With the welcome reissue of Plastic Ono Band, Nick Triani makes the case for Yoko Ono's vital emergence from the shadow of The Beatles.
Recently I was involved in the Beatles-biisi päivässä pitää Jake Nymanin loitolla -secret group on Facebook. Everyday, a Beatles track would be posted in the group and me along with some 124 others would grade the track (between 4-10) and more often than not comment on the song. It was a fun thing to be involved with, and a great way to navigate around people’s preferences for the Fab Four’s catalog. As I approach Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band reissue, being in the FB group highlighted how male dominated The Beatles universe really was. Of course, they had their Micheles and Eleanor Rigbys and wrote a few songs for Cilla Black, Mary Hopkin and so on. Certainly there was no room for a Fluxus member, Japanese art-terrorist espousing feminist platitudes – no space for a contrarian other. This is often how Yoko has been portrayed as regards her relationship with the group.
Certainly there was no room for a Fluxus member, Japanese art-terrorist espousing feminist platitudes – no space for a contrarian other. This is often how Yoko has been portrayed as regards her relationship with the group.
When I was younger it was a commonly held belief that Yoko was actually the reason why the Beatles split up. This was the standard line: Yoko Ono was enemy number one. She was a Japanese woman, and her sense of aesthetics were not informed by the British pop culture of the 1960s. It’s a shocking denouement of male attitudes that within a band as masculine as The Beatles the only woman allowed entry into their inner sanctum would be deemed the destroyer. Nothing to do with the band members growing tired of each other after years spent in the fishbowl of public life then? Or the fact that people change and grow up. Or that the creative juices amongst that entity known as The Beatles were really running dry by the time Yoko came onto the scene. It’s possible John Lennon sensed this, in fact he probably knew this. Once Lennon got it on with Yoko, it’s fair to surmise he became more open to seeing life other than within the confines of the band. He become more than just ‘a Beatle’ and all the baggage that that entailed.
Time will show the wiser
But time is a great healer and retrospectives of both Ono’s music and art redressed the imbalance at the end of the 1980s. Time is also a great barometer by which we begin to understand the misunderstood, and if anything, Yoko Ono has been misunderstood. You could argue that if you want to really look at a post-Beatles career that pushed the musical envelope in a way that stands up to the most innovative work of the Fabs in their prime, look no further than Yoko Ono’s music for that same spirit of adventure. Bagism and Bed-ins can be easy to dismiss but Ono has been a great artist and innovator of our time, always relevant and mystifying, always searching and questioning. History also reveals it was Lennon who was the initial beneficiary of any artistic exchange with Ono. The White Album’s ‘Revolution #9’ not only wins the accolade of being The Beatles most avant track, but its collage of cut-ups and sound bears close scrutiny with the idea behind Ono’s own Cut Piece from 1965. Perhaps the ‘title’ of ‘fifth Beatle‘ can be wrestled from the collective arms of those two Georges, Best and Martin and given to Yoko instead.
Lennon’s own Plastic Ono Band album is seriously rated, perhaps afforded the accolade of best ‘solo Beatle’ album (it’s a close thing with George Harrison’s All things Must Pass apparently) – it’s a staple on the greatest albums of all time lists. So what of Yoko Ono’s partner record, released at the same time in 1970? Where does it figure? Well nowhere really. Ono’s own Plastic Ono Band album has been given little notice over the years, regarded perhaps as an oddity, a companion piece to Lennon’s album at best. Ono’s album was derided by the critical community as hostility and culpability were leveled toward her for the recent Beatles split. Feminist research has indicated women in the arts get wiped from the cannon, just ask Pharrell. Notably Lester Bangs defended the record at the time and slowly but surely, Plastic Ono Band‘s reputation as an original and influential record has been acknowledged. But what lies within?
Vital, pre-post-punk energetic music is what you’ll find. POB sounds fresh and exciting today. It stands outside from the time when it was made – this is future music for sure. The real Janov ‘primal therapy scream’ (much commented on around Lennon’s album) can be heard in full effect here. Ono spends much of the record screaming full-tilt into the mic. It’s amazing to think that half the Beatles were making such a primal din in 197o (as well as Lennon, Ringo Starr plays the drums). Album opener ‘Why?’ has a metronomic rhythm, Kraut style, super compressed to tape; Public Image’s Metal Box played pure heed to the kind of vibes found here. Even Yoko’s screams have a similar tone to John Lydon’s. Lennon’s guitar is cut up and discordant – this is thrilling stuff.
Perhaps the ‘title’ of ‘fifth Beatle’ can be wrestled from the collective arms of those two Georges, Best and Martin and given to Yoko instead.
You’ll find nothing here that suggests songwriting or structure, there are no normal pop music tones to be pulled from POB. This is ‘experimental’ but by 2016’s standards it’s also very listenable. ‘Why Not’ meanders with Ono duelling against an eerie guitar, melding to become one and the same tone. It’s a laid back exercise which occasionally ripples into something more anxious, before a final head charge of full on punk-like-trash. Referencing an earlier miscarriage and her Grapefruit book, ‘Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City’ feeds a hypnotic dub groove with a multitracked Ono bringing the chills, it’s effective – and again, as someone coming fresh to this material, the contemporary sound feels extraordinary. ‘AOS’ pushes that ‘experimental’ envelope, with Ono wailing over Ornette Coleman’s free jazz tones. Eerie for sure, but it means POB loses some momentum which is replaced by indulgence. This continues with ‘Touch Me’, some kind of avant-jazz vibe is hinted at (perhaps Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew even), but this drags somewhat. ‘Paper Shoes’ brings back the final assault, tribal and carnal, there’s always a subtext to what’s going on – it’s never in your face. Bo Diddley could be being referenced, in some respects ‘Paper Shoes’ is as close to rock n roll as POB reaches, but it’s still far from obvious. Being a reissue the obligatory bonus cuts appear, yet they add something here. More Diddly like mantra is achieved on ‘Open Your Box’ whilst a longer version of opening track ‘Why’ is great, Lennon spends the first minute or so asking for more power from the band, and a more powerful performance he duly gets. The fleeting ‘Something More Abstract’ and the 16 minutes of ‘The South Wind’ offer bluesy indulgence.
You’ll find nothing here that suggests songwriting or structure, there are no normal pop music tones to be pulled from POB. This is ‘experimental’ but by 2016’s standards it’s also very listenable.
Ono has kept releasing influential music over the years, sharing albums with The Plastic Ono Band, Lennon until his death, and nowadays with her son Sean. She still remains active in music well into her 80s. Yes, I’m A Witch Two from earlier in 2016 reveals collaborations with contemporaries such as Tune Yards, Death Cab For Cutie, Sparks and many others (it’s well worth a listen). But Ono doesn’t need our validation or associations with anyone to prove her artistic merit. Her art speaks for itself. Ono remains a touchstone of a kind of musical endeavour that remains under threat at the end of 2016. Experimental music is pushed to the margins, yet pure artful expression must still have a place in our lives, in fact we must demand it. This timely reissue of Plastic Ono Band is a great place to start and experience the magic that shapes our intuitions and where dreams happen.
Secretly Canadian will be rolling out much of Yoko Ono’s back catalog over the next year.