Richard Williams was a fly-on-the-wall Melody Maker journalist when John Lennon made one of the great Christmas records with producer Phil Spector in New York. Nearly 20 years later, he relived the experience in this wonderful piece——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Up on the 17th floor of the St Regis Hotel in New York City, John Lennon is learning to type.
P...I...M...P, he types. I AM A PIMP.
"It's great," he says, "Yoko's teaching me." John is in his bedroom, surrounded by the detritus of creation: guitars, books, notepads, nylon-tipped pens, and... a box full of Elvis Presley singles.
"I asked someone to get all his old singles for me," he says, now down on his hands and knees, opening the box and spilling the bright red RCA labels over the floor.
The next 10 minutes are spent sorting them out. 'My Baby Left Me', 'Hound Dog', 'One Night' and the old Sun classics are in one pile, while crap like 'Bossa Nova Baby' and 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' go on another.
"I'm gonna have a jukebox with just Elvis records on it. Isn't it great?"
In the next room, the living room, is still more tribute to the life and works of a total media freak. There are piles of Yoko's book, Grapefruit, stacks of big film cans, and a hi-fi.
His travelling record collection includes albums by Bo Diddley (three), Chuck Berry (two), Lenny Bruce (six), the Mothers (everything), Paul McCartney (Ram — and it's been played at least once), and Link Wray (with cover inscribed "To John and Yoko — thanks for remembering — Peace, Link Wray").
The story behind the Wray inscription is that John and Yoko were getting out of the lift at 1700 Broadway, which houses Allen Klein's office, when they were confronted by Wray, who was going up to Polydor's offices in the same building.
Wray apparently said, "Hey — John and Yoko." John didn't say anything to him, but turned to Yoko and breathed, "Yoko, that's Link Wray. Without him..." Whether it's true or merely apocryphal, it illustrates one of John's most endearing characteristics: he remembers.
Back in the bedroom, John's talking about the Plastic Ono Band, and his plans for going on the road early in 1972.
"I've got a lot to learn," he sighs. "It's been seven years, you know...but it's important to get the band on the road, to get tight. It's been fun just turning up at odd gigs like Toronto and the Lyceum and the Fillmore, but I'm sick of having to sing 'Blue Suede Shoes' because we haven't rehearsed anything."
To that end, the band will have a nucleus of John (guitar and vocals), Yoko (vocals), Nicky Hopkins (piano), Klaus Voorman (bass), and Jim Keltner (drums). With luck, there'll also be Phil Spector on guitar and vocals, on stage for the first time since the Teddy Bears (which comes into the Believe-It-When-You-See-It department), and a lead guitarist. John wrote to Eric Clapton, offering him the gig, but Eric isn't too well and didn't reply.
"We'll probably get some kid who just walks in and knocks us out. D'you know anything about a guy called Roy Buchanan? He's supposed to be the greatest, but I've never heard of him. I'll have to find out. I don't want to play lead — I'm just an amateur."
But the flexibility will still be there, and other musicians will be able to come and go as they wish. The nucleus will ensure that they don't have to jam all night on old 12-bars. John wants to make the whole thing into a travelling circus, sending Yippie leader Jerry Rubin ahead of the troupe to round up local bands and street theatre groups in whatever cities they're playing. As an illustration of the kind of people they want, John mentioned David Peel and the Lower East Side in New York, and the Pink Fairies in London.
He gets talking about his songs, and how he pinches bits from his favourite rock'n'roll numbers. There's a new one about Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, which he sings sitting on his bed, and he shows you how the middle eight is pinched from Gary US Bonds' 'Quarter To Three', which he heard on the radio the other day.
Then there's a song he and the Plastic Ono Band will be recording that very night, for their Christmas single. It's called 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)', and he says that when he first played it to Spector, the producer said that the first line is a direct crib from the Paris Sisters' 'I Love How You Love Me', which Phil produced back in the pre-Crystals days.
"I like quoting from old songs," John says, "but you get into such trouble with copyrights. It's a drag."
He jams on what looks like a set of earphones, with an antenna protruding from each side. It turns out to be an FM stereo radio, and within seconds he offers it to Yoko.
"Hey, listen Yoko, that's 'Get A Job', one of the old ones." She listens, and he turns. "I'm having to educate her about rock'n'roll, you see."
That same evening, John is sitting on the fringed carpet of the Record Plant, a studio on West 44th Street.
He's surrounded by five young acoustic guitarists, to whom, he's teaching the chords of Happy Christmas.
