By 1974, the stage was set for what was to become a short-lived Lennon-McCartney reunion. It had taken four years for the wounds to heal, as Lennon put it, after all of the fighting through the press and the hidden and sometimes not-too-subtle musical attacks at one another no longer carried any significance. Calling for a Beatles reunion at this point was a premature thought, but nonetheless, three-quarters of the former group managed to find themselves in Los Angeles by the end of March 1974.
Lennon had recently become estranged from Yoko, and fled happily with May Pang to confront his own self-destructive demons in his “lost weekend.” Briefly staying at the home of record executive Harold Seiders, Lennon was reintroduced to Harry Nilsson by Ringo. In 1968, Lennon had playfully named Nilsson his “favorite American group,” and Nilsson quickly became a Beatles favorite when his Beatles medley based on “You Can’t Do That” was first brought to the attention of Derek Taylor in 1967. With John staying in LA in 1974, Nilsson served to encourage his alcohol-fueled antics, which rose to a climax on March 12, when the two were thrown out of the Troubadour Club for heckling the comedy duo the Smothers Brothers. Being escorted to his car, Lennon said to a parking attendant, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Ed Sullivan!”
It was clear the Lennon-Nilsson double act needed a creative project as a healthy distraction, and Lennon realized this. His current rock ‘n’ roll oldies project had come to a grinding halt when the album’s producer, Phil Spector, disappeared and ran away with the session tapes. When John and May Pang soon began renting a beach house in Santa Monica, it quickly became a popular rendezvous for musicians and celebrities. Among the musicians participating in the Sunday night jam sessions were Nilsson, Ringo, Keith Moon, Klaus Voormann, and other top session players. John shortly came up with the idea of producing a Nilsson album, focusing again on covers of their favorite songs. Lennon also had written a track, “Mucho Mungo,” which would suit Nilsson’s vocal style nicely. The trouble was, Nilsson was having significant problems of his own. “He’d lost his voice and I don’t know whether it was psychological or what,” John recalled. “You know, he was going to doctors and having injections and he didn’t tell me until later that he was bleeding in the throat, or I would have stopped the session. But he had no voice. So what do you do?”
Sessions for the new Nilsson album began on March 28 at Burbank Studios in California. Two special guests attending the session were Paul and Linda McCartney. Wings had been in rehearsals earlier in the month, and had traveled soon afterwards to Los Angeles, with the McCartneys attending the annual Academy Award ceremony, where they met up with Lennon backstage. McCartney was eager to work with Lennon again, and they were able to play together for the first time in over four years after the initial Nilsson session, jamming with the others on the old standard, “Midnight Special.” As everyone prepared to leave, Lennon invited McCartney to join in the next Sunday night jam session, and it was then, on March 31, that the final Lennon-McCartney studio collaboration was to be recorded for posterity. John recalled the event the next year in a BBC interview: “I did actually play with Paul. We did a lot of stuff in LA. But there was fifty other people playing, and they were all just watching me and Paul!”
“Don’t get too serious, we’re not getting paid,” John instructed the musical troupe that had gathered there that night. “We ain’t doing nothing but sitting here together, and anybody getting bored with me – take over!” All the recording equipment assembled at the beach house had been borrowed from Burbank Studios, and Lennon spent a large portion of the session berating the makeshift engineers. “Just turn the fucking vocal mike up . . . McCartney’s doing the harmony on the drums.” The ensemble consisted of Paul on Ringo’s drum kit, John, Danny Kortchmar, and Jesse Ed Davis on guitars, Stevie Wonder on electric piano, a producer named Ed on bass, Bobby Keys on saxophone, Linda McCartney on Hammond organ, May Pang and Mal Evans on tambourine, and Harry Nilsson displaying his already ruptured vocal cords.
“Do you want a snort Steve? A toot? It’s going round,” Lennon offered before things got underway. A classic Lennon stream-of-consciousness improvisation followed: “And I fell upon my ass, nobody seemed to notice, I was wearing mother’s bra and she was wearing Otis, but no one seemed to care, over there, they didn't have the bus fare. And later on, a distant relative passed away, so distant I didn’t even notice, but I had to go to the funeral, just to see if they’d left any gold in their teeth or any jewellery. So I say – never trust a bugger with your mother, she’ll always wear you out and say anything on paper ain’t worth a dime, but I like the suit just cut this way – ah gee, it’s been such a fun time. When I look at Jack Lennon, and I look again, I feel him coming all over me . . . it’s so wonderful to be waiting for my Green Card with thee . . .”
John tried desperately to find a song that everyone knew how to play. “Somebody think of a friggin’ song. I've done ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ in twenty studios on these jam sessions.” Paul suggested “Little Bitty Pretty One,” but John was not overly familiar with the 1957 hit recorded by Bobby Day and the Satellites. Lennon settled on Little Richard’s “Lucille” instead, and called for anyone to join in on vocals. Paul obliged, providing harmony under John’s raucous vocal, and the group performed what turned out to be the best performance of the evening. They next tried the Shadows’ instrumental “Midnight,” but Lennon quickly became disinterested: “Come on, let’s do something! Somebody give me an E or a snort . . .”
John then got Mal to fetch them drinks, and the band started an attempt at “Stand By Me,” which instantly broke down as John complained about the mix in his headphones. “Turn the organ down in the ears . . . It’s gone all sort of dead, dead in the earphones, you know, dead . . . DEAD man!” With continued problems with the microphones, they got through a full version of “Stand By Me,” followed by short snatches of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and “Chain Gang,” and the traditional Leadbelly song, “Take This Hammer.”
In the early morning hours, Paul and Linda left for their nearby hotel. Ringo had been out socializing with Keith Moon, and upon his return, he noticed that something was different. “Who’s been fiddling with my drums?” he asked. “Paul,” the others replied. “Paul’s been here.” McCartney returned to the beach house that morning, and with John still in bed, he played a medley of Beatles tunes on the piano with Moon and Nilsson happily joining in. Paul was offered some angel dust by Nilsson afterwards, but he refused. After John awoke around 3 pm, the group relaxed around the swimming pool, and Keith Moon’s friend and assistant, Dougal Butler, managed to snap the last photo ever to be taken of John and Paul together.
The album to come out of the Nilsson sessions, originally to be titled Strange Pussies, was wisely renamed to the less offensive Pussy Cats. “The main thing was we had a lot of fun,” said Lennon. “There was Keith Moon, Harry, Ringo and me all living together in the house and we had some moments. But it got a little near the knuckle. That’s when I straightened out. In the middle of that album. That’s when I realized: ‘There’s something wrong here. I mean, this is crazy, man!’ I was suddenly the straight one in the middle of all these mad, mad people. I suddenly was not one of them. I pulled myself back and finished the album the best I could. I mean we’d already spent the money. Everything was booked in. We had the tapes. So me and Harry had the best out of it, you know, because we spent a few good nights together.”
The Pussy Cats LP would turn out to be the first in a string of unsuccessful albums for Harry Nilsson, and soon after its release on August 19, Lennon reunited with Yoko, the party scene disappeared, and so began his musical withdrawal from creating albums for the next five years.