John Lennon's Solo Albums: A Critical Guide

Mike Daley

John Lennon's solo career careened wildly from meat-and-potatoes rock and roll to avant-garde collages to strident political commentary. With his wife Yoko Ono and alone, Lennon created a fascinating body of work even after the incredible run of the Beatles. Unlike the Beatles' work, though, the quality of Lennon's work was inconsistent, which is perhaps not surprising when one takes into account the act that he was following. Nonetheless, his songwriting and performing genius shone through often enough that his solo work is undoubtedly worth consideration. Here we look critically at the twelve albums that Lennon released either solo or in collaboration with Yoko during his lifetime.

Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins

(with Yoko Ono)

Label: Apple

Released: December 10, 1968 (UK); January 6, 1969 (US)

Reissued on compact disc by Rykodisc on June 3, 1997

Chart peak: #125 (US, Billboard Top 200 Album Chart)

John Lennon's solo career got off to a strange start with this souvenir of the beginning of his romantic and collaborative relationship with Yoko Ono, the Japanese-American conceptual and performance artist seven years his senior. Two Virgins, which is much better known for the unflattering nudity of its cover than its music, is strongly inflected with the aesthetics of the avant-garde composition technique of musique concrète, which uses tape recordings of real-world sound as raw material.

Compiled in a single all-night session, Two Virgins can be seen as a long-form companion piece to “Revolution 9,” the tape collage featured on the Beatles' White Album around the same time. Utilizing speed-manipulated tape loops of bird song, recordings of other music, speech and singing by John and Yoko as well as piano, guitar and organ sounds, the two album sides contain considerably more conventionally “musical” sounds than the two albums that followed.

Nonetheless, Two Virgins is a challenging listen at best. It was quickly deleted from the Apple catalogue and original vinyl copies are quite rare. It was bootlegged on both vinyl and CD, and finally reissued on compact disc in a slightly edited form, with a bonus track, Yoko's incongruously tuneful “Remember Love.”

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions

(with Yoko Ono)

Label: Zapple

Released: May 2, 1969 (UK); May 26, 1969 (US)

Reissued on compact disc by Rykodisc on June 3, 1997

Chart peak: #174 (US)

Released on the shortlived Zapple imprint, Life With The Lions continued John and Yoko's dubious collaboration and deepened the bewilderment of Lennon's large fanbase. The title of the album came from the BBC radio programme Life With The Lyons (1951-1960), a comedy that followed the life events of a real family, and it could be said that Lennon and Ono's creation shared a certain documentary quality. Side one was recorded at John and Yoko's first live performance, at Cambridge University's Lady Mitchell Hall. “Cambridge 1969” is largely a duet performance that combines Lennon's guitar feedback with Ono's howling and ululations. Side two was recorded at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London, where Yoko was bedridden leading up to the delivery of their stillborn child. “No Bed For Beatle John” consisted of a series of spoken phrases taken from newspaper reports about the couple. “Baby's Heartbeat” was a self-explanatory and ultimately sad documentation, while “Two Minutes Silence” both memorialized the lost child and recalled “4'33,” the most famous composition of Ono's onetime colleague John Cage. The album's final track, “Radio Play,” which documents a radio being tuned without ever settling on a station, could be seen as another tribute to Cage, who used a similar technique in his “Imaginary Landscape No. 4.”

Among listeners, Life With The Lions is even more obscure than Two Virgins, lacking even the notoriety of a shocking album cover. Like Two Virgins, it was quickly deleted from EMI's catalogue, not to reappear until Rykodisc reissued it on compact disc. The CD reissue adds two songs, Ono's fragile “Song For John” and the more avant-garde “Mulberry.”

