John Lennon ushered in his post-Beatles career 50 years ago today with the stark, bare-bones, powerful, and sometimes harrowing Plastic Ono Band. Production was credited to John, Yoko, and Phil Spector, though the album bears little resemblance to Spector’s multi-layered behemoth by George Harrison which appeared a few weeks earlier. While all of Lennon’s albums are to some degree self/Yoko/Beatles-referential, his solo debut was a scab ripping primal scream therapy session played out on vinyl, and it became a classic.
It’s interesting to me how the ex-Beatles waded into their respective post-Fabs lives. Paul secluded himself at his Scotland farm and wrote and recorded the loose McCartney album earlier in the year as an exercise – with Linda’s help – to pull himself out of his Beatles hangover. George spent months in the studio with Phil Spector and a cast of musicians so numerous he wasn’t even aware of all of them for a few decades. The results included songs of lament over lost friendships as well as further declarations of his spiritual aspirations. Ringo’s musical breakthrough was still a few years away. Then came John’s rather minimalist Plastic Ono Band.
There were many indications in the music world at the turn of the 1970’s that the Flower Power era was over, and John put his own stamp on it with this album. His wounds were deep and went all the way back to childhood. He was barely thirty years old but had lived ten lives by 1970. He had entered an alternative, “primal” therapy developed by Arthur Janov which used screaming more so than analysis as part of one’s healing. Two of the heaviest songs feature this element: the opening track, Mother, and side two’s God. The latter is a paring down of all the things he no longer wants, needs, or believes in, from religion to political cults of personality to Elvis, Dylan, and lastly, the Beatles. He only believed in Yoko and himself by that point, and the world would just have to deal with it.
The rest of the album is no less dramatic in its simplicity with John, Ringo, and Klaus Voormann playing the majority of the instruments. Love is a welcomed respite in the middle of the onslaught, but it’s an emotionally draining affair overall from start to finish. Coincidentally, I’m writing this the day after the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s passing. I played Plastic Ono Band before leaving for work yesterday morning and I’m still feeling it. It’s just as powerful as ever.
Note: The following is a slightly edited re-post from a few months back when I was participating in a desert island album draft.
Where to start with George’s 1970 triple album opus, and how to explain concisely why this album means so much to me in a manner that doesn’t make me sound full of myself? If you’re reading this you’re probably a music fan and can, at least to some extent, relate. Despite the fact that I have no clue what it’s like to be musically gifted, internationally famous (never mind an ex-Beatle), a millionaire, etc., if there’s one artist who I think I can relate to as a person, it’s George. I wear my heart on my sleeve like he did, and if I were ever to experience any degree of fame, I’d probably react to it similarly to him. That is to say, “Hari Krishna, now please get off my lawn while I enjoy this piece of cake.” Maybe it’s because I’m a fellow Pisces, I don’t know. And if there’s one album of his which displays his full range of emotions relating to personal relationships and spiritual longing, and is presented in beautifully crafted songs with fantastic musicianship from start to finish, it’s All Things Must Pass, released 50 years ago today.
Due to the limits he faced regarding his songs making it onto Beatles albums, Harrison had been stockpiling them since roughly 1966. After starting 1968 by staying in India longer than the other Beatles, in the fall of that year George spent time with Dylan and The Band at Woodstock, which was perhaps the final nail in the Beatles’ coffin as far as George was concerned. Their influence is all over this solo debut album, which was an artistic and emotional purging for Harrison. There are songs of human love for friends, including the Dylan co-written I’d Have You Anytime, and George’s attempt at coaxing Bob out of his self-imposed exile on Behind That LockedDoor. Apple Scruffs is his humorous love song to his loyal fans who waited daily outside the recording studio, and What is Life is one of a number of George’s uniquely ambiguous love songs over the course of his solo years which leaves it up to the listener to decide if it’s about human or Godly love.
There are songs of lament over friendships on the wane. Wah-Wah was written when George walked out of the Get Back sessions. It’s a double entendre which refers to the guitar effect as well as the headache John and Paul had caused him. Run of the Mill, too, was written out of his sadness over the Beatles’ slow dissolution. Isn’t it a Pity, to me, is the most powerful track on this emotional roller coaster of an album. There are two slightly different versions on the album, and he could’ve added a third one as far as I’m concerned – a rendition for each of the three LPs.
And there are the songs which focus on George’s spiritual journey. The smash hit, of course, was My Sweet Lord, which includes a Vedic chant for which Harrison took heat from Christian fundamentalists for supposedly trying to subliminally indoctrinate America’s youth into heathen Eastern religion. As with his organizing the Concert for Bangladesh a year later, it took nerve (and Phil Spector’s insistence) for him to put this song out as a single, but it paid off. The Art of Dying had its genesis around 1966 when Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows was the Tibetan Book of the Dead-influenced song to make the cut on Revolver. To the uninitiated, it can be a dark or disturbing song. It is not. As with The Art of Dying, Awaiting on You All is Harrison encouraging us to wake up to what’s real and eschew that which isn’t. And lastly, after all the madness, fame, and fortune of his Beatles experience left him emotionally and spiritually frayed, there’s George’s bare bones plea in Hear Me Lord. For such a private man, it doesn’t get any more open and sincere than this.
