The clanging of the opening bells on Plastic Ono Band announced John Lennon as an artist independent of that hysterical epidemic known as the Beatles.
The succinctly titled “Mother” is an immaculate choice for the kickoff track of Plastic Ono Band.
The first peals resound and dissipate slowly, establishing a period of suspense and a steady time signature, both of which reflect the kind of patience necessary for listeners to fully appreciate this album. If the bells are the question, the held breath, then the answer is the wail that, half a minute in, breaks directly on the beat. Listeners everywhere, even today’s twentysomethings, instantly recognize that voice as Lennon’s. It is transcendent, layered, almost like a man echoing himself.
In 1970, fresh off the breakup of the Beatles, Lennon enlisted the help of producer Phil Spector, who had recently pieced together Let It Be from abandoned recording sessions. Lennon’s managed to dial down the “wall of sound” style of mixing for which the producer was known. The result is a lo-fi, pared-down return to the core elements of rock music.
Emotional turmoil is the operative phrase for this album. This comes across most clearly in the vocals. Between the Beatles’ split and the recording of Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon and Yoko Ono turned to a new type of therapy. It was called Primal Therapy.
Essentially, the patient relieves repressed trauma, often from childhood, by expressing the attached emotions. Usually, this meant screaming. Lennon’s traumas included the dissolution of his immediate family and loss of his mother in a car accident. Anger and sadness translated into the louds and softs of Lennon’s music. This is why Plastic Ono Band revels in extremes.
The vocals can be delicate, as in “Hold On,” or lullaby-esque, as in the underrated “Look at Me,” which is quietly heartbreaking. These calm moments are few and far between, however. Listeners are more frequently subjected to agonized screaming, as on “Mother,” which showcases Lennon begging his parents not to abandon him. “Momma don’t go, daddy come home,” he sings repeatedly.
The album abandons its affinity for extremes on “God,” which is one of the highlights. Its lyrics are honest but with less angst. The music combines the best parts of the rest of the album: a rolling, reliable beat, an emotive piano part with just enough flourishes to keep it interesting, and brief rests in all the right places.
This album is also full of strong, chugging rhythms. On the sixth track, “Remember,” the piano chords over a consistent time signature act as a steadying force. This counterbalances the emotionally charged vocals, which are retrospective and end with a plea to “Remember, remember the fifth of November” – a reference to Great Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day, in which the individual in question, Guy Fawkes, was caught under Parliament with explosives. An interesting comment, perhaps, on how Lennon conceptualized this album.
The emotional intensity reaches a peak on “Well Well Well,” track eight. The rhythms at once keep the song from coming off the rails, but also contribute to a pervasive manic feeling. They speed up, launching into cut time at one point, pulling us toward an emotional release. Then, suddenly, we are dropped back into a slower beat. The result is almost physical discomfort, especially when combined with Lennon’s escalating screams. While this is one of the more difficult tracks to sit through, there is something about it that compels you to hear it out. To turn it off would be like walking out of the room while someone is having a breakdown.
Plastic Ono Band is an exercise in patience. It is a tug-of-war between exorcising past demons and making peace with the present. This is all done very publicly. Lennon freely acknowledged the correlation between his childhood traumas and current fame, saying in an interview, “The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing else would have driven me through all that if I was ‘normal.’”
Lennon leaves little room for uncertainly concerning his intentions with the album. In some ways his honesty is commendable. In other ways, one cannot ignore the collateral damage. Some of the music is challenging for listeners, though it accomplishes what all music should, on a very basic level. It elicits a strong emotional response. It is worthwhile to consider whether or not this album would have been given the time it deserves if Lennon’s name were not on the cover.
Do people give it another listen because it’s Lennon, because they have a blind trust in his fundamental skill as an artist? Whether or not this type of license is fair is not for me to decide, but in this case I think it’s very safe to say the album benefits from the extra attention. This album gives back what it gets in that respect, and then some.
* Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN