Lift the lid off the giant box set (and objet d'art) The John Lennon Signature Box (EMI/Capitol 50999 906509 2 5) and you'll see the word "YES" jumping out at you. YES is a good reaction to the thought of having (mostly) all of John Lennon's solo studio output available in one place, remastered largely by the same team responsible for last year's Beatles reissues, and accompanied by a hardcover book and art print. Is The John Lennon Signature Box, and its companion discs, an unqualified YES, however? Ummm...NO. But is it a welcome - almost necessary, even - addition to the collection of any serious rock fan? Undoubtedly. It's also a fitting tribute to the late musician/revolutionary on the event of what would have been, and what should have been, his 70th birthday. Media coverage - and shelf space in the big boxes - has been nonexistent for these reissues, compared to last year's brief wave of Beatlemania. But fans who seek these titles out likely won't be disappointed.
Placed alongside 1998's four-disc John Lennon Anthology, The Signature Box positively dwarfs its predecessor in stature. That box consisted mostly of unreleased demos, studio outtakes and alternate versions; an even earlier box set (1990's Lennon) concentrated on 80 tracks culled from the artist's released studio albums. The Signature Box offers Lennon's eight core studio albums with no bonus tracks, similar to the format employed for the Beatles remasters and the box set which collected them all. It's important to note what's not on the box set: the three Lennon/Yoko Ono experimental LPs recorded for Apple and Zapple before the release of 1970's Plastic Ono Band (the disc which kicks off this collection), and more puzzingly, the seminal Live Peace in Toronto 1969. Also omitted are posthumous compilations such as Menlove Avenue and Live in New York City. This author would welcome remastered editions of all of the above, with the unique John Lennon Collection strip present on the artwork for each of the discs in this wave of releases. Taken as a whole, though, Lennon's artistry is even more overwhelming. The albums here show every facet of one of pop culture's most complicated individuals: Lennon was an idealist, a pessimist, a romantic, an agitator, a hellraiser, a dreamer, a spirited rock-and-roller, a father, a husband. Beginning with the still-unsettling Plastic Ono Band LP, Lennon was confessional in a manner far-removed from that of his contemporaries like James Taylor or Joni Mitchell; each album feels urgent and compelling, a snapshot of where the always-impassioned, intelligent artist was at that point in time. Of course, he got by with a little help from his friends: these albums include contributions from Ono, Phil Spector, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, Elton John, Harry Nilsson and others.
But how does the box sound? Hit the jump and find out!
Most importantly, John Lennon's original mixes have been restored to these discs for all albums. Under Ono’s supervision, new mixes were heard on the last round of reissues (which also, incidentally, contained bonus tracks, almost all of which are absent from these new CDs; the session outtakes from Rock ‘n’ Roll are particularly missed) with the exception of Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. The second "jam" disc of Some Time in New York City, featuring tracks with Frank Zappa, has been reinstated after being jettisoned from the last reissue. The original mixes have been remastered for this collection, and they are every bit as sparkling and eye-opening as the Beatles' remasters were last year. The same Abbey Road team led by Allen Rouse is responsible for these, and the Rouse team's work speaks for itself. Pop in one of these new discs and compare with past editions, and the clarity will jump out even at a non-audiophile. These discs aren’t nearly as loud as the last remasters, and they possess a real warmth. Oddly, a differing mastering approach to the final two albums in the box set (Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey) is evident; Double Fantasy is credited to George Marino at New York's Sterling Sound, while Milk and Honey is credited to the Abbey Road team, perhaps erroneously. Some audiophiles have maintained that these two discs are merely tweaked from the 2000/2001 reissues of these two titles, also mastered by Marino, while all of the other titles have been totally remastered to great effect by Rouse & company.
Two bonus discs are included in the box set, one a six-track EP of Lennon's non-album singles (no single versions of existing songs are present on the disc) including the perennial "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and another of 13 home demos and rarities. These are insightful, and include the some songs receiving official CD debuts including “India, India,” heard in the ill-fated Lennon Broadway musical, and the ragged, spirited “One of the Boys.” These two CDs are only available as part of the box set.
