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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

John Lennon: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band


JOHN LENNON: JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND (1970)

1) Mother; 2) Hold On; 3) I Found Out; 4) Working Class Hero; 5) Isolation; 6) Remem­ber; 7) Love; 8) Well Well Well; 9) Look At Me; 10) God; 11) My Mummy's Dead.

General verdict: Yep, still kicking major three-chord ass after all these years in all of its beautiful naked brutality.

The legend of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, once hailed as the one post-Beatle album to put to shame all other post-Beatle albums, has become slightly dimmed in recent decades, largely due to a re-balancing of values. Back in the early Seventies, John was critically acclaimed as the Rough, Rugged, Sincere Heart of the Beatles, praised for the brave, gritty, and oh-so-substantial minimalism of his singer-songwriting spree — while Paul McCartney, at the same time, was getting critical flak for being too wussy, too fussy, too focused on petty bourgeois values, cheap sentimentality, and absurd absurdity. (On George, critical opinion was divided, some praising him for spiritual depth and others condemning him for too much preachiness).

These days (and by «these days» I'm actually saying «for about twenty or so years now»), with Ram being viewed as the grandfather of indie pop and traditional rock critic values à la Christ­gau or in the vein of Rolling Stone becoming way too stale, one-sided, and granddaddish, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band seems to have, if not exactly lost part of it appeal, then at least slight­ly receded into the background as just another good album from a solo Beatle. It still remains a milestone in the history of confessional, autobiographical songwriting, and is probably just as big an influence on every unhappy indie kid as Ram is on every happy indie kid. But John's brand of primal musical psychotherapy is now looked upon as naïve and dated, if not downright ridiculous, and his sincerity is just as often perceived as narcissistic, egotistic, and undeservingly offensive... at least, more often than it used to be.

And I believe this because even in my own case, the record no longer thrills me nearly as much as it did, say, twenty years ago — at the very least, its cracks and shortcomings are more obvious, and the occasional bouts of self-righteousness on the part of its author are more irritating. There is no subtlety here whatsoever: this is John Lennon, the atomic bomb, blasting away everyone and everything that stands in his way, not caring all that much if he blasts away you, the innocent listener, along with everything else — then again, you might not be that innocent, either, because chances are, there is something in this world that you have done, you fuckin' peasant, for which Mr. Lennon hates you together with all your fellow countrymen. The only thing in this world that Mr. Lennon does not hate is Yoko Ono, who systematically crops up on one song after another and acts as his guiding angel through a life of misery, frustration, and disillusionment.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has no double bottom, no mystery to unravel — chances are that if you have heard it once, subsequent listens are not going to improve your reaction. The songs themselves certainly did not appear out of the blue: elements of this «primal» approach were sprinkled all over John's Beatles catalog, from ʽHelp!ʼ to ʽYer Bluesʼ, but in those past days the feelings were usually masked behind partially irrelevant or formulaic lyrics, and it was never clear just how much of himself John actually put into the songs (later on, he dropped plenty of clues himself — basically, whether or not he put himself into his songs determined which Beatle songs he'd call shitty and which ones he'd call passable). Now that he was no longer a Beatle, the album was all about John — John's parents, John's memories, John's loneliness, John's passions, John's life philosophy, John's adversaries, John's fears and hopes.

As I try to recycle the brief, but turbulent rock history pre-1970, I struggle to remember anything that would even remotely come close to the same level of «confessionalism» as captured here. People certainly wrote (usually masked) autobiographical songs, but the late Sixties' singer-song­writer was more of a Leonard Cohen or a Nick Drake — the wise, sophisticated romantic who was either too shy to bare it all, or thought this too cheap to merit his attention. John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band is, therefore, arguably the first album in rock history that sounds based on an auto-interviewing session: for all we know, John could listen to an hour-long interview with him­self on all things mundane and supernatural, and then go on to write a bunch of songs, each circling around a phrase or two taken from such an interview. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain", "a working class hero is something to be", "there ain't no Guru who can see through your eyes", "don't feel sorry the way it's gone", "when you're by yourself, you just have yourself and you tell yourself just to hold on" — doesn't that sound like a bunch of citations from some bed-in session, or a TV chat with Dick Cavett?

