Fifty years have passed since the release of ‘John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band'. Take an intimate look inside this turbulent and transformative period in Lennon’s life, including his anti-war activism, his experiences with primal therapy and the liberating power of his and Yoko Ono’s love.
On 11 December 1970, a neat decade since the baptism of The Beatles, and just a few fraught months since the band’s fissure, John Lennon released John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band. With thirteen tracks and widespread critical acclaim, the album was, in Lennon’s own words, “the best thing I’ve ever done” – a powerful statement of personal and artistic realignment as the industry still reeled from the Beatles’ break up.
For all the turbulence of the Beatles’ disintegration, the previous two years had been transformative in Lennon’s personal and creative trajectory. After meeting in 1966, Lennon and Ono began a romantic and artistic relationship in 1968. “We never planned our relationship, it just happened and it ended up that we’re always together.” With her, he commented, he “really knew love for the first time”.
Ono and Lennon always understood their partnership as a comprehensive co-existence, a joint enterprise in life and work. “She came from this avant-garde field, and I’d come from the straight rock field,” recalled Lennon. “We wanted to know what could we do together because we wanted to be together. We wanted to work together. We don’t want to just be together on weekends. We want to be together and live and work together.”
Lennon credited Ono with immense teaching and truth-telling, however painful. She helped puncture his male artist ego. “Yoko taught me about women. I was used to being served, like Elvis and a lot of the stars were. And Yoko didn’t buy that…From the day I met her, she demanded equal time, equal space, equal rights.”
Following their inaugural Two Virgins albums and the Bed-In for Peace events, the pair decided that their future artistic endeavours would be credited to one conceptual vehicle, the Plastic Ono Band. “The concept was ‘the message is the music,” explains Ono. “So everyone on the recording is in it, everyone listening to the recording is in it, everyone who sings the song is in it, you’re in it and everyone in the world is in it – making Plastic Ono Band the most musical and imaginative group in the world.”
Lennon and Ono’s relationship animates much of the album, from Well Well Well, which captures details of their daily coexistence and conversations, to Hold On which namechecks both John and Yoko, and Isolation, which addresses their utopian ideals and “everyone trying to put us down.”
The pair’s heightened political sensibility is likewise a common thread to the album, a clear segue into Lennon’s campaigning stances of the 1970s: anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-Nixon, anti-clericalism. Working Class Hero, described by Lennon as “a song, or a poem…a warning to people”, addresses the structural subjugation and humiliation of the working class. “I think its concept is revolutionary. It’s for people like me who are working class, who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, into the machinery.”
Such reflections on his own roots and formative experiences had emerged in the wake of Lennon and Ono’s extensive sessions of primal therapy with psychotherapist Arthur Janov. Designed to revisit and re-experience repressed childhood pain and trauma to lessen or eliminate its hold on adult behaviour, Janov’s practice brought up considerable material for Lennon.
“Therapy made me feel my own pain,” he recalled. “It’s excruciating. You are forced to realize that your pain, the kind that makes you wake up afraid with your heart pounding, is really yours and not the result of somebody up in the sky. It’s the result of your parents and your environment.”
“The level of his pain was enormous,” Janov commented. “This was someone the whole world adored, and it didn’t change a thing. At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.”
Much of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band touches upon that “lonely little kid”, with the tracks Mother, Remember, and the chillingly monotone My Mummy’s Dead all addressing themes of family conflict and childhood abandonment – both in their lyrics, and in their simple musical intensity.
“The worst pain is that of not being wanted,” Lennon remarked. “Of realizing your parents do not need you in the way you need them. This lack of love went into my eyes and into my mind. The only reason I am a star is because of my repression. Nothing would have driven me through all that if I was ‘normal’. The only reason I went for that goal is that I wanted to say: ‘Now, Mummy, Daddy, will you love me?’”
As he processes this painful past through the album, so too does Lennon shed idols of the present, using the album’s 10th track, God, to renounce Buddha, Elvis, Jesus, Bob Dylan as much as his former bandmates and his conceptions of success. It was, by his own description, a course of liberation, as much as love.
“I’ve been successful as an artist and have been happy and unhappy, and I’ve been unknown in Liverpool or Hamburg and been happy and unhappy. But what Yoko’s taught me is what real success is – the success of my personality, the success of my relationship with her, my relationship with our child, my relationship with the world – and to be happy when I wake up.”
“I don’t believe in Beatles”, he concludes in God, “I just believe in me / Yoko and me / That’s reality.”
Words by Eliza Apperly