“John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with contributions from the people who were there (published by Thames & Hudson)

The screams heard around the world

Come 1969, lovable fab moptop John Winston Lennon had gone a bit crazy. Schooldays sweetheart Cyn had been abandoned in favour of this weird Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, and the two of them made three albums of listenable-once noise experiments. They were full-frontal naked on one of the covers. And they were doing these strange things for world peace – having “bed-ins”, speaking to the press from inside a big white bag and sending acorns to world leaders to plant. He changed his name to John Ono Lennon and – god! – this dragon lady was breaking up the beloved Beatles!
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Then, in December 1970, a degree of normalcy was resumed with the release of not another sonic headache but of his first “proper” solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”, a merciful return to listenability with 11 “real” songs. It was widely regarded then and still is now as an artistic triumph. It is that album and all the many events that went on around it which are celebrated in this splendid new book.

Rehearsal on the plane to Toronto,1970. Illustration by Klaus Voormann © Klaus Voormann

Two years ago Thames & Hudson published a similarly deluxe book, “imagine john yoko”, in honour of the excellent “Imagine” LP, released in September 1971, the second of Lennon’s seven solo albums before his pointless murder outside his home in New York on December 8, 1980, age 40. Of those post-Beatles solo albums, it is these first two for which Lennon is best remembered, his talent dropping off somewhat over the final five.

This latest book brings it all back, and deservedly so even half a century later. Thames & Hudson calls it the definitive exploration of Lennon’s first major solo album after the break-up of the Fab Four, and the publisher cannot be accused of hyperbole. “John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band”, like that earlier companion piece “imagine john yoko”, is a fine tribute to this intensely creative time in the couple’s joined-at-the-hip lives.

In a preface, Yoko recalls how as a conceptual artist she was invited to do a show in Berlin in 1967 and thought it would be great if on stage was a band not of humans but of plastic boxes with a mechanism or robot inside to perform or play an instrument or a tape recording. (Conceptual artists think like that.)

A year later, when she told John of the idea, he immediately put a few plastic objects – including a cassette box, a paperweight, the tube from a record-cleaning cylinder brush – on a small wooden base and said they should call their imaginary band Plastic Ono Band.

In 1969 they used the name for the “Give Peace a Chance” single and then for the makeshift group (guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voormann, drummer Alan White) that backed John and Yoko at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival in Canada. The Plastic Ono Band concept gave Lennon the freedom to be anything he wanted and to shake off the Beatles albatross.

“Who are the Plastic Ono Band?” asked the ads, with the reply “You are the Plastic Ono Band” in further ads. If they mystified the public a bit, that was the idea. The book covers all this in full with a treasure trove of items from Ono’s archives, much of it previously unseen: her handwritten manifesto “On Plastic Ono Band”, original designs and drawings of the “band” by John, handwritten lyrics and the picture sleeve of the “Give Peace a Chance” single, the Toronto festival poster, Montreal Bed Peace, loads of photos and so on.

The Plastic Ono Band, Lyceum Ballroom, London, December 1969. – Photo courtesy Yoko Ono Lennon.

Apple Records press officer Derek Taylor, a most elegant writer, penned a press release titled “What is the Plastic Ono Band?”, and Hamburg friend Voormann (who drew the “Revolver” cover for the Beatles in 1966) has two excellent illustrations of the one-off Toronto festival band, who had never played together before and rehearsed up to the last minute, on the plane to Canada and then in the dressing room before taking the stage at the Varsity Stadium.

A great double-page photo shows the impromptu group relaxing by a swimming pool the morning after the nerve-wracking appearance. “OK, we’re just gonna do numbers that we know, you know, cos we’ve never played together before,” Lennon had announced.

On and on turn the attractive pages, through Lennon’s self-explanatory “Cold Turkey” lyrics, his return of the MBE medal to the Queen in protest at the wars in Nigeria and Vietnam, then the “Peace and Love for Christmas” concert at the Lyceum Ballroom in London on December 15, 1969, and the “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” single, the latter of which Lennon said: “I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner.”

To promote the single, John and Yoko had their tresses cut off and gave the hair for auction to raise funds for a community centre in Holloway Road, London. By this stage the Beatles’ fans and whole other populations as well had become increasingly bemused/startled/dismissive of “their” Beatles’ founder/front man/funny man and his bizarre new companion who seemed to have replaced Paul, George and Ringo in John’s life.

But if things had been weird so far, there was still Primal Scream to come, and here is the meat of the “John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band” book.

Abandoned by his parents, and his mother Julia run over and killed in 1958, Lennon, along with Yoko, who had her own pain, undertook extensive sessions of primal therapy with American psychotherapist Arthur Janov. This involved screaming out repressed childhood trauma to lessen or eliminate its hold on adult behaviour, and Lennon used the experience to create a harrowing set of unflinchingly personal songs, laying out his fears and angers for all to hear.

“John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band” LP cover, 1970

The album’s naked honesty was revolutionary — never had a record been so explicitly introspective, and very few made absolutely no concession to audience expectations, daring the listeners to meet all the artist’s demands. The opening song, “Mother”, includes the searing observation “Mother, you had me, but I never had you,” and it didn’t stop there as John screams “Mama don’t go/Daddy come home”. Another screamer was “Well Well Well” and things concluded with the chillingly low-fi monotone of “My Mummy’s Dead”.

The head-cleaning exorcism of demons that had plagued Lennon despite his world fame remains one of the most personal albums ever made, a landmark and triumphant record. The stripped-down sound of the Plastic Ono Band is the perfect musical accompaniment to John’s confession and outpouring. Drummer and fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, bassist Voormann, pianist Billy Preston and engineer Phil McDonald all offer their memories, as do Janov, photographer Annie Leibovitz and Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner. Lennon too from archive material.

“John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band” is a sumptuous and lovingly created example of the bookmakers’ art, an encyclopaedic extravaganza of reminiscences and memorabilia.

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