The Wedding Album

(with Yoko Ono)

Label: Apple

Released: November 14, 1969 (UK); October 20, 1969 (US)

Reissued on compact disc by Rykodisc on June 3, 1997

Chart peak: #178 (US)

Like its two predecessors, The Wedding Album is a souvenir of the nascent romance of John and Yoko. This time around, the object on display was their very public honeymoon, which they turned into an extended promotion of world peace for the benefit of the mass media. This campaign is memorialized on side two with a montage of interviews, sound bites and songs, entitled “Amsterdam.” Side one is devoted to a conceptual piece consisting of a recording of their heartbeats, overlaid with the couple intoning each others names in a variety of inflections and intensities. This piece, “John and Yoko” is one of the most effective and nuanced of Lennon and Ono's conceptual pieces.

The tone of the entire album is considerably more upbeat than Two Virgins and Life With The Lions, and the album is as a whole more listenable. In its original issue, the album package was quite lavish, including a booklet of press clippings, a poster of Lennon and Ono's drawings, another poster of photographs from their wedding day, a postcard, a passport photo strip, a photo of a piece of wedding cake, a plastic bag, and a copy of their wedding certificate.

Live Peace In Toronto

Label: Apple

Released: December 12, 1969 (UK and US)

Reissued on compact disc May 1, 1995 (UK), July 18, 1995 (US)

Chart peak: #10 (US)

RIAA certified Gold

Live Peace In Toronto captured a critical moment in Lennon's career, marking the event that led to his final decision to leave the Beatles. Lennon and Ono were a last-minute addition to the twelve-hour Toronto Rock'n'Roll Revival concert, which featured Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard along with the Doors, Alice Cooper and Chicago Transit Authority. Lacking a band, Lennon and Ono quickly assembled an impromptu group that included Eric Clapton on guitar, old Hamburg compatriot (and Revolver album cover artist) Klaus Voormann on bass, and Alan White on drums. This group was, in effect, the first incarnation of the hitherto imaginary Plastic Ono Band.

The concert was held on September 13, 1969 at Toronto's Varsity Stadium. Lennon's acute nervousness is well documented, perhaps accentuated by some hastily procured cocaine, and the group took the stage at around midnight. Having rehearsed on the flight from London, the group began with three oldies, in keeping with the theme of the concert: “Blue Suede Shoes” (the Carl Perkins arrangement, not Elvis Presley's), “Money” (an early Motown single by Barrett Strong, also recorded on the Beatles' second album, With The Beatles) and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” a Larry Williams tune recorded by the Beatles on their Help! album. Next up were the first public performances of “Yer Blues” (released on the Beatles' White Album) and “Cold Turkey” (a single that was to be recorded days later and released on October 24, 1969 in the UK, with an identical backing band save for Ringo Starr replacing White on drums).

Up to this point the performances, though rough around the edges, were quite exciting. Closing out the first side, though, was a plodding version of “Give Peace A Chance” that captured nothing of the easy lilt of the Montreal hotel room performance as issued on Lennon and Ono's July 1969 single.

Depending on your opinions about Yoko Ono's voice, the second side of the album is less appealing. “Don't Worry Kyoko” was a semi-improvised song with Lennon and Clapton trading licks. “John John (Let's Hope For Peace)” was an atonal wash of feedback and screaming that alienated much of the festival audience, who are rumored to have booed the group at this point. Ono also contributed backing vocals during Lennon's set, though these were all but removed at the mixing stage of the album's production. A more accurate representation of the live sound can be heard on the soundtrack to D.A. Pennebaker's documentary film of the event, Sweet Toronto, which has been issued on DVD.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

Label: Apple

Released: December 11, 1970 (UK and US)

Reissued on compact disc April 5, 1988 (UK and US), remixed and remastered version October 9, 2000

Chart peak: #6 (US); #11 (UK, Record Retailer Album Chart)

RIAA certified Gold

Produced by Lennon and Ono with “Wall Of Sound” pop legend Phil Spector, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was the first of Lennon's conventional solo albums. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, it was a stripped-down affair, employing only Lennon's guitar and piano, Klaus Voormann's bass and Ringo Starr's drums, along with a few piano touches from Spector and Billy Preston. The song arrangements were equally simple, with only the most basic musical elements. The Phil Spector who added lush string arrangement to the Let It Be basic tracks is absent here; his role is only apparent in the ubiquitous echo and the many monophonic mixes of the finished record.

