NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I swear I’m not recycling jokes on purpose.
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How about a little trivia for ye today? According to the online record retailer The Sound of Vinyl, what is the Elton John hit that’s been covered the most times? Elton’s got a lot of hits, and of course many of them have been covered. But one of them far outstrips the others in terms of the number of covers that have been done.
I’ll have that answer to that question, and some of the runners-up, near the end of the show.
I don’t usually cover songs by the Beatles, largely because they’ve been so thoroughly documented that there isn’t usually a lot I can bring to the table, but I’m not above talking about their solo efforts. And yet, this is only my second solo Beatle tune. Today we’re looking at Cold Turkey, which is the second of John Lennon’s post-Beatle singles, coming just a few months after “Give Peace a Chance.”
Now, there are two different stories out there with regard to the inspiration for this song. The first, and more popular one, is that John Lennon was literally writing about drug withdrawal. “Cold Turkey” is a phrase that refers to abruptly quitting any drug habit—whether it’s nicotine, alcohol or other drugs—and if you do it that way, it usually wreaks all kinds of havoc on your body because you have to suddenly get adjusted to not having that substance in your body. And usually it’s a pretty miserable experience, often involving sleeplessness, cramps all over, sweating, shaking—look, it’s not good, okay?
Anyway, Both John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a brief period starting in 1968 during which they used, and became addicted, to heroin. According to an article by Jann Wenner from 1970, Lennon said that they weren’t injecting it, but rather sniffing a little when they were in real pain. But that pain largely came in the form of people giving both him and Yoko Ono a hard time, all the time. However, by the summer of 1969 they decided that they were done with it, but here’s the problem: at that time, drug addiction was still very poorly understood, and it was often classified as a kind of psychosis. So there wasn’t a lot of guidance with regard to how to treat it. Even Methadone was still in the experimental stage when it came to treating opioid addiction. So going Cold Turkey was practically the only way to do it if you wanted to kick the habit. So that’s what both Lennon and Ono did, and his experience is what inspired the song.
Now, there’s another theory out there that, on its surface, seems to be believable, but there’s a huge caveat attached to it. Lennon’s personal assistant in the late 1970s was a guy named Fred Seaman. However, “Personal Assistant” really meant that Fred was a guy who stuck around Lennon’s office and would occasionally bring something up to Lennon’s apartment. So he didn’t have a lot of face time with his employer. And after Lennon died, Seaman stole a bunch of items from Lennon’s apartment and was indicted for second degree grand larceny, for which he pleaded guilty. Seaman’s story, which he’s related in a book about Lennon that he published in 1991, is that John and Yoko both were both laid low by a bout of food poisoning after eating Christmas leftovers, including cold turkey. Seaman’s story went on to say that Lennon thought people would laugh at him if they knew the truth, so he made up the withdrawal story. But, as I noted a minute ago, Seaman didn’t have a lot of direct contact with Lennon, he wasn’t working for him until about 1978, and he didn’t even mention it when he was interviewed for Albert Goldman’s 1988 biography of John Lennon, which had plenty of accuracy problems, though Lennon’s heroin use wasn’t one of them. So while food poisoning can sometimes have some of the same symptoms as withdrawal, they’re not nearly the same thing.
Now, while this was Lennon’s second non-Beatle single, it is the first one for which he takes sole songwriting credit; since “Give Peace a Chance” is credited to Lennon & McCartney. If you look at later releases of the record—and I’m talking about reissues after he died–it shows John Lennon only in the writing credit. In Norman Philips’ biography, Lennon is said to expressed regret about it, though Ian MacDonald’s book about The Beatles says he did it as a thank-you to Paul McCartney for helping him get “The Ballad of John and Yoko” laid down quickly.
OK, back to “Cold Turkey”.
Lennon recorded some acoustic demos of the song in early September of 1969. The first one is pretty much a straight run-through, though check out the way he’s warbling his voice:
That version you can find on the 2004 compilation of demos and live tracks called Acoustic. The second version has double-tracked vocals and the first hints of that iconic guitar line, and still another version had Yoko Ono adding backing vocals, including cackles and screams. Now, given that the other two didn’t really have anything like that, he may have been inspired to add them himself to the final version.
It’s generally thought that John presented the song to the Beatles not only as a potential track for the Abbey Road album, but as the band’s next single. The band turned him down, which is not unusual; all four members had to agree to record a song before it got done. But it’s also possible that Lennon brought it to them knowing full well that they’d reject it, so that he could use it himself as a Plastic Ono Band track.
The song made its debut on September 13, 1969, when John Lennon performed in Toronto for what later became the Live Peace in Toronto 1969 album. The song was credited to the Plastic Ono Band, which at the time was Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann on bass and Alan White on drums. A couple of years later, White would join the progressive rock band Yes, Klaus Voormann has gone on to produce a big pile of hits, and I’m sure that Eric Clapton fellow has done OK since those days. It’s a little tough to hear, but first Yoko Ono introduces it as the newest song written by John, and John in fact said that the band had never played the song as a group before that performance…
…and, of course, Yoko contributes some vocalizations to the song…
…I’ll give her this: a lot of it sounds less random than in other live performances I’ve seen. And, as I mentioned earlier, I think it was his inspiration for the vocalizations he does on the single.
As I mentioned before, the song was really new; certainly the band hadn’t played it as a group before, except during a rehearsal shortly before the show. In fact, if you watch the Toronto footage you’ll see that Lennon’s reading the lyrics from a sheet that Yoko is holding. Even though Clapton’s playing, we still don’t have that guitar lick just yet, but he’s getting a better handle on the way he wants the vocals to sound. The Jann Wenner article quotes Lennon as saying he was literally sick for hours right up until the performance, so he might have been channeling some of that energy too.
About ten days later, Lennon took the recordings to Abbey Road Studios to mix the album. Part of this mixing included removing a lot of Yoko Ono’s vocals AND Eric Clapton’s backing vocals. Now, Clapton didn’t sing on “Cold Turkey”, but you can see that Yoko’s nearly absent except for during the guitar solos:
It was just a few days after that, that the Plastic Ono Band took a shot at a genuine studio recording of the song. The band’s lineup was the same, except for Ringo Starr playing drums instead of Alan White. The session took place at Abbey Road studios—which was still just called EMI Studios then—and they recorded 26 takes before giving up. A few days later, on September 28th, they tried again at Trident Studios and Lennon finally got the sound he wanted.
Now, we have Clapton’s riff, which is just agonizing, and you’ve got Ringo’s drums and Voormann’s bass just right up front crowding you into a corner. And as you get toward the end, with the screaming and the howling, it doesn’t gain echo, but it’s got a different quality, like he’s in a small, bare room.
The next day a rough mix was made at Abbey Road, with different vocals, and about a week later some overdubs were added in, and that was about it for the single mix.
The record was released in the United States on October 20, 1969, and four days later in the UK. If you look at a copy of the original single, it’s got PLAY LOUD printed in big letters near the spindle hole.
The song peaked at number 30 in the United States and Number 14 in the UK, which came as a disappointment to Lennon, but he had to know that this track could potentially alienate Beatles fans. It also managed to crack the Top 20 in Canada and the Netherlands, but that’s about it, really.
Now, part of the issue might also be that the song itself was misunderstood. At least, that was Lennon’s theory. Here’s a clip from an interview he and Yoko did with Andy Peeples on the BBC just a couple of days before his death..
Lennon also played the song at a UNICEF benefit concert in London in December of 1969, and you can hear that as a bonus track on the Some Time in New York City album. Now, Billy Preston was playing piano during that concert, but it got lost in the mix, so Nicky Hopkins did some piano overdubs for the album. And Lennon performed the song with Elephant’s Memory in the summer of 1972 at another fundraiser in New York’s Madison Square Garden. That concert became the Live in New York City album, which was released in 1986. The single, in the meantime, finally made it to an album in 1975 when Shaved Fish was released. That was a compilation of all of his US singles up to that point, except for “Stand By Me,” which had just been released a short time earlier. That would also be Lennon’s last album on Apple Records.
There are a couple of covers of the song out there, including the 1970 instrumental by Freddie Hubbard you heard at the top of the show, but I think the most interesting one comes from Cheap Trick, which the recorded for the 1994 Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero. The verses are very low, almost acoustic in their sound, and gradually builds each time to a full-on assault in the chorus and instrumental breaks, finally devolving into a kind of organized chaos for the last two minutes, including one point where you THINK the song is nearly over, and then they just ramp it up again.
And Rick Nielsen doesn’t even bother to mimic Clapton’s guitar line; he’s got his own going on…
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you which of Elton John’s many hits has been covered more times than any other. I’ll confess, my guess was wrong, but at least it made it into the top TEN.
So here are those ten, according to The Sound of Vinyl dot com:
18—Tiny Dancer (Madman Across the Water 1971)
19—That’s What Friends Are For (single, 1985)
20—Daniel (Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, 1973)
21—Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (single, 1976)
22—Candle in the Wind (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
26—Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, 1973)
30—Rocket Man (Honky Chateau, 1972)
33—Can You Feel the Love Tonight (Lion King OST, 1994)
42—Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word (Blue Moves, 1976)
78—Your Song (Elton John, 1970)
What was my guess? I was going with “Candle in the Wind.”
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