John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’: Klaus Voormann on Making the Classic Album and Why a New Boxed Set is Essential

A new boxed set expands Lennon's 1970 breakout album. The man sometimes referred to as a "fifth Beatle" looks back on playing bass on Lennon's landmark, and shares his illustrations from that period.

beatles art box set
Courtesy Universal Music

As far as “fifth Beatles” go, Klaus Voormann has forever been at the top of that elite list. Along with being an intimate part of the pre-Fab Four’s Hamburg circle, his trio Paddy, Klaus & Gibson was taken under the wings of Beatles manager Brian Epstein upon Voormann’s arrival to Great Britain. The bassist/graphic artist continued his collaboration with the Beatles team, famously, by crafting the immediately epic mix of illustration and collage cover art for their “Revolver” album in 1966, not long before joining Manfred Mann. Though he had gone off and joined the Mann clan, Voormann remained friends with the Beatles, together and separately — most particularly George Harrison, with whom he collaborated on 1970’s “All Things Must Pass,” and John Lennon.

In 1969, Voormann became a member of Lennon’s hastily gathered ensemble for his and Yoko Ono’s “Live Peace in Toronto” performance with Eric Clapton and Alan White, a band with but one rehearsal en route to Canada. With Starr then joining Voormann to form Lennon/Ono’s taut rhythm section, Voormann was an essential part of 1970’s “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band,” an album whose freshly remastered, eight-disc super deluxe box, “The Ultimate Collection,” is now out via Capitol/UMe. Lennon once described his solo breakout as “the best thing I’ve ever done,” and Voormann seconds that emotion. He spoke about the old album’s new sound during a lengthy conversation from his studios near Munich, where he is putting the finishing touches on cover art for an upcoming Scorpions album.

VARIETY: We could talk forever about a million things, but having you as we do for the 1969-1970 Lennon/Ono period, let’s start with the trajectory of how your relationship with the Beatles and Brian Epstein moved from the days in Hamburg to when you got to London.

VOORMANN: Uh-huh. That’s a lot. We stayed in close contact after Hamburg. When I was still there, we got letters from them in England. Paul wrote a letter and would send a record. John made funny remarks and drawings. They were happy to become friends with us in Hamburg as they had no one else — no mom or dads or uncles, nothing. They were happy to have us, and we took them around. Eventually I made a decision to come to England. I talked to George on the phone, and he told me to come stay with him, which is how I got to Greene Street, their apartment. They hadn’t changed much since getting to know them in Hamburg; they were still these lovely little guys. I was scared, actually, that they would have changed. Their lives became different, more difficult, having to film “A Hard Day’s Night.” Get up early to shoot – I would travel with them on the train. I watched them record in the studio. But they embraced me, even though I still had nothing to do with music.

So how did you fall into Brian Epstein’s field of vision?

Meeting with Brian, that was on quite a different level. I wasn’t in any band when I met him. He was just looking after the Beatles, getting them deals and talking about those deals. When I came to England for the first time, and lived with George and Ringo, I was looking for a job as a graphic designer. Nothing to do with music. The next thing I knew I got together with a band first called the Eyes, which was Paddy (Chambers) and Gibson (Kemp). We were a good live band. The boys came down when we were playing in London at the Pickwick Club, liked us, and the next night came back, and brought Brian along. He was really excited about us. The singing wasn’t good, and we didn’t write any songs — we were just a crummy little rock n’ roll band — but he liked us. He decided to sign us to his Enterprises, to manage us. Suddenly, I was in music. Thinking of it now, it was strange of Brian to try to make something out of us, getting us on a label and such. We didn’t do any great records. We just played good and people liked us. Bit by bit, Brian turned stranger by taking lots of pills and such. The whole thing was strange. That band disbanded anyway.

You mentioned that you only “became musical” through Paddy, Klaus & Gibson. How and when did that translate with the Beatles?

I remember one situation: When I was in the Manfred Mann band, I came down to their studio when they were recording – was it “The Long and Winding Road”? – where Paul asked me to play bass. I said, “No no no.” I mean, c’mon, with Paul there? That was just silly. So that was the only time he even suggested me playing with them. Before that, when I was in Manfred Mann and living in Range Park, George came over to my house where I had an harmonium. He played it, while I manipulated the foot pedals so he could play better; I wasn’t playing. I was observing. There was another time, maybe this is important, when the Beatles played at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg in 1962, and they asked me to play the bass. Stu just handed it to me. But I had never played one before. I was not into rock n’ roll. My relationship to them was not about music, really, ever. I liked them, but never really played with them – which is good. I wanted them to be just the Beatles. I didn’t want to be involved.

When you left Manfred Mann however, things changed, at least for you playing with the solo Beatles.

Yes. When Manfred Mann disbanded, for some reason, John called me, and asked, “Hey,” would I join his new Plastic Ono Band? Which was crazy. The first time I played with John was that wild rehearsal on the plane to Canada, and then on the stage in Toronto. We recorded “Instant Karma” and “Cold Turkey,” and then, when John and Yoko went off to America. I wound up going with George and recording “All Things Must Pass.” John and Yoko had cut all their hair off before they left for America. When they got back to England, their hair was long, and they were ready to go again. They phoned Ringo and I, and then we started in on a new album.

Did you get a sense of why Lennon chose you for the Plastic Ono Band?

I think he just realized that I was a good bass player. Nothing to do with friendship. He didn’t know how I would play those rock ‘n’ roll songs. He just had a feeling that I could do it. I never analyzed. I was just happy to do it. ‘My God, John wants me to play: Fantastic! I don’t think he got it from my Paddy, Klaus & Gibson records. We didn’t do much. I had a few licks on the bass. The same thing, though, with Manfred Mann, the Hollies and John Mayall – they all wanted me to play bass. I could never figure that out. They never saw me play. I couldn’t understand. When John asked me, I was like, “Fuck.” Then I realized: who else should he ask? [Laughs.]

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Klaus Voormann’s illustration of John Lennon in the studio Klaus Voormann

Were you at all nervous going into the Toronto gig?

I’ll tell you what. I was more nervous for John, because I thought that doing that was a real jump into cold water. We had never rehearsed. We had no idea what was happening onstage. We didn’t know the amplifiers. Little Alan White (who played drums) had to play on a kit that was weirdly set up. It was a jumble. The record of it is OK, but we all played wrong notes. It was terrible. Me, I wasn’t worried about. I played mistakes. It didn’t really matter. But John? This was huge. At least Eric (Clapton) was there and that was fun.

So John and Yoko call you to do “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” and “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.” What were your observations about the manner in which they both created music?

It’s interesting. Yoko was really good in the control room. She was a little… she didn’t know much, at first, about what was going on the recording studio, but she caught on quickly. She knew when to push what button and how to say the right things to John. Sometimes she goofed a little, said the wrong thing that wasn’t much of a help. Like asking John to tell me to play with a pick. I had never played with a pick in my life, and John knew that. John would say that I was going to play any way that I wanted. Apart from that, it was all very interesting. Yoko was totally into the songs that John wrote, so she might have little comments like, “It could be a little slower.” Or “Why don’t you try it on the piano?” That was nice. When Yoko recorded, John didn’t say much. We just sat there, Ringo, me and John, jamming, and she would just start wailing all over the place.

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Klaus Voormann illustrates John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” recording sessions Copyright Klaus Voormann

What song first comes to mind when you think of that jamming?

“Why,” or “Why Not.” I always get them mixed up. John was playing really quiet stuff on the guitar. It’s this slow song. Then Ringo comes in with this “Ba dum ka cha ka, ba dum ka cha ka.” Then I come in with a “ba boom, ba boom.” Really slow. Then Yoko comes in and makes all these really needling sounds. Animal sounds. Then John immediately started doing the same thing on his guitar. They were feeding off of each other, like it was just the two of them together, creating this music. That was very exciting.

What can you say about the dynamic between you and Ringo in the studio for “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”? Other than how John’s voice is boosted in the mix, the one thing that comes through loud and clear on “The Ultimate Collection” is the intricacies of the rhythm section. You really feel it on this remaster. Was that an easy camaraderie?

