Lennon’s legendary lost weekend summed up on one LP
As a songwriter, John Lennon penned some of the most iconic and anthemic tunes of the 20th Century. Songs such as “All You Need Is Love,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and “Strawberry Fields” remain pristine examples of his genius. Even as an ex-Beatle, his craftsmanship remained intact, writing a string of quality chart toppers that included “Imagine,” “Xmas (War Is Over),” “Jealous Guy,” and “Mind Games,” to name but several. And while his time with The Beatles was more productive, thanks to his creative partnership with Paul McCartney, Lennon’s solo years were no less inspired or fruitful.
He kicked things off with two superb albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), both of which are impeccable documents, breathtaking in their simplicity and poetry. However things pretty much went downhill after that, issuing a series of enjoyable yet ultimately mediocre LPs that were a pale imitation of his younger days.
Released in 1974, Walls And Bridges was Lennon’s eighth solo record (with Yoko it should be added), and although it proved extremely popular, reaching #1 on the charts thanks to first single “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” it was hardly his best.
As on previous efforts, much of the album finds Lennon in self-revealing mode, with lyrics almost ready-made for public consumption: love lost, love found; encroaching middle age; mortality; regret over past mistakes. Familiar themes in the Lennon songbook, except where John would normally express his feelings by way of a decent melody, here the hooks are few and far between.
Opener “Going Down On Love” is representative of his milieu at the time. Hearing someone as wealthy as Lennon singing “got to carry on” is like a kick in the shins to anyone struggling to pay their rent. In fact, quite a lot of this record has an ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ aspect to it. The funk-disco of “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” is an entertaining if ultimately shallow experience, while the Lennon/Harry Nilsson co-write (with whom Lennon had been partying heavily with) “Old Dirt Road” is a sweet, highly polished ballad, and one which finds John in social/ecological mode: “Ain’t no people on the old dirt road/No more weather on the old dirt road.”
The soul-inflected “What You Got” is half Sly Stone half Isley Brothers, and is followed by the tedious “Bless You,” Lennon’s confession of undying love for Yoko, despite their recent separation, but on “Scared” we get the John of old, admitting that the whole ‘love and peace’ thing was merely a front: “Hatred and jealousy gonna be the death of me/I guess I knew it right from the start/Sing out about love and peace.”
“#9 Dream” is another one of those cosmic compositions concerned with altered states of consciousness. The track itself is finely crafted, and features some sensitive slide guitar by Jesse Ed Davis in the style of George Harrison. Through headphones, one can just make out May Pang whispering “Hare Krishna, George.” Perhaps the song was Lennon’s way of making amends for his cruelty toward Harrison over the years.
Of the LP’s better cuts is “Steel And Glass,” even if it is a retread of “How Do You Sleep.” Where the latter was aimed squarely at McCartney, “Steel And Glass” is Lennon’s swipe at Allen Klein, the very man who had re-booted John’s finances, mainly via royalties, thus increasing the ex-Beatles’ wealth considerably.
Lennon’s cynical “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out),” is his own convincingly pessimistic comment on the myth of being a rock legend (and bears a striking resemblance to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”), although “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Parabox)” and “Beef Jerky” are little more than sugar-coated filler, too overblown to be anything other than mere distractions to the listener.
Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” is the closing number, ending the LP on a somewhat infantile note, and therefore unremarkable in the process.
Walls And Bridges is by no means Lennon’s worst record (that accolade could probably go to 1969’s The Wedding Album), but without the melodic discipline of McCartney, John’s mojo was clearly on the wane. His Utopian/Dystopian obsession would never leave him however, because behind the bliss, there was always disharmony lurking underneath. At least Plastic Ono Band saw Lennon bearing his heart and soul, but on Bridges, it’s almost as if he has nothing left to say – just a rich, over-indulged artist mostly going through the motions – which is perhaps precisely how he wanted it to be. And who could blame him.