Graded on a Curve:
John Lennon,
John Lennon/Plastic
Ono Band–The Ultimate Collection

The Plastic Ono Band album, released in 1970 by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, is a monumental album in the annals of rock history. It was the fourth album John and Yoko released, but it is often credited as Lennon’s solo debut.

There were so many facets to what made the album so iconic right from its initial release. First and foremost, it signaled Lennon’s complete break with The Beatles and the 1960s, spiritually and philosophically. It was a sharp severing of all the bonds that tied him to that earth-shattering decade as well as to his place in the band that defined the era. It was also his divorce from Paul McCartney, his songwriting partner and co-equal in The Beatles.

Emotionally and psychologically, the music was the result of Lennon’s time in primal scream therapy with American Dr. Arthur Janov, a psychologist and psychotherapist who developed the therapy in the early 1950s. It is this therapy that informs Lennon’s use of raw and sparse music backing as a foundation for his direct, unflinching and often wrenching lyrics. Lennon, unlike most rock stars (except for maybe Pete Townshend), sought to shatter the mythology and invincibility of the group he was in, especially after the breakup of The Beatles. George Harrison didn’t exactly seek to do that, but he felt the burden of being an ex-Beatle the heaviest.

The album has always worn well through the years and artists from punk to grunge and others, have claimed the album as an influence. Many listeners have viewed the album not merely as an artifact from the past, but as an album ahead of its time, with a depth and timelessness akin to those achieved by Neil Young and Leonard Cohen on a few occasions. U2 on its often-maligned album Rattle and Hum, from 1988, even had a song called “God Part II” that, not so much musically, but lyrically updated The Plastic Ono Band’s “God.” It was a worthy answer song from a band who equally felt the spirit of rock and its contradictions.

The album has been issued and reissued countless times through the years, but the latest reissue is the most ambitious, all-encompassing and thorough of any that have come before. This is the third major box set reissue of Lennon’s music since 2018. The previous two were Imagine: The Ultimate Collection, released in 2018 and Gimmie Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes, released in 2020.

This box most resembles the Imagine set, with the super deluxe edition of that album including four CDs and two Blu-rays, covering 135 tracks, and a 120-page hardcover book. The new Plastic Ono Band super deluxe edition is a 6CD/2Blu-ray set, covering 159 tracks, all newly remixed, with a 132-page hardcover book and 57 tracks exclusive to the Blu-ray content. Both Imagine and The Plastic Ono Band are available in 2LP, 2CD, and single CD editions. There was also a clear vinyl edition of the Imagine release. Both album reissue projects include companion hardcover books. All three of these new reissues have been released through Universal.

The music available on both the Gimmie Some Truth and the Plastic Ono Band sets are in new stereo, 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Atmos mixes, with quad mixes also available for Imagine, but no Dolby Atmos. It is also worth noting that the demos on the first Blu-ray and the 6th CD of the Plastic Ono Band are also in mono. The Imagine and Plastic Ono Band sets have a treasure trove of various mixes that create an experience similar to the study of a great painting or the excavation of an archeological dig. This is done by offering outtakes, element mixes, demos, raw studio mixes, evolution mixes, jams and live sessions along with exhaustive research, text and photos.

Much like the Imagine and Gimmie Some Truth deluxe boxes, this new reissue is an immersive experience that provides a plethora of audio, textual and visual material for exploring in detail the personal, creative, contextual and historic nature of the art and times of the album and the person who created it.

The Jams are quite interesting and share a certain similarity to some of the bootlegs and Let It Be Naked, “Fly on the Wall” material from the Get Back/Let It Be period, as there are lots of loose, good-natured jams of early American rock ‘n’ roll (“Johnny B. Goode,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Mystery Train,” and an Elvis Presley parody medley). “Johnny B. Goode” even briefly quotes Chuck Berry’s “Oh, Carol” at the end. There are also early American oldies that the Beatles covered, such as “Honey, Don’t” and “Matchbox,” as well as original songs from the Get Back/Let It Be album period from The Beatles such as “Get Back” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” There are also jams of music from the Plastic Ono Band album. The Jams are a mood counterpoint to the Plastic Ono Band album, as they spotlight Lennon clearly enjoying himself.

It’s important to acknowledge the people who worked with Lennon on the album. The core group was Ringo Starr on drums and Klaus Voormann on bass. The album was co-produced by Phil Spector. Voormann is most often thought of in terms of his friendship with The Beatles from when they first came to Hamburg and throughout their lives and the iconic artwork he did for the cover of Revolver and the Anthology releases, but he is more than a capable bass player. He also played with Manfred Mann and it’s his distinctive bass that he created that serves as the opening of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Starr again proves what an unselfish, unflashy drummer he is, who simply serves the song and always leaves his ego at home.

Spector really shines on this album. Unlike when utilizing his Wall of Sound, which he so effectively employed for George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and on Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” he shows he is able to help an artist come up with the best musical backing and in this case, very sparse instrumentation. Other musicians who contributed include George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Alan White, and even Mal Evans and on “Give Peace A Chance,” Tommy Smothers, Petula Clark, Derek Taylor, Timothy and Rosemary Leary, and the Radha Krishna Temple performs.

Yoko Ono’s The Plastic Ono Band, “The Live Sessions” is only available on the Blu-ray content and, along with live sessions of songs from the original Yoko Ono The Plastic Ono Band album, there are three B-sides and three extra tracks. The original Yoko Ono The Plastic Ono Band studio album, including Ono’s work with Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, is not included here and is only available through the Secretly Canadian/Chimera label 2016 release.

Vinyl audiophiles and collectors will also want to have a copy of the 2LP, vinyl edition. The double-album, gatefold package includes the newly remixed album on one disc and 11 outtakes, newly remixed from the original multi-track tapes on the other disc. It also includes extensive liner notes, an eight-page booklet and the “War Is Over” poster. This is the best-sounding vinyl reissue of the album to be released in the U.S.

This entire project is a culmination of the time, work and passion of many people and all those involved should be congratulated for their outstanding efforts. It isn’t surprising, though, that a work on the scale of this project hasn’t come off without any hitches. There are numerous errors in the liner notes of a very granular nature in regard to track information, tape logs, and session notes. Mike Carrera in The Daily Beatle has detailed these errors. His article was not meant as a criticism of the mistakes, but just a matter of setting the record straight and is a work of respectful music scholarship that one should consult.

This is truly a special reissue, one of the best reissues of the music of one of The Beatles, solo and one that fans of The Beatles and John Lennon will want to have multiple editions of in their music libraries. Music scholars will also want to ponder the vast significance of this album, in terms of the evolution of the music of the 1960s into the 1970s and the enormous legacy of Lennon’s music, more than 50 years after the album was first released.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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