Revisiting John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band

Nicola Thompson

We take a look at how Plastic Ono Band addressed issues of mental health and personal identity, and how Lennon’s posthumous legacy may now be obscuring what was truly great about him

In December, it will be 40 years since John Lennon’s death. In the immediate aftermath he was martyred and idolised, but in the last few years his public image has taken an inevitable nosedive. It was always a strange choice to build Lennon's entire legacy on his late-1960s “Peace Prophet” years that he later reflected on as well-meaning but misguided.

He has become a sloganeer that sells T-shirts and box sets, but the complexity of his personality has been lost. With time, and a better understanding of his many personal failings, it renders him a hypocrite and disconnects him from the next generation. It's ironic because while he was alive, Lennon’s gift was his unique ability to communicate and connect. He never did that more effectively, or more disturbingly, than on Plastic Ono Band.

Paul McCartney recently said that he and Lennon, as young men who grew up in the 1950s, used music “as a psychiatrist”. Lennon had in fact undergone Primal Scream therapy during the writing and recording of Plastic Ono Band, in an attempt to address some serious psychological and emotional issues. To say Lennon was candid about those issues is an understatement. He was talking about his anger and addiction struggles, his sexuality and his mental health during a time when no-one else—let alone the biggest male rock star in the world—was touching that stuff with a barge-pole.

Whether he was at Abbey Road, fevered and stripped to the waist, screaming “Twist and Shout” through the flu, or talking to a journalist about the troughs of depression he periodically went through, Lennon was always at his most relatable when he was laying himself on the line. That willingness to examine himself, and to accept criticism not just of his art but of his actions, is where Lennon's legacy is most potent and far-reaching. He understood that music could be the most direct form of communication.

A year before Plastic Ono Band’s release, Lennon told Barry Miles (in a quote that sounds both metaphorical and literal) that he was “always singing minor notes against a major chord.” He said: “I think it's bluesy but it turns out that it isn't. It's a mistake, they keep telling me, so they never write it like that [on official sheet music], they always write a major note.” Those “mistakes” led to the inventive musicality that was present throughout the Beatles’ work, and it’s there in the songs of Plastic Ono Band too. Lennon and the other musicians on the album (Billy Preston, Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann) often bent the rules and employed unusual musical devices to add further complexity to the confessional lyrics.

The strange open fifths of the piano accompaniment are what give “Isolation” that feeling of claustrophobia. The simple, ray-of-sunshine chords that shift underneath the key lyrics of “Love” imply sudden clarity. The gospel piano in "God" is bitterly ironic, and the sudden, pregnant silence after he sings that he doesn’t believe in the Beatles is as playful as it is profound. And then there’s Lennon's delivery. His expressive phrasing and inflection speaks volumes. You can hear it in the lyrical way he tackles the goodbye’s in “Mother”, or the way he sings “they hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool” in “Working Class Hero”.

By going back to basics with the instrumentation, Lennon shone a spotlight on his lyrics. But the melodies, the delivery and the musical rule-breaking also emphasised the complex challenges he was grappling with. It all combined to create an album that’s also a therapy session, for Lennon, but also for the listener. It can be as uncomfortable to listen to as it is mesmerising. Many of Lennon's life experiences were beyond most people’s imagination, and his exploration of them could easily have been alienating. Instead, it has the opposite effect—there's a real warmth and intimacy to music like this, in the creak of a sustain pedal and the slide of fingers on frets. The emotional and musical candour of the album invites the listener to connect.


Image via wiki commons

Lennon was—by his own admission—imperfect, and an unreliable narrator. Because of that, the music he created on Plastic Ono Band forces you to engage and decide what resonates with you, and to contend with the issues too, but from a place where the artist has taken the burden and done all the hard work for you. It’s for those reasons that Plastic Ono Band is arguably John Lennon's most interesting work. It didn't define a generation, like his work with the Beatles did. It didn't spawn a paean to spiritual wealth, like its follow up, Imagine. Instead, it gave clear voice to the human condition, stripped back to its core.

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