Friday 4 July 2008

"John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" (1970) (Revised Review 2015)

You can buy 'Remember - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono' in e-book form by clicking here!

"A painful album to listen to (which sounds like an even more painful album to have to make), but it's an important, powerful statement that needs to be heard at least once by every Lennon fan."

Track Listing: Mother/ Hold On John/ I Found Out/Working Class Hero/ Isolation// Remember/ Love/ Well Well Well/Look At Me/ God/ My Mummy’s Dead (UK and US tracklisting) 

"You're not to blame, you're just a human - a victim of the insane!"

You're not to blame, you're just a human - a victim of the insane!"

'Don't you worry about the way it's gone, and don't you worry about what you've done'. It's the only line on the entire album that sounds less than 100% real, less than 100% honest, less than 100% totally committed. Because 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' is possibly the first, maybe even the only album in rock and roll history that revealed quite so much about its creator and in turn scared it's listeners silly with its sheer bleakness. This is an album about nothing else but worry about the ‘way it’s gone’ - about what other people did to you and what you did to other people as a result – and for the only time in his career on a ‘mainstream’ release there are no happy sinaglongs, no madcap Lennon humour, no rousing spirituals about how peace is going to  change the world in the future, no comforting messages telling us that you know it's gonna be... alright. Above all the theme of this record is that there are no genies waiting to come out of the bottle and give us their blessing, no Gods, no gurus, no parent figures – for this album John, the listener and the whole world are on their own, left to deal with whatever messed up state we were born into, unwanted, un-needed, un-cared for. In this bleak world the only person who can help you is you - and your own personal Yoko if you're lucky enough to have one. If you’re unlucky all you get is being doomed to be misunderstood, to end up with more misery and madness. Like close cousin ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ though the result is oddly uplifting, as if only by taking away all hope of intervention can you truly save yourself.

Honest and heartfelt as many AAA albums often are (nothing is as moving in music as hearing someone whose genuinely moved themselves by what they sing - the main reason why The Spice Girls will always be a 'joke' and not a proper band - yes we're getting our jibe out the way early this week!), you can still tell that the artists involved have tidied up their ideas and emotions somewhat, out of embarrassment over revealing their true feelings and out of the need to make their works palatable to an outside audience. Most albums do that, including every other Lennon album – even and especially the better-known ‘Imagine’ dilutes the bile, offers hope, love, honey, some form of sweetness; all you get on this album is a two minute ballad sung with shock and awe that something has actually gone ‘right’ for a change. Trust John Lennon not to tow the line – and with the other Beatles no longer there to hold him back and with Yoko spurring him on, Johnny Rhythm’s emotions were never closer to the surface than in this period, a cocktail of unresolved family issues, money issues, drug issues and the break-up of The Beatles leaving Lennon a mess of emotions that only needed the trigger of 'primal scream therapy' to start them all off.

Like many a Lennon album the driving force and ideas don’t actually come from Lennon himself (look at Lennon’s solo albums closely and you’ll find that Phil Spector’s fingerprints are all over ‘Imagine’, John’s radical New York crony friends fill up most of the ideas and subject matter of ‘Sometime In New York City’ and Yoko is the equal partner in much of his other works  - even in absentia, if you count her ghostly presence throughout almost all of ‘Walls And Bridges) but from one of his new friends; namely Professor Janov and his idea of ‘primal therapy’ - the notion that things which trap us and cause us pain in our adult lives were caused by obstacles and rejection in our childhood, a blockage that could be released with one long cathartic scream, the sort of thing we manage as babies in our pre-language days when can 'release' our emotional pain but we are 'educated out of' by pompous parental and educational figures who want us to be quiet so we don't disrupt their lives. Lennon had more pain to cover up than most songwriters - as films like 'Imagine' 'Backbeat' and especially 'Nowhere Boy' plus the library full of Lennon biographies out there demonstrate. Born to a wild and carefree but loving mother Julia and a father Alfred who was always away at sea, aged five John was given every child's worst nightmare: he was made to be a grown-up and choose between which parent he wanted to live with and which would love him more.  That’s not a choice you can make without guilt and scars: Lennon chose the dad he hardly ever saw but couldn't bear to see the mother he loved walking away so ran back, screaming 'mother don't go' (the mantra re-enacted as early as this album's opening song) and then ‘daddy come home’. Even then Lennon didn't get his wish as his mother remarried and he got parcelled away to his Aunt Mimi who didn’t have any children of  her own - though secretly incredibly fond of Lennon and desperate to make amends for his difficult start in life, outwardly Mimi was strict and cold, the eldest and 'responsible' one of her many sisters (his Uncle George was much more like Lennon, but died young just as he was getting to know his nephew properly). Lennon, a born mischief maker who was always in trouble, may even have reminded Mimi of her younger sister and gave her the chance to boss him around as she'd once done her. Julia's name was forbidden in the Mimi household, but Lennon stayed in touch with his more distant relatives and slowly got back in touch with his re-married mother, who taught him music and encouraged his mischievous, comedic side. Even Aunt Mimi was slowly getting used to the arrangement and invited her sister round for a few visits, the family rift looking as if it was about to heal thanks to time and distance. Then fate intervened: it was while walking back from one of these afternoon chats that Julia died, murdered by an off-duty drunk-driving policeman as she tried to cross the road outside Mimi's house - a seventeen year old, already on the road to ruin, was never the same again and may well have taken a particular disliking to authoritarian figures as a result. As for father Alf, he only re-entered Lennon's life after he had become a Beatle, meeting with his son backstage at a Beatles gig some twenty years after abandoning him and losing contact - at first Lennon (well, actually more his first wife Cynthia) was supportive, helping out with money and a house - but when his dad took more and more liberties (such as releasing his own music using the Lennon name - actually 'That's My Life, My Love and My Home' isn't bad, a real sailor's version of 'In My Life'!) Lennon took revenge and cut his father off completely, exorcising Alfred out of his life the way Alfred once had John.

Everyone knew the story - Lennon never kept anything a secret, even from the papers though Aunt Mimi tried to put a nicer 'spin' on things - but not till Yoko had Lennon ever met anyone else who understood quite his level of pain. Yoko had a very different but parallel background which changed forever thanks to the second world war, surviving boarding school and the atomic bomb dropped on Tokyo only thanks to a family underground shelter while many of her poorer friends perished; the war ruined her father's lucrative career as a banker and while he stayed behind, ending up in a prison camp as Yoko found out later after cutting himself off from them, the rest of the family fled to New York where they were reduced to begging in the streets. Naturally when John and Yoko were in their ‘getting to know you’ stage they talked much about their mutual hurt – of the parents who had meant to be looking after them who had abandoned them and the fact that both children had been born into ‘war’. This helped drive both of them to sing about ‘peace’, but underneath that utopia ideal of the future was a sense of unresolved anger and hatred from what had happened in the past. It was a hurt and anger that had driven both of them to heavier drugs after taking softer ones in the mid-1960s and by 1970 John and Yoko were a mess. They needed an intervention and – unable to see it in God or to get it from their own families – instead chose to get it from a psychiatrist they kept reading about in the papers.

Though typically denouncing most psychiatry as something unprintable earlier in his career, Lennon was a prime candidate for primal therapy, which was quickly becoming the in-thing for 1970s celebrities. This involved facing up to the 'buried' sub-conscious feelings and bringing them up to the surface to get rid of them in one long passionate scream. This thought, so close to Yoko's own artistic expression, clearly appealed to Lennon and perhaps inspired him of the feedback effects he'd been straining for on so many of his 1969 releases - an aggressive, charged up emotional venting that came pure, without editing for melody or tempo or key signature. Oddly that scream isn’t heard as much as you might expect from this album – its actually one of Lennon’s most poetic and lyrical albums – but the ideas of taking your life experiences out, coming to terms with them and finally crying over them instead of suppressing them is clearly what this album is all about. Together with the definite break-up of The Beatles in early 1970 (when even Paul half-admitted it, so it must have been true!) Lennon no longer had any qualms about putting his life experiences into his art. This was to be a ‘true’ solo album for the first time, freed of any outside influence or any reason to hold back. Lennon was always putting his faith in other people's ability to 'cure' him, whether it be the Maharishi spiritually, 'Magic Alex' electronically or Stuart Sutcliffe and Yoko artistically, but this time it was to be all him with a dash of Yoko, channelled through the ideas of Professor Janov. Unlike some of the fakes and phonies in the Lennon camp Janov never did let Lennon down and the pair stayed friends to the end of his life. In fact, it was Lennon who reneged on the agreement, giving up primal therapy partway through the course after he and Yoko moves to America in 1971 - and were afraid of flying home again in case they could never get back into the States (the whole saga of Lennon's 'green card' - which was actually blue - is something we'll pick up on in our next review of 'Imagine'). Many people have wondered if the ‘Lost Weekend’ was a ‘flashback’ to the parts of the course that Lennon hadn’t completed, a warning for anyone who doesn’t go through all the years needed to complete the course, but for his part Lennon considered that it had 'worked' to his dying day.

