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The Making of John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’: New ‘Ultimate Collection’ Set (Out 4/23) Puts You In the Room
The first proper solo album from John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band, is about as far from a Beatles album as you can get. And yet its grown in stature since its release — and especially since Lennons death in 1980 — and has grown to be widely regarded as one of the best post-Beatles releases by any of the bands former members. In fact, while All Things Must Pass, Band On The Run and Ringo are certainly monumental artistic achievements, and are rightly hailed, Plastic Ono Band has come to hold a singular place in the catalogs of the former members of the worlds greatest-ever band.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December 1970, was a confessional singer-songwriter album years before Dylans Blood On The Tracks, or any of the Laurel Canyon crowd started sharing their innermost thoughts. It also set an impossibly high bar, with Lennon baring his soul in a way that few songwriters had up to that point or, for that matter, have since. Add to that the companion album Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band, a tour de force of an avant-garde collaboration by one of the tightest and most sympathetic bands on the planet — Lennon, Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman — and youve got a moment in time, now examined in exhaustive detail in the fantastic new Ultimate Collection box set chronicling the sessions, unlike almost any other in the history of pop music.
Click here to pre-order the 2-CD set from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order the 2-LP set from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order the 8-disc Super Deluxe set from our Rock Cellar Store
[Voorman, by the way, is currently selling prints of some of his album illustrations — click here to peruse his catalog of works].
Rock Cellar has brought together those who were there (with the help of the indispensable recent oral history about the period), alongside recent interviews with bassist Klaus Voormann, Abbey Road tape operator John Leckie, and Rob Stevens, part of the team who painstakingly created the new box set, to remember the making of Lennons seminal solo work, fifty years later.
Lennons solo career kicked off with the release of Give Peace A Chance — originally credited to Lennon/McCartney — recorded in Lennon and Onos Montreal hotel room during their honeymoon/Bed In, with an all-star cast of characters, and released on July 4, 1969.
John Lennon: I didnt write it with Paul. We always had that thing that our names would go on songs even if we didnt write them. It was never a legal deal between Paul and me, just an agreement when we were fifteen or sixteen to put both our names on our songs. Id put his name on Give Peace A Chance, though he had nothing to do with it. It was a silly thing to do, actually. It should have been Lennon/Ono.
Yoko Ono: All those Vietnam protests really changed the world. There was always that element who were really resisting it. That was the saving grace — that people were aware that they were that young generation who were really against it. And so it worked very well for the world. And the Bed-In was just part of it, a definite part of it. It was a statement on a very theatrical level and I think it was very effective. We were artists and did it our own way. We felt very good about it then, and it was such an incredibly strange thing that we were doing. At the time it was a courageous thing to do. John was making the statement in a way that he was looking at the far, far future. I saw it in his eyes. He was saying, OK this is what were going to do together. And were going to give peace a chance. To the world.
After an impromptu concert in Toronto with Eric Clapton, Voormann, drummer Alan White and Ono, the single for Cold Turkey — a song turned down by The Beatles as a potential next single — followed on October 24, 1969.
Lennon: Cold Turkey is self-explanatory. It was the result of experiencing cold turkey withdrawals from heroin. Everybody goes through a bit of agony some time or another in their lives, whatever it is. Cold Turkey is just an expression of that.
John Leckie: Its on the cover of the Cold Turkey single — a cassette deck and some Perspex that was Johns sculpture for Plastic Ono Band — because they had this motto we are all Plastic Ono Band. It was the idea that everyone can create this kind of art.
Lennons third solo single, Instant Karma, followed on February 6, 1970.
Klaus Voormann: The first time I met Phil was when we were doing Instant Karma. I didnt know who this guy was. There was a little man crawling around and saying, Pick some of this down, or, Put the microphone over there. Then we went to the control room and I saw all those lights blinking and all the tape machines running, and then, after we were done, he turned up the knob full throttle and played Instant Karma and that was just incredible. It just sounded so much like Spector.
Lennon: Recording it was great. I wrote it in the morning on the piano, like Ive said many times. I went to the office and sang it. We booked the studio, and Phil came in, and said, How do you want it? I said, You know, Fifties, but now. He said, Right. And boom! I did it in about three goes. And went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was I said a bit more bass, thats all. And off we went. Phil doesnt fuss about with the stereo or all the bullshit. Just, Does it sound all right? Lets have it. It doesnt matter whether somethings prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or a human, take it. Dont bother whether this is like that, or the quality of this, just take it and that suits me fine.
Voormann: John was a little upset. [Laughing] Hed say, Why are the people not buying my record? He was a little pissed off. But what did he expect? I think eventually he was okay. But he wouldve liked to have had more success.
Leckie: John wanted hits. He talked all the time about having hit records. He wrote the letters to the Queen because Cold Turkey went down the charts. John was interested in selling records and expanding the Plastic Ono audience. He wanted to see what he did at No. 1, of course.
