"I Don't Believe in Beatles": John Lennon's Minimalist Journey to Independence
How an audacious, daring record from a disgruntled ex-Beatle became a major musical landmark.
By 1970, John Lennon was struggling to break free from his former Fab Four image and transform himself into a more cynical, hard-edged solo artist. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in particular is known for its emotionally naked and brutally honest songs. Tracks like "I Found Out" and "God" deconstruct a multitude of sacred cows, from organized religion, to naive hippiedom, to the idea of the Beatles themselves. However, Lennon’s metamorphosis from a lead Beatle to "just John" is not only apparent in the pronouncedly pessimistic lyrics of Lennon’s early solo career. The sparse instrumentation and minimal melodies from the Plastic Ono era testify to Lennon’s primal descent into cold, harsh reality as well. Some Beatles fans might have gently wept while listening to the song "God" as Lennon sang, "I don’t believe in Beatles." Given the artist’s attempt to break free from the romantic sonic and compositional experimentation of the Sgt. Pepper era, though, the truth of these stark lyrics should have eluded no one.
When Lennon fans first gave Plastic Ono Band a spin in 1970, its opening strains clued them into the fact that they were going to hear something quite different from the Lennon of the past. Four strikes of an ominous sounding bell lead into John singing "Mother, you had me, but I never had you." The instrumentation on "Mother" is notably sparse, with only piano, bass, and drums accompanying Lennon’s impassioned vocal about coming to grips with his troubled childhood. The piano arrangement through most of the song consists of block chords sustained for a measure at a time with very little rhythmic accentuation. Similarly, the bass simply sits on the tonic of each chord, lacking any ornamentation. Lennon’s lyrics are appropriately direct. When Lennon sings "mamma don’t go… daddy come home", the listener can feel the raw pain in his vocal, since it’s unadulterated by artificially lush production values.
The rest of the record continues in a similarly minimalistic bent. Even the album’s most lyrically optimistic tunes, "Hold On" and "Love", embrace musical simplicity and avoid romantic sentimentality. "Hold On" uses a bluesy guitar as its textural base as Lennon reassures himself and Yoko that "it’s gonna be alright", as if to ease the primal pain of "Mother". "Love" features a gentle, contrapuntal, classical-style piano. Lennon isn’t lyrically far removed here from such memorable McCartney tracks as "Here, There, and Everywhere" or "I Will". However, rather than filling the arrangement with layers of sound, he brings the unassuming piano track to the fore, demonstrating a difference in aesthetic philosophy with his former musical partner in crime.
"Working Class Hero" and "Look at Me" feature only acoustic guitars for accompaniment. The lyrics of 'Working Class Hero" have a complex, ironic connotation when juxtaposed with a strummed guitar style reminiscent of 1960s protest music. "Look at Me", in which Lennon asks himself pointedly, "What am I supposed to be?" features a Merle Travis finger-picking style in the mode of "Julia" from the White Album. Even the tracks on Plastic Ono Band that 'rock' the most are sonically minimal. "Remember", a tune inspired directly by Lennon’s experiences in therapy, is driven by a repetitive rhythmic piano. "Well, Well, Well" features a distorted, bluesy electric rhythm guitar layered upon only one raucous, yet basic lead guitar track.
The two most lyrically cynical tunes on the album, "I Found Out" and "God", are especially pointed in their embrace of minimalist principles. On "I Found Out," Lennon effectively rejects the '60s counterculture and the mythical idea of the Beatles themselves. In addition to taking one last dig at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the subject of Lennon’s White Album-era "Sexy Sadie", he says that he’s "seen religion, from Jesus to Paul", referring to both St. Paul and Paul McCartney, a saint himself in the eyes of many Beatles fans. The song’s relentlessly stark lyrics are accompanied at first only by a bluesy guitar playing the melody in unison with the lead vocal. "God" features a repetitive, gospel-tinged piano part played by Billy Preston. Lennon begins the tune with the audacious statement that "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." He goes on to provide a list of people or concepts he no longer believes in. Alongside Jesus, I Ching, and Buddah, he lumps such 1960s idols as the Kennedys, Bob Dylan, and, most famously, the Fab Four themselves. While Lennon’s vocal is quite dynamic, changing in timbre and range to match the cynicism of the lyrics, the rhythm section stays relentlessly consistent, giving Lennon a stable musical palate from which to work. While this “faux gospel” tune could have easily turned into a full-blown production with organ and a choir, Lennon once again keeps the texture simple so that his virtuosic vocal is accentuated.
