Saturday, January 05, 2008

Review #26: Plastic Ono Band

Howdy! It's been awhile singe the last review, but I'm back. Please excuse the length. I couldn't hold myself!

There are a seldom few albums as gut wrenching as John’s first solo pop album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It is easily the most personal record a human being has ever made, with cries for lost parents, fears of separation from the majority and prose of personal encouragement, all culminating with the ultimate list of broken dreams and the harsh reality of what is, what isn’t and what will be.
The album is hard to write about because you have to listen to it again. For most “great” albums, they are a joy to listen to. You gladly sing along to the words of Sgt. Pepper and laugh at the word play of Blonde On Blonde. You look forward to marveling at the technical wizardry of Pet Sounds and you never get tired of listening to the long guitar breaks on Led Zeppelin albums.
However, Plastic Ono Band is a “great” album that one finds hard to go back to all the time for either something to listen to on the way to work or something just to chill out to. It’s fairly easy to tell why: No one wants music to tell them the truth. This is the same reason why simple action movies make more money than realistic dramas. We look to music as an escape from daily life. But in 1970, Plastic Ono Band was the exact opposite. It was home-grown and low-fi like Paul’s self-titled McCartney debut, but where that one was a simple set of jams, love songs and stories, POB is a set of eleven personal, emotional songs that tear at your heart.
The album starts with the sound of church bells, as if John is entering a hall where all he can speak is truth. What directly follows is just that: a true set of three verses and a chorus, simply titled Mother, about the pain a child feels without parents. There is no fantastical word-play. John lays it straight: “Mother, you had me/But I never have you”; “Father you left me/But I never left you”; “Children don’t do/What I have done”. Then comes one of the scariest moments of the album, where John screams in pain “Mama don’t goooooooo/Daddy come hooooome” The true power of the song comes from the instrumentation. All you have is Ringo’s drums, Klaus Voormann’s bass and John’s banging piano.
We are then transported to a short, reggae tinged track, Hold On. Here, John simply reassures himself and Yoko that they can make it. Eventually, after the bridge, he expands his words of encouragement to the world, telling it that “You’re gonna see the light”.
I Found Out is built around a rough guitar riff, showing that John was never best at playing lead. The playing is sloppy here, but his vocals, sung from the bottom of his throat, are powerful. The most significant line, of course, is “I heard something ‘bout my ma and my pa/They didn’t want me so they made me a star!” and then there is the dig to George Harrison and the idea that a visit with Krishna would save you. He even leaves us wondering with the line “I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Paul.” Is he digging at the Pope or is it Paul McCartney? There are certainly cases for both, but before we have time to wonder, the song quickly ends.
Next is the album’s most prolific track, Working Class Hero. Of course, we know John isn’t really anything he tells us he is in this track. He was nurtured as a boy by his Aunt and there was hardly a time where his life was truly in such a hard spot as he portrays it. Still, we believe that this is how his life was because he is so serious. He curses at us, he taunts our beliefs and then he tells us that he knows the way. “If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.” Does he believe we will? He just called us peasants, after all!
Isolation closes the first side with a track about how he and Yoko (He only talks about himself in the bridge, and always uses “we” everywhere else.) feel cut off from the rest of the world. The track ends abruptly, as if he felt there was no reason for an instrumental fade or repeating the title. He said it once and knew there was no point in repeating it.
Remember is a bluesy track, with a driving, pounding rhythm, as if he is tapping on your head as he asks you to remember moments of your childhood. Again, he makes a reference to parents and how they “always” wish for you to be a star. Of course, as revealed in the first track of side one, he never had his parents around to wish for this. Then, like the last track, abruptly ends, as John asks us to remember Guy Fawkes Day!
Next is the most solemn and heart breaking track on the record, Love. The track fades in with Phil Spector’s piano intro, as John simply strums on an acoustic guitar. I mean, as simple as the song is, he is not simply singing about “boy-girl” love. He means that it’s more than that. It’s something you have between family and friends. He makes you feel as if you cannot exist without it. I believe he makes his case quite poignantly.
The album then takes a 180 degree turn with Well Well Well. It is a standard blues number, with simple lyrics about going out to dinner, then to a ‘big field’ and finally having a discussion of revolution. I think the track might plod on a little much, coming in at an even six minutes, but what makes it is Ringo’s drumming. He keeps up with John’s squeaky guitar and then Klaus does a magnificent job at about three-and-a-half minutes in, when John brings it down to a near halt. All you hear is Klaus’ pumping bass and Ringo tapping the bass drum.
Look At Me starts with John asking “O.K.?” almost right on top of the speakers and you really feel it. It’s just one of those moments on the records that you want to shake your head at because one minute John is yelling “WELLLLL!!!!” at you and then he asks you “O.K.?” It is like he’s asking you if you’re okay to continue, as if you have a chance to stop him. “Look At Me” is easily the most easy going track, but it still has a personal lyric. John has no idea who he is, but he knows he is the only one who knows. So, why does he ask? Because he is insecure and needs to hear it from his love. I think he doesn’t actually believe he knows. He thinks that he has the answer, and then second guesses himself by having to ask his love.
The climax of the album is next, in the guise of God. So much has been written about the track, but that is because it has come to make such an effect on people. Everyone knew we had to move on from the sixties, but no one wanted to admit it. Yet, here was one of its chief pioneers telling us that it was all a dream. Here was a man telling us that we had to wake up and face the uncertainties head on, instead of running away from it. All these things people ran to in the sixties to escape the truth, even the Beatles, are not worth believing anymore. Also, don’t think that John is saying that he doesn’t believe in us. By saying “I just believe in me/Yoko and me/And that’s reality” he is saying that we have to believe in, like he does, ourselves, not something else. We don’t need a mantra or magic or some rock group to help us. We can do it ourselves.
As if that wasn’t enough, My Mummy’s Dead follows. Easily the scariest coda ever, it just confirms John’s insecurities about being around with his parents, particularly his mother. It’s a simple demo recording of a verse. What I find astonishing about it is that we are given the lyrics. I think he might have toyed with the idea of making is a secret track, a la “Her Majesty”, but didn’t. The song obviously meant that much to him that he needed to present us with the lyrics and make it its own track. I think it is also hard to see the album without it at the end. You see, his need for parents is such a prevalent theme, so imbedded that you could even dare to say that this is a concept album. Essentially, with “God”, he is saying that you can move on from the existential relationships, but you can never, ever move on from a parent-child relationship. You never actually have real relationships with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley or the Kennedys. You just think you do because you read about them and buy their product or follow their paths, but you don’t actually have a relationship. These people are not your mother or your father or your husband or your wife. Plus, you can get on with them easily. People have done it before! Fads come and go, but your friends and family stay with you forever. That is why “My Mummy’s Dead” is at the end of the album and why it needs to be there.
Now, you see we have come full circle to why this album is so good: because it tells the truth.

