Plastic Ono Band came out on the heels of the Beatles breakup and after Lennon experimented with primal scream therapy. Going into the studio to create a simple, no frills album resulted in some of Lennon’s most raw and honest performances. It has always surprised me that this Phil Spector produced album lacks any of the studio trickery that had become staples of both Spector’s and Lennon’s work over the previous decade.
With the exception of some avant garde (or avant garde a clue as George Harrison once put it) experimental albums released with Yoko Ono, Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s first proper solo outing and it is a portrait of a man with no direction, looking for his footing in a new environment he’s never seen before. The songs are honest, revelatory, introspective, and therapeutic gems that speak volumes about Lennon’s personality. Songs like “Mother”, and “Isolation” are beautiful in their simplicity and heartfelt delivery while songs like “I Found Out” and “Remember” rock with the best of Lennon’s compositions.
With Klaus Voorman on bass, Ringo Starr on drums and Billy Preston on piano and little to know overdubs, Plastic Ono Band is the most naked you will ever hear Lennon. Voorman, one of my favorite session bassists, locks down some solid grooves and Ringo performs with drum machine accuracy. If this were produced today, Ringo would be replaced by drum loops and digital tricks, but his performance seems to have that precision and accuracy already, but with a bit more soul than the machines can offer.
Lennon, handling much of the piano and guitar duties, keeps the arrangements sparse, often just strumming chords on guitar or playing long held out chords on piano. There’s nothing fancy here which allows the lyrics and a stunning vocal performance shine through.
The song “God” creates some controversy even today with its laundry list of things Lennon doesn’t believe in, including Dylan, Elvis, Beatles, Buddha, and a slew of other people and things. While he does say, “I don’t believe in…” I don’t think he means it in the way it is often interpreted. Many reviewers have seen this as a dismissal of his past, his future, religion and everything in between but in the end he says, “I only believe in me” which, to me, means that it’s not a question of believing in Elvis but more living, breathing and idolizing Elvis. In many interviews after this album, his love and admiration for all the things he “doesn’t believe in” came through which only solidifies my point that it’s not about appreciation but blind idolatry. You can like Elvis’ music, even love it, but it’s not something that should dictate your life choices or influence your way of thinking. I think that’s what Lennon means in the lyrics to “God”.
Of course, that’s not the only controversial song on the album. There is “Working Class Hero” which is a folksy, explicit condemnation of the British class system and “Mother” which is a revealing look at his undying desire to connect with his dead mother and his animosity towards his absentee father.
If you want an album filled with catchy rock tunes, look elsewhere in the catalog, but if you’re looking for a moving, deep, musical experience, this is the album to pick up. Nowhere in any Beatle’s catalog will you find a more autobiographical collection of music done with so little regard for masking emotions in studio trickery and commercialism. A highly recommended album.
Plastic Ono Band
Release date: December, 1970
US Chart Rank: 6
UK Chart Rank: 8
Singles: Mother (#43 US)