From the Beatles in Hamburg to the Plastic Ono Band
Klaus Voormann first saw John Lennon in Hamburg’s red light district while watching The Beatles in the fall of 1960. As he watched the band pitch their rudimentary rock’n’roll to a crowd of sailors, drunks and sex workers, a feeling came from Lennon: “He was an arrogant rocker.”
The German musician would become friends with the Fab Four at this time and remained a member of their intimate circle during the following decade, during which they conquered the world of music.
After the band split, Voormann continued to perform with Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band, the rotating ensemble that would produce hits such as Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and Give Peace a Chance. A box set for the 50th anniversary of the group’s production has just been released by Lennon’s estate. Of course, an Irish involvement in the Plastic Ono Band came from BP Fallon, who helped the band with their public relations for a time, and can be seen miming on Instant Karma with the band on Top Of The Pops in 1970.
Voormann, 83, recalls how the path to the Ono Band began with Lennon’s discontent in The Beatles, and that he privately declared his intention to split the pioneer group as early as September 1969.
Exactly a year later, Voormann – freshly spending three years with Manfred Mann – found himself in a studio playing bass as half of a rhythm section with Ringo Starr. He remembers how the drummer struggled with a change in Lennon that came after going through primary scream therapy with Yoko Ono.
“Yeah, he (Ringo) was a little upset at first. John and Yoko were so engaged with each other that it wasn’t the same type of work he did at The Beatles; it was just John and Yoko and they were so together that Ringo was a little sad. Later John told him, ‘It’s not just me anymore, it’s Yoko and I, we’re together, it’s different.’
“Ringo hadn’t known a relationship like John and Yoko were, he would be more used to John in a more macho relationship.
Among the issues therapy raised for Lennon was the loss of his mother Julia when he was 17 after she was run over by a police officer on leave; and the long-term absence of his father Alfred. These personal themes have been poured into a cathartic album.
“The subject was not new to me,” Voormann says of Mother. “I learned most of these things from the discussions we had. The song was so strong he tried to describe his injury and how he was left alone. John is able with a few words to pinpoint a certain situation, I wish I could do it but I can’t. I really admire people who can.
Lennon would also express his contempt for the British class system on Working Class Hero. The trail has often led some in the media to dissect Lennon’s social background, perhaps passing by.
“John knew what it was like to be a working class man,” Voormann says. “Of course he had a better life than a lot of people, but there were a lot of people without a lot of money who had a tough life in Liverpool. He knew these types of people and he had the right to write about them. I don’t like songwriters who write about things they don’t know anything about or have no experience of what they’re writing. John never did that, he wrote about things he knew something about.
Prior to working with Lennon, Voormann had already started working on longtime three-player All Things Must Pass by George Harrison, which was rated by many critics as the best solo album of all the Beatles. He will also feature on Ringo Starr’s solo work.
“George would enter the workshop with little sticks, he would light a candle and dim the lights, it was like a small altar. It would take much longer to record. The Beatles were never mentioned, it was time to turn the page and move on.
With Lennon, it was impossible not to notice the strong bond with Ono. “John was counting on Yoko, she was a great catalyst for him most of the time, even with just a few words she was saying the right thing and it wasn’t easy to do.
In addition to touring the Beatles solo albums, Voormann appeared on many other records in the 1970s. “It was like a snowball effect once I played for John and George and I didn’t. could not have been happier, ”he recalls. Carly Simon’s signature You’re So Vain bass intro belongs to him. On Lou Reed’s Transformer album, Voormann performed on Perfect Day and Satellite of Love.
“Lou Reed was fantastic and a lovely person. He was great long before this album, he was underestimated. This project with Bowie and Mick Ronson was a well done record and Lou had such great songs. Walk On The Wild Side, it’s not me who pays but I loved it. He and Bowie got along well and they were always laughing and having fun. It was a weird atmosphere in a great way, they were writing about pimps, crossdressers, etc., that sort of thing.
Outside of the studio, Voormann enjoyed a distinct career as an artist designing album covers. He even won a Grammy Award for his famous design on The Beatles’ Revolver in 1965.
“John called me and I went to the studio and listened to the songs, I was amazed. When I heard Tomorrow Never Knows, I thought of all those little She Loves You Beatles fans. Suddenly you have all these double speed reverse bands with reverse symbols, bird sounds. It was hard work because you have to take care of the young fans and the people who are going to like this new thing, in the end, that’s what I did with the portraits of the boys with a lot of hair.
Voormann appreciated the perspective of a remarkable insider, even living with George and Ringo in London and later with George in his mansion in Friar’s Park in Henley-on-Thames. He reflects on an angry Beatlemania experience describing it as “horrible”.
“I was in Hammersmith (Odeon) listening to this crazy audience, the outside was a different picture. Beatlemania was like being in a prison, they couldn’t move without the police.
The band’s haircut is attributed to Astrid Kirchherr who, along with Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer, befriended the band in Hamburg. She rejected the notion indicating the popularity of the haircut in Germany. Voormann suggests that a German influence on the band’s aesthetic is most noticeable on the cover of The Beatles For Sale album while hesitating over their silver suits in the years leading up to 1964.
“Those silly costumes; they looked awful, I was like, “What are they wearing now?” ”
Voormann kept in touch with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two appearing on Voormann’s debut solo album, A Sideman’s Journey, in 2009.
“Lately I visited Ringo and nothing has changed; he’s the same person, he’s had a hard time with the cocaine and all that bullshit. I took the picture out during that, there was too much of this and that but he came back and doesn’t drink now either. He eats well, like Paul. When we’re together it’s always great, when Paul gives a concert nearby in Germany, he takes care of me and Ringo does the same.
A long and winding road indeed.
- John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band – The Ultimate Collection is out now