If you’re an analog, aka vinyl lover, I’ll cut to the big magilla: John Lennon’s remastered solo debut LP, Plastic Ono Band, humiliates the original 1970 US pressing. The new pressing, which I assume was cut from files, is clean and crisp up-top, warm and transparent in the mids, and warmly thick in the low end, far from neutral, but par for the course with today’s vinyl rock reissues which amp up the bass, first and foremost. The new pressing is equally fat sounding and see-through. Lennon’s vocals are so intimate, well textured, and clean, they’re spooky. Ringo Starr’s drums have greater depth and snap, as does
Klaus Voormann’s electric bass. Lennon’s piano is big, resounding, and at times, crushing. The vinyl reissue is a full-on winner.
Words by Ken Micallef
I own two copies of the domestic 1970 release–a misprint that includes one side of John Lennon, the other, Yoko Ono, and a second, correct track and title release. Anyway, the original domestic release sounded like it was recorded, mixed, and mastered in a tin can, and pressed from tin masters! It’s a horribly tinny recording.
In the modern era of deluxe reissues, however, some asking $100 apiece when cut from “one step” masters (FYI, Craft’s “Small Batch” reissue of John Coltrane’s Lush Life pales next to original Prestige pressing) or asking hundreds of dollars when remastered from original tapes and cut using lathes manufactured from vintage parts, a straight-up, somewhat affordable CD and LP reissue set is a welcome thing. Remixed by triple GRAMMY®-Award winning engineer Paul Hicks, accompanied by mixers/engineers Rob Stevens and Sam Gannon, The Ultimate Collection is a feast for Lennon fans, audiophiles, and anyone interested in the history of pop music, with the individual Beatles still at its center, amazingly, 50 years after the group disbanded. Ok, warm up your wallet.
The Plastic Ono Band Sets
The complete Ultimate Collection is priced at $134.84. The two-CD set is $21.99, the two-LP set, $62.99,
with original sleeve art.
The full-monty, six-CD and book, The Ultimate Collection set, released April 23rd , includes:
- Six CDs containing 6 hours 18 mins of music: 102 tracks in 44.1kHz/16bit stereo
- Two Blu-Ray audio discs containing over 11 hours of music: 159 tracks of high-definition, studio quality 192kHz/24bit audio, including mixes in Stereo, 5.1 Surround and Dolby Atmos
- 132-page book with “lyrics, rare photos, tape box images, memorabilia and extensive notes”
- Poster: “WAR IS OVER! (IF YOU WANT IT) Love and Peace from John & Yoko”
- Two Postcards: “Who Are The Plastic Ono Band?” and “You Are The Plastic Ono Band”
If you’re not aware of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band masterwork, a raw, confessional, stripped-down, largely trio recording, you should be. Plastic Ono Band contained the anthem, “Working Class Hero,” mini John-and-Yoko romance novels, “Love” and “Hold On,” the ear- and throat-shattering “Mother,” sex rave-up “Well, Well, Well,” and dream-smashing, cathartic wake-up call, “I Found Out.” Lennon’s solo debut is an essential musical document at the border between the 1960s and ’70s. Years before John Lennon went soft with the peace-and-love, new age-espousing Imagine album, or wasted opportunities like the lost-weekend-worthlessness of Rock ‘N’ Roll, or the easy-listening bliss of the doomed Double Fantasy, Lennon reinvented himself as a rock and roll poet cum punk: the post-Beatles messiah who refused the crown.
While Paul McCartney went to his Scottish farm to make babies and hone his one-man band approach, Lennon gathered producer Phil Spector, bassist Klaus Voormann, keyboardist Billy Preston, and drummer Ringo Starr at EMI Studios 2 and 3, Abbey Road, London. Perhaps unencumbered by memories of The Beatles, Lennon went straight for the jugular, recording 10 songs of gentle beauty, seething power, and lasting relevance. “Remember” still rocks hard. “Oh My Love” is as pure and undefiled as “Across the Universe” or “Julia.” “I Found Out” pummels the senses, a proto punk, bump-and-grind workout that includes the heart-shattering lyric, “My folks didn’t want me, so they made me a star.”
Three John Lennon singles released in 1969 laid the groundwork for Plastic Ono Band: top 40 US hit, “Give Peace A Chance,” vomit-laden, heroin detox tribute “Cold Turkey,” and one of the greatest singles of all time: “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).” Lennon also released three avant-garde albums with Yoko prior to 1970: Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album, and the live concert album, Live Peace In Toronto 1969, propelled by then heroin-junkie guitarist, Eric Clapton, with bassist Klaus Voormann and drummer Alan White.
