Once visual/recording artist Yoko Ono decided to release
The John Lennon Anthology, a four-disc set of unreleased
rare and live tracks by her late husband, she set the bar as
high as she could.
“I didn’t just want to put out tracks that would satisfy the
hard-core fans’ curiosity,” said Ono, who was a renowned
avant-garde artist before she married Lennon, the ex-Beatle.
“I wanted to put out something John would not have been ashamed of.
“John was always trying to give the best to the world, and
there was a certain kind of sonic intensity in his work and
his life. … And I wanted to make sure to re-create that.”
The collection spans 11 years of work — from 1969, just after
the break-up of the Beatles, to recordings completed just prior
to Lennon’s untimely death in 1980, when he was shot outside
the couple’s New York City apartment. It’s divided into four
separate discs — Ascot, New York City,
The Lost Weekend and Dakota, each of which
contains music and artwork that corresponds to a specific
period in Lennon’s post-Beatles career. There are also alternate
versions of Lennon’s solo work, including hits such as
“Imagine” and “Jealous Guy,” alongside previously unheard
original material and concert performances.
In addition to the four discs, the boxed set includes a booklet with
photos, drawings by Lennon and essays by Ono and music journalist
Producer Rob Stevens trimmed 2,000 hours of tapes to 50 hours
and worked side by side with Ono; Stevens lobbied for what he knew
die-hard Lennon fans would want. Meanwhile, Ono said, she acted as
the gatekeeper, keeping a lock on material she knew Lennon wouldn’t
have wanted released.
“[Rob] would say, ‘This is the kind of thing that fans are
waiting for’; whereas I was there as a co-producer to John in
the initial making of these tracks, so I knew what John and
I would have wanted to send out there,” Ono said. She added that
she stood her ground with Stevens over certain tracks he tried to
For his part, Stevens said he enjoyed the intense discussions that determined the shape of the anthology.
“Yoko really welcomes a spirited debate,” Stevens said. “That’s one of the aspects of working with her I love, because it’s like sitting and playing chess with a grand master. Even if you yourself are not a grand master, the mere fact of sitting down and playing with one almost osmotically improves your own playing.”
Among the 94 tracks making the cut was a version of
“I’m Losing You” (RealAudio excerpt), recorded with ’70s power-pop band Cheap Trick, which was originally left off Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy. The Cheap Trick version of “I’m Losing You” was recently made into a video featuring footage of the band interspersed with animated drawings by Lennon.
“[That version of] ‘I’m Losing You’ is a very kind of intense track,” said Ono. “There was nothing wrong with it, except that [John] wanted to make sure there was a unified feeling throughout all the songs on the album. … John’s singing very well on [the Cheap Trick take], so I thought that it was important to put it out.”
Other selections on the anthology are more unlikely. A young
Sean Lennon — John and Yoko’s son, who now has a successful recording career of his own — sings snippets of Beatles
songs such as “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “With A Little
Help From My Friends”; Lennon does a blunt 10-second
“When In Doubt, F— It”; and three satirical pieces feature Lennon aping the singing style and songs of folk legend Bob Dylan. But the result is a well-rounded picture of Lennon’s art and personality, something that both Stevens and Ono cited as a goal for the project.
“I thought that would be only too fair,” Ono said. She also said the use of Lennon’s artwork on the anthology packaging was helpful to the project’s success.
“I think John believed in truth and the power of truth, and it was important to project him as he was — and that was not particularly easy to do.”