It’s easy to fall in the trap of admiring only John Lennon’s finest songwriting attributes. His work with The Beatles is rightly held in the utmost esteem but while some of Lennon’s solo ventures are also given the gravitas they deserve, his debut solo LP is too often overlooked as a vital piece of his iconography. One could even argue that it is some of his finest work and, as we celebrate 50 years since the release of Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first album away from The Beatles, we’re reminding ourselves of the wildly talented Liverpudlian.
Let us not be misunderstood, Lennon’s album was warmly received when it was released back in 1970. The singer, after all, had been a part of the biggest band on the planet for much of the previous decade and was not without his fans. But as many of those fans lamented about what the Fab Four would be creating if they were together, Lennon would provide them with a reason the band simply had to break-up. Lennon’s new vision could not have been contained within the band.
There’s an unwritten rule with John Lennon: you start with ‘Help!’ and end up with the Plastic Ono Band. Meaning that the poptastic bounce of The Beatles early material is the easiest entry point for any new fan. There’s a lot there to love, too. The tunes are wonderfully melodic, lyrically Lennon develops throughout the band’s output and there is a good reason that the Fab Four are still regarded as one of the greatest bands to have walked the earth. But as one’s taste develops and matures, Lennon;’s visceral vision of life after The Beatles becomes all the more vital.
There’s no better showing of this vicious and scything tone than on his debut solo LP Plastic Ono Band. Over eleven songs, Lennon cracks open the window on the hotbox of his brain and lets the smoke, scorn and suffering of the previous decade out, seeping and swirling as it does. While Lennon was in the midst of his determination for peace, often cast as a new musical messiah during his processions, on record he was nearing his peak. The Beatles had provided him with the confidence to finally give himself over completely to the music. When he did so, he offered his fans a twisted tapestry of oedipal confusion, his infatuation with Yoko Ono and the concept of Arthur Janov’s primal scream.
It’s a combination of inner-mental strains that, on the face of it, could leave most listeners despairing at the dreaminess of yesteryear. But while the subject matter may well be strange and strewn with flecks of fleeting madness, the package they’re delivered in is pure rock joyfulness. Something The Beatles would have undoubtedly enjoyed producing themselves. Whether it is the painful ‘Mother’, something doubly-punctuated by ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, both of which deal with the very real death of Lennon’s mother, Julia or indeed the truly magnetic ‘Working Class Hero’, Lennon makes his point in the most poignant and perfected way.
Of course, the album has more gems on it too. As well as the punk-adjacent ‘I Found Out’ and the bonafide rocker ‘Well Well Well’ are the beautiful moments of reflective loathing on ‘Remember’ and ‘Isolation’, the likes of which has always confirmed Lennon as one of the most authentic artists in his era. Naturally, ‘Love’ and ‘Hold On’ also hold weight upon relistening while the death of The Beatles is worth revisiting on ‘God’ which may well be one of Lennon’s most treacherous piece of conceptual rock.
Add the infamous producer Phil Spector to proceedings and it is easy to see how this album, above Lennon’s more famous outing Imagine, should be considered his finest ever solo recording. It’s one album that has not only stood the test of time but, with every new listener, gains further prominence and adds extra weight to Lennon’s own legacy, not as an icon or figurehead but as a songwriter — the only thing he ever really wanted to be. On this album, Lennon gives himself over to the process entirely and it’s a simply wonderful record because of it.