The Beatles: Liverpool Fantasy

Last week, I had a puzzling dream. When I woke, the vision remaining from the dreamscape was of a single thread of conversation, almost oracular, with no context. Ringo was telling me, "That was actually John singing on that one, mate."

I searched for a hidden message. Maybe it was one of those naked-in-public dreams, the Beatles drummer chastising me for misidentifying the singer in some review I wrote. I soon forgot about it.

Then, out of the blue, I was sent a copy of the 50th anniversary edition of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection, Lennon's first post-Beatles release. The lavish package contains six CDs and two Blu-rays of remixed and remastered music, covering everything Lennon did in the studio after leaving the Beatles up to and through that first solo release. When I listened to the previously unreleased tracks—there are 87 of them in the package—I came across Lennon's intense version of "Honey Don't," the Carl Perkins rockabilly ditty forever burned into my consciousness by Ringo's vocal on Beatles '65, one of the first LPs I ever purchased.

As I listened to the remixes of the solo LP, I imagined what this record would have meant outside the context of the Beatles. This is not a Beatles album, defiantly so, which gives it some of its power.

Recontextualizing the album made me think of Bells of Hell, a watering hole I frequented in the '70s and '80s on 13th Street off Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. You could get a high-quality pint of Guinness or McSorley's there, and some lively conversation from regulars including music-writing luminaries Nick Tosches, John Morthland, Joe "Phantom of the Movies" Kane, Creem editor Billy Altman, and Lester Bangs. All lived in the neighborhood. I lived a block away. I worked first at Crawdaddy, then Rolling Stone, then Circus. As editor of Circus's record review section, I had Bells of Hell "editorial" meetings with Tosches and Bangs, collected their copy, and brought them the checks for their work, which they promptly cashed at the bar and used to buy more drinks.

The Bells was our headquarters, and there we had the wildest nights of drunken conversation. Often, in the wee hours, Tosches would gather himself up on his bar stool and with his Brando stare begin to recite from memory sections of the book he was writing about Jerry Lee Lewis: "Fame lifted her skirts ... ." It was a sacred ritual we all honored, most of the time.

The Bells was where I first met Larry Kirwan, who played in the back room with a band called the Major Thinkers. Kirwan could always be counted on to start provocative barroom conversations. I remember him bringing up the idea, What would the Beatles' story be like if they had never made it?

Kirwan's question led to hours of argument, including speculation that Lennon would have written "Working Class Hero" sooner than he did, probably in 1967 (tip of the hat to Joe Kane on that one). Kirwan's premise ended up as the subject of his novel, Liverpool Fantasy. In this alternate take, producer George Martin wants the newly signed band to cut "Till There Was You" as the first single, but Lennon is so adamant that it should be "Please Please Me" that he throws a fit and walks out of the studio with the Beatles—except Paul, who stays to record Martin's choice. Cut to 1987: Paul is now the world-famous, Las Vegas–based American crooner Paul Montana, and Lennon is an overweight drunk on the dole who sits in with his old rivals Gerry and the Pacemakers on weekends.

My alternate reality is not as harsh or as delightful as Kirwan's fiction, but it suits my music-historian sensibility. If the Beatles had faltered at the start, both John and Paul would have continued to make music. Lennon might well have soldiered on as a minor cult artist with his leather jacket, jeans, and penchant for '50s revival music.

There's a lot of that here on the unreleased tracks, which are the most sonically compromised but also the most revealing performances in the set. We hear Lennon unleashed, laughing uncontrollably, happy to be sprung from Beatles jail—quite a contrast to the pain being unpacked on the LP.

Speaking of: The remastered POB gathers the power of the original release and suggests how transformative this record was in the 1970s. The big numbers "Mother" and "God" are clarion calls to the era of the early-to-mid-'70s Cult of Self; feeling your pain was a popular motif back then. The discipline in Lennon's vocal performance of "Mother" is evident on the chilling isolated track. Another take shows Lennon rehearsing the song with the band, instructing Ringo and bassist Klaus Voormann to play more starkly.

The Paul Hicks–remixed and remastered LP is a sonic gem. Lennon's voice is glorified with added power and clarity, and the soundscape is reshaped just enough to offer a slightly altered reality, something like an echo in the time-space continuum.

When Lennon goes up-tempo on "I Found Out" and "Well Well Well," we're hearing intimations of the full-out rage of punk, a mere dream of the muses when Lennon cut these tracks but not for long. The deliberate distortion on Lennon's guitar, fuzz-boxed and overdriven, matches the peaking rawness of his vocal track. The unreleased tracks finish the argument: Lennon's take on Elvis is especially revealing, an out-of-control mashup of a medley that has Lennon gargling and mumbling lyrics, shaping the sounds of the words rather than using the words themselves. Imagine Shane MacGowan of the Pogues approaching this material, and you get the idea. Lennon only giggles once. He knows, on some level, that it's real.—John Swenson

HariGeorgeson's picture

Imagine at 50 years is still soooooooooooooo much better then 99.99% of the sh** out today