Originally published by PopMatters on November 18, 2010 as part of a special section - We All Shine On: A Tribute to John Lennon
If there’s an argument to be made in favor of environment playing a significant role in the whole nature-nurture debate, consider John Lennon in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Beatles, he released arguably one of the first Emo albums (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) after a round of primal therapy, then followed it with the pastoral hippie naïveté of Imagine. During this period, Lennon was still living in relative isolation in his palatial Tittenhurst estate, working out his personal issues and looking at world peace through a decidedly pie-eyed lens.
But in late 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York City, immersed themselves in political activism and released the weirdest album in the former Beatle’s post-Fab career.
Lennon had dipped his toe in the waters of musical political activism before, including musical entries with the “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” singles.
But unlike his two previous anthems, there’s nothing on Some Time in New York City tailor made for repeated chanting in the streets or town squares. But with its overblown Phil Spector production and a musical grandiosity that often belies the subject matter, Some Time in New York City comes off as either the world’s most expensive underground newspaper or an unfocused attempt to come up with a sequel to Hair. The album wasn’t received well critically, and was also a relative commercial flop, peaking at #48 on the Billboard 200 chart less than a year after Imagine hit the toppermost of the poppermost around the globe.
Listening to Some Time in New York City nearly 40 years on, it’s not difficult to see why it failed to connect. Upon release, the album featured a second disc of all-star live performances recorded in London (Lyceum Ballroom, 15, December 1969) and New York (Fillmore East, 6, June 1971), thereby making the entire package more expensive than the album proper would have been. It’s also possible a great deal of the Lennon-buying general public who got on board with the lush sounds of Imagine just didn’t want to hear him share vocals with Ono on songs about controversial people with controversial opinions.
Though it’s difficult to remember these days when no one even knows what the music industry is, but there was once a time where a catchy radio hit could pull listeners in to the album. “Woman is the Nigger of the World” was the lead single for Some Time in New York City, its high mark at #57 that made even the stark Janovian confessional of “Mother” seem like a relative smash when it charted at #43 in 1970.
“Woman is the Nigger of the World” opens Some Time in New York City as an appropriately misguided attempt to speak to women’s rights. Whether by design or by allowing Spector to run roughshod as he often did in the ‘70s, Lennon’s vocals sound lower in the mix than even the song’s garden variety sax solo. While calling attention to the relative plight to the world’s women is certainly a noble concept, the presentation is hesitant and awkward. “Sisters, O Sisters,” the Ono-fronted b-side to the single and the album’s second track, was supposedly meant to have a reggae feel, but it comes off like sock hop music.
“Attica State” follows next, and it’s another song with its heart in the right place, but which is ultimately another undercooked effort by Lennon overcooked by Spector’s production.
While Ono’s musical strengths have been widely celebrated over the decades since a bunch of ignoramuses blamed her for the breakup of the Beatles, she’s still given more short shrift than she’s earned. That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of being shrill and overbearing, as on some of the live tracks which make up the second disc of the album. But the first song to make any impact at all is “Born in a Prison,” a curiously beautiful melody over a rhythm like a heartbeat at rest.
Like a sequel to “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “New York City” is effectively a play-by-play account of Lennon and Ono’s life set to rock & roll.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” like the U2 song of the same name which followed a decade later, is about ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, as is “The Luck of the Irish,” with the two appearing back-to-back on the album. Musically, they’re among the album’s best Lennon-fronted numbers, with the first an aggro-rocker, and the latter an acoustic lament.
“John Sinclair” puts the story of the “10-for-2” incarceration of activist and manager of the MC5 who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer.
Angela Davis, who was also the subject of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel,” was the inspiration for Some Time in New York City‘s lost gem, “Angela.” A duet between Lennon and Ono, the song ebbs and flows like the tide, rising and falling with more emotion than the rest of the album combined, and may have at least been partially responsible for the grand aesthetic of contemporary groups like the Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree.
“We’re All Water” closes the album proper with Ono using the title’s concept to explain that people like Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung (who, adding to the controversial nature of the entire release, were seen dancing naked together in a doctored photo on the cover) aren’t all that different. “We’re all water from different rivers,” Ono sings, before the song devolves into a reasonably enjoyable shriek-filled jam where one might imagine credits rolling down a screen.
Though the live disc serves as a decent quality artifact of Lennon’s brief forays into solo performance, the second side of that particular piece of vinyl was also controversial in its own way. Recorded at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the four songs included a cover of “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” by Walter Ward, along with songs credited differently when remixed and re-released by Zappa on Playground Psychotics in 1992. As presented on Some Time in New York City, the live tracks with Zappa and those recorded in 1969 with such luminaries as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Moon and Billy Preston are certainly worth a listen, but aren’t exactly essential, either. There’s far too much aimless jamming between far too many musicians for much of anything to stand out above the mud, and if the notion of Ono’s artistic caterwauling in that context isn’t your thing, you’d be best advised to steer clear altogether.
Some Time in New York City didn’t destroy Lennon’s career, but the album and its surrounding activism did cause the FBI to open a file on him, resulting in a widely publicized deportation effort by the United States government. Those events were covered in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.
Lennon’s next album, 1973’s Mind Games toned down some of the political rhetoric that Some Time in New York City was soaked in, and as a result climbed to #9 in the U.S. Some Time in New York City isn’t Lennon’s best album, not by a long shot. It’s not even terribly successful in its design, though it at the very least condenses some of what activists were interested in into one mostly listenable album. What the album mostly represents is where Lennon and Ono were in their lives at a time when everything was changing for them. It’s an often forgotten or neglected chapter in Lennon’s canon, an uncomfortable period when even he didn’t seem entirely certain of what he was trying to say.
But in that sense, it works in tandem with earlier solo experiments in soul searching, though in this case Lennon himself was too focused on trying to convey a message of activism to know that he was still revealing his own flaws and foibles. When the album is at its best, though, is when none of that internal criticism matters, and it’s why Ono’s efforts are often the album’s best. Between the two, she was surer of herself at this point, and it shows.