Head music: five albums influenced by therapy and therapists

Number five: John Lennon — Plastic Ono Band

‘I’ve rarely seen pain like John’s, and I’ve seen a lot of pain,’ said the psychologist Arthur Janov about John Lennon. ‘John had a huge reservoir of unexplored and unexpressed feelings that could be responsible for his bitterness, pessimism, jealousy…’

Wow, Arthur, you sure know how to gee a guy up. Oh sorry, you haven’t finished.

‘…cynicism, violence, lack of confidence…’

OK, you can stop now! That’s maverick psychotherapists for you, I guess — not much in it for them to say to a potential client ‘nah, you’re fine’. Especially ones as rich as John Lennon. Famously, Janov became a major figure in Lennon’s life for a time back in 1970, inspiring his first convential solo album. But while Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was certainly groundbreaking, was it actually any good?

But first, let’s rewind to late 1968, when John and Yoko released the first of three rather, let’s say, challenging experimental albums. The first, Two Virgins, famously features the pair naked on the cover, an act that scandalised the world and prompted a young Sissy Spacek to record a song called John, You’ve Gone Too Far This Time. Meanwhile the third, The Wedding Album, was so impenetrable that the critic Richard Williams inadvertently reviewed a half hour test signal, unable to distinguish it from the actual music.

When the Beatles’ broke up in early 1970, John and Yoko had a bit of down time on their hands. And, as luck would have it, at the same time Janov’s famous book, The Primal Scream, had just been published. His newly minted primal therapy was very fashionable, very Hollywood — more a cultural happening than a science. Janov, though, made all kinds of wild claims for it — that he could fix everything from alcoholism and menstrual cramps to — here it comes — ‘homosexuality.’ Asked for proof it worked, he said ‘feelings explain so much that statistical evidence is irrelevant’.

Someone threw it the Onos way, they gave him a call, and he booked them right in for the next five months. Now, Janov must have been a busy man, so you have to admire his professional dedication in giving up this amount of time to treat the multi-millionaire pop stars.

Janov’s therapy was based on the idea that adult neuroses are caused by unresolved childhood trauma, and that the cure is to violently wrench that trauma from the system. Lennon liked this idea — his dad had been a drunk who ran out on the family, returning only when John was rich and famous. This certainly gave Janov plenty of material to work with — one session saw Lennon ‘on his knees, pounding the wall as he screamed the words ‘daddy, daddy’ over and over again’.

When the album emerged Janov’s influence was all over it — songs about absent dads and dying mums sit alongside John’s hamfisted social commentary. But above all it was a chance for John to return repeatedly to his favourite topic: himself. After all, he had plenty of form. The previous year’s No Bed for Beatle John tells the story of John visiting Yoko in hospital and getting turfed out of a bed because it was needed by someone who was actually, you know, ill and stuff. Jeez, and you thought things were bad in the NHS these days. Plastic Ono Band, though, took self-obsession to new levels. ‘Just a boy and a little girl, trying to change the whole wide world’, he humblebrags. There’s even a song called Look at Me. Janov was right, of course, that Lennon had plenty of issues that did need ‘fixing’ — not least his violent tendencies, especially towards women. Funnily enough, there isn’t a song about that.

This was a much more conventional record than his previous solo output, complete with piano, choruses and Ringo, so you can only imagine how relieved his fans were to hear some actual songs from the erstwhile moptop. That must account for its rapturous reception. Learning point: the value of setting yourself an exceptionally low bar.

Because if you’d imagined some pretty transcendent music must have emerged out of those soul searching therapy sessions, you’d be wrong. Lumpy blues and sporadic bouts of pub singer howling, more like. While Lennon may have been many things (‘bitter, pessimistic, jealous…’) he wasn’t really much of an experimenter. There are some nice moments; Love is pretty enough, as is Isolation. But it’s mostly pretty midding, stodgy fare. John, you haven’t gone far enough this time.

God, meanwhile, is a temper tantrum of a song in which he rails against the world, renouncing everything from Jesus, Bob Dylan, er, God, and mostly shockingly of all, the middle bit of Yellow Submarine. ‘I don’t believe in yoga!’, he sings. Nobody’s forcing you to, John. Try a zumba class, whatever. Perhaps he could have just cut to the chase and screamed ‘I’m nothing like Paul!’ over and over for 45 minutes. Or ‘help me if you can I’m feeling down’. There you go.

As for Yoko’s record, she was at least good at this stuff. Her Janov album is genuinely batshit, all insane, frazzled jams and basically screaming the fucking place down. True, only a very few brave sonic conquistadors have ever made it to side two. But at least it sounds like a look into someone’s deepest psyche. Lennon’s is more like being stuck next to a bloke ranting at you in the pub. Of course, Yoko’s album was ignored while Lennon, the male genius, was fawned over by the critics. Fortunately time has been kinder to Yoko than to post Beatles John, I think.

