Yoko Ono on Apple Records: 1970-73
By Kurt Wildermuth
"Now Yoko's gonna do her thing--all over you."
--John Lennon at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival, 1969
If this piece doesn't elicit a single angry response, I will have failed, for my goal is to make the case that Yoko Ono's first four solo albums are excellent music, highly worth your time.
As you may be aware, Ono has been a divisive figure for about the last half century. She might have been divisive before that as well, within the avant-garde art world where she first made her name and career, but it was after her entrance into the mainstream media maelstrom that Ono became the subject of endless debate. Is debate even the right word? To some Ono is an inspiring visionary; to others she is a fraudulent villain. But the point here is not to rehash controversy. It is to accentuate the positive, as Ono has always done.
Initial Releases (1968-69)
For the sake of context and as a service for the uninitiated, I'll begin by addressing works that aren't the focus of this piece: the first three LPs Ono released in collaboration with her male companion, who became her third husband, John Lennon. Lennon is most famous as a member of the English pop-rock band the Beatles, and before his solo career started in earnest he and Ono created Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968), Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969), and The Wedding Album (1969). The first and third were issued by Apple Records, the label owned and operated by the Beatles; the second was on Apple's extremely short-lived "experimental" offshoot, Zapple (whose only other release was Beatle George Harrison's synthesizer noodling, 1969's Electronic Sound).
As the word "unfinished" signposts, the "music" on Ono and Lennon's initial releases may be best approached strictly within the contexts laid out by the artists. In other words, these albums are conceptual artworks that happen to be on vinyl. They are artworks not in the sense of, say, a recording of a Beethoven composition but in the sense of Marcel Duchamp's multiples. They are documents, assemblages; their sounds owe debts to avant-garde ventures by the Dadaists and Surrealists, John Cage and David Tudor, Spike Jones and England's The Goon Show. All of these statements constitute a description, by the way, not a judgment of the albums' value.
If you like the Beatles' "Revolution 9," a taped-sound construction by Lennon and Ono that Lennon placed on the White Album, you might like the less "documentary" parts of these records, such as the snippets that make up Two Virgins. However, don't expect the structure (there is one) and dramatic buildup (there's that too) of "Revolution 9."
If you like free jazz, you might want to experience Life with the Lions's "Cambridge 1969," a side-long live recording where Lennon provides electric-guitar feedback, Ono vocalizes wordlessly, and by the end percussionist John Stevens and saxophonist John Tchicai work in and work out.
The first question most listeners will ask about "Cambridge 1969" is why anyone would listen to it. How this music signifies for you, whether its sounds signify for you as music, will depend on the expectations you bring to it. If you think of music as requiring elements such as rhythm and melody, you may not find what you are looking for. If you think of music as organized sound, especially if by "organized" you simply mean controlled by humans, then you and this piece might be approaching one another. And if for control you're willing to accept "expressive use," then you may find merit here. Ono, Lennon, and collaborators are using sound expressively and provocatively. They are inviting you to enter into this sonic world and make something of it, experience and perhaps interpret it. The result of that invitation can be beautiful if you'd like to give it that label.
Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Whatever its merits, "Cambridge 1969" provides a sonic bridge to Ono's first full-fledged album of music. (Previously, her sweet acoustic ballad "Remember Love" was the B-side to Lennon's 1969 single "Give Peace a Chance," and her sweet acoustic ballad "Who Has Seen the Wind?" was the B-side to his 1970 single "Instant Karma!") Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band (1970) was recorded at the same time as John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, the ex-Beatle's first full-fledged solo album. The Plastic Ono Band was a band in name only, consisting of whoever Ono and Lennon wanted to play with on any particular occasion. On their Plastic Ono Band albums, the band consists of Lennon on guitar and/or piano, longtime Beatle buddy Klaus Voormann on bass, and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr on drums. (On Lennon's album, Ono is credited with "wind," as in providing atmosphere.)
Because of the overlapping titles and cover photos/designs and personnel, the Plastic Ono Band albums may be considered companion pieces. Both front covers show the couple lounging against an enormous, ancient tree in the countryside. On John Lennon, Ono sits leaning against the tree, and Lennon reclines, his head on her lap. On Yoko Ono, their positions are reversed. Because Ono and Lennon recorded the albums shortly after undergoing primal scream therapy, the two Plastic Ono Bands are considered "primal scream albums." However, Ono and Lennon each had prior experience with screaming.
