Dualities are fascinating: Yin and Yang, Blur and Oasis, God and Satan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and so on. You can analyze these contrasting pairs to apparent death, and yet they’ll spring up again, resurrected, presenting fresh puzzles. Whether you approach each duo as a harmonious conjunction of opposites or as a violent discord between irreconcilables, the process always manages to generate a spark.
In the present case, consider the difficult question of the greatest album by a former Beatle. Sure, you might find a few dissenters who would want to bust up the duality I’m about to present: they’d claim that Imagine is the best post-Beatles effort, and maybe a few daring reactionaries would cite Band on the Run. You could throw Lennon against McCartney and see what insights ensue, since that’s the principal Beatles duality in everyone’s mind, with Lennon as the emotionally raw rocker and McCartney as the consummate craftsman of orchestral pop.
Ultimately, that’s not where the true post-Beatles dialectic is to be found, to get pretentious about it. The real Beatles duality is Lennon vs. Harrison, best embodied by comparing Plastic Ono Band with All Things Must Pass, the two prime candidates for best album by a former Beatle. This may be the most fruitful contrast in all of pop music, really, since it’s a potential key to understanding what the ’60s cultural tribulations were really all about. Two roads diverged in a wood: Lennon went one way, and Harrison went the other. But which was the road less traveled by?
On a purely sonic and aesthetic level, the two albums are totally different, despite sharing the same producer, Phil Spector. It’s as though Spector consciously tried to shape the albums by contrast, and he may well have, since Ono Band followed directly on the heels of Harrison’s opus.
All Things Must Pass is massive, lush, symphonic, soaring, open, and fundamentally joyful; Plastic Ono Band is spare, intimate, minimalistic, claustrophobic, searing, and essentially pretty desperate (though leavened by a few moments of grace, like “Love”). At the time, Rolling Stone mused that Harrison’s recording studio was his cathedral, while Paul McCartney’s was his home. (Ben Gerson, “All Things Must Pass,” Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971).
By contrast, Lennon’s studio was his psychiatrist’s office. which, in a way is literally true, since he was undergoing Arthur Janov’s somewhat bizarre “Primal Scream Therapy”, at the time. This therapy is reflected in the repeatedly screamed lines, “Mama don’t you go / Daddy come home” at the end of “Mother”. In reality, Lennon’s atmosphere is even more confined than a psychiatrist’s office: it’s like being trapped in someone’s skull.
The albums don’t merely sound different: their lyrics emanate from two basically oppositional philosophies. Harrison sings about his relationships with other people and with God; his words are usually addressed to someone else. Lennon’s words are largely addressed to himself, comprising pieces of his internal monologue. “Love” is targeted at Yoko, and there are a few stray lines of social concern, but, overall, Lennon is trying to wade through his own mental and emotional issues to find some pearl of self-understanding. He’s sharing his pain with the wider world, but he’s much more interested in a solution to his own difficulties than in a solution to the human condition — not that the two are necessarily unrelated.
This is okay, of course; I’m not attacking Plastic Ono Band at all. But it’s important to note that it is compelling because of its uncertainties and its sadness, not because of any special wisdom or grace it might provide. When Lennon urges himself to hold on in “Hold On”, bemoans his isolation in “Isolation”, and laments his dead mother in “My Mummy’s Dead” and “Mother”, he manages to be genuinely moving. But when he tries to provide an answer to his own difficulties, he is much less convincing.
To grant a good example: in “God”, Lennon provides us with a long list of everything he doesn’t believe in: magic, the I-Ching, the Bible, Tarot cards, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, mantras, the Bhagavad Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Bob Dylan, and finally, the Beatles. This leads to the anti-epiphany of “I just believe in me,” and, as an after-thought, “Yoko and me.” If Lennon was endorsing Emersonian self-reliance, I wouldn’t argue. But he’s actually affirming the superiority of “John Lennon”, the majestic persona, really more of a construct than a person, over any competing claims for his attention and affection.
While it’s positive to avoid blind hero-worship, I would be suspicious of anyone who didn’t believe in Bob Dylan as a lyricist and a creator, or in Elvis as an inspired cultural force, or in some of the ethical teachings of Jesus and Buddha. In those cases, there’s a healthy admiration for the good in the world, for the essence of poetry and music. But with “God”, Lennon is doing something else. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, he’s not trying to see his self reflected in the world and in the people around him, thereby generating empathy for everyone. Instead, he’s searching for the world’s reflection in himself; he’s dyeing it all in his own colors, and if it can’t match his own individual hue, he rejects it.
This critique is not directed at John Lennon the person, but rather “John Lennon” the construct, the character who sings the lyrics on Plastic Ono Band. Yes, that persona probably corresponds to the real Lennon to a decent degree, but it’s still important to make the distinction. Few people are ever fully how they represent themselves.
George’s approach, however, is radically different; it’s more akin to Tolstoy’s. All Things Must Pass is wholly occupied with finding the self in the world, or establishing connection and communication between people. Harrison earnestly loves humanity: he loves his friends, he loves the woman (or women) he’s addressing, and he overtly loves God. But his isn’t some corny, hyper-’60s, “All You Need is Love” kind of spiel. It’s definitely not the sentimentalities and platitudes of Woodstock gilded with superb musical plating, though that might be how some people view the record. Like Lennon’s album, it’s very personal, very intimate. It feels real, borne of experience, totally eschewing sloganizing and dogma.
All Things Must Pass begins with “I’d Have You Anytime”, a song Harrison co-wrote with Bob Dylan. This song sets the mood for the rest of the album’s two discs. “Let me in here,” sings Harrison, “I know I’ve been here / Let me into your heart […] / All I have is yours / All you see is mine / And I’m glad to hold you in my arms / I’d have you anytime.” You find the same desire to gain intimate knowledge of other beings, mortal and divine, on “My Sweet Lord”: “I really want to see you / Really want to be with you / Really want to see you, Lord, but it takes so long…” Harrison is ceaselessly concerned with interconnectedness and the idea of a relationship, and his attention is routed on an entirely different channel from Lennon’s. His love songs switch focus from human lovers to God and back, almost like Emily Dickinson or the Persian poet Rumi.
Given that this is an essay about a duality, it’s worth noting that Harrison is actually concerned with breaking down dualities. He wants to lessen the distance between himself and other people and between himself and God. For the most part, Plastic Ono Band sets up pretty intense and angry dualities: on the one hand, you have Lennon, and on the other, you have a mob of feckless fools: “You mix dope with religion and sex and TV / And you think you’re so clever and classless and free / But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see.” Lennon’s bitterness is earnest enough, but Harrison just doesn’t see things this way. He thinks every human being has a soul that is potentially divine, and thus, part of God, a unity that transcends all dualities. For Harrison, the only real enemy is ignorance, the force that prevents people from seeing the unity behind things, as explicated on “Beware of Darkness”.
At times, Lennon and Harrison actually argue with each other through the lyrics, directly and pointedly. Harrison was involved in the Hare Krishna movement, along with other forms of Hindu spirituality, provoking Lennon to sing: “Old Hare Krishna got nothing on you / Just keep you crazy with nothing to do / Keep you occupied with pie in the sky / There ain’t no guru who can see through your eyes.” From the other side of the line, when Lennon and Yoko launched a “Bed In” for peace and decided to remain in bed for a week (on two different occasions), Harrison thought this was somewhat unserious. He sings in “Awaiting on You All”: “You don’t need no love-in / You don’t need no bed pan / You don’t need a horoscope or a microscope / To see the mess that you’re in / If you open up your heart / You’ll know what I mean… / By chanting the name of the Lord, you’ll be free.” They’re both semi-publicly trying to refute each other.
Yet, even though they ended up taking such different approaches towards life, Lennon and Harrison had more in common with one another than with the other Beatles. They were the two who hung on the longest in Rishikesh, India, meditating at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram. Harrison said of the experience:
You know, the very first time we took LSD, John and I were together. And that experience together, and a lot of other things that happened after that, both on LSD and on the meditation trip in Rishikesh — we saw beyond each other’s physical bodies, you know? That’s there permanently, whether he’s in a physical body or not. I mean, this is the goal anyway: to realize the spiritual side. If you can’t feel the spirit of some friend who’s been that close, then what chance have you got of feeling the spirit of Christ or Buddha or whoever else you may be interested in? “If you’re memory serves you well, we’re going to meet again.” I believe that.
