What John Winston Ono Lennon did next
Shorn of the shaggy mane and beard that had made him look like a white-suited lion on the cover of Abbey Road, Lennon showed a new impatience towards his music in 1970. On the morning of 27 January he wrote a song called “Instant Karma!” That afternoon he made a series of urgent phone-calls. Klaus Voormann received one, as did Alan White. Get over to Abbey Road as quick as you can, they were instructed. Lennon wanted to record the song straight away. The Plastic Ono Band, flexible as ever, was mobilised.
Voormann: “You never knew exactly who was going to turn up, with the Plastic Ono Band. You found out when you got to the studio. We never had cassettes to learn the songs. We were hearing them more or less for the first time. Maybe John just wrote it in the car on the way there, who knows? It’s better than leaving it in a drawer for two years.”
Eric Clapton was unavailable, so the guitarist on the session was George Harrison, soon to begin recording his own album, All Things Must Pass. This one-off incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band also included Billy Preston, and a party of revellers from a pub who were rounded up towards the end of the night to join in on the rousing choruses. There was also a new face in the control room, whom nobody seemed to know. “A little man,” smiles Voormann, “with a little voice, saying things like, ‘Take the cymbals down, I want to hear it without them.’ I had no idea who he was. Then the little man said, ‘Come and have a listen.’ We went into the control room and it was packed with machines, gadgets, lights blinking, tapes running. He turned up the volume and suddenly we heard the most amazing sound. I immediately knew this must be Phil Spector.”
Spector, due to start work on the salvaging of Let It Be in March, had been loaned the use of Lennon’s white Rolls-Royce while he was in London. It’s possible the great producer was offended when the fans outside Abbey Road groaned to see him (and not Lennon) get out of the car. Whatever, the initial takes of “Instant Karma!” found Spector taciturn. Tape operator Andy Stephens remembers: “John kept trying to pull him to the fore. Spector stood back and didn’t volunteer or dictate much at all. Then Lennon (itals)really(itals) pulled him out: ‘C’mon, Phil!’ Once he got into his stride, it was like all hell breaking loose. Tape machines, tape loops, tape delays, echo chambers, you name it.”
Released on 6 February, “Instant Karma!”, with its thrilling Wall of Sound and dazzling, tempo-defying Alan White drum fills, climbed to No. 5 in the charts. John and Yoko showed off their cropped haircuts and matching blue denim jackets on Top Of The Pops. As Lennon sat behind a piano, Yoko perched on a stool, sporting a blindfold like a political prisoner, holding up cards saying PEACE and HOPE. But the positive message was fleeting. Within weeks, she would telephone an analyst in California, begging him to come to Tittenhurst. The primal period was about to begin.