This minimalist aesthetic contrasted with the lushly produced Beatles albums that preceded it, but shared an affinity with Paul McCartney's own solo effort, McCartney, released earlier in the year. But where McCartney's album was a tuneful and sometimes nostalgic collection of songs, Plastic Ono Band was a stark and sometimes harrowing journey into Lennon's tortured psyche. Front and center in Lennon's purview were the past traumas that he was reliving through the Primal Scream therapy of Dr. Arthur Janov. Many of the album's songs were written while Lennon and Ono were being treated by Janov in Los Angeles.

The album opener, “Mother” amounts to a raw and searing indictment of the failings of his parents with an increasingly desperate and intense coda - “Mama don't go; Daddy come home.” Plastic Ono Band visits recurring themes of isolation, some imposed from without, as in “Isolation,” and some of it self-imposed, as in “God” where Lennon rejects a laundry list of everything from Jesus to Krishna to, in a dramatic climax, the Beatles. Elsewhere, Lennon excoriates society and his enemies, as in “Well Well Well” and “I Found Out.” “Working Class Hero” expresses the sentiment of contemporary Left thinking that “the personal is the political.” Only the delicate “Hold On” and “Love” offer a ray of hope.

At the same time that the band was recording Lennon's album, they recorded Yoko Ono's companion solo album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, which established a pattern of parallel Lennon/Ono solo albums. Only on Some Time In New York City and Double Fantasy would the couple collaborate again on a single album.

A companion piece to Plastic Ono Band is the 1970 Rolling Stone interview published as the book Lennon Remembers. This, Lennon's most raw and candid public confession, can be viewed in a way as a set of extended liner notes to the album.


Label: Apple

Released: 9 September 1971 (US); 8 October 1971 (UK)

Reissued on compact disc May 26, 1987 (UK), March 17, 1988 (US)

Chart peak: #1 (US); #1 (UK)

RIAA certified Double Platinum

After the stripped-down arrangements and raw performances of Plastic Ono Band, Imagine stands as a more varied, textured effort. It is an eminently listenable pastiche of sounds and themes, featuring some of Lennon's most realized solo songwriting and excellent backing work by George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins, King Curtis, members of Badfinger, and many others. The lyric themes fuse Lennon's political and personal diatribes with his other side, that of peaceful sage and loving husband.

Of all of Lennon's solo albums, Imagine remains one of the best-loved, having sold strongly both upon its initial release and after Lennon's untimely death. While flawed, it is spontaneous-sounding and joyful; if you only own one Lennon solo album, it should be this one.

The basic tracks were recorded at Lennon's home studio and Abbey Road Studios, with overdubs completed at the Record Plant in New York, with production assistance once again by Phil Spector. Some of the standout musical elements include Harrison's supple slide guitar and the vaguely Asian string parts contributed by members of the New York Philharmonic.

The title track, with its humanistic suggestion of a world without religion, nations, or possessions, has become an anthem in the years since Lennon's death. Less peaceful is his awkward soul-flavored diatribe against Paul McCartney, entitled “How Do You Sleep?” and the rant “I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier.” “Gimme Some Truth,” with its litany of rejections, could be a Plastic Ono Band outtake, while “How?” is a Primal Scream-era introspection. Lennon delved into some Beatles-era songs for Imagine, including “Jealous Guy” (written in 1968 as “Child Of Nature”) and the delicate and gorgeous “Oh My Love,” which dated back to the beginning of Lennon and Ono's romantic relationship, also in 1968.

Early editions of the vinyl LP included a large poster of Lennon playing his white grand piano, as well as postcard depicting him holding the ears of a large pig, an obvious and childish parody of McCartney's Ram album cover.

