John Lennon in 1970
Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage
Now That I Showed You What I Been Through: 50 Years Of 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band'
John Lennon asked The Beatles for a "divorce," and he got his wish. After the group's breakup in 1970, quarreling and competition were the norm between himself, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. In Lennon's case, this tension added to a slightly tainted reputation derived from the public's disappointment upon The Beatles' end, his unpopular marriage to Yoko Ono and an artistic dispersion. The latter resulted from an ongoing quest to find his spot in a world he'd grown frustrated with yet to which he desperately wanted to belong. As evidenced by his songs and remarks, Lennon's efforts to find himself often left him feeling empty, and he regularly lacked unconditional trust or engagement.
Standing in the way of this self-discovery process was an inability to resolve past traumas, which was one of the main reasons why Lennon decided to undergo Arthur Janov's primal scream program. He had the apparent goal of finally dealing with childhood wounds related to his mother's death and feelings of rejection linked to his father's absence. But the treatment also addressed the recent pain of losing his other family—the one Lennon had shared a life with for the past decade. In short, how could he go forward when he didn't know which way he was facing?
Lennon channeled all this into his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which turns 50 this month. (December 2020 also marks the 40th anniversary of his murder.) Released as a companion to Ono's concurrent solo debut, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon's album was therapy in its purest form: raw and self-referential. This intimacy was also apparent in the recording process: Apart from Lennon and Ono, the latter of whom is credited on the album sleeve for contributing "wind," the only other musicians were Starr and bassist Klaus Voormann, along with former Beatles roadie Mal Evans (for "tea and sympathy"), pianist Billy Preston and Phil Spector, who played piano on "Love" and "God," respectively.
When a cycle doesn't end fast enough, there's often a tendency to accelerate it, and Lennon was a man on a mission. The previous year, Lennon had been creatively disengaged from the Let It Be sessions and generally disapproving of the approach McCartney and producer George Martin wanted for Abbey Road, as he attempted to destroy the entity he helped create. This self-sabotaging process, which coincided with his dangerous affair with heroin, often translated into a deafening silence that Beatles scholar Stephanie Piotrowski describes in her Ph.D. dissertation as "part of Lennon's agenda to break The Beatles' myth."
But silence wasn't his sole strategy. It progressively became apparent throughout his solo career—culminating with his GRAMMY-winning final album with Ono, Double Fantasy (1980)—that Ono was his new partner-in-crime in McCartney's stead. For anyone unable to take a hint, in September 1969, he privately told the other three Beatles he was leaving the group. Their financial manager, Allen Klein, asked them to keep this development a secret for as long as possible, fearing the news would undermine sales of the forthcoming album, Let It Be (1970), which was taking forever to mix and master.
Lennon's apparent hurry to break free makes it odd that Plastic Ono Band only came out in December 1970, rendering him the last Beatle to release a proper debut album. (This, of course, if we don't count three previous experimental albums with Ono: Two Virgins, in 1968, and Life With The Lions and Wedding Album, both in 1969. And don't forget the hastily put-together Live Peace In Toronto 1969, which partly consisted of early rock covers and featured Ono, guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Voormann and drummer Alan White.)
Spector was supposed to be producing, but he was missing in action when the sessions began, leading Lennon to publish a full-page ad in Billboard saying, "Phil! John is ready this weekend." His relative absence ended up being a blessing in disguise: Spector's trademark "Wall of Sound" style probably wouldn't have suited the album's ethos. Lennon and Ono's minimalist approach matched the content better, allowing the emotional outpouring to sound adequately barer.
Revolving around themes of healing, surrender and replacement, Plastic Ono Band is a prime example of Lennon's songwriting particularities. These include his remarkable ability to craft instant hooks, focus on the lyrical element and rely on subjectivity in storytelling, which contrasted with McCartney's general preference for third-person points of view.
Always with a way with words, Lennon refrained from complicating his message, choosing direct statements ("Hold On," "Look At Me") over the elusive metaphors and cryptic references he often returned to during The Beatles' later years. This aspect made the album vaguely echo his mid-'60s confessional period that produced "Help!" and "In My Life," transpiring as a matured reflection of what it felt like to feel lost in the eye of the hurricane.
For all its sincerity and the psychological commitment that it symbolized to Lennon,
the album encountered a mixed reception at best; it was also quickly eclipsed by the release of Imagine nine months later, in 1971. Similar to what had happened with McCartney's self-titled debut, some critics accused John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band of being a product of self-preoccupation and void egotism. This harsh perception mostly came from the absurdly high expectations following The Beatles' breakup.
"This is the album of a man of black bile," Geoffrey Cannon declared in a 1970 review for The Guardian. "Lennon's album makes a deep impression, if more on him than us … This is declamation, not music. It's not about freedom and love, but madness and pain."
Even though Imagine eventually became Lennon's indisputable legacy—the title track was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, seven years after Lennon's posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award—Plastic Ono Band was still properly cherished. Fans embraced its relatability. It's easier to identify with one's idol opening up about their problems of love and loss than hearing them discuss overly abstract concepts, the renunciatory "God" and tender "Love" being exceptions.
But it also helped that the album didn't become as heavy an institution as Imagine did. Less over(ab)used by pop culture and more grounded in both content and form, Plastic Ono Band felt more human and accessible, despite coming from the myth-ridden colossus called John Lennon.
In September 1980, three months before his death, Lennon gave an extensive interview to David Sheff for Playboy magazine. Sheff asked what Ono had done for him. "She showed me the possibility of the alternative," Lennon replied. "'You don't have to do this.' 'I don't? Really? But-but-but-but-but...'" Although he was referring to his temporary retirement from music to dedicate himself to being a house husband fully, one could see Plastic Ono Band as the dénouement of a similar epiphany 10 years prior. It kick-started a new life Lennon knew would be radically different from everything he had previously experienced.
In addition to representing a threshold moment for Lennon, the album underwent a mutation with regard to its critical reception. Over the decades, Plastic Ono Band received praise that was anything but a given at its release. In 2020, the album ranked at No. 85 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list. "Lennon's [...] pure, raw core of confession [...] is years ahead of punk," the list's album entry reads.
However, perhaps Lennon acerbically summed it up best in his Rolling Stone interview with four words that remain jarring to read: "The Beatles was nothing."