1970 proved a fruitful year for the solo Beatles, George Harrison releasing his behemoth ‘All Things Must Pass’, Paul McCartney cobbling his arresting homemade debut and John Lennon expressing his soul in a manner he never again equaled. ‘Plastic Ono Band’, a compilation of thirty years of anger thrown on record, proved a compelling album, reigniting Lennon’s taste for the viperous, iconoclastic and lethal in equal doses.
Sparser than the latter-day Beatles albums, the record proved the work of Lennon’s guitar playing (without the more proficient Harrison here, Lennon shows how commendable a guitarist he was), Ringo Starr’s drumming (Starr rarely sounded this good again) and Klaus Voorman on bass (there were unsubstantiated rumours that he would take McCartney’s place in The Beatles, though Voorman would record ‘I’m The Greatest’ with Lennon, Harrison and Starr in 1973). Delighted with Phil Spector’s work on ‘Let It Be’ ( a ninety degree contrast to Paul McCartney), Spector was invited to Abbey Road to co-produce Lennon’s debut (though it later transpired the album was primarily the charge of Lennon and Yoko Ono), playing a beautiful piano on the album’s only respite filled song ‘Love’.
Cut from the same seismic cloth as The Beatles ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Love’ was a song laden in instrumental simplicity, emphasis placed on the purity of the words, the opening of which Freddie Mercury would transpose for Queen’s ‘Hot Space’ ‘Life Is Real’.
Elsewhere, the album screamed with only ferocity and rage thirty years of disillusionment could bestow. After leaving The Beatles, Lennon and Ono underwent Primal Scream Therapy under the supervision off Arthur Janov. Re-aligned with childhood traumas, Lennon gave album opener ‘Mother’ and closer ‘My Mummy’s Dead’ a ballast of excruciating vocal plying. “Mother, you had me/but, I never had you” still remains one of the most startling ways to open a record.
‘I Found Out’, a viperous attack on the disingenuous nature of the seventies hippie ideals, had a kick to it, fiery in its lyrics, troublesome in its music, its guitar hook a guide for Steve Jones and Johnny Ramone to perfect. If ‘Found Out’ preempted punk, ‘Well Well Well’ preceded grunge; one could very easily mistake Lennon’s acidic bite for Kurt Cobain’s.
‘Look At Me’, finger plucked with the same veneer as some of his acoustic ‘White Album’ ballads, Lennon alone on his guitar brings desolation, the adage that songwriting should be three chords and the truth at the forefront. If ‘Look’ seemed a bit close to the bone, it paled in comparison to the gross desperation of ‘Isolation’, Spector’s sparse mix both spacious and claustrophobic (long time Lennon-phile Roger Waters looked to ‘Plastic Ono Band’ as the template for ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ s mix). One of Lennon’s best songs, its covers ranged from esoteric pop-stars Snow Patrol to balladeer Marianne Faithful’s courtly rendition.
‘God’ proved the most iconoclastic, a four-minute ballad where he attacked the validity of religion, before expounding the rest of the song to everything else he didn’t believe in; Gita, yoga, Zimmerman and, most alarmingly, Beatles.
“I just believe in me” he counters, sighing with relief, the world off his shoulders. “I was the walrus/but now, I’m John” he sings with certainty and belief. And yes he is.
For no one could mistake this as a Beatles record (his follow-up ‘Imagine’, with its decidedly fuller sound and commercial zest could have been). Only Lennon’s vulnerability and loquacity could bring an album as ‘Ono’ to life, one of the purest examples of soul bearing on vinyl.