Before I even opened the package, the first thing I noticed about the new 50th Anniversary edition of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is that the cover image looked clearer, like a layer of haze has been removed.
This theme continues inside as much sonic blur has been removed from the recordings, leaving the music and Lennon’s vocals to shine on center stage.
For those of you who don’t know, Plastic Ono Band was the first true solo album Lennon issued after leaving The Beatles. It was a watershed moment of brutal honesty, powerful lyricism and dynamic musicality.
A bookend of a sort to Paul McCartney’s very different first solo release, both albums were the polar opposite of what The Beatles were about. The sound is mostly stripped back to raw vocals, guitars , piano, bass and drums. Here, Lennon puts his heart on the table and the song titles reveal much about what to expect: “Working Class Hero,” “God,” “Isolation,” “My Mummy’s Dead” and “Love.”
For the 50th Anniversary deluxe edition of Plastic Ono Band, executive producer Yoko Ono Lennon followed the path employed on the recent Gimme Some Truth and Imagine – The Ultimate Collection sets. The set features new mixes which are faithful and respectful to the originals, yet are sonically clearer with attention to improve the clarity of John’s vocals.
In case you missed it, you can read my multi-part review of Gimme Some Truth by clicking here for the Stereo, here for the Surround Sound mix and here for the other bonus goodies. For Imagine – The Ultimate Collection, I also reviewed the Stereo and Surround mixes as well as Bonus tracks.
Plastic Ono Band has been fully remixed by Paul Hicks at Abbey Road Studios under Yoko’s supervision. Working from high-definition 192 kHz, 24-bit transfers of the original first-generation multitrack recordings, the result is quite remarkable and at times stunning. Given the seeming simplicity of the original recordings, much new detail is revealed.
I like this new Stereo mix of Plastic Ono Band a whole lot as it is more direct and yet still feels right. Listening to the new LP edition, the first thing I noticed was that the church bells at the start of “Mother” are clearer.
“Hold On” is one of my favorites of the set sounding richer with Klaus Voorman’s bass prominent in the mix. Listen for the beautiful decay on Ringo’s final cymbal crash there. John’s amplifier skronk on “I Found Out” is more ripping than ever. “Isolation” sound so fantastic now, with Voorman’s bass resonating in lock step with Ringo’s strong kick drum, providing an even more solid foundation for John’s piano. When John sings “I… I… I … soo… layyyyy tion” before leading into the dramatic double tracked bridge, the impact is more haunting than ever.
“Remember” sounds amazing, with Klaus, Ringo and John connected instrumentally as one on the verses. It may be my favorite among the new remixes (more on that in a bit)
There are some badass guitar parts on “Well Well Well” that are much more audible now. Notably, listen for the sort of Pete Townshend-esque / Jimi Hendrix-like rips which Lennon plays intermittently throughout the song (which were buried further down in the mix previously). Lennon’s primal screams here have never sounded more… well… primal!
Billy Preston’s gospel-tinged piano on “God,” sounds woodier and more open than I’ve ever heard. Even “My Mummy’s Dead” sounds less boxy.
My only issue with the vinyl pressing was that there was some paper dust on the discs (in the inner-sleeve) causing some surface noise along the way. After I gave the album a washing however it sounded fine, the noise floor of the vinyl basically disappearing. I had a similar problem with early pressings of Paul McCartney’s New album when it was first released some years back but this new occurrence was nowhere near as bad; hopefully my copy is just a one-off issue. Otherwise, the thick black 180-gram vinyl is dark, quiet and well centered.
The Stereo mix on the Blu-ray Disc version of Plastic Ono Band in 192 kHz, 24-bit fidelity is a wonder in its own right. It offers much of the same vibe as the vinyl but is a bit more open sounding.
I suspect this may be because there was no need for additional compression as there is no vinyl disc mastering stage (which helps to keep your stylus from flying off the grooves). It is a bit brighter sounding of course but not in an off putting way. It feels very natural, actually.
Tracks like “Hold On” have an incredible presence even more than the vinyl. The crack of Ringo’s rimshots on the verses is more distinct. I noticed a nice rhythm he gets going there that isn’t quite as apparent on the LP version (listen for the rimshot followed by two ticks on the high hat which create that buoyant pulse making the song fly).
On “Isolation” you can hear Ringo’s snare resonate more while the tom toms sound huge, enhanced by that classic way in which only Ringo can play them. The cymbal crashes on the bridge are more present with a lovely decay.
As good as it sounds on the Blu-ray version, I do think I prefer the way “Remember” sounds on the vinyl edition. Either way, the drums and bass are rich and round supporting Lennon’s incredibly natural sounding piano.
Listen for the slap echo on Ringo’s kick drum and how it interacts with Klaus Voorman’s bass thump on “Well Well Well”— it makes the heartbeat-like rhythm pulse. Again, Lennon’s ripping power chords stand out beautifully in this new mix.
Interestingly, “God” sounds a bit different on the Blu-ray version than the vinyl version. Purely speculating, I wonder if it is the effect of the compression applied in vinyl disc mastering, especially given that the track is nearly the last on the album. John’s falsetto vocal toward the end, where he sings “I was the Walrus, but now I’m John” sends a shudder down the spine.
All in all this new Stereo mix of Plastic Ono Band is very enjoyable and a lovely complement to the original. I think it is an important release which allows fans of the recording to hear it in a new light. And for first-time listeners, it presents the music even more directly, in a timeless flavor beyond the slightly echo laden, dated mix by original co-producer Phil Spector.
In Part Two of my listening report on the new 50th Anniversary edition of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band I’ll explore the 5.1 surround sound remixes. Much more Lennon joy to come. Stay tuned.