Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reviews from the Attic: John Lennon - Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon Plastic Ono Band [Apple/EMI]
Released: December 11, 1970

Imagine delving into the history of the Beatles with no previous knowledge of their sound, their image, or their impact on music, history and pop culture. Not one person has told you that they were the single most important band of their time, or how their favorite song of all time is “Hey Jude” or that this person's own successes, mistakes and pitfalls can directly be correlated to seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in 1964. Instead, you just one day happen to pick up a record with a cover that is simply a couple leaning against a tree in a forestry area and decide it might be something worth listening to. If one were to initially perceive Plastic Ono Band in this setting, you might instantly consider it to be one of the greatest albums you’ve ever heard. I suspect few people have listened to it this way (though I am envious/curious if they have), but even so, I still consider it to be one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard.

In the complete opposite setting, in which you are vehemently aware of the nature in which Plastic was released, you might still be surprised by the pure dynamic of it, but perhaps not immediately blown away. One would expect that a Phil Spector produced John Lennon release would sound as big and open as Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (released just weeks earlier in November 1970), but that is clearly not the case in the opening bars of “Mother”. This is a song in which you hear four succinct instruments: drums, bass, piano, vocals. That's it. The stripped down nature of the recording was I’m sure shocking to Spector’s devotees, but perhaps that is precisely what he and Lennon were going for. Not to mention, it's not exactly a song that screams "opening track". But what better way to make your solo debut than with a song like this. Who could listen to this for the first time and not be completely moved by Lennon’s shrieking calls of "mother!!!" that continue on as the song fades out.

And that shrieking would not be the last we hear on Plastic. Lennon fans should know that his delivery during this period was inspired by his and Yoko Ono's primal scream therapy (yep, they were kind of alternative). By the closing segments of "Well" we're treated to quite possibly the most intense screaming of any Lennon piece, a style of singing I suspect inspired the more extreme of noise-based music. Cobain's blood-curdling screams during Bleach's "Negative Creep" (amongst countless other Nirvana songs) undoubtedly owe credit to Lennon's vocal delivery, and Cobain would be the first to admit it.

But that does not define the entire album. Songs like "Love" and "God" contain some of the most heartfelt lyrics and performances of Lennon's solo career, ones that he would spend the remainder of his career trying to live up to (as if his tenure with the Beatles wasn't enough). It's also worth mentioning that the rhythm section of Ringo Starr and Klaus Voorman created the backbone for which Lennon achieved such authenticity. You can't exactly say they sound "tight"; there are sprinkles of mistakes throughout the album, which in my opinion makes it all the better. When was the last time you heard a bass flub such as in "Well" on a record made any time recently? Of course, it all just adds to the very raw, and very live chemistry Lennon captured with his handpicked musicians. Lennon's finger-picking on "Look at Me" could be seen as a companion piece to "Julia" off the Beatles' White Album, and is similar in nature to many of his late period Beatles songs. Nothing but Lennon and a guitar, mournful without being whiny, beautiful without sounding pretentious.

As much as I believe its followup Imagine to be a fantastic album in its own rite, I don't think any album in Lennon's solo discography quite matched the genuineness captured on Plastic Ono Band. As he rattles off a list of things he no longer believes in on closer "God" (Elvis, Kennedy, the Beatles), it's clear that this is him at his most personal. "I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That's reality." And arguably, the last we'd see him like this.

1 comment:

  1. Imagine beginning a review on John Lennon with the word "imagine." haha, i kid. but seriously, this album is fucking beautiful and under rated.