— (Anthony DeCurtis, “George Harrison Gets Back”, Rolling Stone, 22 October 1987)
But their paths inevitably diverged: Harrison stuck with Hinduism, and Lennon took to Yoko Ono as his de facto guru, despite disparaging gurus on “I Found Out”. In later years, Lennon would diss Harrison in an interview, since Harrison failed to mention that Lennon had contributed a line to “Taxman” in his autobiography:
George’s relationship with me was one of young follower and older guy. He’s three or four years younger than me. It’s a love-hate relationship and I think George still bears resentment toward me for being a daddy who left home. He would not agree with this, but that’s my feeling about it. I was just hurt. I was just left out, as if I didn’t exist. I don’t want to be that egomaniacal, but he was like a disciple of mine when we started… But don’t get me wrong. I still love those guys.
— (David Sheff, “Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono,” Playboy, January 1981)
Later, after Lennon’s death, George responded to a question about Lennon’s influence more convincingly:
INTERVIEWER: He said that you idolized him as a young boy.
GEORGE: That’s what he thought. I liked him very much. He was a groove. He was a good lad. But, at the same time, he misread me. He didn’t realize who I was, and this was one of the main faults of John and Paul. They were so busy being John and Paul, they failed to realize who else was around at the time.
— (Interview, West 57th , CBS, 1987)
All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band fully expose these personal fault-lines and divergences. In the process, while showing the different paths taken by two people, they also demonstrate the tendencies and tensions within the ’60s counter-culture. After the Beatles broke-up, Lennon followed a path more like the one taken by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: the psychedelic exploration encouraged by the ’60s led into a realm of doubt and pain, if one that still inspired creative effort (as admirably demonstrated by Ono Band). That same kind of exploration had a different effect on Harrison: he (apparently) states that he doesn’t need drugs anymore on “Wah-Wah,” and on the other tracks from All Things Must Pass, he affirms his commitment to universal spiritual ideals and tries to cultivate his relationships. Today, this seems to be a big part of our inheritance from that era: an ongoing duel between impulses towards constriction and impulses towards expansion, between a sense of the ego’s limits and a sense of cosmic openness.
However, it would be wrong to imply that Lennon was defined by his suffering and by this sense of egotistical constriction. That’s mostly true for his self-presentation on Plastic Ono Band, but he grew out of it. If he didn’t, it would’ve been impossible to write songs like “Beautiful Boy”, “Woman”, “Jealous Guy”, and “Just Like Starting Over”. Partly, I think Janov and Primal Scream Therapy temporarily convinced him that he believed in less than he really did. (The non-Primal Scream Lennon had a lot of the same beliefs as Harrison, like reincarnation and karma). But that odd form of therapy still had a big influence on the album: John actually called Plastic Ono Band the first “Primal” album, whereas he considered George’s the first “Gita” album, meaning that it was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, the most profound elucidation of Hindu philosophy.
To put this a bit more clearly, it’s a way of noting the same contrasts that have been explored throughout this essay. From Lennon, we get a picture of the individual’s loneliness, of the self as an isolated object floating in space, experiencing its pain. From Harrison, we get a picture of the self as something that expands out to identify with the All, just as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita reveals himself to be the God who contains everything: “I am the self abiding in the heart of all beings; I am their beginning, their middle, and their end.” Musically, with Spector’s aid, George uses everything-and-the-kitchen-sink to achieve this revelation, this Theophany. Also with Spector’s help, Lennon goes in a contrary direction, stripping the self down to an epiphany of pain.
That’s why these are the two greatest albums by ex-Beatles: they demonstrate the opposing modes in which we exist, whether enduring the suffering of inner emptiness, or experiencing a joyous fullness of being. While I’m personally strongly partial to All Things Must Pass, the album you prefer really depends on where you are in your life. We travel along the spectrum between these two forms of consciousness.