On studio recordings, Lennon had been straining his vocal cords as far back as the Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout" (1962). For his solo single "Cold Turkey" (1969), shouts and screams as punctuation gave way to extreme vocalization--a depiction of heroin withdrawal--that was probably influenced by Ono's freeform style. Her shrieking and moaning on "Cambridge 1969" and on "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)"--as both the flip side of "Cold Turkey" and one of her two songs on the second side of the Plastic Ono Band's concert recording Live Peace in Toronto 1969--are the bridge or gateway to both Plastic Ono Band albums. The other gateway is Lennon's freeform guitar style on "Cambridge 1969."
Simply put: Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band doesn't offer songs per se. Its first track, "Why," takes off with the sound of the tape recorder being switched on, and the band is rocking. Voormann and Starr repeat simple patterns in lockstep, sounding like the most natural pair, while over and around them Lennon makes loud guitar noises, more attacking the strings and sliding on them than playing conventionally. Atop this mound of sound--or from within it, since at first guitar and voice seem indistinguishable--Ono shrieks, wails, moans, barks, yowls, and works variations on the title. On his Plastic Ono Band, Lennon lyrically takes stock of his past and present. On hers, Ono seems rooted in place, fixed in the moment, and tearing into the fabric of existence. "Why" became the B-side to Lennon's single "Mother," the first song on his Plastic Ono Band, so in that form her freeform vocalizing provided the flipside to his autobiographical songwriting.
What is the average listener to make of this music? Six years earlier, as a member of the art movement Fluxus, Ono had performed her Cut Piece. Wearing a dress, she sat on a stage and invited audience members to cut off pieces of her clothing with scissors. In a sense, this freeform music is akin to Cut Piece in that the performer bares herself, makes herself vulnerable, and implicates the audience--spectator or listener--as participant and voyeur. As in: Why would you want to do this? Why would you want to see this? Why would you want to listen to this?
This freeform music is also akin to Cut Piece in that Ono has devised the show. She hands out the scissors, just as she chooses to vocalize. She might be risking injury or exposure or ridicule, but she willingly takes the risk for the sake of the (basically wordless) statement. She might be vulnerable, but she never seems weak.
In classic Ono fashion, on Plastic Ono Band she follows "Why" with "Why Not," raising possibility. The tempo slows, and the guitar pealing turns bluesy, as Ono sounds like a cross between a baby and a harmonica, in fact like those moments in blues songs when the song has dropped out, the band vamps, and the singer becomes an instrument, briefly issuing wordless notes. Indeed, it might be best to approach this music as though it were purely instrumental.
In a tour de force of sonic construction, the band speeds up, their sound becomes train noise, the train noise segues into an electronic drone, Ono drones, and then the band fades in to the wondrous construction that is "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City" (most evocative song title ever). Think electric Miles Davis meets so-called Krautrockers such as Can and Faust, until the band fades out and is replaced by birdsong.
Side 2 of the original LP begins with "AOS," which makes explicit Ono's connection with free jazz. This 1968 live recording captures Ono rehearsing with Ornette Coleman on trumpet, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon on bass, and Edward Blackwell on drums. However, the music is more free than jazz, typifying Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band's oscillation between chaos and control.
In other words, "Why" and "Why Not" might leave you thinking that these tracks display only four people indulging themselves in the studio. "Greenfield Morning" makes clear that craft is involved, in that these sonic manipulations didn't happen by accident. "AOS," bringing together Ono's exploratory vocalizing (including some terrifying screams) and noises from nonrock musicians, complicates the picture. But whatever you as a listener have decided about the artistic choices so far, the return of Lennon, Vollmann, and Starr on the final two tracks, "Touch Me" and "Paper Shoes," won't change your mind.
In 1968, Ono and Lennon titled their joint art exhibit You Are Here. The underlying theme of Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band may be "you are right here, right now, experiencing this." The album gives you, the listener, material to work with, in the way an abstract painting might. Such an experience, perhaps as an opportunity to understand, can provide pleasure. Even experiences, sounds that might be considered unpleasant can be sources of pleasure. Rock fans who appreciate both the fury and the beauty, the power and the glory, the hard rock meets jazz squall of the Stooges' Fun House (1970) will be primed to "get" this idea and this music.
