The Solo Recordings Of Yoko Ono.
Although at the time of her first meeting with John she had been attempting to negotiate a recording contract with Island Records, Yoko Ono’s first solo album did not surface until 1970 on the Apple label. “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” was released simultaneously with John’s “Plastic Ono Band” album and has an almost identical sleeve. The photos of themselves as children on the back of both records are an allusion to the Primal Therapy they had both been undergoing prior to recording them. Whereas the therapy had an obvious influence on John’s vocal work, Yoko had long been experimenting with such ‘avant-garde” voice techniques, unkindly referred to by many as her “squawks and shrieks”, although “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’” is her only totally avant-garde album, this is the musical style with which she is nearly always associated, which seems to blind and deafen people to her myriad singing and songwriting talents which became more evident on her later works.
The first track “Why” is a stunning example of how Yoko uses her voice as an instrument – indeed it is at times very difficult to distinguish between guitar and vocal. This innovation has influenced artists from Lene Lovich to Ian Gillan. “Why ” and “Why Not” are questions-and-answer pieces; the first being a fast rocker and the second a slow R’n’B number. In “Why Not” one can almost distinguish the words “John’” and “Johnny” and the sound of a train passing by.
“Greenfield Morning Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City’” is to my mind the best and most tuneful track on the album. “City Piece’”, written in 1961 and included in her book “Grapefruit” but is particularly poignant in view of her frequent miscarriages during her early years with John. The vocals are ghostly and as the happy sound of birds singing infiltrates the background one can almost sense Yoko’s longing to push her baby in its pram through the grounds of Tittenhurst Park.
The title is taken from Yoko’s Side 2 opens with “AOS”, a rehearsal tape for the live concert Yoko gave with the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Albert Hall in February 1968. Although the performance itself was well received by the critics, “A0S” is a nondescript collection of sounds with Ornette‘s trumpet attempting to echo Yoko’s orgasmic sighs, frenzied shrieks and occasional coughing fits! But then again, it is only a rehearsal tape.
The high spot of the following track, “Touch Me” is Ringo’s excellent drumming. Ringo was the only one of the other three Beatles to support Yoko’s solo ventures. “Paper Shoes” opens with the train again, but is little other than constant repetition of the title with lots of echoes.
In summary, few people will find this album pleasant listening, but I hope they will nevertheless marvel at Yoko’s vocal range and diversity. A pity is that she didn’t include more of her “pop” songs on this her first solo album, because it would have gained her a lot more fans at the start her singing career and saved her from being typecast as a “squawker and shrieker”.
The “Fly” album, a double set released in 1971 to coincide with John’s “Imagine”, has Yoko’s beautiful face superimposed on the label, and a classic quote from John on the sleeve: “Love is having to say you’re sorry every five minutes”.
Side 1 kicks off to a flying start with “Midsummer New York”, a pounding rocker in the mould of “Be Bop A Lula”, with lyrics that perhaps hark back to Yoko’s lonely days in her New York loft in the early ’50’s. She puts her voice to good use to convey pain, and also manipulates phrases like “Shaking, shaking .. aching, aching” to create an agonising, shuddering effect. An excellent, commercial track.
The following track, “Mind Train” gets off to a promising start as the “train”chugs into motion. Rather than “Choo, Choo” or “puff, puff”, Yoko’s train says “dub, dub” – perhaps that what Japanese trains say?! and the guitar “whistles” convincingly as the journey begins. The musicianship is superb throughout, as are the lyrics once again. I call to mind here a Japanese “haiku” – a poem written to project a perfect image using as few words as possible: “Dub dub train passed through my mind, 33 windows shining” – get the picture? “Thought of killing that man” could almost refer to Chapman – a chilling premonition. This is an exciting track but gets rather tedious towards the end. It is 6 minutes 52 seconds, it could do with being half the length.
Side 2 opens with “Mind Holes”, on which John supplies some interesting Indian-sounding guitar work, followed by one of several recorded versions of the infamous “Don’t Worry Kyoko”, which John has called the best rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. Although it is one of the most prominent examples of Yoko’s notorious caterwauling, the vocal style is particularly fitting here because Yoko is crying out in anguish to her estranged daughter to let her know she’s not forgotten.
