I’m always a little confused between “remastering” and “remixing”. Any classic CD that gets re released claims to have one or possibly both of these processes applied to it. This 36 track compilation of the best of John Lennon’s solo work has been remixed by his son, Sean and for £13, I thought I’d give it a listen. There will be some tracks I’m not familiar with and it will be interesting to see if the remixing gives a different perspective to the tracks I know well.
Remixing is pretty obvious. I’ve seen clips of George Martin in the studio with sliders for each separate track. Slide everything down except the drum and bass and that’s all you hear. Changing the mixing of an album can completely alter the whole song. Billy Preston’s keyboard playing is much more to the forefront in the 2019 remix of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on “Abbey Road” than in the original. I happen to like it but is it still a Beatles song? It should say that it is by The Beatles and Giles Martin. There’s also the issue of stereo mixes and mono mixes. Albums in the Sixties were mainly sold in mono and bands such as The Beatles spent a lot of time mixing the mono versions to make them sound good. The stereo mixes were normally only carried out as a quick afterthought. I understand remixing but what is remastering?
One answer I’ve found is that remastering ensures that the volume of each track on an album is the same. I guess that on a greatest hits album such as this, that’s important but I’m not sure why it’s necessary for a complete album – surely it was all mastered at the same volume in the first place? Another process in mastering is to eliminate hiss, clicks, microphone pops and lisping sounds. I don’t understand what “compressing” and “peak limiting” is but apparently it makes the bass and treble “sweeter”. That’s a subjective word – “sweeter”. Another way of describing the reduction of high frequencies is “make it duller” (or “dulling” if such a word exists). These processes sound like they will make a difference to the sounds that the original artist heard when the original album was released. I’m not sure that this is a valid thing to do. Eliminating hiss from those terrible bendy RCA records is one thing but changing the sonic texture seem to me to change the authorship of the music. It might sound better to the person who remastered the album but does that mean everybody will feel the same way?
One aspect that I hadn’t considered is that the quality of creating a vinyl record would depend on the variables existing within each different pressing plant. These variables include the skills of the engineers as well as the physical attributes of the machinery. Thus, different versions of the same album would exist. Remastering gives a consistency. I’m not sure that I would be able to determine the difference (“oh yes, you’ve got the Ealing version – I’ve got the superior Solihull version”).
So, here are my thoughts and feelings listening to the remixed and remastered versions of the best of John Lennon’s solo material.
The first song is “Instant Karma” and it all sounds crisper. I’d never really thought about the drumming by Alan White before but it’s very clear here. He never sounded this good when he was with Yes. The video is from a Top Of The Pops performance: note Mal Evans on tambourine.
The vocals in “Cold Turkey” seem to have been pushed further to the fore and the immense emotional quality of John Lennon’s singing ability is more apparent. Also, the last section in which he is just screaming, whilst simulating heroin withdrawal, is very powerful and unsettling. The reviews of this album refer to how Sean Lennon kept in the “obvious” edit on “Working Class Hero” but I’ve never heard it. “Isolation” was never one of my favourite songs but here the vocals are terrific. “Love” and “God”, from “Plastic Ono Band“, are great songs but I didn’t notice any differences.
I can’t imagine that I’ve listened to “Power To The People” any time in the last 49 years. At the time, I dismissed it even though it got to Number 6 in the U.K. Charts. It sounds, er, powerful here and Bobby Keys’ saxophone is great. Bernie Sanders used it as an anthem to support his 2016 and 2020 Presidential campaigns. John Lennon later described the song as “embarrassing”.
The tracks from “Imagine” (“Imagine”, “Jealous Guy”, “Gimme Some Truth”, “Oh My Love”, “How Do You Sleep?” and “Oh Yoko!”) are all excellent and the clarity of his singing shines through. I’ve always thought that “Gimme Some Truth” and “How Do You Sleep?” were right up there with the best songs John Lennon ever recorded, with or without The Beatles. It’s too easy with John Lennon to focus on his acerbic wit, his vulnerability, his humour, his outspokenness, his ability to write a great song and Yoko Ono. What is coming through strongly listening to these songs is that he has one of the very greatest rock voices of all time. What an incredible coincidence that two of the greatest ever singers met at a Village fete in a Liverpool suburb in 1957!
