Sample Chapter: Plastic Ono Band

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John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

Copper Magazine, Issue 137, May 2021

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Apple, 1970.

THE 1970s DAWNED with a blistering hangover. On September 13, 1969, just before Abbey Road began dominating end-of-’60s radio, John Lennon sang at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, an early 1950s festival. He called his pickup group the Plastic Ono Band: Eric Clapton (lead guitar), Klaus Voorman (bass) and Alan White (drums). They launched with standards, “Blue Suede Shoes, “Money,” and then “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” before turning to Lennon’s “Yer Blues,” an unreleased “Cold Turkey,” and “Give Peace a Chance,” his anti-war chant. Then he turned the stage over to his Japanese-American wife, Yoko Ono, who screamed against Lennon’s guitar feedback for almost half an hour. It stupefied the audience. One week later, at an Apple business meeting in London, Lennon told the other Beatles he wanted a “divorce.” However, Lennon agreed to keep a lid on his departure—they were in the middle of contract negotiations, and if word got out, they could lose leverage. From that point on, the chronology went extremely fuzzy for most fans, as Beatles group releases overlapped with the members’ early solo records. Plans progressed for a Let It Be album and film early in 1970 (shot in January 1969) as the breakup remained a secret.

Alongside all the racist hate mail John and Yoko received at their home that season, a book arrived, called The Primal Scream, by a California therapist named Arthur Janov. It had an unusual pull for Lennon, who found himself agonizing. (“You seem to need them even more than they need you,” his first wife Cynthia once remarked.) He spent the summer of 1970 in workshops with Janov in California, where he bereaved his childhood (both parents abandoning him to an Auntie), considered the nature of God, and chased Ono’s first husband Tony Cox around seeking custody of Yoko’s daughter Kyoko. Then, on August 1, Ono miscarried a second Lennon child.

In America, the violence continued, as if 1968 had never ended. The week after Nixon expanded the Vietnam war with an illegal incursion into Cambodia, the National Guard killed four non-violent protesters at Kent State (May 4). In April, without consulting the other three, McCartney put out a press release the week his solo debut, McCartney, appeared, announcing that he was leaving the band. Headlines flared around the world. It felt like a bad joke: this utopian ensemble, that made rock and roll a powerfully redemptive global force, crash-landing into tabloid lawsuits and countersuits. Along with secretly buying up stock in the Lennon-McCartney publishing company (Northern Songs Ltd) behind Lennon’s back in the spring of 1969, McCartney’s move compounded his betrayals in Lennon’s mind. The greatest songwriting team of the era now entered its doom phase of litigation, recriminations through song, and a public fallout that deflated their idealized brotherhood.

The rock era seemed to keep unraveling, and a broken-hearted counterculture no longer had the Beatles as communal avatars.

When the fall of 1970 rolled around, Lennon had a batch of new material reflecting his state of mind, and called on Ringo Starr to drum beside Voormann. He wanted a spare rock guitar/piano trio for most numbers, drenched in 1950s Elvis Sun sessions vocal reverb. Recording started in September and ran right through Lennon’s 30th birthday on October 9th, a stretch that saw the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. A year after the Stones watched a Hells Angel murder a Black fan, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, in the front row of Altamont, the rock era seemed to keep unraveling, and a broken-hearted counterculture no longer had the Beatles as communal avatars.

Context proves all-important for this 50th anniversary reissue of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (The Ultimate Collection), even if it steps around time and speaks to us ever more urgently coming out of a global pandemic. For anyone over 40, this music bespeaks the emptiness that gathered around the Beatles’ demise, a cloud that hovered over early 1970s pop even as mini pseudo-Beatles prospered (Badfinger, the Raspberries, and Elton John). Remastering engineer Paul Hicks has boosted the original orchestral sweep (by Richard Lush and Phil McDonald) with a bracing, miraculous clarity, and a sequence of outtakes, “elements mixes” (cross-fades between source and digital refinements), jams and demos, and Yoko Ono’s disc (plus two Blu-ray sides). You can also opt for a brief two-CD summary or vinyl-only set. Each comes with a War Is Over poster and handsome booklet.

Beyond most other remastered blowouts, this one forces you to consider how listeners heard this material Then versus Now. At the time, Plastic Ono Band felt both inseparable from its Beatles foreground and a scrappy, unfathomable break. It held a pillow down on the ’60s togetherness, and made the utopian spirit seem infinitely fragile, and fleeting. The album made sense only by knowing what came before, as Lennon’s familiar voice suddenly turned barbed and fraught, as if breaking free from some mythical trap. The songs’ irreducible simplicity masked oceans of complicated feelings expressed with utmost economy, impossible to grasp in a single hearing. This makes it the most unconventional of rock classics: not swift, digestible and expedient pop, but burdened, dense, difficult, and hard to fathom even fifty years on.