As ever with Lennon, he wears his heart on his sleeve and what we got in this album is his current passion writ large. Lennon’s songs here are among his most inspired and committed, even if they are by far his most harrowing (for newcomers to this record who only own a ‘greatest hits’ album or three and don’t know what we’re talking about here, think of Lennon’s heroin withdrawal 1970 single [3] ‘Cold Turkey’  – but louder). The record starts with John crying for his mother not to go and his father to come home, takes in doubt, fear, painful childhood memories, betrayal by friends and community, a dislike and separation from the human race, a couple of cynical looks at how the world is really run compared to how people think it is, a rejection of every single authority figure and belief system man has ever used to keep him from being alone and lonely (even The Beatles, rejected along with God, Jesus and Bob Dylan, 'there ain't no guru who can see through your eyes!') - and then ends the record with John still crying out for the parent he knows is never coming back to him. Of the whole album only 'Hold On John' and  'Love' offer the usual Lennon touch of hope and optimism and even then Lennon sound shell-shocked, less than sure that help will ever arrive in time and still struggling to pin down what love is after not knowing much of it in his lifetime and why it keeps him going.

Though Lennon only uses his cathartic scream three  times - the painful ending of 'Mother' that runs at least two minutes past the point where it's comfortable (the whole idea of the song!), the finale of the chilling 'I Found Out' and his best ever tonsil-shredding scream on the painful nonsense song 'Well Well Well' (punk before it's time), what's surprising how 'dry' much of the album is, the album getting much of its power from how cool and detached Lennon remains even when under fire (though that said I'm amazed he could sing at all ever again after recording his vocal for 'Mother'); even more surprisingly Yoko doesn't appear anywhere except a brief bit of chat over the studio monitor on 'Well Well Well'. The sound of this album – thuddy echo,  earthy and real, a million miles away from the sleepiness of psychedelia as Lennon tries to ‘wake up’ – really suits the sparse, honest songs too, as if Lennon is trying to make his first ‘proper’ solo album exactly that. For most of the album, John uses just two of his oldest and most laid-back, even unthreatening, friends: Hamburg compatriot and early championer Klaus Voormann on classic rumbling bass who plays brilliantly and who gets every one of these only mildly rehearsed songs spot on (his decision to keep the beat going on 'Well Well Well', forcing Lennon to go through it all again with one last verse just as he’s given his all, as if the world still isn’t quite done with him yet, is a candidate for the single most inspired moment of an inspired album). Also there’s Ringo, who plays out of his (drum) skins on this album by giving us his typical and easily recognisable drum fills mostly at half-tempo, lending this project a ghostly and haunted slow-motion Beatles vibe highly suitable to Lennon’s heartfelt write-off of the band at the end of the LP. Ringo was always at his most inspired on Lennon's most emotionally driven material, haunted songs (his best playing in the Beatles era is on 'Rain' 'She Said She Said' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' for my money and you can't get a more intense trio of songs than that). As such he’s perfect for this album, far more so than he is ever given credit for and this is easily his best album, Beatles or no, keeping things dry and brittle and simple, stripped to the bare essentials but doing more than simply keeping time or creating noise.

This is Lennon’s record though and it’s his vocal that strips paint and yet adds colour all at the same time that makes what could have been a hard and harsh album full of emptiness and loneliness so ‘real’. The vocals too are sublime: the chilling passion of 'Mother' (the 'reallest' performance ever captured on record?) outdoes even 'Twist and Shout' for pure power, 'Working Class Hero' conjures up a world-weary sigh that's note-perfect and the under-rated 'Isolation' contains perhaps the most versatile use of Lennon's rage, from tired dispassion to full-throated roar on the twist of a knife. Sung as simply as possible, as if stripping the songs of any unnecessary embroidery, Lennon’s piercing wild-eyed stare gets to the heart of these songs, but is also more than just shouting: this is an attempt to ‘reach out’, to put the listener front and central to Lennon’s demons, for us to join him on this scary journey into the under-world of his own consciousness. As great as ‘Plastic Ono Band’ is a writer’s album, it’s as a ‘performance’ album that it astonishes most, with Lennon asked to do many different things with his vocals (warm and cuddly, cold and harsh, confused and lukewarm), which he does superbly, never putting a vocal-foot wrong throughout. Every performance resonates - everyone hits every note as if they mean it and Lennon's own turbulent, chaotic slashed-chord guitar playing (so different to George's!) and his slow, methodical spaced-out piano playing (so different to Paul's!) are extraordinary - easily the best Lennon ever made (though that said Lennon will never have this much instrumental output into his records again, preferring session men from this point on, which is a great pity).

The production is also fascinating: empty to the point of almost nothing, it’s unlike anything else John’s new friend Phil Spector will ever create, a million light years away  from his usual echo sound. How on earth did we get to the over-lush and over-rehearsed 'Rock and Roll' album from this in just a few years?! Oddly enough Phil worked on this album back-to-back with George’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ (released a few weeks earlier), which is the opposite of this LP – a tiny humble man lost in a great big world. Harrison’s album is all chaotic booming Phil Spector-ised production with a single fragile Harrison vocal stuck in the middle sounding lost. This album, by contrast, is sparse and empty, with just Lennon and a rough and ready duo behind him – although like virtually all Lennon releases his vocal is double-tracked and the inner Lennon is usually the most powerful presence on the album, with the vocals and lyrics hitting you more powerfully than anything else does. That two such different albums should be released a matter of weeks apart (with the same producer) says much for the difference of approach between the two ex-Beatles, even though the general themes (of illusions, shallow friendships and the sense that something deeper is going on in life just out of our reach) is the same on both. Paul McCartney’s first album ‘McCartney’  (released the previous April) makes for another interesting comparison: equally rough and ready, its half-full of honest, confessional outpourings a la Lennon (‘Every Night’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’) and half-full of ‘story-songs’ and instrumentals that reveal nothing about the album’s creator other than the fact that he’s a dab-hand at playing lots of different instruments. Ringo, of course, went in a completely different way from his old colleagues and released a bunch of laidback over-produced singalong standards that was designed for everyone to love, though very few people outside Ringo’s family actually do: the fake ‘Sentimental Journey’ is the true antithesis of Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’s angry zeal, despite the drummer’s key role in both projects.

