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Now That I Showed You What I Been Through: 50 Years Of 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band'

John Lennon in 1970

 

Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage

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Now That I Showed You What I Been Through: 50 Years Of 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band'

After The Beatles' split and before 'Imagine,' Lennon recorded a jarring audio confessional that remains indelible in 2020

GRAMMYs/Dec 30, 2020 - 05:25 am

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. 

Read: History Of: Walk To London's Famed Abbey Road Studios With The Beatles

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."

Read: The Beatles Take Aim With 1966's 'Revolver': For The Record 

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 AwardPlastic 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."

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

John Lennon

Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns

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John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

With hits from Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Nina Simone, and more, find the motivation for a brand-new you this New Year

GRAMMYs/Jan 4, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Each New Year offers the opportunity for a fresh new start, whether you're looking to wash away the sins of the previous year or reinvent a better future that follows your ultimate dreams. Starting over isn't an easy task, but we have one recommendation that will help motivate you: music.

Don't be a fuddy duddy. Kick-start 2018 with this playlist of seven songs all about starting over, including hits from John Lennon, the Byrds, Sting, and Alicia Keys, among others.

1. The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Starting with its lyrics, "To everything (turn, turn, turn)/There is a season," this GRAMMY Hall Of Fame classic is a great reminder that everything is always changing anyway, so now is as good a time as any to give something new a chance. The composition was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, but the lyrics come almost verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The song didn't hit it big until the Byrds got their turn at it in 1965. Reportedly, it took Roger McGuinn & Co. 78 takes to perfect their folk-rock arrangement.

2. Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

GRAMMY winner Leonard Cohen had a knack for poetry powerful enough to move mountains, and his "Anthem" is one such gem. This 1992 tune about embracing imperfection and marching forward in the face of adversity contains one of Cohen's most-quoted lines: "Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." And we'll leave you with one final line from the master that encapsulates starting over: "The birds they sing, at the break of day/Start again, I heard them say/Don't dwell on what has passed away/Or what is yet to be."

3. Gil Scott-Heron, "I'm New Here"

Taken from his 2010 album of the same name, "I'm New Here" came near the end of Gil Scott-Heron's storied life. The album saw Scott-Heron, according to Drowned In Sound's Robert Ferguson, "pick over the bones of his life, acknowledging the hard times and his own mistakes, but standing proud of all they have led him to become." Embodying this sentiment accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Scott-Heron's bluesy, semi-spoken "I'm New Here" brings out the poignancy of change. Its key lyric, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/You can always turn around," is something to keep in mind year-round, let alone January.

4. Alicia Keys, "Brand New Me"

Alicia Keys went full bore on the empowering messages of her 2012 album, Girl On Fire —  the Best R&B Album winner at the 56th GRAMMY Awards — including the track, "Brand New Me." Co-written with singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé, the soft pop/R&B ballad describes growing as a person and becoming a brand-new version of yourself. "Brand new me is about the journey it takes to get to a place where you are proud to be a new you," Keys wrote on her website at the time of the song's release.

5. John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over"

A quintessential start-anew song, former Beatle John Lennon included "(Just Like) Starting Over" on his GRAMMY-winning 1980 album, Double Fantasy. "(Just Like) Starting Over" was the album's first single because Lennon felt it best represented his return following a five-year hiatus from music. It's also a love song, but the theme of starting over has a universal resonance "It's time to spread our wings and fly/Don't let another day go by my love/It'll be just like starting over." It became Lennon's second chart-topping single in the U.S., reaching No. 1 after his death on Dec. 8, 1980.

6. Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"

"It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life for me/I'm feelin' good." Could you ask for better lyrics for embarking on a new journey? Nina Simone recorded her version of "Feeling Good," which was originally written for the musical "The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd," on her 1965 album I Put A Spell On You. While artists such as Michael Bublé, John Coltrane, George Michael, and Muse subsequently covered it, no alternative is quite as powerful — or soulful — as Simone's.

7. Sting, "Brand New Day"

Sting's "Brand New Day" has a lesson for inspiring motivation to start the New Year with fresh eyes: "Turn the clock to zero, buddy/Don't wanna be no fuddy-duddy/We started up a brand new day." The bright, catchy pop tune and its namesake 1999 album resonated with fans, landing it at No. 9 on the Billboard 200. The track (and album) earned Sting GRAMMYs — Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Album — at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards.

What's Your New Year's Music Resolution?