Music

John Lennon 101 - Day 3: New Classicism (1970 - 1971)

With the wild flights of experimental fancy over, Lennon reinvents himself as a post-Beatle poet with two amazing LPs.

Plastic Ono Band
(1970)

It was the second to last track on the album that did it, definitively putting a nail in the coffin of the dismantled Fab Four. The band had called it quits almost six months earlier and this seemed to be the ultimate statement to Beatles fans; it was time for each of the members to go their separate ways.

"I don' t believe in Beatles … I was the walrus / But now I am John / And so dear friends / You just have to carry on / The dream is over," John Lennon sang at the end of "God", a song off of his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Although the record wasn' t technically his first work outside of the Beatles -- he had recorded three avant-garde albums with Yoko Ono prior to that: Unfinished Music No. 1, Unfinished Music No. 2, and Wedding Album as well as Live Peace and Toronto 1969, from the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival -- it was the late rock legend' s first proper solo LP.

Twenty days after the album' s release date, December 11, 1970, Paul McCartney had begun court proceedings to end the Beatles partnership. Plastic Ono Band went hand in hand with the group's breakup and the record as a whole, supplanting Lennon's post-Beatles persona: a take-it-or-leave-it approach when it came to putting his feelings out in front.

In the latter half of their career, the Beatles had used psychedelic thought as a way of obscuring the message in their songs. But on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon was as clear as day regarding, among other things, his feelings towards his childhood, his religious beliefs, his relationship with Yoko and the band that made him famous.

The album starts with the ringing church bells of "Mother", as John comes in shortly thereafter with a poignant letter to his parents. It wasn' t easy for the rocker growing up in Liverpool. His father, Fred, left him before he was two years old and his mother, Julia, died from a car accident when he was still a teenager. That pain and raw emotion comes to the forefront through Lennon' s simple yet piercing lyrics: "Mother, you had me but I never had you … Father, you left me but I never left you." By the end of the song, he screams the final words over and over again: "Mama don't go / Daddy come home."

What makes the album such a force is that it keeps the same vibrancy and personality from beginning to end. "I Found Out", with its pounding drums and thick bass line, complements John's lyrics where he shows disdain towards religion and religious idols: "Now that I showed you what I been through / Don't take nobody's word what you can do / There ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky / Now that I found out I know I can cry." "Isolation" expresses the loneliness John feels in regards to he and Yoko' s relationship to the outside world: "People say we got it made / Don't they know we're so afraid?" Then there is the Dylanesque "Working Class Hero", an anthem influenced by John' s upbringing in Liverpool. The song drew a good amount of criticism with Lennon' s inclusion of two f-words in the lyrics, further solidifying the death of the clean-cut Beatle image that was bestowed on him and his fellow bandmates for nearly a decade.

That' s not to say the album is completely full of despair. Both "Hold On" and "Love" serve as reminders to the more positive, peaceful side of Lennon. Still, John' s openness and emotion are what take center stage, best exhibited through the theme of repetition, which is constant throughout Plastic Ono Band. Whether it be uttering, over and over again, "Mama don' t go / Daddy come home" in "Mother", or, "I don' t believe in …" in "God" the message seemed clear: This was the real John Lennon, raw, uncensored and uncut. Alex Suskind

 

Imagine
(1971)

The second solo album released by John Lennon, Imagine, may also be his most well-known, and certainly its title track is the most identifiable solo Lennon tune. Released in 1971, just one year after John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, it is these ten tracks that seem to define Lennon as a solo artist more than any other. Produced by Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Phil Spector, the album also features George Harrison on several songs.

Beginning with the title track, "Imagine", Lennon immediately sets the tone for much of the rest of the album. As ubiquitous as this song is, "Imagine" still manages to surprise and deliver its message of peace in a sincere and frankly, touching manner. It is a song that could have easily devolved into a cloying, sentimental message that fades away over time. Yet, Lennon's words cut away any maudlin sentiments instantly: "Imagine there's no heaven / it's easy if you try / no hell below us / above us only sky." There is a nakedness to these lyrics, as well as a simple, repeating piano line throughout, that leave only the core of what Lennon is trying to get across, and in turn makes it that much more effective.

The third track on the album, "Jealous Guy", is one of Lennon's strongest songs. The music is made up of a beautiful melody that in many ways runs counter to the song's lyrics. By surrounding his apologetic words in this softly sung tune, Lennon lends an additional emotional weight to the song. There are lines that are striking in their simplicity and vulnerability, none more so than "I was feeling insecure / you might not love me anymore." Lennon has always had a gift for honesty in his lyrics and "Jealous Guy" is another wonderful example of this.

Perhaps the most analyzed song on the album is Lennon's scathing Paul McCartney-directed "How Do You Sleep?". Lennon was responding to McCartney's second album, Ram, in which he felt there were various digs at both himself and Ono. While McCartney denied most of these accusations, he did admit to certain lines being about Lennon. Lennon answers by making direct reference to McCartney through his own compositions, such as Sgt. Pepper's, "Yesterday", and "Another Day". In using McCartney's own songs somewhat against him, Lennon expresses a level of outrage that only hints at the problems between the two. Although they would later reconcile, How Do You Sleep?" stills stands as one of Lennon's most mocking and caustic songs and serves as an honest account of his feelings at the time, as admittedly misplaced or scornful though they may be.

Imagine also contains two very political compositions, especially as it relates to war, "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" and "Gimme Some Truth". Lennon's passionate anti-war stance and his vehement opposition could not be more apparent here ("Well, I don't wanna be a soldier mama / I don't wanna die"). The former track is a bluesy number that repeatedly makes a case against war. He likens being a soldier to being a crybaby rich man and a lying lawyer, among others, while in "Gimme Some Truth" he wastes no time in calling out Nixon ("No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dick") and others he views in similar terms. Both are driving, noisy rock songs that are as lyrically unforgiving as it gets. For all of Lennon's gentleness in his love songs, his political ones never pull any punches and these are no exception.

In what may be the most gorgeous moment on the album, Lennon's "Oh My Love" is as lovely as any song he's written. It is musically and vocally reminiscent of his haunting "Julia" from The Beatles, yet still feels completely new. Obviously influenced by his time in therapy, it speaks of dreams and opening the mind all the while professing a newfound clarity. It's a beautiful song and one that shows off Lennon's voice at his best.

Much as "Oh My Love" was affected by therapy, "How?" is a similar case. The lyrics could very readily read as some modern self-help mumbo jumbo ("How can I have feelings / when my feelings have always been denied? / oh no, oh no"), but Lennon never really lets the song reach that point. Again, much is in the completely genuine delivery of the words, perhaps one of Lennon's greatest gifts.

The album is rounded out by a couple of classic rock songs, "Crippled Inside" and "It's So Hard" that call to mind some of the Beatles' early rock covers in their energy and Lennon's obvious enthusiasm in performing them. Closing the whole thing out, "Oh, Yoko!" is another rollicking tune that's equal parts sweet ode to Ono and fun sing-a-long.

In the end Imagine stands as an album of fully realized songs that run the gamut of Lennon's songwriting abilities. While it is his most commercially successful album, it also contains some of his most critically praised songs. "Imagine" may sometimes overshadow much of Lennon's solo work, but Imagine is as complete a statement as he ever made. J.M. Suarez

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