The songs

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 his objection 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 – Dylan’s real name – 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

John Lennon and Yoko 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
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