Friday, September 10, 2010

John Lennon, God, icons...realization of the self

Professional and personal the Beatles dissolve and members go their separate ways and try to sort out their history and existence. John Lennon questions himself and the meaning of life and ultimately rejects iconography, cultural popular movements and rightly believes in himself.

"...Plastic Ono Band's big statement, "God," in which Lennon renounces by name all the myths he has ever believed in: magic, Bible, mantra, Gita, Kennedy, Elvis. Like the layers of an onion these are peeled away one by one, and after the climactic "I don't believe in Beatles" all that's left is: "I just believe in me.""

"Hail, Hail, Rock'n'Roll"

Lennon's song God floors you with a punch. It's a farewell – to the past, to the Beatles. In destroying our idols, it somehow sets us all free


Laura Barton

September 9th, 2010

People are always surprised when I tell them how much I like Yoko Ono. I interviewed her a few years ago, ahead of an ATP festival; we talked about art and music and love, and I found her smart, warm and kind of wonderful. At the end of our conversation she gave me a cape gooseberry, placed it in the palm of my hand, like a ripe and precious gift.

Yoko's reputation you will know well: the woman who took John Lennon from his wife, and from the Beatles, and since I met her, it has often amused me that she is painted always as a taker, while I remember her as a giver.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as I've found myself listening to Lennon's first official solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released 40 years ago. Yoko's involvement in this record is well documented, and she simultaneously released her own album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Their covers show near-identical photographs of the couple reclining beneath a tree. "In Yoko's, she's leaning back on me," Lennon explained in the couple's 1980 interview with Playboy. "In mine, I'm leaning on her."

It's strange to return to an album you played into the ground in younger years and find it still smarts every bit as much as the first time around. Lennon's solo debut was remarkable for many reasons, not least because it introduced a musical and lyrical introspection that was strikingly new to many fans. This, after all, was the album that gave us Working Class Hero, My Mummy's Dead and Mother, songs that at times seem confessions and allegations, pleas and petitions, and raw, gut-wrenching cries. This is still the Lennon of old, of course, the songwriting sensibility of his Beatle days every bit as keen, but here, stoked by a combination of primal therapy and love, he has produced a set of songs that seem kilned by the belly.

It is an album characterised by sparseness – musically and emotionally stripped back, this is the sound of a man realising he is alone. "There ain't no guru who can see through your eyes," he sings in I Found Out, and later: "No one can harm you, feel your own pain." There is sorrow, certainly, and disillusionment, yet it is far from hopeless; listening to this record, what always knocks me back is its gust of freedom.

The penultimate track is God, a song that, unsurprisingly, created a great deal of controversy at the time. "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," it begins. "I'll say it again," he adds for the flabbergasted, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." What follows is a list of all the idols Lennon no longer believes in, from magic to I Ching, the Bible to Buddha, as well as an array of more modern icons: "I don't believe in kings," he insists, "I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman. I don't believe in Beatles." Cue a discordant clamouring of piano keys to underline the blasphemy.

It's hard not to regard this as one of the most powerful songs ever written, the sort of song that floors you with one punch. It's the voice – Greil Marcus noted that Lennon's singing in the final verse "may be the finest in all of rock" – and it's the simplicity (piano and voice, a little bass and drums here and there), but really its force comes in the clout of what Lennon is saying.

It reads to me much like a Dear John letter, in every sense. It is a farewell – to the past, to the Beatles, to the person he had become, to the reputation and the status he had accumulated. There is a weightlessness as he sings: "I was the dreamweaver, but now I'm reborn/ I was the walrus, but now I am John." The layers all peeled, there he seems to stand, quite calm, quite still. "I just believe in me," he concludes with tangible relief. "Yoko and me."

This is a song about taking away, of course, about Lennon reclaiming himself from the audience, but it is also a song of great generosity – a song that in destroying our idols, somehow frees us all, a song that leaves us only with ourselves, and with love. It is a gift, I think, placed in the palm of our hands.



John Lennon


John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

ca. 1970

God is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain
I'll say it again
God is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain

I don't believe in magic
I don't believe in I-ching
I don't believe in Bible
I don't believe in tarot
I don't believe in Hitler
I don't believe in Jesus
I don't believe in Kennedy
I don't believe in Buddha
I don't believe in Mantra
I don't believe in Gita
I don't believe in Yoga
I don't believe in kings
I don't believe in Elvis
I don't believe in Zimmerman
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality

The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I'm reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I'm John
And so dear friends
You'll just have to carry on
The dream is over

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band [Wikipedia]

From [David Hutcheon]...

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Apple 3372
Released: December 1970
Chart Peak: #6
Weeks Charted: 33
Certified Gold: 1/28/71

Co-produced by Phil Spector, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band shows John Lennon striving to demolish every icon in sight -- be it Krishna, Jesus, sex, dope, or the Beatles. While George had told us that the world of our senses is pure illusion ("beware of maya"), John takes exactly the opposite tack, dismissing mysticism as "pie in the sky," another drug to dull the pain of reality. Lennon's music on this album is as raw and claustrophobic as George's All Things Must Pass was lush, expansive, and uplifting.

Plastic Ono Band sounds more like a demo than a Spector production; surely Phil has never been kept on so tight a rein. Many of the tracks were captured in just one "take," and most feature only two instruments besides John's piano and guitar: Ringo's drums, and the bass of Klaus Voormann, who at the time was cited in numerous "scoops" as McCartney's replacement in a new Beatle line-up.

Plastic Ono Band was nick-named "the Primal Album," as John had composed most of it during the course of four months at Arthur Janov's Primal Institute in Los Angeles. Lennon was initiated into Dr. Janov's radical therapy by the latter's The Primal Scream, which had been sent to him at the author's request. After undergoing three weeks of intensive therapy with Dr. Janov in England, the Lennons agreed to come to California in April 1970 for the full treatment, in which patients relive key experiences that trigger blood-curdling Primal Screams which, the psychologist contends, can exorcize the root causes of all their neuroses.

The therapy's profound impact on Lennon is clearly reflected in his album. A harrowing journey through John's past, Plastic Ono Band leaves the bare wires of his ravaged emotions exposed as never before or since. Songs like John's self-proclaimed revolutionary anthem, "Working Class Hero" -- whose melody and solitary droning acoustic guitar recall the angry young Dylan of almost a decade earlier -- closely echo Dr. Janov's theories. "Well Well Well" and the "Mama don't go, Daddy come home" segment of "Mother" climax with screams; whether or not these are Primal with a capital P, they are certainly chilling.

"Mother," possibly Plastic Ono Band's most powerful piece, opens the album with the tolling of funeral bells, as if to symbolize the casting off of John's past (elsewhere he sings "now I'm reborn... I was the walrus, but now I'm John"), then introduces a sledghammer rhythm so slow and so taut that it threatens to snap under the tension.

But the most intimate and scary moment of all is the last: the 48-second "My Mummy's Dead," set to the crushingly banal tune of "Three Blind Mice." This is preceded by Plastic Ono Band's big statement, "God," in which Lennon renounces by name all the myths he has ever believed in: magic, Bible, mantra, Gita, Kennedy, Elvis. Like the layers of an onion these are peeled away one by one, and after the climactic "I don't believe in Beatles" all that's left is: "I just believe in me."

In his Plastic Ono Band John takes the honesty of his last Beatle songs as far as it can possibly be taken, wrenching each word and note straight from the gut. At the time, Lennon told Jann Wenner: "The poetry on this album is superior to anything I've ever done because it's not self-conscious...." Of the equally minimalistic music he said: "I always liked simple rock.... I was influenced by acid and got psychedelic like the whole generation... but when you just listen, the piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest.... I don't need anything else."

John called the album his "Sgt. Lennon," and many critics seemed to agree with him. Yet Plastic Ono Band's impact owed as much, if not more, to non-musical factors as any Beatle record had. Many of his new songs were like unpolished entries in the most private of diaries; their meaning, or lack of it, depended upon the nature of the listener's relationship with John Lennon. If only within the context of the man and his previous work, Plastic Ono Band was a powerful, fascinating and at times heartbreaking document.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band first appeared on the Billboard chart on December 26, 1970, reaching #6 and spending a total of 22 weeks.

