Spring, 1970. “The Dream Is Over”. However long the Beatles themselves had known about their split, its revelation to the world had a finality as resounding as the church bells that open this album (on “Mother”).
None of the four fabs really knew what would happen next. “It’s only Ringo” had already released his first solo project, Sentimental Journey, before the divorce was made public. McCartney was launched on the back of the announcement. George had enough suppressed songs under his hat to have a triple album ready before the end of the year (All Things Must Pass). John was screwed.
Not only was he less than happy that ‘Macca’ had stolen the dubious glory of telling the world that the Beatles were finished, he also had to deal with the world pointing the finger at his wife as the principal cause of it. The Beatles were finished; Yoko had been the last to come onto the scene: it had to have been her fault. Hostility towards her from all quarters, which had never been particularly veiled even beforehand, now escalated to the point of savagery. Whatever the manifold reasons for the Beatles’ divorce, and whatever the degree of the ‘Ono Factor’, John was head-over-heels in love with her, and it’s impossible to imagine how much all the flying shit about her must’ve hurt.
Christ, their Ballad hadn’t been easy since their coming together after the Indian Summer of ’68. “Just a boy and a little girl, trying to change the whole wide world”; while the vast majority of it regarded their experimental recordings and ‘peace stunts’ with increasing incredulity. A pot bust, a miscarriage and the horseride to ‘Cold Turkey’. And, the decree absolute of the most famous band in the world, with Yoko — inevitably — cast in the role of Wicked Witch of the East.
They both took off to LA and attempted to get their bearings through four months of Primal Therapy sessions with Dr Arthur Janov. The ‘treatment’ is based on the idea of confronting and dealing with past traumas, especially those repressed from infancy.
Lennon’s childhood, like all his life, is well-documented: abandoned by father, mother unable to cope, raised by aunty. As a teenager, he started to get to know his mum, just before she was wiped out by a drunk-driving police officer. “Mama, don’t go: Daddy, come home!” That was more or less the time the protobeatles were starting to get it together. “I couldn’t walk, but I tried to run…”
Returning to the UK, he assembled a small band of confidantes and recorded a musical version of the catharsis. Klaus Voormann on bass, Ringo drumming, Phil Spector co-producing: far from the ‘wall of sound’ in the still unfinished Ascot Studios at Tittenhurst. The twin LP Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was recorded (and released) simultaneously. The instamatic photographs on the sleeves of the two albums were taken in the grounds (identical, apart from J+Y changing position against the tree). John’s back cover was a super blown-up black and white school photo.
The entire thing was recorded in less than a fortnight (finishing on John’s 30th birthday), the tracks usually done in a couple of takes. (Yoko’s counterpart LP was recorded in a single night).
A cursory glance at the tracklist is enough to show that this ain’t no more fab four, and that it’s no ‘ordinary’ rock album. It’s intentionally raw, Spector respectfully restrained at the control desk, the music taking a backseat to John’s soul-bared voice — at times spewing out his childhood (and more recent) pain, anger and frustration; at others tenderly, almost tearfully, acknowledging what he was beginning to accept as his new realities.
JL/POB is not a comfortable listen. It’s not easy to have an idol confessing his hang-ups, revealing that he’s just as fucked as anyone else. Neither does it fit comfortably, in musical terms, into the blanket category of ‘rock’ (with or without the ‘roll’). Yet, for these very reasons, it remains one of the most important and innovative albums of its own time, and of all time.
John Lennon — John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: Track-by-track review
The four tolls of a churchbell, slowed-down and stretched to a full half minute, which ominously open the album were omitted on the single version. “Bells which are passing a piece of himself out of this world” (John Donne, 1623). John Lennon, 1970, was doing exactly that with this song, with ths album.
“Mother, you had me, but I never had you…” The slice of grief he was exorcising on this track is painfully evident from any line of the lyric, as if the title wasn’t plain enough. Nothing hidden, nothing to hide: you can see the tears streaming from behind those trademark granny-glasses, splashing off the piano keys as he wails away the anguish.
