John Lennon – Mind Games: Lennon’s Most Conflicted Album 

Mind Games Review

John Lennon’s Mind Games album will always be John Lennon’s Most Conflicted Album. By the time sessions commenced for his fourth album Mind Games, John Lennon was, for all intents and purposes and for the first time in his career, truly alone. Untethered by the creative constraints of his former cohorts in The Beatles and free of the personal curtailments of life as an active and contributing companion within a functioning marriage, John Lennon was very much a man adrift. The all-encompassing freedom for which he had so long yearned had manifested itself, albeit with an unanticipated caveat, this being the liquidation of a guiding presence, an emotional anchor that John Lennon was seemingly unaware had been keeping him grounded within the realm of structured functionality as a human being throughout the preceding decade. As such, the ensuing album, Mind Games serves as a fascinating look at one of the world’s greatest artists at his most uncertain and his most flawed.

Here the listener bears witness to John Lennon’s stripped-down humanity first hand, but not in the sense that he is deeply connected to the spirit of human emotion, as is the case for a song like “Love” from his acclaimed 1970 debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Rather, the humanity here is most evident in the inherent struggle of the production itself; not in the interpretation of human struggle, mind you, but in the literal struggle faced by the artist to operate at his full capacity and to fulfill his own professional and artistic obligations while enduring domestic catastrophe. At year’s end in 1973, John Lennon, an artist who had been wildly mythologized and promulgated as a profit to whom all could turn for truth and inspiration, found himself completely devoid of answers and direction. For the first time, the emperor had no clothes.

Universally lauded as one of the greatest songwriters to ever live, John Lennon’s output during his solo career is a more than adequate justification of his standing among the greats who transcended their respective genres and created music that was truly enduring. While few would reject such a sentiment, it is one that is further solidified by his distinction of founding the biggest band of all time, this of course being The Beatles. John Lennon’s characteristic sarcasm, quick wit, and slash-and-burn approach to songwriting served as the consummate foil to writing partner Paul McCartney’s whimsical optimism and methodical compositional style.

Exhilarated by the energy and rhythms of rock pioneers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the two initiated a highly collaborative songwriting process that would produce some of the most beloved songs of all time. However, this camaraderie would rapidly deteriorate in the face of colossal success. By the end of the 1960s John Lennon, infamously the most forthright member of the group, had taken to making records under his own name, an anomaly within the structure of, what until then had been, a notoriously insular band. It was not long before John Lennon, feeling restricted by the democracy of the group dynamic, stepped away from the outfit, effectively dismantling the greatest musical act of all time.

Fueled by personal ambition and the encouragement of his doting new bride Yoko Ono, John Lennon pursued what would become a highly successful solo career, though he, along with his former bandmates, would remain wrapped up in Beatles-related media controversy throughout the 1970s. Frustrated by the relentless media attention and the overwhelming disdain from distressed fans who insisted she was the primary cause of The Beatles’ split, Yoko Ono declared her intent to put time and space between herself and her husband, much to the chagrin of the latter. For John Lennon this would mean relocating to Los Angeles while Ono remained in New York.

The decision came just as John Lennon was to set about recording a new set of songs that would become Mind Games, an album that, despite many of the songs being written prior to the event, would be heavily informed by his separation from Yoko Ono. The personal blow would compound the hardships already being endured by John Lennon over the past year by way of his seemingly perpetual legal troubles between tying up loose ends with The Beatles‘ Apple Records, drug charges which would affect his immigration status, and his being surveyed by the FBI.

Critical opinion of the songwriter had also reached a low point following the politically charged and critically detested Some Time In New York, the 1972 release which followed 1971’s highly accessible and widely popular Imagine. At his wit’s end and with no other apparent recourse, John Lennon would spin his wheels. He would famously refer to this 18 month period as his Lost Weekend, a reference to the 1945 Billy Wilder film of the same name.