Conspicuously missing from Signature Box is the new “Stripped Down” version of Double Fantasy (EMI/Capitol 50999 905990 2 6). Available only in a separately-purchased edition containing the original album as well (though as its Disc 2!), “Stripped Down” is just that; Lennon and Ono's vocals have been brought to the fore, the instrumentation reduced and stripped of its glossy studio sound. The result sounds like an album of demos, but it's still fascinating to hear Lennon's voice sans the double-tracking which was one of his hallmarks. This unvarnished approach is a revelation on the Beatles-esque "Woman" and less successful on "(Just Like) Starting Over," where the removed backing vocals were an integral part of the oldies sound to which Lennon was paying homage. But as the original album is available in the same package, “Stripped Down” is a remarkable "fly-on-the-wall" experience of what it must have been like in the studio as Lennon laid down his vocals. (Studio chatter is also present to add to this effect.) The effect is, at times, heartbreakingly raw. In contrast to the other LPs in this set, “Stripped Down” is clearly not what Lennon intended for Double Fantasy, but offers a valid, different perspective on those tracks that should be a treat for longtime fans.
All of the releases are in digipaks which fit nicely into the Signature Box; there is even room in its large slot to easily insert your copy of “Stripped Down,” as I did. The hardbound book contains a new essay by Anthony DeCurtis and this book would have been a fine purchase on its own. Also included is a card for access to an online Lennon site and a foldout "Give Peace a Chance" poster with individual notes not only from Yoko and Sean Lennon, but from Julian Lennon as well. (The CD of Double Fantasy included in the box set has its own barcode, similar to all of the other reissues, so it is possible that this stand-alone edition minus the “Stripped Down” album could be released individually at some point.) Each digipak also includes its own booklet with liner notes, unlike all previous CD releases of Lennon's studio albums, so there is plenty of reading material at hand here. Finally, an art print of Lennon's is included in a special wallet which is accessed drawer-style near the bottom of the box. This is a classy and imposing package.
If The Signature Box or the individual releases therein aren't your cup of tea, there are other Lennon products being offered as part of this collection, too. Power to the People: The Hits is a(nother!) greatest hits-style compilation, comprised of 15 tracks and available in a configuration with and without a bonus DVD of 15 music videos. There's also another box set, albeit in miniature form, entitled Gimme Some Truth (EMI/Capitol 50999 906642 2 9) which consists of 72 songs over four themed discs (Roots; Working Class Hero; Woman and Borrowed Time) looking at Lennon's rock and roll influences; politically-themed songs; love songs; and songs about life. This set is less impressive than any of the other Lennon box sets offered, past or present, as it is designed in a small box housing glossy paper sleeves holding each disc. (The box itself resembles the format used for the Original Album Series collections proliferating in the U.K. from Sony and WMG.) It too features a booklet with liner notes by DeCurtis, and it's wonderful to see Ono (like the Beatles) finally allowing notes on releases in addition to lyrics and artwork. Unfortunately, this box has no discographical information whatsoever, so it might be tough for a budding fan on a limited budget to know where to look next.
It's all too easy to dismiss the 70th birthday collection with a cynical eye, especially as the albums recorded by John Lennon in his all-too-short lifetime have been issued, reissued, remastered, remixed and anthologized so many times in the past. But quality has won out in this round, thanks to Allen Rouse's Abbey Road remastering team, which is also handling Paul McCartney's upcoming reissues for Concord, and EMI's Apple Records collection. Both of those will have similar design branding to the Lennon and Beatles sets, in a nice bit of corporate synergy. The packaging and art direction, with which Yoko Ono no doubt had a hand, is winning on all of these products. Yoko, Sean and Julian can undoubtedly be pleased with this collection, and both casual and serious fans of Lennon's career should be, too…so after all, I guess that is a fairly resounding “YES!” and a “Happy Birthday, John!” too.