Lennon was clearly on a roll across 1970 as almost all of his recordings from this year contain magic - even the ones with mistakes. Out of the entire 500 AAA album range, 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' must surely be the best represented on official outtakes sets and nearly every example is a classic (the only ones that comes close are the first two Monkees albums, which had far more unreleased songs than released, although then only a handful of different arrangements exist in what was a very different set-up to this).  The 'Lennon Anthology' box set from 1998 alone features eight: a more upfront 'Working Class Hero', a chaotic guitar-based 'God', a punk thrash demo for 'I Found Out' that's even more fitting to the bare-bones spirit of the album, a rockabilly 'Hold On John', a guitar-based 'Love' that's very different, a clod-hopping 'Mother', a surprisingly jovial 'Remember' that breaks down into comedy as Lennon struggles to keep up with Ringo's speed and then ad libs a few lines for good measure ('If you ever change your mind...or the rhythm! Keep on, don't lag behind!') and best of all an even more stunning 'Isolation' with Lennon's vocal single-tracked vocal simply purring with tension and bitterness. The 2004 release 'Acoustic' adds a sparse and funky demo of 'Well Well Well' that uses the same 'down the phone line' sound as 'My Mummy's Dead', a strummed Dylan parody version of 'God' (complete with the sarcastic opening 'the angels must have delivered this message here for you!') and an even more heartbreaking 'My Mummy's Dead'. 'Long Lost John', an old skiffle number with rather apt lyrics given the circumstances, may have been intended for the album proper but was most likely a studio warm-up jam (Klaus and Ringo with their similar and shared backgrounds would have known it too - it's surprising it didn't come up during 'Let It Be' actually as almost every other song of the 1950s and early 1960s seemed to somewhere! Lennon will sing a fragment of this on the fade-out of 'I'm Losing You' a full decade later). Finally the 'Home Tapes' CD released along with the 'Lennon Signature' box set in 2010 adds another six: a nearly-finished take of 'Mother' with even more intense screaming, another guitar demo of 'Love', a country-and-gospel style 'God', an ugly 'I Found Out' with a more upfront vocal, a piano-only 'Isolation' that's heartbreakingly tender and a seemingly endless five and a half minute piano demo of 'Remember'. Lennon clearly felt the urge to record these tracks over and over - not unusual for Lennon in any period, but even by his standards the many alternate recordings and demos out there reach a peak with this album and they all sound fabulous, in very different ways. Also, this is just what's 'officially' out there - the officially broadcast but not officially released yet 'Lost Lennon Tapes' radio shows has all sort of juicy extras apart from this including another demo and alternate take of 'I Found Out', a version of 'My Mummy's Dead' that winds up in an acoustic instrumental performance of the 'Three Blind Mice' tune and the full unedited nine minute take of 'Remember' that's terrific, keeping on for the next two minutes after the record 'blows up' in a Guy Fawkes boom every bit as intensely, as if the cathartic piano chords are Lennon’s only salvation. Hopefully one day Yoko will give this album the multiple 'deluxe' treatment it deserves (perhaps with the 'classic albums' documentary on this album as a spare DVD, one of the better entries in the series) with all these many alternate versions in one place so fans can appreciate just how much even this simple album changed shape over several intense weeks.

Yoko could even add her own companion album 'Yoko/Plastic Ono Band' if she keeps the price down - the two albums released the exact same day were made back to back in the same studio by the same team and her record too is heavily inspired by Janov's screaming techniques. However the difference is that - for the first and only time, which might sound odd for those who think Yoko's solo albums are all like this - Yoko reduces her therapy sessions down to mere cathartic screams. Though ultimately less of an artistic statement simply because it uses just the music and performance to convey the emotion instead of the words as well, it's still a neat foil for this album, with Lennon's razor-blade guitar ripping into the largely improvised songs as Klaus and Ringo strain to keep up. Yoko's moody 'One Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Carriage All Over The City' says all it needs to her about her 1969 miscarriage in the title and is one of her most evocative tracks; the intense 'Why?' and the laidback 'Why Not?' are also amongst her better ideas (pre her masterpiece 'Approximately Infinite Universe' anyway). Both albums come with nearly the same cover, which must have confused the heck out of record buyers at the time (though not many shops stocked Yoko's) and you have to be paying attention to tell the differences: John and Yoko sit in front of a shady tree on both, as if they are only people in the whole world who still exist, but on John's record his head is being cradled in his wife's lap as she tries to comfort him and on Yoko's her head is being cradled in his as he tries to comfort her. It’s as if only JohnandYoko matter anymore, that everything else in life is a sham.

Their relationship is at the heart of this album, where love is the only reason every human being doesn’t jump off a cliff from birth. Though Lennon loses his mum, his dad, his band, his belief system, his admiration for musicians once he becomes a ‘star’ and finds out how human they all are, he never loses the ability to love. ‘Nothing is real’ Lennon once sang on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and this album is an extension of that thought – that ‘ no one else is in my tree’ because nobody had the turbulent background John did. But then he meets Yoko, realises how much she too has been through (and how much of his own pain she understands) and suddenly love - an intangible unseen unknown quantity he’s been searching for his whole life (and thought for a while he had with Cynthia) – is the only thing that’s truly ‘real’. ‘Love’ is the heartbeat of this album, a soft-focussed timid ballad where Lennon can’t quite believe that he’s found it at last. He no longer has to see his way to the ‘truth’ past societal lies, betrayals from those who should be looking after him or the loss that sits heavy in his heart. ‘Love’ is what he’s been searching for his whole life and yet he’s surprised when he finds it after searching for so long: there were no brass bands, no fanfares, no big giant angel on a fluffy cloud telling him he’s going to be free for ever more. Instead it’s just the quiet acceptance that love is what he’s found and how slowly, beautifully, it’s crept into his soul. It’s the most moving moment on Lennon’s most moving record, surrounded by it is by hurt, anger and betrayal.

That’s just a single song of light on this dark album though. ‘Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band’ is one of the most powerful AAA albums of them all – and it sounds like it was an even more painful album to make – but it’s an important, powerful journey nonetheless which still needs to be heard at least once by every Lennon fan who ever wanted to know why their favourite star behaved the way he did. Lennon is held back by everyone across this album: the family who deserted him, who tried to keep him safe but failed, the friends who died and left him alone, the Beatles who rebelled against him and Yoko, the manager Allen Klein the fake friend Magic Alex and the failed guru The Maharishi who all let him down, the death of best friend Stuart Sutcliffe, manager Brian Epstein and his Uncle George, even fans for treating him as a God when he knew how human he was. 'I Found Out!' snarls Lennon, seeing through everyone he ever thought cared for or cared about him, rejecting every institution or authority figure that tried to hold him back without a reason, aiming this album to every teacher, policeman, manager, publicist, tour promoter, politician or Royalty who ever told him how to ‘behave’. For how can he behave when the world doesn’t behave? That song is a classic - but so too are 'Working Class Hero' (as accurate a song about the way the world works as any in the AAA canon), the unhinged blistering rock of 'Well Well Well', the bitter philosophy of 'God' in which Lennon undoes two thousand years of Christianity and eight of The Beatles with barely a backwards shrug and the ever-underrated 'Isolation', as desolate and empty as any song can be. All are among Lennon's best work and even the weakest on this LP is no slouch with songs the measure of 'Hold On John' and 'Look At Me' working well as blow-softeners to split the heavier, noisier tracks up. This is Lennon, always amongst the most 'real' musicians out there, being as real as he possibly can whether we want to hear it or not. But if there's an overall message across this album it's that Lennon is better knowing the truth - and so are we, even when it hurts. Rather than promising the magic word that will save our souls – the way he did in his psychedelic years – here Lennon pours his scorn on songwriters who can make suffering seem poetic when he knows it hurts, the God who Lennon has rejected as a fairytale, even The Beatles who were once greeted as the saviours of the world but who John knows were four scared, lost little boys who wanted to avoid a 9-5 living. Throughout Lennon tells is as it is and tells us that even he can't save us from ourselves, that only we have the power to let go of what is dragging us back, on his own fragmented adaptation of Janov’s therapy. You can rebuke all of these points and argue that Lennon was just a warped mess looking for someone to blame for his problems, but at least Lennon never stopped trying to use his anger for good and with such a long list of grievances it's hard not to shed a tear on his misunderstood, frustrated behalf (even though Lennon ultimately attacks people feeling pity for him too; ‘Don’t feel sorry for the way it’s gone’).

