Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Great '80s Lennon Singles (Yes, You Read That Right)

But wasn't he ...? Didn't he get ...? Oh, you thought I meant ... no, no, no, not that Lennon. Although that Lennon actually did have a huge posthumous hit in 1984 ("Nobody Told Me"). But it turns out that that Lennon had a son, then more or less abandoned him, but then the son grew up to be a musician. And he was bigger than his father ever was. OK, not exactly. Bigger than Jesus, maybe, but not his father.

Still, there were so many stylistic options for Julian Lennon. Expand upon his dad's folk-rock sound? His whimsical, psychedelic sound? His lean, bitter early solo sound? Nope. When Julian Lennon entered the musical arena, he did so in a genre he felt he could call his own: Yuppie Rock.

In 1984, the first three things people probably thought of when they heard about Julian Lennon were 1) his father, 2) his father, and 3) his father. Now watch as I, thirty years later, more or less do the same thing. Because his father was John Lennon! I mean ... dude!

On the one hand, you could say that the only reason Julian Lennon managed to have two big hits in 1985 was because his father was You Know Who. That's how he got a record deal in the first place, that's how he got studio assistance from savvy industry veterans when debut artists usually don't, that's how he got a solid marketing push, and, most disturbingly, perhaps his slight vocal similarity to You Know Who, and the public's unconditional love of anything remotely Beatle-related (aside from Yoko) is how he managed to sell some records. "John Lennon is gone ... but, hey look, his son will save us!"

Yeah, sure, Julian's voice sounds like one particular shade of John's. He sounds a little like John's most calm, passive ballad voice. I am about to be a bit unfair to Julian, but here are some of the ways his voice does not sound like John's. It's not as: raw, piercing, energetic, raunchy, desperate, wounded, or passionate. But that's OK! How many other singers' voices are? John had a once-in-a-lifetime combination. Julian shares maybe two out of John's twenty-six vocal qualities. But for a lot of people, that was close enough.

Naturally, for his debut album, Julian decided he needed to sound like Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain, so he tracked down Billy's long-time producer Phil Ramone. Listening to the songs from Valotte, it almost sounds like I'm listening to Julian Lennon trying to imitate Billy Joel trying to imitate John Lennon, but why split hairs? Like a mini-Beatles discography, Julian's two big hits were quite different from each other. We've got the ballad, and we've got the uptempo number.

Back in college, when I had a record player, I found Valotte in the discount bin, bought it on a whim, and listened to the title track. I give you this back story just to make it clear that I felt I was under no obligation to like his music. But you know what? I thought was a good song! I played it on repeat without listening to the rest of the album, and then I gave the album away when I moved. But I don't care whose name is on the spine, this is a keeper. It's got a pretty and yet unpredictable melody filled with surprising chord changes. Also, with its lyrical references to valleys and rivers and pebbles, it makes me think of sitting around a house in New England or Oregon on a late afternoon, contemplating my sad Yuppie existence. Screw Beethoven's 6th; this is pastoral, '80s-style.

OK, so it kind of sounds like the Beatles. Here's what Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes: "Its elegant evocation of late-period Beatles -- deliberate but not self-conscious -- invited some carping criticisms that Julian was riding on his father's coattails when the reality is this: any pop singer/songwriter of Julian's generation was bound to be influenced by the Beatles." Exactly! That's like telling Sophia Coppola not to be influenced by her father. What filmmaker would not be influenced by Francis Ford Coppola? How do you not sound like the Beatles? That's like telling Bob Marley's kids not to sound like Bob Marley. That's like when John Fogerty got sued for plagiarising himself. When you're writing songs, you can't start thinking about those things. Of course, that didn't prevent the public from reading hidden meanings into these rather open-ended lyrics:
Sitting on the doorstep of the house I can't afford
I can feel you there
Thinking of a reason, well, it's really not very hard
To love you even though you nearly lost my heart
How can I explain the meaning of our love
It fits so tight, closer than a glove

Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar
Wonderin' if we're really ever gonna get that far
Do you know there's something wrong
'Cause I've felt it all along

I can see your face in the mirrors of my mind
Will you still be there
We're really not so clever as we seem to think we are
We've always got our troubles
So we'll solve them in the bar
As the days go by, we seem to drift apart
If I could only find a way to keep hold of your heart

Sitting in the valley as I watch the sun go down
I can see you there
Thinking of a reason, well, it's really not very hard
To love you though you nearly lost my heart
When will we know when the change is gonna come
I've got a good feeling and it's coming from the sun
Is he singing ... to his father? Oh please, he could be singing about anybody. Yeah, if I squint hard enough, I suppose some of this sounds like a "message" to John, like "I can see your face in the mirrors of my mind/Will you still be there?" But with other lines, like "Wonderin' if we're really ever gonna get that far," I don't think that works. How could Julian and John "get that far" if John was already dead?

The truth is, John was barely a part of Julian's life. In fact, Julian claims to remember hanging out more with Paul McCartney than with his own father! It must be frustrating to instantly be associated with a person you hardly knew and, in many ways, actively resented. Note to the public: there were many other people in Julian Lennon's thoughts beside his father, so he probably wasn't writing about him all that much. Also, I wouldn't say Julian was the world's most dynamic lyricist, so it's not too hard to over-interpret lyrics this semi-cliched. Case in point: his other major hit, "Too Late for Goodbyes":
Ever since you've been leavin' me, I've been wantin' to cry
Now I know how it feels for you, I've been wanting to die
But it's much too late for goodbyes
Yes it's much too late for goodbyes
Pretty deep. Is he saying it's too late to say goodbye to his father ... because he's dead? Julian himself said it was about breaking up with his girlfriend, but come on, that's no fun. The point is, as a wordsmith, he wasn't exactly Billy Joel, let alone Lennon Sr., but forget it, because the song itself is a dynamic slice of bone-crunching dance-pop. Check out the funky bass plucking around 3:05!

What's weird is that I didn't become a Beatles fan until 1991, and I remember reading about Julian Lennon's solo career, but I had no idea what he sounded like, and then one day I heard "Too Late For Goodbyes" on the radio and realized that this massive hit from my childhood that I'd heard a million times was by ... Julian Lennon! Hey, my five-year-old self didn't even know who John Lennon was, and I still liked the song, so who needs nepotism?

Actually, the weirdest part about Julian Lennon's two big '80s hits isn't how much he kinda sorta sounded like his father, but that the two videos were directed by the croaking last gasp of legendarily violent Western director Sam Peckinpah (!).

Who the what now? Years ago, I read a biography of Peckinpah which explained that Julian's video producer was throwing out names of potential video directors, and when someone suggested Peckinpah, the producer gasped and said something like, "Oh God, that's all we need, he'll go and film an ultra-bloody re-enactment of John's murder! In slow motion!" But then his assistant reminded him of other, more meditative Peckinpah films like The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (probably my second favorite film of his after The Wild Bunch), and the producer realized the grizzled old coot was capable of a lighter touch when it suited him. And so, the videos for "Valotte" and "Too Late For Goodbyes" turned out to be the last works Peckinpah ever directed, as he died a few months later in a haze of booze and burnt scorpion carcasses.

Which is cool, except I would have never known Sam Peckinpah "directed" these videos unless somebody told me, as there is, in my opinion, nothing distinctive about them. I know he wasn't exactly in his artistic prime, but they look like the "making-of" documentaries of the videos, not the videos themselves. Let's just say John Landis didn't have anything to worry about.


Cleophus said...

Sam Peckinpah?!?!?!? I had no idea.

Herr Zrbo said...

Wow, you're not wrong, he really does sound somewhat like his father!

Speaking of the other Lennon child, I saw Sean Lennon perform with Cibo Matto many years ago. It happened to be his birthday that night too so we all got to sing him Happy Birthday. That's my closest brush with the Beatles.