A closer look at John Lennon’s solo years

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “John Lennon: Life Is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia” by John M. Borack. Copyright 2010 by F+W Media.

Lennon wasted no time kicking things into high gear as the ’70s began, teaming up with producer Phil Spector and writing, recording and releasing a new single (all within the space of 10 days in February) titled “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” This time around, The Plastic Ono Band’s lineup included Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, Alan White, George Harrison, Yoko Ono and Beatles assistant Mal Evans (on chimes and handclaps). Spector’s production was uncharacteristically sparse, bringing Lennon’s passionate vocals to the front of the mix and letting the pianos and the drums (with plenty of echo) carry the tune. The result was a very catchy number that was destined to become a classic, with the en masse “we all shine on” chorus (courtesy of some pub crawlers who were overdubbed on the track) providing a major league hook and helping to push the track — credited to John Ono Lennon — into the Top 10 on both sides of the pond.

In March 1970, the title track from the final Beatles album was released as a single. “Let It Be” (on which John played bass) was a dramatic McCartney piano ballad that would go on to become one of the Beatles’ signature songs. As he did with the balance of the “Let It Be” album (which would be released on May 8, in tandem with the film), Phil Spector remixed and severely tweaked the tunes that were mainly recorded during January of ’69. That meant choirs and harps and string sections and all sorts of embellishments on tracks such as “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road” and Lennon’s disarmingly beautiful “Across the Universe.”

John Lennon would praise Spector’s efforts in performing what he felt was a salvage job on the original tapes, but McCartney was livid over what he saw as a desecration of his songs. In addition, McCartney was upset with the other Beatles for suggesting that he postpone the release of his solo debut, “McCartney,” so as not to conflict with the release of “Let It Be.”

McCartney stood his ground and announced his departure from the group in early April, shortly after the release of “McCartney.” In Philip Norman’s biography “John Lennon: The Life,” Lennon is quoted as saying, “[Paul] just did a great hype. I wanted to do it and I should have done it. I thought, ‘Damn, shit, what a fool I was’ … I was a fool not to do it, not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record.” McCartney ended up filing a lawsuit on Dec. 31, 1970, to dissolve the Beatles’ partnership, but the legal dissolution didn’t take place until nearly five years later.

When “Let It Be” finally arrived, most pundits focused on the band’s breakup and the fact that they sounded tired, dispirited and disinterested. While there are indeed a few less-than-inspired cuts (Lennon’s “Dig a Pony” and Harrison’s “I Me Mine” come to mind), there are certainly flashes of the old Beatle brilliance on Lennon’s pretty “Across the Universe,” “Let it Be” and the spunky Lennon/McCartney co-write “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Still, it was a rather inglorious way for the foursome to wrap up their storied career.

In late spring, John and Yoko traveled to Los Angeles to begin four months worth of intense primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. Lennon used the therapy as a tool to help him confront his demons and express his rage. His first true solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” released in December 1970, found him exorcising these demons on record, and the result was one of the most painful, dark, honest and ultimately uplifting albums of the rock and roll era.

The album led off with “Mother,” a somber ode to the parents that Lennon never really knew. When he sang, “Mother, you had me/but I never had you/I wanted you/you didn’t want me” and “Father, you left me/but I never left you/I needed you/you didn’t need me” over a leaden backbeat, his anguish was palpable. By the time the song reached its “Mama don’t go/daddy come home” climax, Lennon was in full primal scream mode. The overall effect was quite chilling.

“Mother” was released as a single in the U.S., and failed to make the top 40. It was certainly a curious choice for a single; a more commercially viable option would have been the gentle acoustic ballad “Love.” Elsewhere on “Plastic Ono,” Lennon hit the mark with unerring accuracy on the accusatory rocker “I Found Out,” the angry Dylan-esque ballad “Working Class Hero” and the tender “Hold on John” and “Isolation.”

About Patrick Prince

Patrick Prince is the Editor of Goldmine

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