After my parents got married, they rented a tiny flat in the cold, foggy, windy Richmond district of San Francisco for a while before sensibly relocating to Berkeley. Both were students supporting themselves on stipends and they had no television, leaving their in-home entertainment options limited to studying, fucking and listening to music.
What else do you need when you’re in love?
They didn’t have much money for Christmas presents, so they made an agreement that they would get each other one album and one article of clothing. My dad knew exactly what he was going to get my mother: a good wool scarf to fight off the fog and the new John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album that had come out just in time for the holiday season. One day after classes he took the bus over to Tower Records, saw the stacks of albums showing John and Yoko relaxing under a tree and grabbed a copy. He took it to the clerk and sprung for a gift sleeve, feeling pretty fucking proud of himself.
Unbeknownst to him, he had made a fatal mistake: he hadn’t looked at the back cover.
They had invited another starving couple over to share a modest Christmas Eve repast and open presents (friends were family back then). This couple had also brought their pet beagle with them. After feasting on my mother’s crêpes (superbe!) and sharing wine and joints, they all gathered ’round the midget Christmas tree to open presents. My dad was delighted to receive a copy of Lola Vs. The Powerman and the Moneygoround and a new belt to hold up his sagging grad student trousers. My mother was equally delighted with her new scarf but puzzled by her other gift because the album had no lettering on the cover to show what it was. She turned it over and saw an old picture of a little Japanese girl and was even more confused.
“It’s the new Lennon album,” my dad explained. He peeled off the wrapping, carefully pulled the record out of the jacket and put it on the turntable.
Soon the room was filled with horrible noise and banshee-like screaming. The beagle ran up to the speakers and started scratching at them and howling like the house was on fire. My dad rushed over to try to quiet the squirming beagle, for pets weren’t allowed in the apartment and he was terrified that the old bitch next door would turn them in to the landlord and they’d have to spend Christmas on the streets. My mother took control of the situation and did the sensible thing: she lifted the needle from the record. An eerie silence hung over the assembly.
“What the fuck was that?” my dad cried.
The male half of the visiting couple picked up the sleeve and started laughing. “You idiot! You bought Yoko’s album, not John’s.” He held up the picture of the Japanese girl as evidence and explained that the covers for both albums were almost identical except for the back picture and who was resting on whom on the front cover.
My dad apologized profusely to my mother, who by this time was laughing her ass off. The day after Christmas he returned to Tower Records, ripped the clerk a new one and exchanged the piece of avant-garde shit for an album that Rolling Stone rated #23 on its list of greatest albums: a ridiculously generous rating from the rag that continues to do stupid shit to this day, like trying to turn a murderous terrorist into a sex symbol for the teenage angst crowd.
Like all post-Beatles solo efforts, this album is deeply flawed. It has some great moments, some awful moments and several that fall somewhere in the middle. I will give Lennon credit for displaying a much clearer artistic direction than he revealed in his late-Beatles efforts, but his “poor me” narcissism is also on full display here, as are many of his unresolved personality conflicts. The best quality of Plastic Ono Band is the sparse and simple approach that he would regrettably abandon in the iconic follow-up Imagine, where Phil Spector encouraged Lennon’s grandiosity and produced an album marked by excess without the depth to back it up.
The other quality of Plastic Ono Band that I admire—to a degree—is the artist’s willingness to take emotional and artistic risks. The clearest example of this can be found on the opening track, “Mother,” where he abandons the poetic approach he took to the subject in “Julia” and opts for raw expression of deep emotion, released by his experience with primal-scream therapy. While some may think this is over-the-top self-indulgence, I find the song quite powerful because of the combination of lyrical simplicity and the blessedly simple arrangement: John on piano, Ringo on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass. Lennon was abandoned by both parents, a situation so contrary to my personal experience that I feel terrible and almost guilty for what he went through. I also understand completely that all the fame and adulation in the world could have never filled the deep hole in his heart. While the song may make some people uncomfortable, it’s a stark and honest expression of a core cause of Lennon’s lifelong insecurity, and I admire him for having the courage to try to deal with it.
