The Ballads of John and Yoko
Daragh Downes here with your third installment from The Ticket Album Club. To mark the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, we gave our four guests a copy of Double Fantasy (Stripped Down), a radical new mix of the 1980 album which Yoko Ono has commissioned from original producer Jack Douglas.
Our December Album Clubbers were:
-Iconic singer-songwriter and friend of The Beatles, Donovan
-Union of Students in Ireland Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Officer, Siobhan McGuire
-Irish Times columnist and author, Fintan O’Toole
-Church of Ireland curate for Rathfarnham, Dublin, Rev. Anne Taylor.
Have fun dipping into the extended highlights from the discussion:
1. Siobhan McGuire on how the album changed for her over repeated listenings
2. Donovan on why he’s a fan of the ‘stripped-down’ remix idea
3. Anne Taylor on her strong preference for the John songs over the Yoko ones
4. Fintan O’Toole on how this album converted him to the pro-Yoko camp
5. Donovan on Yoko’s career as a recording artist
6. Donovan on why he is moved whenever he listens to Beautiful Boy
7. Anne on Yoko’s feminist presence on the album
8. Fintan on the fascinating interplay between John and Yoko on the album
9. Donovan on why comparisons between this and Lennon’s earlier work are silly
10. Siobhan on how she came to the album without ‘baggage’
11. Fintan on why this album is an album in the richest sense of the word
12. Donovan on John & Yoko’s relationship – and the mysterious drawing which John gave him as a present in India
13. Fintan on Posh & Becks versus John & Yoko
14. Anne, Siobhan, Donovan and Fintan on their favourite song(s) from the album
15. Siobhan on the poignancy of Sean Lennon’s drawing of the album cover
16. Donovan and Anne’s reflections on the 30th anniversary of John’s murder
17. Fintan on John as iconic anti-hero
18. Fintan on why Lennon = Bono x 10
19. Fintan on why Lennon = Lear (as in King, not Edward)
20. Donovan on Lennon’s sense of humour
Feel free to let us know your own thoughts on the album, as well as your reflections on Lennon’s thirtieth anniversary.
Next month we will be putting Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy under the microscope. Get listening!
ALBUM CLUB #3
DOUBLE FANTASY (STRIPPED DOWN)
SIOBHÁN McGUIRE: I was very fresh to Double Fantasy and I suppose John Lennon as a solo artist and especially to Yoko Ono. So I came to this with no experience whatsoever. I just loaded it onto my iPod, pressed play and went from there. Initially it was good and then it was confusingly strange and then it was good again. I needed to take a little break from it, and then I went back to it and loved all but two songs. John’s Beautiful Boy Yoko’s & Beautiful Boys I just couldn’t get into. I think because they were very intimate songs and very clearly for their child. There were three people involved in the song and I don’t think it really allowed anyone outside that family scenario to really get into the song. I couldn’t relate to either of the versions. And Yes, I’m Your Angel by Yoko, I just couldn’t figure it out. I struggled with all of Yoko’s songs maybe the first four or five times, listening to it through, and then after a while I kind of thought hey, this is kind of unusual, I’m gonna go with it, and I did. But Yes, I’m Your Angel I just couldn’t really get into.
DARAGH DOWNES: When you say good then not so good, do you mean within the album or over return visits?
SIOBHÁN: Both, really. The first time I listened to it, the first song I heard I just adored. The first time I put it on I thought, yeah I like this, I wanna hear it again, I wanna listen. Then we came to track 2, which is my first ever experience of Yoko Ono singing, and I just thought wow, this is really strange. And that made me change my opinion of it, but then we got to track three, Cleanup Time, which is John again, and I thought it was fantastic. I just loved it. And I think it was more when I began to like Yoko’s songs that I began to appreciate the album.
DARAGH: The whole Double Fantasy concept?
SIOBHÁN: Yeah, yeah.
DONOVAN: Well I came to the album from a musician/recording artist point of view. I guess the question I was asking myself was, I wonder how different is the new version to the older one? Because I knew the old one in a memory sense… The second reaction was, I was very pleased to hear the new one because they call it Stripped Down. Well, we used to call it ‘like the demo’. We used to record in a certain way many of us in the sixties and I guess the seventies where we would come away with a complete album finished yet there would be a memory of how it was when we began, when it was raw, when it was simple, when it was that way. And maybe we overproduced, sometimes we’d think we’d put too much stuff on. I think Yoko comments in the notes that maybe she felt that. But we often feel that, and when the finished product is out, it might be all shiny and beautiful and polished, but there’s a memory of that early part of the session when it was pure emotion and raw. And so I was very pleased to hear a Stripped Down version because that’s what I like about my stuff. I go back to the originals and like it much better than the finished sometimes. And then the next impressions were I went straight to the liner notes. Whenever I bought a record, an album, you’d go to who’s playing, who’s doing what, it’s always fun, especially for a musician who makes his own music, a songwriter especially. So I was very happy to see that the producer of the original one, Jack Douglas, was the producer of the new one, the stripped down version. I don’t remember meeting Jack, but I was very pleased to hear that Jack was on the new one. So I thought, very clever Yoko, good move, because then it would retain its original feeling because Jack did the original with John. And so those were my first impressions. Very much pleased to hear that it’s simple, I like it, it works for me. Great to hear the songs again, of course, and especially Beautiful Boy is a very special song. And I remembered in those old early days, those young early days, of John Lennon thinking that he didn’t write as many ballads as Paul McCartney! How we all used to say, oh yes you do, John, you write ballads. Because he was considered the rocker more than Paul’s balladeer. But that wasn’t so and Beautiful Boy tells that, yeah.
