Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Living Up To The Family Name - Part 1

When you’re the son of not just a music legend, but also a cultural icon, the pressure must be incredible to live up to the artistic standards established by your parent. Both Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley faced those expectations and pressures when they set about carving their own individual musical identities during the 1980s. And both did so in the shadows of their respective father’s deaths, and the giant legacy left behind by both.

The son of ex-Beatle and rock legend John Lennon, Julian Lennon certainly had the genes going in his favour, but with that pedigree surely the critical attention would be all the more intense. Throughout most of his childhood Julian Lennon was estranged from his father John, particularly after John took up with Yoko Ono and later moved to New York. Julian already had a place in rock music history, being the subject behind the Paul McCartney penned Beatles’ #1 ‘Hey Jude’ in 1968, and according to John, providing the drawing which was the inspiration for ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. But for most of the 70s he lived a quiet middle class life out of the spotlight so fervently focused on his father John. He was playing guitar and drums by the age of ten (playing drums on the track ‘Ya Ya’ from John Lennon’s 1974 album ‘Walls And Bridges’), and learnt the piano as a teenager. Following the tragic and senseless death of John Lennon in December 1980, an emotional wave of appreciation swept the globe for the music and life of a true icon of popular music. Lennon’s oldest son Julian dealt with his grief privately, but one of the ways he did that was to turn to the greatest gift his father left him, music.

Julian Lennon began to frequent London nightclubs during the early 80s, soaking up the atmosphere, absorbing the musical vibes of the cutting edge London scene. He began writing his own music and by 1984 was ready to record his first material. With a name like Lennon it obviously wasn’t hard for him to score a recording contract and enlist the services of a quality music producer. Atlantic Records signed the young Lennon and brought in veteran producer Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Paul Simon) to oversee production on Lennon’s debut album. The album was recorded over the northern summer of 1984 at a French chateau called ‘Valotte’, and so when it was released late in 1984 the album was titled appropriately enough, ‘Valotte’.

The title track was the first single release Stateside. It was a beautifully crafted piano based ballad that evoked a haunting similarity to several of John Lennon’s songs. Not that it borrowed from them, rather that Julian’s own vocal style so resembled his father in tone and cadence that you couldn’t help but think of John Lennon’s work. Stylistically ‘Valotte’ would have sat very comfortably in the John Lennon songbook, all the more reason to credit Julian with writing such a great song. ‘Valotte’ reached #9 in the U.S., but was a relative disappointment in the U.K. (#55) and Australia (#75). The lead single in Britain and Australia was in fact the more up tempo ‘Too Late For Goodbyes’ (UK#6, OZ#13, US#5). Complete with George Harrison style slide guitar, ‘Too Late For Goodbyes’ also showcased Julian Lennon’s talents across several instruments from guitar, keyboards and percussion. The promo video payed homage to Lennon’s late father with a look-a-like making a cameo appearance during the clip, and it was directed by legendary director Sam Peckinpah.

The album ‘Valotte’ (UK#20/OZ#8/US#17) yielded two more minor hits with ‘Say You’re Wrong’ (US#21/UK#75/OZ#31) and ‘Jesse’ (US#54), and also earned Julian Lennon a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. He was then invited to contribute to Dave Clark’s ‘Time’ musical soundtrack (alongside the likes of Freddie Mercury and Cliff Richard). Lennon’s track ‘Because’ reached #40 in the U.K. and #66 in Australia in early ‘86. It was during this period that intense speculation began building that Julian Lennon would be part of a reunion of the surviving three Beatles. I can recall hearing those rumours in the lead up to the 1985 Live Aid concert where Paul McCartney was scheduled to appear. Of course each time a rumour started Julian Lennon and the three surviving Beatles fervently denied it would ever, or should ever happen.

It’s fair to say that Lennon’s second album ‘The Secret Value Of Daydreaming’ (US#32/OZ#65/UK#93) was a massive disappointment, both critically and commercially. It lacked the depth and quality of song writing offered by ‘Valotte’ and even its only commercial hit single ‘Stick Around’ (US#32/OZ#79) was a throwaway pop song at best. Though the promotional video, which featured a cameo by Michael J. Fox, probably gave a clue as to an extravagant lifestyle being a major reason behind Lennon’s loss of musical focus.

You could have been forgiven for questioning Julian Lennon’s ability to recapture the magic of his debut effort, but a refreshed and revitalised Lennon reappeared in 1989 with the album ‘Mr. Jordan’ (OZ#18/US#87). The album featured a darker, edgier rock style that showed another side to Lennon’s musical character. The lead out single ‘Now You’re In Heaven’ largely missed the mark in the U.S. (#93) and U.K. (#59), but got its just deserts in Australia where it rocketed to #1 in mid ‘89. The follow up ‘You’re The One’ only reached #74 in Australia, and once again Julian Lennon’s pop career stalled.

It was reignited in 1991 by the majestically crafted ballad ‘Saltwater’. The song could be seen as Julian Lennon’s equivalent to father John’s ‘Imagine’. Now before you leap to your feet in protest at such a comparison, I’ll hasten to add that ‘Imagine’ is of course a far superior song, but ‘Saltwater’ in thematic terms addresses the same sentiment and stands on its own as a fine ballad. It reached #6 on the British charts and became Julian Lennon’s second Australian #1 single (which if you discount The Beatles’ #1’s, equals John’s #1 count in Australia - ‘Imagine’ and ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’). The track was lifted from Julian Lennon’s fourth album ‘Help Yourself’ (UK#42/OZ#8), which also yielded the hit title track (UK#53/OZ#16) and the minor U.K. hit ‘Get A Life’ (#56).

Lennon then took an extended sojourn from music, one that lasted seven years. In 1998 he released the album ‘Photograph Smile’ on the independent label Varese. The album marked a return to the style of ‘Valotte’, featuring several quality piano ballads with a few guitar pop numbers thrown in for balance. The single ‘Day After Day’ (UK#66) signalled Lennon’s last entry in the music charts to date. I recall seeing him appear as a guest on the Australian comedy/talk show ‘The Panel’ at that time, talking about his career and the latest album. He came across as a man who was very comfortable with both life and career, and relieved in a way to no longer be in the spotlight as a high profile musician. The album ‘Photograph Smile’ received limited release across Europe, Japan and Australia before being released in the U.S. during 1999.

Julian Lennon then retired once more from the limelight, retreating to his base in Northern Italy, glad of a new lifestyle removed from the demands of the music business. At time of writing a new Julian Lennon album titled ‘Conscious’ is in the works.

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