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The making of John Lennon's "Love": Inside the Plastic Ono Band sessions

by Patrick Cadogan ("The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years")

(Thanks to Patrick Cadogan, author of "The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years", for this exclusive essay.)

When John Lennon wrote “Love,” a song in which he attempted to define the concept of “love,” he used an acoustic guitar and captured the completed song idea on a home demo tape recorded at the Primal Therapy Institute in Los Angeles, California circa July 1970. Entering EMI’s Abbey Road Studios three months later to speedily record his debut solo LP Plastic Ono Band, “Love” was one of the few tracks that required a “remake,” with the arrangement eventually moving from a finger-picking acoustic guitar backing to a more piano-based backing. As the session began, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector sat in the control room, with John playing acoustic guitar and singing into a studio microphone. Unlike the later Beatles sessions where an instrumental version of the song would first be recorded with vocals overdubbed later, here John wanted to capture the song live off the floor.

Take 1

“I have them all around in case of inspiration,” Lennon says as the sound of papers shuffling on a stand was captured on the mic. “Come on, come on, stop that,” he says, before laughing and uttering, “Fuck!” With that, he launches into take 1. He uses a simple finger-picking style on the acoustic while singing a live vocal. He has some difficulty with hitting the right notes on the guitar and makes a noticeable mistake, causing him to stop at the line “reaching love.” He snorts a laugh, saying, “I was thinking about me bum guitar note.”

Take 2

He launches straight into another take, which later was released on Lennon Anthology (along with the very end of the previous take). He completes what turns out to be the best of the “acoustic only” takes, with a solid vocal and only minor fumbles on the guitar. He plucks out some high notes on his acoustic and remarks to Yoko, “It’s a bit stiff.” Yoko asks what he means. “Oh,” he says, “it’s when I get into it, this guitar, it’s too stiff for this one, you see…could you give me the other guitar, Yoko?” He gets a smaller acoustic guitar. “Are you just taking it and that? Okay. See, look,” he says as he begins strumming. “This little guitar is easier to play, you see, I don’t have to think of the bass notes so much. Is that alright?”

Take 3

John begins to play and sing, but stops at the first line, “Love is real.”

Take 4

He launches into another take right away, but stops again in the same place. “Shit,” he mutters.

Take 5

The sound of the guitar is noticeably different and not as full as the larger guitar. John is clearly not delivering a master take, but is almost rehearsing. He gets to “reaching love,” laughs and stops again. “That wasn’t very good,” he says. “I just can’t get in this mood, you see, this…”

Take 6

He starts a slower take strumming the acoustic rather than using a finger-picking style. This approach sounds similar to that with which “Look At Me” would be recorded. When he reaches the song’s climax (“we can be”) he sings loudly into the mic. He completes the take, ending it in a similar fashion to take 2.

Take 7

An even slower take as John tries to get into the mood of the song. He hits a wrong chord around “love is asking” and stops, launching into a blues riff.

Take 12

The tape picks up with engineer Phil MacDonald announcing take 12. John strums another acoustic guitar, with a light sound suitable for strumming. John has asked Phil Spector to join him on piano. “Tell us what the piano on that sounds like Yoko, it sounds nice to me.” She begins to answer him, but he cuts her off. “Yes okay, don’t shout,” he remarks as he listens to her through headphones. He counts in and begins strumming and singing a take. When Spector begins playing John stops to comment, “Yeah, can you do that? See that’s the only reason…those bits, ‘love is real, real is love.’” They play a bit more of the song and John corrects Phil: “No, it goes D minor, ‘wanting’…it’s after I sing ‘to be loved.’” They start playing again at “love is touch.” John’s voice cracks at the climax of the song and Phil begins stumbling a bit over the notes. They get to the end of the song and Phil plays some arpeggio notes. “How’s it sound?” John asks. “Shitty,” says Phil. “Come on,” John replies. Yoko offers her feedback, mostly audible only to the studio players, but it concerns taking out Phil's piano part. “Come on, he’s playing the right bits alright,” John says. Phil joins in: “We’ll overdub it then, alright?” John disagrees: “No, ‘cause we’ll probably get a feel for it if they can get it.” John gets a bit agitated. “Well look--” The tape then cuts off.

Take 13

MacDonald announces take 13. “Okay, should we take one?” John says. “Let him just be natural and we’ll come and listen.” John strums his guitar and intros the song: “Sam and the Blue Funk Riders present ‘Love,’ take 1.” He counts in and they launch right into the song (which at this point still lacks the distinctive piano introduction). The song sounds fuller with the piano accompaniment, which adds more bass. They complete the take. “I fuckin’ hit so many bad notes,” Phil remarks and John laughs.

