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Fans get a dose of Lennon unplugged

Julie Bender | Thursday, November 11, 2004

Pulling things apart to see what is on the inside often fascinates little kids. They want to know what makes a clock tick, or how a gumball pops out when you put a penny in the machine.

It happens that music fans as well take innocent delight in hearing songs stripped to their bare boned, outtake versions. At times fans have taken this delight to extremes, like the rumored circulation of tapes containing nothing more than Bob Dylan’s heavy breathing. Most fans, however, prize the musical side of their favorite artist’s “unplugging.” John Lennon fans are the latest to be treated to songs stripped down to their demo-versions with the release of “Acoustic.”

Every year, between the anniversaries of Lennon’s birthday in October and his death in December, his widow Yoko Ono releases a collection of songs in his remembrance. This year marks what would have been Lennon’s 64th birthday and the 24th year since his death, and “Acoustic” is Ono’s fitting tribute to her late husband.

The album is a collection of 16 songs from Lennon’s solo-era songbook. Although most of these versions have been released before, primarily on “The John Lennon Anthology,” there are seven tracks seen here for the first time, including “Cold Turkey,” “Real Love” and a cutting “Working Class Hero.”

This unplugged, acoustic arrangement is a suitable and flattering format for Lennon’s songs. Known for his honest and direct lyrics, the minimal guitar accompaniment delivers Lennon’s voice with an endearing clarity. Making the album even more attractive is the knowledge that Lennon was self-conscious about his voice. On polished recordings he often mixed his own vocal tracks, obscuring the natural sound of his voice. On “Acoustic,” however, fans get to hear Lennon raw and untainted.

Although some of the album tracks seem to be throwaway numbers – the closing track of nothing more than Lennon whistling – there are several good moments on the album that make it worthwhile.

The album’s highpoint is a touching version of “Watching the Wheels.” Originally released on the “Double Fantasy” album, this song is a plaintive defense of Lennon’s withdrawal from the rock ‘n’ roll scene in the late 1970s. Happily married and tending to his newborn son during this time, Lennon was criticized by fans for abandoning his music. With “Watching the Wheels,” Lennon defends himself singing, “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go ’round and ’round / I really love to watch them roll / No longer riding on the merry-go-round / I just had to let it go.”

Fans will also like the live version of “Imagine,” where Lennon re-creates the piano song on his guitar. This song, which has become a worldwide anthem for peace, is given a new innocence when played acoustically. The faint sound of the audience accompanying Lennon on the chorus, “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will live as one,” adds to the poignancy of this ageless song.

Other good tracks on Acoustic are “Real Love,” which the Beatles released on Anthology II, “The Luck of the Irish,” a song decrying the British for their abuses on Ireland, the stark opener “Working Class Hero” and the haunting “My Mummy’s Dead.”

For those who are unfamiliar with Lennon’s solo work, it would be better to start with one of his other albums in order to appreciate “Acoustic.” For veteran Lennon fans, however, “Acoustic” will be a welcome addition to the album collection. Guitar players will find the album especially appealing with the inclusion of the actual tablature Lennon used, and a chord chart for the songs. “Acoustic” allows fans to unplug and listen to Lennon in a newfound purity, and musicians will be able to acousticize right along with him.