John Lennon Anthology is a four disc box set compilation of the musical career of John Lennon after the breakup of The Beatles. Each of the four discs focuses on a particular era of John's post-Beatles recording career, and overall the set is roughly chronological. The four CD set totals four hours, twenty six minutes, and twenty eight seconds in length. It was released by Capitol on November 3, 1998. The single disc Wonsaponatime was issued a few months later as a rough overview of the anthology.

Many people saw this as another attempt by Yoko Ono to turn a quick buck on the legacy of her dead husband. The box set lists at $72.97, although it can be found for cheaper; this averages out to about $18 per disc, which is rather expensive. I tend to think of this set as something of a money grab, of course, but in the end, aren't all such career retrospectives little more than that?

As a longtime fan of John Lennon's works, I found this set to be quite wonderful, actually. As Yoko says in the extensive liner notes, "This is the John that I knew, not the John that you knew through the press, the records and the films. I am saying to you, here’s my John." The collection does come off as being very personal, with a large number of session outtakes, and when the widely available tunes are chosen, the ones represented here are the most introspective numbers. As you listen, it comes off as being a highy personal set.

The box the set comes in is decorated with drawings, notebook scraps, and photos of John at home, perhaps adding to the personal feel. The construction and contents of the box are exquisite; it's very elegantly and colorfully constructed, with a highly detailed 60 page booklet filled with a number of essays about John by Yoko and several of John's friends. These liner notes help contribute greatly to the personal feel of the package.

The beauty, though, is in the music. John, like many artists, was never truly able to mask his emotions and thoughts in his music, and often they sneak out here, painting a picture of a complex and interesting person with a lot of musical talent. Since there are four discs, over an hour in length apiece, I'll not give specific notes on each track, but instead summarize each disc and point out some of the high points.

CD 1: Ascot

"Sometimes you wonder, I mean really wonder. I know we make our own reality and we always have a choice, but how much is pre-ordained?" -- John Lennon

The first disc of the set, entitled Ascot after the castle that he and Yoko lived in at the time, focuses on the years 1970 and 1971, when the wounds of the breakup of The Beatles were fresh and John was beginning a life on his own. This album covers the albums Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, with various live sessions and other miscellany around the same time. Here's the track listing.

  1. Working Class Hero (4:21)
  2. God (3:32)
  3. I Found Out (3:50)
  4. Hold On (0:44)
  5. Isolation (3:48)
  6. Love (2:47)
  7. Mother (3:51)
  8. Remember (2:46)
  9. Imagine (Take 1) (3:22)
  10. 'Fortunately' (0:19)
  11. Baby Please Don't Go (4:06)
  12. Oh My Love (2:54)
  13. Jealous Guy (4:10)
  14. Maggie Mae (0:52)
  15. How Do You Sleep (5:22)
  16. God Save Oz (3:27)
  17. Do The Oz (3:08)
  18. I Don't Want To Be A Soldier (5:20)
  19. Give Peace A Chance (1:53)
  20. Look At Me (2:53)
  21. Long Lost John (2:15)

In 1970 John Lennon was undergoing primal scream therapy, a therapy in which he screamed away the pain his troubled childhood and the loss of his mother and his band had caused. This therapy influenced the album Plastic Ono Band greatly, and Ascot really reveals this throughout the first half, many of these often filled with a controlled rage that isn't quite found on the released versions. Track number four of this disc, Hold On, particularly demonstrates this, possessing a controlled energy that seems absent in the final album version.

The second half of the disc focuses on the sessions for Imagine, which would turn out to be John Lennon’s greatest mainstream solo success. The first take of the title song, track nine, is just as haunting as the final cut. Also of note is track fifteen, an alternate version of the scathing How Do You Sleep, in which he absolutely butchers Paul McCartney. This version sounds much more brutal than the album version, in fact.

The entire Anthology, much like The Beatles Anthology albums, contains a lot of alternative versions and studio outtakes of previously released Lennon songs. But while alternative versions of songs are often mostly interesting for the fans, there are enough demos and outtakes of never before released songs on the CDs that make the Anthology interesting for other music lovers. Track 11, Baby Please Don't Go is a great example of this, a very strong track left off of Imagine.

