Sunday, 27 June 2010

It's Mother Love And Fear From John Lennon

That was the headline for the NME review of John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band in December 1970. (In fact, it continued: 'and weirdo sounds from Yoko Ono', over a brief and baffled description of her own Plastic Ono Band album.)

In 1970, the NME wasn't the sharp-witted, impeccably hip, razor-edged journal that people remember from later in the decade and beyond, peopled by the likes of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Burchill. That transformation came a couple of years later. The NME of 1970 was unashamedly a pop paper, dominated by who and what was in the Top 30, and more at home with LPs by Danny La Rue, Clive Dunn and Kenneth Williams (all reviewed on the same page as the Lennon album) than with progressive rock or confessional songwriting.

Which is what makes their review of the Lennon album so fascinating. Journalist Andy Gray had clearly only heard the record once, without a lyric sheet, and without any of the biographical insight that we have today. He didn't know that Lennon had spent several months that year undergoing Primal Scream therapy. Nor did he have any sense of Plastic Ono Band as an epochal record in rock history. That all came later. But his review does provide an intriguing view of the pop world in which Lennon was struggling to exist.

"I get the impression that John Lennon has much fear in his make-up," Gray began. "Also a great big chip on his shoulder about class consciousness and the unfairness of the world." So far so good, but Gray's comments on the individual tracks reveal a man who was conscious of feeling out of his depth.

He complains that on the gentle 'Hold On', "words are smothered by instruments". On 'I Found Out', "the insistent guitar and throbbing drums make it hard to hear the words". 'Remember', which he says is based around "a monotonous plunk-plunk repetition from the guitars" (sure that's not actually a piano, Andy?), is "a sort of speech-talk song, rather hard to hear". On 'Well Well Well' he finds the "words distorted again". And he says that' God' is "compelling, but hard to catch the words again" - which is presumably why he fails to mention that Lennon sings, "I don't believe in Beatles".

At this point, one is tempted to ask whether he should have checked the needle for fluff before he started. His problems with Lennon's diction aside, Gray was stumbling to find adequate descriptions of the music. 'I Found Out' apparently has "big Afro-beat and voodoo drums behind the high-pitched, distorted vocal", while 'Well Well Well' has "a thump-on-drum sound throughout, reminding me of a war canoe song by Paul Robeson in a film long ago". When primitive rock'n'roll confused him so much, it's not surprising that Gray's response to Yoko's album was: "I'm afraid it is a bit beyond me, but I'm sure it is very clever".

Yet Gray couldn't avoid the emotional impact of one song: 'Mother'. "I have rarely heard so much anguish and suffering put into a track", he wrote. "It builds up to the most frightening, mad screeching. Anguish as never heard before."

To be fair to Andy Gray, my reaction to John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band - when I bought a copy eight months later, just after my 14th birthday - wasn't much more sophisticated. I'd gone looking for Lennon's new album, Imagine, but it wasn't in stock, and being an impatient teenager, I'd bought another Lennon record instead. I can remember being shocked and a little deflated by the album's lack of pop tunefulness, though I loved 'I Found Out' and 'Well Well Well' (must have been those war canoe drums). I couldn't admit to my mother that I'd wasted two pounds, so I persevered - and spent the rest of the decade convinced that John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band was the greatest album of all time. But I'd love to know whether Andy Gray ever played it again.

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