Whether these and other aphorisms are cleverly worded, original, intelligent, etc., is a matter of subjective opinion and lengthy discussion — there is little doubt as to their sincerity, but every­thing else is debatable. However, this is John Lennon we are talking about, the man whose way with words (which he tended to forget anyway) always took second place next to the music; what matters is not exactly what he says, but whether he chooses the right notes to go along with it. And here, too, the record delivers. Most of the melodies, in stark contrast to George Martin's Beatles, are bare-boned — usually featuring Ringo on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and John himself on either guitar or piano, almost never on both (except for ʽLoveʼ). The minimalism is symbolic: there should be nothing whatsoever to draw your attention away from the pain (or the love, or whatever). But it works — when you have a truly great melody going on in your mind, you might just strip it down to the root notes, and it will still work.

Something like ʽMotherʼ, I think, probably shouldn't even be catchy — its verses mostly do not rhyme, its last line is nearly out of sync with the rest, and the pauses between verse lines are so long, your mind might not keep the beginning by the time you get to the end. But catchy it is, and its catchiness comes through in the little things — like, for instance, the two completely different "goodbyes" that end each verse: the first one, with the strong accent on "BYE", is determined and categorical, the second, with more force on the falsettified "GOOD", is soft and sentimental: love and hate, hate and love, all in one. And maybe it is not even the simple C-G-C chord pattern on that piano that matters, but the sheer physical force with which John bangs out that melody: each chord falls down like a heavy hammer, to bring the message home. (An earlier version, played on acoustic guitar and released on the Anthology boxset, fails to produce the required shattering effect). With a song like that, do you really want to get into the details of how much John's character was really shaped by the traumatic experience of his youth, and how much he is merely self-pitying himself because Arthur Janov taught him to? All that matters is how convincing the performance itself happens to be — and it probably wouldn't be until The Wall and its own ʽMotherʼ that we'd get a comparably powerhouse delivery on the parental issue.

The minimalism works just as well on the more rocking material: ʽI Found Outʼ, the most vicious song on the album, charges forward like a mad bull, thanks to the kick-ass rhythm section — Ringo and Klaus really get into the spirit of things, playing a clenched-teeth dark boogie that fits in with John's pissed-off grumble and quietly dry, snappy, fuzzy electric guitar croaking. (I some­times wonder if Ringo found it comfortable for himself to play on an album like that — but then again, while we have this image of him as an eternally sunny, peace-and-love guy, the man had a pretty mean streak in him, too, especially around the Beatle breakup time, and I am pretty sure, considering how viciously he sometimes bashes his kit around here, that he took that chance to exorcise some of his own demons, too). The stakes are raised even higher on ʽWell Well Wellʼ, perhaps the most violent song ever recorded about doing nothing — there's few things more meaningless in this world than "well well well oh well", and few things more meaningful than turning that chorus into the single most intense session of throat-shredding in the history of rock music (not even Iggy Pop has anything on that — every time I hear the song, I feel like I have to go rinse my own vocal cords afterwards).

But rockers are still relatively few on the album, whose main focus is on quietly understated piano, acoustic and clean electric guitar hooks. We have our self-comforting, colorful electric guitar swirl on ʽHold Onʼ (and I swear that I still jump up occasionally when that COOKIE! thing jumps out of nowhere in the middle of the soft solo break); our dustbowl acoustic folkie thing on the eternally relevant rage-against-the-machine-ish ʽWorking Class Heroʼ; our steady rising-and-falling piano riff on ʽLoveʼ (something that would very soon also reappear in a slightly more complicated form as ʽImagineʼ); our Donovan-style ʽDear Prudenceʼ-like picking on ʽLook At Meʼ; and, perhaps most stunning of all, our rise-and-rise-and-rise-till-you-break-and-scatter-all-over-the-place piano melody of ʽIsolationʼ, one of the most terrifying songs from that era about loneliness — along with Harry Nilsson's ʽOneʼ, which surpasses ʽIsolationʼ in terms of pure drama, but not in terms of its claustrophobic aura.

