Klaus Voormann was there at the very beginning of The Beatles' story, and he was there at the end, too.
The German artist was amongst the coterie of Hamburg bohemians drawn to the raw appeal of the Liverpool group, and remained close to the band through their extraordinary rise.
Famously designing the iconic cover for The Beatles' album 'Revolver', he was also a talented musician, scoring UK chart hits with Manfred Mann.
Until a fateful phone call from John Lennon came his way, and Klaus was invited to board a plane for an ad hoc performance in Toronto.
Rehearsing on the flight over, this trans-Atlantic improvisation eventually settled into the Plastic Ono Band, the ever-evolving coterie who surrounded and augmented John Lennon and Yoko Ono's solo desires.
A new box set brings the 1970 album 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' into focus once more, an extraordinary document that takes you right into the studio as John Lennon pushes the band forwards.
Guests include Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr, while the material would be marked the experiences John Lennon and Yoko Ono underwent as part of the controversial 'primal scream' therapy.
Riveting, soul-bearing stuff, it touches on loss, love, and personal transformation, while also hinting at the outspoken politics which would mark aspects of John Lennon's future solo albums 'Imagine' and 'Some Time In New York City'.
Klaus Voormann looks back on those sessions - and more - with Clash.
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How does it feel to look back on those times?
Oh it’s very warm. Actually, I feel like they did this whole box set just for me! There’s so many things I’ve forgotten about, and can’t even remember. My memory was that all these sessions went really quick, but now I realise we were sitting there for a long time, John was contemplating it all. And it’s great to listen to those things! The music brings back great memories, much more so than the record itself… and the record itself is great anyway. But really, this is such a fantastic addition.
It’s an absolute treasure trove, for sure! You had just enjoyed success with Manfred Mann when John Lennon phoned and asked you to join – what was that like?
It’s great. It started with the Toronto concert. And then things came together, and we stayed in contact. Of course, we only did ‘Instant Karma’ and then he went to Los Angeles and did the Primal Scream thing… and when they came back it was so emotional, it was so amazing to see those people so close together. They really were… for me, it was like an open wound. They crawled back into the womb, and experienced all this. It’s hard for people to imagine what they went through. That’s all on this record – John wanted to get it out of his system as quick as he possibly can.
There was a visible change in John and Yoko on their return?
Definitely. They were happy! Really, really happy. They were worked up. Laughing, screaming, crying, hugging each other.. all those things in one. It was a big emotional burst out, I would say!
He wanted to work quickly – was that challenging for you as a musician?
Well, I found out in the box set that it wasn’t so quick! We got into each song separately and got into the mood and tried different things, different timings. I had forgotten about all that! This box set really brings it back. And this is great for me to know how vulnerable John still was, because he was uncertain but he had these songs and he wanted to get them on tape, and that’s how he got the band together. And I’m happy he picked Ringo and me! It was just incredible. The best trio there is, y’know? So much fun. And it’s so simple what we play. I only play a few notes, but it was fun. It was great.
Do you think John and Yoko wanted that simplicity? To sit alongside the raw songwriting?
Oh definitely. When you have a band, and you’ve got three pianos, say, and all these other instruments, it gets in the way of the message you want to get across. John had so much to say, that just through playing his guitar, and singing the song… that was a lot. The song itself. And now, he just had this minimal little trio that just added this little bit – Ringo hit a nice groove, and I played a few notes. It’s all he needed. And his guitar playing – John’s guitar playing, in particular his rhythm guitar playing – is just incredible. I love it!
The lyrics are brutally honest, but emotionally you feel as though John was in a good place in his life during these sessions?
As soon as Yoko came in the picture John changed. He started being happy! And now they went through this primal scream, which was another addition for both of them. And they both went through this together. They saw each other going through these stages and that of course opened them up even more. They’re still vulnerable, still somehow hurt by this experience, but they tried to get it straight by doing this record.
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You mentioned ‘Instant Karma’ which became one of John’s key solo songs – can you remember recording it?
Oh yes, it was amazing! You see, there was this little man in the control room, who would say something every so often. And we’d be like: who is that guy? No one introduced me to him. We were in the studio just playing, and we got a nice groove going, and John played the piano, I played the bass, Alan White was on drums… and then this guy came in, said a few things, then went back. I asked John: is this OK, what I’m playing? He says: oh yeah, just great!
I would look at the control room and all these lights were blinking, all these tape machines, the whole room was filled up with gadgets. I thought: what’s this? And then, this little man goes to the desk and turns up the volume full throttle and plays ‘Instant Karma’… and you can’t believe what that feeling was. It was just incredible. It’s hard to imagine – some people listen to records loud, or though headphones, but this was… unbelievable.
And I thought: OK, this guy must be Phil Spector!
Did you speak to Phil Spector directly? Or was he a figure ‘behind the glass’ at the recordings?
In this particular case he was very quiet, said a few things, and got it all together. The main thing he did was talking to the engineer, and working with gadgets. I’d see that, but I didn’t know it was Phil Spector until I heard that sound… and it was just incredible!
John’s lyrics are incredibly revealing on this record, what was it like as a friend to see first-hand how this effected him?
Each song was different. And each song showed it was a very personal record. It was what he was feeling at that particular time. And that’s the great thing about the gift that not many people have… to be able, with just a few words, to say so much. And really nail it down to the point. That’s his strength. Not many people can do that. It’s really a gift. Each song is different, and the emotions were different. I had to just join in – I had to listen to the words, and I had to listen to the way he was performing it. We know – both Ringo and me – what we had to do. Sometimes we had to find a certain groove, but most of the time we knew what we had to do.
Throughout this period John is very open about his political beliefs, is that something that he brought into the studio? Did those discussions take place while you were making the music?
On this particular record, no. I would say they were so much involved with themselves. The whole idea of it was to get their own thing out of the system. OK, ‘Working Class Hero’ steps out of that, but apart from that song it’s all about his feelings and his life.
The Beatles retired from performing live in 1966 – when John went back out onstage it must have been an intimidating thing for him. What did you notice about his performances?
I mean, the shows were amazing. Take Toronto – can you imagine, a member of the Beatles, going up onstage in front of a crowd who want to see The Beatles… and he goes up there with a band who have never rehearsed together, didn’t even know each other? We’re there onstage performing rock ‘n’ roll songs – nothing to do with The Beatles! The audience was very kind, they were happy John was there, but it was crazy! How much guts do you have to have, to do that kind of performance?
The sheer risk must have been exhilarating!
My God, you can’t think of those things… you just try to do your best at the time! I kept thinking, is this really true? Am I really here onstage with John Lennon and Eric Clapton? Before, I was with Manfred Mann… now I was up there with those guys! I realised all this much later, but at the time I just had to do as good as I possibly can, to be a good servant!
Was it very much John and Yoko’s vision, then, rather than a fully collaborative experience?
Yes. This is different. Even if you have a band like The Beatles, if John Lennon or Paul McCartney comes into the studio, he doesn’t want Ringo to feature himself. Egos are left behind in the studio. Of course, you work together, and you do things, but if the song is from John then John does his song! It’s all face to face. Maybe you’ll sing the harmony but you’re still a servant to John’s song. And that’s the same here. John is performing, he’s singing, and we are servants. That’s how I see that.
Something like ‘Cold Turkey’ must have been astonishingly intense to record.
We did that onstage in Toronto. When we rehearsed on the plane he tried to tell us about the song, and we heard the lyrics, and I thought: my God, what a shame, I wish we could really rehearse the song and do it right! And then, when we went to the studio with Ringo drumming, and John playing rhythm guitar, and Eric playing his guitar… I double tracked my bass, so I was both in the left and the right. It had this haunting feel, and that’s exactly what the track needed. I think it’s a great record.
Does the new box set bring those sonic details to the fore?
The box set now really opens it up. I don’t know how many people will have the patience to listen to it all, but for me – as part of it – I love John, and I love Yoko, and I love Ringo, and it was such a great feeling. Now this record is really like they did it for me! I’ve had so much fun listening to it, I’m so happy this box set has come out.
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Do you keep in touch with Ringo?
Oh yeah. I should write to him, really. I’ve been doing these interviews, and I feel I should write and tell him how much I enjoyed playing with him! But sometimes we see each other. I visit in Los Angeles if he’s around, and we went up to Hamburg not that long ago, to see the Reeperbahn and the old places. We were walking around the Reeperbahn together, which was great. It’s always great to see him.
And Ringo is still making music – he released a lockdown EP recently!
I know! It’s fantastic. He told me a long, long time ago… I’m gonna play the drums until I’m dead!
You go straight into the studio after this album with Yoko, to record something totally different.
The great thing was that when we finished John’s LP we went and did Yoko’s. And that was so loose, and so much fun. John was just canoodling on his guitar, doing his stuff. There’s a song on there called ‘Why Not?’ and it’s a slow song – Ringo put the beat down, then John started playing, and then Yoko started to join in, doing this really quiet singing… it’s really fantastic! It’s so good. And those tracks really went on like that. Sometimes it was fast, like a train was rolling in! But it was really incredible. It was more relaxing after John’s thing. We were all tight, and played really good – there’s a lot of mistakes on it, but it doesn’t matter. With Yoko it was really easy going. It was fun all the way.
As a musician, Yoko Ono was years ahead of her time. It remains very challenging to some, and at the time it went over some people’s heads.
I see it two ways. Yoko does things which I love. For example, she went onstage – I saw a live performance – and she talked with the audience, and said: “When I am singing, I’m in this tunnel… I’m going through this tunnel. And I want you to come with me through the tunnel.” And I think that’s a great statement. Bit by bit she learned how to cope, and make contact with an audience.
What she does – the screaming and all those noises – people don’t understand what she’s trying to do, it’s so far away from pop music. There’s this woman suddenly screaming… but it took people a long time to understand that she’s in a completely different boat. But she’s great. I love Yoko – she’s fantastic. The funny thing is, she does these things which are so bold, but at the same time she’s very, very sensitive. She can be very delicate and very, very sensitive. And people don’t know that side, because they’ve never seen it.
Those albums were released as The Beatles were coming to an end, were you aware of that from speaking to them individually?
No surprise at all. I knew about it, and I saw how they were going their own way. Everybody was going in a different direction. It was impossible. They were really professional. If you think of the last LPs – like ‘Abbey Road’, it’s a great record, it’s very professional, it has great songs, it’s well played, but the band didn’t exist any more. It’s just a good, very professionally done job. If the song is good – and they had three great songwriters in the band – they could do something, do a good job with it. That’s what they do.
Was it a sad time, then? Or was it a happy time for those musicians to finally focus on their solo projects?
Well, for the Beatles’ fans it was sad. For me, it wasn’t sad at all, as it had been over for a long time. I knew they were going to be productive for a long time. I’m more than happy that they actually involved me in their projects! If it was Ringo or George or John. That’s not the only things I played on, but those are three of the main people I played with, so it’s just fantastic! They got me really going.
To bring things up to date, what do you have planned for this coming year?
Well, I have no music projects right now. I don’t play music any more, I don’t do that. It’s a bit of a shame… if I saw Ringo then I’d love to play, but apart from that I don’t see any reason to carry on. All I’m doing is graphic arts. And I’m very happy – I’m doing record covers. I’m actually working on a cover for The Scorpions right now.
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'John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band - The Ultimate Collection' is out now.
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