A little more than 27 years ago, a maniac with a sad, sickening fixation took John Lennon away from the world. He took him away from the woman he adored, the children he worshipped, and the people who relied on him to speak plainly and poetically about subjects as diverse as love, politics, and personal pain. Nowhere was this ability more obvious than when Lennon released his first solo album. Tied up in issues many knew existed, but few felt were all that important to the man, it stands as one of the most honest and touching personal testimonies ever recorded. A great deal has been written about this stunning achievement, and now the wonderful Classic Album series is devoting a 90 minute installment on the LP's making-of. And just like everything associated with Lennon, it's intimate and insightful.
Long before the Beatles broke up officially, John Lennon felt stifled by the super group. His relationship (and eventual marriage) to avant-garde artist Yoko Ono was expanding his already drug-fueled consciousness, and he needed a musical avenue to explore these ideas. The clean, crisp power pop of the world's most influential band wasn't it. So when the cultural icons split, Lennon went about cleansing himself of all his personal and professional ghosts. New songs like "Cold Turkey" and "Instant Karma" presented a stripped down, straight ahead musician who mocked the lushness of his sonic past with the uncertainty of a solo future. And he was nearing 30. With pals Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr, and a few sessions of primal scream therapy under his belt, Lennon let it all hang out - his hurt, his frustration, his love, and his many, many losses. The subsequent album, Plastic Ono Band, remains today a stellar sonic achievement - and this is how it was made.
Art is never easy to explain. Aside from the whole 'eye of the beholder' dynamic, there's the almost impossible task of turning the ephemeral into a discussion of something solid. Especially when it comes to music. What people enjoy from a rock star can differ radically depending on who you talk to. A heavy metal head won't be winking at soul's sonic seducer any time soon, and the divergent nature of sound tends to tread around issues of universality and consensus. Still, The Beatles managed to avoid most of the harshest criticism, creating the guidebook by which most post-Elvis bands would evolve. That they managed to change the face of popular culture during their reign stands as a more than monumental achievement. John Lennon's part in said success has always been complicated. He was viewed as the rocker, the roots revivalist who kept one foot firmly steeped in the '50s era acts that formed his band's belief system. Yet he was also the experimentalist, the backwards masking, tape looping anarchist who actually believed the mangled montage of "Revolution No. 9" (from the masterful White Album) could be a commercial single.
Plastic Ono Band represents Lennon's tabloid testament, verification of all the rumors, innuendo, pain, and conflict the artist had experienced (or manufactured) in his years of celebrity. It's a weeping wound as an open book, a sore that requires the dazzling rays of the limelight (and inner exploration) to finally scab over and heal. It addresses both his personal and professional complaints, taking on his family ("Mother", "My Mummy's Dead"), his fame ("God", "Working Class Hero"), and his deep affection for soulmate Yoko ("Love"). It plays with the past (the rockabilly style of "Well, Well, Well") while using its stripped down strengths to bring power to the most primitive of feelings ("Hold On", "Isolation"). What's great about the Classic Album overview of this amazing LP is how concise the assistance is from available participants Voormann and Starr. Both men have nothing but praise for their late, great compatriot, but while Ringo gives us his regular guy 'it's all cool' chagrin, Klaus tries to dig for the context behind the contributions. It's a wonderful trip through a frequently intense, and occasionally heartbreaking, dissection.
One myth debunked is that Phil Spector, the infamous producer (and inventor of the Wall of Sound) came up with the bare bones premise of this record. Voormann and Starr make it very clear that Lennon was the designer of the lo-fi feel, wanting nothing more than bass, guitar (or piano), and drums to accent his words. Melodies were kept simple, yet subject matter explored everything from stardom to the most horrifying of personal horrors. Other participants color in some of the missing facts. Engineers Phil McDonald and John Leckie marvel at the rawness of Lennon's voice, while Dr. Arthur Janov (the primary proponent of primal scream) talks about the musician's embrace of the treatment. Lennon himself is represented in various vintage interviews, and as usual, he's a very compelling presence. His wisdom tempered by years of playing Q&A games with the press, he lets us in on the thought process behind each song, signifying that "God" and its classic line "I don't believe in Beatles" is as heartfelt as anything he's ever written. After revisiting Plastic Ono Band again, some 38 years removed from its release, that sentiment is painfully clear. Thankfully, Classic Albums gives us a chance to understand it as well.
Eagle Vision usually does a good job with the technical specifications of these Classic Album releases, and Plastic Ono Band is no exception. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, made up of archival material, recently shot interviews, and other cinematic stock elements looks marvelous, especially when you consider the age and rarity of some of the takes. The modern segments do have a softer wash to them, lacking the crispness of the older segments, but all in all, it's a great offering.
If there is a downside to the delivery of all this amazing music, it's the rather plain Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix. The sonic landscape Lennon created doesn't need multiple channels to be appreciated, but we've come to expect a little revamping in our digital packages. Still, the aural elements here are solid, neither adding more nor distracting from the presentation. And the interviews are crystal clear, so what else matters, really?
The only added content is 37 minutes of additional material dealing with the recording of specific tracks. The information is interesting, but it really is supplemental to what's originally discussed. We don't need to know more - especially when some of the running time is taken up with nothing other than studio experimentation - but it's fun to hear, none the less. The best added bit is Lennon's Top of the Pops appearance for "Instant Karma" circa 1970. It's a fantastic clip, capturing the ex-Beatle at the height of his performance powers.
As an unabashed Beatle apologist, someone who will argue for their significance long after the dismissive comments of "boy band" and "unimportant pop act" trail off in the conversational ether, any chance to gain insight into one of the more creative members of the band is a reason to celebrate. And since this installment of Classic Albums is focusing on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon's first post-mop top masterpiece, the praise party is just getting started. While it can't earn a Collector's Edition rating (the DVD is too minimal to earn such a score), this is clearly a Highly Recommended experience. It may not convince the dismissive that John, Paul, George, and Ringo deserve a place on the Mount Rushmore of music, but it does explain how one man's desire to make peace with his past became the aural equivalent of angst. Leave it to Lennon to turn songwriting into something far more salient.