Now, of course, we hear it as Peak Lennon, a record you return to as much in your mind as on your stereo, from which the rest of his career coasts, or looks away from. It’s a sweeping mess, a warts-and-all manifesto where the scars inform its poetic layers, and the high points rank with “I Should Have Known Better” or even “Don’t Let Me Down.” A songwriter’s gauntlet, a drummer’s post-doctoral thesis, and a track sequence linked by vocal delirium, Plastic Ono Band has the classic rock feel that humbles superlatives while remaining the furthest thing from a party record. It lassos a storm of emotions that veers between unfiltered rage and white-knuckle control.

Lennon’s first formal solo entry into the post-Beatles era countered McCartney’s and Starr’s debuts (McCartney’s “wedding announcement” with its huge single, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and Ringo’s Sentimental Journey, in April), but that summer’s Let It Be soundtrack and then movie made it seem like the band still had plenty of chemistry. Plastic Ono Band transcends this context quickly, so you put it on simply for the expansive vocals that redeem even the weaker material (like “Love,” with the meekest, almost ambivalent delivery), or string together stray outtakes of “Well Well Well” and “I Found Out” for their addictively cleansing guitar distortion on a loop (that glorious “Revolution” overhang). Or just revel in Ringo Starr’s sublime patterns, which sound as though he’s been saving up his best moves for some post-Beatles oblivion.

Few remember this record’s opening sounds. The excruciatingly slowed peal of church bells that greets “Mother” carry a heavy, yoked weight, as though the End of Beatles signaled End Times. Tolling church bells mystified Beatles fans in the winter of 1970, and made the new decade feel perilous. It’s the detail most people forget about Plastic Ono Band, the sonic sample that fixes it in time so firmly. Those bells loom over the entire record like a glowering moon. (And Lennon heard “Mother” as a radio single.)

Without the Beatles around him, these familiar (now canonic) numbers turned into something he had to rediscover, redefine, and wrap his head around anew.

As Lennon leaps from that void and starts singing (“Mother… you had me”), he slices open the band’s mythic largesse with soaring leap, and the moment ripens with danger and risk; it’s a dive into the great unknown. The mood—searing, spectral, elegiac—reminds you of the way he sang “Money” or “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” in Toronto the previous September as a middle-aged scrimmage, a way of measuring himself against his past, an emotional purge he couldn’t quite summon yet in his own material. That Toronto band has plenty of verve and kick, and the excitement of Lennon with new players in front of an audience seeps into the sound. But “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” had been a fireball for the Beatles, Lennon answering McCartney’s Little Richard impersonation with his own Larry Williams homage, a turret announcing how rock and roll’s freedoms had intoxicated him, how done right it could inebriate everybody within earshot. Without the Beatles around him, these familiar (now canonic) numbers turned into something he had to rediscover, redefine, and wrap his head around anew. The open throttle of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” sounded like a different challenge approaching 30, a teenager’s ideal circling darkened orbits. Some of the others appeared in Toronto as oldies acts (Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard); Lennon performed as an ongoing project, surging uneasily into middle age.

In the Beatles catalog, covers of older records seemed charged by supernatural forces: as metaphorical rejuvenation through past glories, wellsprings of sturdy ideas, neon signposts, trick mirrors, musical vitamins, rhythmic nutrients, nostalgic Miracle-Gro sprinkled on the most familiar Chuck Berry tropes, accelerants slipping on ice. Here, Lennon renewed those ideals as something worth hanging on to in adulthood, another way to make sense of it.

For Lennon, these oldies were barely in the past; they seemed to him as alive and worthwhile as yesterday, as the sixties both shrank and expanded time, singing oldies made an incident-heavy era seem ripe with color and cascading revelation. By the evidence of the Get Back sessions, this material had saved the band time and again. There’s an entire disc here devoted to the oldies this trio cut to warm up, Lennon forgetting the words, mashing up verses, and settling down into a tone that grounds the record in the R&B and doo-wop that only a true obsessive can access. (He leans into “Johnny B. Goode,” “Honey Don’t,” and at one point lapses into “Get Back,” a half-baked pipe dream.)

When “Mother” enters its tunneling coda (those whelping “Momma don’t go! Daddy come home!”), he sounds like he’s whipping the track, punishing it for saying exactly what he intended; the mood “Cold Turkey” latched onto has suddenly been set loose. His increasingly distended vocals shred the track as it disintegrates into the fadeout.

Two non-Plastic Ono Band numbers in this compilation underscore its context, and reframe the new material. 1970 began with “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On),” a song he dashed off and recorded on January 26th, with Phil Spector in the booth and George Harrison leading a spontaneous troupe of singers. Lennon wanted to get the single in the shops by the following week (a goal he nearly achieved). In these outtakes, Harrison calmly leads the backup crew. The song steered Lennon into a new vocal register, an answer to the constraints of “Cold Turkey” (which the Beatles had turned down), and a path forward. (The alternate “Cold Turkey” cuts here, clawing and feral, rival the final release; the home demo finds him echoing Ono’s pinched quivers.)

These six discs could have easily been trimmed down to three or four, but the largesse here opens the wider frame to Lennon’s process, and how it informs the material. “Love” still doesn’t quite work, but its sessions outline a delicious bit of rock star manipulation: Lennon asks Spector to come sit at the piano and try it himself, and soon abandons his guitar as they coax a new arrangement from rehearsals. If Spector ever thought he could control a session, it’s a masterful switch: the singer yanking the producer straight into the lion’s den.