Why all those rhythm guitars? Listen — just remember who's producing this session, brother.
One of the guitarists is Hugh McCracken, the brilliant session musician who played on Ram, but John doesn't know that yet.
He asks them for their names, "Chris." "Teddy." "Stu." "Hugh." John turns to Yoko. "Hey, that Hugh looks like Ivan, doesn't he? Hugh, you look just like an old school-mate of mine."
There's a little break, and everybody gets up and walks around. Someone tells John about Hugh.
"Oh, so you were just auditioning on Ram, were you?" John asks. "Yeah, 'e said you were all right."
They're back to learning the tune, getting the feel. "Just pretend it's Christmas," John tells them. "I'm Jewish," says one. "Well, pretend it's your birthday then."
They've all got it down, so John leads them into a jam on 'Too Much Monkey Business', 'Rock Island Line', and 'Slippin' And Slidin''. It's meat and drink to them.
Suddenly there's a little flurry at the entrance. Phil Spector's arrived, in big shades, wearing a red and white button saying "Back To Mono", which breaks everyone up. But he's serious, you know.
Immediately, the session is working. Within seconds of getting behind the huge band, Spector is thinking in terms not just of sound, but of arrangement, drama, production. It takes him about 10 seconds to get a sound which transforms the guitars from a happy rabble into a brilliant cutting wash of colour, and they aren't even miked properly yet.
"Play that back to 'em," Phil tells the engineer. "Get 'em relaxed." It does just that, and during the playback Phil goes into the studio and dances around with John.
They run through the changes again, with Nicky Hopkins on piano this time. Immediately, Phil tells him: "Nicky, I'd like to hear more of that in octaves in the right hand… makes it more dramatic." John leans down to the guitar mike and shouts: "Don't dictate on them yet, Phil. Let's get comfortable first." Already, you see, Spector is in the groove, moulding and blending and transforming in the tradition of 'Be My Baby', 'Then He Kissed Me', and 'River Deep'. Right now, well ahead of everyone (even Lennon), he's hearing what it's going to sound like when it's coming out of a million transistors.
At this point, they add bass and drums. Jim Keltner settles behind his kit, and one of the rhythm guitarists is moved over to the bass because Klaus' flight from Germany has been delayed and he's going to miss the session. They can't wait.
They run it down a few times, and Keltner's expression while playing is like that of a man whose toes are being slowly eaten away by a shoal of piranhas. It's sounding very good, the tape is spinning all the time, and after each run they come back and listen.
John: "I like ones that sound like records..."
"...before you've made 'em." Phil finishes the sentence for him.
Without even seeming to notice, they're doing takes. During the second or third, it really begins to lift off. Phil is sitting at the board, staring through the sound-proofed window into the studio, spitting out comments at the engineer: "More echo on the piano, Roy...more echo...more...more...more echo, c'mon! More! That's it!"
He stands up during the second chorus, arms wind-milling, looking at Keltner, signalling and willing him to lay into his tom-toms, urging him to explode like Hal Blaine did almost 10 years ago. Keltner strains to oblige, and the take ends in a blaze of glory with Phil shouting "Fucking great! Great!"
Now, as the overdubs start, the Spector magic is again overwhelmingly apparent. At John's suggestion, the acoustic guitars play a mandolin-like riff, strongly reminiscent of Ronnie Spector's 'Try Some, Buy Some', and all sorts of percussive effects are tried.
Nicky plays chimes and glockenspiel, which have been hastily hired, and Keltner adds a jangling four-on-the-bar on a handy pair of sleigh bells.
"How can you make a song called 'Happy Christmas' without bells?" Phil had asked, rhetorically, earlier.
Now he's smiling and mutters from the corner of his mouth: "I know something about Christmas records, you know."
Instantly, minds float back to Philles LP 4005, A Christmas Gift To You, several months in the making back there in the '60s, and now a rare classic to those who know it. After that, Phil probably knew more about making Christmas records than anyone in the world.
The instrumental dubs over, time comes for the vocal track to be cut. The song itself is really in three parts: the verse, sung by John; the chorus, sung by Yoko; and a secondary chorus, sung under the lead vocal, for which they'll be getting in a bunch of kids the next day.
John says that he wrote it "because I was sick of White Christmas," and it could well take over as the annual Yuletide anthem. It's terrifically singable, in the tradition of 'All You Need Is Love' or 'Give Peace A Chance', and it's very pretty, too. The words are simple and direct, with the chorus going "War is over/If you want it/War is over now," while John and Yoko express appropriate good wishes to all mankind.
