Monday, March 31, 2008

In Defense Of Phil Spector, John Lennon and Saxophones

Like most of his British contemporaries, John Lennon was a jazzer and blueser down to the soles of his Cuban-heel boots.

It took me four years to break down and buy the reissued CD of his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll. I can't imagine what I could have been thinking in waiting so long. The fact that Yoko had a hand in its production is daunting, and the trash-talking about Phil Spector's pistol-waving bravado and Rasputin-like production approach, Lennon's contractual obligations, May Pang's treachery, night club binges with Harry Nilsson, etc., etc., etc. goes on and on, but all that is a lot of distracting, unnecessary noise. Shockingly enough, the remix is wonderfully done, and Phil Spector's statement that Lennon had the perfect rock and roll voice is vindicated, again. Various critics have bitched and moaned about how the guitars and drums have been mixed up (or down) in the re-mastering and the saxophones and keys have been mixed down (or up), but I'm telling you, from one who was a fanatical fan of this album from its original release on vinyl and cassette, this is the shit. This isn't rock and roll, blues or jazz, it is simply great music, the tunes the Beatles were covering early on in Hamburg and which John Lennon loved so much he once commented that they had done their best work by the time they left Germany. If you've ever danced with someone you love, these tunes will make you want to get up and dance again. Ben E. King's version of the Lieber and Stoller tune "Stand By Me" may have captured the imaginations of a few million Stephen King fans, but for the rest of us, John Lennon is still The King. Like it or not, his rendition has become the definitive version. The same could be said for many of the rest of the tracks on this recording. Lennon knew from Joe Cocker's version of "With A Little Help From My Friends" what the shoe felt like on the other foot, too, so when his version of "Stand By Me" became a radio hit, he appreciated the irony. His versions of these classics work as well as they do because he so dearly loved the original versions (N.B., his only personal comment anywhere in the liner notes comes at the end of the album's production credits, when he writes: "YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE"). I promise you, as good as Buddy Holly is on his own version of "Peggy Sue", wait 'til you hear John Lennon. Wait 'til you hear the funk-inflected, oceanic waves of saxophones on "Bony Maronie" and "Bring It On Home To Me", or on the reissued CD's bonus track "Angel Baby". Wherever Glenn Miller is now, he has a copy of this CD.

One more thing: Jurgen Vollmer's cover design on this belongs in the Museum of Modern Art.

P.S. Phil Spector may well have gotten away with murder. I don't know. In every video clip I saw during his trial, he looked like a medicated whack-job. But back in his glory days, he certainly knew how to make a record.

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