The first two verses are addressed to his parents: Mum, then Dad — if you do really have to go, let me at least say goodbye. The third adds a caveat for the next generation: don’t be tempted to try and bury your past by making yourself king of the world. Look what happened to the Beatles: look what’s happened to me…
John said he called in Ringo ‘cos he was the only drummer he could trust for the album. Mr Starkey don’t let him down. Here, he marks time as solidly as ever, chasing the vocal surges, pulling out the pain. Voormann’s bass subtly underpins it all. (And check out the casual little piano frill at the end of the fadeout!)
“Mother” is Pain and undiluted emotion from a man left high and dry by almost everyone save Yoko. by ginge57 (1)
2. “Hold On”
A gentle reminder to stop and take a deep breath, take stock of what’s going on and move forward with the confidence that “it’s gonna be alright”. With all the hang-ups Lennon had been confronting in Janov’s therapy spilling over onto the album, it’s hardly surprising he felt the need to step back a few paces to reassure himself it was really worth it.
His tremelo guitar work gives a sweet resonance to the meditative lyric, with Klaus and Ringo offering their solid but understated support.
After stop-checking himself, John offers the same advice and reassurance to Yoko, then finally to the world in general, anticipating the universal brotherhood he’d dream of in ‘Imagine’:
When you’re one, really one
Well you’ll get things done
Like they never been done
So hold on!
3. “I Found Out”
The self-confrontation implicit in Primal Therapy is intended to strip away masks, break down barriers and leave you knowing who you really are. Facing up to the bullshit and falseness you’ve covered yourself in is no smooth process, and this sense of anger and urgency is reflected in the insistent, lop-sided rhythm of the song. Messrs Starr and Voormann drive it along relentlessly, with Lennon’s guitar as frantic as his vocal as he spits out his conclusions.
Now that I showed you what I been through
Don’t take nobody’s word what you can do.
Forget all that shallow hippie claptrap; don’t be taken in by religion, drugs, or cock-in-hand machismo. It’s all crap, take it from me: ‘I Found Out’.
4. “Working Class Hero”
Though elsewhere on the album Lennon claimed not to believe in Zimmerman, Dylan’s influence — musical and lyrical — is plainly evident here. This piece of ‘finger-pointing’, however, is even more scathing than ‘Masters of War’.
You may say John was the most middle-class of all the Beatles, and you’re not the only one (Brother Paul made the same cynical observation). You can argue that a Georgian mansion in a hundred-acre estate and a psychedelic Rolls Royce ain’t exactly working class. You’ve missed the point, you “fuckin’ crazy peasants”.
A Working Class Hero is anybody who refuses to be moulded by society’s expectations, to be taken in by the accepted rules of the game, who manages to stay true to themselves rather than aspiring to “be like the folks on the hill”.
That, indeed, is “something to be”.
“Working Class Hero” is as good as it gets from Mr Lennon, a wonderful expose of a narrow and biased social system by ginge57 (1)
It’s easy to think that Fame and Fortune are recipes for happiness. Wrong! The bigger you are, the harder you fall. Living in the public eye is a lonely, scary experience: especially when public hostility is so rife. ‘Crazy Lennon’ and his ‘Japanese Witch’ were deeply hurt by “ev’rybody trying to put us down”. Isolation, alienation and desperation pour through the double-tracked vocal and pounding piano here.
Yet, amazingly, though both of them were “afraid of everyone”, there’re no hard feelings. How can there be, when everyone’s as twisted by society’s pliers?
You’re not to blame
You’re just a human
A victim of the insa-a-a-ne
To ‘remember’ is the basis of the Janov therapy. Locate the skeletons in your cupboards and clear them out. Old movie-heroes, old songs (a borrowed line from Sam Cooke, later to be recuperated more fully on Rock ‘n’ Roll.) The past is the past — face up to it, put it behind you:
Don’t feel sorry the way it’s gone
And don’t you worry ’bout what you’ve done
The piano, bass and drums, pumping in unison, provide an energetic acompaniment for the emotional spring-clean. Out with false hopes and past disappointments. “Remember, remember the Fifth of November”, fireworks night in England: Guy Fawkes, probably the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions (caught with enough gunpowder to send it sky-high). KA-BOOM!!!
