On Plastic Ono Band, the debut album by his post-Beatles group, John Lennon bared his soul and relocated his passion for rock ‘n’ roll. Assisted by Yoko Ono, Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr, with co-production by Phil Spector, John unleashed his pent-up emotions about a dysfunctional childhood and his absent mother, Julia. The song “Mother” opens the album and his own personal Pandora’s Box of memories. John Lennon would have been 81 on Oct. 9.
Note: John Kruth, a multi-instrumentalist and biographer deeply influenced by the Plastic Ono Band album, revisits the recording in his new book, Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, Fifty Years On (Backbeat Books / Rowman & Littlefield). This is an excerpt from that book that focuses on “Mother,” the song.
Alf Lennon had it bad for the bubbly, beguiling usherette from the Trocadero, Julia Stanley. Not only did she have a vivacious smile and wicked sense of humor, but she loved to go ballroom dancing. Besides, they both possessed some degree of musical talent. While Alf’s imitation of Al Jolson impressed friends, particularly when he donned blackface and fell down on one knee to bellow “Mammy,” Julia sang and played the banjo, as well as accordion and ukulele.
Not surprisingly, Julia’s family disapproved of Alf, who they considered nothing more than a lowlife. Employed as a ship’s steward, they doubted whether Lennon could ever be a reliable husband, as he was often gone at sea for long stretches of time. But despite their repeated warnings and protests, Julia impulsively married Alf (after having taunted him to propose) in a private civil service on December 3, 1938. Barely two years later, John Lennon was born. By then, the war was in full tilt, despite Hitler’s false promises of peace to Chamberlain. For two nights prior to October 9, 1940, Liverpool had been pummeled by the Luftwaffe’s bombs. But on the night John arrived, the city was strangely calm. Two nights later, the German bombers returned.
With little available employment in Liverpool, Alf’s time away at sea steadily began to increase. He’d been gone for a six-month stretch, between September 1942 and February 1943, and then shipped out again the following July, this time for sixteen months, during which he was arrested and jailed twice – once in Algeria and then winding up stranded in New York City, before returning to Liverpool, only to discover Julia, who had no clue whether he was dead or alive, was now pregnant with another man’s child. To help curb the inevitable gossip and shame, the baby girl was immediately given up for adoption, renamed and whisked off to be raised in Norway. Throughout this period of domestic chaos, John was temporarily sent to live with his Uncle Sydney (Alf’s brother) and Aunt Madge, until his wayward father, determined to repair his broken home, arrived to retrieve his young son. But in the interim Julia had taken up with another man with whom she would have two daughters. Although they were still legally married, she had no intention of returning to Alf.
Claiming he was taking John shopping for new clothes Alf took his young son to the seaside resort town of Blackpool where they stayed at the home of a former crewmate for the next few weeks until Julia eventually tracked them down and arrived unannounced. A confrontation ensued that would psychologically scar John for the rest of his life. Once again Alf begged Julia to start over, but she would have none of it. To settle the issue, the child was commanded to make a choice between his mother and father. Having recently bonded with Alf, John initially picked his dad until he saw his “mummy” getting ready to leave and ran to her in tears, throwing his arms around her waist.
While many of The Beatles’ early songs were fabricated dramas reflecting the problems faced by young lovers, the lyrics to “Mother” sprang directly from Lennon’s childhood experience, memories that he’d struggled to forget, but was now determined to confront in hopes of freeing himself, once and for all, from the trauma that still lingered.
While musically simplistic, Lennon’s latest batch of songs were unlike anything he’d ever written and recorded. Influenced by Bob Dylan, who had bared his soul with bitter break-up songs like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” and Roy Orbison, who fearlessly wore his emotions on his sleeve in his song “Crying,” John began to reveal his inner self with “confessional” songs like “Help!”, which no one initially took too seriously due to its upbeat tempo. Besides, why would anyone believe the leader of the world’s most popular band when he sang about being “really down” and “so insecure?” Certainly, it was just more role-playing, like so many of John’s earlier songs. But with their next album, Rubber Soul, released in December 1965, it was obvious that The Beatles had begun to grow up – fast! As Dylan keenly observed, they were “no longer cute anymore.”
