The Strange World Of… Yoko Ono

Despite the predictably & performatively negative reaction the Japanese artist inspires in some critical quarters, it is clear she has been responsible for a cavalcade of bangers over the decades. With a new retrospective at the Tate Modern, Jeremy Allen explores her back catalogue

I have a pack of Top Trumps at home featuring 30 celebrated avant garde composers. It’s a variation on the classic schoolyard card game, made by the enterprising small Welsh firm Gazoo. Despite nobody in my household expressing too much interest in playing a round with this deck of serialists, minimalists and sonic outliers, these cards are fun to flick through in a moment of boredom, and perfect for casually leaving in a conspicuous place when cool people deign to visit.

Yoko Ono sits in the pack among venerated left field names like Alvin Lucier, Cornelius Cardew, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, Daphne Oram, and so on. As a card of value, however, Ono is easily trumped in most categories. She’s reasonably high on dissonance, scoring 47 points out of 100, but is dispatched with ease should she come up against 20th century titan Iannis Xenakis (94 points). Similarly, she scores well on absurdism (56 points), but fellow Japanese compatriot Takehisa Kosugi is more absurd (72) and Philip Corner (74) even more absurd still.

What this tacitly points to is the fact that for all of Yoko’s received left field reputation, perhaps she’s more pop than avant-garde where her music is concerned. When Ono got together with John Lennon in 1968 she’d already emerged onto the international art scene and was an established figure within the New York Fluxus community. While that might have intimidated the troglodytes on Fleet Street, her art was more direct than they ever gave it credit for. A visual, interactive work like Cut Piece was conceived to make you look and think; a musical piece like ‘Mind Train’ was intended to make you listen and move. Yoko no doubt would consider both revolutionary bangers designed to make the world a better place.

Not everybody was predisposed to such idealism or in tune with her music – the latter would take time to percolate, which hadn’t really been its intention. Affecting mass emotional, spiritual and political change with art and music might look absurdly naive now, but we’ve had five decades of crushing disappointment to quell any hopes of things improving for more than a handful of people since the time John and Yoko were espousing peace. Ono, growing up in an aristocratic family in Imperial Japan, was very much used to getting her own way. Even now, after a long lifetime with its well documented moments of tragedy, her simple invocations of peace posted to her 4.4M Twitter followers are still very much on brand.

As for her supposedly unapproachable back catalogue, there are shards of light throughout that should easily provide points of access. Ono brought a refreshing, innovative, feminist dimension to rock & roll that was desperately needed, though to say she was met with resistance would be understating it: the artist was subjected to a mad torrent of misogyny and racist abuse for decades which, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to join any Beatles forum online, you’ll be only too aware is depressingly recalcitrant in certain quarters.

And it wasn’t just the unreconstructed who opposed her foray into music either: the unleashing of such a unique abstract expressionist voice seemed to cause offence and somehow invalidate her in the eyes of her art milieu too: “When John and I got together I was not thinking pop music so much as rock,” she later said. “I was interested in that strong, heavy beat, which I equated with the heartbeat. I thought avant-garde music is mainly for the head – most male avant-garde composers avoided the voice because it was too animalistic. They were into very cool instrumental kind of things. Cool was in, and by using my voice I was a little uncool in their eyes. Strange, isn’t it?”

Fast forward half a century and resistance, we discover, is futile. The Tate Modern is honouring the Japanese’s work this month with YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, her largest UK retrospective. With this in mind, now seems like a good time to also take a retrospective look ourselves at some of Yoko’s most inspiring musical moments, which will hopefully present portals for further navigation should you need them.

‘Why?’ from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

We have the three engineers who were working on John Lennon’s debut solo album to thank for Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band the album, and in particular ‘Why?’, a skittering, screaming sonic headfuck of a song that recalls the elasticated manic energy of early Butthole Surfers. The impetus was Lennon jamming on his guitar, with Ono reciprocating in kind with her larynx. The engineers demurred, heading off to the toilets for an extended break with the tape still running. "On Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, you hear John saying, ‘Did you get that?’” said Yoko in 1996. “I kept it in because most of the time when we did my stuff, all the engineers picked that time to go to the bathroom. They couldn’t stand it, probably! A lot of things were not taped, and a lot of things were lost in my life.” So thanks Phil McDonald, Andy Stevens and John Leckie. “We did not have to correct one drum beat, one guitar note,” said Yoko, later, referring to the music she made with Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann and guests like Ornette Coleman (on ‘AOS’), a fusion of styles that sashayed with the eddies and vortices of her distinctive, versatile voice box. “John and I felt together we had created a ‘New Music’, a fusion of avant-garde jazz-rock and East and West.” Released on the same day as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon reached no.8 in the UK album charts whereas Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band didn’t chart. Both albums are an expurgation in some ways, Lennon influenced by Primal Scream therapy and Ono channelling something even more primordial. Lennon’s ‘Mother’ is an extraordinary track, but otherwise, Ono’s album is way more fun.