Meanwhile McCartney was holed up somewhere windy wearing heroically large jumpers and writing the opus that would become Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. Now tell me again, who was the best Beatle?

Number four: of Montreal — Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

Hissing Fauna, American indie band of Montreal’s 8th album, is 12 deeply personal songs about depression and anxiety. Yeah yeah, so what’s new, right. But wait. Believe me when I say few records pursue the theme as nakedly and repeatedly as this one. And as records about depression, alienation and anxiety go, it might just be unique in that it’s an absolute riot from start to finish.

Of Montreal started out in the late 90s, the brainchild of a straight looking young guy called Kevin Barnes. Their early albums were so achingly twee they made Belle and Sebastian sound like Megadeth (and that’s coming from a fan). The Gay Parade, for example, featured xylophones, a cast of characters with names like Tulip Baroo and Gertrude Lullaby, and a song about an owl rescuing a lost child from an invisible tree. Honestly, an album of the stuff was enough to make even the most indulgent folk bang their head against a table muttering ‘god help us if there’s a war’.

Over the next eight years the band switched around musical styles — psychedelic, electronic — countless times, releasing a string of fine albums without ever quite shaking off that twee label. One high point among many was when they perfectly nailed in two short lines the sheer mundanity of life as an indie band touring the UK — ‘up to our necks in crisps and litter/in the van we dubbed the Gary Glitter’.

By 2007, several turns of events later, Barnes found himself living in Norway with his new wife and baby. I know what you’re thinking — sounds hyyge as fuck. But Kevin wasn’t feeling it — in fact he was depressed, anxious and lonely. So he sought medical help — and found that antidepressants gave him the clarity he needed to create a new bunch of songs. And the cute characters were now a thing of the past; these new songs saw him draw on his recent experiences in a very literal way. The result was Hissing Fauna, an album built on psychological discord and the effects of those antidepressants (and perhaps other substances). And Barnes, no longer the callow milquetoast, sang with a newly urgent, almost panicked delivery.

A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger tells the story: ‘I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway, I felt the darkness of the black metal bands.’ The same song sees him addressing his neuroses while invoking that fallacious Nietzschean saw of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (maybe more in hope than conviction). ‘I am older now, I see the way you operate. If you don’t hurt me then you die’

And the extravagantly titled Heimdalsgate like a Promethean Curse is an anguished plea for the neurons to right themselves. ‘I’m in a crisis. I need help, come on mood shift, shift back to good again! Come on chemicals!’ And so it goes on.

Doesn’t sound too big on the laughs? What these lyrics don’t get across is this: Hissing Fauna is wild. This is a record that kicks down the front door, starts a party in the living room and dares you to call the cops. That song about having a breakdown in Norway? A delirious disco banger. The ‘chemicals’ track? Hyperactive new wave freakout. Add some insane funk jams to the mix and you have one of the best albums of the decade.

The band’s increasingly extravagant, surreal live performances saw Barnes orchestrating scenes like attempted crucifixions and boxing matches between poodle-women. And, just like Lennon before him, feeling the need to bare his soul by baring his junk, performing naked on at least one occasion. What is it with these guys? Still, what a ride. People still called them twee, though. Mud sticks, I guess.

Number three: Tears for Fears — The Hurting

You’ll remember our friend Arthur Janov, who wrote the bestselling psychology book The Primal Scream. Well, it turns out that it was his book that gave a well known band its name. Guessed it yet? Yes that’s right, it was Tears for Fears. The name — which actually comes from Janov’s book Prisoners of Pain — comes from the idea that when you relive the traumas of childhood the tears that follow will work to banish fear (anxiety, neurosis). It’s their album, The Hurting, that is probably the purest of these choices — a whole album of synth pop directly inspired by Janov’s primal therapy. And although it covers much the same ground as Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band 13 years earlier, this was a far more appealing collection of songs.

The story goes like this. Way back in 1980 there was a band from Bath called Graduate, a five piece with a tiggerish young frontman called Roland Orzabel. They traded in bouncy new wave/mod/power pop — think pound shop Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, XTC. Now, I’m not saying they weren’t serious artists, but their first single, Mad One, was commissioned by a local car number plate trader and named in honour of his own plate (MAD 1). Nothing like getting your selling out in early, I guess.

They were doing OK — they had a top ten hit in Spain, and embarked on long tours across Europe. But Orzabel and his bud, bass player Curt Smith, weren’t happy. Both were products of tough childhoods and broken families, both were into psychology. They got to thinking that they’d like to make music about something a bit more substantial than, you know, number plates.

