Counterbalance No. 68: 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band'
Counterbalance is a concept by which we measure the most Acclaimed Music of all time. This week, number 68 -- the first time an ex-Beatle makes the Great List.
Klinger: I've generally considered John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band to be an album that is more respected than liked. It has a built-in reputation as the by-product of Lennon's "Primal Scream" phase, a brief time in which he employed the therapies of Dr. Arthur Janov and took to shrieking his troubles away. All of this baggage caused me to think of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band as pure catharsis, an extended rant from a young man who was fed up with the trappings of his culture, and was as a result lashing out at everything around him—the Portnoy's Complaint of rock, if you will, albeit with fewer masturbation references.
Actually revisiting the album again after so many years, though, I find it to be a far more controlled listening experience than I was expecting. There's surprisingly little screaming, and in fact it's quite the tuneful record in places, with Lennon crafting some of his finest melodies ("Love" and "God", to name two examples). Yes, the lyrics are pretty biting throughout, but it's hardly the yell-a-thon I had built up in my mind. Lennon seldom even sounds like he's curled up in the fetal position. But Mendelsohn, I'm going to take a stab here and guess that you were less encumbered by the reputation of this album—what's your take?
Mendelsohn: I never bothered to really get into any of the ex-Beatles' post-Beatles work. Whenever I would start to listen to any of it, I'd always find myself wishing I was listening to an actual Beatles album, at which point I would turn off whatever it was and go find the "White Album" or Sgt. Pepper's, sometimes even Magical Mystery Tour. So ignoring all ex-Beatle output became a bit of a hobby. Sure, I've listened to Paul's latest projects and I vaguely remember sort of liking the Fireman thing he did awhile back. Heck, I even made it all the way through Ringo's last album at least once. If I had to pick one ex-Beatle to listen to exclusively it would probably be George, but only for his work with the Traveling Wilburys.
In listening to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band I kept getting this feeling like something was missing. It made me think about the discussion we had about the "White Album" when you pointed out that some of the songs that Paul wrote were a bit too sweet and some of the songs that John wrote were a bit too sour and how, if they had been speaking at the time, those songs might have been better with a little bit of balance—a little bit of sweet to temper the sour and vice versa. That's what I keep thinking about every time I run through this album. There is some great stuff on this record. I like "Well Well Well" and "Isolation", but they are so John and so sour, so acerbic, that I almost want to play some Wings at the same time just for a little shot of sugar.
Klinger: Well, that would be an ungodly racket, but I understand the impulse. As shocked as people were by Lennon's lyrics, which were a brutal dismemberment of his past—especially the Beatly bits—I get the sense that the stark, sparse production was nearly as jarring. After all, no matter how far Lennon was trying to go toward bringing raw honesty to his former group's sound, he was still going to have to work with and through Paul McCartney and George Martin. I mean, compared to this album, Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" sounds like Mantovani. It's hard to fathom that Phil Spector, of all people, had a hand in producing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (although Lennon did make it up to Phil by letting him gussy up Imagine the next year).
But it all sounds like a necessary reaction on Lennon's part to the turmoil that was going on in his life. His band had broken up, estranging him from the people who had been closest to him for a decade. He had fallen in love with a woman very different from the ones rock stars usually choose for themselves, and their romance left the world very confused. His anti-war shenanigans were polarizing people. He had recently shown everybody his doodle. Lennon being the scrapper that he was, though, came out swinging with a blistering Rolling Stone interview, in which he verbally eviscerated pretty much everyone he'd ever met, and this album, in which he tells people that the dream is over. In 1970, "I don't believe in Beatles" was tough medicine for rock fans. ("I don't believe in Jesus", though, is buried in the litany, which still strikes me as odd.)
Mendelsohn: I think the litany in "God" could be interpreted in a lot of different ways by a lot of different people. He's basically questioning the biggest figureheads of the era from the Beatles to Bob Dylan (after ripping him off to write "Working Class Hero"), to Kennedy and Hitler. Maybe he's pursuing the line of what draws people to these larger-than-life figures and dissecting the blind devotion by calling attention to it, thereby deflating his own public image.
But then, what would you do after an acrimonious split from the biggest band in the world? I think he did what anyone would do. Shed his old persona, attack the things in his past that he felt held him down, and strip away the remnants in order to start fresh. Now, the question is, does John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band constitute a fresh start? Or did John simply benefit from being an ex-Beatle? This album is full of snippets of melody yet obtuse enough in all the right places to discourage general Beatles fan. Is it a play for critical acclaim, or is he just riding his good name?
Klinger: I was actually thinking about that very thing as I was pondering this album over the past week. What if this weren't John Lennon, but instead the work of some unknown singer-songwriter? It’s entirely possible that he would be disregarded as a petulant crank. We feel a connection to the work mainly because it's coming from John Lennon. We know the story of the Beatles inside and out, and we sympathize with Lennon—because we choose to. And that may have been even more the case back in 1970, when the latest pronouncements from our rock stars were seen as statements from on high.
Although in all fairness to our hypothetical non-Lennon upstart, the dead-on "Working Class Hero" might well have been given more weight by critics since it wouldn't have been the work of a privileged rock star. And while I'm at it, why that song hasn't been adopted by these protesty groups that have sprung up all over of late is beyond me. You know, now that Americans have suddenly become class-conscious and all. But for all the talk about Lennon swinging wildly at everything around him on this album, it's pretty clear that when he landed a solid punch, you felt it.
Mendelsohn: Yeah, Hitler and Kennedy must have felt the fools. I'm not on board with this album, John Lennon or Non-Lennon. I think the tipping point is "Working Class Hero". For one, I would have preferred to have heard Dylan do it, I'm sure he would have laid a down a more interesting melody. Second, I always imagine Lennon sitting alone in the back of a chauffeured car, singing that song as his driver navigates the streets of New York. I just have a hard time believing in the critics ability to see past the bright, white light of Lennon. It seems like just because it's Lennon, the cool Beatle, it merits high praise. And I don't agree—compared to his previous work, this record is sort of dull. Except for the part in "Hold On" where Lennon leans into the mic and says, "COOKIE!" I don't understand it but I love it.
Klinger: Yeah, that's good stuff. Cookie. As for the album being dull, I'm not hearing that. It's true that Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman play their parts so sparsely that at times they sound like they're in demo mode, but there's an intimacy in the songs that befits their naked emotion. And I'm shocked to hear you defend Dylan, but these are crazy times.
Meanwhile, it's not especially fair to suggest that Lennon's wealth precludes him from talking about the ways the Establishment screws the working class. After all, Upton Sinclair was raised by his wealthy grandparents and went to prep school, and nobody gives him any guff (Or did they? Muckraker trivia's not my bag.) Also, class consciousness in 1970s UK was far more entrenched than it ever was here in the States. The Beatles may have made a lot of money, but they weren't going to be accepted into the moneyed classes—in fact they took a lot of guff for their Scouse accents (I seem to recall it being something of a subtext throughout their film A Hard Day's Night). But I think "Working Class Hero" still has a universality that makes it more than just a fancy-pants rock star rant. That was Lennon's gift all along—the ability to take what he was feeling and make a larger statement of it.
Mendelsohn: Well, I can't deny Lennon's ability to draw attention to whatever he was saying, even if what he was saying was it that we should re-evaluate everything we believe in (even the Beatles) but I still can't shake the feeling that this album is missing something.
Klinger: Well, like I said earlier, Lennon would add a little MSG to the recipe with Imagine, which coincidentally is the next solo Beatle LP we'll be covering. We'll see if it's more to your taste.