Rubber Soul featured Lennon’s melancholy masterpiece “In My Life.” Along with the surprisingly dark and tormented “Girl,” John was now writing and singing songs that threw open the book of his life for his fans to freely ponder and interpret. The lyric to John’s “Nowhere Man” portrayed a self-absorbed lay-about who understood but couldn’t care less that the world was passing him by. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” John sang knowingly. But how could Lennon have been talking about himself? It had barely been two years since that fateful night when a new joyous brand of mayhem exploded across America when The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. And now here he was already attempting to puncture the myth that being a Beatle was hardly as “fab” as we’d all been led to believe.
Having shed what he later called the poetic “gobbledygook” lyrics of psychedelic masterpieces like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus,” John began to write with new emotional transparency. Lennon’s introspection and honesty would soon reach an unprecedented level with the elegiac portrait of his mother in the gently finger-picked “Julia” on the White Album. With just an acoustic guitar and his voice, John allowed himself no place to hide.
Whether he knew it or not, John Lennon had been a prime candidate for psychotherapy long before he first picked up Dr. Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream. As Lennon once observed, “If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create.” Determined to heal himself and shed a past which continued to loom heavily upon him, John immediately agreed to work with Janov, who later claimed the ex-Beatle was in a severely angry, damaged state when he first arrived at his Santa Monica, California clinic for what was tantamount to a psychic bloodletting.
The inspiration for Janov’s controversial Primal Scream therapy originally struck after one of his patients recalled a bizarre scene, they’d recently witnessed at an experimental theater performance. An actor, wearing nothing but diapers, curled up in a fetal position and began to scream repeatedly for their mommy and daddy until he suddenly began to wretch. Noticeably relieved after having vomited, the actor then wended his way through the shocked and disgusted audience, sharing samples of his fresh puke, distributed in plastic bags, as if it was a sacrament or a souvenir.
Convinced this might be developed into a useful method to help heal the deep wounds of early childhood trauma, Janov immediately began writing a book about a new cathartic process he coined as The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis. Published by E.P. Dutton in 1970, a copy was sent to Lennon with no apparent reason other than the hopes of a possible endorsement from an ex-Beatle.
John Lennon never did anything halfway. From his prolific use of LSD, to competing with his fellow Beatles to see who could meditate the longest at the Maharishi’s ashram, to his and Yoko’s brief dalliance with heroin, to their Bed-Ins for world peace, to their fist-pumping revolutionary phase with Yippie Jerry Rubin, John’s passion, no matter how short-lived, was always total and complete, until the next fad struck.
Plastic Ono Band’s opening track “Mother” was Lennon’s ultimate attempt to free himself from the psychic umbilical cord that still bound him to the specter of his negligent and tragic mother, Julia. The song began with four lumbering chimes of a church bell, that could be taken to symbolize the final laying to rest of The Beatles – with each toll representing each member of the group. Or maybe John employed the doleful carillons to announce the death of the 1960s’ dream of peace and love, which he, the self-described “Dream-weaver” had once helped spearhead, but was now unceremoniously proclaiming “over,” in the shocking lyrics to his song “God.”
As John told Jann S. Wenner in his famous 1970 Rolling Stone interview: “The dream’s over, and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.”
However one interprets them, the bells cast a gloomy, funereal atmosphere over the opening song and set the tone for the rest of Plastic Ono Band. John claimed the inspiration struck while in Los Angeles watching a horror film on TV. Whether it was coincidence or something floating around in his consciousness, as John had dismissed his pilfering of Chuck Berry’s lyrics from “You Can’t Catch Me,” which he’d nicked for the first line of “Come Together,” Black Sabbath had also opened with the ominous tolling of bells. The eponymous debut by rock’s (arguably) first heavy metal band was released on February 13, 1970, in the UK, (and then four months later in America, on June 1) well before the arrival of Plastic Ono Band.
Had John Lennon been familiar with Black Sabbath? It was obvious that Ozzy Osbourne had taken a couple of style cues from John, borrowing his White Album-era hairstyle and round glasses. Either way, Lennon was certainly well-aware of the Top Forty, as revealed in his nasty note explaining why he decided to return his MBE medal to Queen Elizabeth. Dated November 25, 1969, Lennon wrote: “Your Majesty – I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts [the song made the Top 20, peaking at Number Fourteen].” At that point, Sabbath’s debut album had already clawed its way up to Number Eight in England and Number Twenty-Three on the Billboard charts in America.
