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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Of course, I remember where I was...

Because it was the first time I remember feeling so devastated. I had not suffered a personal bereavement or the tragic loss of some of my friends, as I would not too long after, but the grief that overwhelmed was genuine and felt deeply personal.

I know I quietly cried.

The Beatles were the essence of most of my earliest musical memories.

I didn't inherit my love of The Stones or Blues from sitting around the family stereogram, I worked that out for myself later. Instead, I grew up in a house ringing with Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass and Herbie Mann's jazz-flute - both of which I still can listen to and raise a smile. But my parents did have two Beatles albums ("Hard Days Night" and "Sgt Pepper") which when a break in their easy listening 8 track cartridge loungecore playlist would allow, we were allowed to play. The Alvin Stardust singles only went on when the house was empty.

By 1980, I had decided I was "into" The Beatles and discovered most of their albums and was the exceedingly proud owner of "1962-66" and "1967-70" on red and blue vinyl respectively, which I had somehow picked up inexplicably at a sale price (2 for 1 - now that really is value) in the record department in Callers. I (and several of my cohorts at school) were very familiar with them and as a result, were regularly swapping cassettes of the albums and by now, had branched out into "McCartney II" and "Shaved Fish". I even owned a copy of George's "Dark Horse" on an MPL budget reissue cassette which nobody wanted to borrow and, much as I love him, if I was honest with myself, I never blamed them. I find it difficult to play that rather dirge-y slice of melancholia even now.

And then forty years ago this week, the news came that John Lennon had been shot.

And I felt that the same had happened to me.

Of course, I wasn't alone but in a class of smelly metallers and late-to-the party punks it was easy to feel isolated having developed a musical fanaticism for something that really wasn't that current. My protests of Lennon being in the charts - I had excitedly bought "Just Like Starting Over" after seeing a Legs & Co performance on "Top Of The Pops" only a week or so before - fell on deaf ears with the majority of my peers.

But to the cassette deck, I withdrew and the news stories of mourning from right across the globe - famously a tribute was even held in Moscow on Lenin Hill (geddit) - certainly helped the sense that I was not grieving alone.

So here we are today and Lennon would have turned 80 and we are left to wonder what might have been. If "Double Fantasy" and "Milk & Honey" are anything to go by, I would suggest glimmers of greatness still, as with all of his former compadres - "Watching The Wheels" being the highlight. You do not get to be as talented and ground-breaking as he once was without the ability to pull something wonderful out of the locker when the need arises, I'm sure.

If you were once a Beatle, there's always the chance for a "Maybe I'm Amazed" after all.

So to honour this 40th anniversary, I wanted to honour a 50th anniversary. The record stations and Spotify playlists will be full of "Imagine", "Give Peace A Chance" and (as it's that time again) "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and there's nothing wrong with that. However, half a century ago, Lennon released his greatest single "Instant Karma!".

The label said "Play It Loud" and you should follow that directive to the letter. The clue is in the title, itself - there's a very obvious exclamation mark.

Everything is double-tracked or triple-tracked. There are four different keyboards and multitudes of guitar textures on what is a sonic masterpiece. A truly barnstorming 45.

This, of course, was the triumphant return of Phil Spector's "Wall Of Sound" - he had produced nothing since 1966, having retired after the muted reception to his meisterwerk "River Deep Mountain High" with Ike and Tina Turner.

Spector gave the record the full treatment after Lennon had said he wanted it to sound like something from the 50s - full of echo. And with that he created this explosive single with an astonishing drum sound from Alan White, a relentless piano melody and one of the most uplifting choruses of all time - a chorus that inspired Stephen King's "The Shining" by the way.

George Harrison and sometime Beatle collaborators Billy Preston and Klaus Voorman may have been part of the studio band but this sounded very very different to The Beatles. By now, Lennon had made clear his intention to leave the band three months before but it was not yet public knowledge.

Spector called this his own audition and as a result was given access to the tapes of "Let It Be" and fellow Beatle enthusiasts know that didn't work out so well for one of the members at least. However, he then produced "The Plastic Ono Band" and "All Things Must Pass" so whilst he may not have been right for the Beatles direction, he certainly seemed to understand the mission of at least two of its component parts, delivering two of the best solo projects.

There was a real sense of purpose and commitment from Lennon around this record that produced a sharply focused piece of vinyl. He and Yoko seemed deliberately to put aside the antics of 1969 - they both cut their hair (giving it away to charity) and went on to the promotional circuit the like of which they had not taken up in the cause of a new release, at least for some time.

The film that exists of them performing the single was from a "Top Of The Pops" appearance - the first by any Beatle since 1966. He seemed genuinely (and rightly) excited about what he had produced.

He was no longer a Beatle and it is at this point, probably for the last time ever and certainly, the first since the Beatles became a studio-based entity, that he felt he needed to go out and prove himself again. He desperately wanted success in his own right and needed to avoid the advice of his coterie of genuflectors - a curse of so much post-Beatle solo work for all of them. The lack of comparative success for its malevolent-sounding predecessor "Cold Turkey" put him on his toes. Famously, he had handed back his MBE in protest at its chart demise (at least one of the reasons).

Everything about this record seemed to indicate that John (the ex-Beatle at least in his own mind) still really meant business.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of "Instant Karma!" is that Lennon really bought into the accessibility of the concept as he saw it. Life was not about stored up brownie points - as the Maharishi might have told him - but instead about the need for immediate thoughts and deeds because potential consequences were never far away. In many ways, it is a better tribute to his philosophy and accompanying wit than the sainted "Imagine" could ever be.

Hence, famously, he took "instant" at face value and released the record only ten days after it was recorded and mixed. Still one of the fastest ever turn-arounds for a release - certainly a non-charity one.

The song may well be about "instant" but it is anything but ephemeral. It remains, for me, Lennon's finest and most innovative solo recording and the best testament to his genius I can advocate, as we remember the terrible events of forty years ago that still manage to move me - and countless others -so profoundly.

We can all shine on.

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Dec 14, 2020

I'm playing it LOUD! Which makes it sound even like Noddy Holder!

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