As they progressed, the sessions quickly attracted a number of celebrities to the studio, among them Warren Beatty, Cher and Joni Mitchell. Lennon and Spector often fought, and the project was moved to Record Plant West after Spector let off a pistol one night at A&M Studios.
After three months a number of suitable takes were finally in the can, although Phil Spector’s habit of taking the tapes away with him each night eventually led to disaster.
One day when he didn’t want to work, one night he called me, he said the studio had been burnt down. Now these… in the early days I didn’t know about it, you know, didn’t know how far away he was. So I sai, Oh the studio’s burnt down. So anyway a couple of hours passed… the studio’s burnt down… So I get somebody to call the studio, it hadn’t been burnt down. That was the Sunday, the following Sunday he calls and he says on the phone, ‘Hey Johnny’… I said, Oh there you are, Phil, what happened? We’re supposed to be doing a session. ‘I got the John Dean tapes.’ I says, what? ‘I got the John Dean tapes…’ What he was telling me, in his own sweet way, was he had my tapes, not the John Dean Watergate tapes, he had my tapes locked in the cellar behind the barbed wire and the Afghan dogs and the machine guns. So there was no way you could get them. So that album was stopped in the middle for a year, and we had to sue through Capitol to get them back off him.
The Lennon Tapes
With the Spector sessions over, Lennon’s partying intensified. He produced Harry Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats, and the pair spent many weeks adrift in Los Angeles with a number of fellow wayward travellers – among them Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Mick Jagger.
The Spector problem was eventually solved by Al Coury, an executive vice president at Capitol Records. Coury discovered that Spector had a deal with Warner Brothers, and had been given an advance of several hundred thousand dollars – which Spector used for the Lennon recordings.
Warners were unsurprisingly displeased, and Spector’s lawyer made efforts to return the money. Coury arranged to give Spector a cheque for $90,000 and a three percent royalty for any recordings used, in exchange for the tapes of the Rock ‘N’ Roll sessions. They were stacked up in four limousines and sent to Lennon to New York.
The sessions had cost over $100,000 – far higher than either Mind Games or Walls And Bridges, and there were only nine usable songs. Furthermore, Spector’s method of recording made it impossible to separate Lennon’s vocals from the other instruments.
By this time Lennon had left Los Angeles for New York City and had largely sobered up. He had also recorded Walls And Bridges, which would bring him some much welcome critical and commercial acclaim.
He reused the Walls And Bridges musicians – guitarists Jesse Ed Davis and Eddie Mottau, pianist Ken Ascher, bassist Klaus Voormann, drummer Jim Keltner and percussionist Arthur Jenkins – and set about completing the Rock ‘N’ Roll project.
On 19 and 20 October 1974 Lennon held rehearsals with his band. They were recorded, although nothing was used on the album. Some songs – That’ll Be The Day, Thirty Days, C’mon Everybody, Rumble, Whole Lotta Love – were also performed, though were judged to be unsuitable.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll album was completed quickly, in five days from 21-25 October. Lennon produced as the band performed versions of Be-Bop-A-Lula, Stand By Me, Rip It Up/Ready Teddy, Ain’t That A Shame, Do You Wanna Dance?, Slippin’ And Slidin’, Peggy Sue, Bring It On Home To Me/Send Me Some Lovin’ and Ya Ya. They also taped a non-album b-side, Move Over Ms L, and Lennon overdubbed a new lead vocal onto Just Because.
The release of Rock ‘N’ Roll should thereafter have been a straightforward affair, but for the involvement of Morris Levy. Eager to see John Lennon fulfill his promise, Levy offered the use of a property in upstate New York prior to the second batch of sessions.
In return, Lennon gave Levy a tape containing work-in-progress mixes of some of the recordings. Levy had told Lennon of his plans to develop a mail-order music business, an idea which appealed to Lennon. However, after discussing the idea with Capitol Records’ CEO Bhaskar Menon, who refused to consent after investing thousands in the project, Lennon abandoned the idea.
Levy, however, did not. On 8 February 1975, an album titled Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Hits was issued on his Adam VIII label. The album was advertised on television for three days before a court order was issued preventing its sale.
Production of Roots was halted after only 3,000 copies were made, making the album an instant collector’s item. Lennon had ordered a copy himself, but was disappointed by the mail order process, which took almost a month to complete.
Furthermore, the record was issued in a cheap-looking yellow cover, and featured a photograph of Lennon from 1968. It was a far cry from the product that Apple/Capitol was preparing. Roots sold 1,270 copies on vinyl, and a further 175 on 8-track.
Roots contained several different mixes from those used on Rock ‘N’ Roll, and included Angel Baby and Be My Baby. The tracklisting was: Be-Bop-A-Lula, Ain’t That A Shame, Stand By Me, Sweet Little Sixteen, Rip It Up, Angel Baby, Do You Wanna Dance?, You Can’t Catch Me, Bony Moronie, Peggy Sue, Medley: Bring It On Home To Me, Slippin’ And Slidin’, Be My Baby, Ya Ya and Just Because.
In July 1976 Levy’s Big Seven Music Corporation was awarded $6,795 for breach of an oral agreement. Lennon’s countersuit, regarding the unauthorised release of Roots, resulted in him, Capitol Records and EMI Records receiving $109,700 to compensate for lost income; Lennon was awarded an additional $40,259 for lost sales, $14,567 for money lost due to the reduced price of Roots, and $35,000 in punitive damages.
Rock ‘N’ Roll was rush-released in February 1975 in an attempt to limit the damage caused by Roots. Sales were slow, with the vogue for nostalgia having largely ended with David Bowie’s Pin Ups and Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things, both issued in 1973.
The cover featured a black-and-white photograph taken by Jürgen Vollmer in Hamburg in 1960. It featured Lennon standing in a doorway, leaning nonchalantly against a wall, while the blurred figures of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Stuart Sutcliffe rushed by.
Lennon’s girlfriend May Pang had found the image after attending the first Beatlefest convention in September 1974. While there she met Vollmer, who was selling portraits of the group. She telephoned Lennon to tell him of the find, and Lennon and Vollmer were soon after reunited in New York.
A neon sign bearing Lennon’s name and the album title, created by John Uomoto, was also superimposed onto the picture, and used again on the back cover. When Lennon saw the sign he abandoned the album’s original working title, Oldies But Mouldies, and settled on Rock ‘N’ Roll instead.
Capitol’s first pressing for Rock ‘N’ Roll was for just 2,444 LPs and 500 8-track cartridges. In the US it peaked at number six on the album chart. It also reached number six in the UK, spending a total of 25 weeks on the chart.
A single, Stand By Me/Move Over Ms L, sold moderately well, but peaked at number 20 in the US and 30 in the UK. Promotional copies of a second single, Ain’t That A Shame/Slippin’ And Slidin’, were sent to radio stations, but it was never released.
The album was remixed and reissued in 2004, with the addition of four bonus tracks: Angel Baby, To Know Her Is To Love Her, Since My Baby Left Me and Just Because (Reprise). The latter featured a spoken tribute to Lennon’s former bandmates, which was faded from the original album mix.
It’s all down to Goodnight Vienna.
I’d like to say hi to Ringo, Paul and George. How are you?
Everybody back home, in England, what’s cooking?
Darlin’, I would beg on my bended knees.
Baby, you’re so smart, I want permission please.
All the mothers don’t know what they’re doing.
Little by little by little by little,
I need your love so bad it hurts me.