There’s something in that primal scream that hits a nerve every time. It’s that howl, that core anguish surfacing. You know the one, at the end of John Lennon’s song, “Mother:” Mama don’t go / Daddy come home, shrieked into the world. It’s a yowl that sparks a glimmer of recognition that something similar lies within each of us, that we all have some old hurt waiting to make itself known. Lennon’s screams crescendo over the first several repetitions, filling our ears and the space around our bodies, then fade away, dissipating now that they’ve been aired.
The songs “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” bookend Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first solo album. It was released in late 1970, several months after the official breakup of the Beatles. These two songs express Lennon’s first pains: the loss, and then the loss again, of his mother, who did not raise him and who then died when Lennon was a teenager. While the songs in the middle of the album explore his relationship with Yoko Ono, and the prizes and prices of fame, the importance of the placement of the two songs about his mother cannot be understated—we begin and end the album with her absence. Despite what has been gained, the loss remains.
Plastic Ono Band reveals, again and again, that, despite his fame, fortune, and everything he accomplished musically, Lennon was haunted by his early traumas, as many of us are. Throughout Plastic Ono Band, Lennon gives us glimpses into his wounds and his worries. We hear moments of self-soothing, as in “Hold On,” and instances of acrimony, as in “I Found Out,” when Lennon sings I heard something ‘bout my Ma and my Pa / They didn’t want me so they made me a star. The damage, he acknowledges, has helped drive the creative work.
In addition to its deeply personal reflections, Plastic Ono Band offers instances of disenchantment with societal structures, most notably in “Working Class Hero.” Tonally reminiscent of Bob Dylan, “Working Class Hero” recalls Lennon’s middle-class roots in Liverpool. Though by 1970 he was extraordinarily wealthy, he had not forgotten the structures that shaped him or the way so many people are being doped with religion and sex and TV. I can’t help but wonder if Lennon here is also acknowledging his role in opiating the people as a Beatle. If he’s recognizing the unlikeliness of his own success and the near-impossibility of someone leaving the confines of the circumstances into which they were born. If he feels both played and complicit.
In “Isolation,” Lennon reveals more of his fears and anxieties. Despite his fame, he still feels alone, the song tells us. This confessional also points a finger at the people and forces that hurt him. I don’t expect you to understand / After you’ve caused so much pain / But then again, you’re not to blame / You’re just a human, a victim of the insane.
This song, like many others on this album, begins with “I” statements and shifts to “we” by the end. Like most of Lennon’s solo work, it is both deeply personal and broadly universal. This expansiveness allows his listeners to recognize his feelings within themselves. To feel connected to this artist and to understand that accomplishment and fame do not make those dark feelings of loneliness, resentment, and longing go away.
Plastic Ono Band’s listing songs, “Love” and “God,” accompany emotional release with a view of Lennon’s philosophies. In the words Lennon chooses to list and sometimes repeat, we get a glimpse of the man’s heart and mind. According to “Love,” love is: feeling, wanting, reaching, asking, knowing, living, and needing, in that order. Seemingly one of the simplest songs on the album, “Love” redefines what love is, turning it from a noun into a verb, from a thing that happens to us to a thing that we actively do.
Love encompasses desire and doubt, yes, but also includes that risk of loss. In love, Lennon sings here, there is freedom, and life, but also, always, that little piece of us that needs something. The song’s last line, love is needing to be loved, reminds us that love is a need to be filled, perhaps more acutely for people who didn’t always feel so loved early in life.
The strongest feature of this album, what makes it so great, is its vulnerability. In almost every song, Lennon shows us his pains and fears and wellsprings of joy. In “Look At Me,” two tracks after “Love,” Lennon asks listeners to really look at him as a hurt and hurting human—not as the idolized star, but as the real man, who has doubts despite nearly a decade of public adoration. For most of the song, we wonder if someone is seeing him the way he wants to be seen. At the end of the song, when Lennon sings Who am I? / Nobody else can see / Just you and me / Who are we, we hear that someone has. He has let another person—Yoko—in. He is no longer alone.
