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The Making of John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’: New ‘Ultimate Collection’ Set (Out 4/23) Puts You In the Room
The first proper solo album from John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band, is about as far from a Beatles album as you can get. And yet it’s grown in stature since its release — and especially since Lennon’s death in 1980 — and has grown to be widely regarded as one of the best post-Beatles releases by any of the band’s former members. In fact, while All Things Must Pass, Band On The Run and Ringo are certainly monumental artistic achievements, and are rightly hailed, Plastic Ono Band has come to hold a singular place in the catalogs of the former members of the world’s greatest-ever band.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released in December 1970, was a confessional singer-songwriter album years before Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, or any of the Laurel Canyon crowd started sharing their innermost thoughts. It also set an impossibly high bar, with Lennon baring his soul in a way that few songwriters had up to that point or, for that matter, have since. Add to that the companion album Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band, a tour de force of an avant-garde collaboration by one of the tightest and most sympathetic bands on the planet — Lennon, Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voorman — and you’ve got a moment in time, now examined in exhaustive detail in the fantastic new Ultimate Collection box set chronicling the sessions, unlike almost any other in the history of pop music.
Click here to pre-order the 2-CD set from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order the 2-LP set from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pre-order the 8-disc Super Deluxe set from our Rock Cellar Store
[Voorman, by the way, is currently selling prints of some of his album illustrations — click here to peruse his catalog of works].
Rock Cellar has brought together those who were there (with the help of the indispensable recent oral history about the period), alongside recent interviews with bassist Klaus Voormann, Abbey Road tape operator John Leckie, and Rob Stevens, part of the team who painstakingly created the new box set, to remember the making of Lennon’s seminal solo work, fifty years later.
Lennon’s solo career kicked off with the release of “Give Peace A Chance” — originally credited to Lennon/McCartney — recorded in Lennon and Ono’s Montreal hotel room during their honeymoon/“Bed In,” with an all-star cast of characters, and released on July 4, 1969.
John Lennon: I didn’t write it with Paul. We always had that thing that our names would go on songs even if we didn’t write them. It was never a legal deal between Paul and me, just an agreement when we were fifteen or sixteen to put both our names on our songs. I’d put his name on ‘Give Peace A Chance’, though he had nothing to do with it. It was a silly thing to do, actually. It should have been Lennon/Ono.
Yoko Ono: All those Vietnam protests really changed the world. There was always that element who were really resisting it. That was the saving grace — that people were aware that they were that young generation who were really against it. And so it worked very well for the world. And the Bed-In was just part of it, a definite part of it. It was a statement on a very theatrical level and I think it was very effective. We were artists and did it our own way. We felt very good about it then, and it was such an incredibly strange thing that we were doing. At the time it was a courageous thing to do. John was making the statement in a way that he was looking at the far, far future. I saw it in his eyes. He was saying, ‘OK this is what we’re going to do together.’ And we’re going to give peace a chance. To the world.
After an impromptu concert in Toronto with Eric Clapton, Voormann, drummer Alan White and Ono, the single for “Cold Turkey” — a song turned down by The Beatles as a potential next single — followed on October 24, 1969.
Lennon: ‘Cold Turkey’ is self-explanatory. It was the result of experiencing cold turkey withdrawals from heroin. Everybody goes through a bit of agony some time or another in their lives, whatever it is. ‘Cold Turkey’ is just an expression of that.
John Leckie: It’s on the cover of the “Cold Turkey” single — a cassette deck and some Perspex that was John’s sculpture for Plastic Ono Band — because they had this motto “we are all Plastic Ono Band.” It was the idea that everyone can create this kind of art.
Lennon’s third solo single, “Instant Karma,” followed on February 6, 1970.
Klaus Voormann: The first time I met Phil was when we were doing “Instant Karma.” I didn’t know who this guy was. There was a little man crawling around and saying, “Pick some of this down,” or, “Put the microphone over there.” Then we went to the control room and I saw all those lights blinking and all the tape machines running, and then, after we were done, he turned up the knob full throttle and played “Instant Karma” and that was just incredible. It just sounded so much like Spector.
Lennon: Recording it was great. I wrote it in the morning on the piano, like I’ve said many times. I went to the office and sang it. We booked the studio, and Phil came in, and said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, Fifties, but now.’ He said, ‘Right.’ And ‘boom!’ I did it in about three goes. And went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was I said ‘a bit more bass’, that’s all. And off we went. Phil doesn’t fuss about with the stereo or all the bullshit. Just, ‘Does it sound all right? Let’s have it.’ It doesn’t matter whether something’s prominent or not prominent. If it sounds good to you as a layman or a human, take it. Don’t bother whether ‘this is like that’, or ‘the quality of this’, just take it and that suits me fine.
Voormann: John was a little upset. [Laughing] He’d say, “Why are the people not buying my record?” He was a little pissed off. But what did he expect? I think eventually he was okay. But he would’ve liked to have had more success.
Leckie: John wanted hits. He talked all the time about having hit records. He wrote the letters to the Queen because “Cold Turkey” went down the charts. John was interested in selling records and expanding the Plastic Ono audience. He wanted to see what he did at No. 1, of course.
