What John Winston Ono Lennon did next
To Arthur Janov’s regret, Lennon had left California – citing difficulties with his visa – before his treatment at the Primal Institute was even halfway concluded. Lennon professed himself a new man, but Janov feared the premature end to his primal therapy could have worrying emotional consequences for him as time went by. On 9 October – his 30th birthday – Lennon faced his father at Tittenhurst, and spewed out a lifetime’s hatred.
The day had been going well. Sessions for the album had reached their final stages. George Harrison had arrived at Abbey Road in his dark blue Ferrari 330 GTC, with a little vase holder stuck to the windscreen. Inside was a plastic flower. He took it out, walked into Studio 3 and said, “Happy birthday, John.” He gave Lennon the plastic flower and the two ex-Beatles hugged. Andy Stephens: “Yoko had brought in a present, which was a sensory box, about twice the size of a shoebox, with lots of holes in it. You put your finger in, and one [hole] would be warm and mushy, one would be wet, and one would have a pin in it. John loved it. He had such a ball with it.”
Lennon had invited his father for dinner that night. After one or two false starts, father and son had been reconciled in 1967 – John had bought Freddie a house in Brighton – but by October 1970 they had not seen each other for about a year. An unwitting Freddie turned up at Tittenhurst with his wife and 18-month-old son, only to be screamed at in the kitchen by an enraged John. The tirade, which was long and included death threats according to a book later published by Freddie’s wife Pauline (Daddy, Come Home: The True Story Of John Lennon And His Father), so unnerved Freddie that he wrote an account of it and gave it to his solicitor for safekeeping. He never met John again (although they did speak on the phone in 1976, prior to Freddie’s death).
If anything, the emotional power of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is enhanced by knowing that incidents like this took place. The songs not only seem to howl with true-life anguish, they do howl with it. To establish a post-Beatles identity in the early ’70s, Lennon had taken the remarkably courageous step of holding up his own identity – his vulnerable, frightened, fallible identity – for the scrutiny of anybody who cared to inspect it. “It’s the closest you can get to a real person,” is how Voormann sums the album up. It was released on 11 December 1970 and immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece.
What’s often forgotten is that two albums came out that day. The other was Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, recorded at Abbey Road at the same time. Much more freeform and sonically violent than John’s – but using the same musicians, technicians and studio set-up – Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band emphasised her unique, shrieking vocals and completed a pair of his’n’hers ‘Primal Scream’ albums that came packaged in near-identical sleeves. Dan Richter, who took the photographs of them sitting under a tree, is certain the two albums had equal status in John and Yoko’s minds. “One of the most painful things to them,” he says, “was that Yoko was always being attacked for her music. John never grasped the fact that her voice was a huge problem for Beatles fans.” It was a problem for some of the Abbey Road personnel, too. Richard Lush, engineer: “I used to say to Andy [Stephens] before we listened back to a take, ‘How long was that?’ He’d say, ‘About 13 minutes.’ ‘See you in 12 minutes, then.’ I’d pop out and have a cup of tea and come back just as it was ending.” Dan Richter denies, however, that the reason the two albums have such similar covers is because the Lennons hoped some fans would buy Yoko’s by mistake. “Their decisions were driven by aesthetics,” he says.
Two songs on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band attracted controversy. “Working Class Hero”, which twice used the word “fucking”, was banned by broadcasters including the BBC. Meanwhile, “God” caused uproar with lines such as “I don’t believe in Jesus”, “I don’t believe in Beatles” and “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. Primal therapy had turned Lennon into an overnight atheist, as he was fond of telling everyone (he quoted Janov as describing religion as “legalised madness”), but it was Lennon’s stark negation of The Beatles that arguably upset more listeners. In a two-part interview with Rolling Stone magazine in December, an outspoken Lennon banged further nails into their coffin. It was nothing his friends hadn’t heard him say for years, but for the public to read comments like “Fuckin’ big bastards, that’s what The Beatles were” and “The dream is over, it’s just the same, only I’m 30 and a lot of people have got long hair” was the final, formal proof that the Fab Four were beyond rapprochement.