That said, all these songs form part of a greater whole. By the time we reach ʽGodʼ, the singer-songwriter has crossed all sorts of territories and passed through all sorts of stages, and ʽGodʼ decidedly feels grander and more purposeful as a stately conclusion to the record than it would ever feel on its own — after all, it isn't so much a song as it is a psychological culmination. The melody here is crystal-clear R&B, or maybe even close to gospel, with Billy Preston expressly brought in to get more «feels» on the piano, but the message is pure solipsism, and it totally agrees with the rest of the album: "I just believe in me, Yoko and me" is really the overall theme here — according to John Lennon circa 1970, it makes no sense to sing about anything other than yourself because you really don't know anything except yourself. It is also a statement of rebirth, and while we have every right to chuckle to ourselves, it does sound like a statement of rebirth — and, for that matter, the entire start-from-scrap arrangement and production of the album sounds like a statement of rebirth, with John deconstructing all of his musical legacy and starting anew. It might not have worked out smoothly in the future, but it was a damn good start.

So has time really diminished the significance of the record? With the explosion of bare-bones singer-songwriting that followed in its wake, it is probably quite hard for us these days to under­stand just how goddamn different it must have sounded back in 1970 — right down to the brashly lo-fi coda of ʽMy Mummy's Deadʼ, which pretty much invented indie lo-fi back then but today might seem rather ordinary. Even so, play it back to back with just about any modern «complai­ning» indie songwriter and you will see that the chief difference is in the power aspect: aside from the minimalistic brilliance of the melodies, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is one hell of an ass-kicker, even in some of its tenderest moments ("loooooook at meeeeee!.... [bitch]"). The sheer strength, conviction, brute force, whatever, of these songs is what makes them come alive with so few expended efforts — here is a man who is not afraid of mincing his words or taking full responsibility for his actions, no matter how questionable. In the end, it is not John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band that became less attractive as time went by — it is merely that the other albums, by Paul and George, inspired enough confidence to climb out from under its shadow, and that, too, was a very good thing. This one, as far as this reviewer is concerned, remains every bit as monumental as it used to be — and a never-ending source of inspiration, though, seemingly, not for the majority of today's singer-songwriters.

16 comments:

  1. No more song overview at the top?

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  2. You're always insightful, George, but I enjoy it most when you're waxing about the music you love. Bravo.

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  3. Like you said, John is about the melody first, and as such, I find myself drawn into his music because his melodies are so engaging in spite of the fact that I'll never revere the man like you and about 90% of the singers of songwriters of today do. I saw a Youtube that polled something like 200 modern artists with the question "Lennon or McCartney?" And the vast majority voted for John. My choice has always been Paul, and it's more than just the music, which P was clearly J's superior in every category. (Lyrics, on the other hand...) It's in the fact that Paul always seemed more sympathetic to his audience than John. FOr all of his preaching about peace and the world being one, John just always came off as a self-involved jerk to me. That's not to say Paul couldn't be just as big a douchebag when he put his mind to it, but Paul seemed like he actually tried to relate to his audience, whereas John couldn't give a crap. Then again, I read John's final interview and he actually seems to have come around and actually felt somewhat comfortable in his skin (or at least Yoko's).

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    1. Regarding modern artists preferring Lennon to McCartney, Lennon has always had a "coolness" factor McCartney lacked, partially due to the tortured, confrontational attitude you mentioned. (Weird isn't it that being enigmatic and unapproachable, like Dylan, will earn you more critical reverence than being relatively open and friendly, like say Springsteen?) Not to mention Lennon's tragic death solidified him as a martyred icon. McCartney, still smiling and leading crowds in Hey Jude sing alongs today, can look hokey in comparison.

      Anyway I'm willing to bet most of the artists in the survey couldn't distinguish which Beatles songs were Lennon's and which McCartney's, and most probably went with Lennon as the "cool" choice. Meanwhile I'm with you in thinking McCartney was easily the musical superior. But then I'm a weirdo who thinks Lennon melodically peaked in 64-65 (though his subsequent work was of course outstanding as well).