While neither “Cold Turkey” nor “Instant Karma” were the smashes Lennon had hoped they’d be, he’d made a splash as a solo artist, even appearing on Britain’s Top Of The Pops. For his next album, however, Lennon’s material would come from his experience undergoing Arthur Janov’s “primal scream” therapy in mid-1970 in San Francisco. The songs he wrote during his time with Janov, and in the immediate aftermath, were open and honest in a way that no other popular artist had ever been. The album kicked off in epic form with the blazing “Mother.”
Leckie: “Mother,” of course, took a few takes. And the last part, “Mommy don’t go, Daddy come home,” the screaming part, that was dropped in. It was the end, the finale, and he was really screaming. But he couldn’t do it the way he wanted it. So, as they continued doing takes, he stopped and just played the chords, without the vocal. And then, for the next few nights, John would come in and we would drop in just for the last screaming part. I can hear the difference in the voice but no one else can hear it, I’m sure. But of course, when it was done, it was finished. That was it. There was no overdubbing keyboards or tambourines or anything. There was none of that.
Voormann: When you listen to the song and you listen to the lyrics, all you have to do is to be as simple as possible, so that people can really listen to what he’s saying. I mean, on some of the tracks you have John singing his song without anything. So sometimes, our reduction was just because, “Oh, yeah. That’s what he’s saying.” So, we just got into a certain groove that was really, really simple and that felt natural to us. We felt great about it. I mean, we weren’t analyzing it or anything. We just did it. We’d hear the song, and we’d play. With “Mother,” it was definitely just John singing, saying the words, and us just being part of it, somehow playing along.
Leckie: Everyone really embraced the stripped-down approach. I was just the guy sitting at the back running the tape, but there was never any talk of embellishing it. There was never any talk of getting a horn section in or, you know, the Let it Be strings.
“Hold On” followed.
Lennon: I go through despair and hopefulness. I try and hang on to the hopeful bit. Otherwise, there’s just no point at all.
Voormann: I knew him as a friend, not as a Beatle. I think that was important and I think that really added to the feeling of the record.
Leckie: You’ve got to remember, he’s playing with his best friends, really. He’s playing with Ringo and Klaus, and they’ve known each other since they were kids, basically.
“I Found Out” came next, and laid bare Lennon’s experience with Janov’s “primal scream” method for all the world to hear.
Voormann: The Plastic Ono Band played in Toronto, and then we recorded “Instant Karma,” and then we recorded “Cold Turkey,” and then the LP started, so there was enough time for me to get closer to what John and Yoko were about and wanted. When John came into the studio, we had no idea what was coming towards us, and we were so fresh through the whole situation and the songs were, you know, just thrown at us, so to speak that it stayed a completely new thing, and a new type of record we were playing on. So, when John started playing, and then Ringo started, we locked in. And that’s why I remember that song particularly, from a musical point of view, so much. That’s not about the lyrics or the meaning of the song. That’s just mainly the way we locked in and played together, which was really exciting.
Leckie: It appears as though Klaus is just playing the root notes, but no, he’s not. He’s adding all these things and such great character. The choice of notes, really, is perfect, and sometimes really unusual. And again, it’s simple. It’s simple. It’s simplified. Klaus, yeah. And what can you say about Ringo? He was a great character, and just the perfect drummer for John and especially for this album.
What has come to be seen as a manifesto of sorts from Lennon — “Working Class Hero” — followed. Just Lennon and an acoustic guitar, the song nevertheless carried the weight of a full orchestra.
Ono: The Beatles were just saying to people, ‘It’s gonna be OK’ and then suddenly John comes out with this Plastic Ono Band album — “Working Class Hero” and “God” and all that, saying, ‘It’s not OK. There are these problems.’ Obviously that makes him less popular because people don’t want to know about that. People want somebody to always tell them it’s OK. And so it’s gonna be a little bit less popular, but it shouldn’t be if the world gets more mature. They should understand that that’s more important somehow.
Leckie: I was there when he said, “Fucking peasants.” And my first reaction was, “He’s messing about. He’s taking the piss. We’re going to have to do that again.” The fact that he swore on the record immediately made me think, “He’s fucking about. He’s going to have to do it again.” And it surprised me that it went out. And when I got the record, I said, bloody hell. They’ve left the ‘fucking’ on there. Has anyone noticed?
Rob Stevens: With all due respect to Bob Dylan, I think “Working Class Hero” stands up with the best of any of his songs.
On an album of stark, brutal songs, Lennon’s “Isolation” also stands out as a gorgeous moment.
Voormann: As soon as you hear a song like this, and you know about the emotion that’s in it – because we all listened to the lyrics just as much as we listened to the chords John was playing on the piano or the guitar – Ringo and I just listened and thought, “What can we do?” Sometimes we tried to play songs in a certain mood that was completely ridiculous for the song, and it didn’t suit at all, just to loosen up a little. But then, when we thought, “Now he’s going to do it serious,” then we all were on the spot. And Ringo was incredible. I loved playing with Ringo.