Playing with Ringo, what he can play, it was heavenly. Fantastic. Us playing together was never a problem. He knew I was playing the right thing. I knew he was playing the right thing. That just glued itself together naturally, like one thing. Don’t forget John’s rhythm guitar in there. I feel as if his rhythm guitar playing has long been underestimated. It’s amazing. I don’t know another who is that good. That was, for me, the best part of the Beatles – John’s rhythm guitar and Ringo’s drumming.

That’s really saying something.

Of course, too, there was George and ideas and his fantastic songs. And Paul? What is there to say. But the Beatles’ deep feeling for rhythm comes from John and Ringo. If you are allowed to play with these two guys together, and you are the bass player… magic.

How was it to work with Phil Spector,  the “Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” co-producer?

See, I love Phil for his incredible production. He was really in charge, but he was not shouting. He listened to us, and to everything. He was very sensitive to little things. He would know when to say something, and what to say. He was in control of what was happening, especially on the live mixes, some of which are on the new box set; his quarter-inch tape mixes are just so good. There is nothing you had to change. Incredible. No big mixing. Just simple. He’s an amazing producer, and I never saw him be, how do you say, out of whack.

Quite famously, John Lennon was never crazy about his own voice, so he often filled the recordings with echo and heavy effects, all of which are stripped away on this new box set. Did Lennon discuss his distaste for his own voice on this recording?

Yeah. I knew John’s singing from when he was in Hamburg. Maybe it was “Twist & Shout,” or “Please, Mr. Postman.” He had an incredible voice. Then one day, he just starts in with “I don’t like my voice.” I was angry when the Beatles’ records came out and his voice was covered up with double tracking, or it was out of phase. Why? I was happy then when Phil came along and made him do it straight. Or as straight as possible. Phil talked him into it.

Do you recall any conversation with John about songs of his such as “God,” “Mother” or “Working Class Hero” — what he wanted to do or say with them?

Listening to the box set, now, there are things I don’t remember about the sessions. Fifty-some years is a long time ago. Suddenly, I hear them, and I feel as if this album was made just for me. One thing is when John on “God” was singing, “I don’t believe in…” and he starts singing those names: “Elvis, Beatles.” Then he stopped, and asked me, “Klaus, should I say ‘Yoko and me?’” I told him that I couldn’t answer that question. He had to know that for himself if he wanted to include himself. So he went out, and he came back and he sang, “I just believe in me, Yoko and me. And that’s reality.” The other thing I remember now is that it took a long time to record those songs, that it was not as quick as I had originally remembered. He was very uncertain. I learned that from going through the box set.

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Klaus Voormann’s illustration of John Lennon and band in the studio for “Plastic Ono Band” Copyright Klaus Voormann

There have been many Lennon recordings to undergo intense remastering, with many more to come – most of which you appear on. What is your impression of taking  music that you created in a certain fashion 50 years ago and re-jiggering it?

I was always against that. All the work we had done — of course, you want to be the best for that record. That’s why we stayed so long in the studio. If it means doing a song for 50 takes, that’s what It means. If we used take 47, there was a reason we used that take. That was the artist’s opinion of what was best. Then, later on, for someone who didn’t know anything about it, to come in and choose other takes, to use takes where our feel wasn’t right or the notes were all or boost something up that didn’t mean to be boosted… eh. I would get very angry. That is not the case here. Simon (Hilton, the compilation producer) and the team really made sure they got it right. Their attention to detail is stunning. You can hear things in a way you didn’t before. In a brighter way.

Is there one track, beyond all others, on “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — The Ultimate Collection” that floored you? That shows the most feeling?

There are different types of being floored here. There is one, say, in the case of “Isolation,” that moved me. I also go back to thinking about Ringo, me and John on “I Found Out,” and the whole sound of “chukka chukka” stands out. Immediately that feel was set when we first recorded it, and you can hear that on this collection. John’s singing was incredible, too. That might not be the most important song he ever did, but, it sounds like heaven to me. The way John went into this album, really fresh from the hurt of the Beatles — the hurt of his childhood, his mother, his father — he was really opened up. So direct. He had never done a record like this before. And I think that you really finally hear all that now.

(Prints of Voormann’s illustrations from the period, as seen above, are available for individual sale and can be found at his website here.)

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1970 Richard DiLello / Courtesy Universal Music