'I always wrote about me when I could. I didn't really enjoy writing third-person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first-person music.' We didn't enjoy hearing this in 1970, when John Lennon said it in the course of Jann Wenner's 'Rolling Stone' Interviews. It was bad enough that Lennon had left the beloved Beatles to work with a Japanese-born conceptual artist, living in beds and bags and producing minimalist packages of photographs and recorded shrieks. But that he should seem to be promising more songs on the pattern laid down by the Plastic Ono Band album, a collection which had proved morbid, hectoring and pathetic by turns - well, this represented a doomier start to the decade than we felt we deserved. Besides, the allusion to songs about people in concrete flats seemed an unnecessarily explicit rejection of Paul McCartney, whose favoured vein that had sometimes been, in songs like 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Penny Lane'. McCartney's compassionate tableaux and jaunty ballads, to be sure, were usually light and occasionally trite as well, but they were at least articulate. Lennon had turned away from verbal play into the Primal Scream therapy of Dr Arthur Janov - seen by Lennon's public at best as a fashionable bolt-hole for the rich hysteric, and at worst as a profiteering alliance between phoney art and phoney medicine: Yoko and some quacks bleeding our John. It was an uncharitable attitude, but the evidence that informed it survives. The John/Yoko courtship albums are as vacuous as ever, and even the Plastic Ono record, it still seems to me, is emotional detritus barely shovelled along by music.
LRB 5 February 1981 | PDF Download