John Lennon’s parents fucked him up. Born of basic, if not traditional “shotgun” status, he was abandoned by both his mother and father under divergent circumstances. He soldiered on nonetheless, pairing with Paul McCartney to change the world. It took him some time to accept and surmount the traumas to which his mom and dad had subjected him. But he did it.
Plastic Ono Band is the defining album of John Lennon’s solo career. Recorded within months of the Beatles’ breakup, a breakup that Lennon had declared in the late summer of 1969, but which John had shied from revealing to the public, and which Paul had re-appropriated, bravely, to promote his own first solo album (McCartney), Plastic Ono Band derived both from Lennon’s personal anguish as well as his immersion in “Primal Scream” therapy, conceived and popularized by a probable quack named Arthur Janov. Janov sessioned John personally, and, though the methods were suspect–effective therapy should rarely, if ever, be about the past, but, rather, about dealing with the present as the person you are–the results were pure. After eight years in a public spotlight that nobody, nobody could ever imagine, John Lennon found a way to find himself. It was not a perfect discovery. John and Yoko Ono’s seventies were as hard on them as they were on anybody else who’d spent the sixties dreaming. But, finally, after years of self-destructive inner torture, Lennon found his voice.
Oh, he’d had a voice before, of course. He was John Lennon, for God’s sake. But the emotions that toiled within his roiling brain and heart had always been masked, or filtered, through the (usually wise) discretion of his bandmates. “Help!”, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I’m A Loser,” “I’m So Tired,” “Revolution” and so many other immaculate creations had been altered (or, as Lennon might attest, watered down) by the sensibilities of Paul, George and Ringo. They had to play the music together, and so they had to find a way to play it in unison. With Plastic Ono Band, John was on his own, in control for the first time. He bore his soul.
There is not a song on the album that does not tear at the heart of the listener. This is the sound of a man in pain, but also a man willing to share that pain, and his interpretation, his acceptance of it, to a world that wanted to listen, whether they liked it or not. The lyrics are stark, as are the titles. “Mother.” “Hold On.” “I Found Out.” “Working Class Hero.” (A song often accused of disingenousness. Bullshit. Also, the first time a Beatle said “fuck” in released musical context.) “Isolation.” “Remember.” “Love.” “Well Well Well.” “Look At Me.” “God.” “My Mummy’s Dead.” Each of these songs are devastating–aside from perhaps “Love,” which may be the only moment too twee on the record, but that’s cool, as it’s essentially a rough draft of “Imagine.” The instrumentation, too, is stripped to the ribs, a mere three-piece, John, Ringo, and bassist Klaus Voormann. (Voormann met Lennon when the Beatles were doing their due diligence in Hamburg, all the way back in the very early 1960s; he introduced John’s friend, at-the-time Beatle bassist Stu Sutcliffe, to the love of his life, the photographer Astrid Kirchherr. Stu, one of the closest compatriots John ever enjoyed, had been forced into the band simply because John wanted his best buddy at his side. Stu stayed behind in Hamburg, having found true romance with Astrid, and then died of a brain hemorrhage. When John came back to Hamburg to visit, before the Beatles were THE BEATLES, Astrid greeted him with this news at the train station. Devastated, Lennon laughed.) Phil Spector, theoretical “producer,” plays piano on “Love.” Billy Preston, old Beatle buddy, the guy who pulled Get Back/Let It Be back from the brink, handles the keys on “God.”
“God,” along with “Mother,” are the key tracks of Plastic Ono Band, the core of its distraught sensibilities. They are utter despair. They address and decry everything John Lennon had ever valued in life, be they his family, his friends, or a belief in something beyond either. John would later rediscover a sense of spirituality, but, at the time, he could not bring himself to believe in much of anything, aside from peace, and love. It was what he sought, sometimes incapably, sometimes transcendently, and what he was on his way to finding before a crazed fan ended his life as the culmination of a similar, albeit psychotic search. “Mother” takes dead aim at his parents, the pair that abandoned him, the father that resurfaced after his son’s fame and finance were secure, the mother with whom he’d only begun to reestablish a relationship when she was killed by an errant driver. “Mama, don’t go. Daddy, come home.” (Paul’s mother died of cancer when Paul was a teenager. Therein lies the eternal bond of Lennon-McCartney.) “God” takes aim at everything else–dogma, religion, transcendental meditation, the Maharashi (already savaged so brilliantly in “Sexy Sadie”), his hero Elvis, Bob Dylan (“I don’t believe in Zimmerman”), and, of course, the Beatles. The group, the outfit, the arrangement of brothers that made Lennon the otherworldly success that he was. It didn’t matter. He had to say goodbye. And he did. “I don’t believe in Beatles,” he proclaims, the song cresting to a heartbroken halt. “I just believe in me. Yoko, and me. That’s reality.”
There is little need to describe much more of Plastic Ono Band beyond that. It demands the ear, not interpretation. It is the sound of rebirth, as painful and belabored as such a process should, and does, require. Some of its songs have been used in memorable fashion by other artists, especially filmmakers; “Look At Me” can be found in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and “Well Well Well,” one hell of a rock ‘n roll song, soundtracks a particularly riveting sequence of Martin Scorsese’s exquisite The Departed. Perhaps “Mother” and “God” have been used in films, or fluxus art, or something of the kind, in the interim. They really shouldn’t be. They are perfect as they are. They require little explanation, aside from the backstory. They are the broken heart, the broken soul, the reformed heart, the reformed soul, of one of the greatest musical, one of the greatest artistic pieces ever produced.
“God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” he wrote, and sang. “The dream is over.” He was wrong, was John. In the end, before the end, he found that out. And, either way, the measurement of pain is irrelevant. Because, also, he was right. Despite the accusations of naivete, of hippified, drugged-up mysticism, after all the agony he had to endure to find himself, one of his greatest creations summed it all up, in perfect, succinct, self-professed, profound fashion.
All you need is love.
DUDS and/or DISASTERS
The usual. It’s everywhere. For those who have money, buy it. For those who don’t, it’s out there waiting.
IN THE MEANTIME…
Paul worked on Ram, very possibly the finest album of his solo career.
George worked on All Things Must Pass, very certainly the finest album of his solo career.
Ringo, fresh from an album of standards, Sentimental Journey (recorded as a tribute to his mom), moved toward crafting an album of Nashville covers (with the occasional original), Beaucoups Of Blues.
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
Not part of the album, but a single John had recorded in one day and which was released earlier in 1970.
COMING UP NEXT
We’ll find out.