Ah, but as it is with McCartney, so shall it be with Lennon: one good song rarely deserves another. “Hold On” is one of those “Yoko songs” where John donates free advertising to his low-talent spouse and throws in a plug for himself in the bargain. Others have argued that the constant references to Yoko do not detract from the universality of his message in his Yoko songs, but I disagree: I consider it a symptom of shared narcissism. The guitar riff is faintly reminiscent of the one in “Don’t Let Me Down,” and all in all, the lyrics about emotional fragility in a cold, mean world do not ring true for me. He sure doesn’t sound emotionally fragile in the next song, “I Found Out,” where his irritating claim of superior knowledge is tempered by a pretty strong groove and a really nasty guitar tone.
All the songs up to this point have been about ME-ME-ME, so shifting the attention elsewhere comes as something of a relief. “Working Class Hero” is more Dylan than Lennon, but that does not detract from the strength of the narrative, which describes how we’re all packaged for processing into the empty dream of a middle-class existence. The way modern capitalist societies develop their young is exposed in all its senseless brutality:
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so crazy you can’t follow their rules . . .
When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be
Thank God iTunes allows you to adjust the start and stop time of a given track, because I hate the way this song ends: “If you want to be hero, well, just follow me.” Meant literally or ironically, Lennon has turned the focus of the song back on himself to continue the ME-ME-ME theme. Sigh.
The narcissism continues in “Isolation,” a pretty good song from a musical perspective. However, the lines “Just a boy and little girl/Trying to change the whole wide world” bring up images of John and Yoko’s billboards advertising themselves as the saviors of the human race. It makes one question both their sincerity about saving the world and the conditions attached to it, which probably included a plan to force their followers to listen to Two Virgins three times a day while facing in the direction of the mansion where John kept his Rolls.
So much for dawning self-awareness.
“Remember” is probably my favorite song on the album, again featuring the trio of Lennon-Starr-Voorman. The lyrics, an interesting combination of references to Guy Fawkes Day and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” do not interfere with the steady intensity and the building, tempo-shifting rhythms. When Lennon was in the mood, he was still one of the best lead singers in history, and I love listening to his varied attack on this number. It’s followed by “Love,” a quiet song written in the same fragment-based lyrical style as “Because,” but lacking the exceptional harmonies that made that song so special.
“Well Well Well” gets Lennon back to rough rock ‘n’ roll, and like “Isolation,” I like the music but I don’t need any more fucking songs about Yoko. “Look at Me” repeats the fragment-heavy lyrical style of “Love,” and adds a guitar pattern that is very much “Dear Prudence,” which makes perfect sense when you learn that this one originated in The White Album Sessions. It is a pretty song, though, and the references to Yoko are less obvious.
The song that got everyone’s attention back in the day was “God,” where John crushed the hopes of millions of Beatles fans by telling them that the dream was over. I admire him for doing that, and I even think the message was absolutely necessary: fans often want to live in the past and never let their heroes grow up and move on. I also like the message of calling bullshit on all the human saviors and crutches the human race has created to avoid dealing with reality, from the various religious traditions to the deification of political leaders and pop stars. The opening line, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” is something I can agree with if the proper interpretation is “the strength of our belief in a God is largely dependent on the amount of fear within us.” Musically, the song has fabulous drama, building up slowly and dramatically to the stop-time at the end of the line, “I don’t believe in Beatles.”
And then he fucking ruins it. “I just believe in me, Yoko and me.” Wait. I thought he said they were trying to save the whole wide world. Later on “Imagine,” he invited the world to “join us.” Shouldn’t he then have had some belief in the other people they were trying to lead, or were they just pawns for John and Yoko to exploit with their iconic status that they constantly claimed was meaningless to them? Sorry, but “I just believe in me, Yoko and me” is plain, old-fashioned narcissistic bullshit.
To kick a dead horse (no pun intended), the album ends with the brief lo-fi lament, “My Mummy’s Dead,” which dampens the impact of “Mother” by a hundredfold.
In the end, I get as frustrated with Lennon as I do with McCartney. Perhaps the incredible adulation they received from Beatlemania and the phenomenal riches they earned from that experience warped their sensibilities. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald, the only thing that man ever said that I agree with. More to the point, I think both suffered from the lack of the other. The healthy competition between Lennon and McCartney forced them both to try to do their best. Without it, the flaws became more obvious.
I think the last word on this album should go to Tony Hendra, who satirized Lennon on the National Lampoon Radio Dinner album, using direct quotes from Lennon’s famous interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, (which may explain why this album wound up so high on that rag’s all-time list). And yes, folks, John Lennon actually said these things.