Klaus Voormann remembers taking the stage with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s conceptual Plastic Ono Band for their first gig at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival in September 1969. When Ono, wrapped in a bed sheet, let out one of her signature, guttural wails, the once-enthusiastic crowd was confounded.
“Standing on stage, you could see the way the people react, whispering to each other. Not disinterested but just, ‘Christ, what’s happening up there?'” the 82-year-old recalls.
“[Ono] was wanting the people to know there were people dying [in Vietnam]. She had us imagine tanks are coming, bombs are coming, dead people on the road. When you’re standing behind her, you realise what she’s trying to do. But it was too strong for the crowd. They came to see John Lennon the ex-Beatle, you know? They didn’t want to think about death and war.
“The audience – they didn’t throw tomatoes, but they certainly weren’t happy. They were a bit sad, I felt, like, ‘Oh John, this is what’s happened to you?'”
Lennon’s tumultuous personal and artistic transformation after the breakup of The Beatles culminated in two stunning albums by the pair (with Voormann and Ringo Starr as their core musicians) released on December 11, 1970: Lennon’s intense John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and Ono’s free-flowing Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
Fifty years on the albums are the subject of a new book, John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band (Thames & Hudson), a celebration of the couple’s bond.
Born from primal therapy sessions with psychotherapist Arthur Janov (“He had an enormous amount of pain. I’ve seen an awful lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the equal,” Janov said of Lennon in a 2008 interview), Lennon’s release is almost suffocatingly stark, opening with Mother, in which his pained yelps (“Mama don’t go! Daddy come home!”) scream to his abandoned childhood.
“To me, this album is the best of all albums I’ve ever heard. It’s so personal,” says Voormann. “[John] came into the studio with no songs, just sat down together with Yoko – always together with Yoko – and as quick as possible got what he just wrote onto tape. That was his aim and that’s what he did. We all understood.
“Ringo was great and so we just played. Two takes mostly, and the thing was done. It’s brilliant. There’s mistakes in it and it doesn’t matter. The mistakes are OK, you know? Intimacy, that was the key. It’s so personal and so open to life – and you can hear it! Most of the records, it’s all covered by strings and big choirs and guitars, and he just did it really, really simple. It was such a great statement.”
Voormann, who first met The Beatles in Hamburg in the early ’60s and went on to illustrate their iconic Revolver album cover, says Lennon’s relationship with Ono “gave such a burst into John’s life”. In the book, he says: “Something had been very wrong with John before Yoko came along.”
“When I met John, he was like a miracle to me … But he was not happy and he was lost, and that’s how he was all the time, even in The Beatles time,” Voormann says. “Of course he would laugh and joke and do whatever the public wanted, but you could see his frustration when he was onstage in front of a big audience and he’d just lift his head and the audience would start screaming. He was like, ‘Oh s**t, what is this?’ He hated it, really hated it.
“And then he met Yoko. Suddenly this new life was there for him. They were so together. It’s unexplainable; you hardly ever see that sort of thing with a couple. It was so much of a give and take.”
Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band album, released concurrently and recorded with the same musicians, is more esoteric, heavy on improvisational jams and experimental excursions. But songs like Why and Touch Me feel ahead of their time with their No Wave grooves and frenetic proto-punk energy.
Voormann contributed new illustrations to the book based on his recollections of the album sessions, and says his aim was to “show the togetherness of John and Yoko”.
“They were like glued together. They would sit together on a chair, sometimes Yoko on his lap, hugging, constantly communicating with one another. It was like one person, not like there’s John and there’s Yoko. It was one word: Johnandyoko.”
Despite the initial fury Lennon’s career pivot elicited, Voormann says he always respected the album’s conquering spirit.
“I never care, really, what people think. OK, when I look at the charts and I see the Plastic Ono Band LP is not going up there like The Beatles, I understand – but, always, it was: ‘You just wait’. Because I knew it was a masterpiece! So much emotion, so much energy is on that album, I knew it’s going to be a big thing. And that’s what’s happened now, and it will happen in more times to come. People realise this is a masterpiece.”
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