Watching The Wheels Go Round was another one I really listened to. Because the actual drop out of the music world, out of the business, he didn’t want to get on the merry-go-round anymore, it was a lot for John to step off, it was hard to step off. But New York made it easy for him to step off. So that was a personal touch when I played that one. But really the sound was what I was looking to in my first approach. Because that was the brief: what do you think of the new version?
DARAGH: How would you compare the two versions of the album?
DONOVAN: Comparisons are odious, they say. It’s very hard, you don’t compare, you take each on its own quality. And both are wonderful. No it’s not an either/or for me. But for someone who makes his own music and knows about original sound of the demo, I guess I favour the new one because it’s nearer the original when John was sitting in the studio. But that’s not a public opinion, it’s very much a musician & songwriter’s opinion I think.
ANNE TAYLOR: The morning I got the CD in the post, I had to drive down the country, so I just listened to it all the way through. And the first thing that came to mind before I realised the significance of today, initially it felt like being asked to review Elvis or something! Like I was twelve when John Lennon died, so that ages me! But you distinctly remembered him, and then my father’s family are all from Liverpool, and I go over to watch matches on a regular basis. So there’s that whole aspect… So being asked to review John Lennon was sort of strange. I listened to it all the way through… I would have grown up with John Lennon’s Imagine and so on. Some of his songs here were familiar, yeah. A couple of them were very familiar. The first track I thought, this is gonna be like a greatest hits CD, but I wasn’t familiar with Yoko’s stuff and I did struggle with it a bit. And actually I struggled with it because I felt as if you were listening in on somebody’s relationship. It felt quite self-absorbed. And I avoided reading the notes until this morning, and it all started making sense. But certainly Kiss, Kiss, Kiss I really thought I’m listening in on something and it was very much …the memories where the two of them were quite absorbed in each other. Like I remember the pictures of them staying in bed for days on end. So that was my initial feeling, as if I was an observer and for somebody who just wants to listen to music and own songs, I wasn’t doing that with a number of them.
DARAGH: Would you go so far as to say you would have preferred this if it were an EP with just the John Lennon songs?
DARAGH: Did you like any of the Yoko songs?
ANNE: I quite liked Every Man Has a Woman. I have to admit, playing it on a regular basis in the car, I was not letting myself press to the next track!
FINTAN O’TOOLE: Well I suppose I came to it with two prejudices. One is that I hated the album when it came out first. John Lennon was such a heroic figure to someone like me growing up in the late sixties, early seventies. With the Beatles, obviously, but also the early Lennon solo albums, Plastic Ono Band in particular, had an incredible raw power to them, that sort of confessional force. Nobody had done anything like that in popular music. It was the sort of thing that was being done by the American poets, by Robert Lowell, by John Berryman. You know, to hear somebody like Lennon, with that fantastic voice of his, laying bare his own inadequacies, his own pain, you still feel uncomfortable listening to that stuff, but it has retained an incredible power. And when Double Fantasy came out there was sort of a double disappointment, which was that the production is awful, it’s swamped in very typical early 1980s production, but of course also the context of it was Lennon’s death, which is a completely unfair context, because an album acquires a significance from the fact that it was somebody’s last work, which is completely wrong because it happens to be Lennon frozen at a particular point. Forty is a particularly tough age for anybody, and very often for artists forty is a really difficult time, they’ve sort of used up the substance of youth and they haven’t really found something else. I think there is a real sense of stasis in the songs here so I didn’t like the album when it came out. The other prejudice of course was against Yoko, because there was this ridiculous childish inherited prejudice about this ‘woman who broke up The Beatles’. Which of course I know is nonsense, but if you were a kid The Beatles were the great heroes, you know. Yoko had been demonised to such an extent, and there was this weird woman making these strange noises, and it was like, ‘Oh God…’. So I came to it with two prejudices and I would say one of those prejudices has been completely overturned and one of them has been somewhat reinforced. The one that’s been completely overturned has been about Yoko. The thing that’s really stood out in this stripped down version is Yoko’s songs. I think this album is much closer from Yoko’s point of view to something like Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, in that it’s much more direct, uncomfortable, confessional, and genuinely stripped bare. So it’s not just stripped bare in acoustic terms in the new version but what she’s doing is really quite electric, I think. Lyrics like: “The food is cold/ Your eyes are cold/ The window’s cold/ The bed’s cold.” This is not luvvy duvvy stuff! And you see Yoko since Lennon’s death has done this big, well quite understandably, this kind of well, John was wonderful and I love him and he’s great and he’s fantastic. And there’s liner notes full of all that. These songs are not full of all that. These songs are full of, this guy’s a bloody nightmare to live with. And he’s not giving me any kind of reciprocal relationship here and I really want it. And there’s a real drama to that kind of stuff. And I think also, listening to Yoko, in 1980 she just sounds weird. But since then we’ve had Björk, we’ve had.. things have changed in terms of what your brain can take in in terms of sounds. And she sounds much more of a forerunner for what women can do in terms of song, whereas at the time she just seemed like this very weird Japanese woman who was stopping our great hero John Lennon from being himself. So for me that prejudice was completely overturned, and I really found Yoko’s stuff here just incredibly interesting. I’m not saying it’s necessarily great finished art, but I think it’s really interesting and lively and I really enjoyed listening to it. And I think the more you listen to it, it did kind of stand up as something going on. John’s songs are, in football terms, good songs not great songs. There are the four songs that we know already – they do sound better in this version, I think the production is better, and you get his voice, which is glorious. But they are songs of stasis, they are songs saying, look I don’t know if I really want to do this, they are saying, I’m watching the wheels go round, I’m not part of this world any more. And that has certain virtues.
