Albums from the Lost and Found: Valotte

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

Musical talent can certainly be genetic, and as artists from Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy (“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”) to Randy Bachman’s son Tal (“She’s So High”) certainly demonstrate, the offspring of hitmakers can often become hitmakers in their own right. But having a famous musician as your parent isn’t necessarily always advantageous, and certainly high expectations can be a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to overcome if you’re the offspring of one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. Certainly, Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan got more print in his earliest years in the business for being the son of Bob Dylan than for any music he actually made, and it wasn’t until that band’s third album, (Breach), that Jakob directly alluded to the matter in his lyrics – and in a brilliantly biting fashion that hit back at more cynical listeners and re-directed the spotlight on the band itself, rather than his legendary lineage. But Jakob’s career path was made slightly easier by the fact that, for all the comparisons, he didn’t actually really sound all that much like his famous father, either vocally or stylistically, and trying to compare an album like, say, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to Bringing Down the Horse is a bit like trying to compare baseball to hockey.

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John Lennon’s son Julian, on the other hand, should be admired for even having the bravery to release any music to the world, considering just how eerily he vocally resembles his legendary father, to the extent that many listeners initially mistook Julian’s debut single, “Valotte,” for a posthumous single from John. (Considering that John’s posthumous “Nobody Told Me” had scaled the charts earlier that year on its way to the Top Five, it wasn’t an altogether illogical assumption to think that “Valotte” was a follow-up single from the same archives, even if the sound quality was noticeably different.) [Julian had already indirectly left a major mark on pop-music history by inspiring the Beatles classics “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – reportedly written about a drawing he’d made in nursery school – and “Hey Jude,” written by Paul, under the working title “Hey Jules,” to help console Julian during the divorce of his parents.] 

One can’t help but feel bad, then, that Julian’s time in the spotlight (peaking with a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist) was so short-lived, although he’d continue to release new albums every few years or so.  In spite of his enormous talent, his uncanny resemblance to his famous dad caused a lot of critics to view him as little more than a passing novelty.  Truth is, however, that, in spite of the vocal – and even physical – similarities, Julian’s music itself exhibited the influence of Paul McCartney perhaps even more so than that of his own dad, whose solo work had been distinguished just as much by intensely personal and primal outings like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and sociopolitical commentary like “Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” as such later, more obviously radio-friendly fare like “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” or “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Julian’s own brand of pop, in contrast, isn’t nearly quite so self-tortured, most often offering up a mix – and an appealing fifty-fifty blend – of Paul’s melodicism and optimism and John’s more introspective bent. You can even hear that in the title track of Julian’s 1984 solo debut, Valotte, a piano ballad that nearly sounds like a hybrid of Wings’ “Warm and Beautiful” and Lennon’s “Imagine” – it’s not nearly as grandiose in its ambitions as the latter song, of course [but then again, few songs are], but in it, you can hear how Julian welds the warmth and the classical-tinged melodic charm of the aforementioned McCartney song and fuses it to a lyric that more closely mirrors the more poetic style of his famous father, particularly circa Rubber Soul. It’s an utterly remarkable – and daring, even – debut single for Julian to have introduced himself to the world with, and while it – and the same could be said about any of the other hit singles from this disc – has largely become lost to time and rarely shows up on the radio on these shores with any frequency today, it’s a fine piece of songwriting and Julian’s relaxed performance on the cut exhibits a real self-confidence to it that is so often lacking on the first releases from the offspring of major rock stars.  

Julian also demonstrates some real career savvy here in two significant ways. First, he’s smart enough to provide a variety of sounds here to ward off easy comparisons to his father, and while the slight R&B underpinnings of “OK for You” make the cut vaguely reminiscent of John’s Double Fantasy track “Cleanup Time,” it’s the only other track here besides the title cut where the influence is quite so undeniable. Elsewhere, Julian tries on everything from the shuffle beat of “On the Phone” and the dreamy moodscapes of “Space” to the unabashed slick synth-soul of the infectious “Jesse,” penned by pal China Burton and a should-have-been hit in its own right. Lennon saves his biggest curveball for last, closing the disc with the two-minute-long “Let Me Be,” a sparsely-produced, simple piano ballad with a melody that’s straight out of the Randy Newman playbook.     

Lennon’s also savvy enough to tap Phil Ramone, best known for producing Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years and all of Billy Joel’s discs from The Stranger through the Bridge, to helm the project, and the production is tasteful throughout, striking a nice balance between the synthesized pop of the times and more organic sounds, to the extent that even the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – by then, out of vogue commercially – of keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, and bassist David Hood show up here. [Other members of Lennon’s backing band on this disc include keyboardist Peter Wood, formerly with Al Stewart (with whom he co-wrote “Year of the Cat”) and Tommy Shaw, and drummer Steve Holley, who’d, fittingly enough, served as the drummer during the last years of Wings! Longtime Luther Vandross sideman Marcus Miller also shows up to play bass, while Rory Dodd, best known as the male voice you hear on Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” provides backing vocals.] 

Impressively enough, Julian followed up the Top Ten success of “Valotte” with an even bigger hit, reaching the Top Five – and topping the Adult Contemporary charts – with the next single, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” a brilliantly deceptive piece of pop songwriting that, like the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” before it, is much darker than most casual listeners realize. While the lyric for “Goodbyes” is actually quite moody and resignedly pessimistic, the song’s actual melody is rather sunny, and as if to make the juxtaposition all the more ironic, Lennon and Ramone have built the rhythm track around a nearly ska-like synth part and, even more amusingly, a harmonica solo from the legendary “Toots” Thielemans, while minor ‘80s solo star Martin Briley (who reached the Top 40 the prior year with “The Salt in My Tears”) shows up on guitar.

But the album’s most fun – and its hardest-rocking – moment is arguably its peppy third single, the #21-charting “Say You’re Wrong,” which might be the most infectious song on the record and yet doesn’t even feature a proper chorus, instead separating each of its jangly verses with a surprisingly engaging instrumental break with a full horn section providing all the right accents around a bed of quick, distorted guitar stabs, as a spirited Lennon reaches into his falsetto for a “Ooh!” every bit as perfect as those to be found in such early Beatles sides as “She Loves You.”

Sadly, Lennon’s next disc, 1986’s The Secret Value of Daydreaming, featuring Joel himself on piano on the cut “You Get What You Want,” was considered a disappointment both commercially and critically (although it did spawn another Top 40 hit for Julian in “Stick Around” and a lesser-charting – but artistically superior – single in the achingly beautiful ballad “Want Your Body”), and Lennon’s career was never quite the same after that. Julian would try to reinvent himself with his third disc, 1989’s Mr. Jordan, which boasted a fun and remarkably David Bowie-like single in “Now You’re in Heaven,” that scarcely resembled the Julian Lennon of old at all, but it got even less attention than the last disc. Thankfully, the steadily-dwindling sales were little deterrent to Lennon, and he’d continue to churn out some magnificent songs into the next decade, albeit to more of a cult following; “Saltwater” from 1991’s Help Yourself, in particular, is an absolute must-hear (the album itself also features co-writes with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan), while 1998’s Photograph Smile was his finest disc on a song-for-song basis since Valotte.