The Classic Albums series manages to faithfully remember and do justice to John Lennon's solo masterpiece.
"I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done...It’s true to me that’s been developing over the years. I like first person music...and now I write all about me. And that’s why I like it, it’s me, and nobody else." -- John Lennon, 1970
The Classic Albums series is setting itself an ambitious task attempting to spotlight John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Fresh from the Beatles, those four unassuming Liverpudlians that became the most successful group ever, a band Lennon was responsible for founding and, in turn, ending, his first solo album was the first artistic work from a pop star that so stubbornly refused to accept the boundaries of pop status quo. It looked instead inwards, to focus intently on the artist behind. It insisted on tearing down the lingering wall between the personal and private life of recording figures, putting simmering catharsis, self-therapy, and stark honesty all out, naked, on the table. Observe Lennon’s cryptic contributions to The Beatles’ Abbey Road [with the exception of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”] and the direct, tortured song-writing of Plastic Ono Band -- worlds apart.
Arguably even more important to the disc is the feeling one gets from listening to it that it has no desire to impress us, that the person who will benefit most from ‘having it all out there’ is Lennon himself, a technique that has paved the way for everything from punk to Nirvana to emo. Plastic Ono Band takes the avant-garde fascination that Lennon learnt from his wife, Yoko Ono, as inspiration and uses it as a platform for exposure, pumping it through rough, tattered, elemental rock. No-one, with the possible exception of the Velvet Underground, sounded this raw at the start of the '70s. As Yoko herself points out, the album revealed him and his psyche in a way that fame couldn’t. As the back of the DVD notes, it ‘addresses the basic issues of death, isolation, anger, religion, class, fear and love.’
Given that they can only pull footage of Plastic Ono Band’s time from Lennon’s sporadic live concerts, archival footages and newspaper headlines (of which there is no shortage), Classic Albums has their work cut out for them, even just placing the backdrop and context for Lennon’s solo watershed. In response to this challenge, the show takes care to place the tumultuous events of early 1970 in chronological order, beginning with the story of The Beatles’ imminent break-up; a logical point to pick up the story, as it fuelled the fire of Lennon’s acrimony leading up to the album. It doesn’t add anything to the well-publicized split – how could it? – but the series’ researchers have dug up some excellent photos from the time, something all Lennon connoisseurs will enjoy reliving.
The idea of the Plastic Ono Band’s conception, of course, came from Yoko, who gave Lennon his introduction to the avant-garde world (barely mentioned are the three much-reviled ‘experimental’ works they recorded together, Unfinished Work No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Work No. 2: Life with the Lions and The Wedding Album). The DVD fondly recollects the birth of “Give Peace A Chance”, Lennon’s first real solo song, recorded in a hotel room in Amsterdam.
Next came “Cold Turkey”, one of Lennon’s darkest and most underrated tracks that pre-empted the personal path he was heading towards during the recording of Plastic Ono Band. As the title would suggest, it harrowingly portrays heroin addiction, founded on a bare-bones backing track largely characterized by Eric Clapton’s biting guitar caterwaul, and concluding with a two-minute ‘breakdown’ of sorts that pushed Lennon’s voice to the edge of pain and withdrawal. “Instant Karma” was next; then recording of the album began.
"People are supposed to listen to the words, listen to the song, and get into the feel of this." -- Klaus Voormann, bass player
Through interviews with Yoko (in her famous ‘interview hat’), Ringo Starr, sound engineers who worked on the product, Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn and Primal Scream doctor Arthur Janov -- a useful initiative on the part of Classic Albums, as someone who has often been mentioned in relation to the album without knowledge of what he actually contributed – the programme pulls apart everything of note on Plastic Ono Band. To name a few: the crescendoing scream of loss on “Mother”, the reiterated sparseness of the final product, Lennon’s beginner piano playing that ends up making “Isolation” even more beautiful, the way the double-tracked voice on that same song comes together in the bridge, the cover art, the f-word controversy over “Working Class Hero”... As is to be expected, all these are remembered by the interviewees with affection and admiration.
If this may be slight as actual commentary or analysis, however, it is insightful anyway by virtue of being the Classic Albums series, and some worthy quotations crop up throughout the programme. Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner and Arthur Janov, for example, confirm Lennon’s famous cynicism. Most examination of the album is carried out in the typical style of the series – that is, players reliving their instrumental parts, a track-by-track walkthrough, and excited interviews. T
he only base not touched in the process, really, is an interview with the notorious Phil Spector, a most unlikely of producers for this raw, unadulterated discharge of emotion. That would be wishful thinking anyway, as Spector has a murder charge to his name; Starr and others cast serious doubt on whether he was even the real producer in the programme.
"When all is said and done, you only have yourself... And he came to that conclusion very quickly". -- Arthur Janov
Plastic Ono Band itself comes full circle on a magnificent closing statement, “God”. Here, Lennon takes his moods and cerebral journeys of the previous half hour and sums them up in one: “The dream is over”. Those four words express sadness, hope and finality all at the same time, set to the majestic piano of Billy Preston. Classic Albums wisely chooses to follow suit, covering this cut last. With its list of declarations, all beginning on “I don’t believe…”, it brings the '60s to an end perhaps more than any other song. Jann Wenner recalls audience’s shock over the proclamation “I don’t believe in Beatles”, while Janov muses over the wisdom of the first statement, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. It’s one of Lennon’s best lyrics.
The DVD of Plastic Ono Band is well worth watching, but only if you’ve heard the album (and if you haven’t, consider your musical education incomplete), and features a wealth of bonus material worth watching. This includes information on the songs (somewhat unfairly) excluded from the original broadcast – “Remember” and “Well Well Well”, with two live performances to sift through; “Mother” in Madison Square Garden and “Instant Karma”, performed on Top of the Pops.
One thing is certain: while the making of the album is faithfully chronicled, there is not enough from Classic Albums on the public reaction to it. It was hugely controversial at the time, not just for its denouncement of God, fame and idols in the final track, but also for its cutting, self-absorbed stance throughout. It received accolades from critics of the day, but performed poorly on the charts by Beatles standards, most of its reputation and stature gained in the 38 years since its release.
Its genius, however, lies in how the insecurities of a tremendously successful and famous man lie in some way parallel to so many of us, how his pain can apply to us, the listener. It is a brave masterpiece that attempts to confront the artist’s personal problems and ultimately finds a positive resolve, a silver lining, as a result. John Lennon never topped himself with this, the best solo album by a Beatle, and he will never have a chance to, a fact humbly acknowledged in this Classic Albums tribute.
The funniest line on the program, though, comes from ever-reliable Ringo. His deadpan recollection of the Plastic Ono Band sessions: "He would just sit there and sing ‘em".