S aturday is the 70th birthday of John Lennon, a calendar demarcation that makes it sound as if the Smart One were still alive. Alas, the final birthday the Liverpudlian celebrated was his 40th; less than two months later, the cerebral former Beatle would be shot in the back four times outside his Dakota home in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Rest assured, that infamous apartment building will be draped in bouquets and reminiscence this anniversary weekend. And the thousands of solemn, candle-lit mourners will insist that Lennon, despite what his death certificate might say, is indeed very much alive.
And who's to argue? Certainly not the moneymen at EMI Music, which has commemorated Lennon's Big 7-0 by remastering eight solo albums plus releasing hits and rarities compilations in all manner of deluxe treatments, including the four-disc Gimme Some Truth, the CD-DVD Power to the People: The Hits and the ultimate 11-CD John Lennon Signature Box, all of which are in stores now.
All told, the remastering (making it louder, more sonically oomphy for the most part) encompasses 121 solo tracks — although I'm not sure if such cat-exploding Yoko Ono screechers as Kiss Kiss Kiss are included in that tally.
Speaking of Ono: In order to give completists something to slobber over, the 77-year-old oversaw production of a "stripped down" version of 1980's half-classic, half-ouch Double Fantasy; she worked with Lennon's raw, original content. The changes aren't always drastic but they are a bit irksome: The piano line on Watching the Wheels, my favorite Lennon song (especially as I get older), is different, more plodding. Plus Lennon's vocals are less polished, less sure of themselves. To be honest, I much prefer the Double Fantasy I grew up with; thankfully, both versions are provided in the new package.
Cynics will smirk that EMI has released and rereleased Lennon's solo catalog myriad times in the past 30 years. And it's true; they have. But Ono says this latest collection is aimed at a "whole new audience," presumably young people. That's a nice idea, but it's also a little off: Kids aren't buying CDs anymore, let alone pricey deluxe ones; they're hunting and pecking singles on iTunes, where most of the Lennon remasterings also are available.
Still, it's hard to scoff at the idea of myriad fresh ears discovering the post-Fab work of an iconoclast so intent on spreading ideas of love and political and personal freedom. Here's hoping newbies find the hits (Instant Karma, Give Peace a Chance, Woman) as well as all those lesser-known album tracks.
A couple to check out? I've always enjoyed the jaunty strut of I'm Stepping Out from 1984's posthumous Milk and Honey, which shows Lennon in a scampish pop mood. And the romantic bigness of Out the Blue, from 1973's Mind Games album, gets me every time, especially those high, holy harmonies. (There's also great fun to be had with the glossy liner notes, including the "Declaration of Nutopia," his idea for a new "conceptual country" outlined in Mind Games.)
Whether you're a Lennon freak or merely curious about the guy in the New York City shirt, there's plenty to celebrate here. Although let it be noted that the idea of remastering the song Imagine, of somehow making it better, is preposterous. After all, that's been nothing less than the perfect pop song for 39 years.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.