John Lennon’s 80th Birthday Celebration, #2.

Marvin Etzioni on his favorite singer-songwriter & working class hero, John Lennon.

We invited several of our favorite songwriters and music folk to contribute their reflections on the meaning of this day, John Lennon’s 80th birthday. We’re grateful to those who answered the call, and will be sharing their words throughout this momentous day.

Starting with one of our favorite people, a true song champion, astoundingly great and prolific songwriter, Grammy Award-winning producer, singer/musician/raconteur/Chaplin enthusiast/founding member of Thee Holy Brothers, and serious Beatles scholar, Marvin Etzioni.

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Marvin Etzioni on John Lennon

My favorite singer-songwriter never lived to see a Compact Disc.

Years ago I got to work with Lee DeCarlo, who engineered and mixed Double Fantasy. I asked him what John Lennon would have thought of CDs.

“Very convenient,” Lee said, in a fake English accent. We laughed about it, but it was that kind of laughter where tears secretly well up behind your eyes. 

The first song I learned on guitar was “Working Class Hero” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Lennon’s first solo album). This is the album that changed my life. I came from a working class family, and the lyrics throughout the album hit a nerve. How did he know what I was going through?

I felt the lyrics printed on the inner sleeve were written for me. It’s not a fun album to listen to, like the soundtrack to the black and white classic A Hard Day’s Night.

Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” After Lennon, there was everything.

The half-speed bells that open Plastic Ono Band announce the tone for a weighty event. Prior to COVID, a friend of mine, John Kruth, was working on a book about Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album and he wanted to interview me. I thought it would be over the phone. Instead he wanted to come over and listen to the album together.

I played my vinyl copy on one of my turntables that has a mono Ortofon cartridge.We listened to the album LOUD. It was an incredible experience.  As much as I appreciated the album upon release, I never heard any of the songs on the radio when the album came out. The production (by Phil Spector with John and Yoko) was decades ahead of its time. 

Last night I took a drive to get dinner, and as soon as I started the car I heard Peter Asher on The Beatles Channel announcing he would play four songs in a row by Lennon. (Asher’s show is filled with brilliant observations about every song he chooses to play). I was transported while driving across town.

On my way back home, I switched channels, and on Little Steven’s Underground Garage, I heard “Well Well Well.”

I couldn’t believe it! I blasted it on my Sony sound system in my little Ford Focus, with the bass and drums from my favorite rhythm section of Klaus Voorman and Ringo Starr thumping, moving my body in hypnotic ways. Lennon, Ringo and Voorman are the greatest power trio ever recorded. And it only took fifty years to hear a song from Plastic Ono Band on the radio. It was worth the wait.

A few years ago I produced a version of “Well Well Well” by Reggae artist Rocky Dawuni for Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, a  Lennon tribute. I said I’d produce the track as long as I could play guitar. (It’s the only time I’ve ever made such a request.)

The tone on Lennon’s original is my favorite electric guitar sound ever recorded.  Springsteen sang, “Well, I got this guitar and I
learned how to make it talk” (from “Thunder Road.”) Lennon didn’t need to sing about it. 

There’s a directness to Lennon’s lyrics that oftentimes penetrates my
heart. As a kid, after reading the lyric sheet, I remember thinking,“I can write songs that simple, too.” A half a century later, I’m still at it.

Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” After Lennon, there was everything. It started for me, as it did for many of my generation, with Meet the Beatles! The atomic bomb of albums.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is arguably the greatest album opener ever, and this single allowed a new world to be born. Even the album cover was a new invention. There had never been four people on a cover where one person wasn’t the designated singer.

The cover wasn’t just an invitation, it was an invasion, an assault on the senses. This wasn’t Buddy Holly and the Crickets. This was John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Ringo? Who’s that? Who’s the lead singer? Who played what? Why were they all equal in billing? And why were they all staring at me like that?

And this was not a one-hit wonder band (as many in the media had given the Beatles horrific reviews). The adults were wrong, and the kids… we were right.

The Beatles’ work remains the high watermark of singing, songwriting, musicianship and record production. And now we are living in John’s world. 

Some years ago, I was invited to attend a playbackof “Imagine” at the United Nations. As I sat on the main floor, where leaders of nations usually sit, the audience prepared for the international simulcast.

A DJ announced, “We’re about to go live. 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Yoko walked onstage and said, “Hello, world.”

There I was, sitting next to Allen Klein (by chance), watching Yoko set the tone, and then the song played. There was a hush in the chamber. I felt a connection with the human race.

“I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”

And the event was over. Just a three minute song and yet more powerful and more memorable than all the speeches combined that were ever spoken over the decades in the UN General Assembly. They should play songs at the UN more often. 

On my way out of the building, I saw Yoko surrounded by people.We caught each other’s eye. We nodded and smiled. John wasn’t there but his song was and is.

Well, well, well.

Marvin Etzioni, Oct. 9, 2K20.

Marvin Etzioni is starting a new label, Regional Records, with
forthcoming releases by Thee Holy Brothers, Grey DeLisle, The Williams Brothers and more. The first release, on October 23, 2020, will be Marvin’s new solo album What’s The Mood of the Country Now ? The title track was written two days after 9/11, and happens to be in the same key as “Working Class Hero.”  [A minor]

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John Lennon 80th Birthday Bash #3: Assorted Songwriters on Lennon