Aloof as they were, The Beatles didn’t exist in a total vacuum. They later took credit for inventing heavy metal (a term first credited to Beat novelist William S. Burroughs, from his 1962 novel The Soft Machine) with The White Album’s apocalyptic rocker, “Helter Skelter.”
Both “Mother” and “Black Sabbath” were slow, “heavy” plodding dirges that exuded an ominous atmosphere. While Yoko provided the “wind,” as she was credited in John’s liner notes, Sabbath employed the soundtrack of a full-blown thunderstorm on their song. Either way, the London-based Hammer Films, producer of fabulous, tacky horror movies, was the probable source of inspiration for both artists to employ the haunting bells.
But the bells were only the beginning. From Al Jolson’s black-faced tearjerker “Mammy” to the Rolling Stones’ “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows” (dedicated to a struggling unwed mother confronted by the looming ghost of her mother) songs about one’s mom have usually spelled trouble. Nothing was more outrageous than The Doors’ oedipal opus, “The End,” in which an unhinged Jim Morrison screams, “Father, I want to kill you, Mother… I want to…” Hoping to dodge an inevitable storm of controversy, Elektra Records understandably substituted “fuck you” with an indecipherable lunatic feral howl that teemed with self-loathing. Lennon would later confess to having overwhelming oedipal desires towards his mother Julia after he accidentally brushed her breast with his hand as the two enjoyed an afternoon nap together.
Even naming one’s band “The Mothers,” as the mad maestro Frank Zappa would discover, was fraught with issues. Irked by the implications of the group’s moniker, Verve Records demanded The Mothers change their name, which led to Frank’s playful bastardization of Plato’s quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So, any inference their original name conjured had been successfully dodged. After all this was a gang of scraggly long-haired men, dubbed “The Ugliest Band in Rock” who appeared in drag on the jacket of their third album We’re Only In It for the Money (a vicious/hilarious parody of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which nearly cost Verve a lawsuit until they reversed the album’s cover photo with the gatefold image of Frank in a dress, and pigtails, with his band, looking like a motley crew of bearded spinster aunts.
It’s interesting to note that after John and Yoko performed at the Fillmore East with Zappa and his band on June 6, 1971, their impromptu jam would be credited to “The Plastic Ono Mothers” on side four of John and Yoko’s 1972 double album Some Time in New York City.
Upon John’s return from California following months of therapy sessions with Dr. Janov, he arranged a session at Abbey Road with bassist Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr on September 26. Lennon “wanted, as quickly as possible, to get this feeling down before it changed,” Voormann told Rolling Stone. Upon entering the studio Klaus immediately noticed his old friend was “very much taken by that experience he went through.” In Japan Plastic Ono Band would be released as John no Tamashii, which translates to John’s Soul.
Lennon always preferred his rock ‘n’ roll raw and direct, except for a brief excursion into the syrupy realms of psychedelia that began in 1966 with the ethereal drone of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and peaking the following year with the surreal “I Am the Walrus.” After leaving The Beatles, John’s initial solo offerings packed a surprisingly jagged edge, from “Instant Karma!” to the avant-garde adventures inspired by Yoko and the ad-hoc crew of musicians which comprised the ever-changing Plastic Ono Band.
Beyond the menacing presence of the four overdubbed bells, John’s Plastic Ono Band was strictly a stripped-down affair, the antithesis of the over-the-top production that Phil Spector was famous for and the album credits left many wondering if the legendary music man was the album’s “producer” in name only.
Spector had clearly left his mark on George Harrison’s first solo outing, All Things Must Pass (released just a few weeks before Plastic Ono Band on November 27, 1970) when he repeatedly buried the wispy-voiced singer under his trademark sonic “Wall of Sound,” comprised of multiple guitars, keyboards, horns and drums.
According to bassist Klaus Voormann’s description, the making of Plastic Ono Band was more akin to a field recording of some sort of mysterious initiation rite than the typical multi-tracked, polished product of the day. Like an inspired jazz improvisor or bluesman brimming with emotion, Lennon wanted to get in the studio and lay the music down as quickly as possible, before the feeling faded. Released just a few weeks before Christmas, Plastic Ono Band seemed more like a portfolio of wounds and scars than his first solo album.