‘Mind Train’ from Fly (1971)

Yoko Ono’s ‘New Music’ practitioners comprised Jim Keltner – the silent Travelling Wilbury – on drums, and someone playing slide with a countrified dobro, the hollow-bodied guitar you might know from the cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. If that sounds potentially hokey, ‘Mind Train’ chugs along with an effusive Can-like groove that refuses to let up for nearly 17 minutes (nobody was making music like this in 1971 except for the Cologne Krautrock pioneers, and the likelihood of either being particularly interested in what the other was doing is questionable). Lennon called his music “literary” and Yoko’s “revolutionary”, and that’s still very much the case with the Fly album which, incidentally, the Welsh card company Gazoo recommends as her most avant-garde offering. And who can argue when the title track features nearly 24 minutes of Yoko speaking in an alien house fly language. The track soundtracks her 1970 film of the same where a fly slowly traverses a naked female body as a statement about objectification.

‘Move On Fast’ from Approximately Infinite Universe (1973)

1973 saw Ono move away from jams to explore more conventional song structures with her group Elephant’s Memory, though a song with a title as unhinged as ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window’ was never going to give Linda Ronstadt sleepless nights. Nevertheless, Approximately Infinite Universe is full of confessional lyrics – painfully so, at times – just at the moment her and Lennon were to enter their well-documented 18-month separation that he would refer to as his “Lost Weekend”. ‘Move On Fast’ could be a coded reference to what was to come, but more likely Ono was alluding to her past and moving on from difficult situations and memories, whether that be her hitherto two failed marriages, her cold, indifferent, patrician parents, or even her personal memories – such as scavenging in the Japanese countryside after her family left Tokyo in the 40s to escape US bombs. The Onos would barter for food with their substantial horde of jewellery and possessions, wheeled around on a trolley, and Yoko remembered stealing potatoes from a field and stuffing them into a rucksack, and being so young that the sack apparently weighed as much as she did.

‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ from Double Fantasy (1979)

‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’ is a dazzling two-and-a-half minutes of polka-infused pop with an orgasm thrown in for good measure. And there’s plenty more where that came from on Double Fantasy, though sadly not from John Lennon. It seems churlish to criticise one half of the greatest pop writing partnership in history, especially given how opinion has swung so decisively from him towards McCartney in recent years, and yet that doesn’t take away from the complacency on offer from Beatle John, who – when compared to his forward thinking wife – sounds like a relic. The tired blues run outs actually distract from Yoko’s exemplary work at this point, which sit beautifully together should you trim Lennon’s filler out altogether. Why not pop Yoko’s seven songs into a playlist and see for yourself how much more cohesive and enjoyable the mini-album Single Fantasy is?

‘Walking On Thin Ice’ (1980)

‘Walking On Thin Ice’ was the last song Ono and Lennon recorded together shortly before he was murdered on his doorstep at the Dakota Buildings in Manhattan. The version that was released in 1992 via Onobox features Lennon at the outset of the record saying: “I think you just cut your first number one, Yoko." The single actually peaked at no.35 when it was released in February 1981 a few months after her husband’s death, and it has endured perhaps more than any other of her songs bar the yuletide staple ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’. There’s something compelling about its ghostly aura and haunting slabs of New York disco funk, as Lennon strangles his Rickenbacker in the bridge. The lyric seems to foreshadow a moment of catastrophe as she compares the fragility of life with a deceptively fragile patina of ice. It’s easy to impose meaning on lyrics with hindsight, of course, though it was the imposition of remixed synths and rhythms that finally took the track to no.1 in 2003, fulfilling Lennon’s prophecy. The Pet Shop Boys, Danny Tenaglia and Felix Da Housecat all recorded new versions for a maxi single that topped the US Billboard Dance Chart 22 years after its initial release.

