In the studio

John Lennon and Yoko Ono returned from Los Angeles to England on 24 September 1970. Lennon was 28 pounds heavier than he had been before leaving in April, a change he put down to “eating 28 different colours of ice-cream” in America. Two days after their return they entered EMI Studios at Abbey Road, London, keen to begin work on some of the songs composed in Los Angeles.

They were laughing, crying and holding on to each other. Holding on to each other so close. Two grown-up people, and yet it’s as though they were children. Not because they were saying silly stuff, but because of their emotions. They were crying, then screaming with laughter, then crying again, one after the other.
Klaus Voormann, 2010
Uncut magazine

Lennon and Ono recorded two albums back-to-back with the same group of musicians: Klaus Voormann on bass guitar and Ringo Starr on drums, with Phil Spector or Billy Preston occasionally contributing piano parts. Lennon worked quickly, giving scant instruction to his band, content to present the songs in their most basic form.

The simplicity of what Klaus and I played with him gave him a great opportunity to actually, for the first time, really use his voice and emotion how he could. There was no battle going on.

He would just sit there and sing them, and we would just sort of jam, and then we’d find out how they would sort of go and we did them. It was very loose actually, and being a trio also was a lot of fun.

Ringo Starr
Classic Albums: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

The sessions lasted for one month, during which the musicians recorded both John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and its more experimental counterpart, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. They also jammed a number of rock ‘n’ roll classics, including ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Matchbox’, ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Honey Don’t’, and ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’.

Phil Spector had been booked as the producer on the sessions, but most of the songs were recorded without him being present in the studio. After the sessions were underway, in October 1970 Lennon published a full-page advertisement in Billboard magazine which simply said: “Phil! John is ready this weekend”.

I have no real memory of Phil producing this record at all. I remember he came in later, but I never felt Phil was like, oh he produced this record. Really, the engineer took down what we did and John would mix it.
Ringo Starr
Classic Albums: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon's advertisement to alert Phil Spector to the Plastic Ono Band album sessions, 1970

On the sleeve credits Yoko Ono was described as playing the wind. Lennon later explained that she “played the atmosphere” on the record.

She has a musical ear and she can produce rock ‘n’ roll. She can produce me, which she did for some of the tracks when Phil couldn’t come at first. I’m not going to start saying that she did this and he did that. You don’t have to have been born and bred in rock. She knows when a bass sound’s right and when the guy’s playing out of rhythm.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Although the subject matters of the songs were often honest to the point of discomfort, the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sessions were reportedly often jovial and relaxed. Spector and Allen Klein, according to Voormann, proved a particularly amusing double act: “We would almost be rolling on the floor with laughter. They were a comedy act, typical New York.”

Spector would tell these wild stories about Lenny Bruce dying in his toilet. They were always having breaks for long stories. It was a really jovial album to make, which is funny when you think what the songs are about.
John Leckie, studio engineer
Uncut magazine, 2010

Lennon recorded a live vocal with each of the takes, as he disliked assembling songs layer by layer, part by part, as The Beatles had done in their later years. Often his guide vocals would be replaced once the backing tracks were completed.

The screams at the end of ‘Mother’ were overdubbed once the rest of the vocals were recorded. Each night, towards the end of the sessions, Lennon almost tore his larynx to shreds while attempting the part; he avoided doing it during the daytime in case it adversely affected his voice.

This time it was my album. It used to get a bit embarrassing in front of George and Paul ’cause we know each other so well: ‘Oh, he’s trying to be Elvis, oh he’s doing this now,’ you know. We’re a bit supercritical of each other. So we inhibited each other a lot. And now I had Yoko there and Phil there, alternatively and together, who sort of love me, okay, so I can perform better. And I relaxed. I’ve got a studio at home now and I think it’ll be better next time ’cause that’s even less inhibiting than going to EMI. It’s like that. The looseness of the singing was developing on ‘Cold Turkey’ from the experience of Yoko’s singing – she does not inhibit her throat.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

One song in particular caused particular problems for Lennon. ‘Working Class Hero’ was recorded dozens of times, with Lennon’s frustration building with each failed attempt. Ultimately he failed to complete it in a single take; the version on the album included a verse recorded in a different studio from the rest of the song, with a clear edit on either end.

Three songs, ‘Hold On’, ‘I Found Out’ and ‘Isolation’, were rough mixes made at the end of the sessions for reference, which Lennon felt were good enough to include on the album. The tape speed was 7.5 inches per second, half that of normal mastering tape, leading to a slight degradation in sound quality.

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