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My deep dive into the 50th Anniversary super deluxe boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s landmark solo album Plastic Ono Band concludes today exploring some of the outtakes, alternates, and other fascinating bonuses on this rich collection. In case you missed Part II on the new Surround Sound mix, please click here. And for Part I on the Stereo remix, click here.
Plastic Ono Band presents multiple visions for the album. Each CD — also included on the Blu-ray Disc — gives you 14 tracks, corresponding album tracks plus period singles in various states of being. New “ultimate” mixes of studio out-takes are offered as well as new mixes/remasters of demos and new mixes of the “elements.”
You get “raw” studio mixes including the outtakes (different outtakes!). And then the “evolution” mixes are mini audio documentaries of each track’s birthing process. There are the jam sessions! And, on the Blu-ray you get all the live sessions the band did with Yoko Ono (which became the core for what became her first solo album, also titled Plastic Ono Band).
The CDs generally sound excellent but if you want to hear the fullest versions, listen on the Blu-ray Discs which are presented at 192 kHz and 24 bit resolution in Stereo. The vinyl LP version of Plastic Ono Band also sounds excellent but only offers you one series of the outtakes (more on that in a bit).
There is so much here I really can’t get to it all in this already-too-long review series, so I’ll try to be as complete as I can (without going to a fourth review!)
OUTTAKES ’n ALTERNATES
All of these tracks sound amazing and offer incredible fly-on-the-wall insights into the process John Lennon went through creating Plastic Ono Band. The remarkable thing is that for all these years many of us thought that Plastic Ono Band was this stripped down raw affair which couldn’t possibly have been as intense a production as, say, The Beatles’ Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper.
But when you look at the number of takes Lennon did of some of these songs you realize he went through quite a process to get to that final sound. He went through nearly 100 takes of “Mother” to get to the final version that opens the album!
It takes a lot of work and skill to create something seemingly this simple.
My favorite outtakes thus far include the heavily overdubbed 23rd take of “Isolation” with multiple vocal takes all at once. Take 6 of “Love” is a simple acoustic guitar demo, like he is playing it on a back porch. Take 2 of “Look At Me” is innocent and folksy. Take 27 of “God” is amazing with its somewhat different introduction and vocal style. Take 1 of “Cold Turkey” mesmerizes.
On the Two LP vinyl version of Plastic Ono Band you get a second disc featuring the Ultimate Mixes Studio Outtakes as found on the Blu-ray disc and the CD. The LP sounds great if you like that format and is a nice complement to the super high resolution Blu-ray version.
On Disc 6 of the CDs (again, also on the Blu-ray) you get a full set of John’s earliest cassette demos. These “are what they are” sound quality wise, but are an essential part of the journey. Some highlights include the early take of “Mother” played by John on guitar on a heavily vibrato-laden electric guitar. The piano and vocal demo of “Isolation” is a tear jerker as is the similarly produced “Remember.”
“Look At Me” sounds like it was recorded over a telephone line and is wonderful as the essence of the song is all there even at this early stage. “God” is probably the most radical departure, strummed early on as a somewhat fast folk song on a guitar.
Essential listening, no doubt.
Stripping each song down to its most basic essence, these are a fascinating study in the power of isolating performance details
“Mother” is especially haunting, stunning and beautiful presenting Lennon’s vocal take in its entirety without any backing. It is especially harrowing to feel the emotion in his voice toward the end, alone on the high wire without a net.
“Hold On” is beautiful just as a solo electric guitar and vocal mix. “I Found Out” is an alternate vision of the song with funky congas changing up the vibe. Lennon breaks into some rock ’n roll oldies during the ensuing jam session — this would have been an amazing song for Lennon to play live!
The “Jews Harp” boinging in the background behind “Remember” is a fascinating timekeeper, establishing a bouncing beat reminiscent of McCartney’s bridge section on The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” The extra resolution on the Blu-ray Disc version is important here as the harp is more audible their than on the CD — at roughly four times the resolution of a CD, this is an easy to comprehend example of what the 192 kHz, 24 bit version delivers.
The elements take of “God” places Lennon’s voice in an enormous echo chamber! His vocal approach is completely different, almost like a quiet church prayer vs. the soul-torching take that ended up on the final take.
“Cold Turkey” without vocals is tremendous. Listen for the ring of Ringo’s snare drum and bits of sweet feedback chiming from the guitars. Ringo’s kick drum and Klaus’ bass are way up in the mix, making it very powerful on the low end. This sounds especially great on the Blu-ray Disc.
THE RAW MIXES
These versions may actually rock a bit more than the regular album given they are unencumbered by any real production beyond how the microphones were set up. Each song is mixed raw without effects, tape delays or reverbs. In someways, these raw mixes are more pure John Lennon without the relative vagueness of Phil Spector’s aesthetics.
Lennon could have put out Plastic Ono Band like this back in the day and it would have perhaps shocked even more. When you hear his throat-tearing vocals on “Mother” you realize that most of the sound of Plastic Ono Band was nailed down before Spector added his final touches. “Remember” is remarkable as it rocks madly stripped naked to its core.
Disc 6 features fun outtake jams from the session with John and the band letting loose working through some rock ’n roll oldies. Included are “Johnny B. Goode” and “Ain’t That A Shame.” They break out a track the early pre-fame Beatles used to do live called “Glad All Over” (there are BBC recordings of them doing this, with George singing). And there are neat oddities like “Lost John” and The Weavers’ traditional folk classic “Goodnight Irene.” We even get treated to an early acoustic guitar version of a song that ended up on the Imagine album, “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier,” which sounds more like the Grateful Dead than an ex-Beatle!
THE EVOLUTION MIXES
As in the prior Imagine boxed set, here in this new Plastic Ono Band collection we get a series of fascinating audio-only quasi documentaries. Here the producers take you through the formation of each track leading up to the final take. Its fun hearing John working out “Hold On,” even getting a little playful along the way. “Isolation” with the organ at the start of the song is a fascinating church-like variant.
It is also wonderful to hear John interacting with Yoko from the mixing booth on these recordings. Along the way she offers great input to what Lennon was trying to accomplish and clearly has solid working knowledge of the studio process even that early on in their relationship.
Speaking of Yoko, there is a fascinating bonus Blu-ray Disc in the set which I am still exploring featuring her complete live sessions with the band. These tracks became the basis for her first solo album, also titled Plastic Ono Band and featuring a similar cover design to Lennon’s release here. Once I get deeper into this I plan to write a follow on review as I also recently picked up one of the nice vinyl reissues of her album on vinyl issued on the Secretly Canadian label. More on that soon…
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 100-plus page hardcover book included in the set. This is essential reading as it goes into remarkable micro-detail on all the facets of the set as well as insights into what was going on in John & Yoko’s universe at the time.
Included is fascinating information on the genesis of the Plastic Ono Band name as a group, what it meant and how it was brought out to the world at the time — finally, we get some understanding of the cover image on the “Give Peace A Chance” single!
The pictures alone are a fantastic treat, everything from original tape box shots to period pix of John and the band members. Klaus Voormann even contributed drawings he’d made from the sessions (Beatle fans know he drew the iconic cover for The Beatles’ Revolver album).
You also get a wonderful “War Is Over (If You Want It) poster and postcards featuring art from Lennon’s early singles from this period.
So… wow! Plastic Ono Band is 50 years old and sounds more vital than ever. And now we have this fantastic periscope into Lennon’s artistic creative process which will no doubt be important to music scholars and Beatle-philes for ages to come.