John Lennon died almost a decade before the advent of the MTV Unplugged format. Acoustic, though, simulates the idea by collecting 16 tracks featuring just him on acoustic guitar and vocals, except for “The Luck Of The Irish” where he is joined by Yoko. This is one of three stirring live recordings, the others being “John Sinclair” and the ubiquitous “Imagine”, all from benefits in 1971.
Prepared under the watchful eye of Yoko Ono, the rest are demos and home recording. But, somewhat contentiously, nine of the sixteen selections are already available on the 1998 4CD Anthology Box. It rather smacks of exploitation, since this is a collection of unpolished, unfinished material – mere snippets at times – designed not for casual record buyer but, essentially, for serious fans who, chances are, own over half of it already.
Acoustic was originally intended for release ‘only in Japan’ but has since been made available worldwide due, supposedly, to the amount of ‘global interest’. It rather begs the question as to why a Lennon album with seven unreleased tracks was not considered to be of interest to the wider world in the first instance?
What is even more inexplicable is the complete absence of liner notes and recording details. The booklet, instead, offers drawings by Lennon, lyrics, a chord chart and tuning instructions in the guise of fake guitar manual . Yoko also dedicates the album to ‘future guitarists’, a little misleading unless there‘s some intended irony. As these raw recordings show, Lennon was no virtuoso guitarist. His gift was his passion, his voice and his songs and it’s those very songs that make Acoustic indispensable to hardcore fans for the seven unreleased cuts.
Assembled more or less chronologically, Acoustic opens with six songs taped during August and September 1970 and destined for John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band, his most powerful, radical musical statement. Included are three new glimpses into Lennon’s stripped-bare psyche, all equally revealing. “Well Well Well” is stark and menacing, Lennon sounding like an old delta bluesman albeit with slightly phased vocals. “My Mommy’s Dead” is completely desolate, Lennon‘s unearthly voice intoning over thrashed guitar chords to the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice“. By contrast, “God“ is folky, like one of Lennon’s sporadic Dylan spoofs, even the familiar litany of rejected beliefs in God, Elvis, Beatles et al is delivered deadpan. Intriguingly throwaway and with none of the passion and spirituality of the finished version.
Next up is a real jewel, the “Cold Turkey” demo from September 1969. Over a repeated two chord pattern, Lennon’s depiction of the pain and loneliness of chemical withdrawal is as intense and harrowing as the fully pumped-up single version. Little wonder The Beatles baulked at recording it. Lennon’s vocal is almost bleating in anguish, causing Marc Bolan to later claim that he was trying to copy him.
“What You Got” jumps to the June 1974 work-outs for Walls And Bridges. This version is a rockabilly romp with its “You Don’t Know What You Got Till You Lose It” message fleshed out by impromptu lyrics and even a slight steal from Little Richard’s “Rip It Up”.
The final batch of home recordings date from the 1979/80 house-husband years. There is a delightful, very affectionate “Dear Yoko” with a melody line part Byrds/part Buddy Holly that‘s Lennon at his most engaging. There‘s a similar warmth to “Real Love”, a song Lennon regularly returned to. The version here is genuinely touching and far more subtle than the pounding piano based track which was eventually completed by the remaining Beatles as the follow-up to “Free As A Bird”.
Infuriatingly, there’s much to commend Acoustic. But you can‘t help but feel cheated by the crossovers from Anthology. The recycling and consequent dilution of the Lennon myth will undoubtedly continue with further raking through the seemingly endless hours of home tapes. Hopefully, Yoko Ono will be less haphazard next time around. By the same token, whatever claims to the contrary, The Beatles archive is anything but depleted. Spare us the Let It Be rehearsals, but a collection of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison acoustic demos for the White Album and Abbey Road alone would make for a very desirable Beatles Unplugged.