Few musicians have inspired more devotion than John Lennon, whether with The Beatles or through his work after the band split. But like any mortal, Lennon left a complicated legacy. His was filled with moral failings — which his music laid bare — buttressed against anthems that inspired millions and changed the landscape of pop music.
The films Imagine and Gimme Some Truth , set for re-release next week alongside an Imagine box set, paint the picture of a rapier wit searching for something and finding — maybe not exactly what he was looking for, but something visceral, substantial, and fully human. In honor of that intimate look into Lennon’s life and work, here is a survey of Lennon’s post-Beatles studio albums.
Lennon and Ono’s second attempt at documenting their life together was as poorly-received as the first in the “Unfinished Music” series. Side B is particularly notable for its evocative representation of Ono’s troubled pregnancy and ultimate miscarriage in November 1968.
Like Unfinished Music No. 1, the final experimental documentation of life together was more notable for its packaging than its content. It came in a box containing a facsimile of Lennon and Ono’s marriage certificate and a photo of wedding cake.
A story that speaks to the experimental nature of these releases involves a music critic who was given single-sided test pressings. One contained the ultimate A side, the other the B side. Each disc was backed with test signals. The critic assumed it was a double album and praised the incidental tones.
Lennon and Ono responded with the following telegram: DEAR RICHARD THANK YOU FOR YOUR FANTASTIC REVIEW ON OUR WEDDING ALBUM INCLUDING C-AND-D SIDES. WE ARE CONSIDERING IT FOR OUR NEXT RELEASE. MAYBE YOU ARE RIGHT IN SAYING THAT THEY ARE THE BEST SIDES STOP WE BOTH FEEL THAT THIS IS THE FIRST TIME A CRITIC TOPPED THE ARTIST. WE ARE NOT JOKING. LOVE AND PEACE STOP JOHN AND YOKO LENNON.
The emotionally and musically raw John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s post-Beatles solo debut, was recorded at the same time as Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band. The album set a new standard for musical introspection with the depth of Lennon’s self-reflection.
Its genesis can be traced to a five-month-long course of primal scream therapy. According to Lennon, the therapy unlocked repressed emotions that he channeled into the songs like Mother, which deals explicitly with his parents who abandoned him in childhood. The album documents Lennon’s slow loss of faith in almost everything around him, while steering clear of rudimentary nihilism.
John Lennon – Imagine (1971)
In contrast to his first proper solo album, Imagine was a lushly produced LP with a softer touch and fewer directly-personal lyrics. Even so, it’s far from an ode to positivity as a whole. Lennon continues to display his brokenness and warts, whether in the unsettlingly-autobiographical Jealous Guy or in his anti-Paul jeremiad How Do You Sleep. Those are set against the title track, which instantly became an them for the early ’70s movement. The song — along with highly-publicized protests from Lennon and Ono in previous years — spurred government interest in Lennon as someone who could lead a hippie revolution and help unseat Richard Nixon.
While not as thematically coherent as the previous record, it’s considered by some to be Lennon’s best. At the very least, he would never top it with subsequent releases. In the ensuing decades, Imagine has become his most iconic solo statement by far.
The last Lennon/Ono album co-produced by Phil Spector, Some Time In New York City encapsulates a highly-political period in their lives that culminated in FBI surveillance. To this point, most of Lennon’s music had been indirectly political though accepted as countercultural gospel. On Some Time In New York City, it became incredibly overt.
With help from New York rockers Elephant’s Memory, the couple railed against sexism, racism, colonialism, and the prison-industrial complex. While representative of the volatile time period, the album was poorly received by fans and critics alike.
John Lennon – Mind Games (1973)
Mind Games marks Lennon’s first foray into solo self-production. Recorded at the famed Record Plant in New York, it recedes from the explicitly political statements of Some Time In New York City and largely returns to introspection. During this period, Lennon began an 18-month separation from Ono and — at Ono’s behest — became involved with production coordinator May Pang.
This was also in the midst of a bitter legal fight against deportation from the US, as government surveillance and harassment continually escalated. While not as formidable as his first two solo albums, cuts like the title track and Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple) are among his best.
This album was written and recorded during the 18-month separation from Yoko Ono, a period Lennon dubbed his “lost weekend” after the novel and film of the same name. He began recording the album that ultimately became Rock ‘N’ Roll with Phil Spector in October 1973, before sessions stalled and Spector disappeared.
With time to kill, Lennon decided to lay down songs he’d written at a luxury hotel in Manhattan. The result was Walls and Bridges, which gave Lennon his first chart-topping single in the US as a solo artist. The song, Whatever Gets You Thru The Night, featured backing vocals from a white-hot Goodbye Yellow Brick Road-era Elton John.
John Lennon – Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975)
Rock ‘N’ Roll was inspired almost entirely by a lawsuit. While writing “Come Together” in 1969, he borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. Publisher Morris Levy filed a copyright infringement suit, and the settlement required Lennon to cover three songs from Levy’s Big Seven Publishing catalog. This inspired him to go full bore and record an entire album of oldies covers.
Initial reviews were mixed at best, decrying the album as passé after similar efforts by others to revisit bygone days (most notably David Bowie’s Pin Ups). In subsequent years, fans and critics alike have warmed to it.
After its release, Lennon took his first extended break from recording since 1960 to raise his son Sean with Yoko. He wouldn’t release another album for five years.
After half a decade of quiet child rearing, Lennon decided to get back into music. To display their rediscovered domestic bliss, he and Yoko Ono decided to craft their first album together in eight years. Lennon’s songs displayed a sentimentality unlike any period prior, as he appeared to reckon with and accept his slide into middle age and away from show business hubbub. Songs like Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), Dear Yoko, and Watching The Wheels showcased a renewed sense of songwriting purpose.
While seen initially as a quiet yet triumphant return, the context changed very quickly. Lennon was murdered only three weeks after the release of Double Fantasy, and the record became a worldwide commercial success and cultural phenomenon. This resulted in a Grammy win for Album of the Year.
Milk And Honey was initially planned as a follow-up to “Double Fantasy,” but it took Ono three years away from the material before she was able to work on it again. Most of Lennon’s material on the album is culled from rough takes and demos, which stands in stark contrast to Ono’s more polished and commercial songs.
While not as commercially well-received as the prior album, Milk And Honey still performed well and generated a worldwide top 10 hit in Nobody Told Me — which was originally written for a Ringo Starr solo album.