Written amidst a turbulent, chaotic period in his personal life, John Lennon’s 1974 album Walls and Bridges is his most misunderstood – and arguably finest – solo LP. New Sounds writer Eoghan Lyng unravels the story behind its conception
Straight into the battleground, John Lennon punched with a rocking studio album which equalled, occasionally bettered, his best work with the Fab Four. Piercing and exhilarating the vocals were, Plastic Ono Band edged with a rawness that heralded a new form of record making. And, for a while at least, it did. Roger Waters urged Pink Floyd to base Dark Side Of The Moon from its sheen, while John Lydon found a Beatle album which matched his tastes with his parents.
This level of
rhetoric could scarcely be levelled at the follow-ups. Lennon would record one
more album in Britain. Imagine, significantly softer than Plastic Ono
Band, disappointing when matched against the ingenuity of Paul McCartney’s
idiosyncratic wonder Ram. Some Time in New York City, a ham-fisted
tirade at the angular and obvious, proved the most embarrassing moment of his
career. An extraordinary title track notwithstanding, little on Mind Games was
of Beatles standard.
And then there’s Walls
and Bridges, a strong comeback, reigniting that ferocity that so compelled
listeners in 1970. It was Lennon’s last album of original material for six
years, though the unshackled backbone had long depleted by the time of the
pleasant, but lightweight, Double Fantasy. Walls and Bridges came
out one year before the back to basics Rock N Roll emerged. Lost in a
deluge of powder, drink and late-night capers, Lennon turned to the oldies he’d
termed as a rebellious teen as a means of regaining a creative spark, following
his separation from wife/muse Yoko Ono. When the tracks emerged in 1975, they
found themselves the product of a creator reconciled with a pregnant wife.
Solitude and family domesticity were to follow, years Lennon would regard as
the happiest of his life.
How very different he sounded on Walls and Bridges, exposing the demons which hanged him mercilessly. Lennon could comfort himself musically in the reliable hands of reliable session players Klaus Voorman, Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis and Ken Ascher, knowing they could capture the backing he needed to duet with Elton John. A jaunty number, ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’was the product of Beatle progenitor and studier laughing, stomping and clapping their way to the top of the US Charts. Lennon would join his namesake John at Thanksgiving performance at Madison Square Garden that November, Lennon’s last major concert at that. For all his new-found muse, the treasures of fame were lost on Lennon, a year where he watched Paul McCartney become an Oscar nominee and stadium highlight. Pencilled by many as the darkest Beatle, Lennon’s greatest work was his most truthful and it was only through the depravity of his darkest secrets that he re-capture that spark that so many envied. Scared, a haunting dissertation of the cruellest depression, contains one of Lennon’s most committed vocals. In its place came the spiritual sequel to the unshackled Plastic Ono Band, though the recording bore the creators’ scars most tellingly. “I’m not knocking the record,” Lennon admitted in 1980. “But I’m saying it showed where I was. It’s a reflection of the time”.
There are some missteps. ‘Steel and Glass’is as vitriolic as the McCartney slanging ‘How Do You Sleep?’, while ‘Bless You’exposes the muzak Lennon so cruelly, if self-effacingly, accused his songwriting partner of showing. More happily, the bluesy ‘Going Down On Love’, the wistful ‘Old Dirt Road’ and the mantic ‘#9 Dream’ demonstrates that spark, verve and vigour he’d so sorely lost in the drab Mind Games. Here, in the depths of misery, Lennon could flicker that spark that snuggled so deep inside of him. And yet, all the way through, there’s that niggling notion that he could just let out that one track, in all its unfiltered pity.
And then he unveils
it, the fiery gut punch that equals, side-lines and betters the hungry
furnace he’d unleashed on the blazing ‘God’, through the baleful ‘I
Found Out’. Born in confessional agony, Lennon strums the opening chords
‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’ cascading the desolate whims he’d
fancifully throw to the bellowing horns which blasted the audience. As it ended
on an aphorism, Lennon proffered the sadly prophetic “everyone loves you
when you’re six feet underground” with causality and silence. No quip, no
glib remark, only a doleful whistle to comfort his listeners. In all his primal
agony, Lennon had never shown such pain with such dignity. An epochal moment,
it might be the finest song Lennon ever wrote.
It was the last of
its kind, Julian Lennon’s tussled drum patterns closing the brittle ‘Ya-Ya’with
childlike gaiety. Closing a poetry of despair for a poetry of fatherly action,
Lennon would here on write about the two family members that decorated his New
York apartment with possessions more wonderful than the collections he once thought
he’d live without. But it was music more patient than passionate, more indolent
than inspiring. Where Double Fantasy failed to match the bar set by the
decade old Plastic Ono Band, it also failed a standing to sit beside Walls
and Bridges, the last of the essential Lennon albums.