Review: The Making of a Masterpiece—’John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band‘

John Lennon/John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band The Ultimate Collection/UMe
Five out of Five Stars

Just over fifty years after its original release, John Lennon’s first ’proper’ solo album, Plastic Ono Band, remains one of the most revelatory, remarkable and fully reflective albums of the entire rock era. A stunning rebuke of the fame and adulation he had accumulated in the wake of his years as a rock and roll superstar, as summed up in the song “God” (I don’t believe in Beatles, I only believe in me…), it was a raw, stripped down, often angst-ridden affair recorded in the aftermath of the Primal Scream Therapy sessions he and Yoko undertook in California with the movement’s founder, Dr. Arthur Janov. Lennon acknowledged its impact on the album, and several of the songs reflected the anger and anguish that Janov encouraged his patients to share. That was never more clear than in the song “Mother,” which found Lennon lamenting the loss of his mother Julia and the departure of his dad Freddie at an unbearably early age.

Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, you didn’t want me…. Mommy, don’t go, Daddy, come home…

It was those heart-wrenching emotions, expressed through songs that were half-sung/half-spoken that gave Plastic Ono Band its emotional impact, shocking those who had their first glimpse into the troubled soul of the man long considered the most impenetrable of the Fab Four. It was far from the elaborate and ornate arrangements he and his compatriots had long been known for—particularly as found within the full flourish of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road—and its stripped down settings and sparse accompaniment, served only by Ringo Starr and erstwhile bassist Klaus Voormann  reinforced those feelings of naked emotion and aggression.

It’s intriguing then that this vastly expanded box set reissue of that landmark album offers added insights into its creation and conception. While the demos and rehearsals fully reflect the bare basics of its ultimate form, it’s a fascinating fly-on-the-wall view that allows one to witness the album’s evolution from its initial origins to its ultimate completion. 

Not surprisingly, there’s considerable repetition as far as the songs are concerned. The original album and accompanying singles (“Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” “Instant Karma”) are included in various stages of development and in remixed form in each of the two blu-rays and six CDs. However, given the various early takes, demos and permutations, there’s all the more reason to lean in and listen to each. The new mixes bring variation and vitality to the original threadbare arrangements, illuminating them in ways that were rarely noticeable before. So too, Lennon’s vocals often take on an added edge and urgency. That said, certain takes also find him stretching out with a more casual approach as he acclimates himself to the material. One example in particular, take two of “Hold On,” is considerably more casual than the version that was eventually readied for release. Likewise, hearing Lennon offer instructions to his colleagues on disc five as he tackles the tunes and works out the arrangements, offers insights that are rarely witnessed in any session. Lennon often asks Yoko for feedback while his takes on the material suggests possibilities that were never evident before.

On the other hand, the nearly two dozen jams included on disc six show Lennon in the playful posture that was at the core of his love of early rock and roll. It’s fascinating to hear him give “Hold On” a celebratory stance, and his Presley impression on an impromptu Elvis medley that includes “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Matchbox” and “When I’m Over You” is hilarious. So too, a loose instrumental version of “Get Back” and an abbreviated take on “I’ve Got a Feeling” suggest he still believed in The Beatles, even if his exhortation in “God” effectively repudiated that posture.

Photo: Richard DiLello © Yoko Ono Lennon

Ultimately however it’s the original demos that prove especially revelatory, as Lennon plays through each song entirely on his own while sharing a sense of spontaneity as he works out the arrangements. Even in their rudimentary forms, “Working Class Hero,” “Isolation,” “Love,” and “Look at Me” are as emphatic and impactful as originally intended, with Lennon expressing the same urgency and emotion as the sessions progressed. In its primal form, “God” varies most from the finished version, with a more uptick ending than found in the final version. As intimate and introspective as the final results proved to be, these early run-throughs are more revealing to a far greater degree. 

An especially poignant example of that comes with Lennon talking about the loss of his mother prior to the original recording of “My Mummy’s Dead,” which was recorded at home on a cassette and added as a coda for the album’s ending. Hearing it here is illuminating and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

Ultimately, it’s that sense of vulnerability which is so striking now just as it was when the album was initially unveiled. It’s pure, primal Lennon in the way it was originally intended.

The tabletop book that accompanies the music is a treasure in itself, given its credits, explanatory notes and mostly unseen photos from that era. It gives John a presence that’s as powerful and profound as ever. It shares a sense of closure, and while the grief at his loss will never subside, it also serves as a reminder that his presence will continue to loom large, now and for decades to come.

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