Covering Lennon – Solo

Okay, I admit that the Rock & Roll Dentist never actually played guitar at the feet of John Lennon, but I did once get to strum with a member of one of the myriad Beatles cover bands out there.  It was truly gear, kids.  That is the lead-in to this month’s blog post which I decided to dedicate to what would have been John Lennon’s 78th birthday.  John Winton (Ono) Lennon was born October 9th, 1940 in Liverpool to Julia and Alfred Lennon (though any Lennon-phile knows he was raised by his Aunt Mimi).  Lennon as a Beatle of course created some amazing music, but this post is about cover versions of what he created away from the Fabs.  For me, the work he did without Paul, George and Ringo never approached great songs like “Help!” or “In My Life” but some of it was pretty good.  That he didn’t get to write music beyond the tragedy of 1980 leaves a smaller archive to work with plus the biggest bulk of recordings by other artists was due to a couple of tribute album projects.  I decided to only include songs John recorded on his own albums which eliminates the three nifty songs he contributed to Ringo’s LPs.  Frankly the list could easily be dominated by covers of just a few songs (notably “Happy Xmas[War Is Over]” and “Imagine”) so I mostly eliminated duplication to include more tunes.  There are some cases where sadly a video doesn’t exist online you for those tunes you will just have to go buy the download or listen to clips on a music site.

1.Grow Old With Me – Glen Campbell

John never got to properly record what might have become one of his most popular songs so all we have is a demo (the lovely version with orchestration added by George Martin on the John Lennon Anthology box came later).  For me, the 2008 comeback album Meet Glen Campbell was a complete surprise that was outstanding from beginning to end thanks to savvy song selection and production by Julian Raymond and Howard Willing.  Had this album been released in his “Rhinestone Cowboy” era, it would have been a smash but as it was it pretty much disappeared in the era of hip-hop pop and modern country.  If this post can sell even one copy then I will be a happy blogger.  Other good cover versions were done by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Youngstown.

2.One Day At A Time – Elton John

Cover versions of Beatles songs rarely approach the quality of the originals.  It is a different story with Lennon solo cover versions which often are better than John’s own recordings.  I think that is because Lennon really didn’t surround himself with great Beatle inflected players (Elephants Memory are a case in point – an above average bar band) so the songs didn’t sound well arranged.  This song was an album track from the 1973 LP Mind Games which Elton covered and placed on the b-side of his 1974 #1 cover single of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” recorded in Colorado at Caribou Ranch.  Lennon supplied backing guitar to the mix of slide guitar, classical sounding piano and string synths.

3.Jealous Guy – Roxy Music

This was recorded as a tribute after Lennon was shot and became the only Roxy Music single to reach #1 in the U.K. singles chart (in February of 1981).  By the time of this release, leader Bryan Ferry had moved the group away from the avant-garde rock of their early records into a dreamier more sophisticated style and this song fit perfectly.  The song itself began life as “Child Of Nature” inspired by the Beatles’ trip to India in 1968.  The lyrics would be revamped for the solo album Imagine in 1971 to speak to his doubts and fears as a worried man in a loving relationship (presumably with Yoko Ono).  This was one of the more covered solo songs and there are good versions by Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart & The Faces and Frankie Miller.

4.Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – The Moody Blues

As of this writing, the most recent studio album by the Moody Blues is the 2003 Christmas album December.  It would be great to see the remaining members including Mike Pindar break out the mellotron and attempt one last classic sounding prog album, but that seems unlikely so this may be the last thing we ever get from the Moodies (and at least it is pretty darn good).  John and Yoko recorded the original in 1971 with help from the Harlem Community Choir.  John used the melody from the old folk ballad “Skewball” (or “Stewball” as done by Peter, Paul & Mary) and two basic lyrical themes.  One was wishing everyone no matter the color or creed to come together for a peaceful Christmas and New Year. The other theme changed the song to an anti-war (especially the Vietnam conflict) chant.  The Moody Blues chose to ignore that second theme and dropped that lyric to make it a universal Christmas song.  There are so many great versions of this much covered song that it is hard to list all the good ones, but I like the one by the Alarm too

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5.Mind Games – Ed Kowalczyk

“Mind Games” was the lead single from the 1973 Lennon album of the same title.  John had the melody as early as the Let It Be sessions in 1969 to back the lyrics the two different sets of lyrics: “Make Love, Not War” and “I Promise”.  He ultimately was inspired by the book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston and came up with the recorded set of lyrics (the other words are heard in demo form on the box set John Lennon Anthology).  This is a case of a song that I think was better than the final recording and you can hear the Beatles adding their instrumental touches to it and making it more memorable (the released record seems monotonous and plodding to me).  Kowalczyk is the lead singer of the excellent band Live and recorded this song as a solo record in 2012 for The Garden.  I prefer this cover to the original as it is heavier with crunchy guitars.