DARAGH: When you say stasis, are you talking about the lyrical content or the music itself?
FINTAN: I think it’s a mix of both. There certainly aren’t new ideas musically going on. I think lyrically some of them are actually very weak. I think some of the lyrics here are – Yoko talks about him here as Shakespeare in the liner notes; It must have been Shakespeare on a really bad day! – just some if it is pretty poor stuff. And her lyrics here are better than his lyrics in general… And that’s completely unexpected, I really didn’t expect that to be the case at all. And I found it very interesting. So the songs you know, and the songs that would be on any anthology of John Lennon songs, are still good and still here and the versions are better. But I don’t think this is by any means Lennon’s great work. I think the album as a whole is worth listening to now as a really interesting experiment, and I think the drama of the relationship is really engaging. But I don’t think it’s ever going to be a classic album, even in this version.
SIOBHÁN: it’s funny you should mention Björk, because first time I heard it I thought it was a strange mixture between Marianne Faithfull and Björk because I remember listening to Marianne Faithfull a lot as a child because my parents really liked her. And I just thought this woman sounds crazy…. There was something really quirky about Yoko that at first – particularly the last bit of Kiss, Kiss, Kiss which was just groaning – that just made me feel uncomfortable. But towards the end I just thought this is weird, this is really weird, but I kind of like it…The first four or five times I heard the album it just actually made me feel uncomfortable, I actually couldn’t wait until the next (John) song. But towards the end, it was listening to Yoko’s songs that I actually looked forward to when I started listening to the CD.
DARAGH: So Yoko was a grower?
SIOBHÁN: Yeah, definitely, a serious grower.
DARAGH: More than John?
SIOBHÁN: More than John, yeah, definitely. I started to like John initially, but then I started to really like Yoko.
DARAGH: Donovan, what’s your take on the Yoko aspect of Double Fantasy?
DONOVAN: Well it’s not the first time I’ve heard Yoko working with John, you know, there were other works. My general impression when I first heard Yoko was that she’s a performing artist and that it worked better in an art gallery or a happening, as we used to call them. Basically it was a bohemian gathering where anything can happen. And when I first heard Yoko recording on her own as well, essentially, I felt that it didn’t actually make the jump from being a performance event, which is live and you don’t know what’s gonna happen, and actually it’s improvisational. And I felt it didn’t make the jump to recording because it was now recorded, now it could repeat itself, whereas in a happening nothing repeats. You do the thing on the next night, and it’s different. And so I always felt it was difficult to listen to Yoko because it was a performance piece. And when I also saw John working with Yoko, I immediately placed myself in John’s position as an artist. We all come from some part of Art School in the sixties. In fact, without British Art Schools, there wouldn’t have been what happened. It was a breeding ground for the mix of different classes, it was prepared, presented as everything was a revolutionary idea. And so it was obvious that John would be attracted to a fellow artist at one point. And so him and Yoko, he would be actually reliving the art school world, and he now would want to be with an artist. And he was also creating happenings, as we know, with the bed-ins and Give Peace A Chance and many events. And so my feeling of Yoko was totally that she would be a performing artist and it was totally correct that John would be attracted to her and they would be attracted to each other. But it didn’t translate for me onto record. And also a lot of people got annoyed listening. I mean I can listen, I know what I’m listening to. But others might be completely blown away, what am I listening to here? Basically I feel it’s a live event within an art gallery mode and she’s very good at that, and in fact she’s one of the tops at that, but in the field of pop it’s very odd for everybody to listen to, but I know the context. But it seems like it doesn’t work as a recording when you listen again and again. That’s my general feeling, but when we go to particular recordings and Double Fantasy in particular, it is much more of the same. My impression when I first heard the album and other collaborations between John & Yoko, he was making a great concession towards his partner by bringing her into his world and telling us all that he was going to do this. ‘You have to listen to this as together with what I’m performing, what I’m doing.’ And as an artist who lived at the time, when we were all young, and we actually wanted to work with those that we harmonised with, it was a bit odd for me that John would make so much room for Yoko in his own work. And in this one he continues. This one, I kind of agree with Fintan, that it kind of has a context now, this album, because it was the last work. Should we actually be giving it so much attention over other collaborations of John & Yoko? Or attention to John’s songs on here over and above his other work? Just because it was time to release this, because of the anniversary? So it does have that element. But me and Yoko & John, as a listening event, when I’m listening to them both, I do find it’s a little bit odd to hear the repetition of emotion that comes off of Yoko. But I believe Yoko also taught John how to scream himself. She sort of brought that out. And when I’m listening I can’t help but think of Paul & Linda as well, how people had a similar reaction to Linda Eastman being brought into the recordings by Paul when people said, why? I like Paul, I like John, but why? Why bring your ladies in, is it because you need to show that these ladies have got something in your lives? They’re definitely part of your lives at the time and always, but it is a curious one. The husband & wife teams that have worked in recording have tended to be that the wife was a professional anyway, and they met during their professional life, and so bringing in the musical aspect, Yoko already had a performance aspect to her at that point, but does it upset me that Yoko’s on Double Fantasy? No, because this is their relationship in this time, which is very important to John. And he didn’t have a chance to have a proper family during his early days of fame. I was there and I had it, but they had it much more, The Beatles. It was extreme. In fact their whole personal lives were completely taken away from them, and they were placed in danger because of it. And so, when John arrives in New York, and he wanted to have a family so much, then it makes a lot of sense that he would write such songs at this time to celebrate the very family that he didn’t have in the sixties and the very family he didn’t have as a boy when his mother was taken away from him so early. I can go on about other parts, but it’s Double Fantasy we’re talking about, so Beautiful Boy is particularly touching, because he didn’t have a childhood himself, and in India when we were together in 1968 he asked me to help him write a song about childhood, a childhood he didn’t have with his mother called Julia. And I taught him a guitar style that produced songs like Julia & Dear Prudence, and it was so touching. And so this album is touching for me, it is a childhood not lived, a fatherhood with his first boy Julian that couldn’t be lived because of fame and its extraordinary pressures, and then another chance at fatherhood which he grabbed and which the songs tell, so it’s very touching for me to hear that he had in those short times a feeling of fatherhood and childhood through the songs on Double Fantasy. Yoko brought it together for him I think on this one and they had it together. So for me Double Fantasy is many aspects of relationship, and they were in love, there’s no question about it.
From a songwriter’s point of view, from the craft, Beautiful Boy is an extraordinary song and extraordinary songs are often commented on by other songwriters for their simplicity. It has actually very few notes but it has a range of emotion that is huge.
DARAGH: He uses an oriental scale, doesn’t he?
DONOVAN: That’s about it. And so the fewest notes that create this extraordinary emotion, it’s a very fine song. And it came out pure. Beautiful Boy is quite an extraordinary song on there. But Watching The Wheels is personal to me because he was trying to get away from fame. Once the world has taken you to its heart there’s no escape. And therefore it’s a very touching album for me and particularly that song.
ANNE: It’s not an album that’s just there to listen to really, it is a review of their relationship. And I think while I don’t find Yoko the easiest to listen to, when I actually got out the lyrics I thought, boy there’s some challenges in there. There was sort of saying you shouldn’t be afraid to cry. I think once I approached it as: this is their relationship, it was a very different feeling to the album.
DONOVAN: Do you think she’s a feminist and speaks to women in a strong way? She appealed to many in their youth, in our youth, she was a voice for woman as well.
ANNE: I think there are challenges to men in there that live on!
DARAGH: I’m wondering is much of our praise for the album based on non-musical criteria? In other words, the positive aspects seem relate more to context and ideas rather than actual brilliant songwriting?
DONOVAN: Fintan will tell you that answer!
FINTAN: Of course you can never separate a performed work of art from context. It is there and you … it exists to be heard. And it will be heard as the contexts change. And the context for us is very different from when it appeared originally. I mean when it appeared originally I think people didn’t really want to talk about it much. It was a problematic album and people didn’t want to say it was a problematic album.
DARAGH: This is before John’s death?
FINTAN: Yeah. The original sense of it was, there’s been the silence and oh great there’s a John Lennon album. And then you get the difficulties because of disappointment with it – it’s not a great album and there’s all this weird stuff with Yoko. And then it’s overtaken by his death and so the re-release…
DONOVAN: And the Grammy.
FINTAN: And the Grammy. And they re-release Woman and these singles … so its context is even changing rapidly over the course of its first existence as an album. I think now the context is very different because we can hear things we didn’t particularly want to hear at the time. And some of the stuff certainly I wouldn’t have heard originally. And you can literally hear it better anyway because of the production. This back and forth, it reminded me a bit of the very last Beatles album (Abbey Road) where they’re deconstructing the song – you’ve got that big long fantastic sequence of songs, here’s all the songs we might have written if we’d had time… we don’t, so we’re just going to give you snatches of songs. And it’s actually very radical because it changes what you think of as a song. And the interesting thing about this album, flawed as it is, is that you actually get very often a kind of unravelling of songs in the next one. Yoko’s reply is often unravelling what John is doing. Beautiful Boy is a really interesting example. It is this beautiful lyrical song where John is posing as the perfect father in the song. And then you have Yoko coming along with Beautiful Boys, which is very deliberate, saying well I’ve got two children, you’re one of them and he’s the other one. A forty year old child. And it’s actually really quite harsh. And the lyrics are: “You’re a beautiful boy,/ With all your little toys,/ Your eyes have seen the world,/ Though you’re only four years old”. And then the next one is: “You’re a beautiful boy,/ With all your little ploys,/ Your mind has changed the world,/ And your now forty years old,/ You got all you can carry,/ And still feel somehow empty.” You’ve changed the world, you’re this iconic figure ,but you’re empty. That’s a really harsh thing to be saying to somebody you love.
DARAGH: But he let her say it!
FINTAN: This is what I’m saying, you have to give him enormous credit. And I think you were absolutely right, Donovan, about.. there’s this generosity. Because he is this iconic figure and there is this huge expectation of him, and he knows what people think of Yoko, he knows that people think she’s this maniac dragging him down. But it actually goes way beyond that because she’s really challenging his masculinity, challenging his version of himself. So it’s like he’s kind of constructing this new version of John Lennon in these songs and then she’s moving in sideways and underneath to undermine it. And there is a fascination about that. And I think what happens on the album is that her songs benefit a lot more from the context than his do.
DONOVAN: He was looking at himself and trying to get rid of the old persona, the Beatle and all that. And yeah I can see that too, that’s where it holds up too in that sense. But in the poem that you read there that Yoko wrote, we’re talking about, she’s not a lyric poet, and lyric poets like John and I, we actually can’t help but rhyme in a certain way, and rhyme in the ancient sense of the Irish rhymers, the meaning comes through the rhyme and the sense of the music. And she doesn’t have a sense of the lyric or the music in her work. It very much is a statement. And I agree with you that it holds up because he’s asking for it and she gives it. And he wants the audience to know that I’m not what you think I am, I’m not the star, I’m not the Beatle. And it was such a lot for them to get rid of. And George did an incredible job of constructing himself out of the ashes of that thing called Beatlemania. And so John is involved very much in trying to reconstruct himself at this time.
DARAGH: When you put on a song like Strawberry Fields Forever or A Day In The Life, you immediately know you’re in the presence of genius. Is that the case with the Lennon songs on Double Fantasy?
DONOVAN: It’s hard to compare. When Leonard Cohen was asked about his songwriting, he said he’s only written one song. And they said, what do you mean? And he said, I’ve only written one song and of course the interviewer said what do you mean, and he said, well when you’re young you’ve a theme, you’re in that theme and every song is a variation of it. … Each artist only has a theme, even Picasso with the Minotaur and the labyrinth and all the bulls that he paints. There’s a theme to L’s songs, there’s a theme to John’s songs and there’s a theme to my songs. You never leave it. Every other song is a variation. And therefore you can’t compare the one better than the other, they’re only part of the same story which repeats again and again as you travel through your life as a writer. And I think you completely find this in other composers of poetry and song. There is a thing, so it’s hard to, say, take one of those and compare it to A Day In The Life.
DARAGH: But you can see a strong continuity between the John Lennon who wrote Julia and the John Lennon you’re hearing on this album?
DONOVAN: It’s the same guy living on his travels through this particular life, if you believe in reincarnation. This is his story, this is his journey, this is the song at this particular part of the journey. And so it’s not fair to compare one part of an artist’s work to another, that this is better. It may be more popular, but that’s another thing!
SIOBHÁN: My mum comes from Cologne in Germany and my uncle and her were huge Beatles fans. It was the brother & sister bond buying Beatles LPs everytime they came out. Their relationship was based on their love of The Beatles. So in a way I have an appreciation of The Beatles but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan in the sense that I’ve more than the one album. I don’t know a huge amount about the Beatles, I don’t know a huge amount about the history behind this album, I only found out last night that it was released very shortly before John’s death so in a sense I only listened to it in terms of the music rather than the history and the baggage that came with it.
DARAGH: Which is impossible for people who remember it the first time to access, that kind of pristine listening to it without the death being on one’s mind.
FINTAN: Yeah, the death and also as Donovan was saying the whole mythology of The Beatles. You can’t hear this other than through A Day In The Life, so many of those songs, the soundtrack of certainly my youth. But to go back to your question, are we judging it aesthetically or by all the external significance? I think it depends on whether we’re talking about the individual songs or the album. To me one of the interesting things about this album is that it is an album. In an era when perhaps the album is on the way out, this is a classic case of the whole being much more than the sum of the parts. If you listen to each of these individual tracks separately, without the context of the other ones, they will seem much weaker than they do as a whole because what you get out of it is this call and response thing… They did put them together in a very…
ANNE: A very specific order
FINTAN: Very much in an order, and it’s very structured in terms of what’s going on here. And definitely the idea of an album as containing this sort of dialogue, even though it’s not entirely successful here, even though it doesn’t produce one of the all-time great classic albums, what it does produce is actually something more interesting than I would suggest a lot of contemporary albums, which are increasingly formed out of a sense that actually it’s just the individual tracks, you can stick them up on iTunes and they have to work on their own.