The pair of them enter the studio, clap on the cans, and start singing over the track. John sounds wheezy, unable to hit the high notes, and Phil shouts through the talk back: "Yoko's out-singing you, John."
He tells everyone in the booth: "He's smoking his ass off while he's singing," and shakes his head in disapproval.
John finally gets Yoko to come in at all the right places, with the aid of tactful prods in the back, and when Phil's got the right echo on the voices they finally lay it down right, and come back to listen to the rough mix.
It's right, and they start talking about what they're going to do with the strings, which they'll overdub in a couple of days. Phil has the idea of getting them to play Silent Night over the fade, and after falling about they all agree that it's exactly right.
Nicky is worrying about the piano part, which he's already overdubbed, and wants to do it again. They listen back once more, tell him it's perfectly all right as it is, and John adds: "Did you know that George wanted to redo his guitar solos on 'Gimme Some Truth' and 'How Do You Sleep?' That's the best he's ever played in his life, and he'd never get that feeling again, but he'd go on for ever if you let him."
Once again they remix what they have. By this time it's four o'clock, and after a few more listens everyone goes home. Three hours later, I wake up singing "War is over...if you want it...war is over now."
Jim Keltner is the kind of musician all too few drummers are. His experience comes from long days and nights in the studios of Los Angeles, and from years of listening to the best.
His musical interests are wide. He talks with equal pleasure of going to see Ornette Coleman years ago, when the altoist had drummer Ed Blackwell in his band and of living near Hal Blaine, who himself created a whole style of drumming, partly on the early Philles records.
Keltner talks softly, but wields a big talent. His playing is tight, precise, and funky, and Lennon says of him: "He's a drummer who leads you, instead of dragging, and there aren't too many of those." That's why he's in the Plastic Ono Band, instead of all the other names you could mention.
He knows a hell of a lot more about more musicians than most of his contemporaries bother to learn. He particularly reveres the late Benny Benjamin, whose work gave the early-'60s Motown records their unstoppable drive, and, for tightness, he says, you can't beat Jabbo, James Brown's veteran percussionist.
Drinking an orange juice on 8th Avenue just before dawn, he pricks up his ears to the sound of Diana Ross' 'Surrender', on the jukebox. It's all music — he's all music.
It's the following night, and the band is running through the song which is going to be the single's B-side, Yoko's 'Listen, The Snow Is Falling', the first of her songs that she ever showed John, when they first got together five years ago. At last, she's getting a chance to record it.
But there's an argument. John and Yoko can't agree about the tempo.
"I'm not gonna play on this," says John, who was picking out lines on heavy-reverb guitar.
"I asked you to play the organ," says Yoko. "I've been asking you to do that all along."
John decides to go back into the booth, where Phil greets him with: "I thought this was supposed to be a light thing." It was, John agrees, but "she says 'faster' and they all go rocking like — "
Yoko is telling Nicky to play lighter on the intro.
"Pretend that it's snowing...that snow is melting on your fingertips, not that banging."
Nicky gets it right, while Klaus and Hugh McCracken (who's been invited back after his performance the previous night, and on the strength of his reputation) work out little runs and licks which turn out like early Curtis Mayfield.
They all try it, and Yoko and Klaus get into a shouting match about where the chords go at the end of the song. Klaus gets up, unstraps his bass, and appears ready to walk about. But John placates both him and Yoko, and they try it again — with successful results. They take it, get a good one, and come back to the booth.
Phil: "Great, great tape echo..."
Yoko: "How was my voice?"
Phil: "Great...lots of tape echo..."
It sounds simple and pretty, but within five minutes they're talking about adding organ, chimes, more guitar, and even sound effects.
What they want is the sound of a celeste, but there isn't one available, so the engineers get to work to make the electric piano sound like one.
While they discuss it, Phil pronounces the name "cheleste". Everybody else starts by calling it "Seleste". But, within minutes, it's "cheleste" all round. Phil is the musical heavy, you see, and if that's how he says it, that's how it is.
As the engineers work, Nicky and Hugh and Jim start to play the blues.
"Oh-oh," says Phil. "They've started jamming, and we'll never get anything done. Let's put a stop to that."
He moves to the connecting door.
"Stop jamming!" screams Yoko, nearly bursting the talkback speakers. They stop as one man, in mid-semi-quaver, leaving John to add, almost apologetically: "Well, you've got to do something while they're trying to make the piano sound like a celeste."
