Review: "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection"

Reissue provides the deepest dive into Lennon's first post-Beatles solo album
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John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band - The Ultimate Collection

Capitol Records

*****

The 50th anniversary edition of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—Lennon's first post-Beatles solo release—is available in a few configurations: for the dabbler, there's a single CD that includes what have been dubbed "the Ultimate Mixes" (aka newly remixed/remastered versions) of the classic 1970 album, along with three non-LP singles from the same time period ("Give Peace a Chance," "Instant Karma" and "Cold Turkey"); and for those who would like something of a deeper dive, there is an expanded two-CD (or two-LP) set that adds a disc's worth of outtakes of each song.

But most Lennonphiles are likely to not pass go and head directly to the Ultimate Collection: a mammoth, six-CD box that features 159 tracks (87 of which are previously unheard), as well as two Blu-ray audio discs. It all adds up to 11 hours worth of music and as a companion to the embarrassment of aural riches, the Ultimate Collection also includes a wonderful, 132-page hardback book with lyrics, rare photos, memorabilia, and extensively detailed annotation.   

Naysayers may ask that since the production of the original album was almost exceedingly sparse, is such an in-depth examination of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band even necessary? Could there be enough material extant in the archives to not make six CDs seem highly excessive?

Yes and yes.

While there is some unnecessary repetitiveness—six similar versions of the 49-second "My Mummy's Dead" seems a bit much—the set still provides a fascinating peek at the genesis of the album, with scores of demos, jams, extended versions (the 8:38 take of "Remember" on disc three is particularly noteworthy), outtakes and more providing  illuminating snapshots of how the iconic album came together. 

The Evolution Mixes found on disc five are of great interest, as they cobble together various in-progress takes of the original album's 11 songs along with studio banter, creating detailed, extended looks at the manner in which each tune evolved. Among the highlights of these mixes are Lennon providing instructions to Ringo Starr on "Mother"; "Look at Me" adding some percussion (later scrapped) reminiscent of Starr's work on the Beatles' version of Buddy Holly's "Words of Love"; and "God" sounding akin to some sort of faux acoustic gospel goof.

Over the course of the six discs, different arrangements are often attempted and fleshed out (and sometimes discarded), and in stark contrast to the overall angsty mood of the record, Lennon sounds in high spirits in the studio. (For example, he lampoons the lyrics to "Let it Be" during the Evolution Mix of "Hold On" by intoning, "Whenever you're in doubt, Brother Mary comes to you.") Hearing Lennon and Starr's friendly push-pull on several of the tracks makes the listener a fly on the studio wall and is a special treat for Beatles buffs.

Elsewhere, the new remixes of the album tracks and the three period singles bring Lennon's vocals more to the forefront. There is a real presence to the vocals and their overall clarity is astounding, particularly on quieter numbers such as "Love" (the absolutely gorgeous and touching single that never was), "Look at Me" (a close cousin to the Beatles' "Dear Prudence"), and "Working Class Hero." On the other end of the sonic spectrum, shards of brittle guitar power "Cold Turkey" and "Well Well Well" is near metal in its execution, with Starr's drums sharing the spotlight with Lennon's powerful lead vocal.

Disc two is comprised of outtakes, with "Mother" sounding a bit looser and slightly less intense than its completed counterpart. (Why this particular song was chosen as a single in 1970 remains a mystery, as its primal screamy coda no doubt shook up some AM radio listeners at the time.) Elsewhere, "Hold On" features some intrusive percussion that was thankfully excised from the released version; "Well Well Well" is extended with some Chuck Berry-like guitar riffing; "Give Peace a Chance" (take 2) finds Yoko Ono's vocals more prominent on the chorus; and take 1 of "Cold Turkey" sounds oddly different from the relative starkness of the original, with previously unheard guitar figures throughout and some Doors-sounding keyboards added.

Disc three is sub-titled "The Elements Mixes," with each track spotlighting a certain aspect of the song and/or various elements brought more to the forefront (or in some cases, removed entirely). The clear highlight is the vocal-only take of "Mother," which features some of the most gut wrenchingly powerful singing ever committed to tape. "Hold On" is presented with tremolo guitar and vocals only; "I Found Out" adds congas to the chorus and loses the spiky guitar; "Isolation" is highlighted by an organ bed (and no piano) and brings Lennon's passionate lead vocal more up front; and "Love" strips away the piano for the bulk of the tune—curiously, the acoustic guitar part at the beginning of the song sounds very similar to the opening of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Venus and Mars." In addition, "God" is presented with Lennon affecting a deeper, languid lead vocal that makes the tune veer closer to a spoken word piece.

The "Raw Studio Mixes & Outtakes" on disc four feature extended versions of "I Found Out," "Well Well Well" (where Lennon's screams still induce chills fifty years on), and "Give Peace a Chance." An outtake of "Mother" is presented with a neo-country guitar and is much less funereal than its piano-based counterpart, while an outtake of "God" with guitar and no piano bears little resemblance to the finished product.

In addition to the 11 demos for the Plastic Ono Band tunes, disc six finds Lennon, Starr, and bassist Klaus Voormann running through brief versions of oldies such as "Ain't That a Shame," "Johnny B. Goode," "Matchbox" and "Mystery Train," among others. A good time is seemingly had by all, with Lennon's punny asides and back and forth with Starr providing smiles aplenty. There's also a rather jaunty run through of "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die" (a drastically different, far bluesier take would appear on the Imagine LP), as well as a spirited version of "Lost John," an old Lonnie Donegan shuffle. Overall, the loose, jammy vibe is similar to the Beatles' Let it Be rehearsals and could have also provided the impetus for Lennon's  oldies album, 1975's Rock 'n' Roll.

The sound of John Lennon coming to terms with his complicated life (and the breakup of the Beatles), John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band has always been viewed as his solo masterpiece. The Ultimate Collection celebrates the music and the spirit of the uniquely straightforward album and the genius who created it.

- John M. Borack