The boisterous and penetrating “Remember” followed, closing out Side One with an appropriate explosion.
Leckie: “Remember” is such a great track. The new mix just sounds fantastic. But it’s great because I’m not really a musician but someone showed me how to play “Remember” on the piano, and it is so simple. I mean, talk about punk rock. All of John’s piano parts, they’re so easy. It’s just the movement of one finger kind of thing. But the power!
Stevens: I think with the piano in particular, when one is classically trained, and I can state this from fact, there’s something prison-like about that, because you learn a proper way of doing things, and you have to work to forget the rules. John, however, thought of it as, “These notes feel like this and sound like this.” And there is something much more primary and primal about that than someone who was starting, like, with a Berklee School of Music education.
“Love,” featuring Lennon on vocal and acoustic guitar, and co-producer Phil Spector on exquisite piano, kicked off Side Two in touching, yet grand, style.
Leckie: John was just the greatest singer, but he was more than that, of course. He knew how to deliver, whether it was his songs or his art, to an audience. Whether he was screaming his lungs out, or, like on “Love,” singing in the most intimate, beautiful way, he knew just how to do it, and could do it like that every single time. It was peak professionalism, in my book.
Stevens: There’s something very ironic, of course, about “Love,” hearing Phil’s really sensitive kind of minuet playing, and having to get out of one’s head the juxtaposition of where he was then and where he was later on. It’s hard to comprehend.
The searing “Well Well Well,” with Lennon leading Starr and Voormann on his beloved Epiphone Casino guitar followed.
Voormann: Ringo played with John, and John and Ringo. They were the most incredible rhythm section. John was such a great rhythm guitar player, too. That’s what people underestimate. They don’t realize how much in the Beatles John’s rhythm guitar and Ringo’s beat really were just incredible. And then me, being there and having the chance to play with those guys, was just overwhelming for me. It was fantastic. But I didn’t think of them as Beatles. When you’re in the studio and you start playing, you forget about all that, anyway. You don’t even think about it.
Leckie: There’s a breakdown about halfway through, after a chorus, and Yoko thought it was going to finish, so she pressed the talkback, which was on a speaker, and you can hear her voice in the background going, “Pretty good, John, try it again.” There’s a slight hesitancy, but they carried on playing and finished the song. And I thought, “Oh, they’re going to have to do it again.” And they all came in and listened to it, and John said, “Yoko’s on the record, that’s great! We’ll use that one.” They used that take purely because she interrupted it.
Stevens: His rhythm playing is incredibly percussive, and the percussiveness changes as the song changes or as the different songs change. And John being able to mimic his own voice as percussive as that reveals something that he could not do as a member of a group. There wasn’t the time, there wasn’t the space, as a Beatle. But on “Well, Well, Well,” the slashing on the end of that is unreal.
The simple, stark and piercing “Look At Me” followed.
Lennon: A couple of tracks, which one would suppose were written under therapy, like ‘Look At Me’, were written pre-Janov, about a year before therapy. But the theme was the same: ‘Look at me’, ‘Who am I?’, all that jazz. So that’s why I stuck it on that album. But actually, it had come from beforehand.
Stevens: These same songs with studio cats would have not had the same visceral impact. A session guitarist would call John’s playing a little bit sloppy, but it was actually dead-on for the song and for the vulnerability that was on display.
The gorgeous “God,” in which Lennon killed his idols – as well as his former band – in song in favor of a simple life with Ono, closed out the album proper.
Lennon: ‘God’ was stuck together from three songs. I had the idea: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain.’ When you have a phrase like that, you just sit down and sing the first tune that comes into your head and the tune is simple, because I like that kind of music. And then I just rolled into it – I Ching and Bible and the first three or four just came out, all these things I didn’t believe in. It was like a Christmas card list. I thought, ‘Well where do I end? Churchill? Who have I missed out?’ It just got out of hand. And Beatles was the final thing because I no longer believe in myth, and Beatles is another myth – I don’t believe in it. The dream is over. I’m not just talking about the Beatles, I’m talking about the generation thing. The dream is over. It’s over, and we, well I have, anyway, personally, got to get down to so-called reality.
Stevens: I originally misunderstood the lyrics at the end, where he’s saying, “And so dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on. The dream is over.” But what he’s really doing is saying is, “I am done with doing this. And now, if you have worshipped me as a Beatle idol, go find somebody else to pray to.” And when I finally heard it dry, the whole song flipped on its head. It wasn’t just the rejection. It was an acceptance.
And so, “My Mummy’s Dead,” a simple Lennon home demo, brought Plastic Ono Band to an end.
Lennon: I never allowed myself to realize that my mother had gone. It’s the same if you don’t allow yourself to cry, or feel anything. Some things are too painful to feel, so you stop. We have the ability to block feelings and that’s what we do most of the time.
Voormann: When the record came out, it was far too much ahead of people for them to really realize what a great record it was. And that’s what’s important to me, that I feel that this is a record that’s going to be there forever, and that people will always go back to this record and listen to it and discover new things and how great it is. Because it’s fantastic.