John Lennon - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
Released December 11th, 1970.
#22 in Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time.
DISCLAIMER - I'm warning you right now, up front, this review is CONTROVERSIAL. If you like this album, you'll probably want to kill me by the time you're two paragraphs in. And if you thought br3ad's Coldplay review wasn't helpful, well.....
I'll make no bones about this - you need to know the story of Plastic Ono Band before you can judge it properly. In brief, then: in 1970, The Beatles had just broke up. I shouldn't need to tell you it shook the world. Like many people, though obviously more than most, John Lennon felt lost, and sank into a depression of sorts. His attempted solution was found in Dr. Arthur Janov's radical Primal Scream Therapy, which involves recollecting a painful memory and, basically, screaming as loud as possible to exorcise your demons. The therapy appeared to be working for Lennon....until it was cut short. The details are slightly sketchy, but the general gist is that the US immigration authorities threatened to kick Lennon out of the country, and once Lennon found he could not get one of Janov's therapists to come to Mexico with him, he stopped attending therapy sessions.
Understandably, this left Lennon in a strange place. To understand this totally, imagine that the therapist is a surgeon. Would you leave the surgery before he had a chance to re-seal the wound? This is exactly what Lennon did. Janov and his followers only had time to bring Lennon's demons to the surface. They never let him deal with them, and heal accordingly. And that, in a nutshell, is what Plastic Ono Band is - John Lennon's final therapy session.
We can acknowledge several good things about this album (on paper, at least). It's honest, direct, and open. It's stripped back, presumably to make the message more powerful. It's totally unique. It's also highly influential, being one of the key records that kicked off the singer-songwriter trend. Oh, and - bafflingly - Phil Spector produced it. You'd think that might lead to a good album. Think again.
I remember, quite clearly, the first time I heard this record. I wasn't quite sure what to expect - I'd been warned that it was far more raw and personal than anything The Beatles had ever done, I knew the backstory, and I'd also read some pretty scathing reviews of it (but a fair few positive ones, too). As the first track, "Mother", started, I thought 'this sounds okay'. It's a very simple track, and it's certainly never going to trouble a 'John Lennon's Best Songs' list, but it wasn't too bad beyond Lennon's out-of-tune melismas. I started to zone out 3 minutes in, bored with this song already. Then, roughly 4 minutes in, it happened. 'What the fu
ck is he doing?!?' Tuneless, tortured screaming is what. 'Momma don't go, daddy come home'. Over and over again, for a full minute and a half, getting worse, and worse, and worse. If this is what primal scream therapy sounds like, I never want to hear it again. 'Please,' I thought, 'don't let that be a sign of what else is on this album.'
Well, I got my wish....for a while. There's no tuneless screaming on "Hold On" - the problem is that it's boring as sh
it, and a useless waste of 2 minutes. "I Found Out"? Happy joy for all - a combination of tuneless vocals, AND a boring arrangement! I was beginning to wish I was hearing "Mother" again. Song after song flew past, gradually sapping more and more life out of me. By the time "Well Well Well" rolled around, I officially hated this record. Even more tuneless and abrasive than "Mother", tied to the sort of lyrics any half-decent songwriter could toss off in their sleep. At this point, I had to (with a sense of disgust) acknowledge that "Mother" is actually the third best song on the album. To call Plastic Ono Band a rock album is to mislabel it - it's nothing less than an endurance test.
It's not an album without its highlights (see the Recommended Downloads below - two stone-cold classics do lie amongst the crap), and there is a very occasional flash of inspiration (the first few chords of "Isolation", for instance), but as a whole, Plastic Ono Band is the aural equivalent of a spoiled child throwing his toys out of the pram. It's annoying, tiring, tuneless, and above all, totally attention-seeking - aside from the fact that one song is called "Look At Me" (who the fuck are we listening to, Geri Halliwell?!) and another is called "My Mummy's Dead", lyrics include such gems as "I don't expect you to understand/After you've caused so much pain" and this stunningly awful rant, on "God".
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 (pronounced wrong)
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 (that's Bob Dylan to you and me)
I don't believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that's reality
Presumably, "God" is short for 'God, what the hell happened to John Lennon? This is the man who wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever"! This is the man who wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows"! This is the man who wrote "Jealous Guy"!' (I think we can be forever thankful he held that one back for Imagine - I'd hate to think of such a great song buried under the shoddy production of this album.) Incidentally, early demo versions of this reveal that the line 'Yoko and me' wasn't added until very late on. Pussywhipped, John?
Plastic Ono Band should be acknowledged, understood, even respected. But how the hell anyone can enjoy this mess is beyond me. Clearly, there are an awful lot of people who DO like it (check the RS number!), but I just cannot get into that mindset, which is something I can't say about any other album. There are those who have claimed you need to be deeply depressed, or have experienced mental instability, to truly love this record. Thing is, I've experienced both, and I still hate it. Everything from the production (shoddy at best), to the basslines (plodding and bored), to the piano parts (far too simplistic), to the lyrics (truly awful), is shockingly bad. Had anyone other than John Lennon recorded this, it'd have been immediately dismissed and forgotten. Hell, it probably wouldn't even have been released. I guess that sort of critical blindness is the perk of being a former Beatle. Even John himself seemed desperate to forget this, returning immediately to the sound he was famous for on "Imagine".
John Lennon is undoubtedly capable of writing deeply personal, cutting, great songs (see "Help!" and "Jealous Guy" ). Here, he fails to do so, time and time again. What Lennon failed to realize is that there are far better ways to express your anger than throwing a tantrum. Ever heard anyone say that Yoko Ono ruined John Lennon? They were lying. It was Dr. Arthur Janov. Here's your proof.
Within The Genre - 2.5/5
Outside The Genre - 0.5/5
Recommended Downloads -
Working Class Hero
This album's saving grace. Lennon's aim was clearly to write a direct, emotional album that pulled no punches, and this is the ONLY track that he got right. Perfect, in fact. Honestly, despite what I've said above, I cannot get enough of this song. It's the only song on here with the sort of strong melody you'd expect from Lennon, the only song with good lyrics, and the only song to accurately convey Lennon's anger and spite without coming off as forced. Despite the 'I don't believe in Zimmerman' protests, this is incredibly Dylan-esque, and all the better for it.
Power To The People
Embarrassingly, this wasn't included on the original version of Plastic Ono Band, which means I should really rate it even lower. However, I'm being kind, since as far as I'm aware, all the versions in print now include this as a bonus track. "Power To The People" is one of Lennon's most universally recognized songs. It retains some of the elements that make the rest of the album a chore (the vocals, notably, and the self-obsessed nature of re-using the lyric 'Say you want a revolution?'), but wraps it up in a sunny, jazzy saxophone line and a mass gospel choir.
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