Some Time in New York City

(with Yoko Ono)

Label: Apple

Released: 12 June 1972 (US); 15 September 1972 (UK)

Reissued on compact disc August 10, 1987 (UK and US); remixed and remastered version released November 2005

Chart peak: #48 (US); #11 (UK)

Strident and politically naive, full of amateurish performances and trite melodies, Some Time In New York City is widely viewed as Lennon's weakest post-Plastic Ono Band effort. The album cover, designed to resemble a newspaper with the song titles and lyrics as the stories, points up the journalistic intent of the album. It is a document of Lennon and Ono's early days as residents of New York City, where they quickly came in contact with Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The songs reflect their outrage over the persecution of John Sinclair and Angela Davis, Irish republicans, the Attica State rioters, and women in general. As protest music, the songs are badly written, with sing-song simple melodies, and hamfistedly accompanied by the mediocre Elephant's Memory band.

The opening song, “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World,” was both the strongest track on the album and largely unplayed on the radio because of the inflammatory language of its title. Lennon and Ono attempted to explain that the offending word was being used in an allegorical and not a racist sense, but this largely fell on deaf ears and the song was widely banned.

John and Yoko's foray into radical politics aroused the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which began to track their activities in January 1972. It was feared that they would mobilize the yout vote, possibly preventing then-president Richard Nixon from being re-elected. Even after Nixon's political demise, this suspicion would haunt the Lennons' efforts to secure permanent residency in the United States.

Some Time In New York City is actually a half-studio, half-live double album, with the second disc, Live Jam, documenting a 1969 Plastic Ono Band performance and a 1971 jam with Frank Zappa.

Mind Games

Label: Apple

Released: 16 November 1973 (UK); 2 November 1973 (US)

Reissued on compact disc August 3, 1987 (UK), March 22, 1988 (US); remixed and remastered (with great sonic improvements) and reissued with three bonus tracks on October 7, 2002 (UK) and November 5, 2002 (US)

Chart peak: #9 (US); #13 (UK)

RIAA certified Gold

In many ways, Mind Games was Lennon's attempt to reverse the course he had taken with the critically drubbed and unpopular Some Time In New York City. This does not make Mind Games an appreciably greater album, though. Where Some Time's melodies were predictable, the melodies on Mind Games were meandering. Where the previous album's lyrics were specific and instantly dated, the latter's were cloudy and vague. And where Lennon wore his politics on his sleeve for the 1972 album, his followup effort offered only platitudes. When he sings over the fade-out of the title cut, “I want you to make love, not war/I know you've heard it before,” the exhausted energy of the 1969 peace campaign is sadly palpable.

By 1973, Lennon was beginning to give Ono a wider berth with her recording efforts, having little to do with her Feeling The Space album of that year. In fact, their relationship was deteriorating, a situation that was exacerbated by Lennon's immigration woes and the failure of Some Time In New York City. Though he had little to contribute to Ono's album, he was impressed by the group of studio musicians she had brought in, and enlisted them to record the basic tracks for Mind Games. Recording took place in July and August, and the entire album was mixed in two weeks, a rather hasty turnaround.

The performances on Mind Games are, if anything, more professional and slick than on its predecessor, but this mostly renders the album as aural wallpaper. The title song is lyrically opaque, with a repetitive melody and a murky, overloaded sound mix. Many of the other cuts, from “Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)” to “You Are Here” sound tired and uninspired. “One Day At A Time” manages to out-wimp even Paul McCartney, which is no mean feat. More successful are “Bring On The Lucie (Freda People)” and “Tight A$” which snap with some of the old Lennon brio.

Walls and Bridges

Label: Apple

Released: 4 October 1974 (UK); 26 September 1974 (US)

Reissued on compact disc July 20, 1987 (UK), April 19, 1988 (US); remixed and remastered version issued November 22, 2005 (UK and US)

Chart peak: #1 (US); #6 (UK)

RIAA certified Gold

Shortly after Mind Games was completed, Lennon and Ono separated. With Lennon relocating to Los Angeles, the stage was set for a drunken bacchanalia. Reuniting with Keith Moon, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson, Lennon partied hard, only pausing for chaotic sessions with Phil Spector for a projected rock and roll oldies album. This project came to an abrupt halt when Spector absconded with the master tapes. With the oldies project on indefinite hold, Lennon continued the chaos by producing sessions for Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats album and even meeting with McCartney for a ramshackle studio jam.

