Under surveillance

Richard Nixon saw John Lennon as a threat to his administration: an official memo stated that “radical New Left leaders plan to use Mr Lennon as a drawing card to promote the success of rock festivals, to obtain funds for a ‘dump Nixon’ campaign.” The FBI tapped his telephone, monitored his public appearances, and attempted to assemble a case for deportation.

The infamous San Diego meeting that got us all into all the immigration problems was really a nonexistent situation. There was this so-called meeting with Jerry, Abbie, Allen Ginsberg, John Sinclair, John and Yoko, where they were trying to get us to go to the San Diego Republican Convention. When they described their plans, we just kept looking at each other. It was the poets and the straight politicals divided. Ginsberg was with us. He kept saying, ‘What are we trying to do, create another Chicago?’ That’s what they wanted. We said, ‘We ain’t buying this. We’re not going to draw children into a situation to create violence – so you can overthrow what? – and replace it with what?

But then the story went out that we were going to San Diego. That was enough to get Immigration on us. They started attacking us through the Immigration Department, trying to throw us out of the country. But it was all based on this illusion, that you can create violence and overthrow what is and get communism or get some right-wing lunatic or a left-wing lunatic. They’re all lunatics.

John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

Lennon’s visa expired on 29 February 1972. Although the authorities cited his 1968 conviction for cannabis possession, an extension to his visa was granted while he appealed the deportation order. His green card, granting permanent residence, was eventually issued on 27 July 1976.

It was against this backdrop that Lennon began writing his most political set of songs. He and Yoko Ono appeared at a range of benefit events or rallies, including the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Attica State Benefit at the Harlem Theater in Harlem.

Lennon became infatuated by the freedom and vibrancy of New York City culture, including the music of David Peel and the Lower East Side. He also recruited a local rock band, Elephant’s Memory, as his backing band for numerous live appearances and the recording sessions for Some Time In New York City.

Lennon had previously been working on a set of acoustic songs, but changed styles after meeting the group, now renamed the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band. Following a week-long residency on The Mike Douglas Show, the group entered the Record Plant East studio to begin work on the album, with Phil Spector producing.

The songs

Lennon had been documenting his life in song as far back as ‘I’m A Loser’, ‘Help!’ and ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’. He generally disliked extensive studio production, preferring instead to record quickly and simply, and by 1969’s ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ and ‘Cold Turkey’ he had adopted an instantaneous style of form and content which owed as much to newspaper journalism as it did to rock ‘n’ roll.

The process was refined further on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his first solo album from 1970, in which production was pared back to its most basic level to bring the lyrics to the fore. Indeed, he once revealed that the secret of songwriting was simply to “say what you want to say, and put a backbeat to it”.

Of the studio recordings on Some Time In New York City, only two songs – ‘John Sinclair’ and ‘New York City’ – were solo compositions by Lennon. Three were written by Ono – ‘Sisters, O Sisters’, ‘Born In A Prison’, and ‘We’re All Water’ – and the rest were co-written by the pair.

Ono’s influence on Lennon’s writing was perhaps most acute on ‘Woman Is The N—-r Of The World’. The title was a phrase coined by Ono in an interview with Nova magazine which was published in March 1969, in reference to the chauvinism of the London music scene: “When I went to London and got together with John that was the biggest macho scene imaginable. That’s when I made the statement ‘woman is the n—-r of the world’.”

Two songs were written in support of the republican movement in Northern Ireland. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ was a response to the British Army massacre of 30 January 1972. ‘The Luck Of The Irish’ was written before the event, and was inspired by a protest march in London that Lennon attended in August 1971.

Lennon’s interest in United States civil rights issues manifested itself in two other songs. ‘Angela’ was written about Angela Davis, a Black Panther supporter who was tried and eventually acquitted for suspected involvement in the murder of a Superior Court judge Harold Haley in California in 1970. ‘Attica State’, meanwhile, was written about the prison riot of September 1971 at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York state, in which at least 39 people lost their lives.

Lennon’s intention to document his life in 1972 was distilled on the song New York City, a heartfelt celebration of the city he now called home. The song followed the diary style he had first adopted on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, and detailed the recruitment of Elephant’s Memory into the Plastic Ono Band, his film-making with Yoko Ono, and the couple’s joy at being free to wander the streets of the city.

The Jerry was Jerry Rubin. The bloke with a guitar was David Peel. You see how the album’s represented as a newspaper. Well, the song’s a bit of a journalese, like ‘Ballad Of John And Yoko’. It tells the story.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

A second disc, titled Live Jam, was also included with the album. Side one contained ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’, recorded at London’s Lyceum Ballroom on 15 December 1969 with a backing band which included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Billy Preston

The second side contained recordings from a different concert. Lennon and Ono had appeared onstage during the encore of The Mothers Of Invention’s show at the Fillmore East in Manhattan in June 1971. They recorded four songs: a cover of The Olympics’ ‘Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)’, followed by the largely-improvised ‘Jamrag’, ‘Scumbag’, and ‘Aü’.

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