Take 14

Phil plays the song at a jaunty, fast pace with John on acoustic and John improvises some “French” lyrics for about half a minute. “Let’s go,” John prompts. Take 14 is announced. “Will you give me some more volume in the earphones?” Phil asks. John is surprised: “Really? You’re kidding, aren’t you?” But Phil explains: “I don’t want to hear myself.”
JOHN: “More volume you said, we’re very loud…It’s very loud that…”
PHIL: “Yes, now the piano is too loud.”
JOHN: “Too loud, the piano.”

They head into take 14, but they stop early at “feeling love.” “It was me,” John says of the wrong chord that was hit.

Take 15

John listens to Yoko, who tells them they are playing the song too fast. John comments on the fact that he is standing up to play. “I know,” he replies, “I need a fucking strap, I can’t just stand there. I can’t relax here stood up here like a fuckin’ nightclub singer. I feel like the guest show on Johnny Cash like this. Okay, we’ll try and do it slower. Okay, well you put us on and we’ll keep taking it.” John then mentions Mal Evans, who would later be credited on the LP for “tea and sympathy.” “If you see Mal, tell him I need a guitar strap,” John says, “I need a strap or a tall seat or a lowering [of] the mics.” He launches into a half-hearted take and continues to sing only to Phil’s accompaniment. “Thanks,” he says to someone who has entered the studio and granted his request. He begins strumming the guitar in the song, joining with Phil. More of a rehearsal take than a serious one. They end the song and John says, “Let me tune with you then, Phil.” They do some tuning. John remarks at the number of microphones present in the studio: “With all these mics on the guitar…are you doing it stereo or something? Is he gone?” John was evidently expecting to mix the song into mono, not surprising given the presence of Phil “Back to Mono” Spector in the sessions.

Take 16

They begin another rehearsal take, and John experiments with different strumming styles. They stop playing completely at the song’s climax rather than playing all the way through, where it is sustained only by John’s voice. “Are we taking these, what’s going on? Oh, you’ve been taking them! Well, we didn’t know, did we?” asks John. “No,” Phil replies. “Well, it sounded alright,” John remarks. “What’s it sound like? Philip? Yoko? Somebody?” Phil asks.

Take 17

“I liked the one where you played an intro,” John says. They do an introductory instrumental portion, with both John and Phil playing. “That wasn’t as good as the other,” John says. “‘Cause I don’t know what to do with the last half,” Phil admits. “I want to underplay on the left hand.” “No, you were playing alright,” John reassures him. “Okay. You don’t have to worry about the left hand because I’m your left hand.”

Take 18

They begin to play an intro, with Phil taking his piano part half seriously. “Oh no, I fucked it,” John says as he stops playing. He instructs Phil: “Just play it straight.” “Yes,” Phil agrees. “Fucking pervert,” John says with a laugh.

Take 19

They launch into another take with Phil’s piano part being more sparse than it would later become. The song is beginning to take shape, with John devoting more effort to his vocal. “I fucked up at the end,” Phil says. “Yeah,” says John, “it’s the ‘living love,’ you think it’s the end there. Never mind.” They discuss how Phil’s piano part should be played. “Do you want a copy of the words there?” John asks. “I know ‘em,” Phil says. “It just helps you glance,” replies John. The tape cuts out.

Take 20

John hits upon the final idea for the song’s introduction: “Without me at the beginning it would be lovely. If I could just play that fuckin’ free. Just play the tune and roll it, you know.” Phil begins playing the familiar intro. “Like that?” he asks. John begins to strum a bit. “Let’s start,” John says, “Let’s take one.”

Take 21

Phil thinks he has forgotten what he has just played on the piano. “What are we doing? I can’t play that like that again. I’ll never do it again!” Phil says to John. “Yes you can,” John replies. Phil starts the intro on his own, which then ends completely as John begins singing and playing. Phil experiments a bit with the notes he is playing and John extends some of the vocal notes.

Take 22

Phil starts the intro again, where he plays slightly different notes and stops. “Fuck off,” he says at his mix-up. Take 23

Phil asks if these rehearsals are being recorded: “Are we taking this?” John replies in the affirmative: “Every golden moment,” he says. “Ah shit,” Phil replies. Phil launches right into the song, and his intro varies slightly from the LP version. John’s vocal is getting softer and closer to how it would eventually sound on the finished song. After the song ends, John asks, “How was it?”

Take 24?

Spector plays the intro, in a nearly identical, but slightly slower, fashion to the final LP version. He loses his place and moans “Aaaah fuck,” punching three notes on the piano in frustration. John remarks, “That was beautiful up to there.” “Yeah,” Phil agrees.

Take 25?

John and Phil deliver a flawless take. John later overdubs a second vocal. In the mixing process for the Plastic Ono Band LP, the piano intro is faded in from in complete silence, making most of it inaudible. The piano outro is similarly faded in and out. A mix without this fading was later released as a single in 1982 to promote the John Lennon Collection LP.

Patrick Cadogan is the author of "The Revolutionary Artist: John Lennon's Radical Years"

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