In 1969, Ono and Lennon assembled an all-star version of the Plastic Ono Band to perform a UNICEF benefit concert. They performed only two songs, Lennon's "Cold Turkey" for about seven minutes and Ono's "Don't Worry Kyoko" for forty. As documented by the live recording they later released, the music entailed heavy riffs overladen with some singing and much freeform, pain-filled vocalizing. Many audience members fled, but Ono and Lennon claimed that those who stayed were entranced, probably went off to form bands, and might have ended up punk rockers in the late '70s. Newcomers to Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band, especially youthful ones, may be equally inspired to express themselves.
Ono's next album, Fly (1971), has inspired melodic expressions and atonal ones. The first of two double albums Ono released on Apple, Fly would be the companion piece to Lennon's Imagine, released the same year. The connection is signaled by the same lowercase sans-serif fonts being used on both album covers. Whereas Imagine's cover photos depict Lennon as a dreamer with his head in the clouds, however, Fly presents Ono in a gritty, disturbing light. On the front cover, Ono stares straight at the camera, her gaze impenetrable. On the back cover her high heels look badass.
With Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band being a definitive statement, the apotheosis of Ono as freeform ululator, the encapsulation of her outsiderness, Fly sees Ono channeling some of her music-making into more conventional forms. If "Cambridge 1969" and Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band resemble abstract expressionist action paintings, where you're best off following the lines, curves, blotches, and splotches, feeling your way if not feeling what the singer's feeling, then Fly ventures into representational art.
On the opener, "Midsummer New York," the Plastic Ono Band consists of Lennon, Voormann, Chris Osborne on dobro, and the venerable Jim Keltner on drums and percussion. Lennon may have shaped or at least heavily influenced this mildly rocking boogie, which has the feel of his mildly rocking solo material, such as the oldies collection Rock 'N' Roll (1975). But as he once put it about his own "Cold Turkey," "this song's about pain": "My heart shakes in terror," Ono sings. "The whole world's shaking." Much of her subsequent songwriting seems rooted in those lines.
Pain remains a subject on the mind-blowing seventeen-minute "Mindtrain," where the same band plows an entirely different field. If you've sampled the rhythmically complex grooves of "Greenfield Morning" and liked them, this is the fever dream for you. Why Lennon didn't play raw guitar like this on his post-Plastic Ono Band albums may have been due to his insecurity about not pleasing the audience, but his playing on Ono's albums can be a revelation, and his partnership with Ono could be thought of as a duet. Here he plays stinging licks, stabs, that perfectly complement Ono's hammering, yammering, percussively repeating the word "dub," and issuing disconnected lines such as "thought of killing that man."
"Mind Holes" marries ethereal music with minimal lyrics--a free-verse poem that looks at mind holes in different ways. The voices are by Ono, the guitars are by Lennon, and her freedom as a vocalist leads Lennon into new territory for him as an instrumentalist. As Ono layers ghostly, echo-laden wails, he draws on Indian music, layering sitar-like patterns. Entire indie-rock careers have been built out of such simple materials.
Lennon's patterns turn bluesy toward the end of "Mind Holes," leading perfectly into the distorted blues of "Don't Worry Kyoko," her 1969 B-side, where the Plastic Ono Band includes Eric Clapton. If you can imagine removing Robert Plant from one of Led Zeppelin's blues mutations and importing a Japanese woman who riffs on syllables, then you are mentally creating this maelstrom, another antecedent of indie rock (inspiring, for example, the New York band Bongwater).
If you'd object that Robert Plant can sing but Yoko Ono can't, please listen to "Mrs. Lennon." The music, made by Lennon on keyboards and Voormann on guitars, sounds similar to the Ono-Lennon song "Oh My Love," a gentle ballad on Imagine. However, the gentleness in "Mrs. Lennon" is fragility in the face of loss, death, and pain:
extended his hand
extended his hand to his wife
. . . and suddenly he finds
that he has no hands
they've lost their bodies!
Freedom can be found in release from the physical, and solace can be found in the fact that everything passes, but Ono's vocal--a dry-eyed and straightforward rendering of a sad and beautiful melody--doesn't uplift, exactly. It presents the reality of a world in flux.
If the other songs on Fly leave us speculating about how alternative musicians have drawn from Ono's groundbreaking work, "Mrs. Lennon" provides a concrete example. On the third, shambolic Big Star album, the proto-alternative singer-songwriter Alex Chilton openly used the melody of this song for his devastating slow burn, "Holocaust."
"Hirake" is an interesting case. In this funky, three-minute version, it appeared as "Open Your Box," the flip side of Lennon's 1971 single, "Power to the People." Extolling the opening of things physical and spiritual ("let's open the world"), it is a bit more of a "song" than the version that appears as a bonus track on the 2016 reissue of Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band. There, for seven-and-a-half-minutes, Ono vocalizes freestyle as Lennon, Voormann, and Starr perform with a freneticism that foreshadows the work of postpunk and no wave bands a decade later.
"O'Wind (Body Is the Scar of Your Mind)" makes explicit the Indian influence of "Mind Holes" by incorporating tablas. Over a buzzing, clicking, humming instrumental, Ono creates a sonic landscape, or perhaps, if we take the title literally, becomes the ghostly wind blowing over what feels like a desolate, pitted surface.
Side 3 consists of three pieces--"Airmale," "Don't Count the Waves," and "You"--in which Ono and Lennon take the ghostly wind further, layering vocal and percussive noises. The latter come almost entirely from instruments made for this album by the Fluxus artist Joe Jones. Fly's twenty-two-minute title track takes up just about all of the original two-LP set's fourth side and consists mainly of wordless vocalizing that often suggests nonhuman animal noises or babies' gurgles or appliances gone awry. At about the fifteen-minute mark, Lennon comes in on guitar tones and textures, and the combination is arresting, like Eno and Fripp's No Pussyfooting (1973) but even more minimal. The 2016 reissue's bonus tracks--including a two-and-a-half-minute "medley" (!) of "Airmale," "You," and "Fly"--mainly push even further into sonic collage.
This music can't be sugarcoated. Here pop-rock fans don't have even the novelty of hearing Ringo Starr or Eric Clapton play in a radically different context. Imagining Robert Plant in Yoko's place won't help. Fans of Eno's noisier or ambient instrumental excursions might be intrigued, as might Pink Floyd fans who want to hear more of the bits between the songs, or Flaming Lips devotees (who would already know that the Lips and Ono collaborated), but we're in territory generally labeled "experimental" or "avant-garde" for lack of a neater category. If the names Meredith Monk, Throbbing Gristle, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Diamanda Galás, the Residents, and LaMonte Young signify for you, then Ono's most challenging music on Fly might be meaningful to you. But if you're not already intrigued by what you've read here, chances are good that you'll be entering a new and strange dimension that will take some getting used to.
"Some" might be a hopeless understatement. You might never perceive these sounds as music, for artists in the experimental/avant-garde/what-have-you dimension generally want to break the boundaries of what people outside that dimension consider music. As a result, music from "out there" can consist of sounds, more or less organized. Of course, all music consists of organized sounds, but for boundary-breakers the organizing principles may be hard to determine and the sounds hard to appreciate.
Ono, coming from the fringe art world, naturally gravitated to the "out there" dimension. In collaboration with ex-Beatle John, even in this early part of her music career she sometimes employed conventional elements such as lyrics, melody, rhythm, verses and choruses, and so on. But also in collaboration with ex-Beatle John, she organized sounds the way a visual artist might manipulate any material: The result becomes music, or work in any other medium, because the creator says it is. The unkind would quote the playwright Tom Stoppard's characterization of modern art as "imagination without talent." The open-minded will explore.
And so, listener, it is up to you to decide if Fly's final track, the thirty-four-second "Telephone Piece," in which a phone rings until Ono answers it, is music. Or art. Or interesting.
Xmas Single and Some Time in New York City (1971-72)
If your answer is no, if you're not interested in the challenging Fly, you might prefer Ono and Lennon's other collaboration in 1971 (1972 in the U.K.), the single "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" / "Listen, the Snow Is Falling." If you have been sentient for some years, at least in the United States, you have probably become familiar with the classic on the A-side, a perennial holiday favorite, written and performed by the couple, plus the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir, and produced by Phil Spector, before he completely lost his mind, with the Wall of Sound majesty he brought to his 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift to You. But have you heard the B-side, written and performed by Ono? Anticipating what we now call dream pop, the song drifts on a keyboard drone, which gentle guitar lines seem to crisscross over. Ono uses snow as an opportunity to explore three of her favorite themes: sensory experience, consciousness, and distance. The snow is between this and that, between that and this, and perhaps you can feel how it occupies the spaces. Indie rockers and sonic space explorers Galaxie 500 covered this one to great effect in 1990.
In 1972, Lennon and Ono issued their joint album Some Time in New York City. They had moved from England to New York, NY, where they allied themselves with Greenwich Village political activists. The causes the couple championed--antiracism, feminism, freedom for Ireland (from under England's thumb), freedom for John Sinclair, freedom for Angela Davis--were right on, but the mainstream marketplace rejected their broadsides. Even to sympathetic listeners, Lennon and Ono's righteousness seemed to have bloated into offensive self-righteousness.
To unsympathetic listeners, Ono's eccentricity and stridency seemed to have muscled their way into Lennon the dreamer's musicality. All the songs on Some Time in New York City were cowrites except for three by Ono alone: the bouncy "Sisters, O Sisters," the tender "Born in a Prison," and the frenzied "We're All Water." On the faster songs, producer Phil Spector seemed to turn Ono into a one-woman girl group, and the fit wasn't perfect. Neither was the album's backup band, the pedestrian New York outfit Elephant's Memory.
Few people bought the album, and fewer wanted to hear it. Thrown from his artistic horse by the album's rejection, Lennon attempted over the next few years to climb back on the horse by moving both forward and backward. On his subsequent albums, he sometimes sounded strong and sometimes sounded tentative, hamstrung by his own legacy.
Approximately Infinite Universe (1973)
Ono emerged from Some Time in New York City unscathed, having not been a pop-rock superstar and having no chance of becoming one (her Japanese-inflected pronunciation alone guaranteed that). All the stronger for having created something so reviled, she sounds supremely confident throughout her next album, the two-LP set Approximately Infinite Universe (1973). Having taken her formless musical forms and political sloganeering seemingly as far as they could go, Ono achieved something completely different: a full-fledged singer/songwriter collection.
Although the Plastic Ono Band and Elephant's Memory are credited, the only non-Elephant's Memory musician (apart from the Endless Strings and Choir Boys) is one Joel Nohnn, who happens to play guitar. So within a year, Ono and the same musicians created two collections that feel radically different. If you've heard Some Time in New York City and think you know what Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory Band sound like, you're in for a surprise. If Some Time in New York City tried to capture the feel of the street, Approximately Infinite Universe has the warmth of a comfortable room. If the band sounded uptight on Some Time in New York City--they were, after all, backing an ex-Beatle and being produced by the mastermind behind the Wall of Sound--they now sound looser in the best way, far more expressive and exhibiting newfound facility. Ono did the arrangements, and her coproduction with Lennon avoids the brittleness that often accompanies Spector's layering.
The album opener, "Yang Yang," draws you in to a rich, organic sound with a marching beat. Ono's lyrics excoriate the powerful, abusive title character while inviting him to give it all up and "join the revolution."
"Death of Samantha" confirms that Ono and her musicians are staying and playing on the accessible side. Over an R&B-informed, electric-piano-dominated groove that says "early 1970s" in the best way, Ono creates a portrait: "People say I'm cool / Yeah I'm a cool chick, baby." You're struck by the beauty and sexiness of her singing. Yes, you're listening to Yoko Ono, whom so many people have mocked for her coldness and inability to sing, and she is bringing a depth of feeling to the simple lines "Something inside me / Died that day." We don't learn what happened, just that the person has been changed: "It was like an accident / Part of growing up, people tell me." In a turn that resembles Lou Reed's deadpan depictions of urban ennui, Samantha concludes, "What do you do / What can you do."
Feminism courses through Approximately Infinite Universe, and for Ono the drive for equality is powered by anger and grounded in love. Track 3, "I Want My Love to Rest Tonight," is a sweet, piano-based ballad built on unrhythmic, unmetered, and mostly unrhymed lyrics in sympathy with a man who's basically a victim of socialization. That's her take on the world, basically: Some people are grunting pigs, but others have been turned into swine by social structures that need to be changed.
Ono's lyrical style is all her own: free verse that is generally plainspoken yet abstract, taking unexpected turns, on the page seemingly unmusical, yet for the most part meshing with music--sometimes with lines she needs to cascade through. Another gorgeous ballad, "Winter Song," ends
One day we discovered that the clock
Was not ticking anymore
And our bodies kept spreading rapidly
Like a very very fine tissue
Until it stretched over the whole wide world
The same kind of expansion animates "Peter the Dealer," which is R&B-influenced pop-rock with lyrics that travel from the city to the universe. "Have You Seen a Horizon Lately" meditates on how transience calls for appreciation of things in the moment.
"Song for John"--like "Mrs. Lennon," arrestingly sad and beautiful--is a poem that only Yoko Ono would have written and set to music:
On a windy day
Let's go on flying
There may be no trees to rest on
There may be no clouds to ride
But we'll have our wings
And the wind will be with us
&snbsp; That's enough for me
&snbsp; That's enough for me
On a windy day
We went on flying
There was no sea to rest on
There were no hills to glide
We saw an empty bottle rolling down
&snbsp; the street
And on a cardboard stand at the corner
&snbsp; of the street
In addition to the ballads, there are some funky workouts and rockers. On "Kite Song," Ono's far-seeing funk-rock could be a Krautrock band voyaging into space. On "What Did I Do!" Ono sings about searching for something unnamed, then mixes some of her freeform vocalizing with horns. "Approximately Infinite Universe" prefigures horn-driven, female-sung punk; in fact, you could segue perfectly from anything on the English band X-Ray Spex's Germfree Adolescents (1978) into or out of this portrait:
In this approximately infinite universe
I know a girl who's in constant hell
No love or pill could keep her cool
Cause there's a thousand holes in her heart
"Catman (The Rosies Are Coming)" foreshadows Patti Smith and Blondie, though its Edward Lear-like wordplay doesn't suggest either: "We'll burn your pansies and give you a bug / We'll squeeze your lemon and give you a mug." "Move on Fast" could be Smith or her friends Television at their punkiest: "Bury your past / An' move on fast."
Elsewhere, Ono humorously juxtaposes lyrics and music: "I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window" is from the perspective of someone whose psyche is ruled by violence, but the music is the kind of faux-'50s rock that ex-Beatle John trafficked in, with a dose of theatrical schmaltz. "What a Mess," despite being about women fed up listening to men, is another fun pop-rocker but with an unexpected Latin flavor.
Also unexpected are Ono's excursions into slow soul ("I Have a Woman Inside My Soul"), Nina Simone-style chanson ("Shirinakatta [Didn't Know]"), adorably catchy bubblegum ("Waiting for the Sunrise"), Leonard Cohen-style lament ("What a Bastard the World Is"), Bob Dylan-style punditry ("Now or Never," about a society consumed by violence: "People of America, when will we see / It's now or never / We've no time to lose"), and demented ska ("Air Talk," whose stilted lyrics could be by David Byrne: "It's sad that air is the only thing we share / No matter how close we are there's always air between us / It's also nice that air's something we all share / No matter how far apart we are an air links us").
After working through that cavalcade of styles, Ono surprises with her freeform vocalizing on the bluesy dirge "Is Winter Here to Stay?" I can do so many other things, she is telling us, but I haven't abandoned this style; it remains a form she can draw on when the mood strikes her. She is flat out doing her thing here, if in a more subdued mode than in the past.
Finally, "Looking over from My Hotel Window" is another lovely meditation in the "Mrs. Lennon" mode. The singer quietly takes stock: "Age 39 feeling pretty suicidal."
Well. Not a dud in the bunch; not a wasted moment. One of the most consistent two-record sets I've ever heard, it just flies by. If Approximately Infinite Universe has nothing else, and it has much else, the album sports one of the all-time coolest album titles and the most evocative, eloquent bunch of song titles. That this collection isn't included within the classic rock canon, that it isn't widely considered one of the best albums ever made, is a travesty reflecting racism, sexism, preconceptions generally.
Not to beat up on John Lennon, but I'm sure he'd agree that this album is stronger than every one he made after John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band. If Lennon often choked aesthetically, his missus gave her all. Or maybe the difference is that Lennon responded to the "failure" of his political art by reverting to what he knew best, himself, whereas Ono knew she'd been right, made no apologies, and kept her imagination roaming for both information and metaphors to channel that information into.
We could look at this difference as the superstar's, the world changer's, the veteran's response to rejection versus the comparatively marginalized artist's. In feminist terms, we could say that the man, basically owning the world, could afford to retreat from it, whereas the woman needed to remain focused on improving the world.
