fri 14/06/2024

Classic Albums: John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Classic Albums: John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, BBC Four

Classic Albums: John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, BBC Four

Superb Classic Albums doc probes the troubled psyche of John Lennon

Plastic Ono Band, 1969: John and Yoko with (l to r) Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Eric Clapton

The BBC just can't stop showing that flipping Lennon Naked drama. No sooner have we emerged from the Fatherhood Season, where it first appeared, than we're into a John Lennon Night on BBC Four, featuring Lennon Naked again under a new temporary flag of convenience.

Chances are it'll ricochet back into the schedules for another encore when they do a Motherhood Season, Lennon being better known for writing songs about his mother Julia than about his unreliable dad.

But earlier in the evening came the Classic Albums documentary about Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album, his post-Beatles solo debut released in 1970. The film has been shown before and you can get an expanded version on DVD, but you haven't read about it on theartsdesk. At a stroke, it provided the simplest of answers about why it's pointless trying to make a drama like Lennon Naked. Everything you wanted to know about what the Caustic Beatle was going through at the end of the 1960s is contained, and indeed enacted before your mind's eye, in the Plastic Ono Band songs (John's songs that is, not the stuff on the simultaneously recorded Yoko Ono/ Plastic Ono Band set, discernible by its horrific caterwauling).

The album was as cataclysmic for rock'n'roll as Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come had been for modern jazz in 1959. So ferocious was Lennon's determination to strip himself naked and cut loose from the enormous skip-load of Beatle baggage he'd been dragging around since they recorded "Love Me Do" that the songs remain staggering in their rawness and refusal to pussyfoot. Their tersely sawn-off titles tell their own story - "Mother", "God", "Working Class Hero", "Love", "Isolation", "My Mummy's Dead". This was where he purged his nightmares of childhood with Arthur Janov's primal scream therapy, bawling some of his lyrics like Jerry Lee Lewis being lowered into a tub of boiling fat. Shockingly - and who can calculate how much courage this must have taken - he declared that he didn't believe in Beatles (or Hitler or Elvis or Jesus or Kennedy), that "I was the walrus but now I'm John", and, should anyone still not quite have grasped what he was driving at, "the dream is over". Rarely can an artist have so graphically shed his old skin and re-emerged, as literally as anyone could, as a new man, while supplying his own unambiguous commentary on the process. Even if there was a little more artifice in the production than he wanted you to think.

The Classic Albums series has established itself as a gilt-edged adjunct to the history of rock'n'roll, but the team excelled themelves with this one. These films are dependent on access to the protagonists, and the hallmark of success was the participation of Yoko, stern gatekeeper of the Lennon legacy. In fact she was rather warm and witty, unrecognisable as the racist caricature of an Asian she-demon who tore the Beatles apart once popular among more rabid Beatle-worshipping cults. Ringo Starr, who played drums on the album, seems to have become somewhat eccentric and curmudgeonly in his latter years, but his comments here were insightful and quite emotional as he described how he'd seen it as his role merely to serve Lennon's songs and play the role of "a timekeeper". There were plenty of albums he wouldn't want to talk about, he added, but this one had been out of the ordinary. Bassist Klaus Voormann, a Beatle ally since their early Hamburg days, lobbed in some telling observations about the way he'd seen a depressed, aimless Lennon transformed and energised by his relationship with Yoko. Ultimately, this examination of the making of the album got to the core of the creative process, a rare achievement in either factual or fictional programme-making.

The album was as cataclysmic for rock'n'roll as Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come had been for modern jazz in 1959

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters