“We were lucky that people didn’t throw tomatoes”: Klaus Voormann in his Beatles days and Plastic Ono The Beatles

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isIn September 1969, bassist and artist Klaus Voormann, who had just left Manfred Mann, received a phone call from John Lennon. There was nothing unusual about it. Voormann had known the Beatles for nine years and was part of the band’s inner circle. It was Voormann, Paddy, Klaus and Gibson’s own group that Lennon and George Harrison had attempted to go see live the night they were dosed with LSD at a dinner party. Ringo Starr was already at the concert and was noisily confronted by his lysergically impaired bandmates claiming the hall elevator was on fire. A year later, he had designed the cover for Grammy Award-winning Revolver.

The problem was more what Lennon wanted him to do. Lennon had fancily agreed to perform live at a rock ‘n’ roll revival festival in Toronto on two days notice and was trying to muster up supporting musicians to play as the Plastic Ono Band. Eric Clapton had agreed to play guitar, but Voormann was more convincing, for not unreasonable reasons that headlining a festival with a new band that hadn’t rehearsed didn’t seem like one of the ideas. most inspired by Lennon.

“John said, ‘Oh, we’re going to rehearse on the plane.’ So there we were, sitting in the back row, next to the jets, and I playing an electric bass without an amplifier, ”he said, sizzling over the phone line from his home in Bavaria. “I couldn’t hear anything I was doing. I was more nervous for John than I was. I mean, John – the Beatle – suddenly takes the stage with a band that hadn’t rehearsed. It was amazing. “

Chill-out zone… the day after the Plastic Ono Band concert in Toronto; From left to right, drummer Alan White, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Photograph: Mark and Colleen Hayward / Getty Images

Additionally, Lennon had chosen not only to play a brief series of festival-worthy rock ‘n’ roll covers that also starred Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, but to hand over the mic to Yoko Ono, who performed two breathtaking improvisations. , one of which lasted more than 12 minutes. “People were just speechless. They’re at a rock’n’roll festival with Chuck Berry, and then all of a sudden this cutting edge stuff comes in, ”he says. “I was on stage, standing behind Yoko, she is screaming and screaming and croaking like a dying bird, and I felt ‘this is about the Vietnam War’ – I really saw tanks next to me and bombs dropping and dead was what she was expressing. But I thought, “My God, Jean must be crazy doing this. I mean, we were lucky that people didn’t throw tomatoes at him.

Still, he said, there were advantages to Yoko’s live performance brand. “When you really know it’s so crazy you don’t think, ‘Oh, what am I going to do on stage?’ You are not afraid, just do it, it’s easy. I mean, “he laughs,” you can make any mistakes you want – it doesn’t matter. It’s punk.

Maybe Voormann should have been used to unexpected situations involving the Beatles. Art student with a passion for jazz, Nouvelle Vague cinema and a penchant for dressing like a young French intellectual when he first met them in 1960. After storming the house of his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr during an argument he found himself in front of a particularly seedy club in Hamburg’s St Pauli district, transfixed by racketeering from within. He had heard rock ‘n’ roll before, although his tastes were more towards Miles Davis, but he had never heard it perform live, and certainly not with the jagged energy of the nascent Beatles. Nonetheless, he said, he was torn at the idea of ​​entering the club, which was obviously “dangerous”.

It’s easy to romanticize the Beatles’ years in Hamburg – Birth of a Legend, as a live album recorded there said – but Voormann says the reality was really scary. “It was the dirty part of Hamburg, whores and pimps running around. There was knife fighting in the clubs. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m not going in there. But eventually I pulled myself together and walked in.

Ruff stuff ... Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr and former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe at a party in Hamburg, c 1961.
Ruff stuff… Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr and former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe at a party in Hamburg, c 1961. Photography: K & K Ulf Kruger OHG / Redferns

He later returned with Kirchherr and their friend Jürgen Vollmer: they looked so out of place that the waiters took pity on them and “took care of us if there was a fight”. After being first repelled by Lennon, they formed a friendship with the group, aided by the fact that Kirchherr invited them to his parents’ house so that they could take a bath: the living conditions of the group were so squalid that ‘they were forced to wash and shave with water from the club’s urinals.

Kirchherr started a relationship with band bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and most importantly, the band adopted the same looks as their new friends, ditching their leathers and quiffs in favor of their forward hair: the mop. Lennon nicknamed the Germans “les exis”, short for existentialists, apparently wrongly.

