Friday, January 11, 2019

Just starting to shave the fish

I've been thinking about shaved fish a lot recently.

If the term "shaved fish" sounds like the ravings of a madman, well, many would agree with you.

As some of you know, "Shaved Fish" was the title of the first best-of album issued by John Lennon, and the only best-of album issued before his death. Because the tracks are mostly chronological, it records the progression of Lennon as a solo artist.

And now some of you are probably nitpicking my characterization of these as solo recordings. "What about the Plastic Ono Band? What about Yoko?" So for the benefit of nitpickers, go ahead and mentally replace every mention of Lennon as a solo artist as mentions of Lennon as one of the key contributors to a band that did not include Paul McCartney.

McCartney looms large over the first three songs on the album, because they were released during the period that Lennon was (at least publicly) a member of the Beatles. He hadn't made the commitment to a solo career yet, so these were just songs that he put out on his co-owned record label because he felt like it. No albums or months of recording or anything - just "hey, I recorded a song, let's put it out."

The first song, "Give Peace a Chance," illustrates this precisely. (I'm familiar with the "Shaved Fish" version, which is a minute-long abbreviation of the originally-released single.) Lennon fans know the story behind the recording. Lennon was using the notoriety of his marriage to Yoko Ono to promote the cause of peace, and originally wanted to do this in the United States but could not because Nixon. So he went to Montreal and announced that he and Yoko were going to bed, thus stirring up the publicity that he wanted. Journalists were disappointed to discover that the Lennons were NOT engaging in wild sex in Room 1742 at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (yes, even today we know the room in which they were staying). Instead, they were hanging out with some friends and talking about peace.

By Roy Kerwood - Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia by Roy Kerwood, CC BY 2.5, Link

So one day (June 1, 1969), John was sitting in the room with his guitar, and his friend Tommy (Smothers) had his guitar, and there were a bunch of other people in the room, and the tape recorder began rolling.

Of course, it was obvious that this was not a professional recording session. When John Lennon went to a professional recording session, he would go to Abbey Road Studios in faraway England, and George Martin and various assistants would man[1] the controls, and (especially after 1966) it would take a long time to get anything done. So naturally, Lennon took this nearly-spontaneous recording and issued it as a single the very next month, because he co-owned a record label and could do stuff like that. And the song was a top 20 song in the United States and made it to number 2 in the United Kingdom, but who cares? This was just a fun interlude by a Beatle, kinda like when George Harrison recorded Wonderwall - and the Beatles were working on a new album.

Back at Abbey Road, the Beatles were assembling the songs for Abbey Road - not quite as diverse (and long) as their 1968 album, but diverse enough. All four members received composing credits, the song styles went all over the place, and Ringo even performed a drum solo which was followed by dueling Harrison-Lennon guitar solos. As the story goes, Lennon came up with a song to include in the album, but it was rejected. So he got another guitarist - not Tommy Smothers this time, but a guy named Eric Clapton - and recorded the song right there at Abbey Road. This wasn't a folk song like "Give Peace a Chance," but very much a late 60s rock song along the lines of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles themselves ("I Want You (She's So Heavy)"). This song was released the month after it was recorded, but it didn't hit number 2 in the UK like his last song - something that Lennon subsequently referenced in a communication to Queen Elizabeth.

Oh, and by the way, Lennon secretly quit the Beatles around this time, the third to do so (although previous quitters Ringo and George returned to the band). And he continued to like the idea of releasing singles very quickly. But the third single sounded a bit different than the other two, primarily because of the producer who Lennon got to produce the song - one Phil Spector. Phil cast a shadow over music as large as Lennon's - after all, to know Phil was to love him - or maybe not. "Instant Karma!" was the first time that Spector produced a Lennon song, and the marriage of Lennon's immediacy with Spector's Wall of Sound had spectacular results. And people heard the results very quickly - the song was recorded on January 27 and released in the UK on February 6. THIS song was top 5 in the US and the UK, which meant that he could appear on Top of the Pops. (Yoko knitted.)

After these three singles, Lennon settled into a more traditional recording schedule - well, as traditional as you can get when you're married to Yoko Ono and then separated from her, and when your "band" has no permanent members. And of course, by the time he released his first real album, everyone knew that the Beatles had broken up. But those first three single still stand out today.

[1] Yeah, it's sexist, but this was the 1960s, and woman was the n- whoops, this is 2019; I can't quote that Lennon song title any more.
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