Appropriately, Mind Games would be the first album that John Lennon would produce on his own. While Phil Spector was listed as a producer on each of John Lennon’s previous efforts, it has often been regaled that the increasingly unreliable Spector’s studio presence and legitimate contributions to the records were paltry at best, and that John Lennon himself had been primarily handling production duties on his own albums over the years. It should then come as no surprise that the production throughout Mind Games, in many ways, mirrors that of “Imagine,” but given the inherent lack of conviction informing the project, fails to consistently cut through in a substantial way that might justify the schmaltz of many of its arrangements.

The atmosphere of the sessions and John Lennon’s demeanor during this time give the album an uneven feel, particularly given the assured quality of the more uplifting numbers within the track list. Having come to the studio equipped with a batch of recently-penned songs, many of which no longer applied to the state of his emotions, he took to reworking some songs during the sessions and trying out various versions before landing on the versions heard today. This, augmented by the fact that many of the album’s songs evolved from demo recordings, the origins of which stem from different eras altogether, render a conceptual deconstruction of the album a precarious exercise involving much contextual analysis and a fair amount of educated guesswork.

The title track “Mind Games,” is one that John Lennon reportedly began work on during his time with The Beatles, with the repeated refrain of “love is the answer” echoing themes prominently featured in their late 1960s recordings and lending credence to the sentiment of the track’s origins. It is unclear, however, specifically how much of the hopefulness and certitude of the efficacy of ideas such as peace and love which continually emerge throughout the project are indicative of bygone values of a naive twenty-something iteration of the artist, how much is reflective of his headspace mere weeks prior, and how much emerged, or at least was reevaluated and considered artistically valid, on the spot during the sessions by a man at the impetus of what would be the most emotionally grueling period of his life.

“Only People” is another of the album’s more lighthearted selections, featuring a lyric rooted in the idea of autonomy and personal freedoms as well as the utopian prospect and untapped potential of a society intent on lifting one another up. John Lennon would later express a fondness for the song and regret that he could never quite make a sensible lyric of it. The idea is certainly a righteous one, but is a stark oversimplification of various complex issues and reeks of the sort of vague, ostentatious haughtiness that would plague much of his politically charged material and leave fervent solicitations for peace more closely resembling platitudes than proposals of any kind of viable solution.

Side one closer “Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” implements similar lyrical fare through vague requests for freedom with little consideration as to what that might actually entail or how such a thing could be feasibly executed, the differentiation here being in that “Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” is built upon solid enough a musical foundation that it transcends the generalities of the lyric and approaches something resembling a compelling idea.

Much like one of his more well-known protest songs “Give Peace a Chance,” the intent behind “Bring On the Lucie” appears to be more about getting people involved than about telling them what to think, with the latter utilizing a sing-along earworm hook rivaling the potency of the former. John Lennon keeps things simple musically with an unwavering I-V-IV progression in E major moving the song along throughout, though it does push things further than did “Give Peace a Chance” which simply vamped on a single C chord through the verses and tossed in a G for good measure during the chorus.

 

It is during the darker moments of Mind Games, however, that the soul of its creator shines through. Through a series of mid-tempo confessional ballads, John Lennon gets to work navigating his own grief, a process that would ultimately see him, among other things, overindulging in drug and alcohol use, being thrown out of bars with Harry Nilsson, and partaking in numerous excessive and confrontational studio sessions with an unbalanced Phil Spector who could often be seen brandishing a firearm.

The first grief-infused number on the record in chronology is “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)” a song which had been demoed as early as 1971 under the name “Call Your Name” which remains the track’s primary lyric. The song’s verses see the protagonist speaking directly to the intended recipient of the sentiments within, expressing sorrow and regret for unnamed transgressions, as well as an apparently renewed sense of empathy and understanding.

The song concludes with a pronounced guitar solo from David Spinozza which, along with the rest of the track, cuts abruptly to silence much in the same way as John Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from The Beatles’ landmark 1969 album Abbey Road. The song’s conclusion is jarring and nearly anxiety-inducing, creating feelings of emptiness within the listener. The finish has been interpreted as Ono’s symbolic rejection of John Lennon’s apology and his attempts at reconciliation, shutting him down and delegitimizing the emotional legwork he had done to get to a place which he believed to be sufficient to redeem himself and his life as he once knew it.

With scarcely enough time for the listener to even register being brake-checked by track 3, John Lennon’s voice penetrates the silence, beginning the first verse of “One Day (At a Time)” a cappella and bringing the band in on the downbeat of bar 2. An unnerving, hidden gem in the John Lennon catalogue, it stands as one of his strangest and most beautiful ballads. Musical interest is high throughout, with Lennon utilizing a number of jazz chords over a progression in what is essentially B minor but, as the instruments are tuned slightly sharp, would more accurately be described as somewhere between B and C.

Following the metaphorical shunning of the preceding track, “One Day (At a Time)” is much less certain in, though no less committed to, its progress. This uncertainty almost seems to be reflected in the song’s rhythm which is inherently a shuffle in 3/4 time, but features a delay effect on the snare drum which produces the sensation of common 4/4 time pulling against the song’s rhythmic foundation. This type of delay effect was used prominently, although not necessarily to one such end, in the early rock and roll and rockabilly records that John Lennon enjoyed during his youth, and would soon emulate on the 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll covers project he would produce with Phil Spector.

The tune is finalized with an expansive solo from prolific jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker who, just over a decade later, would contribute saxophone to Lennon’s son Julian’s 1984 debut album Valotte. Presenting itself almost as an exercise in self-deception, “One Day (At a Time)” finds John Lennon grasping for hope, rationalizing the plausibility of a desperate situation and resolving to press forward in the face of impending disappointment, understanding that acceptance of his situation would spell out the conclusive forfeiture of that with which he simply could not part.

It is said that distance makes the heart grow fonder, and while it is an extremely general concept, anyone who has ever experienced a breakup or, worse yet, a separation can attest to the legitimacy of the tried and true adage. The people who find themselves in these predicaments are experiencing very real longing, there is no question as to the palpability of this affliction. However, in these situations it can be difficult to distinguish how much of the torment has arisen due to the sudden extraction of a loved one from one’s life, and how much is rooted in the overwhelming anxiety and self doubt that come packaged along with rejection.

Generally speaking these conflicting notions actually go hand in hand, one exacerbating the other, creating a compound of deeply intense feelings within a person, some real and some only superficially so, that only serve to aggravate the already all-encompassing confusion which dwells within us. Just as it is nearly impossible to discern from where the optimistic moments throughout the record have been derived, it is equally unworkable to determine whether the sentiments expressed in the album’s torch songs are indicative of true emotional growth or of an ongoing panic predicated by the prospect of imminent and perennial abandonment.

To John Lennon’s credit, it is unlikely that he himself knew where that line lay, as it is nearly impossible to determine from within the midst of such tribulations. He seeks solace in the album’s most tranquil number “You Are Here,” speaking to his wife as if she is there with him, insisting that his feelings will not be mitigated by physical distance and reassuring that “wherever you are, you are here.”

The omnipresence of the predicament in which John Lennon would find himself during the production of the album, as well as of his incessant thoughts of Ono herself, is depicted on the albums front and back covers, each of which John Lennon himself designed using clippings of various photographs that he reportedly cut by hand. John Lennon would later concede that the artwork for Mind Games served as a better articulation of his personal and artistic states of being during this era than did the actual album enclosed within, citing the album’s continuity or lack thereof as one source of his dissatisfaction with the finished product.

Incorporating a dreary combination of grays and blues along with other accents, the overall tone of the album’s artwork appears to be reflective of the tone of the album itself. The front cover sees John Lennon isolated in an open field with Ono’s face depicted as a mountainous structure which looms over him, symbolic of her apparent influence on the music despite her lack of involvement in the creative process. Two suns are visible, likely indicative of the separate time zones in which the couple now frequently found themselves. The back cover similarly sees John Lennon in the aforementioned field, although this time closer to the observer and further from Ono.