But wait, there’s more! The third album in this set, known as Apple Jam, includes four extended instrumentals and a 49 second Monty Pythonesque ditty with an appearance by good ol’ Mal Evans. The indulgent jams include Dave Mason, Ginger Baker, Gary Wright, Billy Preston, and Derek & the Dominos. I’ve actually read opinions by fans who are put off by inclusion of these tracks, as if they are interspersed throughout the first two records and they’re forced to listen to them. I think of it as the unbuckling of the belt after a big meal. Sometimes I listen to it, sometimes I don’t. Either way, I unapologetically like it.
I could go on about other tracks, the plagiarism lawsuit, other session players, the cover, etc. Wiki’s got that covered if you’d like to read more. I would, however, like to comment briefly on Phil Spector’s production. As with Let it Be, this is the version we grew up with, and I love it just like it is. Perhaps when the deluxe 50th anniversary edition comes out, whenever that might be, it will include alternate versions and demos with toned down production. Some of it is available on bootlegs and YouTube.
Occasionally I’ll scroll through my notes concerning albums and other topics I’d like to write about, and one constant throughout 1970 is that – my opinion only, of course – until about November it was an up and down year with the occasional great album or single release, plenty of o.k. but not quite up to par albums by very good artists, and too much bad news. Sure, this could probably be said about any year, but for me 1970 was very much a yin-yang grab bag – more so than I earlier thought it to be – and May might be the epitome of that sentiment.
The immediate lead-up to May set the tone with the U.S. invasion of neutral Cambodia at the end of April. Whether one is hawkish or dovish, it had negative repercussions. From a military standpoint, who knows what would have been the ultimate result if they’d been allowed to continue their pursuit of the roughly 40k VC and North Vietnamese regulars whom they had discovered massing across the border from Vietnam? For those opposed to the war, well, what were we doing in Vietnam, let alone her neutral neighbor, in the first place? We know how it all turned out so I’m not going to write a term paper on the conflict. But the immediate impact in the U.S. of the Cambodian incursion was felt on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, where four students were shot dead and nine others wounded by members of the Ohio National Guard. The tragedy spawned arguably the most powerful protest song ever composed, and it was written very fast by Neil Young and recorded on May 21st by CSNY. Of course I’m referring to the single Ohio, b/w the anguish of Find the Cost of Freedom. It was released the following month, and it feels relevant even today.
The Beatles – Let It Be (album and film)
On May 8 the Beatles released their swan song album, Let It Be, followed by the release five (U.S.) and twelve (U.K.) days later of the documentary film of the same title. Both releases have been picked apart and analyzed to death over the years by critics, fans, and the band itself, mainly Paul McCartney. Personally, I’ve loved the album probably since before I could speak. This is true of almost all of their records. I grew up listening the weirdness of Dig a Pony and Maggie Mae, not thinking twice about the Spectorization of songs like The Long and Winding Road, I Me Mine and the title track. And as I’ve grown to love the music of George Harrison, his contributions to the album make it that much more enjoyable to me now as I near the half-century point in my own life. From a purely musical standpoint, this album is joy to me. It’s a visceral thing that I can’t really explain, but I know that to varying degrees there are many, many other fans who know what I mean. Let It Be has its own distinctive feel, but it’s just as “Beatles” as Meet the Beatles and Revolver. Perhaps that’s a positive acknowledgement of Phil Spector’s controversial contribution, I don’t know. I do know that the original gets played more often than Let It Be…Naked in my home.
As for the movie, it is what it is. It’s a dreary and bleak document of the greatest band of all time in the process of breaking up, but with a great soundtrack. The first time I watched it as a kid was in the late 1970’s, and I remember thinking “This is gonna get better, right?” Fast-forward 50 years, and we’re about to be offered a new and improved Let It Be documentary, currently scheduled for release September 4, titled The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson and compiled from 55 hours of unused footage from the sessions. Prior to writing this post I revisited an earlier post on the 50th anniversary of the rooftop concert in which I expressed enthusiasm for the then-recently announced Jackson project. We’d been assured that, while it will show the group in a more positive light than the original film, it won’t be revisionist history. I still assume that will be the case, but I must say I’m getting a bit of a skeptical feeling after reading some recent quotes by Paul, Ringo, and others about how rosy and warm the new film is after they viewed it for themselves. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what restoration magic Jackson has done with the footage, most of which presumably most of us have never seen. And if it’s on film then whatever moments of love and brotherhood are shown really did happen. And that’s good to know. (I’ve deleted an additional paragraph on this topic. I’ll save it until I’ve actually seen the damn thing.)