While neither Cold Turkey nor Instant Karma were the smashes Lennon had hoped theyd be, hed made a splash as a solo artist, even appearing on Britains Top Of The Pops. For his next album, however, Lennons material would come from his experience undergoing Arthur Janovs primal scream therapy in mid-1970 in San Francisco. The songs he wrote during his time with Janov, and in the immediate aftermath, were open and honest in a way that no other popular artist had ever been. The album kicked off in epic form with the blazing Mother.
Leckie: Mother, of course, took a few takes. And the last part, Mommy dont go, Daddy come home, the screaming part, that was dropped in. It was the end, the finale, and he was really screaming. But he couldnt do it the way he wanted it. So, as they continued doing takes, he stopped and just played the chords, without the vocal. And then, for the next few nights, John would come in and we would drop in just for the last screaming part. I can hear the difference in the voice but no one else can hear it, Im sure. But of course, when it was done, it was finished. That was it. There was no overdubbing keyboards or tambourines or anything. There was none of that.
Voormann: When you listen to the song and you listen to the lyrics, all you have to do is to be as simple as possible, so that people can really listen to what hes saying. I mean, on some of the tracks you have John singing his song without anything. So sometimes, our reduction was just because, Oh, yeah. Thats what hes saying. So, we just got into a certain groove that was really, really simple and that felt natural to us. We felt great about it. I mean, we werent analyzing it or anything. We just did it. Wed hear the song, and wed play. With Mother, it was definitely just John singing, saying the words, and us just being part of it, somehow playing along.
Leckie: Everyone really embraced the stripped-down approach. I was just the guy sitting at the back running the tape, but there was never any talk of embellishing it. There was never any talk of getting a horn section in or, you know, the Let it Be strings.
Hold On followed.
Lennon: I go through despair and hopefulness. I try and hang on to the hopeful bit. Otherwise, theres just no point at all.
Voormann: I knew him as a friend, not as a Beatle. I think that was important and I think that really added to the feeling of the record.
Leckie: Youve got to remember, hes playing with his best friends, really. Hes playing with Ringo and Klaus, and theyve known each other since they were kids, basically.
I Found Out came next, and laid bare Lennons experience with Janovs primal scream method for all the world to hear.
Voormann: The Plastic Ono Band played in Toronto, and then we recorded Instant Karma, and then we recorded Cold Turkey, and then the LP started, so there was enough time for me to get closer to what John and Yoko were about and wanted. When John came into the studio, we had no idea what was coming towards us, and we were so fresh through the whole situation and the songs were, you know, just thrown at us, so to speak that it stayed a completely new thing, and a new type of record we were playing on. So, when John started playing, and then Ringo started, we locked in. And thats why I remember that song particularly, from a musical point of view, so much. Thats not about the lyrics or the meaning of the song. Thats just mainly the way we locked in and played together, which was really exciting.
Leckie: It appears as though Klaus is just playing the root notes, but no, hes not. Hes adding all these things and such great character. The choice of notes, really, is perfect, and sometimes really unusual. And again, its simple. Its simple. Its simplified. Klaus, yeah. And what can you say about Ringo? He was a great character, and just the perfect drummer for John and especially for this album.
What has come to be seen as a manifesto of sorts from Lennon — Working Class Hero — followed. Just Lennon and an acoustic guitar, the song nevertheless carried the weight of a full orchestra.
Ono: The Beatles were just saying to people, Its gonna be OK and then suddenly John comes out with this Plastic Ono Band album — “Working Class Hero” and “God” and all that, saying, Its not OK. There are these problems. Obviously that makes him less popular because people dont want to know about that. People want somebody to always tell them its OK. And so its gonna be a little bit less popular, but it shouldnt be if the world gets more mature. They should understand that thats more important somehow.
Leckie: I was there when he said, Fucking peasants. And my first reaction was, Hes messing about. Hes taking the piss. Were going to have to do that again. The fact that he swore on the record immediately made me think, Hes fucking about. Hes going to have to do it again. And it surprised me that it went out. And when I got the record, I said, bloody hell. Theyve left the fucking on there. Has anyone noticed?
Rob Stevens: With all due respect to Bob Dylan, I think Working Class Hero stands up with the best of any of his songs.
On an album of stark, brutal songs, Lennons Isolation also stands out as a gorgeous moment.
Voormann: As soon as you hear a song like this, and you know about the emotion thats in it because we all listened to the lyrics just as much as we listened to the chords John was playing on the piano or the guitar Ringo and I just listened and thought, What can we do? Sometimes we tried to play songs in a certain mood that was completely ridiculous for the song, and it didnt suit at all, just to loosen up a little. But then, when we thought, Now hes going to do it serious, then we all were on the spot. And Ringo was incredible. I loved playing with Ringo.