6.Instant Karma – Paul Weller

This is my favorite solo record by John Lennon in that it rocks, has great lyrics and sounds full of life thanks to a wall-of-noise Phil Spector production.  It is said that the lyrics were inspired by a discussion he had with Yoko and her former husband Tony Cox early in 1970 (while in Denmark) about the concept of one’s actions causing immediate repercussions.  In that spirit, it is reported that John wrote, recorded and released the single all within ten days.  The single is dominated by slapping drums plus a plethora of pianos and peaked at #3 in the U.S.  The actual version I like by former Jam member Paul Weller appeared first on a covers CD for Uncut magazine and later on a three CD set of rarities titled Fly on the Wall: B Sides & Rarities (2003).  That version isn’t on youtube, but you can at least get a feel for it from this live TV performance.  Duran Duran and Union Of Sound have done decent versions as well.

7.Imagine – Petula Clark

This lady has had a most extraordinary career starting in World War II and extending to her current tour at age 85.  By the time she hit big in the U.S. with “Downtown” in January 1965, she was already a 32 year old married mother and multilingual singer.  Her ties with Lennon extend to having participated in the live June 1, 1969 recording of the anthem “Give Peace A Chance” in Room 1742 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.  This cover of John’s most famous and successful solo song comes from the 2013 album Lost In You.  The idea for “Imagine” came from Yoko’s 1964 book Grapefruit and from a Christian prayer book given to him by black activist/comedian Dick Gregory.  The idea was to imagine the world at peace by letting loose of the constraints imposed by politics, greed, religion, etc.  The original is a sparse recording featuring John Lennon on vocals/piano, Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White on drums with strings credited to the Flux Fiddlers.  Clark’s version has nice mellotron and more insistent percussion on the second and fourth beat of each stanza.

8.Cold Turkey – The Hollywood Vampires

By far the most harrowing riff rocker by John as a solo artist is a stark 1969 song that he presented to the Beatles first before recording it as a Plastic Ono Band single after they rejected it.  There are a couple of stories about what the lyrics were about with the kicking of the drug heroin being the most credible (the other was from food poisoning while eating cold turkey).  Alice Cooper notoriously was a heavy drinker back in the day and named his celebrity drinking club the Hollywood Vampires (including Ringo and occasionally Lennon).  In 2015 Cooper released a fine album of rockers under that same name with guests like Paul McCartney, Slash and Joe Walsh.  This version, for me, improves on the original by giving it more body and drive.  The Godfathers also did a pretty good version.

9.#9 Dream – A-ha

Honestly this song didn’t come in at #9 by design, but totally by accident so don’t roll your eyes.  This is my second favorite solo Lennon song and can be found on the 1974 LP Walls And Bridges.  As a single it peaked at #9 in the U.S., of course.  Lennon said that the song came to him in an actual dream including the nonsense chorus  “Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé”.  The group A-ha is mostly famous in the U.S. for the wonderful 1985 hit single and video “Take On Me”.  Singer Morten Harket and company hail from Norway and have been big stars in Europe for many years.  They recorded this version of “#9 Dream” for the international version of the charity Lennon tribute album Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur released in 2007.  The original U.S. version of the album didn’t include this recording, but later was available as one of 61 tracks available for download.

10.Woman – Ozzy Osbourne

The lead singer of Black Sabbath is an avowed Beatles fan and it shows in the straight recordings he has done of Lennon songs (also including “Working Class Hero” and “How?”).  Knowing how much Ozzy owes to his wife Sharon to keep him on the straight and narrow over the years, this song’s lyric rings even more true for him than the author.  The words speak about Lennon the romantic apologizing and professing love for his woman.   In an interview prior to his death he referred to this song as being a grown-up version of his Beatles song “Girl”.  This was the first single released after he was shot and depending on the chart peaked at either #1 or #2 in the U.S.  Ozzy’s version was from his 2005 album of cover versions called Under Cover which also included songs like “Rocky Mountain Way” and “In My Life”.