“Everything in this expansive box set has been newly mixed from scratch from brand new 192kHz/24bit hi-res transfers,” states the PR literature. “In addition to the various new mixes, the set boasts 87 never-before-heard recordings.” Capitol/UME isn’t fooling around, giving Lennon fans everything they could possibly want. The new “Ultimate Mixes” set remixes the originals, putting “John’s vocals front and center and sonically upgrading the sound.” True! The “Elements Mixes” “isolate certain elements from the multitrack recordings to reveal deeper levels of detail and clarity.” The “Raw Studio Mixes” allow “listeners to experience the moment John and the Plastic Ono Band recorded each song, mixed raw and live without effects, tape delays or reverbs.”
“The Evolutionary Documentary” is a song-by-song, track-by-track audio montage that details the “evolution of each song from demo to master recording via [Lennon’s] instructions, rehearsals, recordings, multitrack exploration and studio chatter.” Further, the Blu-rays “present an array of listening options including high-definition, studio quality 192kHz/24bit audio in stereo and enveloping 5.1 Surround and Dolby Atmos mixes.”
Honestly, I’m a stone Lennon fan and I only got the vinyl (180gm vinyl, booklet, and WAR IS OVER! Poster), which, like the two-CD set, includes a second disc of studio outtakes. But on deeper inspection, the various mixes not only bring the listener closer to John Lennon and his music, but the arranging process with surprising alternate mixes of practically every track. When you have money, brilliant musicians, a famous producer, and an inspired musical genius overseeing it all, one mix was obviously not enough.
The Alternative Mixes of John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band
The alternate mixes are in many instances, as good if not better, than the commercial releases. I reviewed the release from downloaded files, which sound fantastic, removing any barrier between John Lennon and listener. The “Ultimate Mixes” do exactly that. “Hold On, John” is sweet, sweaty, and sexy. The acoustic guitar of “Working Class Hero” has newfound bite and resonance. “Remember” stomps and shakes like some demented ice cream truck rolling down the block, its soaring harmony vocal bridge recalling the best bits of Lennon and McCartney’s collaboration on “Let It Be,” newly clean and driving in the “Ultimate Mixes.” “God” has all the cheeky grandiosity of a Maurice Chevalier musical, Lennon’s reverb-laden voice thick and weird, equal parts Elvis Presley and croaking, hoarse Baptist preacher. Pure majesty.
The “Ultimate” mix of “Cold Turkey” blisters and bruises, shrapnel guitar blasting from the right channel, Lennon’s worried tremolo shivering like a moving disease, newly clean, dark, and visceral. The outtake remix of “Cold Turkey” is more fun and sleeker than the original, with playful stereo guitars and experimental keyboards. The outtake “Ultimate Mix” of “Instant Karma!” is more bass-heavy and driving, stripped down with slightly different lyrics and modified arrangement.
The “Elements Mixes” are revelatory, starting with Lennon’s solo vocal in “Mother,” equally pleading, provocative, and bleeding, confirming his standing as rock’s greatest vocalist, bar none. “Isolation” is newly wet and immediate. Here, Lennon’s in the room. “Instant Karma!” speaks anew, reverb gone, Lennon, Plastic Ono Band, and chorus in your face. One of Lennon’s greatest singles, the “Elements Mix” version gives new insight into “Instant Karma”’s power, physical placement of the vocal chorus, and rumbling instrumentation.
The “Evolution Documentary” portion of the set is also revealing, as we hear John Lennon discussing the songs’ progress with the musicians, alternate lyrics, playful arrangements, and goofball vocals. Inclusion “jams” of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Glad All Over,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and an “Elvis Parody” would have been better left out.
And there’s another new set of mixes for the “Exclusive to Blu-ray” tracks, which may work best as background music for that Tanzania safari you’ve been planning. Yoko’s “Touch Me” and “Paper Shoes” are an absolute blast, however. Too bad for the haters; Yoko was years ahead of punk, noise merchants, and grunge, spewing savage inculcations that sound more relevant in today’s world than the era of post-‘60s good vibrations. John Lennon was a seer, knowing the worth and power of Yoko’s artistry, the ignorant and oppressive be damned.
John Lennon and Plastic Ono Band
Your choice of Plastic Ono Band investment may depend on various factors. Fans who enjoyed the original album may be happy with the double vinyl or two-CD set. Vinyl-only purchasers will be pleased. But once you begin roaming through the various mixes and sonic treatments within the six-CD set (never mind the book, which I assume has great photos and liner notes), one track leads to the next, surprises around every file or CD insertion.
For $134 (Amazon), John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’s The Ultimate Collection is a success, perhaps a future heirloom which honors John Lennon, revealing all his mighty, post-Beatles music and magic formerly left on the cutting room floor.
[We’d like to welcome Ken Micallef back to Part-Time Audiophile. Ken used to contribute the Vinyl Grouch column to PTA, and now he returns with a new take on music, called Jazz Files. Before you complain about John Lennon not being jazz, this is Plastic Ono Band–Ed.]