John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band

NZ Listener

PLASTIC ONO BAND, John Lennon (Apple/EMI)  

It’s thirty years since John Lennon, then thirty years old, released Plastic Ono Band. Last month it was reissued to coincide with the album’s anniversary and what would have been Lennon’s 60th birthday.

It is not just the best solo album by a Beatle, it’s one of the best albums by anyone. Rock history has reduced it to a series of adjectives - stark, brutal, soul-baring, honest – all of which are accurate but none satisfactory. It has been called, among other things, the precursor to punk and the blueprint for grunge. One can hear its echoes in the tonsil-shredding screams of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and the album’s confessional tone has become a kind of sub-genre of rock. But too often is it glibly cited as a reference. A local group I spoke to recently described a song on their own album as having a “Plastic Ono-ish feel”, though I searched their Pro-Tooled pop in vain for any similarities.

Its shadow is so great that one sometimes forgets it is even there. Normally hovering around third or fourth place in those “greatest albums of all time” lists that rock magazines adore, the normally Lennon-worshipping British magazine Mojo recently managed to leave it out entirely from their top 100!

So once more for the record: Plastic Ono Band was the first solo album Lennon made after the breakup of the Beatles in 1970. These were traumatic times. The Beatles’ split was effectively his second - if not his third - divorce within a year. The first was from his wife Cynthia, whom he had left to marry Yoko Ono the previous year. He had also recently parted company with heroin, which he had been using intermittently since the dying days of the Beatles. Since then he had undergone a course of “primal therapy”, a programme conducted by Austrian-American psychologist Dr Arthur Janov, which forced him to confront through role-play his abandonment as a child by his father, the premature death of his mother, and assorted other demons. As evidence for the “great art comes out of pain” argument, Plastic Ono Band ought to be Exhibit A.

Ignore “Power to the People” and “Do The Oz” - two pieces of agit-pop released the following year and added to the reissue as spurious bonus tracks – and hear the album as it was originally intended. On vinyl it divided into two neat halves that virtually mirrored each other in form. Each side opened with a piano-led memoir of childhood and loss – “Mother” on side one, “Remember” on side two – followed by an affirmation of love, set firmly in the present. (On side one this was “Hold On”, on side two, “Love”). The centrepiece of each side was a long track driven by Lennon’s snarling distorted guitar. The former of these, “I Found Out” comes to bury the ‘60s, denouncing drugs and hippies along with Jesus and Krishna; the latter, “Well Well Well”, looks ahead into the ‘70s, naming women’s liberation as a possible way through. Both pieces climax in a frenzy of screaming, with Lennon pushing his voice until he’s about to vomit. To listen is like eavesdropping on a session with Janov.

But it’s the penultimate tracks on each side that make the album’s definitive statements. “Working Class Hero” (later covered by Marianne Faithful and – oddly enough – in New Zealand by then-MP, Marilyn Waring!) is Lennon alone with his acoustic guitar. In folkie mode he rails against the English hierachy that keeps the workers “doped with religion and sex and TV”, concluding with a call to arms: “If you want to be a hero/well, just follow me”. And in “God”, supported by the gospel chords of pianist Billy Preston, he systematically smashes his way through an identity parade of the century’s idols. Buddha and poor old Jesus again, Hitler and Kennedy, Elvis and Dylan all get it in the teeth before Lennon at last turns on his own myth with the shattering declaration: “I don’t believe in Beatles”.

By the end of Plastic Ono Band Lennon is motherless, fatherless, friendless and faithless; anything he hasn’t been robbed of he has willfully destroyed. He’s on an island in an uncertain world, but he has Yoko, and therein lies the album’s kernel of hope. “I just believe in me/Yoko and me”, he sings. “And that’s reality”.

It’s easy to mistake the starkness of Plastic Ono Band for spontaneity. In fact, it is as deliberate a work as Sgt. Pepper – maybe more so. The minimalism of a song such as “Mother”, with Lennon’s piano tolling it’s solitary chords and the naked backbeat of Ringo Starr (the only other Beatle on the album), is as conscious a piece of arrangement as the cut-up calliopes of “Mr Kite” or the harps and violas of “She’s Leaving Home”. Where Pepper toyed with random theory and sound collage, Plastic Ono Band had a clean formalism. Like a filmmaker choosing black and white over colour, the monochrome music of Plastic Ono Band was Lennon’s brilliant artistic call, not simply a shortfall of inspiration or lack of musical resources. (On the original vinyl, even the apple of the label logo was symbolically bleached of all colour). Lyrically, too, it is austere. There’s no Jabberwocky wordplay of “I Am The Walrus” or third-person mask of “Nowhere Man” to hide behind. The language is painfully plain. The characters are flesh and blood; Mother, Father, Yoko, and Me.

The album credits three producers: John and Yoko and Phil Spector. Yoko, we can assume, was Lennon’s muse more than his technician. Spector, the Wagnerian popmeister who had recently brought his “wall of sound” to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass triple album, seems to have exercised uncharacteristic restraint. One might recognise his hand in the double-tracked vocals and cathedral-like reverbs, but otherwise he has deferred to Lennon’s instinct for Sun studio simplicity.

If the Beatles output is sprinkled with gems the equal of anything here, Plastic Ono Band sustains from start to finish an intensity that no Beatles album can match. Lennon himself never approached such heights again. Somehow in that brief moment, as the ‘60s receded into history taking the Beatles and Lennon’s youth with it, he was able to gather up all his egotism and insecurities, neuroses, fears and obsessions, and transmute these into the forty most transcendently harrowing minutes in rock. 

Tags: paul mccartneybeatlesjohn lennonplastic ono bandsgt. pepper'syoko onokurt cobain

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