Disappointing Albums, Music

51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Walls and Bridges’ by John Lennon

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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While John Lennon’s whole solo career is pretty disappointing, there are certainly highlights. The Plastic Ono Band album is remarkable. The production might be terrible but the quality of the lyrics and the rawness of emotion makes it a thrilling document no matter how many times you hear it.

Imagine certainly has its moments but, aside from the title track, it never gets better than ‘really good’. Mind Games has another winning title track surrounded by a lot of filler. I thought of including that record but I think it’s more dull than disappointing. I couldn’t face listening to Sometime in New York City again and I think that Rock and Roll is a wonderful record. Double Fantasy has Yoko songs so, I’m sorry, but no. That leaves Walls and Bridges, an album that fits our brief perfectly.

In the summer of 1974 Bobby Keys, saxophonist and scallywag, received a phone call from May Pang. He was to come to New York but he was to leave LA behind. This might have sounded cryptic had Bobby not been a sometime participant in John Lennon’s 18 month ‘lost weekend’ in California.

The former Beatle had separated from Yoko, taken up with May Pang (on Ono’s instructions, bizarrely) and partied his scouser butt off with Harry Nilsson, Ringo, Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, Mickey Dolenz, Anne Murray, and his old buddy Paul McCartney. If there was a lost weekend going in the 1970s, Bobby Keys was there, losing it with the best of them. But now he was on his way to NYC to play on a new John Lennon album under strict instructions to leave the party at the Chateau Marmont and to remember to pack the tenor.

Nobody produced this album. It drags on without direction and the sound is muddy.

Bobby’s ever-so-slightly off key high note kicks off John Lennon’s first number one solo single, Whatever Gets You Through The Night. It’s a punchy track that owes something to Bowie, something to Elton John who sings and plays on it, and, ahem, something to Wings. It’s not The Wasteland lyrically but you can dance to it, and John sounds like he’s having fun for once.

It follows a much lesser known song called Going Down on Love to open the record. Going Down, like so much of Lennon’s solo output seems more like the basis of good song. The lyrics are bit repetitive, a bit awkward, and the whole thing doesn’t really go anywhere. I’m not the first person to wonder if John needed a Paul to tell him to keep working on it. Paul, for his part, certainly could have used a John to tell him to leave things be once in awhile!

Old Dirt Road, a co write with Harry Nilsson, is an agreeable if bland ballad. The production sinks the vocals, making it hard to follow the story. The next song is What You Got, a funky shouter that works pretty well. He sounds a lot like McCartney straining his way through Monkberry Moon Delight here, but he probably wouldn’t have appreciated the comparison. We all know what John Lennon thought of the Ram album! In any case, Klaus Voorman and Jim Keltner lay down a serious groove for one of the highlights of the record. Bless You starts off eerily like Band on the Run before drifting into a sort of Lorca-era Tim Buckley dreamscape. Again, it’s okay but seems to be missing some ingredient of the Lennon magic.

Side Two opens with the second single #9 Dream, a strange song with a George Harrison-like bridge and a solid melody that points both to back to some of his more psychedelic moments with The Beatles and forward to the dream pop of Double Fantasy. Surprise Surprise, another one that needed a few more minutes in the oven, comes next. They all sound like Strawberry Fields compared to Beef Jerky, a totally unnecessary instrumental.

Why is it disappointing?

Nobody produced this album. It drags on without direction and the sound is muddy. He has obviously been working on these songs but they all sound like first drafts of the sort of thing Lennon was certainly capable of writing. It lacks vision and the sense of cohesiveness that would have made for a far better release. Sadly, this was pretty much it for a real John Lennon record. In his lifetime, only Rock and Roll and Double Fantasy remained.

I find it a frustrating record. He had obviously made up his mind to ‘come back’ and establish himself again in popular music. He should have been one of the great acts of the 1970s, instead of someone who always sounded as though they were bored or couldn’t be bothered.

Why Should You Hear It?

It’s a John Lennon album and if you are willing to persist with it, it will reveal its charms. A song called Steel and Glass, buried deep on the second side, is reminiscent of How Do You Sleep?. Apparently this time Allen Klein, the man who really did break up The Beatles, is the target instead of Paul. It’s not a pleasant song but it is a glimpse of John sounding like John should. Every time I put on this record, it jumps out at me in all its nasty glory. Nobody Loves You was largely derided by the critics when this record was released but it’s one of his great solo moments.

This album appeared in the same year as George Harrison’s messy Dark Horse. Both albums sound tired but don’t dismiss them. If you are a fan, they are part of the story and there is gold in them hills.

For the rest of this series, click here.

6 responses to “51 Disappointing Albums: ‘Walls and Bridges’ by John Lennon

  1. I like it but the sheen laid over it takes any edge off it. It’s a pop record and there’s nothing wrong with that but a little more of the acerbic Lennon, as you also attest, would have moved it from competent and a bit of fun to perhaps essential. I like the Mind Games album but that could just be habit and memory rather than a critical response. I religiously bought everything Lennon released back in the day without question just because (except, oddly, Rock And Roll even though I like it).

  2. Funny but Walls and Bridges is the Lennon album I come back to more often than the others. I love Old Dirt Road for its dreamy melody and lyrics. Similar view for #9 Dream and Nobody Loves You. Not so positive about the rockers like Whatever…..but to me the album holds up well with other good songs with strong melodies like Surprise Surprise and Scared. To me it is more interesting and diverse in terms of style, melody and lyrics than say Mind Games. I cannot understand people now down grading Imagine which I rank as his other good to great album. The title song, Jealous Guy, It’s So Hard, How Do You Sleep….damn hard to beat when compared with any album in the past 50 years.

  3. in 1980 John himself was critical of both Mind Games and Walls & Bridges. Said they lacked any focus and clarity of vision. For me, both of them are difficult to listen to. Too glossy. And let’s face the #1 challenge all of the ex-Beatles had recording an album: what producer is gonna tell an ex-Beatle his songs suck? May Pang somehow thought the songs on MG were incredible. Sorry but no way.

    On the plus side: Whatever Gets You Thru The Night and #9 Dream continued showing John’s ability to craft great singles. John had 3 pretty damn good singles out in an 11 month period, if you include ’73’s Mind Games single.

    I’ll take WGYTTN over anything on Double Fantasy, which has been over-hyped since John’s death imo.

  4. I don’t care for your dismissal of Yoko. I can assure you that there is nothing the least bit disappointing about her Fly album from 1971. It has the same personal as Imagine, including John. Much better than most of his albums.

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