What John Winston Ono Lennon did next
Klaus Voormann could not believe his eyes. The two people who had just walked into Abbey Road Studio 3 were recognisable as John and Yoko, but their behaviour was completely, insanely out of character. “They were laughing, crying and holding on to each other,” Voormann relates. “Holding on to each other so close. Two grown-up people, and yet it’s as though they were children. Not because they were saying silly stuff, but because of their emotions. They were crying, then screaming with laughter, then crying again, one after the other.”
It was 26 September. John and Yoko had been back in England only two days. Four months with Janov had done something extraordinary. Lennon in particular was transformed. (Not just emotionally, by the way. He was two stone overweight and had become addicted to ice-cream.) Above all, he was feeling creative. Convening for the Abbey Road sessions was the most minimalist Plastic Ono Band line-up to date: just Lennon (guitar, piano), Voormann (bass) and Ringo Starr (drums). Lennon had a new batch of songs to record, for which his lyrics were heartfelt, revealing and direct. No more allusions or metaphors. This was about mummy, daddy, Yoko and pain. The intimacy was unprecedented from a rock star. The music would be sparse, reduced to its essentials, and reminiscent of primitive 1950s rock’n’roll.
The producer of this stripped-down classic (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) was Phil Spector. Unlike “Instant Karma!”, however, and the Tycoon of Teen symphonies of yore, Lennon was adamant that the Wall Of Sound was to be kept well away from his new material. Impatient to get music down on tape, he even started without Spector, who appears to have been uninvolved in the recording for the first week at least. In contrast to the sessions for Harrison’s All Things Must Pass in the summer, where Voormann and Starr had been part of a cast of thousands, Lennon trusted his rhythm section, declined to delegate, and worked fast. Voormann remembers there being so little musical direction from Lennon to Starr (“not a word”) that Ringo was hurt, feeling taken for granted.
One of the songs was a bleak dirge, “Mother”, which confronted the issue of Lennon’s abandonment as a child. The studio engineers and tape ops, unaware that John and Yoko had undergone therapy in America, were utterly unprepared for what happened next. The song’s tragic coda saw Lennon repeatedly scream the line “Mama don’t go, daddy come home” until the skin sounded like it was peeling away from his throat. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” says tape op Andy Stephens. “This was not something you were used to from a Beatle. It was quite shocking.”
The veteran producer John Leckie, another tape op on the sessions, explains that the screams we hear on “Mother” were actually edited into the song once the rest of the vocal had been recorded. Lennon would attempt the screaming finale every night, careful never to try it in the daytime in case it destroyed his voice. “The screams are double-tracked,” Leckie points out. “John didn’t like the raw sound of his own voice. He always wanted lots of stuff on it. Spector’s contribution, really, was to be generous with the reverb and echo.”
Another song, simple in structure, resisted all Lennon’s efforts to record a satisfactory vocal. Andy Stephens watched him obsess about it day after day, singing “an endless number of takes… well over 100… probably 120, 130”. Lennon became more frustrated as each take passed. “If the mix in his headphones wasn’t exactly what he wanted, he would take them off and slam them into the wall,” Stephens recalls. “He wouldn’t say, ‘Can I have a bit more guitar?’ He would literally rip the cans off his head and smash them into the wall, then walk out of the studio.”
The song was “Working Class Hero”. Open to various interpretations – an analysis of the class divide? A tale of an unloved boy growing up to be a damaged superstar? – it proved impossible to record in a single take. One verse was sung next door in Studio 2 (“When they’ve tortured and scared you…”) and dropped into the middle of a take recorded in Studio 3. The listener can hear a change of tone in Lennon’s guitar at 1:24 where the edit is made.
Because the first sound to be heard on the album is the toll of a funeral bell, and because it ends with a desolate extract of Lennon numbly intoning “My mummy’s dead”, one might assume that John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was a depressing record to work on. Oddly enough, the sessions were often hilarious. Klaus Voormann starts giggling as he thinks back to the repartee in the studio, the anecdotes, the one-liners between Spector and Lennon’s manager Allen Klein. Voormann: “We would almost be rolling on the floor with laughter. They were a comedy act, typical New York.” Richard Lush, an engineer on the album, calls Spector “one of the funniest people ever… this very short man wearing Cuban heels who didn’t mind you taking the piss out of him”. John Leckie: “Spector would tell these wild stories about Lenny Bruce dying in his toilet. They were always having breaks for lengthy stories. It was a really jovial album to make, which is funny when you think what the songs are about.”