They noticed that a bunch of bands were breaking through using new technology, making strange and haunting electronic sounds. They thought, hey, why don’t we quit the band and make a synth album about child psychology? So they called the the record company who were like, yeah, OK. But then you could do that sort of thing in 1981. Back then singles that reached no 68 in the charts still sold two million copies, so people were more chilled.

If there were any doubts the first single put them to bed. Suffer the Children was a revelation — both catchy and emotionally affecting, it was a million miles from Graduate. It wasn’t a hit, but they didn’t have to wait long for one. Curiously, Orzabel said he wrote Mad World after hearing Duran Duran’s Girls on Film and thinking ‘I’ll have a go at something like that’. The images of worn out faces ‘going nowhere’ are about as far from Duran’s glossy aesthetic as you can get, and so much better for it.

And the album was fab too — turns out synths and drum machines could capture a sense of unease, of dislocation, far more effectively than Lennon’s stale old rockers ever could. Indeed, with the band jettisoned it was pretty much just the two of them on the record. Such is the relentlessness of the subject matter, though, you do half expect the inner child to pop up on backing vocals.

From third rate Costello knock-offs to a hugely successful electronic concept album about childhood trauma. An hugely unlikely, greatly cheering triumph — but what would they do next? In the end they went away, took some advice about cracking America and came back with Shout. And it was over. Don’t get me wrong, it was OK, but the introspection, the searching, the quiet…that was over.

Number two: Brian Wilson — Brian Wilson

There are many villains (not so many heroes) in the life story of Brian Wilson. Obviously there’s Mike Love. Next there’s the disciplinarian father, Murry. Then, of course, there’s the daddy who took her t-bird away. But perhaps trumping them all is the disgraced psychiatrist Eugene Landy — after all, a mere mention of his name is usually enough to get most BB fans frothing at the mouth. Yet it not always thus. Once upon a time Landy was portrayed as Brian’s saviour, who performed a miracle in transforming the bloated, drug addled non-surfer into tip top physical condition — saving his life, essentially.

Now we all know that Brian just wasn’t made for these times, or in fact any other times. He was a restless soul; in the 60s he had tried to find inner peace, using an array of spiritual techniques without perhaps nailing the spirit of it (‘I meditated my ass off’, he recalls). His very real mental health problems, meanwhile, are too often treated as amusing rock anecdotes. Like, ha! He had paranoid delusions while he was making Smile! Hilarious.

But perhaps repeated most gleefully and most often is the story that he spent three entire years in bed in the early 70s, existing on a diet of cocaine, booze and fast food. It’s not entirely true; it was partly manufactured to promote the idea of Landy as saviour, and old footage shows Brian surprisingly lucid during those years. But he was undeniably a mess, and in a state bad enough for his wife to hire Dr Landy.

Landy’s technique was something he called 24 hour therapy. In his own words it involved ‘gaining complete control over every aspect of a person’s life — physical, personal, social and sexual environments.’ Nothing sinister about that then. So he moved into Wilson’s home, along with his bodyguards. And while he kept Wilson off the coke, he loaded him up with sedatives and psychotropics until he’d become a kind of bewildered, helpless man-child. By then Landy had got himself named in Wilson’s will, and was due to collect a cool 70%. Hey, give the guy a break, perhaps he was off sick the day they had professional boundaries training.

Which all explains how it was that Landy and his wife turned up as credited writers on Wilson’s 1988 self-titled comeback album. Time has not been kind to this record, but back then it was (laughably) trumpeted as an extension of Pet Sounds, both musically and thematically. Revisited now it sounds facile, its elaborately produced nursery rhymes a tragically pale imitation of Brian’s past glories.

And what was Landy’s actual contribution? Other people in the sessions remember him as disruptive, bribing Brian to change lyrics on the promise of a milkshake. Landy told it differently, unsurprisingly. ‘When we would write, Brian, Alexandra and I would sit around and have these extraordinary philosophical conversations.’ Right. Perhaps it was one of these extraordinary philosophical conversations that led to the following lines:

Night time is delight time
It’s starlight time
And it’s the right time for me

Fortunately it wasn’t long before Landy was shown the door and Brian’s people found more talented people to exploit him. And if you care one tiny shred about Brian Wilson, believe in his soul, his talent, forgive him his flaws, then do yourself a favour and avoid this album. If you want to hear him at the very best he could be — reflective, open hearted and downright beautiful — no problem. Go listen to Pet Sounds.

Number one: Dory Previn — On My Way to Where

So far we’ve seen people who’ve dallied with therapy, flirted with it, had it forced upon them, or rejected it in favour of chemicals. The American singer Dory Previn, though — she was the real deal. She had psychoanalysis for decades (she called it ‘a beautiful odyssey’), and was into Gestalt therapy too. If you’d wanted to make Freud: the Musical in the 70s (and why didn’t you? Hmm?) then you’re basically gonna hit up Dory for the score. So she wins.