DONOVAN: The world’s attention was on their relationship. Even more seriously, it was an obsession. Everyone wanted to know why was it working and why should it work and we have an opinion. You’ve got to remember that. It was intense, it was so intense, it was like the world was watching. And there’s not a revolutionary song on this set, and yet John was involved very much so in returning to the field of popular music… The actual set of songs was like, yeah now we can hear what’s going on, like Hello Magazine or VIP, what’s happening with Posh & Becks? What’s going to happen next with John & Yoko? That was actually intense at the time. Does it translate now, 30 years later? Do we still feel the same interest in their relationship? Does it fascinate you, Siobhán, this relationship, even with one part of it gone now?
SIOBHÁN: Well, strangely enough, I remember the guys that I hung around with in my early teens, they always referred to Yoko Ono as the breaker upper of The Beatles, they always referred to her as the force that tore The Beatles apart. So I had this at the back of my mind. So I suppose that in that light I wouldn’t have viewed her very positively, naturally if you’re told that somebody broke up The Beatles, they’re not going to be a very positive figure…
DONOVAN: No, she didn’t break them up, it couldn’t last any longer than it did, it wasn’t Yoko who broke The Beatles up. But that was the impression, oh you’ve broken up this wonderful thing, The Beatles.
DARAGH: I was interested in what you were saying, Donovan, about John being attracted to the artist in Yoko. Do you think there was any element of his finding an emotional substitute for Stu Sutcliffe in this?
DONOVAN: I don’t know about Sutcliffe. Cynthia was in art school, remember, they were artists together. It was nothing new that John loved artistic girls, but they just seemed to fit in different ways for him. But Sutcliffe, maybe the readers don’t know that, but there was an artist in The Beatles. When they were all painters, everyone had a pen in their hand at one point, or a paintbrush. No, I don’t think it had anything to do with that. His fascination with Yoko, as I said, was something to do with art, but it was more than that of course. They found in each other something that they were looking for. A long time ago in India, when John was learning the styles that I was playing every day, these styles are not mine, I brought them from the folk-blues-jazz world, and they influenced The White Album, in the songs that he wrote from then and Paul and George, there was a new way of composition for them, and in thanks he gave me a drawing, John, when he left India. And it was a dark-haired girl with a hand over her mouth in a secretive fashion and in a circle around the drawing was “See You in Merrie England, Scotland Ireland or Wales”, and it was him thanking me for the style. And it lay in the cupboard for years and I took it out one day, I thought I’d lost it! I found it one day and took it out and of course it was Yoko. And it was secretive then because he was still with Cynthia and Julian then, so it was very early on this relationship and I realised why it was to do with art, his art school beginnings. But also because they loved each other. Bou can see it in a particular set of photographs that were made at the time, which are not on this cover of course, but yeah – this is a love story and in its context and in its day it was revealing of what they were going through. It’s extraordinary. And I like the music of the new one myself, I like Stripped Down!
FINTAN: I think it’s fascinating what you say though about comparing it with Posh & Becks and the celebrity culture in which we now live in. It is one of the things that I found very poignant about it, it’s that culture but at a point where there’s still something genuine going on about it where there’s actually a real honesty. Where it’s not prettied up and parcelled out in Hello Magazine, and it’s about sex and it’s about pain and it’s about longing and real human emotions are still within it. And there is some sense of loss in terms of the broader culture. You couldn’t imagine an album being made of this honesty by two people as famous as John & Yoko were then. These are two people that are right at the top of the tree in terms of multimedia obsession. They’re some of the first global figures. John especially of course but then Yoko through him. Of course they have worked this themselves. One of the bed-ins was in the window a hotel in Montreal. They very publicly declared this relationship and played with this idea of fame, they wrote The Ballad of John and Yoko and it was all out there. But you couldn’t imagine now in the 21st Century people that are playing that media game and at the same time then giving you a version of themselves that has such raw honesty and emotion and unpleasant stuff about themselves. And that’s a very nice thing about it, it isn’t so much a self-mythologisation, it’s a self-demythologisation that’s going on here. And whatever you think about the album in itself, there’s something just extraordinary about the energy and the honesty. The sixties gets a very bad rap, but one of the great things… these are people coming out of the sixties with a sense that you have to be honest, you have to be truthful, and whatever the terrible flaws of the sixties might have been, it was a virtue that has been completely lost now….I think the really interesting thing is that Yoko’s the one who’s really pushing it now. It’s a feminist album in that sense, she’s defining herself. John had to define Yoko by virtue of, well, he couldn’t help it, he was the big magnet, she was in that orbit, but what I found really interesting in this was that when you listen to her she’s refusing to be defined by anybody except herself, she’s giving her definition of the relationship which is often a very different one from his. There is a kind of truth in that, not just John & Yoko, any relationship. It’s like that thing where two people see a car crash, they’re going to give very different versions of what they saw. And most marriages have car crashes contained within them and people are going to give you very different versions of what the relationship is. To some extent, he’s often drawn towards trying to give you a somewhat idealised version of the relationship, with Woman and… So he’s doing the mythologising and she’s doing the pulling the threads and saying well actually that’s not the way it is. But the great thing about them is that they both then make their own truths relative so that neither of them is claiming that either the mythologisation or the demythologisation is the full truth. And that’s what I like. It’s a very good piece of work about a marriage.