Immediately following “Look At Me,” Lennon further emphasizes his belief in his relationship with Yoko by listing things he doesn’t believe in, and they’re some pretty powerful concepts. In “God,” Lennon dismantles most major religions, most major mythologies, twentieth-century politics, and the pop culture of which he was a formative part. Here’s a list of things he doesn’t believe in, in the mind-blowing order in which he sings them: magic, I-ching, the Bible, tarot, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, the Buddha, Mantra, Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis, Zimmerman (Bob Dylan), and the Beatles. Instead, Lennon says that I just believe in me / Yoko and me.
A 2010 BBC review calls this song “still, very possibly, the most thematically ambitious and courageous rock song ever recorded.” Belief in himself and in his love is one of the most radical statements an already-controversial figure like Lennon could ever make. It’s saying that the structures that have run and shaped the world will no longer have an impact on him. He’s going to lead himself with his own heart, relying only on himself and on his love for his spiritual needs.
In one four-minute song, Lennon manages to make irrelevant the ideologies in which most of the world’s population believes, and the freedom he expresses here, the peace, is palpable. The rolling piano and drums that back the song come to a halt after the last item of the list: Beatle. The song makes the listener sit in quiet for an instant, processing the fact that Lennon no longer believes in the entity that heretofore defined him in the public eye. When Lennon sings I just believe in me, it’s a capella. Just his voice beaming into the silence until the music picks up again.
By the end of the song, and certainly by the end of the album, we have a deeper sense of who John Lennon was beyond the Beatles. This must have been an extraordinary realization for many of its early listeners to experience after nearly a decade of infatuation with the Beatles—that Lennon was a complicated person, made more complex because of the very fame that threw him to the masses’ love and judgment, and in so doing, isolated him. Perhaps some listeners were surprised to hear the undercurrent of bitterness that rumbles beneath songs like “I Found Out” and “Well, Well, Well,” but it makes sense to me. The Beatles made his fame, but then Lennon left the band. The association with it, though, stuck around.
Where do you go from there, once the most defining period of your life has ended? Plastic Ono Band is a reminder that Lennon was his own person, formed by tragedy, love, and fame, searching for his own meaning after years of being so externally defined. The dream of the Beatles is over, and he’s figuring out how to carry on. He’s moved on, and he expects his listeners to as well.
We must remember here the context of Plastic Ono Band’s release, in particular the fact that the Beatles’ breakup was and is still seen by many as Yoko Ono’s fault. They think the band would have stayed together, the dream would have continued, if only she hadn’t come into the picture. Of course, we now know from history that the truth of the band’s dissolution was not so simple.
Many people revile Yoko Ono to this day because they see her as the reason the Beatles broke up, but I think that the deeper reason people don’t like Ono is because they think that, by allegedly breaking up the Beatles, she took John Lennon away from them. When a figure of enormous talent and charisma like Lennon comes around, we tend to idolize and idealize them, and his relationship with Ono didn’t fit the fantasy script. But Ono didn’t take Lennon away from the Beatles or away from us; she brought Lennon into himself. Her love allowed Lennon to become his full self, a self that, in Plastic Ono Band, he reveals to his listeners. In songs like “Look at Me,” he is asking us to do just that: to accept him as is, scars and all.
That’s the gift of Plastic Ono Band, that’s what makes it so extraordinary. Lennon does here what few artists ever do, what few of us are ever capable of doing: he lays himself completely bare (though not on the cover—he’d done that already on Two Virgins, his 1968 collaboration with Ono). He shows us his vulnerabilities and asks us to really look at him without the veneer of Beatles fame. It is a self-portrait of the artist as a man, just a man, and yet what an extraordinarily brave and honest one.
Perhaps the greatest service we can do for someone is to see them for who they really are, which is what Lennon’s asking his listeners to do throughout this album. To accept the person they present to us as their truth. And perhaps the greatest service we can do ourselves is to present our true selves to the world. What a service Lennon did himself with Plastic Ono Band. Himself, and us, the grateful listeners, made better for his work.