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John Lennon 101: The Solo Discography

John Lennon would have been 80 years old today. After the Beatles, Lennon created a treasured solo catalogue, and we take you through the history and the music album by album.

Plastic Ono Band (1970)

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The second to last track on the album 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 from 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, 11 December 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 come 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 his 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 full of despair. Both “Hold On” and “Love” serve as reminders to Lennon’s more positive, peaceful side. 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

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