Over the course of just 18 months, John Lennon recorded his first three solo albums, beginning with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in September 1970, Imagine that was finished in July 1971, and Some Time In New York City that was completed in March 1972. His last album had politics oozing, and sometimes shouting, from every microgroove and it had been the least well-received of the three by critics and public. In the ensuing year he uncharacteristically spent little time composing and he also, starting in early 1973, began to distance himself from the political activities that had brought so much unwanted attention from both the US Immigration Service and the FBI. Then in July 1973 at the Record Plant in New York City, John was back doing what he did best.
Two months after the release of Some Time In New York City, a dark period began for John and Yoko. On 7 November 1972, Nixon won one of the largest landslide victories in American political history and it so depressed John that he got blind drunk at Jerry Rubin’s home on the night of the election. So drunk that he took a woman into one of the bedrooms and had sex with her. Yoko and the other partygoers were in an adjoining room and heard it all. “Something was lost that night for me,” said Yoko, “living with John was a very trying situation. But I thought I would endure all that for our love.” It was against this backdrop that Mind Games was largely written and recorded.
Yoko had started work on a solo album that became ‘Feeling The Space’ with musicians that had been put together with help from their great friend and engineer, Roy Cicala. John liked what he heard and asked Roy to book the same musicians so that he could start recording again; notably guitarist David Spinozza, keyboard player Ken Ascher and drummer Jim Keltner. For John, his marital difficulties with Yoko were compounded by the issues and effects of his involvement with radical politics: “I just couldn’t function, you know? I was so paranoid from them tapping the phone and following me.”
The month before recording began, John and Yoko moved uptown from Greenwich Village to The Dakota, an apartment building located on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. John stopped working with Phil Spector as a co-producer and because of John and Yoko’s issues, Mind Games was produced solely by Lennon. It was recorded in John’s usual quick-fire fashion, And like Some Time in New York City, it touched on many themes and vignettes from John’s life – but this time it largely avoided overtly political themes.
It opens with the album’s title track, a song that dates back to 1970 when it had had the working title of ‘Make Love, Not War.’ Above all else, the song signals John’s intent of returning to his more normal territory as far as song subject matter is concerned. It became the only single to be released from the album.
John’s chronicling of his own life features on many of the tracks on Mind Games. There’s ‘Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)’ that reflects on John’s relationship with Yoko and the hurt he felt at the hurt he had inflicted. Aisumasen is Japanese for sorry. It is one of Lennon’s most melancholic of songs, one in which sees himself cast adrift. It was during the recording of the album that Yoko suggested that she and John have a trial separation and that May Pang would be the perfect companion for Lennon. With heartfelt honesty, Yoko later said, “Hey, it’s John Lennon. It was obvious to everybody, except to John, that I was the loser. Every man and woman of our generation was going to be happy that finally, I was not around their hero.
“We’d probably lose each other if we stayed” – Yoko.
Other songs inspired by their love and their difficulties are, ‘Out The Blue’ in which John expresses his doubts over their separation. The beautiful ‘You Are Here’ is a love song to Yoko and it’s hard not to be affected by John’s ability to lay his feelings bare; the song is made more affecting by Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar. On ‘One Day (At A Time)’, John sings in his falsetto voice and his notion in this song is that two parts are made bigger than their individual size when they are brought together in love. It features a classic saxophone solo from Michael Brecker on one of his earliest sessions.
As with just about every Lennon solo album, his love for the music that inspired him is ever present. ‘Tight A$’ with shades of 1950s rockabilly and country-rock picking is one of Mind Games’ nods to his formative years. On ‘Meat City’ John’s innate love of rock ‘n roll shines through, and he makes his point further by singing “Just got to give me some rock ‘n’ roll.”
John did make a brief return to politics on Mind Games, but in a far wittier and lighter fashion than on his previous album. ‘Bring On The Lucie (Freeda Peeple)’ was no less biting, and perhaps it was more effective as a result.
Released on 29 October 1973 in America, and 16 November in the UK, Mind Games has cover artwork created by John himself. The album made No.13 in Britain and got to No.9 in the US. It met with some critical grumbling upon its release, but British music paper Melody Maker’s Ray Coleman, always an incisive reviewer, said, “The raw nerves of a Lennon battered by America’s curious logic and sheer hard-heartedness seem to have spurred him to write incisively…” And John does just that, making an album that has vastly improved with age. Knowing what we know now about what he and Yoko were going through in their relationship it works so much better as a body of work.
Shortly after Mind Games was released, John, along with May Pang, moved from New York to live in Los Angeles and the period that has come to be called ‘The Lost Weekend’ began. As such, this album can almost be looked at as a Friday night, after a long week’s hard work. All that had gone before – from the alienation that John and Yoko felt when living in England and the barbs that Yoko had had to take over her perceived role in the Beatles’ break up, to a different kind of alienation heaped upon the Lennon’s by the American authorities, was presented in this and the previous three albums.
When listened to in order, and in one sitting, from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band through to Mind Games, we have a fascinating musical autobiography. Arguably no other artist has portrayed themselves so honestly and eloquently. Yes, there are some songs that are not Lennon classics, but even average Lennon songs are far superior than many other artist’s finest work.