Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Albums of 1970: John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band

Release Date: December 11, 1970

Produced by Phil Spector

Contributors: Klaus Voormann (Bass), Ringo Starr (Drums)

Side One: Mother; Hold On; I Found Out; Working Class Hero; Isolation

Side Two: Remember; Love; Well Well Well; Look at Me; God; My Mummy's Dead

Plastic Ono Band is John Lennon at his most rawest and emotionally honest. A far cry from the Beatles records, the album attempted to come to terms with his painful past. On the closing track "God" when Lennon pronounces "I don't believe in Beatles," he's deferring the dreams of the 1960s to another time, a farewell to limitless idealism The Beatles represented and accepting hard truths, while bracing for struggles ahead.

With spare production featuring a guitar, drum, piano, and bass, the music is minimal and direct. After undergoing Primal Scream therapy under the direction of psychologist Arthur Janov, Lennon was dealing with childhood traumas. The opening track "Mother" is about being abandoned by his parents. Raised by his aunt, Lennon did not establish a relationship with his Mom until he was a teenager, only to lose her (she was killed by a drunk driver). His father, a merchant seaman, only reached out when his son became famous. As the song progresses Lennon begins to scream the lyrics, daring to make the listener uncomfortable in his search for catharsis. 

"Hold on John" breaks the gloom of "Mother" with John offering himself and listeners some encouragement, even imitating Sesame Street character "Cookie Monster". The final verse still resonates:

When you're by yourself

And there's no one else

You just have yourself

And you tell yourself

Just to hold on

"I Found Out" echoes "Sexy Sadie" from the White Album, only it's more acidic in tone. Rejecting both organized religion and New Age spirituality, Lennon declares "ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky" and "there ain't no guru who can see through your eyes." 

Following "I Found Out" comes arguably the most political song Lennon ever wrote "Working Class Hero." The acoustic guitar drone and Lennon's angry, despairing lyrics deal with how the ruling class manipulates working people through various means. It can be through physical abuse at home or school, or through psychological methods:

When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years

Then they expect you to pick a career

Or they will send you off to war to kill your fellow man. Despite gains made towards a more just society, Lennon sees little progress, "you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." One could throw the charge of hypocrisy at Lennon, of all the Beatles he came from the most affluent of families. And he benefitted from the capitalist system, which allowed him to live a comfortable materialist lifestyle. Still, the sentiment and power of the song, especially in a time period when the ruling elites continue to wage class war on working people.

Side one ends with "Isolation," another meditation on Lennon's raw state of mind and pessimism about the world. Feeling disconnected and disillusioned, pointing his finger at the metaphorical figure responsible for all the pain in the world, but with a tinge of empathy:

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

"Remember" features John pounding the piano with Ringo's steady drumbeat. Inspired by the Primal Scream therapy, with stark lyrics dealing with childhood dreams crashing down, promises unfulfilled. Respites featuring a doo-wop aside eases the tension, but inevitably ends with an explosion and Lennon screaming "Remember the Fifth of November!"

"Love" is song of solace and a continuation of the Beatles classic "All You Need is Love." Inspired by his relationship with Yoko Ono, his wife and primary collaborator at the time, hopeful but layered with a fractured beauty in the melody. "Well Well Well" suggested punk and grunge before each were fashionable, with Lennon playing a blistering guitar describing daily life with Yoko. One also gets a sense of self loathing in the song, perhaps expressing a frustration with his inability to change himself much less the world. "Look at Me" is a quiet acoustic number Lennon wrote during a trip to India in 1968, introspective and gentle. 

"God" reiterated the ideas explored in "I Found Out," expanding the themes into an anthem against hero-worship. Guided by a mournful piano Lennon declares "the dream is over" and goes on to list various political, religious, and cultural figures he no longer believes in. The message to listeners; Start thinking for yourselves. Stop seeking leaders with selfish agendas. "My Mummy's Dead" serves as a coda, a 49 second fragment of a song with John musing on his Mom Julia, providing a bookend to the record. 

Plastic Ono Band resonates 50 years later. Glancing at youtube comments, many compare the album to Kurt Cobain. No doubt true, but Nirvana is part of history now as well. The raw emotions Lennon explores on the album have the sense of immediacy, juxtaposing personal turmoil with the that of the world. Lennon realized he could not change the world, but he could change himself. 

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