In celebration of what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, Capitol Records has released a remastered set of his solo work, arriving in digi-envelopes to mirror last year’s Beatles remasters. There are some notable differences between the two events though. The first is that, while the Beatles recordings were available on CD on a regular basis, they never sounded as good as the remasters and so that was a major event. Lennon’s catalog has been freshened up on a fairly regular basis and, coupled with the fact that his ’70s recordings were the beneficiaries of better technology from the get-go, the arrival of the discs aren’t quite as earth-shaking.

Nonetheless, for a Beatles maniac such as I, the event does not lack importance, especially with the arrival of Double Fantasy Stripped Down. The second disc of the set is as you’ve known it since you held the first Geffen Records-released LP in your hot little hands. The first disc is where the surprises come in. As the refurbished title indicates, Yoko Ono, with the help and blessings of original producer Jack Douglas, set about to make the album a bit warmer, more intimate, and to achieve that end a lot of extra instrumentation has been trimmed away from the mix. Gone too are the vocal distortions Lennon used on his singing. The grapevine always used to buzz about how uncomfortable Lennon was with his own voice, and so echo and stereo shifting between the left and right channels were employed, in part, to thicken performances he purportedly found too thin. Remember his version of “Stand By Me” and that will give you an idea of the lengths he apparently went to to bring his voice up to his expectations.

I don’t actually buy into that notion, at least not entirely. I have no doubt Lennon had unsureness about his voice. Read enough bios about musicians and you learn this is a common malady. I also can’t imagine he heard his tracks for the biggest of Double Fantasy‘s hits, “Woman,” “Watching The Wheels,” and “(Just Like) Starting Over” and thought they were weak. In fact, the vocal vulnerability present now brings tunes like the oft-maligned, silly love song “Woman” to life. It’s no longer processed and bolstered by the extraneous instruments, ooh and aahhs. It now sounds like the valentine it was meant to be.

I’ve been hard on Yoko Ono in the past. No, I don’t blame her for breaking up the Beatles, just as I don’t blame Linda McCartney. If anyone was instrumental in the band’s implosion, it was the four that comprised it. I do resent, to a certain degree, her performance art being presented as pop music, as its inclusion on the Plastic Ono Band albums caused the tone of the albums to veer wildly versus naturally flowing. Oddly enough, with the stripping down, her contributions to Double Fantasy have improved. Not to the point where I won’t consider skipping tracks, but “Kiss Kiss Kiss” now sounds like the new wave jaunt it was always meant to be.

That had been a real drag on prior albums too – you would skip a Yoko song and then have a John song going on about Yoko. It was as if your penance for scanning past her track was to have an advertisement in her defense lobbed back at you. Double Fantasy, however, was a document of their domesticity, the life they had come to know between themselves and, in that, it is a concept record. Again, Yoko has never come off better than she does on this rejiggered edition.

The final thought about the album is how the leading light of it was happy about the life he found himself in. The firebrand, the angst-ridden man, had been reformed into a guy that could enjoy rock ‘n roll for the fun of it, could sing about his child with the pride of a father and not be afraid whether it was a mawkish move. It was, in so many ways, the sound of someone finally coming into his own with a sense of peace and freedom from a legacy he himself fashioned – and then shortly after its release, he was yanked out of this world.

The Lennon remasters are for the fans, but in some sense, Double Fantasy Stripped Down is for us all.

Double Fantasy Stripped Down [New Mix + Original Recording Remastered] is available from Amazon.com.