Following the completion of the Mind Games album in September 1973, John Lennon separated from his wife Yoko and headed for Los Angeles to begin a period he later referred to as his ‘Lost Weekend’. In October, he began recording the ‘Back To Mono/Oldies But Mouldies’ sessions with Phil Spector and a host of L.A. session musicians that were to become the Rock ‘N’ Roll album, but the project spiralled out of control and was not eventually fixed and finished until February 1975 after he had returned to New York. But all of that was about to change, when he released his fifth studio album, Walls and Bridges, on 4 October 1974 in the UK.
In an interview he later admitted to it being a period of great depression and hell-raising behaviour. He was separated from his wife, he was fighting deportation from Nixon’s US Immigration Service who wanted to kick him out of the country, he was being sued over the dissolution of The Beatles and over alleged copyright infringement on ‘Come Together’, and Phil Spector had disappeared with the master tapes for the Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions and was nowhere to be found.
Tired of all the aggravation and seven months of the messy lifestyle in Los Angeles, John returned to New York in April 1974 with a strong determination to improve the quality of his life and lifestyle. In June he began work on his fifth studio album, Walls and Bridges, with a more professional plan. Instead of the party atmosphere that surrounded the Spector sessions, the recording sessions for Walls and Bridges were very structured and organised, devoid of booze and drugs. An environment in which John realised he truly creatively thrived.
Jimmy Iovine, overdub engineer on the album, said: “The Walls And Bridges sessions were the most professional I have been on. He was there every day, 12 o’clock to 10 o’clock, go home, off the weekends, eight weeks, done. John knew what he wanted, he knew how to get what he was going after. He was going after a noise and he knew how to get it. And for the most part, he got it. What he explained, we used to get.”
Released on 26 September 1974 in the US, Walls and Bridges became John’s second LP to top the Billboard charts, its title based on the walls around him and others dear to him, and to the bridges burned and being rebuilt.
The album includes ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ a song recorded with Elton John that also became Lennon’s first solo record to top the Billboard Hot 100. It was, of course, a factor in propelling Walls and Bridges to the top spot.
Elton, by that time also one of the world’s most successful musicians, was due to cross the Atlantic from England to New York on the ship the SS France, with his entourage and Apple’s Tony King. Elton was on the way to the Caribou Ranch in Colorado to record his new album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, most of which was actually written on board that ship.
Elton and Tony very kindly offered to bring John’s firstborn son Julian with them so he could reunite and spend much needed time with his father during his summer school holidays. John, delighted at the prospect, bought first-class cabin tickets for Julian and for his mother, John’s ex-wife Cynthia, who also wanted to travel with them.
John moved into a bigger new apartment in New York with a spare room especially for Julian, who stayed with John for six weeks, attending the weekday recording sessions at The Record Plant and spending sunny relaxed weekends together on the boat up in Orchard Beach.
While Elton was still in New York, John invited him to play on Walls and Bridges, and Elton duly added harmony vocals, piano and organ to, ‘Whatever Get You Thru The Night’. According to Lennon, “Elton said ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability. I knew him, but I’d never seen him play. A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes – obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm. And then he sang with me. We had a great time.”
When they finished the recording, John told Elton that he was the only Beatle that had not managed a solo No.1 single. Elton’s response was to bet John that if ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ went to No.1, John should join Elton on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden at Thanksgiving. John jokingly agreed, never expecting for one minute that Elton might be right.
A real sense of cohesion
Walls and Bridges took about eight weeks to record and there is a real sense of cohesion in the record. The tracks while never sounding ‘samey’ really do have a sense of coming from the same place, a feeling that John had not achieved in quite the same way since the album, Imagine. John’s pain is clear to hear on the album’s opening track, ‘Going Down On Love’ and is played out on ‘Scared’ and ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)’. But it is played out with such musicality that it is impossible not to be drawn into the beauty of this record.
Both ‘What You Got’ and ‘Bless You’ were written for his wife Yoko. “You don’t know what you got ‘til you lose it.” sings John on the former, while in the latter, one of John’s most beautiful melodies, he sings, “Some people say it’s over, now that we spread our wings, but we know better darling, the hollow ring is only last year’s echo”.
‘Surprise, Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)’ is about John’s affections for assistant and mistress May Pang but it also refers to John’s “god-awful loneliness.”
‘Old Dirt Road’ was co-written with John’s longtime pal, Harry Nilsson, who himself lived through the excesses of Lennon’s stay in California. It’s another wonderful song that is helped by Jesse Ed Davis’s country sounding guitar.
John’s other big hit from Walls and Bridges is a classic, ‘#9 Dream’. It is a luxurious production that again shows John’s brilliance with a melody. Deceptively simple yet beguiling and complex. The gorgeous chorus – “Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé” came from a dream in which two women called his name, although he slightly altered the lyrics to avoid the record being banned or censored.
John recorded a brief version of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Ya Ya’ on which his son Julian, attending the sessions, played drums. It acts as a coda to the record, but the real coda took place two months after the U.S. release of Walls and Bridges and two weeks after ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ made it to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
John, dressed in a black suit and playing a black Fender Telecaster, held up his side of the deal with Elton and joined him on stage at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving, 28 November 1974, to a prolonged, thunderous standing ovation from the ecstatic audience, amazed at Rock History being made in front of their very eyes and ears. John and Elton and his band performed ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, Elton’s then‑current single (on which John had sung harmony vocals), and The Beatles ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ which Lennon credited to “an old, estranged fiancé of mine named Paul.”
This proved to be John Lennon’s last major concert appearance, but his appearance also brought about further reconciliation. Yoko had sent orchids to her husband and Elton, which they both wore onstage. John, not knowing Yoko was in the audience, nervously met with her backstage after the show when they shared a moment where they both later said they just “clicked”.
John told Rolling Stone in June 1975, “It meant a lot to me and it meant a hell of a lot to Elton, and he was in tears. It was a great high night, a really high night. Yoko and I met backstage. And somebody said, ‘Well, there’s two people in love.’ It was very weird. There was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it’s like in the movies, you know, when time stands still? And there was silence, everything went silent, y’know, and we were just sort of lookin’ at each other and… oh, hello. I knew she’d sent Elton and I a flower each, and we were wearing them onstage, but I didn’t know she was there and then everybody was around us and flash flash flash. But there was that moment of silence. And somebody observed it and told me later on, after we were back together again, and said, “A friend of mine saw you backstage and thought if ever there was two in love, it’s those two.” And I thought, well, it’s weird somebody noticed it… So it was a great night.
After a period of dating, John and Yoko fully resumed their relationship less than three months later in January 1975. John finally completed work on the Rock n Roll album, and with other outstanding litigations resolved, the period of the difficult ‘Lost Weekend’ was finally over, and a new chapter of his life began.
In a lovely footnote to the story, in gratitude of bridges built, John and Yoko asked Elton to be godfather to their new son Sean, born on John’s 35th birthday, 9 October 1975, their much-wanted beautiful boy and gift of their grand reunion.