If there’s one thing last night’s BBC One documentary Lennon: The New York Years proved, it’s that John Lennon and Yoko Ono enjoyed a somewhat complex relationship – the 1970s counterculture’s Cheryl and Ashley, if you will – oh, and that the Feds were out to get him.
But what about the music? Lennon spent the last nine years of his life in New York City (with a brief sojourn in Los Angeles), plenty of time to cement a reputation as the coolest and most creative of Beatles – but did he manage it?
Well, no, not really. Let’s, erm, brainstorm a few solo Lennon classics: 'Imagine'? Yeah, go on then. 'Instant Karma'? That cavernous Spector production, the speaker-splitting final chorus. 'Cold Turkey'? Confessional, nauseous, hard-riffing, another belter. 'Hold On'? For the Cookie Monster impression alone. 'Mother'? 'God'? 'Working Class Hero'? No punches pulled as the Priest of Peace exorcises his demons.
Sharper minds will have clocked none of these songs were recorded after July 1971. The Lennon-Onos upped sticks to NYC that September to escape some pretty nasty stuff still being slung in Yoko’s direction after the whole splitting-up-The-Beatles nonsense, but as it turned out, the US authorities weren’t that welcoming either, preferring to repeatedly try to boot Lennon out for his promotion of undesirable concepts like ‘Peace’ and, yes, ‘Love’. He soldiered on regardless to make some pretty mediocre, gloopy records.
First on acetate was 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)', beating Paul McCartney to the drippy Yuletide banger crown by a full five years, then the provocative but musically banal 'Woman Is The Nigger Of The World' from the provocative but musically banal 'Some Time In New York City'.
1973’s 'Mind Games' saw Lennon weaselling away from Ono in song and influencing artists as diverse as – ahem – World Party and, in particular, The Charlatans who took the admittedly rather super 'Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)' as the template for two entire songs, its verse “inspiring” 'Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over', its chorus “informing” Just Lookin’ – but come on, this is Lennon Legend influencing The bleedin’ Charlatans.
Given his marching orders for generally being a bit of a berk, Lennon slunk off to LA for his notorious “lost weekend”. He did near enough nowt apart from drinking, recording the will-this-do? legally obligatory covers album Rock ‘n’ Roll, and hanging out with new girlfriend May Pang – a relationship sanctioned by Ono in either the selfless act of a woman scorned, or a shrewd move from a wife who can somehow tell her husband's about to spend a year acting the bellend with Harry Nilsson.
Still, hardly the stuff of 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. Back in NYC in 1974, he sobered up and released 'Walls And Bridges', featuring the only solo US No.1 single of his lifetime, 'Whatever Gets You Thru The Night', a frantically mundane collaboration with Elton John. Who was getting the leg-up here? Similarly Lennon’s turn on David Bowie’s 1975 Billboard No.1 Fame?
Then it was reconciliation with the cosmically tolerant Yoko and five years playing dad to Sean. The good father and husband routine would fuel 1980 comeback 'Double Fantasy', a meld of Lennon’s middle-aged soft-soap and Ono’s avant-garde ambition, but suddenly it was all over. A decade of underachievement then a shocking waste of life. No one wanted him to go, but like the excessively maligned McCartney, Lennon had lost his mojo filter years earlier.