When the Beatles started crumbling in earnest around late 1968/'69, John Lennon vented his dissatisfaction with a few solo albums made with Yoko Ono. The three of them -- Two Virgins, Life With the Lions and Wedding Album -- allowed the two to experiment more fully with their experimental sides, and they will test the patience of even the most committed fan. The pair did, however, begin to move out of their tape-looping nonsense for a number of singles that showed Lennon's creative spark had not been diluted by disillusionment, singles like "Cold Turkey" and "Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)."
Yet it was only when the Beatles finally collapsed that Lennon and Ono finally moved into producing albums worthy of the band John just left. The final years of Lennon's songwriting with the Fab Four revealed the direction of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band long before the lovers underwent Dr. Arthur Janov's Primal Scream therapy. Following his psychedelic sonic innovation on Sgt. Pepper's, his writing became starker, more impassioned, more given to self-evaluation, a great deal of it harsh. The only difference between the yelped pleading of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and the shrieks of JL/POB opening track "Mother" is that the last barrier was knocked down.
The Japanese release of the album translated the title John no Tamashii, meaning "John's Soul," and I can think of no better summary of the contents of the best album to come out of the Beatles' disintegration. While not quite as terrifying and bleak as some say, there can be no doubt that Plastic Ono Band is therapy put to vinyl, a purification by fire of everything on John's mind. The song titles -- among them "Isolation," "God," "Love" -- are as bare as the recordings, direct and honest to the point of bluntness.
What is surprising, though, is the range the album covers. The funereal bell that opens "Mother" establishes a heartbreaking song charting Lennon's feelings of abandonment, but "I Found Out" shows John dealing with the pain of the Beatles' downfall in much angrier terms. It trashes George Harrison's fascination with Hare Krishna and gurus, makes sardonic reference to Paul and generally mocks the idea of any of the Fab Four as rock or religious icons. That thread is picked up even more explicitly in "God," which throws out the rocking vibe of "I Found Out" for a piano lick that scatters into deep space as Lennon shouts his rejection into the heavens.
Meanwhile, "Well Well Well," which loosely ties together considerations of guilt, love, women's liberation and revolution, could stand with the proto-metal found in the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" and "I Want You." Looking at the cropped hair Yoko and John sport on the cover, the bite of the song could easily be a reference to their bitter attitude not only toward the times but of the "revolution's" failure. That the Beatles were (and remain) the symbol of the '60s, the death of flower power only hurts Lennon more deeply.
When Lennon steps outside himself and his hangups, the results are beautiful, and in some cases no less forceful than his personalized rants. "Working Class Hero" never became the anthem it clearly wants to be, but only because it has the complexity of a well-considered social examination. Rather than resort to rah-rah, fist-pumping simplification, Lennon points out how badly the working class wants to be homogenized and tamed by the bourgeoisie. At the other end of the spectrum, "Love" points to the John Lennon who would emerge from this tumultuous album, a more centered individual who would finally find a balance in life between his creativity and his personal well-being. Like all the songs of the album, the lyrics are straightforward, childish in anyone else's hands, but John makes the adolescence of the lyrics the entire point: after two failed marriages -- one literal, the other a metaphorical bonding between his bandmates -- he finally feels that love he never felt even as a young man proposing to Cynthia, and certainly not with any of the groupies he would have inevitably slept with. The circumstances of his meeting Yoko are not ideal (certainly not to Cynthia), but anyone who felt that Yoko simply manipulated Lennon cannot justify that opinion in this face of this baby-faced expression of adoration without sounding like a spiteful fool.
In the first stanza of "God," Lennon sings "God is a concept/By which we measure our pain" but what sticks out is the following line: "I'll say it again." He wants to make absolutely clear what he is leaving behind with this album. What is darkly amusing about his denouncements is the way that he spends so much time attacking his iconic status that he ultimately enshrines the Beatles with all the religious and social figures he casts aside. He first created the comparison between the band and religion with the "Bigger than Jesus" comment, and he forces the juxtaposition again here by definitively rejecting both. He may be denying both, but he's placing them on equal ground in the process.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is one of those albums that some might feel obligated to cherish instead of enjoying. It's too ephemeral to be embraced as a statement of angst, but too demanding of the listener's attention to be pop. Yet the album is anything but arduous, and its sparsity gives Lennon the room to bare himself in a way few singer/songwriters have ever had the courage to express. By throwing it all out in a rasped scream of agony, he not only crafts his most beautiful and searing statement but cleanses himself to return to writing masterful pop tunes, which he would do with his next album. This isn't the sound of a man's descent into a personal hell, it's of a baptism.
Happy birthday, John. This place fucking sucks without you.