Judge Erich Asperschlager is convinced Instant Karma followed him home the other day.
"I don't believe in Beatles / I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that's reality"—from "God"
In this age of rock 'n' roll longevity, it's hard to imagine what it must have been like to see the world's biggest band break up after only 7 years in the spotlight. In about the same amount of time it takes U2 to put out a record these days, The Beatles had made their mark on pop music and disbanded—torn apart by egos, arguments, and changing musical styles. Out of the high-profile wreckage, each Beatle emerged as a solo artist of varying success. But none made the transition as quickly or as distinctly as the volatile genius John Lennon.
It's more than coincidence that John married Yoko Ono at the same time he divorced himself from The Beatles. As much as fans want to believe Ono broke up the band, Lennon was clearly unhappy. She changed that, and the two became inseparable—in and outside the studio. Together, they built their public and personal lives around the things most important to them: peace, love, and political reform.
John's music changed. He began writing songs marked by an emotional honesty rare in the world of celebrity. He and Yoko embraced "Primal Therapy," a treatment developed by psychologist Dr. Arthur Janov as a way to deal with repressed childhood trauma by openly expressing painful emotions. John poured that raw energy into his music—writing songs about absent parents ("Mother"), media rejection ("Isolation"), his feelings for Yoko ("Love"), the hypocrisy of conformity ("Working Class Hero"), and his disillusionment with religion and fame ("God"). Those songs became the basis for his first solo album, the subject of Eagle Rock's latest entry in its "Classic Albums" series—John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
Like the previous "Classic Albums" releases, Plastic Ono Band tells the record's story through interviews, footage, and musical breakdowns of the most important tracks. Though Lennon is heard only in recorded interviews from the '70s, most everyone else involved in making the album is represented, including Yoko, Ringo Starr (who played drums on the record), bassist Klaus Voormann (who Beatles über-fans will know as "the guy who designed the Revolver album cover"), and Arthur Janov.
Plastic Ono Band takes its time in laying the groundwork for the album's creation, beginning with The Beatles' demise and the early years of John's relationship with Yoko. The musical seeds for Lennon's first full album are apparent in the singles "Cold Turkey" and "Instant Karma." Though John's Beatles compositions were arguably the group's most introspective, his solo work took that personal expression to a new level. "Cold Turkey"—about John's battle with heroin—is about as far from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as you can get. Beyond his newfound lyrical freedom, John also took a different approach to recording, stepping back from the complex sonic constructions of The Beatles' final albums in favor of something more immediate—"Instant Karma," for instance, went from composition to final mix in a single day.
The DVD's track-by-track look at the album—minus "Remember," "Well Well Well" (which both get their due in the bonus material), "Look At Me," and "My Mummy's Dead" (which didn't make the cut)—is fascinating, if a bit indulgent. Since Plastic Ono Band is essentially about John's thoughts and feelings, enjoyment and appreciation of the songs and the stories behind them is dependent on how much you care about Lennon's mental state in 1970. Still, it's difficult to dismiss the album's raw power—in the lyrics, in the music, and in John's vocals, which range from tender to howls of pain and righteous anger.
Fans already familiar with large portions of Lennon's biography—including his mother's death and John and Yoko's honeymoon "bed-in"—will likely find more to enjoy in the portions of the documentary that feature the engineers who worked on the album, breaking down the individual tracks at the mixing board. There's no better way, for example, to appreciate John's singing on the album than to hear the isolated vocal track for "Mother," which had to be recorded at the end of the day since his screaming of the line "Momma don't go/Daddy come home" left his voice in tatters.
Though the main feature is over in less than an hour, the nearly 40 minutes of bonus material helps fill in some of the blanks. As mentioned above, "Remember" and "Well Well Well" each get their turns at the mixing board. The extras also include a short profile of Klaus Voormann, an early take of "God," live performances of "Mother" and "Instant Karma," and a continuation of the feature's brief look at Yoko's companion Plastic Ono Band album—recorded and released at the same time as John's, though to considerably less acclaim.
It's always disappointing to get a musical DVD that doesn't have a surround mix, though the 2.0 stereo soundtrack gets the job done. Visually, there's a good mix of old and new footage. Considering this first aired on television, the widescreen presentation is definitely a plus.
Though John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band at times strays too far from the music, it manages to capture the spirit of an artist busy stripping away stardom to find himself. Whatever you think of John Lennon's personality, politics, psychology, or taste in art, Plastic Ono Band is no less of an accomplishment. Its rawness was a radical departure for the ex-Beatle, and though the album speaks of a specific time in an individual life, it continues to influence those in search of musical authenticity.
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