11.Gimme Some Truth – Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs

Here is another case of a cover version that for me improves on the original recording.  Sweet and Hoffs attack the song with a pop vengeance – sort of like a rock and roll sweet-tart that explodes in your ears.  John’s acerbic original was from the 1971 Imagine album and railed against lying politicians.  Matthew Sweet (“Girlfriend”) and Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) included this on their second album of cover versions Under The Covers Vol. 2 (2009).  George Harrison’s fine slide part on the original is handled faithfully as is the up and down very Beatles-like rhythm guitar part.  While I liked the original, this version feels more polished.

12.Love – Jimmy Nail

John’s original song was from his 1970 Plastic Ono Band LP which was a pretty raw album lyrically and arrangement-wise.  This song was much gentler than much of the album.  His version was simply producer Phil Spector on haunting piano and John on vocal and acoustic guitar.  This would have been a great Beatles ballad and could have been a single with a bit more sweetening.  Jimmy Nail’s version is given that sweetening and is gorgeous with a Harrison-like slide guitar and whistling on the break.  English actor/singer Nail released this on his 1995 Big River album and managed a #33 placement on the U.K. charts with this song as a single.  In the U.S. the Lettermen charted at #42 with a cover version (their final chart placement – 1971).  In 1990 former Mott The Hoople keyboardist Morgan Fisher recorded an emotional version with Yoko Ono reading the lyrics for his Echoes Of Lennon LP.

13.I’m Losing You – Cheap Trick

Over the last 30 years Cheap Trick have become one of the great American rock bands and have always shown excellent taste in their covers.   The version of this song I am listing can be found on the two disc live set Silver from 2001.  The song comes from the Double Fantasy album and is a classic mid-tempo Lennon riff-rocker.  He first recorded a version of this song in 1980 with Rick and Bun E of Cheap Trick that finally came out on the Anthology box (and is frankly better than the less heavy album version).  The lyrics speak to the same emotion that John expressed in “Jealous Guy” – a man worried about losing his woman.  Colin James also did a decent version.

14.Isolation – Ann Wilson

Lennon’s 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album was like a raw nerve laying out his pain at the time with the break-up of the Beatles and the distaste he felt from others over wedding Yoko Ono.  This song pretty much encapsulated all those feelings lyrically and is my fave cut from that record.  The version I have included is from the Heart singer’s first solo album Hope And Glory (2007).   Wilson is a fantastic singer so just to hear her pipes on this works magic.  The arrangement is pretty faithful to the original stark production save the crunchier guitars.  Many good covers are available of this song including ones by Joe Cocker and Harry Nilsson.

15.Working Class Hero – Roger Taylor

Here we have one of the more acclaimed songs from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band .  Lyrically he spits out vitriol about the class system (using a couple of f-bombs along the way) and being on the low rung of that system.  John always admitted that he came from a nice middle class background and always pretended to be working class.   The drummer of Queen has always had an underappreciated voice and could have been a lead singer in many bands.  He did this cover on his fourth solo album – Electric Fire from 1998.  The original was a stark folk ballad while this version makes the music roar right along with the lyrics.

16.How? – Mark Hudson

Hudson’s version of this song from his album The Artist isn’t available online so I have instead included the original song so you can at least sample how it sounds.  “How can I feel something if I just don’t know how to feel?” – typical of the contemplative lyric of the song from John’s Imagine album.  This song with the introspection could easily have been from his first solo album except it was sweetened with piano and strings marking a more commercial sound.  Mark Hudson was a member of the family act The Hudson Brothers who put out some excellent Bee Gees/Beatles inflected music in the ’70s.  Hudson worked with Ringo Starr on some of his best albums including Vertical Man (1998) and Ringo Rama (2003).  Hudson’s version has a very Fab Four vocal with heavier production which beat out the version by Ozzy Osbourne for me.

17.Oh My Love – The Lettermen

The Lettermen started in 1959 as a light pop close-harmony act and were popular especially on adult contemporary radio.  In 1971 they scored their last Hot 100 chart record with “Love” written by John Lennon.  Their next single was this Lennon cover that failed to chart, but was a pretty nice version of a song from Imagine.  The original had John on piano and George Harrison on guitar and had a bit of an Asian feel as did the nice cover version by the Wackers.  This version is just a tad faster than the Wackers which sort of feels draggy so I went with this one as it has a nice arrangement with gentle harpsichord and backing strings.  Lennon listed Yoko as a co-writer.