John’s barebones esthetic on Plastic Ono Band was his way of keeping the music in the moment and fresh. With the recent release of “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma!,” John Lennon seemed more present in the studio than he’d been for years. Many of the basic tracks were cut in a matter of two or three takes, captured at (what the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined) “the decisive moment.”
“The album was recorded in an adrenaline rush, with little time expended on discussion or rehearsal,” Klaus Voormann recalled. Lennon passed chord charts around with the song’s lyrics “written bigger than normal,” Klaus explained, prompting the musicians to read the words and consider how their accompaniment might better fit the feeling that John was seeking.
He did not want to make a production with lots of instruments and production,” Klaus told journalist Anthony DeCurtis. “He wanted to do something as fresh and direct as possible… a real close, intimate atmosphere,” with just Voormann on bass and Starr on drums. “He just played the song and Ringo and I played the simple way we both enjoy playing… And it seemed to be exactly what he was looking for… The playing itself, to him was not that important. It was more important to capture the feeling. We did mostly one or two takes. There’s a lot of mistakes in there,” Klaus confessed. “But it [his bass playing] was just like a pulse, exactly what John wanted. He loved it.”
Spector, from Voormann’s perspective, was nothing short of “brilliant… He didn’t have to do his big sound. He could do something very fine, delicate and sensitive, whatever was appropriate for the song and the moment.”
When Lennon howled “Father you left me, but I never left you,” he was struggling to shed a long-time bitterness locked in his heart. While John’s father had abandoned the family when he was only nine, Phil’s dad would commit suicide when he was the same age. Neither knew of the trauma the other had suffered. Lennon’s painful wail would prompt the deeply unstable producer to claim, in a moment of uncharacteristic sensitivity, that John was “like the brother I’d never had.”
Chosen as the album’s single, “Mother” was issued by Apple Records on December 28, 1970. There was little doubt that many of John’s derogatory remarks in his lengthy Rolling Stone interview were inspired by the nagging fact that George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” had spent a month atop the Billboard charts while “Mother” peaked at #43.
It’s interesting to note that the single version of the album’s opening song was only released in America (there was no UK issue) in a monoaural pressing and edited to down 3:55 from its original length of 5:29. Gone were the ominous opening tolling bells and the radio-friendly version of “Mother” quickly faded after the last verse. The B-side, Yoko’s explosive “Why,” didn’t do much to help sales.
Covering Lennon’s highly personal songs from Plastic Ono Band was something of a losing proposition for most artists. They demanded a lot from the singer and meant having to enter a deep emotional state in order to put across John’s bitter lyrics with the level of conviction that few artists have ever shown or known. These songs are in a world of their own when compared to the early pop confections that Lennon and McCartney were famous for. Even John had a hard time sounding convincing when he performed the material live two years later, on August 30, 1972, at Madison Square Garden. “This song is another song from one of those albums I made since I left the Rolling Stones,” Lennon quipped, lightening the mood momentarily before adding, “A lot of people thought it was just about my parents, but it was about 99% of the parents, alive or half dead.”
While the Roots, Lou Reed, and David Bowie all offered potent covers of “Mother,” I want to point out two surprising versions that might have slipped under the radar:
In the year following Plastic Ono Band’s shocking release, Barbra Streisand (of all people!) recorded “Mother” (along with Lennon’s gossamer-gentle “Love”) on her album Barbra Joan Streisand. While seeming nothing short of bizarre, the diva did an admirable job with John’s lament.
Kicking off with long sustained churchy organ chords, and supported by droning cellos, Streisand sang the wallpaper off the wall. Thankfully she didn’t try to out-scream John on the song’s famous coda. Instead, Streisand’s voice soared, sounding like she meant every word of this tragic farewell.
Not surprisingly, country rocker Shelby Lynne sang Lennon’s classic as a cathartic way of dealing with her own personal trauma suffered after her father shot her mother in an alcoholic haze and then killed himself when she was just a teen.
Bringing some blue-eyed soul to the song while adding a few warmer chords to John’s skeletal melody, Shelby’s version morphed into something of a light grunge anthem. An echoey vocal mix adds a somewhat cerebral quality to the song. Perhaps the most effective aspect of her arrangement is the cliff-hanging ending which evokes the feeling that comes with being abandoned suddenly.