CD Review by John Pietaro
CD: The U.S. vs John Lennon: Music from the Motion Picture
2006,EMI Capitol Records/Lions Gate Films
Last November, just in time for what would have been John Lennon’s 66th birthday, a documentary was released that got to the core of the singer’s radicalism. The film explained how Lennon developed from ‘Beatle John’ to an artist of social change, and of course how the United States government responded to this. Remember, these were the years of Nixon’s high-paranoia as well as the continued hysteria of the Cold War. J. Edgar Hoover remained closeted but all-powerful, COINTELPRO was in full force and Washington was run by a secret government not seen before in the annals of American history. The irony, of course, shines brightest only with a comparative view between the White House then---and right now.
Much attention, particularly in Left circles, has been placed on the film’s relevance, but in this setting, the focus is on the soundtrack recording. Hey, Lennon was a musician after all. The album opens up with John’s composition, “Power to the People” which dates from his Plastic Ono Band period, as do many of the selections included here. “Power” is one of those rare treats that is as much a rollicking pop number with a sing-along chorus as it is an angry protest song:
Say we want a revolution/We better get it on right away/Well get on your feet/End of the street/singing Power to the People, Power to the People
With this piece, Lennon was responding to his own trepidation of just three years before; his Beatles release “Revolution” refused to actually commit to the action of its own title. By 1971, he was more than ready. And while “Power” was a great rallying cry, it went even deeper. This song also addressed the sexism that is often evident in the movement, so it offered empowerment—and exposition--beyond the obvious. Once this song actually went to the pressing plant, there was no turning back for Lennon.
While the soundtrack includes the usual suspects, so to speak, special attention has been placed on rarely heard numbers. And herein lies the treasure. “Gimme Some Truth”, a Plastic Ono Band number from ’71 is a classically pissed-off protest song though it is slow and deliberate in nature and artfully arranged (including George Harrison’s soaring slide guitar). Surely this selection could be about rebellion from anyone’s perspective, especially that of a teenager. In this sense it’s timeless, yet it’s also very much a timely song, what with the politics Lennon encountered. Its unlikely chorus somehow works musically as much as it does topically:
No short haired yellow bellied son of Tricky Dick is gonna mother hubbard soft-soap me with just a pocketful of hope /Money for dope/ Money for rope.
Also from 1971 is “Attica State”, a recording made as Lennon and Yoko Ono performed at the rally in support of peace activist John Sinclair, then being held on trumped up drug charges. Supported by acoustic guitars and, apparently, a thumping foot, Lennon and Ono sound about as raw as can be expected. Unwelcoming feedback from the sound system (the bain of the rally musician’s existence) creeps up more than once, but this just adds to the immediacy. Lennon is even heard commenting on the stripped-down nature of the performance: “I haven’t done this in years”.
Another song from the same concert, “John Sinclair”, offers some specifics on the case of the peace activist. But most important is Lennon’s opening statement to the crowd: “We came here not only to help John, but also to say to all of you that apathy isn’t it. We can do something. Okay, so Flower Power didn’t work—so what? We start again”. With this, Lennon gave acknowledgement to the gorilla in the parlor—the reality that the youth movement did not immediately change the nation’s direction—but in identifying it, he also insisted on the need to maintain the fight. This is the difference between a musician of social commentary and one of social protest.
Also present on the CD is “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die” from 1971. Credited to John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band with the Flux Fiddlers, here one can appreciate Ono’s effect on Lennon: repetition, simple almost droning form, improvisations atop the structure, extra musicians, and vocal emoting all point to Yoko’s own experiments in the Fluxus art movement. This can especially be said of the brilliant “God”, which is also included in this set. This song was of course heard extensively in the day’s after Lennon’s murder (The dream is over…).
1969’s “Bed Peace” is brief slice of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s campaign of ‘bed-ins for peace’. It acts as a lead-in to the Beatles release “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. Also included in this album are segments of the film’s spoken soundtrack, including John’s discussion of the movement. This bit of discussion from ’69 easily leads into “Give Peace a Chance”, a piece which has since become immortalized due to its use at major anti-war rallies during the Vietnam era and today.
Of course Lennon’s rather infamous “Working Class Hero” is thankfully included as are classic cuts “Imagine”, “New York City” (recorded with the kicking Elephant’s Memory Band), “Instant Karma” and “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”. It is odd that the powerfully feminist “Woman is the Nigger of the World” was left off.
Other tracks include 1970’s “I Found Out” (a grungy blues-inflected piece about self-realization as well as a full comprehension of the movement around him), an instrumental version of “How Do You Sleep” (really directed at McCartney while they were at odds), “Here We Go Again” (co-composed with Phil Spector) and the almost painfully beautiful “Oh My Love” written for Ono in ’71.
Okay, so the Beatles remain the greatest rock band in the eyes of most of us and none of its members’ solo careers could ever compare to the group’s eight chart-topping years. But only an unfettered Lennon who’d gone through important life-changes, realizations and identifications could have accomplished so much for the progressive movement of his day. He allowed the mainstream to become the radical.
As Nixon knew, a globally popular rock star with political awareness is perhaps the most dangerous weapon against the status quo. That’s why he worked so hard to try to silence John Lennon.
-ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN POLITICAL AFFAIRS-