ANNE: Because actually it helps when I read the lyrics rather than listened to the music. It’s dealing with relationships, it’s right in there.
DARAGH: If you had to single out one song from the album as your favourite what would it be?
ANNE: I would find it difficult. I suppose because in my early years I would have grown up with John Lennon as a single artist, I would still have been drawn to the likes of Woman, not necessarily for the lyrics. It’s just the feel of it, like a lot of music you’re almost doing it an injustice by analysing. I think like a lot of songs, it’s like Eric Clapton’s song about when his son died, an awful lot of people could then connect with that. Whereas I’m not sure they’d connect as easily with Beautiful Boy. It’s whether you can take the song as meaning something for you, when a song lasts.
DARAGH: What do you think of this new version of Woman?
ANNE: I liked the new version. I just thought the vocals were purer, there’s just something that worked for me.
SIOBHÁN: I really loved Dear Yoko. I think the lyrics are incredibly sweet, everytime it comes on I start giggling to myself. It’s just a nice fluffy song, it makes me feel good. I don’t think about it too much when it’s over, I don’t think it’s a wonderful song, but it’s a very sweet song. I particularly liked it. And if I was allowed to pick a second one, I’d pick Cleanup Time. I just love it. Everything about it. That’s the one song I want to go back to when the album’s finished.
DARAGH: Funny, Cleanup Time tends to get overlooked.
SIOBHÁN: Maybe I was relieved to hear it the first time because Kiss, Kiss, Kiss was ending! But it kind of stuck out to me as one of the good ones. Strange how I’ve talked about how much I liked Yoko but I’ve picked two of John’s songs as my favourites…
DONOVAN: I guess Beautiful Boy. I’m a balladeer, I loved Beautiful Boy. The Rock ‘n’ Roll historical songs, the sounds of historical rock n roll on here is fun, I like that. But really a pure ballad and my personal connection to the lost childhood of John Lennon is being relived in that song. And he’s wishing to give it to his own son, the childhood he didn’t have himself. So it’s very poignant to me that song. But also as a songwriter I think it’s got simplicity and purity, because it’s a song that came because he couldn’t help writing it. He didn’t have to sit down and say maybe I should write a song called Beautiful Boy. It came pure right out of him. And the new version has it for me slightly over the early one.
FINTAN: That is what’s moving isn’t it, it’s wanting the child to be the child he wanted to be as a child himself. It’s that beautiful thing.
DONOVAN: The relationship – father, mother and child.
FINTAN: Yeah. I suppose for me I have to say there isn’t a single track that I would put on my iPod and listen to over and over again, to be perfectly honest, because for me it’s more interesting as an album than as individual tracks. I know that listening to it particularly the first time not having listened to it for 25 years or whatever, the thing about it that really made me sit up was the Yoko song Give Me Something which is strange and is harsh and is yearning and is demanding. It was the first time I’d ever really heard this woman, really heard her with all the veils of prejudice gone. And I’ve listened to it quite a few times since and it still has a real power. And ironically it does kind of remind me of those earlier Lennon songs with that self-revelation and that sort of upfront honesty and directness to it. And the one thing you know about any kind of art is that honesty never fades, and if somebody does something, no matter how strange it is, no matter how underdeveloped it might be, if there is a directness and an honesty and a simplicity to a certain point, it will retain that almost whatever the context is. And that song for me was just something that made me think, yeah, actually there’s actually something going on here.
DARAGH: Could I ask each of you for a final word on John Lennon’s thirtieth anniversary?
SIOBHÁN: I would say he’s definitely worth revisiting for a new generation. Certainly he was extremely significant. I think the tragedy which stands out to everybody here, the tragedy of John’s death, it was tragic, but there’s no personal feeling because I didn’t experience it, I didn’t experience the aftermath of it. I was born in ’89, it was a good few years before I was born. The first sense of real tragedy I got when I read the notes and when I read Yoko’s little bit to Sean about … he did the drawing and she just acknowledged that it must have been extremely difficult to him to have to revisit memories of that time. And that was to me, there was a certain sensitivity in that and it’s a really great insight into family dynamics and also a relationship, husband and wife or whoever a relationship the album is, I think it’s certainly interesting.
DONOVAN: I think everybody’s been not answering feelings about the loss of John at that time, because you haven’t asked the question. I can’t not mention it. And this may not just be about this album, of course. I was in the basement of the Boston Hotel in Rome, and I was in the breakfast room because I had to do some promotions, they’d got me up early. And the waiter came over and said, ‘John Lennon dead’. And I asked him twice, and he said John Lennon dead. And I felt this blow to me, somewhere in me I felt this blow. They say that when great souls who have moved humankind have passed on it’s felt as a shockwave around the planet. And this felt like the same shockwave, and I phoned my wife Linda and said is it true and she said yes. After a while, after the anger, and after the horror of it, it became clear that that was a connection I had, that millions had, with John’s voice, with John’s part that he was playing on this planet at this time. And what didn’t die was the music and then I could smile and laugh because in actual fact you can’t kill it, in actual fact it never dies. And anyone who tries to prevent is doing it after the fact, the music is already here and it will live forever. And so it is alive and it lives on in every generation. So that’s my personal feeling, and I couldn’t help but speak about the passing of John in this interview.
