In the months before John Lennon and Yoko Ono entered Abbey Road Studios in London to start work on what would become the album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” the couple were renting a home on Nimes Road in one of LA’s fanciest neighborhoods, Bel-Air.
The Beatles were still the most famous group in the world but were in the midst of breaking up, with members traveling to and from London to finish “Abbey Road,” work on various solo projects for their label Apple Records and argue about release schedules and royalties.
Living along a curvy lane behind walls that afforded complete privacy and overwhelming views of the city, Lennon and Ono were a world away from that drama. They woke to the sounds of chirping birds, sprinklers and lawnmowers, enjoyed their tea alone and, when so inclined, chilled by the pool. Lennon worked on some songs, including “Working Class Hero,” “Mother,” “Well, Well, Well” and “God.”
Then, each morning, Lennon would drive down Beverly Glen to psychologist Arthur Janov’s West Hollywood office, enter a darkened, soundproof room and scream as loudly and violently as he could.
“He used to finish a session feeling incredibly good,” Janov once recalled.
This backdrop set the tone for “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” which came out in December 1970 and is the subject of an exhaustively documented box set just released by Capitol/UME and the Lennon estate. Called “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (The Ultimate Collection),” it comes with six CDs, two Blu-ray discs, a hardbound book, poster and postcards. It’s a revelatory set, especially for those with access to hi-fi gear and a darkened, soundproof room.
Newly mixed to increase Lennon’s vocal presence from fresh high-resolution transfers, the set features 87 recordings that have never been officially released, including rehearsal sessions, demo tapes recorded on Nimes Road and a series of alternative mixes drawn from unused tracks — congas on “Hold On” are a revelation, for example. An accompanying coffee table book, “John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band,” offers an even deeper dive into the couple’s creative partnership.
“During 1970, we did extensive Primal Scream therapy for six months, which was very beneficial for us and many of the songs were inspired as a result of those sessions,” writes Ono in the preface to the coffee table book, adding that “John’s songs were a literate expression of his feelings.” (Ono declined an interview request for this story.)
The result, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” was Lennon’s debut solo album. It was issued the same day as Ono’s companion album, “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band,” and found Lennon in an intimate setting with a few friends purging unfiltered emotions into songs about “freaks on the phone,” isolation, leaders who “tortured and scared you for 20-odd years” and his lack of belief in, among concepts, Jesus, magic, Adolf Hitler, the I-Ching, the Buddha, yoga, kings and the Beatles.
“He had changed a hell of a lot because of this primal scream thing and that was really heavy,” says Klaus Voormann, who played bass on the album, on the phone from Germany. “It was heavy for him, it was heavy for Yoko and it was heavy for us.”
As with most things Beatle-related, the critics loved Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” when it came out. Creem’s Dave Marsh wrote that it was “interesting and even enlightening to see a man working out his trauma on black plastic but more than that, it’s totally enthralling to see that Lennon has once again unified, to some degree, his life and his music into a truly whole statement.”