John Lennon and his new wife, conceptual artist Yoko Ono, had already collaborated on three experimental albums by the time both their individual solo debut albums appeared the same day in 1970, with matching cover designs. Yoko’s was half a dozen expansive, improvisational jams; John’s was the radical one. He’d mined his personal experience for songwriting material for years, but this time he explicitly made his own furious, tortured psyche the subject of an album’s worth of almost unbearably intense lyrics.
The band behind him mostly consists of two of his longtime associates — Ringo Starr on drums, Klaus Voormann on bass — providing pro forma accompaniment for Lennon’s naked, shivering, echoing, accusatory, sometimes screaming voice. He’d recently become fascinated with Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy, and on Plastic Ono Band‘s unforgettable opener “Mother,” he howls himself hoarse reliving the central traumas of his life: the collapse of his family when he was very young, and the death of his mother when he was 17 years old. Listeners who’d picked up the album hoping for something along the lines of “Instant Karma!” or “Across the Universe” were in for a shock.
A few years earlier, Lennon had gotten in trouble for quipping that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”; it is a sign of how much he did not give a fuck that he starts a song here by declaring that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” and goes on to list everything else he doesn’t believe in, concluding with Elvis, “Zimmerman” (i.e. Bob Dylan), and finally the Beatles. There are rockers here, yes: “Well Well Well,” as comforting as a steel scrub brush, and the even bleaker and starker “I Found Out.” There are a couple of genuinely beautiful songs, too, especially “Love” — you only get to use that title once, and Lennon, to whom love was everything, used it on the right one. But these magnificently crafted and sung songs are meant to slap the listener across the face, not give pleasure: It’s a masterpiece of an album that could not have been more distant from the Beatles’ aims.