Sunday, 5 September 2010

Gimme Some Truth

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?


  1. I honestly don't think John would have been as "reissued" as much if he was still alive today. Granted, if he was still alive the Lost Lennon Tapes wouldn't have happened, and so much of the stuff that's surfaced since then might still be hidden on badly logged cassettes.

    But he was a fan of bootlegs, and documented all his moves on audio and film/video, so maybe he would have embarked on a Neil Young Archives-style kick (though I doubt he'd be as tech-anal as Neil).

    But it is what it is. I will get the Double Fantasy reissue. As for the rest of his catalog, I still haven't picked up any of the Beatles remasters from last year.

  2. John would have hated 98% of it. John even said he never wanted a statue of himself with pigeons crapping on it! John did enjoy bootlegs & may have probably released something in an official capacity.

  3. Ask your local library to purchase a copy. Then just listen to it and return it. Other people will listen and return it. You will not have purchased a thing and your life will go on. And you will save $189 that you can spend on musicians who are not millionaires.

  4. Peter- Your question is best rephrasable as 'If Lennon could comment on this, what would he say?' and the answer is probably that he would approve whatever Yoko does.

    The question that others are answering is a different one which might be phrased as 'Would Lennon be doing this if he were alive?'. To which the answer is obviously 'No' because it wouldn't be necessary!

    Overall, what we're talking about is whether Yoko has been gratuitous in her reissuing. To which my opinion on it is that she HAS been at various points but that her increasing involvement with Paul McCartney (via his own re-involvement with Apple since 1989) has benefitted from his acute and artful talents in PR, packaging and marketing. Her 'Double Fantasy...Naked' (sic) being but the truest compliment to him. McCartney, despite accusations to the contrary has always had the fullest grasp of integrity when it comes to Beatles/Wings reissues and his relationship as a solo artist to them. His reinvolvement with Apple (which more than anything else has brought about the wealth of new titles) under the constraints of partnership-approval has led to exemplary reissue campaigns that have astounded the industry with their success and Yoko is clearly in admiration for his ideas. I think Lennon would have been too. After all it is he that has described McCartney as 'the best PR man on the planet bar none'