ANNE: Well I was twelve, so but I do remember clearly the day it was on the news. As I say, my father’s family were all Liverpool so we had a significance that.. It was just one of those moments that everybody kind of stopped and .. for somebody who for many of us that were going into their teens at that time he symbolised peace and the whole push for peace, for somebody who stood for that to be shot… To the point where I was in New York a few years ago, it seemed a bit morbid but you can’t help but walk up that street and think that’s where it happened. Which is not something I would think of doing, but there was just a draw that you kind of connect. I think he was just such an iconic figure, you know, to be cut short like that, the world felt it really.
FINTAN: Well I remember it absolutely vividly and I actually remember it more vividly than any other public event. I remember hearing it. Including all the huge political events. I was in bed, my wife came into me with a knock on the door saying John Lennon’s been shot. Just one of those things, it seemed impossible. Most of the horrible things we see in the world, most of the horrible news events seem all too possible, because we know the way the world is. And, em, Lennon not being there just seemed impossible. And in a way it still seems impossible, because no-one has filled the hole in the culture that’s been left by his absence. And maybe he came from a time when a certain kind of combination of things was possible that is not possible now. You know, this incredible fame, this… ‘iconic’ is a word we’ve used a lot, that you could be an icon, and you could combine that with absolute vulnerability. You know, our icons now are so wrapped up in the whole fame business, and of course they’re manufactured and then disposed of. But Lennon had this combination of being someone who really did change the world, what he did with McCartney, what he did with The Beatles, had a very profound effect on the sensibilities of an entire generation. And at the same time what he did after The Beatles is incredibly courageous, which is to expose himself almost literally – sometimes quite literally! – to be naked, and to stand naked, and to say all I am is this screwed up bunch of neuroses and griefs and trying to be a better person and I’m failing. And there was a kind of courage to the way he did that, and that gave him I think just a very special place in the culture. Because he both had, and he still has, a very heroic status, an anti-heroic status, at the time. And I’m not sure it would be possible for anybody, even with his incredible talent, to reproduce that now. So it is just a sense that it is a real loss because nobody is ever going to be quite like that again.
DARAGH: Not even Bono?
FINTAN: Just not in the same universe. And I don’t mean that at all as a way of disparaging Bono. What Lennon stood for in terms of… We know nothing about Bono. We don’t really know what Bono is like as a person, you know, through his music. We don’t know what he thinks, what his relationships are like, how his mind really works other than in this kind of obviously very public way, which he’s a master of, he’s a performer, he can command the stage, he can command international media attention, he can do all that kind of stuff, but the other side that you get with … If you imagine, Lennon was Bono multiplied by ten in terms of the fame and the sort of demand that was there. Donovan has spoken about this so well. It’s hard to really imagine the extent to which this was so enormous, this sheer weight of attention… And I’m sure I’ll get slagged for this for sounding pompous, but Lennon always reminds me of King Lear, where King Lear is the king. I command everything, I command the world, right? And then suddenly within a couple of acts he’s this mad aul fella who is completely exposed, he’s just out in the wind and the rain, and is naked and has flowers in his hair and is crazy. And Lennon did that, and he did it sort of knowingly, he knew what he was up to. And in a way he was one of the great deconstructors of bullshit. He deconstructed his own bullshit. And it’s easy enough to talk about tyrants and oppressors, and it should be done, and he did all that, he also attacked the tyranny of his own fame and his own iconic status, and I don’t think Bono does that quite, does he?… I think the sense of personal connection, people have a sense of connection with Bono as Bono, you know, this big figure. Lennon created and forged a really extraordinary personal connection with everyone who listened to his music because this was Lennon.
ANNE: I think Lennon goes across the generations still. Whereas I’m not sure Bono does.
SIOBHÁN: I just find Bono being even brought into this conversation very strange! I didn’t experience John Lennon’s time, I didn’t experience John Lennon’s death, but certainly he was … my parents certainly experienced his time and his death and he’s in a league of his own, without a doubt.
FINTAN: I think I just want to say how amazing it has been to be sitting here with Donovan and listening to him talking directly from experience about his connection with this… It’s just a real privilege.
DONOVAN: Everybody in the world who knows about John, that this is his day, everybody must have a different feeling today all over the world. In New York no doubt the DJs are preparing to start playing music. I would think that the overwhelming impression is that John said serious things with an incredible sense of humour. And humour was very important and you can say things with a sense of humour that you can’t say if you try to be serious. And I think his humour is what I feel millions of John’s fans and with the album, I don’t know how people are feeling about the album. It marks his anniversary and his last work, but John had a sense of humour and he did not suffer fools gladly and we know that and we love that.