`Even now I think there are people who still cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that I had been in John's life," says Yoko Ono in the sleeve notes to the massive 100-track, four-CD boxset that is The John Lennon anthology. The woman who was despised for "breaking up The Beatles" and the subject of ridicule that was motivated by part xenophobia and part sexism, has spent 16 hours a day for the last two years, going through all of Lennon's unreleased material for the anthology with only one guiding principle: "with every song I had to ask myself `would John be proud of this?' He had very high standards and I am very conscious of living up to them. I would never release anything that would shame him," she says.
Following on from the huge commercial success of The Beatles anthologies (which were all multimillion sellers), the Lennon anthology, which really is as definitive as it comes, is expected to register one of the biggest box-set sales in the last 10 years. With its mix of studio demos, live performances and private home recordings alongside revealing between song banter and some fascinating insights into the man's life and times, the anthology manages to sustain a high level of quality throughout the four CDs, and unlike other projects of this type, isn't padded out with inferior takes and sub-standard material.
Initially reluctant to release some of the very private music included here, Ono found the cataloguing of the record a very painful experience. "It was so hard, as I listened to John's voice on the tapes, I felt as though I was going through a time warp and that John was actually in the same room with me. I couldn't stop the tears running down my cheek", she writes.
The anthology is divided into four themed CDs - Ascot (the town in England where Lennon and Ono lived in the early 1970s); New York City (their permanent home until Lennon was shot dead in 1980); The Lost Weekend (the two years in which the couple had a trial separation and Lennon went to live in Los Angeles) and Dakota (the name of the apartment block where they lived in New York).
Of most interest are the radically alternative versions of songs such as Working Class Hero, Imagine, Give Peace a Chance and Happy Xmas (War is Over) but there's also plenty of never-before released live performances from various concerts during the 1970s right up to duets Lennon did with his son Sean just before his death. Included here is the vituperative How Do You Sleep - a bitter attack on his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney with the lines "those freaks was right when they said you were dead . . . the only thing you done was Yesterday . . . the sound you make is muzak" as well as Luck of the Irish (which was banned on its release in 1971) with a verse that goes: "A thousand years of torture and hunger drove the people away from their land, a land full of beauty and wonder, was raped by the British brigands".
One of the more significant aspects of the demo songs is the strength and fullness of Lennon's voice, something that wasn't readily apparent in his Beatle days. As Ono notes: "John never thought he was a good singer, which is why he used to bury his voice way down in the mix, but on the demos he didn't feel he had to hide his voice and he comes across as a really incredible singer. It's nice because I know how much singers like Liam Gallagher champion his work."
Given that the anthology costs £45, Ono has also sanctioned the release of a normally priced single CD of highlights from the anthology, called Wonsaponatime for a broader audience.
Both The John Lennon Anthology and Wonsaponatime are available from this week on the Parlophone label