But understanding this long list of troubles is the key to understanding the many conflicting factors that drove Lennon throughout his career – this is the album he’d been trying to make since back in the days of ‘Help!’ when Bob Dylan inspired him to write about himself rather than what his audience would respond to –but even Dylan never treated his muse in quite the naked, vulnerable way Lennon does here. Nobody did: this is perhaps the world’s most open and vulnerable singer-songwriter at his most open and vulnerable and that alone makes this Lennon’s greatest single solo LP, his biggest contribution to the musical world when not a Beatle. Though less commercial and far more obscure than his cuter, sweeter, domesticated albums (‘Imagine’ is this album with ‘a bit of honey’; ‘Double Fantasy’ this album with false teeth) ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ is Lennon’s most exhilarating solo ride. Now, you may not like this album. There is no poetry on this album, no deliberately obtuse 'statement' a la 'I Am The Walrus' 'Glass Onion' 'Dig A Pony' or 'Revolution #9', no escapism, no dressing. It's one hell of a long way from The Beatles (particularly the artificial multiple-take production that was 'Abbey Road') and by Lennon’s standards his melodies aren’t as beautiful or as memorable as they will be on later LPs. You also have to be pretty invested in Lennon the man to listen to this most Lennonish of records and get the same thing out of it – unless your background is as troubled you might not feel the same grievances for parents, teachers and authority figures and unless you’re a rock star you might not get some of the disillusionment of fame. However anyone whose ever hurt, been betrayed, felt angry, been forced to cope with something that was overwhelming that wasn’t their ‘fault’ and who felt like the only person in the world who understood what life was ‘really’ about will find much from this album. Not in a ‘guru’ ‘see through my eyes’ type way, but in Lennon giving us the power to grieve, to feel hurt, to ‘feel your own pain’ and even if it takes a while to ‘get’ this album and connect with it the way the author intended, its very cathartic when you do.

You could argue that the only flaw of 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' was that Lennon peaked too soon, never came anywhere close to the artistic pinnacle of this album ever again, that he left himself nothing else to write about so early on in his career and that the only place left to go was downhill to the relative schlock of 'Double Fantasy' and contented middle age (Lennon may have been a mere decade younger here than there, but there is nothing contented or middle-aged about this album). However that's not necessarily a mark against Lennon: nearly fifty years on no one has ever come close to this album's raw emotional honesty and power to move either and no other singer-songwriter with the following Lennon had (and with so much to lose) was ever quite as brave again. While measuring one record's worth against each other is always a relative measure, it's fair to say that very few albums I have ever heard have ever matched its artistic crest anywhere. The most courageous and most radical statement by one of the most courageous and most radical writers who ever lived, Lennon achieved it all by removing the filters so many lesser artists used and shining a light on his flaws and background - to date no other artist has ever dared to the same in quite the same way. Full of everything you ever needed to know about Lennon, alongside lots of things you probably wish he'd never have told you, 'Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' turns a far from perfect life into as close to a perfect album as you could ever wish to hear and is highly recommended to anyone who ever considered Lennon ‘their’ Beatle. If you want to read about a hero then just follow me…

The Songs:

The album is ushered in by three chiming wedding bells slowed down to a funeral crawl, with Lennon seemingly making the point that those three sounds of happiness have caused him, as a hapless infant, so much pain. [5] ‘Mother’ is no less difficult when it arrives – a heartfelt plea that also feels as if it’s playing in slow motion, as if time is slowing down as a ghost hangs heavy on Lennon as he ‘tries to run’ but finds, with his past hanging over him, he can barely walk. This is, like much of the album, an opening song that breaks all the rules: it’s not happy and cheerful, it’s not fast and energetic and it’s not commercial at all but the sound of a man howling his lungs out in pain. This should be horrible – one of the world’s most expressive singers screaming his lungs out on the same lines over and over and getting wildly off key in the process, on a backing that’s as slow as a funeral march and ten times sadder. Somehow it’s not; Lennon’s heartfelt plea is at once disturbing and compelling, sucking you in to his bleak misery as the Lennon façade of confidence and ego collapses in front of us. The small cast playing on this song are superb, sounding so big and loud on this song that it seems as if a full orchestra is playing. Lennon’s piano and Ringo’s drums at their most basic but thudworthy make for the perfect accompaniment, marching on relentlessly to their doom with no hope of escape, even though their journey never really leads them anywhere except round and round the song’s claustrophobic tune. The lyrics to this song are desperately sad when you consider just why Lennon wrote it; accusing his mother for leaving him, twice (Once by choice, once by death), before turning on his father and by inference all the other people in his life who had let him down. Yet this song isn’t one of those awful whingy nobody-hates-me-but-I’m-a-millionaire-so-what-do-I-care? songs that so many other songwriters go on to write in middle age, it’s a Janov-inspired attempt to confront all those demons once and for all. Sounding very much like the therapy session it is, trust Lennon to pour out his feelings through the best medium he knows how – music. You can just feel John’s inner five-year-old breaking as he makes the same decision over and over again as to which parent he wants by his side: this poor scared little boy wants both of them, howling ‘Momma don’t go, daddy come home’ over and over, for all his fame and money still a powerless infant unable to keep his family together.

The song’s verses are simple and short, addressing his mother, his father and finally ‘us’ telling us ‘children don’t do what I have done’ (what did Lennon do that was so bad? Lennon doesn’t seem to know himself why he should be abandoned so many times). The lyrics move on to metaphors: his mother ‘had’ him, by giving birth to him and holding him in her arms – but he never ‘had’ her – she got taken out of his life too quickly. His father left him to go to sea – but he never left his father, unable to move on from the idea that he might come back one day. Lennon tries hard to say goodbye, once and for all, aware that he can’t keep this hurt inside him forever, but this childhood pain is by now such a part of him that he struggles to make the break final, instead pulling on the song’s sad chorus and screaming it over and over, far longer than is far comfortable. It’s a quite astonishing vocal, as if he’s forgotten that we’re ‘there’, and it’s a brave decision to let this out unedited on record (bizarrely chosen as the album ‘single’ – this isn’t the sort of album that should ever have had one of those and ‘Love’ was a more obvious bet anyway – it did get edited, but the album version is far superior). Hearing the singer who simply oozed energy and excitement while singing the likes of ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (heck any of those magical 1960s songs that brought so much brightness into our lives) doing a song this sad and this slow is a huge shock, with Lennon at his most bewildered, muted and faint until finally turning those screaming lungs we love so much into the most primitive and distressing of chants that seems to go on for hours (two minutes twenty seconds to be exact, but it seems like much longer – and indeed lasts longer than many of the early Beatles songs), sucking the energy out of the listener instead of instilling it like he once did. Lennon may be singing the song because, following Janov’s lead, he thinks that’s the way to confront these fears and get over them, but those lines – probably unspoken in his head for nigh on fifteen years – are too huge a revelation for him to get over in a song, even a longish one, and the track ends with him still screaming those lines, which fades in before he has a proper chance to adjust to his new life with that realisation going round his head. The result is an incredible song, almost brutally simple and close to the style of a nursery rhyme that makes Lennon feel as if he’s still trapped at five years old. It still manages to be one of the most adult songs he or anybody else ever want though, unable and unwilling to hide the pain and grief that, in diluted form, has been spurring Lennon on all this time. Note that this song is titled ‘Mother’, the more ‘formal’ version of the parental name, as if Lennon still feels the distance Julia – by the end of the album he may still be struggling to overcome his ‘pain’ but at least he’s started calling her the more informal ‘mummy’.

[6] ‘Hold On John is a ‘White Album’ leftover written in 1968, a brief spiritual balm that helps lighten the mood a bit and is the simple just-about-holding-on-to-hope song the album badly needs after the last track. Recorded at a time in his life when the world seemed to be crazy (new wife, new way of living, nearly a new band), this song’s slow-burning blues groove is ironically one of the happiest things on the album, as if its giving Lennon something familiar and comforting to cling on to. Once again we’re so used to hearing Lennon be brash and confident that it’s a shock to hear him so depressed and confused – a scared twenty-eight-year-old whose already seen more of life than most people and yet is still powerless to stop what’s coming next. Unlike the rest of the album, which treats the past as something to be scared of and which traps you, though, this song sees the past as something that makes you feel safe through repetition, allowing him to look forward to the future and know that its going to be ‘alright’ (it’s like a personal variation on Beatles B-side ‘Revolution’). Lennon’s guitar is nice and shimmery, as ‘shaky’ as his life now is, but the fact that its playing a very recycled blues refrain is a clever twist – even things that are fading in and out, unable to be trusted, can still go back to how things are. Lennon’s double-tracked vocal is one of his best too, a neat mix of fright and warmth as he slowly thaws out over the course of the song and is suddenly strong enough to urge his wife to hold on to, making this one of the more comforting and sweeter moments on the album. However, it’s not all as happy as it sounds: the middle eight, which surges with all the calmness of a panic attack, tells us that Lennon is truly ‘by himself’ and that there’s ‘no one else’. He no longer has any parents and not even a parent figure anymore to tell him that everything is going to be ok – so he has to tell himself that instead. The word John shouts out in the middle of the song is 'cooking!' a variation on his bootleg cries of ‘cookies!’ across the album sessions (not 'cocaine' as some books report) - it's a reference to a novelty bear who featured on the Andy Williams Show a lot on 1970 and Lennon sang when he felt he was taking himself too seriously (that's probably where Ringo got it from for his 'Lennon' verse on his best song 'Early 1970', the B-side of 'It Don't Come Easy'). The result is a sweet song, but somehow its understated feel doesn’t sit well with the anger and bitterness of the rest of the album and this brief sojourn is perhaps too short to make the impact of its quietly noisy neighbours.

