Brutal and Beautiful; John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band
As music goals go, John Lennon had it right; start a band, change the world, don’t hang around for people to get bored of you. It’s a simplistic way of looking at it of course, and it minimises the beautiful journey that everyone went on, the Beatles were after all the twentieth century’s greatest romance.
In 1970 John Lennon was not inviting passengers, he wasn’t even really looking to tell any stories aside from his own, he was stating his own truth. Plastic Ono Band, released in December of that year is his truth. It is harsh and brutal and beautiful all in one and the listener is meant to feel all the sharp edges because the man himself felt them all too. Plastic Ono Band isn’t for everyone, it’s almost as if the listener is a scruffy urchin, perhaps an Apple Scruffy urchin, standing on the roadside wanting to hitch a ride with the driver, and the driver has to pick us up because no one else will. We are merely catching a lift, it’s not our journey and we don’t have to go to his destination, but we are on the ride for the duration of this album at least, as uncomfortable as it may be.
The album begins with Mother and this is as vulnerable and personal as we have ever heard Beatle John. Lennon was raised by his Aunt Mimi and re-established a relationship with his birth mother for a short period before she was killed. So, when he pleads “you had me, but I never had you, I wanted you, you didn’t want me” we feel that because he feels it. His father gets a talking to as well, someone who John had no meaningful interaction with until he was famous, “you left me, but I never left you!”, and then the final message, “children don’t do what I have done, I couldn’t walk but I tried to run” – some say it’s a message for his son Julian but it could be for all of us as listeners. John is arguably telling us not to follow his example; he was in the biggest band the world had ever seen whilst secretly married to Cynthia and a mostly absent father in the life of his son, Julian. John has spoken of Julian as a stranger to him, someone who would grow more and more in the time he was away being famous. Eventually when John gets a second chance at fatherhood, he retires from the music industry to devote all his time to raising Sean, so it’s fair to say he learned from the past.
As if Mother is not heart wrenchingly direct enough, John screams “mama don’t go, daddy come home” as the song fades. This is a million miles away from the throat destroying vocals he left in Abbey Road when he was recording Twist and Shout on the Beatles’ debut. For the vocals here he recorded several attempts until they sounded exactly right, the man is screaming his heart out.
Listen to the Ascot disc of the Lennon Anthology for an earlier take, a vocal without effects and some bluesy guitar instead of piano.
Hold On is a positive point, relaxed guitar, relaxed drums, casual bass and a message for everyone not to worry. It seems John knew what he was doing placing this track second, probably expecting us to be a bit stunned by the opener. Along with Isolation, and I Found Out this track was recorded and mixed the same night so what we hear is as instant and uncomplicated as it sounds. I Found Out really benefits from that live and direct approach; the drums are punchy, and the guitars are dirty, and the vocal is John spitting another truth. John isn’t hanging around to sugar this pill, it’s another example of Lennon holding characters and various teachings accountable because they “keep you occupied with pie in the sky”, being fake in a world where John now wants to feel real. We are the hitchhiker, asking him for a ride remember? If we don’t like his honesty, then we are welcome to get out of his car.
Working Class Hero is just John and his acoustic guitar, and a vocal which is sung sit but it’s still raw and revealing. It’s got a swearword EMI censored on the lyric sheet, but what are two ‘fucking’s when he’s already sung about sitting around with ‘your cock in your hand’ on I Found Out. On this track there is a bit of recording wizardry; with the song already recorded Lennon wanted to return to it and include a new verse. John ignored the engineer’s suggestion to completely re-record the song and instisted that the verse could be dropped in. Despite the best efforts to match the vocal and the guitar tones of the main song, the drop in verse is noticeable; “When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years… so full of fear” but it doesn’t detract from the song as a whole.
Once again the Lennon Anthology has an alternate take of this song, it’s slower but the presentation is the same as the version found on Plastic Ono Band.
Isolation features John playing gorgeous piano and delivers an almost timid vocal which fits the song perfectly. Lennon sings “people say we’ve got it made don’t they know we’re so afraid”, a line about himself and his wife but also a message that can apply to anyone listening too. John was a success at this point in his life, he had by all measurable indicators made ‘it’, but wealth and property do not shield anyone from human fears such as loneliness and self-doubt. John and Yoko are the “boy and a little girl trying to change the whole wide world”, which they did in the face of everybody putting them down. The greatest thing this song does is remove John and Yoko from the famous man and ‘weird wife’ narrative they had been placed in by much of the media from the moment they met, what we are left with in Isolation is a man and a woman who are the same as the listener, human beings in the world trying to live life. When John sings “I don’t expect you to understand, after you’ve caused so much pain” perhaps he is talking to the people he blamed for the attacks on Yoko, the newspapers or even the people who buy them. If the listener is the focus of his anger it is not for long because he concedes “then again, you’re just a human, a victim of the insane”.