- Nicholas Schaffner, The Beatles Forever, pp. 143-44.

Bonus Reviews!

Self determination music, intensely analytical of self with production values kept down to the minumum to allow his meaning to get through. Lennon sings, plays guitar and piano and is accompanied by Ringo on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Yoko, with Phil Spector and Billy Preston on two cuts. An album that will be as much analysed at Sgt. Pepper over the years.

- Billboard, 1971.

Of course the lyrics are often crude psychotherapeutic cliches. That's just the point, because they're also true, and John wants to make clear that right now truth is far more important than subtlety, taste, art, or anything else. At first the music sounds crude, too, stark and even perfunctory after the Beatles' free harmonies and double guitars. But the real music of the album inheres in the way John's greatest vocal performance, a complete tour of rock timbre from scream to whine, is modulated electronically -- echoed, filtered, double-tracked, with two vocals sometimes emanating in a sythesis from between the speakers and sometimes dialectically separated. Which means that John is such a media artist that even when he's fervantly shedding personas and eschewing metaphor he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks and prisms. A

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Rock & Roll as public confession/personal catharsis/primal scream. It's powerful but questionable stuff. The group celebrity of the Beatles and a difficult personal history combined to unleash Lennon's furies and wracking self-doubts. On this harsh, stark, stinging recording, Lennon lets it all hang out, without instrumental coloration or personal reservation. Working with Phil Spector, their brutally raw production values illuminate Lennon's masterful singing and bruised psyche with an intense, pitiless spotlight; their artistry is manifest in the way John's voice, through subtle manipulation, becomes the perfect rock & roll vehicle. The outstanding track is "Working Class Hero," but Plastic Ono Band isn't about singles (that was the Beatles' ultimate bag) -- it stands as a powerful, flawed expression of the artist as canvas. While the sound stage is a bit constrained and has a "recorded" feel to it, the CD's sound is perfect, integral, and substantially better than the LP. A+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

How bad can you hurt?

Plastic Ono Band hasn't aged well, but it remains one of the most audacious, iconclastic albums in all of rock and roll. The former Beatle was reacting against everything possible here, everything from Paul McCartney to his dead mother, from God to the lush sound of Abbey Road, and he sought to strip everything to its core. Lyrics were streamlined, instrumentation was sparse, and Yoko's pretensions were almost totally absent.

Much has been spouted about the lyrics of the album, the anger and desperation that encircled Lennon, and two decades on, Plastic Ono Band continues to justify such promotion. The one-word-title songs, "Mother," "Isolation," "Remember," "Love," and especially "God," represent lyrics that are not merely insular, they're self-involved. Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, the proto-New Age belief system with which Lennon was so infatuated at the time, infects the ostensibly confessional words so much that sometimes the listener feels embarrassed, like an inadvertent eavesdropper. Yet let's be honest, that's the way Lennon wanted it, since he was such a natural manipulator of lyrical masks. As his subsequent work with Elephant's Memory would emphasize, the personal, not the political, was his metier, which is why the brutal "Working Class Hero" is the greatest of his political songs. It focuses on one man and then jumps out, in the tradition of the song's obvious antecedent, Bob Dylan. (In "God," Lennon sings, "I don't believe in Zimmerman." Ha.)

As with most great rock and roll, more important than what Lennon sings is how he sings. Phil Spector produced this record in association with John and Yoko, but you'd never know it. Lennon's voice is remarkably effect-free, and the only immediately apparent sound augmentations are echo and reverb that add weight and tension. The lack of typical Spector kitchen-sink production methods is telling, and suggests that for once Lennon held sway over their joint productions. Lennon was going back to his roots musically as well as emotionally on this album; as Tim Riley writes in Tell My Why, the echo and reverb on Plastic Ono Band are Lennon's way to summon up the sound of his beloved Sun-period Jerry Lee Lewis. Throughout this album, Lennon is as pained as the Killer was when the latter burrowed into the barbed-wire country-and-western standards that ate at his soul. The pastoral-delight cover photo on this album is wishful thinking.

- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.

