Though there is very little subtlety, there is evident affection throughout.
Sean Egan 2010-08-26
Quite simply, John Lennon recorded Rock‘N’Roll in order not to be sued.
Morris Levy, owner of the publishing on You Can't Catch Me, agreed not to call in m’learned friends over the resemblance of parts of The Beatles’ song Come Together to that Chuck Berry composition if Lennon acquiesced to recording some of his copyrights – a lucrative scenario for Levy. However, once this deal was struck, inveterate old-school rocker Lennon found himself enthused by the idea of a retro album. He even dug up a picture of himself for the cover in his full pre-moptop bequiffed glory.
On paper, the concept was a killer. Anyone who remembered Lennon tearing through the likes of Chuck Berry’s Rock and Roll Music on Beatles albums knew he had the capacity for an almost berserk commitment to songs he loved. But the origins of this record in grubby coercion seemed to curse the sessions, which were marked by the mental deterioration of original producer Phil Spector. Levy himself, thinking Lennon was welching on their deal, put out a mail order version using rough mixes, the confusion engendered by which may have been responsible for the pitiful initial sales of Rock‘N’Roll, although lukewarm reviews didn't help.
Part of the critical disdain was down to the fact that Lennon seemed uninterested in playing the songs of Chuck Berry, Larry Williams, Little Richard et al the way he had at a thousand gigs and BBC sessions, and opted instead for re-tooling. Tracks like a snail’s-pace Do You Wanna Dance?, a bizarrely ornate Sweet Little Sixteen and a heavy metal Bony Moronie are perplexingly lacking in the swing and pace that was the point of rock‘n’roll in the first place. However, once the shock of this has dissipated, the tracks can be heard to possess a steamhammer power and – courtesy of Spector’s kitchen-sink-and-all modus operandi – an exquisite richness.
Though there is very little subtlety, there is evident affection throughout, excellent musicianship and some fun post-modern nods to the audience, including what seems a deliberate attempt to make You Can't Catch Me resemble the swamp-rock of Come Together as much as possible. On all tracks, Lennon’s singing is superb, especially a passionate and epic Stand by Me. Meanwhile, a slinky Slippin' and Slidin' and a breakneck Peggy Sue demonstrate that nobody can teach this man anything about generating primal rock excitement.