‘Madness is the first sign of dandruff.’
– Dr. Winston O’Boogie
John Lennon and The Plastic U.F.Ono Band
Produced & Arranged by John Lennon
Every year of John Lennon’s adult life had seen upheaval of some sort. But 1973 – the year in which he would turn 33, and might have expected a little respite – turned out to be as traumatic as ever.
He entered it as a battle-weary radical, still inhabiting a small Greenwich Village apartment with Yoko Ono and still fighting the US authorities’ apparent wish to deport him. He suspected a conspiracy and was not, as it turned out, paranoid. There really were larger political forces out to get him. He needed support, and many prominent Americans did in fact lend their voices to his cause. But his popular appeal had been dented, as he knew better than anyone, by the poorly-received double album of instant polemics, Sometime In New York City. This brave, carelessly outspoken Liverpudlian was used to being in trouble, but he was just as human as anyone else. It got him down.
In April, he and Yoko moved uptown to the Dakota Building, in search of some comfort and badly-needed privacy. An instinctive democrat, he was disappointed by the radical comrades, who were lamentably short of the popular touch. He also wanted to persuade the powers-that-be that he was not anti-American. They should have known that from every rock’n’roll song he ever sang.
Recording was done in New York over July and August of 1973, with a select band of musicians (Jokingly named The Plastic U.F.Ono Band) including Jim Keltner, the guitarist David Spinozza and the celebrated pedal-steel player ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow. Production was by John alone, though there were echoes of his last collaborator, Phil Spector, in the spacious title track – even if its orchestral grandeur was, in fact, largely due to John’s slide guitar.
‘Mind Games’, the track, reflected John’s current interest in a book of that name (by Robert Masters and Jean Houston) which stressed the tapping of our mental potential to effect global change. Somewhat, therefore, in the tradition of Yoko’s ‘Imagine’ poems, it was suggesting, “mind games” as a positive and creative idea. The soaring chorus lends a huge emotional heft: in fact the song had started life with the far more anthemic title ‘Make Love Not War’. You may still hear these words at the fade.
Where ‘Mind Games’ rolls with a casual power, other tracks still pulse with the raw thrill he’d felt when he hit the New York streets: ‘Tight A$’ and ‘Meat City’ are cynical and ebullient by turns, the songs of a witty artist who was also intensely hopeful.
The radical sentiments of Sometime In New York City were not entirely forgotten, though they assume a more abstract form in ‘Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple)’ – another epic number, targeting the near-defunct Richard Nixon presidency – and more especially the entirely silent ‘Nutopian International Anthem’. Borderlines were anathema to John, in every sense, and a “Nutopia” free of visa laws must have sounded perfect.
Yet a retreat from political engagement towards more personal concerns is also evident, evidenced by ‘One Day (At A Time)’ and ‘Only People’, both of which temper idealism with a focus on individuals over organisations. And of course there are outright love songs, from the devotional ‘Intuition’, ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Out The Blue’ to further declarations of Lennon’s penitence (a la ‘Jealous Guy’), in ‘Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)’ and ‘I Know (I Know)’. On the sleeve of Yoko’s 1971 album Fly, John had offered the thought, ‘Love is having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.’ It’s clear that the course of true love never did run smooth, not even for John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Mind Games was released in November of 1973 to a generally quiet response. John himself was at a loss, personally and professionally. What to do next?
Yoko Ono: ‘Well, when you listen to Mind Games now, you realise what an incredibly good album it is. I just felt terribly responsible about our partnership. His songs were fantastic but his position as the “top pop star” was going down the drain.’
At her insistence, he took time off from their marriage and his life in the Dakota.
‘Yes. Because I really thought that we were being totally destructive about ourselves. It was not helping John. And it was not helping me. And we were artists who should have the space and the freedom to express ourselves without being hated.’
At the onset of winter in 1973, the modern world’s most famous lovers were now living on opposite coasts of America. As everyone eventually learned, John had a “Lost Weekend” to experience, and a further descent to make. Happily for us, neither of these would spell doom for Lennon’s creative genius…