CD 2: New York City

"If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome. Where else? Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself." -- John Lennon

The second CD, entitled New York City because it covers the years 1972 and 1973 when John and Yoko had just moved to the city, really highlights John's peak as a political activist. The songs here really have a political twinge to them, more so than at any other point in his career. This CD covers the sessions for Mind Games and the compilation album Sometime in New York City, as well as the abundance of live appearances John was making at the time. If you're interested in Lennon because of his political activity, this is definitely the highlight of the set.

  1. New York City (0:55)
  2. Attica State (live) (4:07)
  3. Imagine (Take 2) (3:29)
  4. Bring On The Lucie (4:08)
  5. Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (0:39)
  6. Geraldo Rivera-One To One Concert (0:40)
  7. Woman Is The Nigger Of The World (Live) (5:15)
  8. It's So Hard (Live) (3:10)
  9. Come Together (Live) (4:20)
  10. Happy Xmas (3:33)
  11. Luck Of The Irish (Live) (3:43)
  12. John Sinclair (Live) (3:43)
  13. The David Frost Show (0:53)
  14. Mind Games (I Promise) (1:03)
  15. Mind Games (Make Love, Not War) (1:14)
  16. One Day At A Time (3:14)
  17. I Know (3:13)
  18. I'm The Greatest (3:37)
  19. Goodnight Vienna (2:43)
  20. Jerry Lewis Telethon (2:01)
  21. 'A Kiss Is Just A Kiss' (0:12)
  22. Real Love (4:15)
  23. You Are Here (4:56)

This second CD just literally drips with politically-tinted songs that utter protest against - among other things - England’s actions in Northern Ireland (track 11) and the discrimination against women in society (tracks five and seven). This overlooks one of his most famous tracks, Happy Xmas (track ten), which is a protest song if I've ever heard one.

The second half of the disc returns to the studio and highlights the evolution of one of my favorite Lennon songs, Mind Games, over tracks fourteen and fifteen. Aside from some alternate takes, also notable are tracks thirteen and twenty, which provide a glimpse into what John was doing politically and socially at the time.

Also of particular note on this disc is the live performances. Many of them are truly fantastic, and this is by far the heaviest disc in terms of live performances. In particular, tracks seven through twelve (excluding ten) are all fantastic live tracks.

CD 3: The Lost Weekend

"Yes. We were seperated in the early Seventies. She kicked me out. Suddenly, I was a raft alone in the middle of the universe. I was just trying to hide what I felt in the bottle. I was just insane. It was the lost weekend..." -- John Lennon

The third disc covers the years 1974 to 1976, covering the separation between John and Yoko that John referred to as "the lost weekend." The songs here come across as those of a man on a true rollercoaster ride, often masking the conflict between huge highs and enormous lows on the same song (Whatever Gets You Through The Night comes to mind). The track listing is as follows.

  1. What You Got (1:15)
  2. Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out (5:39)
  3. Whatever Gets You Through The Night (Home) (0:38)
  4. Whatever Gets You Through The Night (Studio) (3:34)
  5. Yesterday (0:34)
  6. Be Bop A Lula (2:54)
  7. Rip It Up/Ready Teddy (2:31)
  8. Scared (5:06)
  9. Stell And Glass (4:48)
  10. Suprise, Suprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox) (2:59)
  11. Bless You (4:16)
  12. Going Down On Love (0:54)
  13. Move Over Ms. L (3:11)
  14. Ain't She Sweet (0:29)
  15. Slippin' And Slidin' (2:28)
  16. Peggy Sue (1:19)
  17. Bring It On Home to Me/Send Me Some Lovin' (3:52)
  18. Phil And John 1 (2:15)
  19. Phil And John 2 (2:00)
  20. Phil And John 3 (0:55)
  21. 'When In Doubt, Fuck It' (0:10)
  22. Be My Baby (4:34)
  23. Stranger's Room (3:20)
  24. Old Dirt Road (3:54)

This disc chronicles the recordings of the albums Walls and Bridges and Rock 'n' Roll, the latter being an LP of covers of classic rock standards. Rock 'n' Roll is easily my favorite Lennon album, because just by listening to it you get this feeling of despondency, as though the depression is seeping through the happiness of the songs. The mix makes the album sublime, to my ears, and this disc captures more of it.