18.Imagine – The Korgis

It is hard not to include another version of John’s most popular song by a band that always had a Beatles feel to their vocals courtesy of James Warren.  Their hit “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” which had a “#9 Dream Feel” was not their only good song and tracks like “I Just Can’t Help It” always reminded me of George Harrison vocally with a dreamy John Lennon flavor.  That debt was acknowledged when they released the 2006 single “Something About The Beatles”.

19.I Don’t Want To Face It – The Fab Faux

The Beatles cover band The Fab Faux recorded this Milk And Honey track (“I Don’t Wanna Face It” on that 1984 posthumous release) and gave it a “Tomorrow Never Knows” psychedelic feel while eliminating the main rock and roll riff from John’s original.  It appears on the 2007 Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur charity album of songs by John Lennon (part of the “Make Some Noise” campaign to promote human rights).  The Fab Faux is Will Lee, Jimmy Vivino, Rich Pagano, Jack Petruzzelli and Frank Agnello.

20.Happy Christmas (War Is Over) – Sense Field

Frankly I don’t understand what a lot of the musical genre designations mean so I will simply say that Sense Field was a band in the mid-90’s post-hardcore and emo movement (whatever that means).  This nicely dynamic version of John’s Christmas evergreen can be found on several compilations including the one pictured in the video.  The lushness of the original is replaced by crunchy guitars.  The “war is over” lyric is almost subliminal vocally early on then is sung louder as the song goes on which makes for an effective arrangement.  One of the founding members, Jon Bunch, killed himself in 2016 so don’t expect a reprise.

21.Whatever Gets You Thru The Night – Henning Staerk

I never liked John’s big 1974 #1 hit as it sounded out of tune to me and frankly totally foreign to his usual sound so this 1994 version by Danish performer Staerk is an improvement for me.  This arrangement has a driving organ/drum feel which replaces the original sax solo with harmonica.   John wrote the lyric after hearing the Reverend Ike use those words on a late night show.  His original version features Elton John on duo vocal and piano which certainly didn’t hurt its hit chances in ’74.  The well-known story is that Lennon bet Elton that if it went to #1 he would have to appear on stage which it did and he did.  The Madison Square Garden appearance on November 28, 1974 would be the last time John Lennon would appear on stage.

22.Watching The Wheels – The Samples

John Lennon’s posthumous single reached #10 in 1981 and addressed people’s amazement that he could step away from music for five years after his son Sean was born.  The original is nice, but this reggae tinged version speeds up the tempo and changes the feel.  Lennon loved the sound of reggae and would have approved.  He tried to inject that beat into several songs over the years (“Borrowed Time” and Yoko’s “Sisters O Sisters” notably), yet it never came out right as the musicians didn’t understand that genre.  The Samples are a reggae/pop band from Boulder, Colorado who took their name from being so poor early on that they lived on grocery store food samples.  This was from the studio and live two disc set Transmissions From The Sea Of Tranquility released in 1997.

23.Crippled Inside – Sui Generis

The lyrics from the album Imagine were rather biting (and some see part of the lyric as a dig at Paul McCartney) but contrasted to a sprightly old-timey country ramble arrangement.  Sui Generis were a major band from Argentina who started in the folk/rock genre then changed to a straight rock style over time.  This came from a live set Sui Generis al Mariscal and was faster and more music-hall in arrangement than the original.  The jam band Widespread Panic did a fine cover as well on the Darfur relief album.

24.Power To The People – Eric Burdon, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston

During the recording sessions for the Imagine LP in 1971, John found time to record this #11 charting single driven by Alan White’s stompin’ drums and Klaus Voorman’s complimentary bass with sax by Bobby Keys.  John was very political at the time and this fit into his “Give Peace A Chance” and “war is over” sloganizing.  Former Animals lead singer Eric Burdon takes the lead vocal on this heavier version from the soundtrack to Steal This Movie! which came out in 2000.  The Vincent D’Onofrio starring film was about ’60s activist/radical Abbie Hoffman.  The soundtrack was a mixture of new and original versions of old protest music.

25.Give Peace A Chance – Puppetmastaz

“Give Peace A Chance” was mostly a slogan that got chanted over and over again with occasional breaks for what we didn’t know was called rap at the time.  Every version since that 1969 #14 Plastic Ono Band original has always sounded goofy if they tried to include John’s breaks  (rapping Mitch Miller and the Gang, anyone? – check out that version for YIKES appeal on the Peace Sing Along CD!).  The version by the German puppet rap group Puppetmastaz is the only version I have ever heard that makes sense as it mixes it as a rap with some very endearing and real school kids singing the chorus (the version with Angie Reed isn’t as good).

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