Lennon’s solo debut is still grossly underrated.
Garry Mulholland 2010
The first John Lennon solo album has had its fair share of acclaim. It was well-reviewed upon its release, and reached the top ten in both the US and UK, despite the absence of a major hit single. In the 40 years since it has routinely turned up in all those critics’ lists of best-ever albums, albeit way, way below the most admired Beatles sets. It’s firmly established as one of those grown-up rock classics that grown-up rock fans should own. But here’s the rub: Plastic Ono Band is still grossly underrated.
One suspects that Plastic Ono Band’s standing might be somewhat more elevated if its maker was still alive. But this 40-minute, 11-song exercise in stark sonic claustrophobia and bitter autobiographical purging doesn’t fit with the sentimentalised posthumous image of Lennon as Utopian dreamer and modern-day Jesus. The biographical context doesn’t help – anyone could be forgiven for imagining that a record inspired by Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy and Lennon’s twin obsessions with Yoko Ono and his dead mother Julia would be hard work at best, and a bunch of self-indulgent avant-garde ravings at worst.
But the reality of Plastic Ono Band is that it contains eleven of Lennon’s most accessible and gorgeous melodies and riffs; it’s pure Beatles, but with the layers of studio sophistry stripped away to reveal the nub of the confessional crux. The heartbreaking scream of loss that is Mother. The mirror image of My Mummy’s Dead and its invention of all things lo-fi. And, in-between, the savaging of aspiration in Working Class Hero, the pinched proto-punk fury of I Found Out and Well Well Well, the fear and self-loathing of Remember and Isolation, the poignant grasps for comfort within Love and Hold On, and the slaughter of gods, monsters, The Beatles and the false idols of the 1960s in the peerless God, which is still, very possibly, the most thematically ambitious and courageous rock song ever recorded.
All this, and a sound sculpted by Lennon, Ono and Phil Spector which drops you smack dab in the middle of a room at Abbey Road studios feeling the most famous man of his generation bare his soul and flaunt his demons to a world which didn’t want that much information. Plastic Ono Band’s greatest achievement is that, the more Lennon reveals about himself, the more universal his themes become. It’s this mysterious magic that makes Lennon’s solo debut a definitive work of art about how, and why, the personal and the political are one and the same.