The disc intermingles a number of truly sublime interpretations of rock and pop classics with the original tracks cut for Walls and Bridges. Of particular note among the covers are the parody of Yesterday that is track five; is it mean natured or good spirited? Fro me, though, this entire set reaches a peak with the fantastic covers of Rip It Up/Ready Teddy (track seven) and Peggy Sue (track sixteen), both of which are fantastic in the Rock 'n' Roll "peppy classic on top of sadness" way.

In terms of Lennon originals, the versions of Whatever Gets You Through The Night (tracks three and four) and the version of Move Over Miss L (track thirteen) stand out as wondrful, as is the closer, Old Dirt Road. I've never liked Walls and Bridges that well, but it is given a very good representation here in terms of quality, not quantity.

CD 4: Dakota

"It's fear of the unknown. Unknown is what it is. Accept that it's unknown and it's just plain sailing." -- John Lennon

The final disc in the set, named after John and Yoko's home in New York City towards the end of his life, covers John's re-emergence in 1980 with Double Fantasy and the outtakes that would eventually make up the later Milk and Honey. This is the sound of John Lennon the parent; an older, wiser, and domesticated man, perhaps even more here than on the albums themselves. The disc closes with seven tracks (noted as "something more" on the disc sleeve) that are previously unreleased home demos and recordings of various things that really tie together this portrait of John as a musical person. The track listing is as follows.

  1. I'm Losing You (4:06)
  2. Sean's 'Little Help' (0:58)
  3. Serve Youself (3:50)
  4. My Life (2:37)
  5. Nobody Told Me (3:33)
  6. Life Begins At 40 (2:24)
  7. I Don't Wanna Face It (3:31)
  8. Woman (4:03)
  9. Dear Yoko (2:36)
  10. Watching The Wheels (3:05)
  11. I'm Stepping Out (4:19)
  12. Borrowed Time (3:58)
  13. The Rishi Kesh Song (2:27)
  14. Sean's 'Loud' (0:35)
  15. Beautiful Boy (4:13)
  16. Mr. Hyde's Gone (2:42)
  17. Only You (3:24)
  18. Grow Old With Me (3:19)
  19. Dear John (2:16)
  20. The Great Wok (3:14)
  21. Mucho Mungo (1:25)
  22. Satire 1 (2:22)
  23. Satire 2 (4:36)
  24. Satire 3 (0:46)
  25. Sean's 'In The Sky' (0:46)
  26. It's Real (1:05)

This final disc provides an excellent retrospective of the musical reawakening that John was going through in 1980. It is littered with home demos and comes off as the most personal of the four discs, something worth noting in this strongly personal collection. Tracks two, fourteen, and twenty five particularly illustrate this, demonstrating his relationship with his son, Sean Lennon.

The outtakes from the Double Fantasy sessions make up most of this disc, however, and as usual, there are lots of interesting alternate versions of many of his wonderful tracks. Of particular interest are the wonderful versions of Dear Yoko (track nine), Beautiful Boy (track fifteen), and the frighteningly haunting Borrowed Time (track twelve). It is really a great glimpse of John near the end of his life.

The remaining tracks, particularly the three satires, aren't there for musical value. Instead, they mostly help fill out a picture of the man as we last knew him. A man in middle age, a parent with a family, and an older and wiser musician. This is where the story ends, as it should with John Lennon.

Parting Thoughts

This set is definitely worth purchasing if you truly like John Lennon's music. If you grew up listening to his LP's, mourning the fact that such a beautiful musician was taken away just as he was reawakening, this box set is truly wonderful and worth the price. However, if you are more of a casual fan, the one-disc Wonsaponatime compilation will clearly indicate to you whether or not you should get this set. I wouldn't really recommend this set to a true casual fan who isn't strongly familiar with John Lennon's catalogue; instead, one should pick up Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and Double Fantasy to serve as a real in-depth introduction to Lennon's music.

This is a musical portrait of a man. Take it for what it is.

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