 [7] ‘I Found Out, for instance, is so brutal and violent it all feels very painful. This is Lennon unhinged, with nothing to hold him back, as he turns his ire on the outside world in the present. The world in 1970 is a sea of people who ‘want’ his money or attention but who don’t actually ‘want’ him. Seeing through the façade stings Lennon into another howl of protest as in his ugly humour he decides to confront ‘us’ instead and break the cosy truth of our little worlds to us (it may be deliberate this song is sequenced after the last one, as if to show how much things have changed since 1968). Lennon, betrayed, tells us at home not to take anybody’s word at face value. He no longer believes that ‘Jesus’ is going to ‘come from the ‘sky’ and save us or bring us comfort. He tells us that he’s fed up of reading about his childhood and that it wasn’t as bad as he made out – his parents didn’t want him and he sings with sarcasm that this ‘made me a star’ – it wasn’t the fame or the love or talent, but the torture (actually Lennon was in a three-way custody battle between mum, dad and aunty and was more wanted than he perhaps knew). Dismissing ‘Hare Krishna’ as more ‘pie in the sky’, Lennon then tells us that he’s ‘seen through it all’ and must have been chuckling when he searched for a rhyme and came up with ‘I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Paul!’ He no longer believes in the sanctity of anything – he knows his musical partner isn’t the saint he’s so often portrayed to be and has ‘seen through’ McCartney too. A final verse then has him turning on people who think that drugs offer a solution rather than a temporary escape – eventually everything that’s out to get you, eventually gets you. The conclusion: you have to cope with this life alone, that ‘there’s no guru who can see through your eyes!’ Across the song Lennon roars the simple chorus that ‘I…I found out!’ like a man possessed, his vocal stripping paint as he snarls his way through the song before ending the song in a variation of his wife’s piercing screams. A punkish gesture of defiance, Lennon is at his rock and roll best here, using his old ‘Twist and Shout’ voice and pushing to the very limits of his lung capacity, while his tightly coiled rhythm guitar springs like a snake, full of venom and desperate to attack even if he ends up hurting himself too. An extraordinary track even for this album, Lennon strips away thirty years’ worth of protective mental shells here, finding out through his primal scream-filled eyes that he has only been admired and befriended for being the loveable rebel people were too scared to argue with, the star-filled Beatle that everyone wanted a piece of and the millionaire loved only for his bank balance. Partly truthful, partly anger-filled delusion, this track finds Lennon at his most hurt, ushering in a screaming rant about refusing to be taken in by band members, friends, partners, family, fans, heck everybody. In other circumstances, the song’s driving riff would have made for a show-stopping rock and roll song. Here, though, the listener’s response is one of fright and more than a little awe. Bootlegs reveal that the sudden violent fade at the end of this song is because the recording takes a sudden left-turn  into a comedy version of 'Shake Rattle and Roll', would you believe?...

[8] ‘Working Class Hero, the best known song here, is Lennon at his most sarcastic and it was even getting a fair amount of radioplay with plans for it to be the album single before somebody noticed it uses the ‘f-word’ twice. Of course it does: it’s that kind of song – written out of truth and despondency, not ticking boxes for airplay. A towering mutedly angry song (compared to most of this album’s rantingly angry songs) about how ordinary people are used and abused from the moment of their birth to the time of their death, this is Lennon at his most sympathetic for the masses he cannot hope to save and also Lennon at his most fed-up and cynical about the few people with any real controlling power. Lennon might have been born upper-middle class, not at all the ‘working class hero’ he calls himself here, but too many fans and certainly most of the song’s critics have missed the point of this song when they ho-hoingly point that fact out. Whatever Lennon’s circumstances, The Beatles were still seen as a largely working class group who developed influence and power well above any ‘working class’ figures before or since, unwittingly leading a revolution that helped break at least some of the class barriers that existed in 1960s England, even if as Lennon recognises the vast majority of those barriers remain today and probably for many decades to come. The first working class people to have any real influence outside war veterans and occasional political revolutionaries, other people in his situation would be proud – but Lennon sees such little change and discounts even his small progress, claiming that even he never had a chance to truly change society, that it’s not set up that way. A ‘working class hero’ by adoption, then, (literally - his mum and dad were much poorer than his aunt) there’s no doubting that Lennon was at his most inspired when writing on the behalf of the trodden underdogs and misfits of life as he does here, with his moving reflections on how so many people never have a hope of escaping the rat race, the struggles that were destined for them long before they were born. With the ‘feel’ of a Dylan song, but the earthy realism of the rest of the album, Lennon sounds like a grizzled blues-singer as he tells us that we’re made to feel ‘small’ from birth, ridiculed and trapped by ‘giving you no time instead of it all’, his birth-right as a human being. The pain is ‘so big’ he feels numb, unable to feel anything really as he goes into survival mode, which is how the powerful in the world want him – and ‘us’. Hurt at home, given corporal punishment at school, he’s then given no choice to become one of ‘them’ by picking a ‘career’ – despised for being thick, but worse hated for being ‘clever’, for seeing through their lies and posing a risk. Lennon sees the world kept under control through a diet of ‘religion, sex and TV’ – for many centuries religion was how the masses were kept in their placed, uneducated peasants being taught by the few people who could read. Nowadays its mass media, people telling us what we want to think, night after night. Some people escape it – even a few Beatle fans who think they’ve knocked ‘the system’ – but it’s the biggest lie of them all, Lennon telling us that nothing has really changed and ‘you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see’. The only way of being able to join ‘them’ at the top is to act like them – and ‘smile as you kill’ – but that automatically makes us more like ‘them’ than ‘us’. A pained Lennon then sighs that the only way out of this is to be a ‘aorking class hero’ – but look at him, bruised and broken, trapped and trodden underfoot. Do we really want to be like him and follow Lennon? Not with how bitter and disappointed he sounds on this extraordinary song.

