John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

The songs

Plastic Ono Band (Remastered) - John Lennon

By tackling so many subjects on his solo debut, John Lennon left subsequent releases with little in the way of tangible themes. Where is there to go when you've covered drugs, religion, sex, women's liberation, childhood, social inequality, love, and the breakup of the greatest band in the world? In his search for originality he turned to politics on Some Time In New York City, released a couple of albums with little or no message in Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, before eventually retreating into domestic harmony on Double Fantasy.

The writing of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band proved cathartic for Lennon, allowing him to allay many of his demons, if only temporarily. Three songs in particular were key works in the collection: Mother, Working Class Hero, and God.

Mother began with the funereal toll of a bell, before Lennon tackled headlong the main cause of his pain: the rejection and loss of his mother and father. If listeners were expecting Beatle John, they were likely to be disappointed. Mother pulled no punches, featuring bleak lyrics and some of Lennon's most harrowing vocals.

Working Class Hero looked back to Lennon's school days, and expressed his belief that freedom from conformity needed to take place at a personal as well as societal level. Influenced by left-wing political thinkers of the time, the song encouraged revolution in the head as well as the heart.

While the lyrics provide much to ponder, the song's two uses of the word 'fucking' caused Lennon's record label EMI some discomfort. They threatened to censor the recording, but eventually told him they wouldn't allow the word to be printed on the lyric sheet. Lennon's solution was to substitute the word with an asterisk, but inserted the words "Omitted at the insistence of EMI" beneath, to make it clear .

I put it in because it does fit. I didn't even realise there was two in till somebody pointed it out. And actually when I sang it, I missed a bloody verse. I had to edit it in. But you do say 'fucking crazy,' don't you? That's how I speak. I was very near to it many times in the past, but I would deliberately not put it in, which is the real hypocrisy, the real stupidity. I would deliberately not say things, because it might upset somebody, or whatever I was frightened of.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Lennon's acoustic guitar backing on Working Class Hero was felt by many to be inspired by Dylan, although Lennon later denied the connection. In the song God, however, he went further, adding Robert Zimmerman to the list of disavowed names.

Like a lot of the words, they just came out of me mouth. It started off like that. God was stuck together from three songs almost. I had the idea, 'God is the concept by which we measure our pain'. So when you have a [phrase] like that, you just sit down and sing the first tune that comes into your head. And the tune is the simple [sings] 'God is the concept - bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp' 'cause I like that kind of music. And then I just rolled into it. [Sings] 'I don't believe in magic' - and it was just going on in me head. And I Ching and the Bible, the first three or four just came out, whatever came out.

I don't know when I realised I was putting down all these things I didn't believe in. I could have gone on, it was like a Christmas card list - where do I end? Churchill, and who have I missed out? It got like that and I thought I had to stop... I was going to leave a gap and say, just fill in your own, for whoever you don't believe in. It just got out of hand. But Beatles was the final thing because it's like I no longer believe in myth, and Beatles is another myth. I don't believe in it. The dream's over. I'm not just talking about The Beatles is over, I'm talking about the generation thing. The dream's over, and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.

John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

God stripped away all vestiges of ideology and idolatry, until the central litany ended with the final declaration: "I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me, Yoko and me." It was intended to draw a line under the band that had led a generation through the 1960s, and did so with characteristic bluntness. The walrus was dead: here stands John Lennon, a mere mortal human being.

The album comes full circle with the brief coda My Mummy's Dead. A low-fidelity mono recording made in Bel Air, California, it was a simple four-line song based on a three-note descending melody, but was perhaps the most raw and emotionally-naked piece of songwriting he ever wrote.

Whereas John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band begins with primal howls of anguish, it ends with weary acceptance. If this was Lennon's bid for closure for the heartbreak of losing his mother, the effect was of numb emptiness rather than sorrow.

The release

Lennon and Ono recorded albums back to back with the same musicians. He considered calling his Primal and hers Scream, but they eventually chose their names followed by Plastic Ono Band.

The front covers, too, were near identical. Dan Richter, an actor who was working as the couple's assistant at the time, took the photographs using a cheap Instamatic camera. On Lennon's cover he is pictured lying on her body; on hers she is lying on his.

People don't know about Yoko's because mine got all the attention. The covers are very subtly different. On one, she's leaning back on me; and on the other, I'm leaning on her. We shot the covers ourselves with an Instamatic.
John Lennon
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

The back cover of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band featured a childhood monochrome photograph from Lennon's schooldays, taken in the 1940s. Ono's counterpart release featured a similar shot of her.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was released on 11 December 1970. In the United Kingdom it peaked at number 11. It fared slightly better in the United States, reaching number six.

One single was issued from the album. Mother, backed with Yoko Ono's song Why, was released in the US on 28 December 1970. It was not a success, peaking at number 43 on the Billboard Hot 100.

