.
Tones of nostalgia
(clockwise from top left) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison in 1967.
He had been away from England for almost a decade when he died and visitors from the old country were often regaled with his yearning for Chocolate Olivers. London certainly missed him. As long as the Beatles were headquartered at 3 Savile Row, with its parade of bizarre hangers-on, the city seemed to have a centre of vibrancy and an unfailing source of headlines. New York turned out to be a better place to live, but he had been bruised by the battle to obtain his residency permit and by the discovery that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had been watching him as a result of his association with the Yippies and the Black Panthers.
The brief flowering of a well-meaning but incoherent political consciousness seemed to have gone dormant in the last phase of his life; he had become suspicious of those who arrived proclaiming high ideals but wanted only to exploit his celebrity and perhaps grab some of his loot.
According to his most recent biographer, Philip Norman, his 40th birthday found him growing “increasingly nostalgic about his homeland, pining for British institutions and values he had so angrily spurned”.
There was talk of returning on the QE2 for a voyage that would end with the ship docking in the Mersey. He even speculated that he and Yoko would spend their later years, after Sean had left home, living among the artists in St Ives. Perhaps he would have resumed the engagement with art that began at Liverpool College of Art in 1957, or found time to explore once again the love of surrealistic wordplay that crackled through In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works.
Drawn to strong characters
No doubt, some version of those notional events would have taken place. If all other lures had failed, the death in 1991 of his Aunt Mimi – the loving but stern Mimi Smith, his mother’s sister, who brought him up from childhood through adolescence – would have drawn him to Poole in Dorset, where she lived out her last years in a bungalow paid for by a nephew who adored her despite that celebrated early warning: “Music’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living from it.” Perhaps it was the formative supervision of the disciplinarian Mimi that gave him the habit of putting his trust, not always wisely, in strong, selfassured characters: Yoko, Spector, and the New York hustler Allen Klein, whom he brought in after Brian Epstein’s death to sort out the Beatles’ affairs, to McCartney’s disgust.
And then there was George Harrison’s death in 2001. Lennon and McCartney eventually settled their differences, major and minor, but as long as the four of them were still alive John always stood in the way of what he believed would have been the inevitable anticlimax of a public get-together with Paul, George and Ringo, even when implored by Kurt Waldheim, the secretarygeneral of the United Nations, to perform at a fundraiser for the survivors of the Cambodian genocide.
Loyalty to Yoko surely played a part in turning him against a project that would inevitably have reminded his audience of how much they missed the old relationships between the four musicians, before the arrival of powerful women pulled the two principal figures into a new phase of their lives from which retreat became impossible. Whatever else the future might have held, there would have been no Beatles reunion. – Guardian News & Media 2010 n John Lennon’s Signature box-set is released by Warner Music Malaysia.