But even having tied up that loose end, reviewers down the years are still right in putting their fingers on something odd happening in the song, as part of it still sounds wrong to me, despite the classic tune, performance and dryly witty lyrics. Lennon was at the time the most hated by the general public he would ever be, thanks to his controversial relationship with Yoko, the end of the Beatles, the naked ‘two virgins’ sleeve and misunderstood ‘bed-ins’ for peace, plus the simple fact that he’s giving us this song on a heroin-filled nightmare of an album full of songs about his many faults and contradictions makes the sentiments about being a ‘hero’ very false indeed. In this context the closing line ‘if you want to be a hero, then just follow me’ is obviously intended to be ironic, but Lennon also lived this line as if it were true at the time, telling people to ‘follow’ his lead by curing themselves, getting involved in some very dubious American fringe politics in the 70s along the way. Honesty was always the best policy in Lennon’s world (well, most of the time) and only by confronting hopeless situations can one find hope, so he seems to be saying on some of this album at least – but not here, not on this track, where he seems to be saying instead that we might as well not bother to rescue ourselves from our fate because there is no way out for any of us born without a silver spoon in our mouths. Even though Lennon was possibly the first and best known ‘working class hero’ to escape his lot completely, without falling into the bourgeoisie trap along the way, he seems to have come to some new realisation here that actually he hasn’t escaped at all. Even turning his back on millionaire stardom to forge his own experimental path with just Yoko for company hasn’t worked, because the record companies won’t let him release avant garde records in the way he wants, financial advisors won’t let him spend money the way he wants, politicians won’t let him fight for causes and worst of all his fellow musicians and his fans are putting pressure on him not to record the sort of music he wants. Lennon is still trapped and knows he always will be, laughing at the ‘working class come good’ image the Beatles unwittingly created for themselves because he’s as trapped as he would have been working down the factory and feeling jealous of the boss and his sportscars. This song, though, has to some extent lost its shock value in more than just the swearing. It makes a lot more sense in the context of its day when being a ‘working class hero’ meant more than just being on TV and getting a following for being thick, being a footballer who can’t do anything else, singing like a strangulated cat or being a reality TV star who isn’t, well, ‘real’. Back in Lennon’s day there really was no other escape: it was become an artist or retire and die after a dead-end job. To hear one of the few ‘working class’ heroes around tell us honestly not to bother, that even he is doomed, is one of the biggest gloomiest disappointments we could have had back in 1970. Somehow that makes this sting in the tail work more. As complex as the man himself, ‘Working Class Hero’ is one of Lennon’s most brilliant songs, for all of its brevity and dry humour, with a personal relevance to a lot of fans who just don’t have the same connection to other equally deep, equally brilliant songs on this album because its addressed to ‘us’, tapping into a universal feeling of depression rather than Lennon’s personal one. The fact that Lennon was erudite to make this point at all and in such a powerful and hard-hitting way surely makes him a ‘hero’ in anyone’s book, doubts and contradictions and all.

[9] ‘Isolation is the album’s ‘other’ masterpiece, a much more forgotten song that’s just as tough and uncompromising and universal, a song about how all of us feel isolated and distant from everyone around us. It’s an aching, lonely song about being misunderstood and one sense yet another condemnation of people who don’t ‘get’ John and Yoko. People are so sure that they’re play-acting, having people on, driven by greed and money, rather than being two people ‘so afraid’ who really ain’t ’got it made’ and who are ‘just a boy and a girl trying to change the whole wide world’. Yet it’s also a universal song about the natural fear every human being has of the unknown during uncertain parts of their life and of each other (‘we’re afraid of everyone’), convinced that everyone else is out to hurt them – because pain is the only thing they’ve ever felt in their lives, not love. One of Lennon’s most heartfelt songs on his most heartfelt of albums, it features a slow hardly-there piano and an occasional thump on the drums that successfully creates the feeling of loneliness in sound, as if the song is drifting through space. At least until the middle eight which comes out of nowhere, two Lennons finally joining together in unity, but on a line that again is about isolation: ‘I don’t expect you to understand!’ Lennon sniffs, ‘After you’ve caused so much pain!’ But Lennon can’t bring himself to ‘hate’ ‘us’ or his critics because they, too, are only ‘human’ and have suffered by falling into the traps left for them, a ‘victim of the insane’. Lennon sings this last word with such twisted venom and anxiety that he sounds insane himself, pushed beyond his limits by an uncaring world. Still, though, all that passion can’t fight its way out of this sleepy song with its big thick piano chords sleepwalking their way to disaster. Lennon doesn’t quite understand why – in his heart he sees the world as ‘just a little town’, full of little boys and girls dreaming of a better world like him. So why haven’t they got one? The answer is fear. Lennon uses the metaphor of the ‘sun’ here – it gave us life, we used to worship it, but now we’re ‘afraid’ of it, staying indoors or walking around with sun-block on all the time. He may also mean love and possibly his parents again – love gave us life, as without love (or at least sex) none of us would be here – but we’re afraid of it because it’s so intangible, so hard to see and so easy to lose. Modern civilisation should make us happy; we have relative home comforts compared to our predecessors but instead we’re less of a community and more isolated than ever. Lennon struggles to shock us into breaking down the barriers with his vocal, which grows in stature as the song continues, but all he can do is shout at us, alienating us further, realising this as he wraps the song up with a final strangulated cry of ‘isolaaaaaaation!’ A much under-rated track.

 [10] ‘Remember’ - the spirited start to side two - is suddenly tidier, more of a song than a rant this time, but still coming from the same unhappy place. This is another song about how our fucked up present really began in our past, when we learn by repeated failures and betrayals that life is all about being ‘let down’. Clearly inspired by primal therapy again, Lennon looks at every hurt and confused feeling he ever had and takes them all out into the open from where he’s been hiding them to confront them once and for all. Fittingly this song has a paranoid stance, as block chords panic and pounce all over the place, desperate to seek out everything and get to the bottom of it all. Oddly, though, it’s only a few notes and a slower tempo away from being a beautiful kiddies type song – the note that arrives high up to add a touch of prettiness, the sudden collapse onto a bright and shiny major chord for the chorus; in other times this would be one of Lennon’s brighter happier numbers. But childhood really wasn’t the happiest time of his life and he can’t bring himself to write a happy song. A track about how life changes without us really noticing and how all of our childish hopes and aspirations are crushed before we’re even aware of it, Lennon asks us too to remember not how we wanted things to be, but how they really were. With another muted vocal for much of the song, as Lennon wistfully remembers times when life was straightforward and people were either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and nothing in between, the song’s quiet anger comes from his piano playing, crashing the bare empty chords of this song down on the keyboard so heavily that it’s amazing the instrument didn’t break by the end of the song. He was told so many lies: the good guys always ‘won’, his mum and dad were just ‘playing a part’ and weren’t natural parents who really wanted him and every adult always ‘seemed so tall’ so noble, so confident, so sure of what they were doing. It was all a lie: Lennon also remembers ‘the man’ already leaving him ‘empty-handed’ and how everybody ‘always let you down!’ For once on this album, though, there’s a hint at happiness: a chorus surges out of nowhere to tell us ‘not to worry’ about what happened, because we can’t go back and change it. This sounds to me like a primal therapy technique, Janov getting Lennon to bring his bruised feelings from childhood out into the open and then out them away back in the box. But Lennon can’t do that – it isn’t ok – his wounds have gone too deep and he can’t bring himself to lie, so instead every time that chorus slows down – and every time perhaps his therapist leaves the room – suddenly he’s back in the same dark place, the panic rising in his soul, as he tried to put things right but can’t. Instead of ending in the happy place we expect, the song ends in an eruption, a jokey rhyme of ‘the fifth of November’ (Britain’s Guy Fawke’s Night, in ‘commemoration’ of the fact that a parliament that spat on the poor even back then  didn’t get blown up by the working classes) suddenly fitting as the past blows up in a childish explosion of fireworks. This was just an ad lib at the end of the take later embellished in post-production that Beatles scholars have nevertheless taken to mean all sorts of juicy things (A parallel universe that the child Lennon thought the adult Lennon was going to have? A parallel universe where politics were blown sky high leaving citizens free to be themselves? The almost-date when Kennedy was assassinated? Lennon as the re-incarnation of Guy Fawkes? etc). Lennon was probably just enjoying himself on the day of recording however, much as I’d love to read something into this curious little end section. Session tapes reveal that this wasn’t the intended ending anyway and (on this take at least) the song actually turned into a jam session, Lennon getting more and more entranced by his piano riff as he plays it faster and faster, giving in to the song’s paranoia across another five brutal minutes before he breaks off for some improvisation.