All these songs just came out of me. I didn't sit down to think, 'I'm going to write about my mother' or I didn't sit down to think, 'I'm going to write about this, that or the other.' They all came out, like all the best work of anybody's ever does.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Paul McCartney is often cited as the Beatle who had the most trouble dealing with the group's break-up. Although Lennon's bravado prevented him from admitting as such, he felt the weight of their legacy equally as he contemplated a solo career. Yet whereas McCartney was tentative in his first moves, Lennon was bold, presenting his naked self to his fans more brazenly than even the Two Virgins cover could have been.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band saw the closure of a chapter of Lennon's past, a fresh beginning with a blank page, and a cautiously optimistic look towards the future. His subsequent career had its highs and lows, both commercially and artistically, but never again would he release a collection with such consistent vibrancy, purity and revelation.

I came up with Imagine, Love, and those Plastic Ono Band songs - they stand up to any songs that were written when I was a Beatle. Now, it may take you twenty or thirty years to appreciate that; but the fact is, these songs are as good as any fucking stuff that was ever done.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

11 responses on “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

  1. Tweeze

    Well, well, well. Oh, well. No comments yet? Too bad. This is a tough album to listen to. When I first heard it I was scared from listening to it again. It isn’t the Beatles, folks. Eventually I did listen to it again and appreciated the rather impromptu nature of the set-up. John didn’t try to hard to hide the mistakes. Anyway, it is now one of my favorites of all time. The emotion leaps from the speakers. “Mother” is fantastic! Beyond a shadow of a doubt this song alone proves John was the most gifted vocalist of the Fabs. No one else on Earth could sing this. And then he turns in one of the more lovely tunes ‘Love’ and ends up singing ‘God’ in the perhaps the best vocal ever – ‘The dream is over … etc’. You want to know about John’s guitar work? Here it is! It’s a mess and yet it works absolutely. Nobody had guitar tone like John. Most amazing of all – despite the sparcity of instrumentation, each song sounds entirely different. Genius! An amazing piece of work.

    1. Joseph Brush

      Yes it is great. Phil Spector was not present for most of the album and Ringo complained that he hardly ever saw Phil during the entire sessions.
      After John recorded a song he would mix that same day or evening according to the engineers who were there.
      This info is available on the Classic Albums series.

        1. Joseph Brush

          Maybe complain is the wrong word but since Lennon & company were waiting for Phil to the point where they had to take a full page ad in Billboard! Perhaps impatience at the tardiness of Spector would be more suitable to your liking.

          1. Vonbontee

            Oh, I don’t like or dislike any part of it – I’m just facetiously suggesting that most people would prefer not to spend much time working with gun-toting madmen.

    2. GK

      “N.M.E. said “Lennon put his balls on the line and the train ground to a halt out of sheer respect” As a 12 year old, I listened to this in awe and amazement! The first track “Mother” was so full of pain and honesty, it stopped you in your tracks. I had lost my own mother at 9 years old, so I could relate to the loss. Other tracks like “Working Class Hero”, still sound great to me. “God” was a jaw breaker with its ” I don’t believe in list…….finishing with the Beatles, and “the dream is over, so my dear friends you just have to carry on”, had their ever been such honesty on a record? Other great tracks like “Remember”, the beautiful “Love” ,”Isolation” “Look at me” (could easily have been on the “White” album) were superb tracks, with not quite the publicity of the more famous tracks. Some friends of mine didn’t like the album, too personal, too much pain, but to me it stands up as a great piece of work.”

    3. richard handwerk

      Well Well Well has a vocal unlike any I have ever heard. I agree, this LP shows his amazing talent. In 1970 I played it over and over, learning the songs. Underrated by the world however.

  2. James Ferrell

    This album is a favorite of mine so I thought I would add a few random observations.

    It is interesting that after the failure of the back-to-basics Let It Be/Get Back sessions, both John and Paul took the back-to-basics approach for their first solo albums. Although the emotional impact of the two albums couldn’t be much more different–”McCartney” being warm and comfortable, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” being wrenching.

    John uses the finger-picking pattern he learned from Donovan in India here on “Look At Me”. Very “Julia”-like.

    He also uses a lot of pentatonic scales for melodies here, as he did with “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. E.g. in “Well Well Well”, “Hold On”, and “I Found Out”. These melodies don’t sound quite like the blues and don’t sound quite like the Far East–something in between.

    A lot of John’s Beatle songs, even as late as Abbey Road (“Because”, “Sun King”, the 6/8 part of “I Want You”), had unorthodox chord progressions that moved the song along maybe even more than the melodies did. Here the harmonic complications are for the most part stripped away. Stripped away also is the Beatles-era Lennonesque word play. This lets the literal meaning of the straightforward and emotionally-charged lyrics hold center stage.

    My copy of the LP (bought in the US around the time of its release) has the uncensored lyrics to “Working Class Hero” presented on the inner sleeve. No asterisks.

    I think the only instrumental solo-type part is the piano on the fade out of “Love”. Instead of guitar solos or piano solos, he uses extended vocal/screaming parts sort of like in “Well Well Well”, “I Found Out”, and “Mother”. While this was no doubt the primal scream influence, it is also a lot like what he does on the full-length take of “Revolution 1″.

    I like how he plays a droning 7th note together with the pentatonic melody in “Well Well Well”. Nice lead guitar playing.

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