Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John Lennon 2: Plastic Ono Band

In a period when each Beatle was making his own individual statement, there was still a sense of excited anticipation for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Technically it was his fifth solo LP release, but it was his first real solo album—just him and his songs with no Yoko or avant-garde touches. He would tell it like he saw it; plus he’d spent most of the summer screaming therapeutically. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s worth it.
Complete with funeral bells at the start, “Mother” sets the tone for simplicity as John laments the lack of connection he’s felt with his parents, complete with a warning to the “children” who may be listening and following his lead. “Hold On John” is pretty, with the guitar matching the sweet melody. These days it’s no longer jarring to hear him sing his own name as well as Yoko’s. This temporary pick-me-up is pushed aside by the edgy “I Found Out”, its relentless beat bashing away the lies. The irritated “Working Class Hero” laments even more lies, specifically what he was told in school. (This title became a misleading nickname; he’s referring to himself as a hero of the working class, and not including himself in that class. His upbringing was easily the most financially privileged of the Beatles.) The weary “Isolation” sports perhaps the best bridge of John’s songwriting, with a vocal that shows off why they’ve called his the best voice in rock.
If you’re still wondering why he feels the way he does, “Remember” starts off side two to explain it all, complete with explosion. “Love” is another perfect extension of simplicity, and suggests for a brief moment that he may have figured it all out. (That’s Phil Spector on the piano, by the way.) After the musical illustration of Primal Therapy that is “Well Well Well”, “Look At Me”, written in 1968 in India, deflates this idea, suggesting instead that self-examination is never-ending. “God” starts off stately enough, then builds up to the (in)famous litany of all the illusions that let him down; if you look past the intentionally show-stopping declaration “I don’t believe in Beatles”, you’re left with “I just believe in me”, which is helpful advice. (If you want to include the additional “Yoko and me”, that’s your choice.) It straddles the line between a sermon and something we can all appreciate, but in the end it’s all about him, summed up by the simple fact that “My Mummy’s Dead”.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a true album by definition, for nothing else in his post-Beatle career would be as succinct, cohesive or clear-cut. By keeping it simple—accompanied only by Ringo and Klaus Voormann for the most part—he set the standard for honest songwriting, against which he would be judged long past his death. It’s still a shame everything he learned as preached on this album didn’t make him happy for the rest of his days. But having torn everything else down, he had nothing left to hide behind, leaving only his worst fears—that of exposure and rejection—strongly in evidence. This is still his most powerful statement, and quite a declaration of independence. It also says a lot that despite that “bathroom reverb”, Phil Spector let the songs speak for themselves too, and kept the production to the minimum.
The 2000 reissue CD sported questionable mixing variants, and while the inclusion of the early 1971 single “Power To The People” made sense, there was no reason to have the hideous “Do The Oz”, a later B-side. Luckily, these were ignored for 2021’s Ultimate Collection, likely intended for the album’s 50th anniversary and just as likely delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the template of the Imagine expansion, this massive set serves up new “ultimate” mixes of the album, as well as a disc of outtakes, raw studio mixes, elements mixes that hone in on different parts of the recording, demos (or at least the earliest versions of the songs), and a collection of between-the-takes jams, all on six CDs. Equal attention is paid throughout to “Give Peace A Chance”, “Cold Turkey”, and “Instant Karma!”, while surround and Atmos mixes of all of the above and more were included on two Blu-ray discs, along with the complete live session that spawned the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band album.
Some of this material had been glimpsed via other archival projects, but while it’s not a strict chronological journey through the sessions, we get more context and insight. Despite the overall tone of the finished album, now we can hear the energy and, yes, joy that went into recording it, with enthusiastic performances and feedback from Klaus and Ringo. George Harrison’s contribution to “Instant Karma!” is brought to the fore, and they nicely include his surprise appearance on John’s birthday. John himself giggles through most of the jams and even some of the breakdowns, but for contrast, the isolated vocal track for “Mother” causes greater chills than ever before. The repetition may deter first-time listeners, but longtime fans will relish it.

John Lennon John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)—
2000 remaster: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks

5 comments:

  1. Nice review, I enjoyed it. There's a new book that runs through these tracks and gets into the stories behind the songs (many were heavily Janov-influenced). You can read about it here.

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  2. Should be mentioned that this LP had a companion LP released on the same day, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, with an almost identical cover and on which John played guitar.

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  3. Indeed there was. I haven't had the opportunity to listen to it straight through, but from what I heard, John got a chance to shred to his heart's content.

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  4. Nice entry, with some good insights. I always felt this was John's greatest solo album. Strangely, by being so deeply personal, it's the most involving record he ever made.

    (His guitar work on Yoko's POB is some of the best of his career. As is Ringo's drumming.)

    Good blog! I'll be coming back to read more.

    Lynn McKenzie (http://lynn9mckenzie.livejournal.com)

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  5. Thank you! Hope you enjoy what you find here.

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