 [11] ‘Love sounds out of place on this angry album somehow, a heartfelt hymn to the power of love to conquer all with one of Lennon’s gentlest, most heart-breaking tunes. On an album that’s all about digging behind the ‘mask’ of society to find the truth, it comes as a shock both to us and to Lennon that he’s actually found something good there for a change and the realisation that love is all you need is much more awe-inspired and heartfelt than his better known hit single of 1967. Love doesn’t have any hidden or special meaning – it just ‘is’, a tangible reality even though it can’t be seen or felt. Lennon treats this very adult theme with childlike awe, reducing love to its simplest form and still finding that it is magical and primal, that every human being has a desire to be loved. There may be another reason this song sounds so simplistic: just as Yoko wrote her love songs to Lennon in a copycat version of his Western-style rock, so Lennon writes for Yoko in the Japanese haiku imagery she was brought up on and uses so often in her work. The result is simple yet profound, as we learn that ‘love is feeling, love is wanting, love is touch, love is free and love is needing to be loved’. The most moving moment is when this sweet but distant sounding composition suddenly resolves most unexpectedly on the line ‘love is you and me’, a shift in keys that suddenly brings this song ‘nearer’ to us, as if Lennon has finally found what he’s been chasing for his whole life. No wonder he sings this song with such reverence and beauty, as if Lennon’s in a trance that he can’t quite break out of. It would be unfair to call this one of the album’s ‘lighter’ moments – in its own way this song is as bare, honest, heartfelt and deep as the other songs on the album – but this time Lennon is out to soothe rather than confront the listener. On this track he again shows us why his trust has been hurt so often so badly and how much pain it causes him when a bond of love has been broken, but chooses to reflect on the upside rather than the downside of it all, the reason why he keeps reaching out to be loved again (half afraid that he will be let down – see, umm, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ in our Beatles book for more). The simple tune, so much more pioneering and impressive than the repetitive [22] ‘Imagine’, is one of its author’s very best and its exquisitely played on just a dry guitar and an echoey piano yet fittingly sounding like much more is going on. Soothing, uplifting and beautiful, this is one of Lennon’s best love songs, beaten only by [28] ‘Oh My Love’.

Things were going a bit too well for this LP weren’t they? [12] Well, Well, Well is another screaming rocker that’s about as loose and ragged as Lennon ever got, bar a ‘Live Peace In Toronto’ show or two. Across six heavy claustrophobic minutes, Lennon dreams of all the plans he and Yoko have and ‘how the hell we can get things done’, only to come across endless brick walls of people telling them how they should act and behave. The sigh ‘well well well’, usually taken as an admission of defeat that you can’t do anything more, becomes a brick wall that Lennon tries to slice through, first with his grungy guitar and then with his punkish vocal. This isn’t well at all, the world is a mess – and Lennon is chomping at the bit to get things done. He and his wife even feel ‘guilty’ for thinking sexual thoughts about each other, because they’ve been ‘conditioned’ that well (Lennon thankfully changing an early version of the song that included the line ‘she looked so beautiful I could wee’ to the only slightly less taboo ‘she looked so beautiful I could eat her’). An obscure rant that’s far less direct than the others on the album, it’s the perfect ‘smokescreen’ for showing how people hide behind a veneer of respectability when underneath they are just animals really. For who could deny the passion running through Lennon’s bones as he lets loose on what may be the single funkiest recording any of The Beatles made, all gnashing teeth and screaming. It should feel ‘normal’ – it’s the tale of a boy wanting to have sex with a girl he’s just married – but instead it feels cagey, surreal, so different to anything anyone else was talking about (‘We were nervous, feeling guilty and neither one of us knew just why’). The most Yoko-imagery derived song on the album (her avant garde art didn’t always make for a neat reflection of the directness and honesty of both Lennon’s soul and his new ideas on primal scream therapy), interestingly the  imagery seems to refer to Lennon’s physical lust for Yoko in the first two verses and his mental lust for her intellect and bravery in the last two. John’s piercing vocal on the nonsensical chorus shows that he doesn’t need any words though – returning to the primal cathartic scream described above, Lennon teases just about every meaning of the phrase ‘well, well, well’ out of the song – from a sighing ‘OK then’ to an urgent ‘let’s get things moving’ to a despairing ‘make me well again before I get hurt once more’ before he finally breaks down and all but breaks his tonsils on the biggest, most cathartic scream on the record. ‘Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeellll!’ becomes a rallying cry, not so much an ‘oh well’ as a ‘why the hell not?’ as he laments not being able to do everything he wants with his life, that there are more of ‘them’ than there are of ‘us’. He may have been inspired (not for the first or last time) by his wife directly too, as this song sounds not unlike ‘Why?’ (and to a lesser extent ‘Why Not?’) on Yoko’s sister Plastic Ono Band record. The song finally breaks down in the middle before the most brilliant decision on the record. Klaus is having too much fun with the bass groove so he keeps playing, Ringo joining in with his thudworthy drums before Lennon is coaxed out of his stupor to go round the houses again. On any other record this might not have worked, but this song is all about picking yourself up and never stopping just because someone goes ‘oh well’ and accepting the way things are that it’s brilliant. A weary Lennon then overdubs a final verse where he and Yoko ‘catch the English sky’ before this inspires Lennon to kick into the track’s main riff off all over again. He starts screaming again, really letting loose until he realises that he can’t keep up, that ‘my arm’s crippled!’ Though one of the silliest songs, the performance is so good that this becomes another of the chilling album highlights.Who would have thought cathartic screaming would be so moving to those who can’t see the pictures Lennon has in his head? Oh yes and the rhyme of ‘I took my loved one out to dinner’ and ‘even though we both of us had been much thinner’ (and therefore were being frowned on for eating – a reference to the criticism of their supposedly ‘fat’ bodies on the ‘Two Virgins’ album cover perhaps, which stung more than criticism of John and Yoko’s private parts it seems) is one of the best Lennon ever wrote too.

[13] ‘Look At Me is a second acoustic ‘White Album’ left-over from 1968, like ‘Hold On John’ cleverly programmed so that it lightens the mood after one of the album’s most intense moments. Opening with a joke (‘Ok?’ Lennon asks the engineer. ‘Yes thankyou’ his overdubbed multi-tracked self laughs back – which is quite brilliant after hearing him scream his head off as well as hinting at pressure turning into schizophrenia Pink Floyd style – this album’s running order is one of the reasons this album works so well, the best in the Lennon canon), the song is the lightest and sweetest here. By this point in the album Lennon is struggling to know who he is, his identity stripped away by primal scream making him question his reactions to life events (even if the song was, in all likelihood, inspired by a talk by The Maharishi in India about human beings in relation to God and shares the same acoustic finger-picking style as ‘Dear Prudence’). Though not as well-written as the similar [30] ‘How?’ to come, this is Lennon realising how lost he is and trying to work out where best to go from here – ‘Who am I supposed to be?’ he asks and ‘what am I supposed to do?’ He rallies in the third verse, realising that ‘nobody knows but me’ and the answers lie within. However he adds in a ‘you and me’ when he repeats this section, suggesting either Yoko or his audience, also stumbling their way to self-realisation along with him. The song has no answers though and rounds off with a cry of ‘oh my love’ as if love is the only lifeline Lennon is clinging to as he goes under. The result is a sweet track that always gets overlooked, muted and insecure compared to the roaring tracks around it. You’d probably never play it outside the context of the album, but you’re glad it’s there as a tonic nevertheless, especially Lennon’s delightfully wasted double-tracked vocal that truly does make him sound as if he is the most lonely person in the universe. The use of two tracks on this album at least part-composed during the Beatles’ stay in India is perhaps no coincidence, as the long practices of meditation inspired three of the Beatles to write many of their most heartfelt, inwardly looking songs – many of which they felt were ‘too honest’ for use on Beatles recordings. How odd, then, that Lennon should find himself baring his soul through two of the most opposite healing concepts ever invented – tranquil meditation and gut-wrenching screams. 