‘No No No’ from Season Of Glass (1981)

‘No No No’ is Yoko at her most direct. The track opens with four gunshots and then the artist’s deathly scream. There can be no ambiguity regarding what she’s referring to. Lennon’s senseless assassination captivated – if that’s the right word – the world’s attention, and it was definitely the moment where I started listening to records, namely the three or four Beatles’ albums that belonged to my parents; the beginning of a life in music in one way or another. Lennon’s death may have meant one thing to the Beatles industrial complex, but the unspeakable loss his widow had to endure was always likely to come out in her art. The cover of Season Of Glass features a picture of Lennon’s blood smeared glasses overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Some expressed shock and offence, to which Ono countered: “A lot of people advised me that I shouldn’t put that cover on the record, but I really wanted the whole world to see those glasses with blood on them and to realise the fact that John had been killed. It wasn’t like he died of old age or drugs or something. People told me I shouldn’t put the gunshots on the record, and the part where I start swearing, ‘Hate me, hate us, we had everything,’ which was just letting those feelings out. I know if John had been there, he would have been a lot more outspoken than I was. He was like that.”

IMA & Yoko Ono – ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ (Tricky remix) (1996)

The original version of ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ is largely forgettable, coming out on the 1995 Rising album made with IMA, Sean Ono Lennon’s band. The following year, most of the tracks from the album were remixed, and the pick of the bunch is the one with Tricky, with a growl underpinning Yoko’s top line, creating something enjoyably off-kilter and unsettling. Back in the mid-90s, before major record companies blew their entire budgets on old catalogue and TikTok campaigns, remixes were the thing. Tricky remembered how ridiculous the situation was in his ghostwritten autobiography Hell Is Around The Corner from 2019. “On my 28th birthday, I did two remixes on the same day, one for Stevie Wonder and the other for Yoko Ono. I can’t remember which way round it was, but I got forty grand for one of them and fifty grand for the other. It was my birthday, and my cousin Mark was in town, so I didn’t want to hang around: I took some of Stevie Wonder’s music and put it under Yoko’s voice, and put some of Yoko’s music under Stevie Wonder – a few hours’ work, job done!”

‘Yes, I’m A Witch’ from Yes, I’m A Witch (2007)

First written in 1974, ‘Yes, I’m A Witch’ was a defiant riposte to those who believed Ono had somehow ensnared Lennon with a spell. Asked by Vanity Fair in 2007 if the song was a reaction to the vituperation she’d suffered from fans, she replied: “Well, you can say that. They were saying I was a witch. So I turned around and said, ‘SO WHAT?’ It’s the rebel in me at work. But if I was not a rebel, I would have been squashed a long time ago.” Amusingly, Yoko used the song to let her enemies know that she had no plans to slip away: “I’m not gonna die for you / You might as well face the truth / I’m gonna stick around for quite a while." In 2007, much of her oeuvre was remixed and remodelled with just the stems of her voice for a compilation Yes, I’m A Witch, a kind of post-electroclash feast of Ono alongside artist admirers like Peaches, DJ Spooky, Spiritualized and Cat Power. The title track was remoulded robustly by the Brother Brothers, while Public Enemy production legend Hank Shocklee also provided the electrifying ‘Witch Shocktronica Intro’.

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band ‘The Sun Is Down!’ from Between My Head And The Sky (2009)

With Ono’s records being reconfigured for dancefloors, it made sense to reanimate the Plastic Ono Band, which was always a moveable feast anyway. Sean Lennon took control of the project, and Yoko started making records again with a whole new generation of artists. 2009’s Between My Head And The Sky features an entirely different Plastic Ono Band from 1973’s Feeling The Space, though it’s imbued with a similar sense of anarchic freedom as those early records. Best of all is ‘The Sun Is Down!’, a techno track which travels dynamically under the expert guidance of Cornelius, an artist whose own trajectory has been hurt in recent years due to some historical accusations of bullying. That shouldn’t detract from a jewel of a track that shines brightest in Ono’s late career diadem.

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band with RZA – ‘Greenfield Morning/Seed Of Joy/Life Is A Struggle’ (2013)

Ono and Staten Island’s RZA, the de facto leader of the Wu Tang Clan, apparently bonded over a love of chess. Therefore, when they performed ‘Greenfield Morning/Seed Of Joy/Life Is A Struggle’ together at the Orpheum in Los Angeles on October 1st, 2010, the pair sat up a board centre stage, a nod to Ono’s friend John Cage and his electronic chess spectacle with the father of conceptualism Marcel Duchamp in 1968. Symbolically, perhaps, it represented an anointing of sorts from one master to another – “Mother Superior” to the Shaolin MC. The collaboration later became a charity single for the Children’s Literacy Society, with RZA rapping about his earliest memory (“My mind flashed back to the early moon/ When I was just a sperm cell in the fallopian tube.") before a squalling Yoko pushes him out into the world from the warmth of the womb. ‘4’33’ it isn’t.

Yoko Ono: Music Of The Mind opened this week at Tate Modern

Home page photograph contains detail from ‘Half-A-Room’, from Half – A Wind Show at Lisson Gallery London Photo by Clay Perry ©Yoko Ono

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