In 1970 and 1971, John Lennon released his two greatest solo albums, Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971). This was a particularly fruitful period for Lennon as he also released several singles not included on albums, in his transition from a Beatle to a solo artist.
Both are significant albums, though very different from one another. Is one better than the other? Both are on many “best album” lists and represent Lennon’s most personal and focused work.
Plastic Ono Band
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios in fall of 1970, Lennon enlisted Phil Spector to produce the album along with him and Yoko Ono. Whereas Spector used an army of musicians on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, here, it was just Lennon (guitar, piano), Klaus Voorman (bass) and Ringo Starr (drums). This stripped down sound added to the emotional power Lennon sought, but made the album more difficult for the casual fan to appreciate. There are a minimum of overdubs or instrumental layering, the production qualities the Beatles were known for.
Lennon had been in a new therapy to deal with a number of significant personal issues from his early life. Lennon’s work was usually personal, but this album was different. Arthur Janov developed the “primal therapy” where patients confronted their childhood trauma. Reliving that trauma helped patients to release it and then deal with it. Lennon was abandoned by his father and suffered the death of his mother, so he was mostly raised by an aunt. Lennon’s complicated early life drove him to Janov’s controversial therapy, and it was this experience that fueled writing songs for the album.
The songs on Plastic Ono Band alternate between hard, gut-wrenching confessions and soft, emotional ballads, although the lyrics are often sadly poignant.
“Mother” – 5:34 A gritty, tough song about Lennon’s mother, Julia, as well as Alf, his father. Lennon felt emotionally and physically abandoned by them. Lennon uses the primal scream of his therapy in the song. It is not a fun song to listen to, there is obviously much pain for Lennon.
“Hold On” – 1:52 “Hold on, we’re gonna win the fight.” About as uplifting and optimistic as the album gets. It has an exquisite guitar part and a soft, welcoming vocal by Lennon. The song might seem slight, but it is a truly grand song.
“I Found Out” – 3:37 Another song that features a driving beat and basic guitar. Lennon’s vocals are driving as well. He sings of finding out that many things are really a fraud.
“Working Class Hero” – 3:48 A folk song, a la Dylan, Lennon was already in the cross-hairs of conservative politicians for his “radical” views. Lennon had the sensitivity to be a really good folk singer.
“Isolation” – 2:51 A slow and revealing song, Lennon’s confession about the trappings of fame and people who assume they know him. Lennon didn’t need to scream for the listener to feel his hurt and vulnerability. He had the ability to do it gently.
“Remember” – 4:33 More therapy work. Lennon references a variety things. The song has a simple, repetitive beat and sparse musicianship.
“Love” – 3:21 One of Lennon’s most beautiful songs, a song crying for a stronger arrangement. This could have been a single had Lennon wanted to take it that direction. It is not sweet, it is stark, but carrying great emotion.
“Well Well Well” – 5:59 I never really embraced this song. Lennon used heavy processing on his voice during this period because he didn’t like the way his voice sounded. Granted, Lennon’s vocal work is strong on this song, it’s a driving song with great vocal emotion, but it never grew on me.
“Look at Me” – 2:53 A rather simple song lyrically, with a finger-picking acoustic guitar accompaniment by Lennon. “Look at me, Who am I suppose to be” is the question asked in the lyrics. Lennon was very much trying to figure out who he was. He began writing the song when the Beatles were in India.
“God” – 4:09 One of the most controversial songs on the album. Criticized for the lyrical imagery and for being disrespectful. Remember, this was 1970, and Lennon had gotten in hot water a few years earlier when his remark about the Beatles being more popular than God created a backlash in conservative parts of America. Lennon lyrics included “I don’t believe in Beatles”, which drove a stake through the hearts of mourning Beatles fans.
“My Mummy’s Dead” – 0:49 A rather sad coda to the album in the form of a song a child might sing.
Lennon wasted little time in going to work on another album. Like Paul McCartney’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band was simple and lacked the production gloss of the Beatles. Fans were a bit confused. Lennon’s themes were hard-edged and extremely personal, hardly radio-friendly lyrics.
Lennon retreated to his home where he built a studio to work on his next album, Imagine. He also recorded at studios in New York and London. Instead of a small group, Lennon brought in a variety of musicians to give the songs a fuller sound. His core band included Lennon, George Harrison, Klaus Voorman and Alan White. The sessions were supplemented by Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Badfinger, King Curtis, Jon Tout, Mike Pinder and others.
Lennon again bares his soul, but this time it’s less painful for the listener. He still rails against politicians and his former band mate, and still find fault with himself, but something is different here. He’s hopeful.
“Imagine” – 3:01 What can you say about this song? It’s an anthem for peace and love. The best song Lennon ever composed?
“Crippled Inside” – 3:47 A light-hearted musical style with dobro, tack piano, a rolling folk song. Lennon can make light of a more serious confession.
“Jealous Guy” – 4:14 Another confessional, inadequacy as a man in his relationships. Lennon alternates between guitar songs and piano songs. This song was covered by Roxy Music.
“It’s So Hard” – 2:25 Complaining about life. A hard rocking song with a barrelhouse type piano.
“I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, Mama, I Don’t Wanna Die” – 6:05 Hard-edged, soulful, protest song, denouncing militarization and war. The lyrics are very direct and it rocks hard.
“Gimme Some Truth” – 3:16 Tired of being lied to and misled by politicians, Lennon is very direct. This was before Watergate. A hard-edged song, but very melodic. Lennon successfully combines seriousness with a commercial sound.
“Oh My Love” – 2:50 An excellent song with superb piano by Lennon and Nicky Hopkins, guitar solo by Harrison. It’s a gentle ballad that shows Lennon’s talent in writing sensitive love songs.
“How Do You Sleep?” – 5:36 Widely reported as a direct criticism of Paul McCartney. It’s an angry song. George Harrison even provides the electric guitar solo.
“How?” – 3:43 Another ballad, a piano song. Lennon surpassed himself on writing heartfelt, smart, vulnerable songs.
“Oh Yoko!” – 4:20 Lennon’s love song to his wife. A jangly, up tempo song with a strong melody. This song proved Lennon could rock with a memorable song, you feel like singing along.
Is one album better than the other? No, they are both significant and defining for John Lennon. That’s the politically correct answer. Imagine is my favored album, it is more inviting and diverse in musical ideas, and it is less harsh.
It’s interesting that Lennon wrote some of these songs in 1968 while in India. These were not Beatle songs for whatever reason. From 1968-1972, Lennon’s music evolved, because the man evolved. He not only looked critically at the world, but he looked at himself. He had a fractured upbringing and he was a horrible husband and father, by his own admission. Music was his how he searched for truth and was his confessional.
Beatle John, writing quirky love songs was only one side of him. What led him to write those songs eventually led him to write “Revolution”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “God” and “Imagine.” Shedding one skin revealed another, different and more intricate than the previous one.