Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 22, 2008)
Ever since the Beatles split in 1970, fans have debated which of their solo albums fare the best. These arguments have changed over the years, as some records lost their initial luster while others gained in stature. For instance, Paul McCartney’s Ram received generally negative reviews back in 1971, but now many see it as arguably his finest hour.
When John Lennon put out John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band toward the end of 1970, many regarded it as a great piece of work. That viewpoint has changed little over the nearly four decades since its release. Some might put 1971’s Imagine above it, but POB usually gets the nod as Lennon’s best release, and it almost always ends up in lists of the top five solo Beatle albums.
I’d agree with those assessments. Of course, we don’t have a lot of Lennon albums from which to choose. Due to his tragic murder in 1980 – and his musical hiatus in the latter half of the 1970s - the Lennon discography remains woefully limited. Lennon put out only six original albums in his lifetime. (1975’s Rock & Roll provided covers of old chestnuts, while 1983’s Milk & Honey came out posthumously.)
Even if Lennon remained alive today and had worked steadily since 1980, I still believe POB would probably represent the apex of his solo career. One of the most introspective and emotionally charged albums ever released, POB remains a powerful classic.
The DVD follows the usual blueprint for the Classic Albums programs, as it presents those connected with the album to detail the music and its creation. We hear from Lennon via archival interviews, and we get new comments from Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, musician Klaus Voormann, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Beatles historian/author Mark Lewisohn, journalist Richard Williams, recording engineers Richard Lush and Phil McDonald, Primal Institute co-founder Dr. Arthur Janov, EMI Studios tape operator John Leckie, and radio DJ/family friend Elliott Mintz.
POB looks at the disintegration of the Beatles, Lennon’s relationship with Ono, and where he went from there. We hear about the genesis of the Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s early solo efforts, and the creation of the POB album. The show digs into Primal Scream therapy’s influence on Lennon and the album as well as other aspects of its writing and recording. We also get a few notes about Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, a companion effort.
It can become difficult for anything about a Beatle to seem fresh. The solo years haven’t been beaten to death as much as the group period, but that work – especially the earlier efforts like POB - has received an awful lot of attention over the decades. Though that means few – if any – revelations will materialize from this disc, it provides a good overview.
As usual for the “Classic Albums” series, the best parts come from the more “hands on” demonstrations. At the mixing board, we hear Lennon’s isolated vocals for “Mother” and “Isolation”. We also get isolated drums from “I Found Out” and “God”, isolated guitar/vocal for “Love”, and isolated piano for “God”. These moments go by too quickly, but they’re still cool to hear. Voormann also plays bass for “Hold On” and emulates Lennon’s piano for “Isolation”. Unfortunately, we never get Ringo behind the kit to demonstrate his work.
A few outtakes also appear. We hear some studio chatter and other quick audio tidbits. Again, these are fun, though they’re awfully brief; I’d love to get more of them.
That’s probably the biggest problem with this DVD: it’s too general and doesn’t offer the usual level of insight. We find a lot of clips from the released album – too many, in my estimation, since most viewers will also likely know POB, so the audio feels like it’s there to fill time. Since the program only runs 53 minutes, it should devote more energy to comments and unique musical elements, not to repetition of songs from the album. Some examples are necessary, but this show uses too many of them.
I also think POB devotes too much time to ancillary issues instead of the record’s creation. Indeed, the POB album occasionally feels like an afterthought. The show digs into a variety of related topics that are interesting but not especially fresh. When we enter into a “Classics Albums” DVD, we want to hear specifics about the album’s creation, not general notes about the artist. Some background is fine, but that side of things shouldn’t dominate.
I don’t want to sound too critical of Classic Albums: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, as I think it provides an enjoyable look at a great piece of work. However, I feel it’s not one of the best “Classic Albums” releases. It gives us a fair overview of the album but lacks the desired insight.