May 18, 2008

Classic Albums: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon sure knew how make a statement. The Beatles had—mere months prior—officially and acrimoniously disbanded as the public held his wife, Yoko Ono, most responsible for their fate. His vociferous political views and social activism garnered as much derision as they did praise. And as his public image suffered, so too did his psyche. In late 1970, during a time of intense self-discovery, Lennon exorcised his pent-up anguish, rage, and frustration on his first proper solo LP, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

The album’s predominant theme and, moreover, its message, lay in one cryptic line: “The dream is over.”

Existential and unnervingly introspective, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band reflected a harrowing catharsis for Lennon both as a musician as well as a man. The context and creation of this landmark recording is deftly examined and discussed on the latest installment of Eagle Rock Entertainment’s video series, Classic Albums.

Discerning commentary from Yoko Ono as well as by the album’s principal musicians, drummer Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voormann, complements archival footage of Lennon discussing the work. Especially perceptive and pertinent insight also comes from therapist Dr. Arthur Janov and Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Jann Wenner, both men who then served—in different yet significant roles—as agents for Lennon’s expression.

As told in the film, Lennon was confronting some deep-seated emotional demons and struggling through an identity crisis after (though not entirely due to) the breakup of the Beatles. He explored primal therapy, a psychoanalysis treatment proffered by Dr. Janov, in which one revisits early traumas in order to better appreciate and cope with one’s present existence. Janov recollects, with modesty and compassion, how Lennon subscribed to his method and how it influenced his music. Gripping songs like “Mother” and “God”—the latter opening with the bold conviction, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”—not only reflected Lennon’s involvement in primal therapy, but also the depth of his despair and of his struggles to understand it.

Also, Jann Wenner offers an indicative viewpoint, shrewdly depicting Lennon’s state of mind (as he interpreted it) during this period. His infamous 1970 interview with Lennon not only shocked readers for its frankness, but also for how it dispelled the idealism that the Beatles espoused. Based on that encounter as well as on their social (and often adversarial) relationship, Wenner reflects on how Lennon was beginning to realize his purpose and potential as a solo artist. In assessing the album in question, Wenner says, “The power, the strength, when an artist of that quality, and that imagination, that creativity, reaches such truths about himself, [it’s] overwhelming.”

For all of the turmoil that inspired its creation, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band does not—then and now—invite casual listening. In fact, it provokes an emotional response, if not a visceral jolt. In retrospect, perhaps the notion of an introspective album (and certainly one by John Lennon) doesn’t seem unusual, but in 1970, this one set a precedent. Classic Albums does a fine job in explaining why such was the case.