Remember picks the tempo up again, a song seemingly about life’s promises and myths we learn in childhood about the heroes, the movie stars and the adults in our lives. The Beatles’ break up was still a fresh wound that a lot of people felt and it is important context for songs like this, the line “don’t feel sorry, the way it’s gone and don’t you worry about what you’ve done”, works as a nod to Lennon’s former bandmates, and possibly fans too but there is a more eloquent and timeless message for the fans later in the album. John seems to doth his cap to the Sam Cooke song Bring It On Home To Me with the line “If you ever change your mind about leaving”, Cooke sings about leaving ‘me’ and Lennon sings about leaving ‘it’ behind, which could mean nothing but is interesting given the theme of the song and the album is about getting away from myths and legends and finding truth. To that end and there’s a nice explosive ending after “remember remember the fifth of November” which is the night Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament; on message for the song yes, but on the album because Lennon thought it was a funny way to end the song.
Love is a beautiful piece of work, lyrically and musically no one should have a bad word to say about it. In later years Lennon would write songs that stand equal to this in terms of lyrics but those efforts are often buried by strings. Here, the lyric is simple, the music is sublime and it’s over in three minutes and twenty-two seconds, so it doesn’t even outstay its welcome. The song has echoes of Across the Universe, the Beatles did throw everything at that track in an effort to capture a recording and arguably never got anywhere near the majesty of this song.
Well Well Well pounds along, the angry guitar is back, the drums are a bit more unshackled and the bass keeps up, lyrically it may not be the best but this song will just bring you along with it; you don’t need to really pay attention to the lyrics here. They are about going out for dinner and talking about revolution, being observers of it rather than leading it. “She looked so beautiful I could eat her” is a bit rude from John, we are meant to take him literally; even with Lennon’s fetish for causes and fads, that’s a bit of a stretch. When this song was performed live at Madison Square Garden in 1972 he sang the line and added “so I did” at the end, before giving Yoko a cheeky smile. Take that as confirmation, if confirmation is needed; John Lennon does not mean to eat his wife in a cannibalistic fashion.
Ringo gave an interview in 1973 during which he claimed Lennon played Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky by Lee Dorsey endlessly in an effort to capture a similar spirit and arguably on this song, for once on this album, spirit is more important than message, or maybe the message is the spirit.
Look At Me is an airy little escape for the listener, an up moment which is very welcome given the hammer that drops when this song is through. Tonally it’s perfect for this album because it’s John asking questions about himself and his life. The song was written for inclusion on The Beatles’ White album, so it has echoes of Julia and the acoustic numbers he came up with whilst getting spiritual in India.
And finally, comes the knockout blow of the already brutal Plastic Ono Band, God.
We have not been able to hide from any of this album, from Mother through to this, we have had to give up what we wish for and accept what is. And we must accept this too, people in pain need to believe in God, that’s Lennon’s first truth, one boiled down from his experience of primal scream therapy with Dr Arthur Janov. The more pain one is feeling, the more Gods one needs to believe in. Armed with this light in the darkness, Lennon proceeds to strip away all of the false Gods and every fake he has ever believed in, because in the end he is John and he is enough. Lennon’s been preparing the listener for this moment for the entire album. Every scream directed at his mother, every lie he found out, all of Lennon’s reality laid bare; Jesus will not come from the sky, the earth may not have many years, God is a concept. Check your seatbelts because everything else is about to go down too. Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Mantra, Elvis, Zimmerman and… sorry folks, Beatles.
And then we get the most poetic utterance on the breakup of the twentieth century’s greatest romance, no one has ever said it better.
“I was the walrus but now I’m John and so dear friends you’ll just have to carry on, the dream is over.”
Plastic Ono Band is an emphatic statement from John Lennon. The album starts his solo years not with a bang but with a scream. It’s a continuation of songs like Strawberry Fields Forever, Help and In My Life, which Lennon thought were amongst his strongest Beatles contributions because they were real and personal. On Help in particular while he was always proud of the lyric he later regretted that the song had been sped up, such were the demands of the Beatles machine.
Imagine what that song or I’m a Loser would have sounded like had he decided to go back to them and record them slowed down and more bluesy, it’s something he talked about possibly doing… you may say I’m a dreamer.
This is where John was always going to go; Give Peace a Chance was a choice he made, message over presentation, Cold Turkey and Instant Karma were the perfect mix of message and presentation, without compromise and Plastic Ono Band is the same. The words are all his, the presentation is all his. The other musicians are there to provide a cradle for John, not a sugar coating. Ringo on drums and Klaus Voormann on bass are perfect for this album, they both admirably go where they are led and do not veer from the path too often. The fact that Billy Preston gets to play some gospel piano on the track God is delicious.
John Lennon was and remains a beautiful mass of contradiction, a leader who followed everything, a man who talked about imagining no possessions whilst sitting in his mansion in Ascot, it’s easy to see all that as hypocritical but to do so is to miss the point massively. At no point did John Lennon ever accept his legendary, godlike status, and never did he say that he had the answer. He used his status to shed light on to things he believed in. There is something brilliant in not being afraid to ask the questions and look in all the directions he did for the answers. He was a rich man relatively early in life, and he realised that it wouldn’t complete him, he had time to find out what would.
Finding out what is not true, helps a person find out what is, on Plastic Ono Band, John had indeed found out.
Words © Simon A. Moult 2020. Lyrics and artwork remains property of copyright owners, used under fair use for review and illustrative purposes only.