Music Features

Lennon 7.0: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band & Imagine

“I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me/Yoko and me…”

Probably the most honest assessment of John Lennon’s then-newfound independence from ruling the world as one of the Fab Four, God is a running list of Lennon’s disillusionment.  It’s a sad commentary, as Lennon declares, “The dream is over,” and even Ringo Starr’s involvement seems like further confirmation that The Beatles were at an end.  Plastic Ono Band was to become Lennon's malleable follow-up concept, a group whose Lennon/One core could be sustained through various musicians and line-ups.  Thusly, this concept bore the name of Lennon's first official solo album following the non-Beatles projects that he'd already pursued with Yoko Ono.

In contrast to the stresses mounted between four egos, the solitude on the album’s cover is a calm landscape wherein Lennon and Ono quietly stare off and enjoy each other’s company.  You do get a sense of relief looking at it, though the album’s contents speak like a stripped-down confessional, owing its self-reflection and, at times, shouted reprising to the primal scream therapy that he and Ono were undergoing at the time.  Mother proves to be a cathartic lament of the childhood Lennon was denied and Working Class Hero is rooted in the futility of progress in a class based system.  Either way, the little boy from Liverpool becomes the source of abandon and insecurity, feeding the latter-sainted and successful man enough frustration to send the Walrus a letter of resignation.

The fact that Plastic Ono Band is a mostly minimalist effort, though it may not have been completely on purpose, realizes the efforts on the Beatles’ part to keep Let It Be free of George Martin’s embellishments.  Interestingly, as Phil Spector’s later intervention with the project still brought some orchestration to Let It Be, (his treatment of Paul McCartney’s The Long And Winding Road was met with public opposition from McCartney), Spector’s production for Plastic Ono Band was relatively reserved, which, according to Ono, was because he came into the project late.  That and, in addition to Starr, Lennon’s line-up only consisted of bassist, Klaus Voorman, (an old buddy from The Beatles’ stay in Hamburg, he also came up with the iconic sleeve art for Revolver), and Billy Preston, who played piano on God.

And, through this minimalist approach, there are points where Lennon regresses lyrically, as if to cultivate a younger, less experienced version of himself as songwriter, free of lyrical scrutiny or analysis.  In Hold On, Lennon rhymes “yourself” with “else” and “yourself“ with “yourself.”  Granted the song is written as a security blanket that he, Yoko and the world he’d idealized and influenced through “bed peace” and “instant karma” could share, but the lax poetry he employs is difficult to ignore.  Even Love, touching as it is, offers lines like, “Love is real/Real is love.”  Message outweighs the mode of conveyance, but that simplicity works with My Mummy’s Dead, its home-recorded feel as bred in amateurish production as it is in untrained childlike candor.

Only a year later, Imagine took the more sociopolitical agendas via Working Class Hero and came up with the album’s title track, which became quintessential Lennon: anthemic and ponderous of a world without.  It’s an easier to pill to swallow and the type of song that induces one to consider their material world and question their beliefs.  The rub with Imagine, though, is that the message is brought to you by man who had EVERYTHING, including the possessions he checks off in his song. 

As Lennon grew more and more in tune with politics and the social uprising around him, his pop star persona became something he wanted to shed and Ono was able to expose him to a more avant-garde way of thinking and being. 

But, it was still necessary for him to appease his fans as best as possible.  The Beatles were only gone a year at this point, so the grieving process had not yet ended.  Plus, there was bad blood between Lennon and McCartney, the one-time all powerful songwriting union now two songwriters taking cheap shots at each other.  Consequently, Imagine is more straightforward with a sound one could better associate with Lennon; that is, a noticeable group dynamic.  Phil Spector evidently had more liberty as well.

Though more accessible than Plastic Ono Band, Imagine is laden with Lennon’s peeves: Crippled Inside indicting prejudice hidden by window dressing, Gimme Some Truth an all-out town hall laundry list of complaints against politicians.  George Harrison provides slide guitar for the deeply entrenched sound of I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama I Don’t Wanna Die, “preaching practices” as McCartney had so unsubtly commented in Too Many People, a song off his then new album, Ram.

The image of McCartney holding the ram on the album’s cover inspired a parodic version of Lennon holding a pig by the ears, which was printed as a postcard in original versions of Imagine.  Most importantly, though, and with Harrison a willing participant, How Do You Sleep? would become the best-known dis to emerge from the Beatles’ fallout.  The two beetles copulating on the back cover of Ram spoke somewhat of how McCartney felt, but there wasn’t much guessing Lennon’s point of view: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead/The one mistake you made was in your head.”

Whether hopeful, accusatory or slanderous, Imagine still revealed Lennon’s humanity with songs like Jealous Guy, whose melodies captured his apologetic tone.  Oh My Love and How? allowed Lennon’s insecurities to coalesce into beautifully arranged ballad opportunities.  And then Oh Yoko! is a nice enough closing, John professions of love for Ono Imagine’s final act.

Lennon’s heart made a few appearances, but social awareness and activism through song would become the basis for his music and celebrity.  Revolution was only the beginning and Imagine, though delivered under an umbrella of hope, was quick to define the enemy.