Revisiting ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, John Lennon’s cursed covers album
“I can’t begin to say, it’s just barmy, there’s a jinx on that album.” — John Lennon
Perhaps a little jaded from songwriting – or perhaps more likely a little adrift from his usual songwriting routine – Lennon found himself some classic rock songs to cover on his sixth solo studio album. Brought together with infamous producer Phil Spector, Lennon may have found a lot of personal troubles during the recording of the album but what emerged from it was a rock-solid record filled with solid rock. Having often described himself as a “rocker” at heart, Lennon’s command of these songs shouldn’t be surprising, but the reality of this album is far more cursed than originally meets the eye.
“What we’re trying to do is rock ‘n’ roll, with less of your philosorock,” said Lennon when reflecting on The Beatles then-upcoming new record, The White Album. It’s a course of action that truly showed Lennon’s hand, “Rockers is what we really are,” he added. “You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I’m getting into it, I’m just doing my old bit…not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. It’s just natural.” It’s an easy line to draw, from the rock ‘n’ roll greats of the ’50s to the swashbuckling dynamism of John Lennon. It’s an equally easily drawn line from Lennon to a 1975 covers album title Rock ‘N’ Roll.
The final album Lennon would release before embarking on a five-year retirement from music, choosing instead to be a full-time father. While that decision was, likely, an emotionally driven one, it’s hard to revisit the glaring issues surrounding Rock ‘N’ Roll and not see them as a contributing factor to his reclusion. Lennon’s sixth solo record, but the roots of the album went back to 1969 and his song for Timothy Leary’s campaign tune ‘Come Together’.
Eventually featuring on The Beatles Abbey Road album, the song borrowed the opening line “Here comes old flat-top” from Chuck Berry’s song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. “‘Come Together’ is me,” recalled Lennon in 1980, “Writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in ‘Here comes old flat-top.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth.”
Though we’re sure Berry himself would have been a willing participant in any settlement reaching his wallet, the song’s publisher Morris Levy was the man pursued Lennon in court. Levy brought a lawsuit against Lennon for copyright infringement, and a hefty bill seemed inevitable for the bespectacled Beatle. Rather than find himself in the dock, proverbial or otherwise, Lennon agreed to record at least three songs owned by Levy’s company Big Seven Music Corporation as part of a covers record.
Lennon began work on the record alongside Phil Spector in 1973. The infamous producer had already earned Lennon’s respect with his handling of Let It Be, and now the singer leaned on Spector’s eccentric ways once more. The producer settled Lennon into a Hollywood studio and then began inviting a host of session musicians to record the album. When Phil Spector puts out a call to arms for a John Lennon LP, you can bet more than a few musicians were waiting to be selected.
Some sessions at the legendary A&M Studios included over 30 musicians, meaning that, by and large, the recording sessions were chaotic and impossible to truly navigate. When you add to it that Lennon himself was experiencing his own chaos, then the album begins to take on a far heavier outlook. The former Beatle, three years out of the band and in the throes of his solo stardom and personal tough circumstances, was in a state of flux in his career and his personal life. It was a period of time he later titled ‘The Lost Weekend’—an 18 month period in which he and Yoko Ono separated and, under direction from his wife, began having an affair with their assistant, May Pang.
Lennon did as he was told and begun to see May Pang more regularly but soon fell into some bad habits as he began heavily drinking and using heavy drugs once again. The months that the singer lost to pursue partying and drinking on an unprecedented level were some of his most frustrated as an artist. Holed up between Pang’s New York apartment and the L.A. studios, desperately trying to work through his recording contract so he could be free. Lennon was also falling in with a notoriously raucous crowd, as Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson became regular drinking buddies. Lennon lived and worked with the pair of party-lovers to make matters worse.
Lennon was clearly trying to release some of his responsibility noting: “On the Rock ‘N’ Roll it took me three weeks to convince him [Spector] that I wasn’t going to co-produce with him, and I wasn’t going to go in the control room, I was only… I said I just want to be the singer, just treat me like Ronnie. We’ll pick the material, I just want to sing, I don’t want anything to do with production or writing or creation, I just want to sing.” However, as Lennon’s drinking got worse and the company he kept seemed to grow as worse and worse influences, things didn’t look good for a simple album.
Naturally, the sessions turned into pure riotous and ramshackle events, with one particular moment seeing Lennon tipped over the edge. It comes as Moon, notorious in his own way, was found to have peed all over the console Lennon was working on. To make matters worse, Spector was also taking the master tapes home with him every night, proving his eccentricities were beginning to show — he even discharged a weapon during a session, damaging Lennon’s ear. The Beatles man recalled how taking the master tapes nearly derailed the entire album: “One day when he didn’t want to work, one night he called me, he said the studio had been burnt down. Now, these… in the early days I didn’t know about it, you know, didn’t know how far away he was. So I said, ‘Oh the studio’s burnt down.’ So anyway a couple of hours passed… the studio’s burnt down… So I get somebody to call the studio, it hadn’t been burnt down. That was the Sunday, the following Sunday he calls and he says on the phone, ‘Hey Johnny’… I said, ‘Oh there you are, Phil, what happened? We’re supposed to be doing a session.’ — [he says] ‘I got the John Dean tapes.’ I say, ‘what?’ ‘I got the John Dean tapes…’ What he was telling me, in his own sweet way, was he had my tapes, not the John Dean Watergate tapes, he had my tapes locked in the cellar behind the barbed wire and the Afghan dogs and the machine guns.
“So there was no way you could get them. So that album was stopped in the middle for a year, and we had to sue through Capitol to get them back off him.” It put the singer over the edge and he abandoned his sessions with Spector in favour of working on his own on the East Coast.
Returning to New York alongside May Pang, Lennon became distracted by the covers album and instead wrote and recorded Walls and Bridges. It could have been some light relief for Lennon but soon enough, his adversary Morris Levy was back again with a brand new lawsuit, this time threatening to take Lennon to court unless he delivered the record he had seemingly reneged on. Lennon even used 11-year-old Julian Lennon to make a slight jibe at Levy in the final moment of Walls and Bridges.
Eventually, Lennon began working properly on the final cut of the record. Largely sober, Lennon recalled the musicians he had worked with for Walls and Bridges and laid down some tracks for the hotly-anticipated record. Some of the sessions were recorded at a property owned by Levy, which was offered by the publishers as a place fo respite for Lennon. In response, Lennon offered Levy a rough-cut of the tracks they were hoping to perfect. Despite being denied by Capitol, Levy ended up using the rough cuts and Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Hits was issued on his Adam VIII label and yet another lawsuit ensued.
Rock ‘N’ Roll as we know it today was rush-released and sold at one dollar under Levy’s release so as to undercut the sales. The record’s cover art was also a moment of contention as it featured Lennon, back in his Hamburg days, as the blurred images of the former Beatles flashed by. It perfectly captured not only that Lennon was now out on his own but that chaos was still following him wherever he went. As he so succinctly put it himself: “It started in ’73 with Phil and fell apart. I ended up as part of mad, drunk scenes in Los Angeles and I finally finished it off on me own. And there was still problems with it up to the minute it came out. I can’t begin to say, it’s just barmy, there’s a jinx on that album.”
Listen to John Lennon’s cursed covers album, Rock ‘N’ Roll below.