Reconsidering Yoko Ono: Three Reissues Honor Legacy of Avant-Rock Icon
Yoko Ono’s five unapologetically noisy, quietly influential albums released between 1968 and 1971 (two solo, three with John Lennon) are some of the most misunderstood and maligned in rock history. Rolling Stone‘s own Lester Bangs called the first two Ono/Lennon albums, “the ego-trips of two rich waifs adrift in the musical revolutions of the Sixties … Dilettante garbage, simply.” A seasoned noisenik, Bangs’ assertion was not totally incorrect; but Ono and Lennon’s late night home-studio freak-outs and cassette-tape confessionals shouldn’t be judged against John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen’s freewheeling (but ultimately notated) clatter, nor the jazz-trained cosmic chaos of Musica Elettronica Viva, AMM or Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
Instead, Ono and Lennon’s first two records together, Unfinished Music No. 1 and 2, were impulsive and pure. They were occasionally brilliant, occasionally idiotic and always honest – just like the best rock music. Those records and the rest of Ono’s output would provide a crucial link between the bleeding edge of 20th Century Composition (she ran in the same circles as Cage, Morton Feldman and La Monte Young in the mid-Sixties) and the primitive forms of expression that would one day be called “punk rock.” Rendering the tortured voices and tortured guitars of American rock & roll as an expressionist blurt, Ono and Lennon weren’t academics, but travelers who stumbled across some of the same sounds and freedoms in the late Sixties as Cromagnon did in New York, Red Krayola did in Texas, Nihilist Spasm Band did in Canada and Amon Düül II did in Munich. Released by a major label and co-starring a Beatle, these records would be some of the most famous experimental art statements of generation.
Taking proper stock of her influence, Secretly Canadian and Chimera are remastering and reissuing 11 albums Ono recorded between 1968 and 1985. Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins is probably the most famous work to bear the Ono name, thanks to the iconic frontal-nude cover. The album itself is part diary, part jam session; a raw document of a night the pair spent goofing around and falling in love while Lennon’s wife was out of town. The sizzling distortion and stretched audio bring to mind the tape music experiments of years past by more conservatory-centric artists like Pierre Schaeffer or Robert Ashley, but it’s far more free, playful and silly – the “wop bop a lu bop” of making hideous racket. Vol. 1 is the first-ever released recordings of Ono’s iconic screeching, ululating and emotional yowling and, in turn, it’s not nearly as controlled as the wail it would evolve into. Ultimately Ono’s voice is just part of the chaos instead of its defining element. The tornado it inhabits is a nauseous, blown-out piece of musique concrète where whistles and drunken barroom piano fight for attention over ringing noise, drones and tape loops. “Performing” for the couple means laughs and swears and jokes and, as an especially Cage-ian twist, just playing someone else’s records. By accident or design, lots of the American cassette tape noise underground of the Eighties, Nineties and today would sound like variations of Two Virgins; there’s a lot for fans of Wolf Eyes or Oneohtrix Point Never to enjoy. The reissue appends the LP with a gorgeous coda, Ono’s tender, fragile proto-twee ballad “Remember Love.” Served as the less famous B-side to “Give Peace a Chance,” it probably hit more ears than the Velvet Underground’s similar “After Hours.”
John and Yoko’s second LP-length collaboration, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, would tether the proceedings to what listeners generally understood as “rock music.” Opening with a screeching, live 26-minute suite that’s mostly Ono’s spiraling onomatopoeia and Lennon’s colorful flower bursts of guitar feedback, it’s Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, an improvisation that takes the harshest tones of the psychedelic era and turns them into free convulsions. Ono’s voice is leagues more assured from the opening squeal, defining itself more as a instrument ready for center stage, especially in the heaving, percussive parts. In turn, this blast would pave a way for the tantrums of Sonic Youth and Boredoms; the throat gymnastics of Mike Patton, Meredith Monk and Tanya Tagaq; and the deconstructed guitar torture of Glenn Branca and Sunn O))). Entire swaths of violent yet lighthearted avant-rock starts right here. The reissue features “Mulberry,” an eight-minute acoustic WWII reflection with a similarly strangled sound.
The other half of Vol. 2 was recorded in a London hospital where, during Ono’s stay, she would miscarry what would have been the couple’s first child together. The conceptual, field recording of the hospital room allows the two celebrities to expose themselves well beyond showing their skin on an album cover. Rolling Stone called it “utter bullshit and perhaps in poor taste,” but now we can see that it was prescient. In the pre-social media age, this was reality-show audio theater starring a wildly famous couple in their most private, heartbreaking moment. John and Yoko chant news stories about themselves like Gregorian monks, they play a recording of John Ono Lennon II’s actual heartbeat and then allow for “Two Minutes Silence.” This diaristic exploration closes with 12 mundane minutes of a telephone call, some flipping of the newspaper and some twisting with a radio dial. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da – is this how life goes on after tragedy?
After John and Yoko released their third experiment, 1969’s indulgent Wedding Album, Ono released her first solo effort, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, at the end of 1970. Here is where Ono jumps fully from art icon to musical maverick with a sound that would be attempted, mutated and covered, but never duplicated. “Why?” “Touch Me” and R-rated dissonance-funk B-side “Open Your Box” should earn Ono a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for single-handedly wiring the post-punk and no wave engines more than half a decade early. Sure, Ono wasn’t the first rock musician to fuse rock with freaky goo-goo muckin’ noise freak-outs – by 1970 the Velvets, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Pink Floyd were in full interstellar overdrive – but no one had done it with such propulsion, allowing chaos to live comfortably next to body music. With no choruses, searing outsider-style guitar, vein-popping vocal performances and hypnotic grooves, you can hear entire chunks of the class of 1979 being forged: the Slits, Public Image Limited, Gang of Four, James Chance & the Contortions, Liliput, the Raincoats, the Fall, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and, most importantly, the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster.”
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is a true showcase of Ono’s voice as both jazz instrument and pop boundary-destroyer, the artist creating a dynamic pastiche of German opera, Tibetan throat singing, the voice-straining kabuki style of hetai and that ol’ time rock & roll. Ono embarks on throaty aggro-scatting, swooning glide, moaning and deep breathing over blues-rock groove, dubby effects and an especially responsive collaboration with free-jazz architect Ornette Coleman. Previously released bonus track “The South Wind” includes Ono over 16 minutes of primitive acoustic guitar bending from Lennon. Like an expressive, emotionally rich version of the krautrock being forged a few miles west, the 41 minutes of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band joined minimalism, jazz, garage rock and free improvisation for something that funked and frazzled – and its importance should not be understated.
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