In 1975, John Lennon released his second to last studio album, Rock ‘N’ Roll. Shortly thereafter, Yoko Ono gave birth to their son, Sean, and John took a five-year hiatus from the business to raise his child. Rock ‘N’ Roll is a collection of covers–songs from the 50s and 60s that Lennon loved by artists that inspired him.
Cover albums can be oddly revealing. The choice of songs tells you a great deal about the recording artist’s taste, what he or she values musically. The way the songs are recorded can also reveal a lot. My own personal take on covers is that they should sound both familiar and new, a song you already know given a new life. Some covers can be too different, losing something essential about what made the song good in the first place (Siouxsie and the Banshees version of “Dear Prudence”). Some covers are too similar, note for note renderings that not only bring nothing new to the table, but suck all the life out of the song (Rascal Flatts version of “Life is a Highway”). There’s a fine line between a good cover and a hot mess; not everyone knows where it is. I’ve always thought the most important thing is that the new artist has to own the song. It’s someone else’s words and melody, but it’s yours in the moments you play it.
John Lennon owns the songs he covers for Rock ‘N’ Roll, but that ownership has a price. The album was conceived and began recording during Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” when he was separated from Yoko and living with May Peng in Los Angeles. It’s no secret that Lennon was a walking, talking train wreck at this point in his life, drugging and drinking, terrorizing LA night spots with the likes of Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. He was spinning out of control and desperate to go home Yoko.
That desperation comes through in the way he attacks these songs, his voice raw with emotion. He experiments a little with the musical styles and arrangements of these songs (most notably reggae on a couple of tracks), but he retains their original spirit while adding new layers. My very favorite is his cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” This is a wistful, hopeful song no matter how it’s done, but there’s added dimension to Lennon’s version. There is none of King’s smooth, urbane, restrained style. Lennon’s voice is pleading, begging for support. You feel it in your bones when he sings the chorus, “Darling, darling, stand by me.”
Lennon’s version doesn’t try to erase or outdo King’s version. Lennon does his best to make the song new, give the audience something different to hear, even as we say, “Oh yeah, I love this song.” That’s what good covers are supposed to do.