Sunday, November 29, 2020

Plastic Ono Band (AM9)
Artist: John Lennon
Produced by: John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector
Released: December 11, 1970
Length: 39:45
Tracks: 1) Mother (5:34); 2) Hold On (1:52); 3) I Found Out (3:37) 4) Working Class Hero (3:48); 5) Isolation (2:51); 6) Remember (4:33) 7) Love (3:21); 8) Well, Well, Well (5:59); 9) Look At Me (2:53); 10) God (4:09); 11) My Mummy's Dead (:49)
Players: John Lennon - vocals, guitar, piano, organ; Ringo Starr - drums, percussion; Klaus Voorman - bass; Phil Spector - piano, synths; Billy Preston – Piano ("God")

Poet, TS Eliot popularized the "objective correlative;" the idea that in order for a work to gain value moving forward, emotional content must be non-specific. Here, as an example, is a scene from a cheesy melodrama: Fade in - a cemetery filled with weather-worn headstones, droplets of rain cascading down stone angel faces; a small congregation of people dressed in black holding umbrellas. An old woman raises a veil, takes off a ring, places it on a coffin; faint sobbing is audible. Slowly the clouds break and a shaft of sunlight shines on a single blooming yellow marigold. Credits.

The viewer's emotional response, which starts off somber, ends with renewed hope for the old woman, though the filmmaker provides nothing tangible to conjure this analysis. Sunlight induces joy as readily as it causes skin cancer; a marigold by itself is pretty, but one doesn’t necessarily sense optimism in its presence. The emotional response originates, not in a word, image, action or reaction, but in the combination of all; a sort of emotional algebra. The objective correlative is the formula for creating a specific emotional reaction merely by the juxtaposed presence of common words, objects, or items. The sum is greater than the parts. 

For our purposes in analyzing music, the theory maintains that the songwriter's itinerary cannot be so specific as to render the listener unable to respond without a back story. Though an appealing ideology (and one that AM is often guilty: reviewing music in a vacuum), dismissing what is topical ofttimes diminishes content. "For What It’s Worth" seems the perfect reflection of war protests, yet the song really addresses the teen riots on the Sunset Strip (see the post from February 21, 2015). The song’s impact, though, is not lessened based on this misinterpretation (reinforcing Eliot’s theory), yet that is not always the case.

John Lennon’s "God," is the antithesis of the theory. "God" is Lennon denouncing his past, his influences, his beliefs and associations. The song can have no impact sung by anyone but Lennon (as it was by Andrew McMahon on the Instant Karma: Save Darfur tribute album). Certainly comments about Yogi or Elvis or "Zimmerman" (Bob Dylan) can be interpolated by any singer, but lines like "I don’t believe in Beatles…I just believe in me (Yoko and me)," make the song valueless by any interpretation other than Lennon's.

Plastic Ono Band is an album that personal. After the breakup of The Beatles, John released several singles ("Give Peace A Chance," "Cold Turkey," "Instant Karma!") and experimental (i.e. unlistenable) albums with Yoko Ono (Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions, and Wedding Album) before delivering Plastic Ono Band, his first bold post-Beatles solo album. Using sparse rock 'n' roll as the backbone for baring his soul (and greatly influenced by the primal scream therapy of Dr. Arthur Janov), Lennon angrily denounces his past ("God"), looks back at his painful relationship with his parents ("Mother," "My Mummy’s Dead"), blasts hippie hangers-on looking for a handout ("I Found Out"), and professes his love for Yoko on several accounts as he searches for peace of mind and a spiritual sense of self. "Mother" is one of John's most affecting songs, particularly its anguished, oft-repeated last line ("Mother don’t go, daddy come home.").  Another key track, the most familiar on the album, "Working Class Hero," features Lennon "unplugged" and some bitingly cynical social commentary.

Though the album is at times more impressive than enjoyable, Lennon’s brilliant vocal performance makes up for its shortcomings. The exceedingly spry instrumentation, centered on Lennon's guitar and piano work, Klaus Voorman's bass, and the backbeat of Ringo Starr, distances Lennon from the lush sonics of Abbey Road and his former identity ("I was the walrus, but now I'm John"). In direct contrast to his usual grandiose productions, Spector is smart and ego-less enough to let the songs' primitive strengths shine through.

If The Beatles' breakup and Altamont hadn’t signaled the end of the '60s, John singing "the dream is over" certainly did. The album's enduring reputation (despite being a commercial failure) is due to its incredible intensity and unflinching honesty. Though many of the songs are soft spoken, John would never again give such a visceral performance. 

50 years ago, Lennon considered this his finest moment and referred to it as Sgt. Lennon; the name suggesting that Sgt. Pepper was Paul's best work, and this was his. It was released on December 11.

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