Revisiting John Lennon’s Rocky Era With ‘Menlove Ave.’
John Lennon's Menlove Ave., though probably most famous now for its Andy Warhol-produced cover, actually represents some of the best of what the former Beatles star produced between Imagine and Double Fantasy. You just had to skip ahead to side two of this collection of mid-'70s-era odds and ends.
A real labor of love for Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, Menlove Ave. arrived in early November 1986 as the third posthumous album she'd overseen – following 1984's Milk and Honey and the concert disc Live in New York City, from earlier in '86. Unlike those two previous projects, however, she'd had nothing to do with these sessions – which took place during Lennon's infamous Lost Weekend apart from Ono.
Her care in constructing Menlove Ave. went beyond that iconic album image. The name itself recalled Lennon's childhood home at 251 Menlove Ave. in Liverpool, a '30s-era duplex called "Mendips" where the Beatles first rehearsed. "Mendips always meant a great deal to John," Ono said in 2012, "and it was where his childhood dreams came true for himself and for the world."
Yet the genesis of these songs was, more often than not, an alcohol-fueled nightmare that found Lennon battling his producer Phil Spector and his own demons during a particularly dark period. Rock 'n' Roll, a lumbering, ill-fated attempt to reconnect with Lennon's roots issued in 1975, went awry when he and Spector clashed. The often-claustrophobic Walls and Bridges was nearly relegated to curio status in 1974 because of similarly Spector-esque studio missteps.
Beneath all of these excesses, Lennon actually did some of his best-ever singing. You hear that again on Menlove Ave., which serves as both a powerful reminder of what went wrong, and a glimpse into what might have been.
Side one is an outsized mess, populated by a series of un-retouched outtakes from Lennon's scrapped Rock 'n' Roll sessions with Spector in 1973 – save for "Rock and Roll People," a blessedly more stripped-down production from the Mind Games era. (Johnny Winter released his own version as part of John Dawson Winter III in 1974.) The instantly forgettable, though still wildly overwrought "Here We Go Again," co-written by Spector, was the other previously unreleased item. Only "Since My Baby Left Me" offered any new insight, and that's because it so perfectly echoed this period's booze-drenched after-party ethos.
Ono, in the original album liner notes, gamely tried to connect these sounds to Lennon's youth. "As a child, John was brought up by Aunt Mimi and Uncle George in their home on Menlove Avenue in Liverpool. In 1956, when John was 16, Elvis Presley happened as a world-wide phenomenon. It changed John's life. John's American rock roots – Elvis, Fats Domino, and Phil Spector are evident in these tracks. But what I hear in John's voice are the other roots of the boy who grew up in Liverpool, listening to Greensleeves, BBC Radio and Tessie O'Shea."
An increasingly unhinged Spector eventually absconded with the tapes for Rock 'n' Roll, forcing Lennon to start over on the project. Frustrated, he turned his attentions instead to new music, recording a series of stripped-down versions of songs in mid-1974 that would later by over-dubbed nearly to death and released as Walls and Bridges. A little over a decade later, side two of Menlove Ave. fixed that, and Lennon – finally freed of these period-piece additions – sounds like his old self again.
These takes on "Steel and Glass" and "Scared" cut with a sharpened edge, while "Old Dirt Road" and "Nobody Loves You" ached with spiraling new emotion. Lennon's sense of raw honesty, such a hallmark for his best earlier work, was restored. Just as interestingly, these rehearsal versions provide a clearer line of demarcation toward the clean, more direct rock that Lennon would eventually emerge with after a five-year hiatus as a househusband.
Sadly, Menlove Ave. arrived in a time perhaps too far removed from the billowing nostalgia of his tragic 1980 death, to say nothing of an MTV-driven onslaught of synthpop. The album stalled at a paltry No. 127 in the U.S., and failed to chart at all in Lennon's native U.K. In time, a smattering of its songs appeared elsewhere – on a 2004 reissue of Rock 'n' Roll, and as part of collections like 2006's The U.S. vs. John Lennon and 2010's Gimme Some Truth. By then, Menlove Ave. had been long out of print; it wasn't made available when the rest of Lennon's catalog arrived on streaming services.
Ono never forgot about Lennon's childhood home, however, later purchasing 251 Menlove Ave. in 2002. She then donated it to the National Trust, which also serves as a protecting agency for former Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney's childhood home at 20 Forthlin Road. Both have since been granted a Grade 2 listing, meaning they can not be altered without governmental approval.