Feeling the Space (1973)
Ono's next and final album on Apple, Feeling the Space (1973), feels like a slower, more subdued sequel to Approximately Infinite Universe. It corresponds with Lennon's Mind Games (1973), sporting many of the same musicians, but generally sounds different. Ono produced her album, Lennon produced his, and her production is much cleaner, her arrangements less cluttered. The music on Feeling the Space gels more organically, swings more, invites us to have more fun. (Yes, having fun in the studio with Yoko--who'd have thought?)
Oddly, though, this is Ono's most Lennonesque album during this period. For example, "Coffin Car" has the kind of sinister groove that we normally associate with Lennon (as on his song "Scared," from 1974's Walls and Bridges). Yet he seems to have had little involvement with Feeling the Space; credited as John O'Cean, he plays guitar on three tracks. We now know that the Some Time in New York City disappointment, his politically motivated immigration problems, and his lifelong combination of egomania and insecurity had shaken Lennon. He responded by undermining his one sure thing, his marriage, and Yoko sent him packing.
So now she's on her own with the Plastic Ono Band and Something Different, a three-woman background vocal trio. The album's opener, the gentle, echoing, flute-enhanced "Growing Pain," may reflect Ono's troubles with Lennon. One hesitates to infer autobiography where it may not be warranted, but it's hard not to connect this first song with the album's final sounds: a recording of Lennon saying, "Yes, dear," which feels like an angry wife's sweet victory or revenge or at least having the last word by putting it in her husband's mouth. In any case, feminism and women's plights generally are very much on Ono's mind. Consider the song titles: "Yellow Girl (Stand by for Life)," "Women of Salem," "Angry Young Woman," "She Hits Back," "Men, Men, Men," and so on.
Whereas Approximately Infinite Universe was so far ahead of its time that we find its echoes in subsequent cutting-edge music, Feeling the Space feels more of its time. Fans of '70s New York pop-rock should eat it up. Sonically, it resembles parts of Lou Reed's Transformer (1972) and Berlin (1973), but in place of Reed's coolness, camp, and violence it offers love, sweetness, and militancy.
"Run, Run, Run," for example, features sensitive interaction between Ono and Something Different, plus fluid electric-piano runs (from Ken Ascher). "If Only" veers far from what most people would associate with Ono, combining acoustic guitar, brushed drums, and prominent harmonica (from Don Brooks). The bouncy "Straight Talk" delivers a straightforward message:
Unless we teach each other
What we really feel
How are we gonna communicate
And get ourselves together?
A second message comes in "Woman Power": "Make no mistake about it, sisters / We women have the power to change the world." Beneath its subdued surface, the album accrues force, which is unleashed on this, its penultimate track, a stomping monster and the most potent Ono riff-rocker since "Don't Worry Kyoko." The sound is cavernous, a mighty roar crunching and swallowing instruments. This track could have been recorded in any decade from the '60s till now and still sounded utterly fresh and true.
Ono did not release another album until 1980, when she and Lennon, with whom she reunited in 1974, emerged from musical retirement to collaborate on Double Fantasy. Like Some Time in New York City, that album interweaves her songs with his. While his are often perfect pop, hers tend to rock harder and have more bite. The couple then achieved their perfect combination of pop accessibility and edgy artsiness on her dance single "Walking on Thin Ice" (1981). They were mixing this song on the night Lennon was murdered.
Ono's early acoustic ballads, her formless sonic forms, and her completely developed singer/songwriter albums represent equally legitimate forms of music-making. We like to think of change as progress, and perhaps Ono would say that she progressed as a musician or thinker or artist, such as by learning from people she worked with. That isn't for us to say, however. Judging by the confidence level in all her Apple releases, Ono emerged fully formed. Her changes may be seen as working in different forms, employing diverse media, doing not just her thing but her things.
(Left) A gift from Yoko Ono to attendees of the Japan benefit concert she organized after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The text reads: "The sky is cracked now over Japan. Let's come together in our dreams to heal. / A dream you dream alone is only a dream. But a dream you dream together is reality. / I love you! / yoko / spring, 2011." (Right) Part of a jacket sleeve from "Cut Piece for Pants Suit," a variation on Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece," directed by JoAnne Akalaitis and Ashley Tata in New York's Madison Square Park, December 19, 2016. Photo: Kurt Wildermuth
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
Also see our earlier article on Yoko Ono
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