[14] ‘God is Lennon’s less than fond farewell, not only to this album but to us and, in a way, his ‘real’ self before he gets down to work selling commercial albums again (well, more commercial than this one anyway). Suddenly sober, this song feels musically like a ‘sermon’ – but lyrically at least it’s an anti-sermon: a way of preaching what can’t happen even if we believe rather than what can. Primal Scream therapy was, for Lennon, a way of taking responsibility for his own actions, of not waiting for something to come and save him – because friends, loved ones, drugs and gurus had all let him down. Realising that if he doesn’t sort himself out nobody will, Lennon embarks on an extraordinary list of all the support networks he and we have used, kicking away the legs beneath of us as he tries to make us see that we really are on our own. Religious figures, Royal figures, political figures, even musicians don’t hold any sway over Lennon anymore, because every one of these are human (or fictional) and therefore are fallible – because all human beings let people around them down, it’s just in their nature. All Lennon has left to believe in is his own power to shape his future – and Yoko’s. That long list of names might be the most memorable point of this track, which like many of Lennon’s most powerful late-Beatles-era songs is actually three or four short songs stuck together, but there are many other special parts to this track. ‘God’ opens with a long, long long drawn out rendering of the song’s deep-thinking first line (‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain’), one which carries so much of civilisation resting on its paper-thin shoulders. Lennon's opinion is that God was 'made up' to make human beings feel less lonely or to keep uneducated peasants in line through fear - and that religious wars are fought between whichever block feels persecuted the most. Lennon hated his C of E upbringing, treating the Sunday school teachers and local priests with the same disdain as his school-teachers and considered Christianity outdated by his era (that's what he was trying to say during his 'Beatles are bigger than Jesus' furore - and does say if you can get past the sensationalist headline only ever printed in America). Lennon infers that many people use religion as a safety net, protecting them from the ‘pain’ and irrelevance of their existence by comforting us with ideas of better things still to come in our ‘next’ lives, making life all ‘worth it’. Life, though, is worth it now for Lennon and should be lived in the actual present, not some possible future that may or may not happen.  

Lennon is so moved by his sudden insight, which affects how all of human civilisation have behaved since time immemorial, that he even repeats it all the way through again before finally moving the song forward. Lennon then turns to his shopping list of horrors (human practises like ‘magic’ ‘I-ching’ and ‘yoga’, religious lynchpins like ‘The Bible’ and ‘Buddha’, political figures ‘Hitler’ and ‘Kennedy’, institutions like ‘Kings’ and finally musicians like Elvis and Bob Dylan’s real name of ‘Zimmerman’). The line everyone remembers is ‘I don’t believe in Beatles’. In a world still adjusting to life without the fab four this was a killer blow. All of time seems to stop while we digest this fact, that the most important group of the century really are no more (give or take a Free As A Bird or two), causing more than few tears for Beatles fans along the way, as unlike McCartney's indignant and raw but carefully tailored questionnaire delivered free with 'McCartney' in April 1970, Lennon is absolute and definite that the band are over (typically he'll change his mind again in the mid-70s and be the Beatle closest to a reunion, if only to stop everyone asking about it - it's George who remained adamant he never would right up to the 1990s). This is more than just a personal decision though: Lennon is seeing through everything The Beatles once stood for, the ideal that hippies and peace can win out over war and greedy corporations, the idea that working classes can ‘make it’ if they have the talent, that a particularly generation hold the special keys to society. In 1970, the decade at the end, this was a devastating comment to make and Lennon knows it too, waiting for us to get over our hushed in-take of breath before he moves on. ‘The dream is over, what can I say?’ says Lennon in the last month of the decade, the generation’s unwittingly elected spokesperson standing down, refusing to lead his people anymore and telling them one last time ‘you are on your own’. ‘I was the walrus’ he sighs, ‘but now I’m John’, the makeup removed, all façade taken away. But Lennon’s been through too much with his contemporaries, fans, peers, critics and band-members to let them go away with that admission ringing in their ears. His one last piece of advice, that ‘dear friends you’ll just have to carry on’, that we should all go our own way in life and rely on no one to show us the way except our closest soulmate, is a perfect Lennonish goodbye from the now thoroughly ex-Beatle and a fitting end to this most ’solo’ of albums. You could say that 'God' gives with one hand and takes away with the other…

Yet there’s more. Squeaking from the silence, after an uncomfortable pause that makes you think the record’s finished, comes an uncalled-for encore. Lennon seemed to have closure across this LP, primal scream allowing him to confront his past and move on. But things are never that neat and even after all that Lennon can’t accept what happened to him (is Lennon adding ‘primal scream’ to the long list of things he doesn’t believe in?) Returning to a nursery rhyme he might have been taught as an infant by his mother (‘Three Blind Mice’) Lennon tries to spell out the truth he could never accept in the simplest, baldest way possible. [15] ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ he sighs, ‘I can’t get through my head, though it’s been so many years, my mummy’s dead’. The reason why it is sung down a telephone, taped onto an early answer phone prototype and then played back might be more obscure. Phone up Lennon in the late 1960s for some artistic endeavour and you’d be put through to a terribly Lennon-ish answer-phone message also set to the tune of ‘three blind mice’ (‘We’re not home, we’re not home, leave an answer and we’ll get back to you’ (spoken) ‘maybe’) This track is the upside of that career answerphone message, Lennon seeking to shock those who want to do yet another fundraising gig or are after yet another request for money from Apple by turning inward and scaring hangers-on off for good, a last ‘I don’t care anymore, this is no longer important to me’ statement to round this most non-career developing of albums off. I’m never quite sure of what I think of this track – ‘God’ is a far better ending than this ghostly ‘reprise’. But this is the kind of album that isn’t about things being ‘perfect’ and it makes sense that Lennon should round off an album of pain and hurt not with a final goodbye but with more pain and hurt. This may also have been the hardest song to sing (perhaps why he sings it quite so many times, on alternate takes released officially and unofficially). ‘I could never show it!’ he mourns on this song, perhaps the point that this album has been being built up to all this time – that Lennon can finally say goodbye and move on. When he comes back to us, on album at least, it will be dreaming of the future, not haunted of the past as he is here, so something has clearly changed.

Like that last track, this album is not always that well thought out, it's not always pretty, it's extremely hard to listen to and in many ways it’s the most self-indulgent record that Lennon ever made, full of references to his own background that (hopefully) very few fans will identify with firsthand (though that said anyone with a bleak childhood and a damaged adulthood will surely identify with part of it). ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ is, though, heartbreakingly real, with Lennon’s creative juices at their piercing best as primal scream and the end of The Beatles opens up his desperate need to communicate, to open his soul wider than ever before (wider than anybody?), however dark or ugly the contents. Going ‘solo’ gives Lennon the chance to be truly solo, to question everything about who he is and what he stands for. Above everything else this record is overwhelmingly admirably brave. Can you imagine a member of any other popular band ever opening themselves up to this kind of public scrutiny in any era?  Most people hide their private lives away from everybody, but Lennon knows that the biggest gift he can offer his fanbase is evidence that he, too, is fragile, awkward, broken, hurting and that all the money in the world won’t take his pain away. An extraordinary album about what it means to be human and the ripples that come from our actions, ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ is one of the greatest AAA albums of them all.

This was the album that Lennon was always threatening to make and the artistic side of Lennon never quite recovered from the release of this album, as if he was afraid what else he could possibly to do match its artistic worth and integrity. It’s interesting to wonder what Lennon would have thought about this record had he been around today. Only once on record does he dismiss it off-hand and then it seems like a knee jerk reaction to the idea that his later records seemed to go back on the honesty ‘promise’ he made here (Lennon attacked all of his records at one time or another whatever their vintage - except ‘Double Fantasy’ that is, but then that record came out only weeks before his sudden death). Would Lennon have disowned it, eventually going back to the bosom of the Beatles (he actually seemed happier about a reunion of the fab four than Paul or George in the 1970s) and putting all his time and energy behind yet another ‘guru’ figure despite promising not too? Or would his career have somehow gone full circle, going back to basics and to this ‘mid-way’ album in a way that his fellow Beatles almost-but-not-quite achieved in the early 80s with the recorded-in-the-back-garden ‘McCartney II’ or ‘Gone Troppo’? Either way, this album is Lennon’s high watermark as a pioneering artist, the likes of which we will never see again, ever, as no other popular artist would even think of trying to match the courage of this unexpected album ever again (nope, Sting with a lute and The Spice Girls with anything don’t count). If ever a record deserved praise for wearing its heart on its sleeve then this album is it. Play it for the first time and you may never see the world in quite the same way again, for better or for worse. Word of warning though: after playing this record, its advisable to seek a hug straight away from your nearest and dearest, like Lennon is so obviously crying out to do. 

'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey' (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special

Landmark concerts and key cover versions

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