The suns featured on the front cover have been omitted and a rainbow has been inserted in their place, which could imply success in the process of John Lennon moving on with his life without Yoko Ono, or possibly even a reconciliation with Ono, although this theory brings into question the added distance between John Lennon and Ono’s respective depictions on the back cover. Mind Games is the third of John Lennon’s solo albums to feature Ono’s likeness on the front cover, with 1971’s Imagine having been the sole exception in his discography up to this point.

“Intuition” opens side two of the record and features the closest approximation of clarity and acceptance to be found here, encapsulating John Lennon’s personal ideology in deceptively direct fashion. John Lennon was a man who was always in search of an answer, living his life in constant pursuit of a higher truth. Time and time again he would elevate figures in which he placed his faith only to inevitably emerge bemused and disenchanted. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’s “God” catalogues a number of these apparent false idols whose ranks would include but would not be limited to Jesus, Buddha, Maharishi, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and perhaps most notably, The Beatles themselves, with Lennon concluding at the close of the song “I just believe in me.”

“Intuition” is an extension of this idea, the affirmation of the most logical answer to many of life’s quandaries also being the one we least want to hear, and that is that ultimately we ourselves are the only ones remotely qualified to decide what is best for us. It isn’t necessarily a reassuring answer, but it is one that rings true.

One song in particular from this set has served as a point of contention for listeners over the years, with many pointing out musical similarities between John Lennon’s “I Know (I Know)” and The Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” which was written primarily by Paul McCartney. With Mind Games seeing release in the early 1970s, the record-buying public searched intently for messages, subliminal or otherwise, which may have been directed at his old writing partner, as this had become an expectation of sorts following McCartney’s Ram and Lennon’s “Imagine,” each of which referenced the other directly and became the impetus of a highly publicized feud between the two.

Truthfully, the idea at this junction erred more along the lines of wishful thinking than fact-based analysis, as the musical similarities in question are the result of both songs beginning with ascending arpeggios on an A major chord with little in the way of reharmonization or structural variation to differentiate the two. This is a fairly conventional technique in pop music and does little to validate suspicions of outright plagiarism. Furthermore, while both songs are composed in the key of A, McCartney’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” retains major key voicings throughout its duration, while Lennon’s “I Know (I Know)” frequently implements the major 3rd and major 6th of the scale, those being the minor chords C#m and F#m, respectively.

Also, lyrical passages such as “I know it’s getting better all the time as we share in each other’s minds” and “Today I love you more than yesterday” strongly implicate Lennon’s wife Yoko as the song’s intended subject, as a message of this nature in reference to Paul McCartney at this juncture in the pair’s relationship makes little contextual sense based on the historical information that has since been made available.

The sheer density of Mind Games’ content can weigh heavily on the engaged listener. Fortunately the sequencing of the album offers moments of respite from the mid-tempo balladry which do much to maintain the forward momentum of the project. These offerings are presented in the form of two snarling, up-tempo rock numbers. The first of these is “Tight A$,” a somewhat vacuous rocker which acts as an effective contrast to the surrounding numbers. While the lyrics present little in the way of a thoughtful narrative, Lennon’s signature wordplay and adoration of puns are offered in spades, taking full advantage of the fact that a rapid articulation of the phrase “tight as” can sound very much like the expression of a particular expletive.

While this could simply have been yet another example of John Lennon slyly slipping a less-than-appropriate implication into an otherwise innocent idea (he would frequently implement this practice as a member of The Beatles,) he had no intention of being implicit with the reference, choosing to censor the letter “s” in the track’s title with a dollar sign as one might if they were spelling out a similar, less innocuous phrase.

The second of the album’s more high-energy tunes comes in the form of closing track “Meat City,” a tumultuous conglomerate of music and noise mashing together into a tidal wave of sound apparently meant to emulate New York City upon which the track’s lyrics were partially based. Lennon’s Epiphone Casino roars to life producing tones reminiscent of one of his most beloved Beatles-era rockers “Revolution.” The track also features some of the back-masking techniques popularized by The Beatles during their psychedelic periods.