A stark, harrowing set of songs in which Lennon recounts the horrors of his childhood ("Mother," "Working Class Hero"), the disillusionment of his adulthood ("I Found Out"), and his loss of faith in all idols ("God") including "Beatles." This album is one of rock's most personal -- and most ambitious -- statements. * * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Plastic Ono Band is a searing, indelible work which has never been matched even in the days of the most confessional grunge. A collection of songs inspired by primal scream therapy of Dr. Walter Janov, Lennon's autobiographical songs about his mother (who died when he was a child), his declaration of independence from God (and the Beatles) and his lonely calls for the working class hero is a tour de force more than a quarter century later. * * * * *

- Roger Catlin, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

In 1969, on the "Get Back" single, the Beatles announced a retreat from the orchestrated intricacy of the grand statement that was Sgt. Pepper. In April 1970, beating Lennon's solo debut by eight months on the calendar and five places on the charts, Pepper mastermind Paul unveiled his home-overdubbed one-man-band lark, McCartney. But Plastic Ono Band was the shocker. Its harmonic surface uningratiating, its rhythms simple to the point of crudity, its tempos too deliberate even when they sped up a little, this wasn't just spare -- it was stark, somber, almost a "primal scream," as the Arthur Janov therapy that John and Yoko Ono had just undergone was called. Beginning and ending with songs about Lennon's dead mother and spiked with scary undulations in the middle, it was as grim as Black Sabbatch, just then making their own post-Sixties dent.

Unsurprisingly, Lennon did grim smarter than Black Sabbath. The historic scale and analytic detail of "Working Class Hero," "I Found Out" and "Isolation" have always been rare virtues in political pop, and the patterns of oppression they lay out have only gotten worse since. Because the existential anxieties of "Hold On" and "God" are thought through, they're more harrowing than the usual adolescent angst-mongering, too. Canning his customary furbelows, co-producer Phil Spector works to make the de facto manifesto grand in its spareness. Every note reverberates. The drums that Ringo Starr pounds seem funereal, just as the piano that Lennon pounds seems orchestral. And left out in the open, without protective harmonies or racket, Lennon's singing takes on an expressive specificity that anyone in search of the century's great vocal performances would be foolish to overlook.

- Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone, 6/10/99.

Also known as the "primal scream" album, referring to the painful therapy that gave rise to its songs, Plastic Ono Band was Lennon's first proper solo album and rock & roll's most self-revelatory recording. Lennon attacks and denies idols and icons, including his own former band ("I don't believe in Beatles," he sings in "God"), to hit a pure, raw core of confusion that feels like reality, however agonizing, and, in its echo-drenched, garage-rock crudity, is years ahead of punk. Lennon sings about childhood loss in "Mother" and skirts blasphemy with "Working Class Hero": "You're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." But the unkindest cut came in his notoriously frank 1970 Rolling Stone interview: "The Beatles was nothing," Lennon stated acerbically.

Plastic Ono Band was chosen as the 22nd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Free, or so he thought, of The Beatles, John Lennon headed for New York with Yoko Ono to participate in primal scream therapy. Forced to leave the country before any progress was made, they ended up back at home in Britain, where Lennon started writing songs that would close the curtain not only on the 1960s but also on his past, all 30 years of it. For John, this was not just 1970, this was Year Zero.

So "Mother" begins with the sound of a church bell and continues with the son saying goodbye. "Hold On" bids farewell to what had been the womb of his band, with Lennon now out in the world with only Ono for support. And "I Found Out" simply underlines the fact that he no longer believes in 1960s idealism ("I seen through religion from Jesus to Paul"). If your favorite Beatle songs were "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" or "Help!," you would probably find this the most appealing solo Fab album.

Among the self-analysis, two songs stand out as coming from a place The Beatles could never have approached. "Working Class Hero," with its Class-A swearing, and "God," which renounces as many of the past 30 years' cultural landmarks (Hitler, Kennedy, yoga, even Beatles) as could fit in four minutes. It closes with the final farewell: "I was the walrus but now I'm John." The dream, in the form of everything The Beatles had represented, was over, and once he had got it off his chest, you felt happy for him. Now he would start writing pop songs again, wouldn't he?

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