His pronunciation has slipped back to the "s".
Yoko is obviously tense, and confides that she believes the musicians don't take her songs as seriously as they might, but this is a very good song, no doubt about it; very attractive and extremely commercial, and by the time the overdubs have been done it sounds like a potential A-side, much stronger than her current single, Mrs Lennon.
Only one thing remains, and that's to put on the sound effects. Someone digs out the effects album that all studios keep for such occasions, and they decide to open and close the track with the sound of "Feet In The Snow", superimposed on "Strong Wind".
The engineers begin splicing the tapes, and Phil asks John: "Have you heard Paul's new album?"
"It's really bad...just four musicians, and it's awful."
"Don't talk about it. It depresses me."
"Don't worry, John. Imagine is Number One, and this will be Number One, too. That's all that matters."
"No, it's not that. It's just that whenever anybody mentions his name, I don't think about the music — I think about all the business crap. Don't talk about him."
Splicing over, the lights are turned off for the final playback, and it's magical. "Listen...the snow is falling everywhere."
Leaving the studio, it's a shock to realize that those soft, white flakes aren't drifting down through cold night air. Actually, it's quite warm out.
John and Yoko are being talked about as the new Burton and Taylor, but really they're closer to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, in the way that they're at the centre of an artistic maelstrom.
They've been in New York since the middle of August, and they're likely to stay there a long time. John's recent statement, in Melody Maker, that they're not appreciated in Britain, is entirely understandable when one sees them in New York.
There, they're in a creative milieu which understands and embraces them, and, what's more, moves at their phenomenal pace. Everybody travelled to Syracuse, in upstate New York, for Yoko's recent exhibition, whereas if they'd held something similar in, say, Coventry, it would have been virtually ignored.
It's a never-ending furore, and, to zone in on it even harder, they've moved out of the St Regis Hotel and into the Village, where they've bought one loft and are renting another, from ex-Lovin' Spoonful drummer Joe Butler.
Butler's loft, where they're presently living while the other is being readied, has two huge rooms with a wrought-iron spiral staircase up to a small roof garden. The walls are painted brick, and the furnishings and fittings are immaculate and topped off with mostly interesting antiques.
The Lennons have both bought pushbikes, which is the way to travel around the Village. John's is English. Yoko's is Japanese. Coincidence, they say, and John's has got a nice shiny chrome bell on the conservative, sit-up-and-beg handlebars.
"Everybody cycles around the Village," John says. "Dylan goes about on his all the time, chaining it to the railings when he stops, and nobody ever recognises him. I can't wait to get out on mine."
But the main beauty of the Village is the company they keep. In the next loft to the Lennons is John Cage, whom they haven't seen yet (although Yoko keeps trying to rouse him by banging on the windows), and round the corner are Dylan, Jerry Rubin, and a host of other superstars.
"It's the best place in the world," John states flatly. "Every time the car leaves the Village, I feel sick. Going back to England is like going to Denmark — and I don't want to live in Denmark."
Sunday afternoon at the Record Plant, and they're starting early because the choir is there, and the choir has to be in bed soon.
The choir is 30 black kids, aged from about four to 12, with a quartet of nubile young teens whom John instantly dubs "the Supremes". A few mothers are there, too, generally shushing and finger-wagging and making sure that ribbon-bows aren't crooked.
John and Yoko teach the kids the song and the words to Happy Christmas from a blackboard, and after only a few tries they've got it, superimposed on the already-mixed track.
"Fucking great!" shouts Phil afterwards, leaping around, and the engineer quickly checks that the talkback is off.
It's all finished now, apart from the strings, so the Lennons, the band, the kids, the engineers, the secretaries, Phil, and Phil's brother-in-law, Joe, all gather round to pose for a picture for the cover of the single.
A plastic Christmas tree, with lights, has been erected, and towers above the group. The photographer is being a little slow, having trouble getting everyone into the frame, so Phil takes over: "C'mon, Ian...when I shout, 'ONE, TWO, THREE,' everybody shout, 'HAPPY CHRISTMAS!' And you take the picture. 'ONE, TWO, THREE — HAPPY CHRISTMAS! ONE, TWO, THREE — HAPPY CHRISTMAS! ONE, TWO, THREE — HAPPY CHRISTMAS!
"OK. Ian, you got it."
I'll bet he even produces his breakfasts.
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