I’ve never heard the whole of “Some Time In New York City” and so “Angela” has passed me by. It sounds charming and Yoko Ono’s harmony vocals are delightful. Angela Davis had been arrested because George Jackson’s brother Jonathan used guns, that she owned, in a courthouse gun battle that resulted in his death. A huge protest against her incarceration was organised and John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote this song in support. She was later found not guilty and she is currently, at the age of 76, a “Distinguished Professor Emerita” at The University of California having taught woman’s studies and ethnic studies.
“Come Together (Live)” is from “Live In New York City” and sounds a bit raw but quite exciting, especially when he throws in “Stop The War”. I had always thought that “Mind Games”, the song, was a little dull but it sounds great here. “Out The Blue” is also from “Mind Games” and is a direct, no nonsense love song directed towards Yoko Ono. I never find these nakedly honest love songs comfortable listening but the piano playing by Ken Ascher is wonderful. I’ve never heard of Ken Ascher and apart from his playing on several John Lennon albums, his claim to fame seems to be a co-write of “Rainbow Connection” for “The Muppet Movie”. By contrast, “I Know (I Know)”, which John Lennon later described as “a piece of nothing”, is about the troubles that he and Yoko Ono were having in their relationship.
“Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” is from “Walls And Bridges” and was a US Number One. This was the only solo Number One that John Lennon achieved while he was alive. The other three members of The Beatles had already had Number One singles. At one point, after Ringo Starr had yet another Number One hit, John Lennon wrote to him asking if he would write him a song.
“Bless You”, “#9 Dream” and “Steel And Glass” are also from “Walls And Bridges”, an album I’ve never heard and one which is not universally acclaimed. Listening to these songs, they sound crystal clear which is apparently not the case with the originally released album which had a muddy sound. This raises the issues I wrote about at the beginning of these ramblings. These songs don’t sound like they did when John Lennon released the album but they do sound great. Is this objectively a good thing? Is it okay to remix albums? Is it okay to restore art? Is it okay to rewrite a book? Is it okay to release a director’s cut of a film? My friend Rob has written a great book. How would he feel if he knew that in 60 years time his grandchildren would rewrite his book to make it more accessible to readers of the late 21st century? Get the beers in and we can discuss this in detail.
“Steel And Glass” is especially good. Sometimes considered to be an attack on Allen Klein, it is generally accepted to be aimed at himself. The string arrangement is very similar to “How Do You Sleep”.
“Stand By Me” sounds wonderful. This was always the only song I knew from the “Rock’n’Roll” album and is the only representative of the original covers album on this compilation. However “Angel Baby” was included on a reissue. The original was recorded by Rosie And The Originals, reaching Number 5 in the charts. It was written by lead singer Rosie Hamlin when she was 14. I’ve never heard either version before.
The next six tracks are all from “Double Fantasy”: “(Just Like) Starting Over”, “I’m Losing You”, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”, “Watching The Wheels”, “Woman” , “Dear Yoko” and “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him”. The latter was written by Yoko Ono and originally sung by her but this version (previously issued in 1984 but remixed in 2020) is sung by John Lennon. The three songs that follow are from the posthumously released “Milk And Honey”: “Nobody Told Me”, “I’m Stepping Out” and “Grow Old With Me”. The sound, the production, the singing and the honest intensity of the lyrics are all brilliant. My favourite song from these two albums is “I’m Losing You”.
Finally, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and “Give Peace A Chance”. On the former, the sound is all much clearer: the strings, drums and children’s chorus are all beautifully clear. It’s also a brilliant vocal. It’s such a ubiquitous song in December, it’s easy to overlook what a great song it is. And of course the sentiments are spot on. A Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
All he was saying was Give Peace A Chance.