Spector’s fragile, tinkling ‘musical-box’ piano intro, slowly fading up from nothing, comes as a big contrast after “Remember”‘s incessant pounding and explosive finish.
Lennon may have spent the majority of the album debunking and disassociating himself from all things religious, but the lyric of “Love” reads like a direct follow-on from the Epistle of Saint Paul (the apostle, not the Beatle): “Three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest of these is Love.” [1 Corinthians 13]. “Love is Real, Love is Free” [Lennon].
Maybe it’s all you’ve got left when you’ve lost faith and hope.
It’s not religion, of course (Imagine none of ’em — John would be the first to take to task those who call for his sanctification), but it is deeply spiritual in its directness. Similar passages can doubtless be found in any collection of sacred teachings. The simple clarity of the words is echoed by the piano/guitar accompaniment and Lennon’s voice, untouched by production trickery, is shiveringly, poignantly beautiful. Love is all things to all people, “you and me”; love is giving and taking, “wanting … needing”.
As he’d already observed an earlier johncarnation, “Love is all you need!”
“Love” is all you need by ginge57 (1)
8. “Well Well Well”
If the guitar work on ‘Cold Turkey’ had been discordant, here John proves he hadn’t really needed Clapton’s assistance to make a wonderfully unholy row. Throughout the verses, it shadows the vocal melody, the bass and drums reduced to a throbbing heartbeat. Mr and Mrs Lennon, “nervous, feeling guilty” (though not knowing why) as they “sat and talked of revolution”.
The chorus sections explode into frenetic outbursts by all three players, John ranting in indignation and defiance of society’s ignorance. Revolution? Didn’t we all want to change the world? The six-minute onslaught culminates in the messiest ending imaginable, John’s arm crippled. “Well Well Well”, what the hell?!!
9. “Look At Me”
“Look at me, here I am”, more naked than the full-frotal cover of Two Virgins. The picky acoustic guitar accompaniment is, appropriately, reminiscent of his previous hymn to his mother, ‘Julia’. And, just as Yoko (“Ocean Child”) had crossed into that song, here she is again: “Oh my love, just you and me”.
No matter what the world wanted him to be, nobody else really had the slightest idea of what John and Yoko had been (and were) trying to do.
Nobody else can see
Just you and me
Oh my love
Let It Be collaborator Billy Preston provides the piano accompaniment to this track, as Lennon bursts bubble after bubble of false idols, flawed teachings. “God is a concept, by which we measure our pain”, he opens. Just in case you didn’t catch that, “I’ll say it again” (and he does).
Nothing and nobody are too sacred to escape the explosion of their myths: not majyck, not the bible, not hitler nor kennedy, not zimmerman nor even elvis. And absolutely not beatles. Don’t believe in any of it, “the dream is over!” Get used to it. No more ‘Walrus’, no more ‘Yesterday’:
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality
There’s always a new dream to weave: carry on, dear friends…
“God” is the first and last word in iconoclasm, more jolting as it came from Earth’s biggest icon himself. by yestermorrow (11)
“God” is primal by ginge57 (1)
11. “My Mummy’s Dead”
I can do little more than to quote the entire lyric of this primitively recorded fifty-second P.S. to the album, just voice and guitar.
My mummy’s dead
I can’t get it through my head
Though it’s been so many years
My mummy’s dead
I can’t explain
So much pain
I could never show it
My mummy’s dead
As John himself had observed the previous year, “death is just getting out of one car and getting into another.” Ride on!
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon
“I Found Out”
“Working Class Hero”
“Well Well Well”
“Look At Me”
“My Mummy’s Dead”