Plastic Ono Band is now universally regarded as not only Lennon’s most important post-Beatles effort, but one of the greatest records in pop history. So many years removed from the record’s original release, it is difficult to imagine what an audacious artistic move it was for Lennon to make this album. Not only did Lennon run the risk of alienating his fans with the lyrics rejecting his past self, but his artistic principles stood in contrast to those employed during much of the Beatles’ career. In making the austere Plastic Ono Band, one source of Lennon’s inspiration was the “primal scream” therapy he was undergoing at the time. The primitive nature of Lennon’s vocals and the confessional mode of his lyrics clearly reflect his therapeutic experiences. The record’s musical minimalism in arrangement and sonic texture support the "primal" concept effectively. The listener often has the feeling of being alone in a quiet room with only Lennon’s inner reflections. Lennon’s bold turn to the minimal, though, was not just a result of his lyrical introspection and personal circumstances. Rather, the former Beatle was clearly placing himself in diametric aesthetic opposition to not only Paul, George, and Ringo, but the John of the Beatle era.
When one looks at the primary musical contributions Lennon made during the Beatles’ artistic and critical peak (circa Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s), one is struck by the contrast with Lennon’s early solo work. Tracks like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite", and "Good Morning Good Morning" all reflect a fascination with sonic experimentation and a "fullness" of sound. While Paul is often credited with taking the band in the direction of larger musical forms and symphonic sonic principles, it is clear that John did his share to lead the group down this road as well. "Mr. Kite" in particular features layer upon layer of odd sonic effects and unconventional instrumentation to place the listener in the middle of Lennon’s psychedelic circus. "Strawberry Fields Forever", one of the most introspective songs in the Beatles catalog, features a wall of sound to illustrate the "strange" nature of childhood innocence. The Dadaist "I Am the Walrus" swims in a river of psychedelic experimentation as well. In fact, Lennon references this song in "God" to clearly delineate the 'old John' vs. the 'new John', when he asserts, "I once was the walrus, but now I’m John."
"Julia", for example, consists of only an acoustic guitar and John’s quiet vocal, a precursor to "Look at Me". The emotionally naked "Yer Blues" features a simple, yet raucous texture, predicting "Well, Well, Well". If Lennon’s minimalism was hinted at on the White Album, it was developed even more during the troubled sessions that eventually led to Let It Be. The whole concept behind this record, in fact, was a "return to roots" mentality. The Beatles wanted to get back to where they first started, four young lads from Liverpool playing rock ‘n' roll music. Lennon joyfully contributed such simple tunes as "Don’t Let Me Down" and "Dig a Pony". Let It Be’s failure to establish artistic and critical credibility was at least partially due to Phil Spector’s completion of the project. A track like "Across the Universe", originally intended as a quiet meditation on the nature of change, was bloated into an orchestral assault on the senses.
"Come Together", the opening song on Abbey Road, arguably reflects Lennon’s embryonic minimalism more than any other Beatles tune. The combination of blues riffs and sparse texture was surely a harbinger of things to come. Although Lennon had explored a less-is-more approach to composition and performance during his time with the Beatles, Plastic Ono Band represents John’s first chance to fully embrace his minimalist aesthetic and push it to its long-playing logical conclusion. Unencumbered by the need to compromise with other musical collaborators, John’s stark vision was revealed in its entirety for its first time upon the record’s 1970 release.
While John started his solo career with an embrace of simplicity’s chilling beauty, he did not follow this path for long. His follow-up record Imagine is infinitely more mainstream than his debut, both lyrically and musically. The opening strains of the title song feel like they could be a continuation of Plastic Ono Band. A single, unassuming piano begins the track before John begins his idealistic vocal. However, by the second verse, where John asks us to "imagine there’s no country", a sentimental-sounding string section enters, leading the listener down the road more travelled. Overall, Imagine is a more settled record. John no longer asks the big questions about who he is supposed to be and how he can overcome his sainted past as a Beatle. Overall, he expresses a state of contentment about his relationship, his music, and his life. While there are exceptions to this generalization (especially "Gimme Some Truth" and "How Do You Sleep?"), Lennon’s sophomore solo effort represents a retreat from cynicism. Listening to both records many years removed from their original release, it seems infinitely clear that the former is a landmark record of true artistic significance, whereas the latter suffers from a lack of unified vision. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a boldly Spartan foray into realism, whereas Imagine is a more-sophisticated-than-average Hallmark greeting card for the masses.
While Lennon didn’t consistently embrace the minimalist principles of his earliest solo work for his entire career, the legacy of his artistic austerity is still with us today. Several contemporary indie bands have embraced the "less-is-more" attitude espoused by Lennon on Plastic Ono Band. The xx, a modish London band, embraced a minimalist aesthetic and presented emotionally direct lyrics on their own debut record. Spoon, over the course of several albums, have consistently and creatively reduced pop music to its most essential elements. Wilco, in their post-A Ghost Is Born incarnation, have returned to a more basic texture on records like Sky Blue Sky. Certainly Lennon wasn’t the first or the last to embrace minimalism as an artistic ideal in pop. However, because Lennon is such a prominent figure in contemporary music, his aesthetic choices lend validity to younger artists trying to get back to basics as well. Lennon successfully built upon musical principles established during his time with the Beatles, while pushing them in new directions, free from the crippling responsibility of living up to his image as one of the Fab Four. By the time Lennon died in 1980, many fans had long since stopped believing in Beatles, but had started believing in John.