The final studio album released by John Lennon before his five-year retirement into househusbandry, Rock ‘N’ Roll was a collection of cover versions of 1950s and early 1960s songs recorded during the legendary Lost Weekend.
It started in ’73 with Phil and fell apart. I ended up as part of mad, drunk scenes in Los Angeles and I finally finished it off on me own. And there was still problems with it up to the minute it came out. I can’t begin to say, it’s just barmy, there’s a jinx on that album.
The roots of the album went right back to 1969, when Lennon wrote the song ‘Come Together’ for The Beatles’ album Abbey Road. The opening line, “Here come old flat-top”, was taken from Chuck Berry’s 1956 song You Can’t Catch Me, and both songs were based around blues chord sequences.
Come Together is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in ‘Here coes old flat-top.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The song’s publisher Morris Levy brought a lawsuit agains Lennon for copyright infringement, and the case was due to be heard in December 1973. Wishing to avoid going to court, Lennon reached a settlement in which he agreed to record at least three songs owned by Levy’s Big Seven Music Corporation on the album which followed Mind Games.
Lennon reneged on his deal with Levy. When Walls And Bridges was released towards the end of 1974 it didn’t contain the promised three songs. It did, however, end with a throwaway version of the Levy-published Ya Ya featuring the 11-year-old Julian Lennon on drums. Lennon’s opening words – “Let’s do sitting in the la la and get rid of that!” – showed how seriously he was taking the legal threats.
Levy was unamused, and threatened to refile the lawsuit. Eager to avoid this, Lennon agreed to press on with the earlier project, which had earlier stalled after Phil Spector had disappeared with the tapes.
In the studio
A parallel can be drawn between Rock ‘N’ Roll and The Beatles’ Get Back project, which was eventually released as Let It Be. Both were an attempt to revert back to basics; both became mired in recriminations and disillusionment; and both had their releases delayed, with another studio album issued in the meantime.
The Rock ‘N’ Roll album was recorded in two distinct stages. The first took place in October to December 1973 in Los Angeles with Phil Spector producing, and the second in New York in October 1974, produced by John Lennon.
Mind Games had been Lennon’s first solo album to be recorded without Spector. However, for the as-yet-untitled oldies project he reinlisted the help of his former collaborator
On the Rock ‘N’ Roll it took me three weeks to convince him [Spector] that I wasn’t going to co-produce with him, and I wasn’t going to go in the control room, I was only… I said I just want to be the singer, just treat me like Ronnie. We’ll pick the material, I just want to sing, I don’t want anything to do with production or writing or creation, I just want to sing.
The Lennon Tapes
The first wave of Rock ‘N’ Roll sessions began on 17 October at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. Spector recruited dozens of musicians to perform, but the casual environment quickly descended into drunken chaos. It was the middle of Lennon’s infamous Lost Weekend, his 16-month separation from Yoko Ono, and he was fast becoming better known for his drunken antics than for his music.
The first song they did for that album was ‘Bony Moronie’. By this time we had waited for Phil for three hours, and now everybody’s blitzed. By the time John came to sing his guide vocal he was half drunk – and there’s Phil, waving around this wand. He had a wand to conduct proceedings. Every day was something different. You see the man come in one day dressed as a doctor, the next as a karate expert.
Spector produced nine songs for Lennon, although only four – ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, Bony Moronie and ‘Just Because’ – made it on to Rock ‘N’ Roll. ‘Here We Go Again’, ‘Angel Baby’, ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ and ‘Since My Baby Left Me’ were released on the 1986 posthumous collection Menlove Ave, while ‘Be My Baby’ was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology.