A box set containing four compact discs of previously-unreleased studio outtakes, live recordings and home demos made by John Lennon between 1969 and 1980, John Lennon Anthology was issued in 1998.

The collection was divided into four separate stages in Lennon’s solo career: Ascot, which encompassed the era of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine; New York City, featuring songs from Some Time In New York City and Mind Games; The Lost Weekend, documenting the often-chaotic sessions for Walls And Bridges and Rock ‘N’ Roll; and Dakota, which contained a selection of home recordings made during Lennon’s househusband years.

John Lennon Anthology also came with a 62-page book, with an introduction by Yoko Ono, notes by her on each of the discs, an essay by Anthony DeCurtis, photographs, drawings and lyrics. It also contained a feature written by Lennon and Ono in 1979, originally published in the New York Times, titled ‘A love letter from John and Yoko to people who ask us what, when, and why’, in which they sought to inform their fans why so little had been heard of them in recent years.

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 the release.

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.

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