It was 40 years ago this year that John Lennon tragically left the world. Yet his legacy remains strong by way of numerous reissues, compilations, books, and films. Moreover, the timeless message of his songs continues to resonate with audiences everywhere and inspire new interpretations by artists of all genres. Tomorrow, October 9, marks what would have been John's 80th birthday. On that date, the New Jersey-founded indie label JEM Records will commemorate Lennon's life and music by releasing a new collection, JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon due on CD, digital, and limited-edition red vinyl.
On this freshly-recorded tribute album, JEM artists The Weeklings, The Midnight Callers, Jonathan Pushkar, The Gold Needles, The Grip Weeds, The Anderson Council, and Richard Barone contribute their own inventive versions of Lennon favorites and deep cuts (from his Beatles and solo discographies alike), totaling a baker's dozen in all.
We caught up with JEM Records' co-founder Marty Scott and Beatles historian Kenneth Womack - who wrote the new book John Lennon: 1980 and penned the liner notes for the album - to discuss the new collection and the lasting legacy of the artist, which has only grown over the years. Here's what they had to say.
We'll start with you, Marty. How did JEM Celebrates John Lennon come about? What's the goal of the album?
The album features a fairly even balance between classic favorites and some often-overlooked songs from Lennon's catalogue. There are even songs that until recently were only available on bootlegs. Were the musicians asked to pick a hit and a deep cut, or did it just turn out that way?
Kenneth, our readers know you as an expert in all things John Lennon, but what's your history with Marty Scott and JEM? How did you get involved in the project?
Kenneth Womack: I am a longtime fan of Marty Scott's work with JEM. JEM Imports was my lifeline in the 1970s - the only place where I could gain access to music from across the globe. They performed such a vital role in my life for so long. Back in those days, there was simply no other way to hear music that wasn't released domestically. Marty contacted me about writing the liner notes, and I readily agreed. I owe him a great debt - and youthful me owes Marty an even greater one.
One of my favorite things about the album is that these recordings aren't exact replicas of the originals. There are some really inventive arrangements that cast the material in a new light. Which stand out most to you?
MS: "It Won't be Long " by The Midnight Callers is a perfect example. While it starts with the lyric as in the original, the booming drums give it a totally different feel - it's a real rocker now. And no one hasn't been surprised by the way The Weeklings put a Bo Diddley beat to "The Word." The pounding keys on The Gold Needles' take on "No Reply" gave it a power pop feel. There are a few "mash-ups" on the album. The Gold Needles, from Hull, England, took the riff of "Hey Bulldog" and sang the lyrics of "Cold Turkey." Richard Barone added the chorus of "Power to the People" to "Revolution."
MS: The biggest challenge was to make an album that fans would like. An album that would make the legacy of John proud. It may be called "a tribute record" by some, but I called it Jem Records Celebrates John Lennon. You can't do better than The Beatles. Except for The Weeklings, who everyone agrees did a masterful job in making "What's the New Mary Jane?"
KW: It has been interesting to observe the shift in his legacy over the past few decades. His mystique has grown considerably. The song choices that one might have made back in the 1980s would concentrate on his hits, while folks are more attuned in the contemporary moment to deep cuts and hearing something beyond the chart-toppers.
What does John Lennon's music mean in our current times?
MS: John was a political animal his entire career. From commenting on the "jewelry" of royalty and their friends at a show, to his " Jesus" comment, he always brought up the absurdity of it all. The pressure of the U.S. government to deport him was intense. But his solo songs during that period were either love songs to Yoko and Sean, or a call to all of us for peace. He is still with us.
KW: Personally, I have been thinking a lot about "Watching the Wheels" and the line, "I tell them there's no problems, only solutions." I sincerely hope that we find ways to mirror that timeless Lennon vision in our present day.
JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon is coming on CD, digital, and limited-edition red vinyl. You can order your copy from the links below.
Various Artists, JEM Records Celebrates John Lennon (JEM Records, 2020)
- The Weeklings - The Word
- The Midnight Callers - Child of Nature
- The Midnight Callers - Jealous Guy
- The Grip Weeds - You Can't Do That
- Johnathan Pushkar - (Just Like) Starting Over
- The Gold Needles - No Reply
- Richard Barone - Revolution/Power To The People
- The Grip Weeds - Strawberry Fields Forever
- The Midnight Callers - It Won't Be Long
- The Anderson Council - I Found Out
- The Gold Needles - Cold Turkey/Hey Bulldog
- Johnathan Pushkar - I Call Your Name
- The Weeklings - What's The New Mary Jane?