“Maybe we looked like these French artists, but we weren’t existentialists,” Voormann says. “We weren’t political at all. We took them to the photos so they could see these films that we loved – Jean Cocteau, Louis Malle – and we went to exhibitions and turned them towards French art.

One evening at the Kaiserkeller, Sutcliffe handed his bass to Voormann and told him to come on stage for him. He was a guitarist, but had no experience of the instrument. The first time he played bass it was on stage with the Beatles, which seems a little unbelievable, although Voormann says the reality was less exciting. “Well, you see, that sounds so fantastic,” he says. “But they were a rock ‘n’ roll band, they were playing in the middle of the night, Stuart wanted to take a break so that he could cuddle Astrid on the couch. So I kind of played on a Fats Domino number.

He says he always knew the Beatles were going to be big – “I couldn’t wait for them to be famous” – but clearly had no idea how big was going to happen. He came to England in 1963, when Sutcliffe died – he had left the band to stay with Kirchherr in Hamburg before suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 21 – and Beatlemania was in full swing. Voormann shared an apartment with Harrison and Starr, struck by the feeling how happy they seemed to see an old face in the midst of the ensuing insanity.

Later, he saw the group slowly disintegrate: “These 10 years have been more than enough. Ringo would have stayed with the group, he loved everyone, but the rest there was a lot of anger, brawls: they couldn’t have done it anymore because they were all in completely different directions. Abbey Road is a great album, but… sentimentally, it wasn’t fair to do it. They had to do it because they had obligations to the record company. But they did it really professional and fantastic, and that’s what makes a great band, you know?

“Oh, we're going to rehearse on the plane”… Voormann's drawing of the Plastic Ono Band's flight to Toronto.
“Oh, we’re going to rehearse on the plane”… Voormann’s drawing of the Plastic Ono Band’s flight to Toronto.

Indeed, at one point during the band’s split, a lingering – and apparently completely unfounded – rumor suggested that Voormann was going to join The Beatles, or rather that Lennon, Harrison and Starr were going to form a new group called the Ladders, along with Voormann. replaces Paul McCartney. Instead, he performed on all three solo albums from the 70s. He has a special affection for the John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band of the 1970s: “It’s all done in two takes, no worries, so raw, fresh and direct… No one ever told me what to play. I always played what I thought would suit the spirit of the song or the lyrics.

“He’s always done that, on all the sessions I’ve done: Imagine, Walls and Bridges, Rock ‘n’ Roll. But let’s say if I had ever played a bad note or played shit, he would have told me. The same with the Revolver cover: if I hadn’t had a good idea, then I wouldn’t have gotten the job – ‘Sorry, Klaus…’ ”

Voormann went on to become a much-sought-after session musician – he was the one who played the famous bass intro on Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain and played on Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, this last session he remembers in big part for the amount of camp banter going between Reed and co-producer David Bowie. He spent the 1970s in Los Angeles, returning to Germany at the end of the decade.

Before leaving the United States, he visited Lennon at his home in New York, and found him in husband mode, boiling rice to make sushi and explaining the joy of no longer having a recording contract. or the pressure that came from it. But he was struck by a strange feeling of dread.

“I was spoiled”… Voormann today in his workshop in Germany.
“I was spoiled”… Voormann today in his workshop in Germany. Photograph: Alamy

“I went with my son, Otto, who was the same age as Sean. We went for a walk in Central Park and John had Sean in a backpack. We walked out through the basement, where the garage was, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is scary. All these really crazy people in NYC and there’s John Lennon walking around with no bodyguard or anything! I was scared for him: “My God, if that’s what he does every day… I don’t know. “

Back in Germany, Voormann worked with Trio, the post-punk band famous for the 1982 hit Da Da Da, but eventually gave up music to focus on writing and art. He has designed the covers of the Beatles anthology compilations and in recent years has published books and a graphic novel about his time with the Beatles and worked with Liam Gallagher on the packaging of his first solo As You Were. At 82, he contributed a series of drawings to a new book about the beginnings of Lennon’s solo career and the making of the John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band album – one depicts the chaotic repetition in flight at the Toronto Rock Festival, the musicians crowded into the back of the plane.

These days, he says, he doesn’t even own a bass guitar anymore. “Playing bass on your own is a bit silly,” he said: who could he play with? “I was spoiled,” he laughs.

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