We all know of John Lennon: he was the walrus, the cool Beatle murdered 30 years ago for no clear reason by a man who thought he was Holden Caufield, and who would have been 70 this month had he lived. His finest hour, even finer than Sgt Pepper’s, was a hymn for unilateral world peace ‘n’ love (a topic he felt so strongly about that he once stayed in bed for it!) and he was the poster boy for hippies both pre and post Altamont. He is a true icon for world peace and change…. at least, that’s the image most people see. Since his death, Lennon has taken on the role of a Jesus for the 21st century (he certainly had the long hair and beard for it) but this belies what a messed up, strange, cruel and cynical man he could be.
If, then, Imagine and the song from which it takes its name are reflections of the John who stayed in bed, the one in our heads, then Plastic Ono band is the dark flipside. This album is one of the starkly honest and profound expressions of someone’s demons, feelings and fears in the history of rock and roll. Its ugly, its brutal, it disparages everything from his former band, to God, to the working classes (sort of) and the hands that fed him. This is a Lennon directly post-Beatles, and the mythology surrounding him was about to be torn, unceremoniously down.
The album begins as it means to continue with the exceptionally bleak ‘Mother’, wherein Lennon, accompanied by only a drum, piano and bass sings about the mother who let his aunt raise him then died when he was 17, “Mother, you had me/But I didn’t have you.” The same damming indictment is brought against his father, who abandoned him as a young boy. Lennon is almost certainly pining more for the loss of his mother than any fault on her part, which makes the closing coda all the more heartbreaking. The last minutes of the song are Lennon repeating, “Mama don’t go! Daddy come home!” His voice becomes increasingly intense until it is little more than a guttural scream. It’s the most desperate plea for a parent’s love ever recorded and a truly shocking thing for a former Beatle to have done.
Another standout is ‘God’, where Lennon tears it all down. Everything. Not a single person or idea is left intact, “I don’t believe in Hitler/I don’t believe in Jesus/I don’t believe in Kennedy/I don’t believe in Mantra… I just believe in me.” This is a man stripping it all away and seeing what there is left to be sure of, seeing what matters underneath all the bullshit built up around his life over the preceding 8 years, “I was the walrus/Now I’m John.” The other song of great legend and repute in the album is ‘Working Class Hero’, which is positively savage, containing more hatred and vitriol than any punk song, all of it aimed at class divisions of his youth. The feelings of being a, let’s be honest (that’s what he was doing), lower class kid who will never truly be anything else no matter what they achieve, “You’re still f**king peasants as far as I can see.”
In summation, this album is a rare best in popular music. It has no desire to sound pretty or palatable or meet any sort of stylistic standard, it has no care for sound or sonics. Its only purpose is to provide catharsis for its troubled creator. John Lennon did a thing braver and bolder than getting his dick out on an album cover; he tore his own image to shreds. He wasn’t a happy hippy, a mischievous minstrel of trippy psychedelic rock songs or even a Beatle. He was himself and that was something he wanted everyone to know whether they liked it or not. He was a dark, angsty, fed up, embittered, isolated super star and this was his way of trying to shed at least some of those adjectives from his person. This was him trying to start afresh, sever the past and finally just be John.