Amidst the confusion and anxiety prevalent throughout this collection, the lone ideal to which John Lennon remains resolutely devout, the basket in which he unquestioningly deposits all his parabolic eggs, is in his devotion to his estranged wife Yoko. What emerges as a result is one of Lennon’s finest love songs and, indeed, perhaps one of the greatest love songs ever written: “Out the Blue.” The track opens with Lennon’s tranquil, solo acoustic guitar over which he delivers the tune’s first chorus before bringing in the entire band simultaneously for the first verse. The song builds steadily, making the most of the album’s layered, symphonic production before launching into a rollicking, gospel-infused piano solo courtesy of jazz pianist Ken Ascher.

The song’s lyrics express gratitude toward a lover and contemplate the welcome changes which have transpired since the arrival of the subject in the life of the narrator. “Out the Blue” requires little in the way of assumption to reach an informed conclusion as to the subject of the sentiments expressed, with the lyric “I survived long enough to make you my wife” pointing directly to Ono as the source of inspiration. John Lennon lent his own idiosyncrasies to the narrative which circumvented the risk of the highly accessible and relatable nature of the ballad. Those idiosyncrasies caused it to veer into cliché territory, peppering in references to “a long, slow knife” and UFOs. These were concepts in which John Lennon was enamored and to which he would make lyrical references at various points over the course of his career. He made mention of them once more in “Nobody Told Me.”  It was a song from the posthumously released album Milk and Honey. John Lennon also   claimed to have actually seen a UFO from his New York City apartment building.

The song moves atop a common-time G major progression but utilizes the occasional reharmonization which lends to the proceedings the distinctive quality of an underlying tension passively threatening to usurp the narrator’s lone source of comfort, the implication being that the only thing keeping John Lennon afloat amidst a raging ocean could be swept away by the waves at a moment’s notice. It is an expression of, but also a deference to, the overwhelming and cosmic power of love which, much like nature itself, can instantaneously dismantle one’s very being while leaving precious little room for bargaining or deliberation.

Mind Games has long been a subject of debate for John Lennon fans and Beatles enthusiasts alike, with some defending its merits and many maintaining their frustrations with its aimlessness and perceived inferiority to what are considered to be Lennon’s most highly significant releases, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, respectively. One could argue, however, that discourse of this nature misses the point. The album was not what Lennon’s fans wanted it to be and it was not, as he would later disclose, what John Lennon himself wanted it to be, although given the context of the album’s creation it seems apparent that this is due to Lennon’s own uncertainty in regard to what it actually was he wanted this album to be.

More advantageous an approach might necessitate that, rather than examine the album through the lens of formulated expectations and preconceived notions of what it should have been, that one admire the album for what it is and what it represents in a historical context. Mind Games, through all its overcompensation and misguided choices, ultimately paints as vulnerable a portrait of one of the greatest artists of all time as the public is likely to get. To hear a master of the craft take the occasional bump or misstep in trying to find their way not only provides a more intimate understanding of Lennon as a man, it deconstructs the mythology behind John Lennon the prophet and presents him as one of us.

The output of this period is assurance that we as mere mortals share a fair amount of common ground with a Beatle, someone who has connected to the abstract in ways which have brought us immense joy but had hitherto eluded the realm of fathomability as something that simply could not be approached. The revelation of Lennon’s inherent humanity illuminates a clear link between the spiritual and the terrestrial, lending credence to the idea that we are all one. Intentionally or otherwise, what Mind Games is able to accomplish by way of its own inherent flaws is to lend a measure of substance to Lennon’s insistence upon unity and understanding among people in general. By shooting himself in the foot, John Lennon was able to impart to us a deeper understanding of ourselves, as well as a tangible allocation of hope, which in itself is the most invaluable of rewards.

John Lennon's Mind Games Album Review

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48 Years Later: Deliberating John Lennon’s Most Conflicted Album article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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