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A polarising political mess: John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 'Some Time in New York City' turns 50

John Lennon and Yoko Ono - 'Some Time in New York City'

John Lennon had a genius plan for getting audiences to listen to his politics: include them in some of his catchiest and most poignant songs. Take ‘Imagine’, a song so touching and lovely that it can obscure some of the more radical ideas at its core. “[‘Imagine’] is anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic… but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted,” Lennon claimed. That sugar-coating was the key: if someone was just shouting ideology, it wouldn’t translate nearly as far.

Lennon embraced the idea on tracks like ‘Instant Karma!’, ‘Power to the People’, and ‘Gimme Some Truth’, but as the former Beatle uprooted his life and moved to New York City, he began to double down on his desire to make radically political music. The balance between sugar-coated melodies and militant ideology shifted increasingly towards the latter, epitomised by his and Yoko Ono’s 1972 double LP Some Time in New York City.

If topics like mass incarceration and white privilege were hard pills to swallow in the early 1970s, Lennon and Ono decided that a spoonful of sugar would no longer be present to help the medicine go down. Some Time in New York City is uncompromising, aggressive, and remarkably self-assured, showing Lennon and Ono taking their positions of power and influence seriously. It’s also a patience-testing didactic mess of an album.

The lack of any kind of restraint is clear from the very first song, ‘Woman is the N****r of the World’. Out of context, the title alone is enough to wonder what the hell Lennon and Ono were thinking. In context, it’s still a wildly inappropriate comparison, even if Lennon and Ono try their best to communicate the depths of oppression that women are subjected to in everyday life.

‘Woman is the N****r of the World’ is the perfect microcosm of Some Time in New York City: blunt, unambiguous, and not memorable enough to truly mean anything. When taken without its eye-catching title, the song’s lyrics come without nuance or impact outside of shock value. Lennon’s words are clunky and overdone, like a teenager who is attempting poetry for the first time. Lennon knew how to make a message song work, but that magic is almost completely gone from Some Time in New York City.

Like the pair’s later effort Double Fantasy, Some Time in New York City alternates between Lennon and Ono taking the lead on songs. ‘Sisters, O Sisters’ is probably Ono’s highlight on the record, taking an old-school Ronettes groove and using it as a rallying cry for women to pick each other up and lead the charge in social change. This is perhaps the only time on the record where everyone is comfortably on the same page, with Lennon and Ono letting some levity float into their hyper-serious soap-boxing for the one and only time.

‘Attica State’ and ‘Born in a Prison’ both use the United States’ massive incarceration problems (which, notably, have yet to improve in the 50 years since the pair sang about them) to relay messages about human rights among scathing critiques of the American justice system. The former uses stinging blues to get its message across, while the latter uses slow-burning balladry. ‘Born in a Prison’ is actually more about philosophy, but it’s the far more haphazard and awkward of the two tracks.

Lennon hits his highest note on ‘New York City’, which essentially works as a sequel to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’: a retelling of Lennon’s move to the Big Apple complete with real-life references to his current backing band, Elephant’s Memory, and his own struggles with immigration, which would only grow worse after the song’s release. With a solid rock and roll drive, ‘New York City’ is Lennon playing to his strengths while mixing politics with autobiographical bits that still fascinate today.

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That momentum gets lost on ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. Most of Some Time in New York City is deeply entrenched in the generic white boy funk-rock of the day, and Lennon’s pastiches of Philadelphia soul are wildly inferior to the ones trotted out by David Bowie on Young Americans three years later. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is another instance of Lennon failing to find a memorable melody to elevate his message above anything other than preachy watered-down mush.

For whatever reason, Lennon and Ono opt to try and communicate the exact same message on the very next track, the sing-songy ‘The Luck of the Irish’. Once again, Lennon and Ono can’t elevate their material beyond protest music cliches, showing just how out of their collective depth they are at ham-fisted sermonizing.

The duo also pair up two calls for freedom towards the end of the album with ‘John Sinclair’ and ‘Angela’. The former is about the former music manager who became the leader of the White Panther Party and was subsequently jailed for marijuana possession, while the latter is an ode to black leader Angela Davis, who was labelled a “terrorist” by then-president Richard Nixon. By the time Some Time in New York City was released, both Sinclair and Davis were released, illustrating just how behind the curve Lennon and Ono’s musical activism could be.

The final song on the studio side of the album is a jaunty plea for unity from Ono, ‘We Are All Water’. The entire crux of the song is that all humans are pretty much the same, whether they’re Nixon, Mao Zedong, Charles Manson, Queen Elizabeth, or the Pope. A one-note concept stretched to an excruciating seven minutes, ‘We Are All Water’ is too long and too unfocused, not unlike the rest of the album.

The live portion of the LP isn’t worth talking about outside of its historical reputation. The performances of ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ were performed at a 1969 UNICEF benefit and are jammed out to interminable lengths, while the last four songs were performed live with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1971. Ono wails all over these tracks, to the point where it’s nearly impossible to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Lennon and Zappa.

No matter how noble their intentions were, nothing could save Some Time in New York from being an overlong and overwrought slog of an album. Even when just the studio songs are taken into account, the album is preachy and poorly constructed from the very start. Lennon and Ono should certainly get some praise for pushing the boundaries of traditional rock music, but when the results are this unfortunate, it’s enough to remind you why the “spoonful of sugar” that Lennon used on previous political material was so necessary.

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