Escaping the West Coast madness, Lennon returned to New York City and began writing and demoing a group of emotionally cathartic songs that would eventually comprise the material on Walls and Bridges. Amazingly considering the upheaval in Lennon's life at the time, the album is remarkably inspired and consistent, with flashes of greatness of the kind not heard since 1971's Imagine.

After rehearsing the musicians at New York's Record Plant, recording progressed quickly. With stimulants banned from the studio and regular hours kept, the sessions were efficient and professional. The greatest asset of Walls and Bridges, however, was Lennon's strong songwriting. The most obvious success on the album was “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” Lennon's only #1 pop hit as a solo artist, A duet with Elton John, this sax-driven whirlwind gave way on Side 1 to an enigmatic co-write with Harry Nilsson, “Old Dirt Road” and the tender and jazzy Yoko send-off “Bless You.” The second side of the album is less focused but “Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out” is a searing screed of self-pity, followed by a throwaway run through the New Orleans standard “Ya Ya” with Lennon's young son Julian on drums.

The production and arrangements on the album are refreshingly clean and spare, though the tracks are no less professionally performed than on Mind Games. The difference might be accounted for by the absence of Phil Spector, who had been in hiding since kidnapping the master tapes for what would become the Rock 'n' Roll album. Accordingly, Lennon himself produced Walls and Bridges. Session aces Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys and others joined Lennon's constant sidekick Klaus Voormann.

Walls and Bridges was to be Lennon's last album of original material until 1980's Double Fantasy, a hiatus of six years. Shortly after the album's release Lennon and Ono reunited, and in short order Ono was pregnant with their son Sean Taro Ono Lennon. A followup called Between The Lines was rumored to be in the planning stages for 1975, but for reasons unknown was never made. Walls and Bridges was reissued on compact disc on 20 July 1987 in the UK and 19 April 1988 in the US. A remastered version was issued in 2005.

Rock 'n' Roll

Label: Apple

Released: 21 February 1975 (UK): 17 February 1975 (US)

Compact disc release: May 18, 1987 (UK and US); remixed and remastered version with four bonus tracks issued on September 27, 2004 (UK), November 2, 2004 (US)

Chart peak: #6 (US); #6 (UK)

RIAA certified Gold

Though slighted by critics in its day, and famously made partly to satisfy a copyright infringement lawsuit, Rock 'n' Roll sounds today like nothing so much as Lennon having a ball in the studio singing the beloved 1950s hits of his youth. It should also be remembered that John Lennon always sang this music masterfully, and should be remembered for posterity as one of the great interpreters of that particular slice of pop music history.

As such, Rock 'n' Roll is a valuable document of Lennon's fresh takes on some favourite tunes, not all of which are obvious choices. While “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Stand By Me” are acknowledged classic rock and roll oldies, “Rip It Up,” “Just Because” and “Bony Moronie” are less known by non-aficionados. Lennon's versions are not slavish remakes in the mold of Paul McCartney's own rock and roll revival, Run Devil Run; he wholly revises the arrangements of almost all of the tunes. His take on Chuck Berry's “You Can't Catch Me,” to name one example, is a brilliant re-arrangement with pounding percussion and a thick choir of horns.

Incidentally, it was Lennon's lift of a single line of “You Can't Catch Me” for the Beatles tune “Come Together” that incurred the legal wrath of Morris Levy, the record man who owned the copyright to Berry's composition. Lennon had tried to appease Levy by recording “Ya Ya” (another Levy-owned song copyright) on Walls and Bridges, but to no avail. Lennon then agreed to record three songs owned by Levy as compensation.

The recording of Rock 'n' Roll was a protracted and chaotic affair, beginning with Phil Spector-led sessions in 1973. With Spector in megalomaniacal top form and Lennon often drinking too much to complete an acceptable take, the sessions limped along at A&M Studio in Los Angeles until Spector fired a pistol into the ceiling in frustration. Sessions shortly thereafter moved briefly to Record Plant West, followed by Spector disappearing with the master tapes. Lennon moved on to Harry Nilsson's Pussy Cats sessions, then returned to New York to begin Walls and Bridges.

