Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

John Lennon & Yoko Ono - Life With The Lions

John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Life With The Lions

Released 1969 on Zapple
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 02/09/2002ce

Like most people who own this album, I bought 'Unfinished Music No.2: Life With The Lions' for sad, completist reasons, not wanting to be without any record bearing John Lennon's name. But, as some dodgy folk singer once said, I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. And, whilst I'm aware of the dangers of blind loyalty and emperor's new clothes syndrome, I've over the years come to find a lot to like about John and Yoko's second album, entirely non-musical as it is. I'd have kept this perverse admission quiet, but, spurred on by The Seth Man's amazingly in-depth review of the even more out-of-it 'Metal Machine Music', I am encouraged to risk what little critical credibility I may have once had in sharing my thoughts of this much-maligned and misunderstood record with you. Bear with me please, if only to laugh in disagreement.

The album opens unassumingly. "This is a piece called Cambridge 1969" states Yoko quietly, and with almost unbelievable nonchalance, before taking a deep breath. There then follows over 26 minutes of the good lady screaming, yelling, groaning and moaning while Lennon applies severe (and audibly theraputic for himself, I suspect) atonal guitar feedback and thrashing. It is completely involving, because, like Lou Reed's magnum opus of six years later, it's an all-embracing, unignorable noise. Yoko in particular sounds absolutely (and, dare I say, admirably) excruciating throughout. Play this during your dinner party and watch your guests leave in droves.

But, but, BUT... there is some substance to this racket. Sure, John sounds like he's having real fun here, but he also coaxes some genuinely moving abstract sounds from the electronic melee. Four minutes in, for example, is an immense, solid chord of guitar feedback that will pin you to the wall. And whilst I realise that effective feedback is more down to luck than design, Lennon really does steer his electronic wail into some really quite beautiful sonic vistas over the course of the work. Check out, for example, the rising neck heroics at around 6'30", the red indian whoops at 9'45", and the unbroken, glacial pre-Frippertronic cry that he sustains from 10'45" to 12'20" with no lapse in intensity. The varied tones at around 15'10" also sound amazing. And this is over two decades before Neil Young's 'Arc/Weld'!

Whilst it has to be said that the vocals are a harder nut to crack, there are many moments when the wholly improvised interplay between the bagged couple really hits home. At times the combination is utterly terrifying, like from 13'15" where it sounds like a murder is taking place onstage, but by the fifteen minute mark John and Yoko are in perfect harmony once more, to the extent that it's only the stereo placement of each that distinguishes who is making what noise. The sound then is filled out with the entry of percussion, courtesy of genuine free-jazz legend John Stevens, which inspires Lennon to almost heavy metal thrashing at around 17'20". Before too long you sense the gradual presence of John Tchicai on reeds, his gentle, ethnic tones adding a welcome consolatory feel to the proceedings, countered by regular, harrowing screams by Yoko that continue almost to the end of the side. It's the soundtrack to a journey to and from another planet, and by the end of the journey you feel tense, stressed, and yet strangely fulfilled, all at the same time. Imagine Side Two of 'Live Peace In Toronto' without the rock. But this came first. In fact I do believe that this piece was the first official live recording ever released by the Beatles, individually or collectively. Now there's a sobering thought. Play 'Cambridge 1969' after 'Live At The Hollywood Bowl' to see what five years of headfuck can do to the creative mind.

Side Two consists of three tracks recorded on a cheapo mono cassette recorder at the soon-to-miscarry Yoko's bedside, broken at one point by the epic that is 'Two Minutes Silence' (and is precisely that, Cage fans, especially on CD). The first track, 'No Bed For Beatle John', is simply Yoko singing in (amazingly quite lovely) plainchant a newspaper report about the couple. The man himself joins in part way through. It's a primitive, yet moving, on-the-spot acapella improvisation that is so quietly engaging that you'll find yourself singing it for ages afterwards. 'Baby's Heartbeat', which follows, is five minutes of the fast pulse of John and Yoko's unborn baby. The laughter and chat that briefly precede it add a converse sense of tragedy in hindsight, augmented by the devastated faces of the couple on the album's wordless front cover. Whatever artistic reasons they had for including this, it seems an uncommonly brave and private thing to share with the great Beatle-following public. The two minutes of silence that follow then seem less of a sarcastic gimmick than a genuine tribute to their stillborn child.

The record ends with 'Radio Play', twelve and a half minutes of a transistor radio being switched on and off rapidly and repeatedly, with snippets of conversation, phone calls and ambience. Like the bulk of the album it has no musical content whatsoever, but bears listening to anyway, if only to hear a rock legend living his ordinary life in the background.

Look, I'm not going to pretend that 'Life With The Lions' rivals 'Plastic Ono Band' as a definitive Lennon statement of intent. It is, in part, an indulgent, all pervading racket where you occasionally sense John and Yoko having a good laugh at their public. But, by the looks of their expressions on the sleeve, by God they needed it. No, it's not that cut and dried. The second John and Yoko album DOES bear scrutiny, because there are moments of real passion, reflection and beauty amongst its melee. I wouldn't be without it. Turn off your mind, relax (well, maybe not) and float downstream.

(Currently available on CD from Rykodisc. Original Zapple vinyls cost a fortune.)

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