Lennon was rehearsing his new material with a handful of musicians at Record Plant East in New York City in July 1974. Musicians included Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, Jesse Ed Davis on guitar, and Arthur Jenkins on percussion. These were some of the players Lennon had been with in Los Angeles, but here they were under orders to avoid the drinking and carousing that had characterised the earlier interaction. The core players would be billed on the album as the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band, a variation on the Plastic Ono Band conceptual group moniker that many of Lennon’s solo efforts were credited to.
The musicians worked out their own arrangements in a short time, and the recording advanced quickly. Ron Aprea, saxophonist from the Little Big Horns, said that: “Since he had no formal training in arranging, he would sit in the control room and let us make up our own parts. If he liked what we played , he would let us know … If we thought we could get it better, he would say ‘go for it’.” Aprea also said that the brass section was done in a two-week period. Lennon later said that it had been “an extraordinary year for me personally. And I’m almost amazed that I could get anything out. But I enjoyed doing Walls and Bridges and it wasn’t hard when I had the whole thing to go into the studio and do it. I’m surprised it wasn’t just all bluuuuuuggggghhhhh.” Several rehearsals were released on the posthumous albums Menlove Ave. and John Lennon Anthology.
The version of “Old Dirt Road” that was included on Menlove Ave. features the song in its basic shape, while the version on John Lennon Anthology shows the song in a more advanced form, similar to the master take. After the basic tracks were recorded, the process of overdubbing began. Overdub engineer Jimmy Iovine said the sessions were “the most professional I have still been on … John knew what he wanted, he knew how to get what he was going for, he was going after a noise and he knew how to get it … His solo thing had an incredible sound to it. And he really had his own sound.” Despite Record Plant being one of the most state-of-the-art recording studios in New York at that point, Lennon’s vocal overdubs were done with an old stage mic, which had been left in a bass drum for years. Iovine said that “(it) was an old beat up one … so it was dull in a way, but John’s voice was so bright, that it sounded incredible on it. It turned out to be great vocal sound, like on ‘#9 Dream’.” After the basic track for “#9 Dream” had been recorded, Ken Ascher added the orchestral arrangement Lennon had originally written for the Nilsson track he produced, “Many Rivers to Cross.”
“Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird of Paradox)” originally was a short piece, which featured Lennon on electric guitar, that later became the song’s middle 8. On another demo for the song, the song had been reworked, to a similar form to the final version, featuring Lennon on acoustic guitar. When Lennon went into Record Plant to record the song, however, parts of the demos were dropped. The song features vocal overdubs from Lennon and Elton John. Lennon’s piano demo for “Steel and Glass” has completely different lyrics to the finished version, while a rehearsal from Menlove Ave. has the song with a slower tempo and Lennon on acoustic guitar, with incomplete lyrics. During one of his frequent visits from England to visit his father during this period, eleven-year-old son Julian Lennon attended the recording sessions and they did a casual cover of the Lee Dorsey oldie “Ya Ya“. Lennon surprised Julian by including it as the album closer with the credit: “Starring Julian Lennon on drums and Dad on piano and vocals”. Pang recalled the younger Lennon’s response, telling his father “If I’d known, I would have played better!” Lennon also sends a message to publisher Morris Levy, who was expecting Lennon’s next release to be the Oldies album, in the introduction to the song (“Ya Ya” was part of Levy’s song catalogue, which Lennon was obligated to begin recording songs from due to a settlement of an earlier lawsuit). Cut from the album at the last minute was a track called “Move Over Ms. L”[nb 1] which was placed between “Surprise Surprise” and “What You Got” before Lennon changed the track list. It would eventually appear as the B-side to the single “Stand by Me“. The song would also be given to Keith Moon for his only solo album, Two Sides of the Moon. Also recorded during the session was a demo for Ringo Starr: “Goodnight Vienna“.