When the Rock 'n' Roll master tapes were ransomed for $90,000 by a Capitol executive shortly before the Walls and Bridges sessions were to start, Lennon was set to shelve the oldies project until he could finish the recording task at hand. The problem was that as a condition of his out-of-court settlement with Levy, he had to include three of Levy's copyrighted songs on his next release. After completing Walls and Bridges fairly quickly, Lennon recorded several more tracks for the album and delivered a mixed master to Levy as a show of good faith. Levy in turn rush-released a cheaply packaged version of the album with the cumbersome title John Lennon Sings The Great Rock 'n' Roll Hits: Roots and began marketing it through television ads as a mail-order item. Apple had not yet released the official version of the album, and quickly moved to legally constrain Levy from selling the album. Only about 1500 copies of Levy's version made it out to the public, and Rock 'n' Roll was released just two weeks later, in late February 1975.

Shaved Fish

Label: Apple

Released October 24 , 1975 (UK and US)

Compact disc release: December 7, 1987 (UK); May 17, 1988 (US)

Chart peak: #12 (US); #8 (UK)

RIAA certified Gold

Compiled as a summation of Lennon's solo career as he prepared for the birth of his and Yoko's only child, Shaved Fish is of value, if only for providing an album home for “Give Peace A Chance,” “Power To The People”, “Cold Turkey,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and “Instant Karma,” which had only previously been released as singles. In the aftermath of Lennon's December 1980 murder, it also served as a handy Greatest Hits compilation, and it re-entered the Billboard album charts on January 17, 1981 and peaked at number 11.

Double Fantasy

(with Yoko Ono)

Label: Geffen

Released: November 17, 1980 (US and UK)

Compact disc release: October 13, 1986 (UK); September 15, 1987 (US)

Chart peak: #1 (US); #1 (UK)

RIAA certified Triple Platinum

Double Fantasy marked Lennon's emergence from a self-imposed recording hiatus of five years, during which he devoted himself to his young son, Sean. Full participation in fatherhood seemed to agree with him, and he emerged seemingly at peace with his life and his encroaching middle age. Returning to the duo album format for the first time since 1972's Some Time in New York City, Lennon and Ono worked in tandem with a fine group of session musicians and producer Jack Douglas. The basic tracks were recorded quickly, with twenty-two in the can in a little under two weeks. The extra tracks were earmarked for the followup, Milk and Honey.

The songs on Double Fantasy evince a curious stylistic split between Lennon and Ono. Many of Lennon's efforts have a retro quality, recalling 1950s rock and roll and 1960s soul music. The album's opener and first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over” is especially nostalgic, complete with female backup choir, shuffle rhythm and Lennon's trademark slapback vocal echo. Ono's songs, on the other hand, reflect then-current stylistic trends in new wave and post-punk pop. Her “Kiss Kiss Kiss” is reminiscent of the B52s' 1979 hit “Rock Lobster,” albeit with some overdubbed muttered nonsense, Bagism-era ululating in the breakdown, and a simulated orgasm. Elsewhere, Lennon's songcraft and performances are sure and skillful, while Ono's are certainly intriguing and suggestive of where the pair might have progressed given the opportunity. Lennon's “Woman” and “I'm Losing You” showed that he still had the skills to create viable music, while Ono's “Give Me Something” and “Yes I'm Your Angel” suggest a nascent pop song talent, even as the latter song was a little too close in melody to Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson's “Makin' Whoopee.”

For this new album, Lennon and Ono also found themselves to be free agents, their contract with EMI/Apple having lapsed. Having learned their lesson with record companies in the past, Lennon and Ono self-financed the recording, and the independent Geffen Records stepped in to manufacture and distribute the finished product. Unlike the major labels, Geffen (led by legendary artist manager David Geffen) was not put off by Ono's involvement, and did not request to hear the album in advance.

Lennon was energized by this progress, and he had high hopes for the album. Unfortunately, the critical reception and chart performance was lackluster until the second week of December, 1980.