The boisterous and penetrating Remember followed, closing out Side One with an appropriate explosion.
Leckie: Remember is such a great track. The new mix just sounds fantastic. But its great because I’m not really a musician but someone showed me how to play Remember on the piano, and it is so simple. I mean, talk about punk rock. All of Johns piano parts, theyre so easy. Its just the movement of one finger kind of thing. But the power!
Stevens: I think with the piano in particular, when one is classically trained, and I can state this from fact, theres something prison-like about that, because you learn a proper way of doing things, and you have to work to forget the rules. John, however, thought of it as, These notes feel like this and sound like this. And there is something much more primary and primal about that than someone who was starting, like, with a Berklee School of Music education.
Love, featuring Lennon on vocal and acoustic guitar, and co-producer Phil Spector on exquisite piano, kicked off Side Two in touching, yet grand, style.
Leckie: John was just the greatest singer, but he was more than that, of course. He knew how to deliver, whether it was his songs or his art, to an audience. Whether he was screaming his lungs out, or, like on Love, singing in the most intimate, beautiful way, he knew just how to do it, and could do it like that every single time. It was peak professionalism, in my book.
Stevens: Theres something very ironic, of course, about Love, hearing Phils really sensitive kind of minuet playing, and having to get out of ones head the juxtaposition of where he was then and where he was later on. Its hard to comprehend.
The searing Well Well Well, with Lennon leading Starr and Voormann on his beloved Epiphone Casino guitar followed.
Voormann: Ringo played with John, and John and Ringo. They were the most incredible rhythm section. John was such a great rhythm guitar player, too. Thats what people underestimate. They dont realize how much in the Beatles Johns rhythm guitar and Ringos beat really were just incredible. And then me, being there and having the chance to play with those guys, was just overwhelming for me. It was fantastic. But I didnt think of them as Beatles. When youre in the studio and you start playing, you forget about all that, anyway. You dont even think about it.
Leckie: Theres a breakdown about halfway through, after a chorus, and Yoko thought it was going to finish, so she pressed the talkback, which was on a speaker, and you can hear her voice in the background going, Pretty good, John, try it again. Theres a slight hesitancy, but they carried on playing and finished the song. And I thought, Oh, theyre going to have to do it again. And they all came in and listened to it, and John said, Yokos on the record, thats great! Well use that one. They used that take purely because she interrupted it.
Stevens: His rhythm playing is incredibly percussive, and the percussiveness changes as the song changes or as the different songs change. And John being able to mimic his own voice as percussive as that reveals something that he could not do as a member of a group. There wasnt the time, there wasnt the space, as a Beatle. But on Well, Well, Well, the slashing on the end of that is unreal.
The simple, stark and piercing Look At Me followed.
Lennon: A couple of tracks, which one would suppose were written under therapy, like Look At Me, were written pre-Janov, about a year before therapy. But the theme was the same: Look at me, Who am I?, all that jazz. So thats why I stuck it on that album. But actually, it had come from beforehand.
Stevens: These same songs with studio cats would have not had the same visceral impact. A session guitarist would call Johns playing a little bit sloppy, but it was actually dead-on for the song and for the vulnerability that was on display.
The gorgeous God, in which Lennon killed his idols as well as his former band in song in favor of a simple life with Ono, closed out the album proper.
Lennon: God was stuck together from three songs. I had the idea: God is a concept by which we measure our pain. 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 simple, because I like that kind of music. And then I just rolled into it I Ching and Bible and the first three or four just came out, all these things I didnt believe in. It was like a Christmas card list. I thought, Well where do I end? Churchill? Who have I missed out? It just got out of hand. And Beatles was the final thing because I no longer believe in myth, and Beatles is another myth I dont believe in it. The dream is over. Im not just talking about the Beatles, Im talking about the generation thing. The dream is over. Its over, and we, well I have, anyway, personally, got to get down to so-called reality.
Stevens: I originally misunderstood the lyrics at the end, where hes saying, And so dear friends, youll just have to carry on. The dream is over. But what hes really doing is saying is, I am done with doing this. And now, if you have worshipped me as a Beatle idol, go find somebody else to pray to. And when I finally heard it dry, the whole song flipped on its head. It wasnt just the rejection. It was an acceptance.
And so, My Mummys Dead, a simple Lennon home demo, brought Plastic Ono Band to an end.
Lennon: I never allowed myself to realize that my mother had gone. Its the same if you dont allow yourself to cry, or feel anything. Some things are too painful to feel, so you stop. We have the ability to block feelings and thats what we do most of the time.
Voormann: When the record came out, it was far too much ahead of people for them to really realize what a great record it was. And thats whats important to me, that I feel that this is a record thats going to be there forever, and that people will always go back to this record and listen to it and discover new things and how great it is. Because its fantastic.
August 4, 2022