What would John Lennon have thought of the marketing campaign that is about to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday? Like the other Beatles, he was scathing about almost all of the compilation albums that were issued by EMI and Apple, from A Collection Of Beatle Oldies in 1966 to Beatles Ballads in 1979. At the time of his death, he had issued only one collection of his solo hits, Shaved Fish in 1975, though his enthusiasm for the project was lukewarm. And all the Beatles prided themselves on their efforts to avoid exploiting their fans by squeezing hit singles out of existing albums (at least in Britain; elsewhere, they enjoyed much less control over what was issued in their name).
Since then, the music business has changed beyond recognition. I can't think of a single artist who has managed to avoid the numbing routine of greatest hits albums, more often than not accompanied by a rarity or two to entice loyal fans into purchasing music that they already own. The ethics of these releases are grasping and blatant. I noticed a prime example earlier today: the mono editions of all Bob Dylan's early albums are being released on CD for the first time, as an expensive boxed set, but the set doesn't include mono versions of singles released during the same period. There is, however, a compilation CD scheduled of the best of his mono recordings, which - surprise, surprise - includes one of those singles, and will therefore be bought by many of those who are also shelling out for the box. Marketing ploys like this are now so common, and so cynical, that they usually pass without comment.
And Lennon? For years, his catalogue was a mix of lousy CD reissues and pointless hits collections, until Yoko Ono and her engineers finally acknowledged the digital age and remastered his work, usually with relevant (if hardly mind-blowing) bonus tracks. There was the rarity-stuffed, though bizarrely sequenced, Anthology box set in the late 90s; and a couple of rather random collections of acoustic out-takes and political songs since then.
All of which pales alongside the commercial onslaught that is about to hit us: two box sets, yet another hits collection, and an extended two-disc revamp of his final official album. They line up like this:
SIGNATURE BOX: one album of out-takes (all of which look to be familiar from The Lost Lennon Tapes radio series and bootlegs, though I am happy to be corrected); another of non-LP singles (six tracks in all, without their Ono-inspired B-sides); and all of Lennon's original LPs from Plastic Ono Band in 1970 to the posthumous Milk & Honey set. Plus a book, new essays, forgive me for yawning. But no Live In New York City, no Menlove Avenue, no Acoustic, none of the bonus tracks from the existing CDs, none of the pre-1970 collaborations with Yoko Ono, and strangely no Live Peace In Toronto 1969, either (though the live half of Some Time In New York City is included). Who decided that Live Peace was no longer part of the Lennon catalogue, while Milk & Honey (half of which was recorded by Yoko after John's death) was? I think you know the answer. The cost of owning what you already own, plus one 'new' CD, is $189 or £137 - for a set that demonstrates everything I despise about the business of marketing 'classic rock'.
GIMME SOME TRUTH: a four-CD set of previously released John Lennon recordings, 'themed' (or thrown into the air and then sequenced randomly).
POWER TO THE PEOPLE: hooray - a hits album! Again!
DOUBLE FANTASY STRIPPED DOWN: the original album, plus new mixes prepared by the long-estranged team of Yoko Ono and Jack Douglas, demonstrating what the album might have sounded like if Lennon's artistic decisions from 1980 had been ignored.
We don't have to buy any of this product, which is no more manipulative or greedy than similar archive releases by other major artists from the 60s and 70s. (By contrast with some copyright-owners, Yoko Ono has been comparatively restrained, to be fair.) Realistically, nobody but a committed completist or a novice would be remotely interested in Gimme Some Truth or Power To The People. No doubt some people will buy the Signature Box as a 'tribute' to John, not realising that it's actually a tribute to the consumerist culture that Lennon did his best to undermine in the early 70s. And I confess that I will probably pick up a copy of the 'new' Double Fantasy, in the hope that I enjoy it more than I did Let It Be . . . Naked.
But I come back to where I started. What would John Lennon think of all this?