Let’s do the story though, because it’s a good one. Because before Dory Previn there was Dory Langdon, jazz singer and lyricist, and she was a different proposition entirely. And before her there was Dorothy Langan, born in New Jersey in 1925. It was a rough childhood. Her father, suffered from paranoid delusions, told her when she was three that she wasn’t his. A few years later her mother had her sister, and her father again denied it was his and barricaded the family in the dining room, at gunpoint, for four and a half months.

A surname tweak later, Dory Langdon spent years hustling in the business, singing in dive bars, trying to make a name for herself. Finally, in 1958, she convinced a record company to let her make a record, and they hooked her up with a bunch of songwriters, including Andre Previn. OK, the record didn’t do much business, but Dory’s whip-smart lyrics got her noticed all right and she was suddenly in demand. Oh, and Dory and Andre got married.

In the 60s the two made a fabulously successful songwriting pair, and from appearances life must have looked sweet. Three oscar noms in the bag. Andre’s career going stratospheric. Big house in Bev Hills, Mia Farrow always popping round with little gifts, all like ‘You guys are so cute!’ and ‘I love what you’ve done with the place!’ (How do I know that? Aha. Stick around to find out.)

But appearances were deceptive. She was zoned out on pills half the time, dealing with the pressures of the present and the burden of the past. On top of that, a total fear of flying meant she couldn’t travel with Andre to wherever his work was. Check out Dory’s words to Control Yourself, sung by Cleo Laine — it’s an (ironic) rallying call to reining in your emotions. ‘Control yourself, contain yourself, restrict yourself, restrain yourself, and always let tranquility be your goal’. In reality she was struggling to hold it together and it’s like something was going to give.

And in 1969 everything did fall apart. Dory discovered that Andre was having an affair with — yup — Mia Farrow while working away in London. She got on a plane to try to save her marriage, despite her phobia. She completely freaked out — screaming, tearing at her clothes — got taken off the plane, hospitalised and given ECT. She was institutionalised for months, during which time a psychiatrist suggested she record memories and emotions, which she did in the form of poems. And this was Dory Langdon, Oscar winning lyricist, remember, so the poems were not going to be bad ones.

She tried to find someone to put her words to music — no luck. So she did it herself, despite never having written music before. She was on the way to making On My Way to Where, her first album in 12 years, but things were different now. The piano was replaced by acoustic guitar; sophistication by feeling; ‘control yourself’ by screaming at the night. Her marriage was over but she had reinvented herself as Dory Previn, brave and brilliant singer songwriter. She was 45 years old.

What she wrote was quite a collection. Eye popping, heart melting stories of childhood neglect, of abuse, with a seemingly neverending cast of sleazy, exploiting men. In Ain’t His Child she recounts the time her father told her that she wasn’t his, reeling off a list of possible biological fathers. And then: ‘Hey anybody I might have missed, would you care to state that I exist?’

And has any song ever been so raw and revealing as ‘Beware of Young Girls’? It’s the story of Andre and Mia Farrow’s affair, with the latter portrayed as a wistful and pale seducer and homewrecker, and Andre (‘my own sweet man’) as a passive, innocent party, powerless to resist. Not much of a feminist reading, perhaps, but seriously, are you going to argue with her? Good luck to you. And if do you want to know about that affair, just listen to the song. It’s all there, laid out, including the gifts and the compliments. ‘What a rare and happy pair, she inevitably said — as she glanced at my unmade bed.’ Whoa.

It’s not all childhood memories. There’s 20 Mile Zone — maybe the ultimate musical therapy session — which sees Dory driving around ‘screaming at the night, screaming at the dark, screaming at fright.’ And getting pulled over and arrested because she was ‘doin’ it alone’ — not to mention in a 20 mile zone. It’s all very New York, very 70s, and very funny.

If you’re thinking it must make for a bleak and depressing listen — it doesn’t; there are stories, empathy and laughs alongside the shock and the tears. And you know, I don’t think anybody else was writing like this in 1970. You could admire, say, Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen — love them even — but they were distant figures, lyrical and enigmatic. Dory made you feel like you were in her life, going through it all with her. And there’s a rich musicality about these ten songs — lovely, woozy melodies that belie the fact that this was her first time writing music.

So what happened next? For Dory it was releasing a series of records throughout the 70s, some great, some not so much, before abruptly deciding to quit and doing so on her own terms. She also found long-term happiness with her husband, the artist Joby Baker. For Andre — ah who cares, he was on Morecambe and Wise, waved his stick around, whatever. For Mia Farrow, though, there was a horrible sting in the tail of the Beware of Young Girls story, authored by man a so sleazy he could have sat comfortably among the cast of characters on On My Way to Where. Men never change, I expect the lesson is.