      I'm sad to say I can't view this one up as a classic of any sort, apart from its obvious influence on confessional songwriting. Even the half-baked McCartney debut had twice as much melody. Oh well, I still enjoy reading George's take on it.

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    2. That coolness factor easily can be identified. Around 1970 hippiedom (the love and peace movement) had largely failed; people became desillusioned. From then on artists with a negative attitude were more appreciated than those with a positive attitude. No matter how wide the gap between Lennon and Blackmore, this is something they had in common. McCartney is an optimist and hence, quite like Stevie Wonder, never was taken entirely seriously. In this respect McCartney from 1970 on was an anachronism. Lennon was not.

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    3. Now that I think about it, it's not the melodies but John's voice that I dig. Another example where Paul is actually his better (Some of the things Paul did and is still able to do in his 70s blows my mind), but John just has this thing...some of his vocal moves are quite unique and powerful.

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  4. For me Lennon, not for his attitude, coolness or even the lyrics, but simply because he wrote better songs. If I would choose my ten favourite Beatles' songs, John would have 5 or 6, Paul 2 or 3 and George 2 (while my guitar... and something). And, as much as I love Ram, Band on the run and All things must pass, Plastic Ono Band is the best Beatle solo album, by far. Yet, I prefer Ram and All things... over Imagine.
    Gabriel

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  5. "it is probably quite hard for us these days to under­stand just how goddamn different it must have sounded back in 1970"
    That's because you took the wrong approach in this review: you compare it with 21st Century successors, with more or less like-minded artists of our days. Compare it with stuff that was popular in 1969 and 1970 (the first albums of Led Zep, Black Sab, Deep Purple, ELP etc.) and it's very obvious how different Lennon was.

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    1. But what's the point? I'd say it's much more interesting to try to place Lennon in our current context and see if he still makes a difference. Who might be interested in going back to 1970 and value Lennon for being strong back then almost 50 years ago except for ourselves who already know the answer?

      I like George's reviews — he completely wipes the nostalgia out of the picture. And, yes, in 2018 I think we should be comparing Lennon to 2018 successors. Otherwise I can't see how we can explain to the new generations (my own children for example) what's the point in Lennon.

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  6. Just proves that before you open your soul bare, before your feelings are naked, there's got to be something hidden inside. I don't think this album is any less sincere than Bon Iver's debut. But there's a big difference between tearing yourself apart to deliver something that was hidden and just... you know, tearing yourself apart for the sake of tearing yourself apart.

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    1. Sorry. I meant "I don't think Bon Iver's debut is any less sincere than this album"

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  7. I think the beauty of Lennon post-Beatles was that he wasn't just trying to write hits. The melodic instincts were there but there's a don't-care-what-you-think vein running through his songs, especially on this album. There's more courage and authenticity in these songs than in anything by Black Sabbath for instance because they come from the heart. This kind of honesty is both rare and difficult to pull off in a medium where popularity is the eponymous goal.

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  8. Don't know why but I've never been able to connect with this album on any emotional level despite all the supposedly "universal" themes. It's one of those records I truly admire more than enjoy listening. I like the "punch in the guts" feel of some of the rockers ("I found out" especially), some are okay ("Working class hero", "Hold on", "Remember") but the epic-themed ballads ("Love", "God", "Isolation") do little or nothing to me.

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  9. Superb review. I for one am happy to see the "Serious John and Wussy Paul" narrative take some hits (the new story seems to be "Cruel John and Kind Paul," which actually seems pretty fair), and I can't understand how an openminded listener could possibly prefer the majority of Lennon's 70s output to McCartney's (and I'm speaking as an ardent fan of "Rock and Roll"). But "Plastic Ono Band" is definitely one of the best albums ever. Lennon makes these lyrics come alive, with his voice, with his guitar shredding, with his cohorts. He would never sound so inspired again.

    And thank you, for spending some time on "Look at me" and "Well Well Well," the most slept on tracks of John's career. I'd put "Remember" in that company, too!

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  10. I prefer Imagine overall. Less miserable.

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