Released on the same day (December 11, 1970) as Yoko Ono’s similarly titled Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon’s post-Beatles debut John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band absolutely obliterates everything the Beatles were. The matching suits, the mop top hair cuts, even the Sgt. Pepper disguise is all blown to smithereens here. There’s no studio trickery, no layering or coding to the lyrics. It’s shockingly plain, a complete deconstruction of the pop music he helped shape. Lennon exposes himself entirely, the first time in history such a popular artist does so with such inward ferociousness. The album opens with a distant gong before settling in to “Mother,” a startlingly profound reflection on his parents, or lack thereof. Lennon was raised by his aunt and uncle, and he expresses his bitterness about that with, “Mother, you had me / But I never had you.”
Again, his words are plain — extremely so, in fact — and it’s unnerving to hear an artist speaking so directly. Art is never supposed to be on the nose. It’s boring, for example, for movie characters to say exactly what they mean all the time, or for a poet not to write in some form of code. Coding is what gives art its depth and meaning. If you have a good ear for dialogue, you’ll notice that characters in scenes that are written really well will only speak with glancing blows. Direct hits are a waste of time — they just spell things out for us that we already know. Lyrics work the same way. For John Lennon, an experienced songwriter if there ever was one, to completely turn these artistic conventions inside out was revolutionary in 1970. Furthermore, the difficult subject matter made Plastic Ono Band a harrowing listen. It’s unsettling to hear John belt out “Mama don’t go / Daddy come home” again and again until he shreds his vocal cords. And that’s just the first track.
An American psychotherapist named Dr. Arthur Janov came up with a type of therapy called primal therapy in the ’60s where patients scream out their problems and issues instead of talking about them. (I suppose that characterization isn’t entirely fair. The objective is to express pain through the screaming.) Janov runs a place called the Primal Center in Santa Monica, and after the Beatles broke up in 1970, he treated John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The treatment would have a pretty obvious and significant effect on the creation of Plastic Ono Band, in terms of tone, delivery and subject matter. Everything about Plastic Ono Band is on the surface, which even today is unsettling, given the uncomfortable nature of it. Even the song titles — “Mother,” “Remember,” “Isolation,” “Love,” “God” — require no elaboration. Yet Plastic Ono Band is one of the most fascinating listens in the rock & roll canon — and not just because of Lennon’s storied past.
The songwriting is remarkably sharp — simple, but sharp — and is elegantly presented in its austere way. The album builds steadily to the penultimate “God,” in which Lennon claims he doesn’t believe in magic, I-Ching, Bible, tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha, mantra, Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Zimmerman (Bob Dylan — his real name is Robert Zimmerman), or Beatles, “I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that’s reality.” It’s a striking verse (it sort of has to be heard to be understood, especially in the context of the entire album), arguably the greatest in recorded history — the Beatles, the greatest band of all time, were suddenly entombed in the past.