John Lennon Anthology was issued four years after The Beatles’ Anthology project began, and it’s clear that the success of the previously-unreleased recordings by Lennon’s former band proved a deciding factor for Yoko Ono.
The project, however, had been in planning for more than a decade. In 1988 Ono asked producer Rob Stevens to make digital copies of more than 2,000 hours of Lennon’s archive recordings that had been unearthed in the basement of the Record Plant East studio in New York.
Concurrently, Ono had given her approval to The Lost Lennon Tapes, a lengthy US radio series syndicated by Westwood One between 1988 and 1992, which featured numerous previously-unheard recordings from Lennon’s archives. The series featured 221 hours of broadcast material and was widely bootlegged, prompting EMI and Ono to consider assembling a box set of the best cuts.
EMI had all the master tapes they owned of Lennon’s sessions transported to Abbey Road for storage, amounting to a total of 447 reels, along with handwritten notes and some lyric sheets. They already had the tapes of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, but everything subsequent to that was in the United States.
From 1991 to 1993 Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn sifted through the tapes and compiled a list of the best recordings. However, the pair fell out after Lewisohn brokered an arrangement between author Mark Hertsgaard and EMI, to allow Hertsgaard access to The Beatles’ session recordings. Ono and George Harrison disagreed with the decision and Lewisohn was blamed, even though EMI had granted permission.
Although test discs of the Lewisohn compilation had been made, the project was shelved. Some tracks were never issued, including a full version of Just Because which incorporated the reprise, an alternative take of Cold Turkey, and a demo of Gimme Some Truth made at Tittenhurst Park.
Although Ono wished to press ahead with the Lennon archive release, The Beatles’ Anthology, Live At The BBC and various other projects meant effort and attention were diverted elsewhere, not least within EMI and Capitol. However, in 1994 Rob Stevens began assembling a new box set, ignoring Lewisohn’s earlier selections and unearthing a further 20-30 hours of previously-unavailable multitrack tapes.
The projected release date was autumn 1994, but this proved impossible given the scale of the archives. At one point a two-volume collection was considered, akin to The Beatles’ own Anthology releases.
By 1997 Stevens had filtered the list of material to around 100 hours. At this point Ono’s involvement was stepped up, and together they assembled a collection lasting around 50 hours. Eventually this was cut to just under five hours.
In June 1998 Billboard magazine featured an advertisement from Capitol Records which read:
In preparation for an upcoming release, Capitol is seeking the multitrack tapes (or information leading to their acquisition) of Ringo Starr’s recordings of the following songs: “I’m the Greatest,” “Only You,” “Goodnight Vienna,” “Cooking in the Kitchen of Love,” Studio quality 2-track tapes of the John Lennon guide vocals on these tracks are also being sought.”
The tapes arrived late in the production process, and were duly incorporated. John Lennon Anthology was officially announced in a press release dated 3 September 1998. The full tracklist was revealed later that month.
John Lennon Anthology was released in the United Kingdom on 2 November 1998, the following day in the United States, and on 6 November in Japan.
The box set reached number 62 in the UK and 99 in the United States. Because each set counted as four CDs, it was certified gold in the US by the RIAA in December 1998 after selling 125,000 copies; the threshold for gold discs was 500,000.
Oddly, given its long gestation period, the track titles on John Lennon Anthology were often misnamed (Bring On The Lucie, I Know, Beautiful Boy and Only You all had their suffixes omitted), and the timings listed on the disc digipack sleeves were often inaccurate.
No singles from the collection were issued, although I’m Losing You, featuring Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and Bun E Carlos, received some airplay along with a video featuring animated drawings by Lennon.
A companion highlights disc, Wonsaponatime, was simultaneously released. This featured 21 tracks, several of which were slightly edited from the box set versions. The album reached number 76 in the UK but failed to chart in the US.