The Beatles legend's 70th birthday is marked by a major reissue campaign

By Simon Vozick-Levinson
October 01, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

John Lennon’s 70th birthday this Oct. 9 ought to have been a chance to absorb whatever new sounds he was making as he entered old age. Since that is sadly impossible, why not honor his memory by listening again to the eight albums he recorded under his own name? A handsome if pricey new 11-CD box set presents all eight in freshly remastered form, plus another disc of slipshod demos and one more of non-album singles. (Also available is a separate new four-disc set that groups 72 songs thematically, as well as yet another one-disc hits compilation.) The reissues are also sold individually — or maybe you’d prefer to dig out the perfectly serviceable remasters that each album already received over the past 10 years. But however you choose to consume it, the time has never been better to rediscover the unpredictable, challenging music Lennon recorded in his 30s.

Lennon kicked off his post-Beatles career with back-to-back classics. Renouncing the band’s all-you-need-is-love optimism, he channeled his inner turmoil after the breakup into confrontational rock and introverted folk for 1970’s Plastic Ono Band. ”I don’t believe in Beatles,” he stated flatly on ”God.” Rough recordings from this era dominate the new box set’s demo disc; his hoarse delivery of that line on an early take of ”God” drives home just how ragged he was feeling.

Lennon followed that blast of shell-shocked honesty with an equally surprising return to pop uplift on 1971’s Imagine. Along with the sublime title track, songs like ”Jealous Guy” and ”Oh My Love” are as gorgeous and openhearted as anything the Beatles did. Together, these two discs — both essential parts of any serious record collection, and now sounding warmer and richer than ever — proved incontrovertibly that he was capable of greatness on his own.

But what to make of the four that followed? Emboldened by these triumphs, Lennon spent the next few years indulging seemingly every nutty idea that flashed across his brain. He vented radical politics on 1972’s Some Time in New York City (co-credited to wife Yoko Ono), pursued trippy tangents on 1973’s Mind Games, flirted with disco on 1974’s Walls and Bridges, and covered his favorite oldies in a boozy howl on 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Casual listeners should stick to the highlights on the new best-ofs. But digging deeper, particularly into the lushly remastered Mind Games and Walls and Bridges, will yield a wealth of beautiful and bizarre obscurities for more advanced Lennonites. Even when he didn’t quite achieve his far-ranging ambitions during this period, it’s fascinating to hear him try.

After taking five years off to raise his son Sean, Lennon resurfaced in 1980 with some of his most resonant songs ever. Double Fantasy, a tribute to domesticity created in close collaboration with Ono, would have merited all its plaudits even without the added poignancy of his murder three weeks after its release. A bonus disc included with the new reissue (though — stick with us here! — not the box set) presents Double Fantasy in ”stripped down” form, minus many vocal and instrumental overdubs. Appreciators of the album shouldn’t miss this intimate alternate mix — but be warned: Hearing Lennon’s barely adorned voice sing about how much he loved his family on songs like ”Woman” and ”Watching the Wheels” can be truly heartbreaking.

Lennon’s planned follow-up, Milk and Honey, completed posthumously by Ono and released in 1984, rounds out the reissue campaign. Experiencing it again in context only adds to the impression that a midcareer renaissance was just beginning. That sense looms over all of Lennon’s solo output, in fact, giving the tunes a faint tragic cast even at their most purely joyful. The interrupted arc of the albums inside the box set’s pristine white cube makes it clear that he was nowhere near finished making music when a bullet forced him to stop.

For the millions of fans still grieving, the best and only consolation is to keep immersing themselves in the complicated catalog he left behind, year after year, decade after decade. Listen enough times and you might be able to imagine another, fairer world where his musical journey didn’t have to end so soon.