All the Beatles references add color to its precedents. By bookending it all with “Mother” and then the mordant lullaby, “My Mummy’s Dead,” Lennon accents how he lost his mother twice, once as a boy, and again at 17 when she was struck by a car. These numbers also noose “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Two ballads: “Look At Me,” and “Hold On,” approach the intricate mood he explored in “Julia,” and then turn into an oasis of calm amidst a hurricane. And the satirical doo-wop (“bang-bang, shoot-shoot”) in “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” gets slowed to a gospel groove in “God,” turning the most clichéd harmonic progression quasi-metaphysical.

He’s not encouraging anybody to be a working class hero, he’s lamenting the whole class system hustle, and how anybody in the rock era still falls for it. If he had called it “The Great American Dream” it might have translated better…

The album’s two centerpieces don’t hold up: “Working Class Hero” and “God” now sound like the self-help bromides that would turn into self-parodies, from Werner Erhard’s EST seminars to Rolfing to macrobiotics and “Have a Nice Day.” That the self-help movement proved a uniquely American phenomenon (Janov seemed a pure product of California) spoke to Lennon’s innate yet complicated optimism, which he could only express through barbed conceits and splashy gestures (those Bed-In pressers). “Working Class Hero” more than any other song except “Imagine” gives future generations the wrong idea about Lennon, mostly because (American listeners in particular) mishear the irony. It’s now received wisdom that Lennon himself was a “working class hero,” when he was the only Beatle to have toilet plumbing in his semi-detached house his Aunt Mimi raised him in the relatively well-off Liverpool suburb of Woolton. He’s not encouraging anybody to be a working class hero, he’s lamenting the whole class system hustle, and how anybody in the rock era still falls for it. If he had called it “The Great American Dream” it might have translated better, but then people (and the British especially) still take the title of The Great Gatsby literally, and right-wingers pump their fists to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Imagine any other rock star telling their audience “You’re f*cking peasants as far as I can see,” or “I don’t expect you to understand after you’ve caused so much pain/But then again you’re not to blame/You’re just a human/a victim of the insane…” and retaining our affection. Lennon has so much good will in the bank we’re willing to let him get some ugly ideas off his chest.

And while “God” has an epic feel and tone, the lyric sags, especially when he gets to his bullet list of unbelief. The restoration, again, lies in his vocal, and the way he can make even the hoariest self-help cliché seem almost plausible (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain…”). At his most ambitious, Lennon conjures some reductive notions, hubris mixed with infantilism.

Another part of his greatness stems from his generosity, in particular towards Ringo, and how he let the humblest Beatle command a star role in his ego trip. Ringo’s drum sound here rivals the White Album and Abbey Road for color and punch, and a lot of this work still sounds ripe for sampling. Starr hits his drums differently on every album, and for this record he masters a range of flavors from his tom-toms mixed with thrilling pauses. His set gets miked in a way that makes him sound both vast and compressed. As usual, Starr remains invisible except for those choice moments where he chimes in to answer a Lennon guitar lick or bolster a scream, and those moments have such resounding support they bring the ensemble up to near Beatles levels. (Voormann shines on “I Found Out,” and “Remember,” even when he jumps cues.) Did Ringo somehow save himself for this record? Or did this Lennon phase simply goad Ringo to the next level?

Lennon nailing himself to the cross he flirted with by saying “bigger than Christ” (in 1966) and in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (“they’re gonna crucify me,” 1969) can still ring out as “toxically smug,” as Ian Penman once put it. On the other hand, this music vividly enacts how a huge chunk of Lennon’s voice got strangled inside the Beatles, and how far his muse still drove him – beyond a band that had already transformed the music and its world beyond all imagining. How can you leave the world’s biggest band only to reveal even bigger ambitions?

In the end it’s an album of absolution, and an album of questions: where had this inner Lennon been hiding? How did such an outsized personality submerge himself so completely into his band identity? If he sounds barely contained within the Beatles, here he sounds sublimely cut loose, and even his strengths seem to earn credibility through his flaws; very few singers could get away with some of these lyrics (Barbra Streisand approached “Mother” as a pop-gospel showcase, and found her herself cowed). The album also throws down an intimidating precedent to the other Beatles, especially in how it upstages McCartney, who returned the next year to double down on…Whimsy (with Ram). And at the end of this tirade, with his most delicate conclusion (“I just believe in me… Yoko and me… and that’s reality”), Lennon stakes his new identity with a new intimate partner. In this distant moment, when political demonstrations largely failed, the war expanded, and state-sponsored killing breached college campuses, Lennon’s vocals work as a massive trump card to answer McCartney’s sly, understated gall (“No Beatles, no problem. Let’s have a cuppa…”) What starts out as self-pity and glaring insecurity somehow lands in the realm of respite and relief. The arrogance somehow burns off the top, and we’re left feeling something like shared redemption.