Monday, April 14, 2008

John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band

“Mother, you had me, but I never had you
I wanted you, you didn't want me
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye
Father, you left me, but I never left you
I needed you, you didn't need me
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye
Children, don't do what I have done
I couldn't walk and I tried to run
So I, I just got to tell you
Goodbye, goodbye
Mama don't go
Daddy come home”

God. The first track from John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band is a killer.

Some of the saddest, most heart wrenching lyrics you’ll ever hear, John Lennon's voice a desperate howl of despair and hurt. The instrumentation sparse with only piano chords and a simple drum beat to accompany his words and explicitly strong and recognizable voice.

It’s truly powerful.

It’s been well documented that this album was inspired by his primal scream therapy, and after three straight listens it becomes apparent that Lennon is letting it all hang loose, baring his soul for the world to judge in the hope he receives a little closure, or at least some peace, from his obviously troubled past.
After the harrowing “Mother” he tells himself to “Hold on”, that it’s ‘gonna be alright’. Then it’s back to righteous anger in “ I Found Out” and the sublime “Working Class Hero”(one of the few songs on this album I'm ashamed to admit I was familiar with).
Here’s a particularly powerful lyric from “I Found Out”:

“I seen through junkies, I been through it all
I seen religion from Jesus to Paul
Don't let them fool you with dope and cocaine
No one can harm you, feel your own pain
I, I found out!
I, I found this out!
I, I found out!”

Then comes the paranoid “Isolation”, which brilliantly segues into the sad nostalgia of “Remember” which, like “Mother”, utilizes simple drums and piano to great effect.
The optimistic (?)“Love” comes at exactly the right time, because for the last 6 tracks Lennon has put me through the emotional wringer and I physically needed a reprieve from the intensity.

On paper, the lyrics for “Well Well Well” read like a McCartney composition:

“I took my loved one to a big field
So we could watch the English sky
We both were nervous feeling guilty
And neither one of us knew just why
Well, well, well, oh well
Well, well, well, oh well”

Musically speaking though, this is the song that best relays his message of despair and pain, in my opinion. Raunchy blues guitar licks and a pounding, and very effective, drum beat complimenting Lennon’s howls of pain.

“Look At Me” finds the man pleading for his love to “Look at me/ Who am I supposed to be?” and "God" is pure poetry, plain and simple. It’s thus far my favorite song, both lyrically and musically, on the entire album. He starts by informing us that “God is a concept”, and that he doesn’t believe in Hitler, Zimmerman, Elvis, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, the Bible, the I-ching or The Beatles and ends by telling us fans that the “dream is over”.

The album ends with “My Mummy’s Dead”, which finds our hero finally coming to terms with the death of his mother, or at least confronting the fact she’s gone forever.

John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band is an emotional album, but not unlistenable
by any stretch. As a matter of fact, it’s quite melodic and catchy in a lot of areas, surprising given the nihilistic and unflinching lyrics. Most of all I think it’s a very rewarding album, in the way that really good, difficult albums continue to challenge and amaze you after multiple listens.

Sad. Desparate. Nerve-wrenching. Honest. Optimistic. Angry. Naked. Affecting. Sad. Beautiful.

You know what the really sad part of this is? It’s the first time in my 40+ years that I’ve heard this album in it’s entirety.

Sometimes it’s like that though. It’s what keeps me going, knowing that there are hundreds of masterpieces like this out there just waiting for me to discover them.

Thanks for the referral, Philbert!

I owe ya one!


Greg Pate said...

Uncle E, good column.

Now, this is off topic, but-- have you written about eMusic? Us newbo-philes would like to hear what you might have to say about this competitor to iTunes.

Holly A Hughes said...

Funny thing, I don't think I've listened to it all the way through for a while now, not since the year it first came out. It's certainly a mesmerizing experience...but on repeated listens it got to feel a little self-indulgent. Mind you, I was always a Paul girl, and back in the day one felt pressured to pick sides.

And does anybody else think it was weird how much echo John gave his vocals on most tracks? It emphasized his insecurity and that lost quality, I guess, but I felt put off by it.

"Working Class Hero" is the LP's one undisputed gem, IMO -- I also love "Isolation." But most of the other Lennon solo songs I think of as being on this album turn out to be on Imagine or the severely underrated Double Fantasy (granted, half of Double Fantasy -- the Yoko half -- is nearly unlistenable).

RumpRoast said...

Great pick, Uncle E.

I think Holly hit it on the head. As much as I love John's work, a whole album like this is just a bit too much - and does come off as self-indulgent.

Of course, critics would dismiss Paul for most of the seventies for seemingly doing the opposite - lightwieght, sentimental pop. We've heard it a million times, but likely that's what made the Lennon/McCartney team so good, even when the wrote independently.

And Holly, maybe you find Double Fantasy severely underrated for the same reason I do - most of John's songs on that album would be right at home on any McCartney solo or Wings effort.

Uncle E said...

Holly, I agree that Double Fantasy contained some great classics, but yoko's stuff...well, it knocks it down to a 5/10 for me.
Sure Plastic Ono Band is self indulgent, but isn't that the point?
Yeah, I noticed the echo as well, but I think it enhances the pain he's trying to convey.
I'm just fascinated by this album now, especially as a coherant concept, so it's gonna be hard for me to critique or find any fault within. Maybe in a few months I'll be able to be more objective...

Uncle E said...

...and rumproast, good to have you back, and great comment re: "most of John's songs on that album (Double Fantasy) would be right at home on any McCartney solo or Wings effort."
Dead on, I never would have made the connection!

Anonymous said...

Let me begin my usual rant by saying I like Paul McCartney just fine and grew up idolizing The Beatles. That being said, Paul never did anything half-as-powerful, emotionally naked or as ARTISTIC as John did on Plastic Ono Band.

Self-indulgent? Yes, very. But not any more so than "Ram."

All great artists are self-indulgent on some level. Their ability (and need) to show what's on the inside is what makes them create in the first place. With POB John laid it all out there. Nothing was kept from the listener. You feel his anguish, and by feeling HIS pain you feel your own ("Feel your own pain!" -I Found Out.)
John is able, with his music, to transcend his singular "self" to connect with the "collective self" of his listeners. Your pain is my pain and that pain is John's. It's human. A human standing naked and screaming "WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE?" That, my friends, is art.

While Paul doodles on about Admiral Halsey and 3-legged dogs, John kicked us in the balls and woke us up.
We don't need Elvis,
We don't need Zimmerman,
We don't I-Ching
We don't need BEATLES!
Grow-up! Find your own answers! Feel your own pain!

Meanwhile, you could have tea with Paul. Nothing wrong with tea...or Paul. It's just not "Mother."

If John's album kicked us in the nuts, Paul's patted us on the head. Sometimes we need both.

Plastic Ono Band is a masterpiece. Which one is Paul's?

Oh, and the "echo" effect you hear is due to the fact POB was produced with Phil Spector. Maybe you didn't like the way the voice sounded, but have you ever heard a record where the drums and bass sounded so good in the mix? Especially the drums. This album was so stripped down, I think it would have been effective with just John's voice and the drums alone.

Thanks for letting me chime in.