In the outtakes of The Wrecking Crew DVD Mike Lang talks about the John Lennon Rock ‘n’ Roll album with Phil Spector and how Harry Nilsson came in wanting to do a duet with Lennon.
These sessions were famous because (a) Phil Spector reportedly held a gun on John Lennon and (b) this was during John Lennon’s infamous lost weekend, the year he spent estranged from Yoko Ono, the year of drinking and carousing with May Pang.
Apparently, during the Nilsson/Lennon duet, Cher arrived and did some backup. Mike Lang joked that they were like a strange Peter, Paul and Mary singing together. Then at some point during the duet Yoko Ono calls on the phone and upsets John Lennon and he leaves abruptly. Since all the musicians were there and the time was booked, Spector decided to go ahead and produce a duet between Cher and Harry Nilsson, (an artist not known for his many collaborations with women), covering the Martha and the Vandellas song, “A Love Like Yours Don’t Come Knockin Everyday.”
Here’s some online historical mentions of the happening:
In 1974, John Lennon was in a bad way. After he lost a copyright lawsuit to Chuck Berry, as compensation he was forced to record a few songs from Berry’s publisher’s songbook. Using this situation as an opportunity to create a rock classics album, he recruited the legendary producer Phil Spector and traveled to L.A. to record what would become 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. During the sessions, Nilsson started hanging around the studio. Spector brandished a gun in the studio one night, Lennon began his descent into a sloshed hellscape, and Nilsson got to share a vocal booth with Cher (who chipped in on backup).
As they progressed, the sessions quickly attracted a number of celebrities to the studio, among them Warren Beatty, Cher and Joni Mitchell. Lennon and Spector often fought, and the project was moved to Record Plant West after Spector let off a pistol one night at A&M Studios.
After three months a number of suitable takes were finally in the can, although Phil Spector's habit of taking the tapes away with him each night eventually led to disaster.
May Pang’s words
Blogger: Was Harry Nilsson around at that time?
May Pang: Yeah, he came in for a visit. Joni Mitchell was recording in the other studio. When she found out that John was recording in the studio we were in, she was coming in all the time. She would bring in other people. One night it was Warren Beatty and David Geffen. Musicians were always coming through the door: Elton John, Cher. Then Phil would give his speech, “How dare you walk into my session.” I would have fights with Phil, because I wouldn’t take it from him. I was in my early 20s at the time, and I was really strong-headed with him. He couldn’t handle that. I was trying to keep John from all the crazy things that people were trying to drag him into, things he was not aware of.
The Cher influence on the outtake "Be My Baby"
In 1973 Spector produced a number of recordings for Lennon's Rock 'N' Roll album. Inspired by Cher's version of The Ronettes' Baby I Love You [CS: which Spector had just produced!], he slowed down Be My Baby and another of his hits, To Know Her Is To Love Her. Never one to underuse a recording technique, the trick was repeated on Sweet Little Sixteen, Bony Moronie, You Can't Catch Me and Since My Baby Left Me.
In the knowledge that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were separated at the time of Be My Baby's recording, the funereal pace and cathartic pleading transforms the song from being an account of teenage desire into a desperate plea for acceptance.
The decision not to include Be My Baby on Rock 'N' Roll remains puzzling. The song features some of Lennon's most impassioned vocals from the sessions, and stripped of the Wall of Sound backing it would not have sounded out of place on 1970's John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
The song did appear on Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock & Roll Hits, a rare mail-order album containing rough mixes of the sessions. The collection was released by music publisher Morris Levy and followed legal action over The Beatles song Come Together's similarity to Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me, a song owned by Levy. Roots was briefly available in January 1975 before EMI blocked its sale.
So, after the fights between Spector and Lennon over their resulting collaboration, Lennon did gain custody of the tracks but found many of them unusable. The resulting album only has a few Spectorish tracks. Some of the official song selections interestingly have been Cher staples for years: "Stand By Me," "Rip It Up," "Do You Wanna Dance," and "Bring It On Home To Me."
As for all the celebrity backup work done on the album, none of the songs use backups at all or just barely. "Do You Wanna Dance" maybe slightly. Little from the Spector sessions remain: "You Can't Catch Me," Sweet Little Sixteen," "Bony Moronie," and "Just Because." "Stand By Me" is not credited as a Spector song in the album notes but it sounds obviously wall-of-soundish to me. “You Can’t Catch Me” is the song that most addresses the lawsuit over the Chuck Berry song as it was excerpted into The Beatles’ song “Come Together.”
Lennon said the following about Rock 'n' Roll: "It started in '73 with Phil and fell apart. I ended up as part of mad, drunk scenes in Los Angeles and I finally finished it off on me own. And there was still problems with it up to the minute it came out. I can't begin to say, it's just barmy, there's a jinx on that album."
But Rolling Stone's Album Guide: wrote that "John lends dignity to these classics; his singing is tender, convincing, and fond." And AllMusic described the album "as a peak in [Lennon's] post-Imagine catalog: an album that catches him with nothing to prove and no need to try."
Listen to the Nilsson/Cher duet here courtesy of Dangerous Minds.
Other interesting tidbits surrounding the album: