We're rolling back the years a little further this week, specifically to 1970 and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
This wasn't Lennon's first without The Beatles by any means; the preceding three albums all featured Yoko Ono, offering a more avant-garde sound compared to any of his work with The Beatles. For his first official solo release, John would strip back his sound, as The Beatles had wished for the Get Back project with Glyn Johns.
The blunt and emotional writing featured on Plastic Ono Band was as a result of various sessions of primal therapy, a technique pioneered by Arthur Janov. This is especially evident on opener Mother, a raw five minute long, piano-driven number, acting as Lennon crying out for both parents. His mother, Julia, was killed when John was just seventeen - specifically, she was knocked down by an off-duty police officer. This resulted in Lennon being cared for by his aunt Mimi, who would be ruthless in his upbringing. Mother's minimalistic sound allows Lennon's raw emotion to come across, further substantiated by the low piano.
Hold On is a little slower than its predecessor and could be seen as the most upbeat song on the record. Featuring sparse instruments such as a great tremolo guitar riff and light drums courtesy of Ringo Starr, Lennon's vocal concerns emotional fragility and assures both himself and Yoko have the necessary strength in order to overcome any challenges they face. Notably, in the middle of the song, Lennon shouts "Cookie!" in homage to the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. I Found Out is indicative of Lennon's emotions during the time of producing Plastic Ono Band. By way of sound, it's similar to Yer Blues from The White Album, complete with a rolling bassline and thumping drums that really make it a standout. He aims various shots at religion, his parents and drug usage. It's gritty, bare bones and has plenty of grunt.
Working Class Hero is the first major flashpoint and one of the tad more commercial songs. Nonetheless, it's just Lennon speaking his mind with an acoustic guitar. It's really a social commentary on the class system, stating that it's better to be working class than fit into the middle class "machine" as Lennon coined in an interview. Isolation is especially revealing of his vulnerability despite fame and fortune. His vocal is cold yet somehow emotional, acting in part as more of a spoken-word poem than a song. It's one of the best songs on here bar none.
Remember is a bit more upbeat than its preceding tracks, opting for a staccato piano sound to act as the backing for Lennon's lyrics surrounding childhood ambition and how he looks back on it retrospectively. Ringo Starr's drumwork fits in perfectly across the song, opting for a pattern that could easily fit on Abbey Road. Love is one of Lennon's most emotional songs released over the course of his career with Phil Spector's piano notes only helping it along.
Well Well Well is the longest track at just shy of six minutes, utilising a heavy guitar part and a brutally harsh vocal. Despite its shouty nature, the subject matter of Lennon's lyrics are the menial elements of the married life between himself and Yoko Ono, such as going out for dinner, or taking a walk somewhere. It's a rather heavy song with the second half seeing Lennon potentially imitating wife Yoko's screaming vocals, before letting the rocking and punchy bassline drive the song perfectly. Look At Me is one of Lennon's more introspective songs, choosing to question his own decisions and who he really is. It's very similar to Julia from The White Album and Love from earlier on this record.
God is my favourite song on this absolutely stellar release, utilising an aggressive grand piano sound to back Lennon's list of all the things he doesn't believe in. Despite its simplistic lyrical structure compared to some of his other work, God allows Lennon to vent vehemently and take aim at various subject matters, including The Beatles.
Closing song My Mummy's Dead features a rather muffled sound, courtesy of producer Phil Spector. Both the start and finish of Plastic Ono Band features songs about Lennon's mother Julia. My Mummy's Dead is the polar opposite to opening Mother, ditching the primal scream vocals in favour of something lighter and softer. The monotone vocal allows for this blankness to come through, making it one of the most chilling songs in Lennon's back catalogue.
Plastic Ono Band has to be one of the best solo releases of all time with its perfect mix of pure emotion, a stripped back feeling and minimalistic production. It's a musical demonstration of both insecurity and vulnerability, acting as a window into the former Beatle's troubled life. I'd strongly suggest you give this a listen.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/2X3HZoJ
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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