On one of the most naked and unadorned records in history, John Lennon tells the world that the Beatles dream is over and the he now only believes in himself...well, in Yoko Ono and him. An album that serves as therapy for the artist with some of the most personal lyrics of his career and with spartan accompaniment despite having the famous ‘Wall of Sound’ creator Phil Spector as producer.
Musically, it opens and (almost) closes with 2 of the best songs of his career, Mother, where he recognises the trauma caused by the abandonment and death of his mother, and God, where he puts the final end to the Beatles (“I don’t believe in Elvis, I don’t believe in Zimmerman [Dylan], I don’t believe in the Beatles (…) I was the walrus but now I’m John, so dear friends, life goes on, the dream is over”), in between there is raw ‘blues rock’ in I Found Out and Well Well Well, odes in acoustic singer/songwriter style, Working Class Hero, and classic ballads like Love and Isolation.
For his solo introduction after the Beatles breakup, Lennon decided to bet on a simple raw focus, with some stoic arrangements close to the primary therapy he had undergone recently. Besides Lennon himself on guitar or piano, to accompany these songs there are just 2 old friends who appear, Ringo Starr on drums, and Klaus Voormann, from the Hamburg days and who was responsible for the Revolver album cover, on bass, although Spector and Billy Preston contribute, respectively, the lovely pianos on Love and God. The album opens with the funeral bells of Mother, a song where Lennon shows his best voice, being one of the most intense songs he has ever sung. The death of his mother Julia 12 years earlier appears again on the closing song My Mommy’s Dead. But after this emotional storm there comes the calm with the beautiful Hold On in which he pays special tribute to guitarist Curtis Mayfield (one of Hendrix’s big influences). A song with a lot of soul, thanks to the delicate guitar work by Lennon with his expressive use of the tremolo.
Working Class Hero sees Lennon return to politics of Revolution but this time with just an acoustic guitar, a reminder of early Dylan, talking about the pride of belonging to the working class. He had so much faith in the song that he recorded it over 100 times until he was satisfied. I Found Out, and especially Well Well Well get back to that dirty, distorted sound that he liked in the final days of the Beatles, and is seen as the antecedent to grunge. Both Lennon’s Epiphone Casino and Ringo’s drums sound hard and harsh, creating a primitive sound that responds to perfection to a Lennon’s quote “I’m not very good technically, but I can make the thing howl and move”.
However, God is the real heart of the album, his definitive declaration of independence from the Beatles’ myth, his confirmation as an individual and to some extent, his farewell to the utopian dreams of the 60s. There are no longer the perfect harmonies of McCartney and Harrison to accompany a naked voice. One of the most expressive voices in history that rediscovers itself on the record. Never, neither before or after, would Lennon show himself as vulnerable, and naked, as on Plastic Ono Band.