John Lennon has been gone more than 40 years now. How is that possible?
Lennon’s solo work has been remastered in recent years and repackaged. Now, this material has been remixed and expanded packages of his solo albums are getting the grand treatment.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his first official solo album, has arrived in various formats with demos, new mixes, Blu-ray and vinyl. What’s old is new. Back in 2018, came Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, a six-CD boxed set of new mixes, demos, rough studio tracks, Blu-ray, etc. Yoko started with this album because it was his most commercially popular and would introduce fans to the deeper dive from the vault.
Through the years, his solo work has been available in various greatest hits collections. Back in 1976, Shaved Fish, his first greatest hits collection was released. That coincided with his five-year retirement, to focus on son Sean. I enjoyed Shaved Fish because it included his singles that did not appear on albums.
When his remastered solo albums were available, I bought several to update my collection, but not everything. When Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes came out last year to commemorate Lennon’s 80th birthday, I was unsure about this collection. Again, this two-CD collection was available in multiple formats for discriminating audiophiles. Since his work had already been remastered, I was not sure of the need for another “new” collection. I checked out several reviews from sources that I respect, to get their feel of the sound quality and what might be new about the mixes.
In an interview with the several members of the engineering team involved in the process, Ono did not want just another greatest hits package, she wanted to remix the songs from scratch, and Sean Lennon pushed the engineers to “be bold” and finish the mixes on vintage analog equipment. Sounds that were buried in the mix or not present on the original master tapes were fair game for the new mix.
Yoko’s other direction was to unbury Lennon’s voice from the mixes, to give it clarity and warmth. Lennon, back to the Beatles recordings, pushed to bury his voice in echo and double-tracking. Despite having one of the finest voices in music, he was always uncomfortable about his voice, so he rarely let it stand out.
If you read reviews of The Ultimate Mixes online, there are very mixed opinions about the sound quality, some people preferring a different remastering version. When you remix, you attempt to separate the vocals and instruments, brighten or add definition, and change the harmonic balance of what the listener may be quite familiar. The biggest complaint I read about in these reviews of updated albums is usually the use of compression and changing the EQ or equalization. Simply, compression sets a limit on the top or bottom of the sound, giving the level a consistency instead of a lot of variation. Each sound have various frequencies. To change the the frequency elements of sound, you change how much of each part of the sound wave you will hear. You can push the part of the sound you like and hide other parts. In remastering, you are cleaning up the sound from age and old technology. When you remix, you can literally change the proportion and emphasis of each color of the sound palette.
After Shaved Fish, and before Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes, there are four other John Lennon greatest hit collections. Each is a bit different in length, song selection and sound quality. I do not see why you would need all of them. If you want one disc of great sounding Lennon songs, Power to the People: The Hits is a great selection. If you want more songs and you are curious about the new mixes, Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes is the right choice.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lennon had a very distinctive, hip sound. Part of that was courtesy of Phil Spector and his tidal wave of echo. That sound did not age well, and why songs like “Instant Karma” and “Power to the People” were not songs I gravitated toward. Also, his Plastic Ono Band album although it had spare instrumentation, had some of that same dated production. Later in the 1970s, I felt that Mind Games had a very thin sound that made those songs weak and uninteresting. Walls and Bridges, my favorite of the Lennon solo albums, had a very muddy mix that betrayed the quality of the songs. His 1980 return album, Double Fantasy, had too much 1980s production gloss.
I approached The Ultimate Mixes with some trepidation. I did not want the things I dislike to be magnified by the new mixes. Frankly, I was satisfied digging out my old copy of Shaved Fish, at least it did not have the 1980s stuff on it, and the sound was the way I remembered it. The old Lennon was fine with me. Based on some of the reviews I read, I was a bit uneasy that the new mixes might remove the things I liked.
Overall, the new mixes, over the original sound quality, is much improved. Is the 2020 remaster better than the 2010 remaster? It depends on the song. I am not a top-of-the-line audiophile, so questions about Blu-ray and 5.1 mixes generally should go to others. In the past, some of Lennon’s songs sounded like they were mixed for AM radio. “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” is one of them. The song is good, but the mix was always like fingernails on the chalkboard. Modern technology allows the sound to be opened up and not stacked so tightly that the instruments and vocals seem stapled together.
The biggest positive is how Lennon’s voice is treated in the mixes. His voice is cleaner and warmer. Even if he hated his singing, we do not.
The songs from Sometime in New York City, Mind Games and Walls and Bridges sound much better. Double Fantasy was never one of my favorite albums. Through the years I found it hard to enjoy, in part because of Lennon’s murder. The songs on Ultimate Mixes from that album now have a more acceptable sound to me. The mixes brings out more warmth and less studio gloss.
I was really looking forward to “Grow Old With Me”, hoping for more depth to the fragile sound. This version includes the George Martin strings, added back in 1998 at Yoko’s request. It is a beautiful song and it does sound better. One only wishes Lennon could have finished it.