The album cover is also just as incredible as the music. The front features a wordless picture of John and Yoko leaning against a tree, looking up. On the back sits a blown-up picture of John as a boy, with the barely visible words “JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND” and a small dark apple. On vinyl, the album’s label was a white apple and the sleeve featured printed lyrics and credits, plus a handwritten dedication to Yoko on Side One. The art’s point is clear. While the front shows John and Yoko looking to the future, the back looks at the past, to a happier time when John’s mother was still around.

In the future, John would fail to get as personal as this. We see shades of it on Imagine, but by Sometime In New York City it is all but wiped away. Sometime would be as truthful as POB in terms of current events, but it is sloppily done, with Yoko singing more than half the songs. Imagine is good because it glossed everything over (except the draft) with the “Wall Of Sound”, which John forced Spector to stay away from on POB. Mind Games, the first album without Spector, is slight at best, but is no more personal than Imagine was. Of course Walls And Bridges was lovely as a pop album, filled with jeers at people he hated and sweet “I’m sorry” love songs to Yoko, but featured, in my eyes, only one stand out track. “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)”, which I believe is John’s masterpiece, would be at home on POB. The track is filled with the ever present insecurities of being with other people. John expresses a fear that no one will love him until he is “six foot in the ground”. This unfortunately proved to be true. Yet, he has turned into exactly what he told people not to believe in on “God”: a revered figure that people look to, to get away from current situations. It’s not his fault; after all, he is no longer with us. We are the people who proved him wrong. He told us to believe in ourselves on this album and millions of people can hear him say it on plastic. Yet we don’t. We feel the need for leaders and pop culture icons to tell us what to do, but they can’t even figure it out themselves.
Plastic Ono Band is easily the greatest album The Beatles made after they broke up (with two Beatles on it, to boot) because it is a rare one that means something and isn’t just an attempt to catch former glories.


Professor Benjamin Levi Marks said...

"Remember" has a permanent place in my soul. The older one gets, the more they understand it's true meaning.


dsl89 said...

Thanks for the comment. I love hearing from people. I saw your blog dedicated to Get Back/Let It Be. Awesome stuff!