Next up is the hauntingly beautiful “Mrs Lennon”, probably her best known track. It has even been called Yoko’s “Imagine”, and indeed the piano-based structure is very similar. The lyrics have a slightly sad tone: “O’ our children, did they have to go to war?” being another possible reference to her miscarriages, and there are allusions to her obsession with astrology and numbers “Watching the sea … there’s no waves”, “checking the sky … theres’s no clouds / oh then, I guess it must be all right”.
“Hirake” [formerly “Open Your Box”] was banned at the time of release for being rather “rude” by 1971 standards. It is a plea for liberty in the form of a list of all things Yoko wishes to open: pants, flies, thighs, prisons, parliaments and cities to name but a few. “Toilet Piece” speaks for itself: a classic example of the humour which so endeared her to John.
“O’ Wind [Body is The Scar Of Your Mind]” is a rather tuneless chant, interesting only for for its reference to the number 9, so significant in John’s life: after going round the world 9 times, the “wind of pain .. turns into a gentle breeze”. Needless to say there re plenty of wind sounds included.
On side 3 we find “Airmale”, the soundtrack to “Erection” – John’s film of the construction of a London hotel. Yoko wails over a background which sounds like a building site in full swing. For a friend Joe Jones, pioneer of “Tone Deaf Music” built her a number of switch operated instruments specially for this track.
The next track, “Don’t Count The Waves” provides the backing for the backing for the scene in the summer house in the “Imagine” film. “You” is a 9 minute display of Yoko’s avant-garde vocal talents culminating in a series of orgasmic grunts, and will not win her many fans.
Side 4 consists of the soundtrack to Yoko’s film “Fly”. She hums, buzzes, squawks and squeaks, imitating the fly’s activities with astonishing accuracy. Although possibly more interesting if one is viewing the film at the same time, this piece certainly illustrates Yoko’s amazing vocal abilities. John makes good use of his guitar fretboard to imitate passing traffic.
After a few seconds silence at the end of the track, a telephone rings 6 times, then a familiar sweet, oriental voice intones “Hello, this is Yoko”. This “Telephone Piece” rings out the album – hello goodbye Yoko.
All told, this is a varied and interesting set but could have served better if it had been condensed into a truly stunning single album.
Yoko’s 1972 offering, “Approximate Infinite Universe” is a superb double set jam-packed with stirring, melodic and innovative sounds from beginning to end. Unlike “Fly”, there is no way I could envisage this album being reduced to a single record without it losing any of its charm and character. Feminism is a predominant theme throughout, not least on the sleeve notes, entitled “The Feminisation of Society”. Elephant’s Memory provide the backing.
Side 1 starts off with “Yang Yang”, on which Yoko sounds cold and cynical over an almost military rhythm. Repetition, particularly of the word “out”, is very effective. The haunting “Death of Samantha” is one of those slow numbers which best demonstrate the beautiful child-like quality of Yoko’s voice. Samantha’s identity is not mad clear: perhaps this is a throwback to the “Conversation Piece” of summer 1963, in which the reader is instructed to talk constantly about the death of an imaginary person.
In “I Want My Love To Rest Tonight” Yoko softens her feminist viewpoint in order to consider how John has tried to change his ways to be more understanding of women’s needs, while she in turn acknowledges that men in the Seventies are not entirely to blame for the way they think and act.
“What did I Do?” is a quirky little number, perhaps a wry look at the way the world refused to accept her work in her early days as an artist. A frenzied sax emphasises the frustration of not being able to find something in a hurry, and in between verses Yoko displays some more of her vocal tricks, which fit the song very nicely.
“Have You Seen The Horizon Lately?”, the title once again lifted directly from “Grapefruit” is a lilting lullaby and a fitting end to side 1.
On side 2, we find the title track which tells of a young woman with “holes in her dreams” – autobiographical? The song has a hard, driving beat, which continues into the next number, “Peter The Dealer”, which is written in the first person and could be about how Yoko passed her time during there staying a Tokyo mental hospital in 1961.
As a soothing contrast, “Song For John” is a gentle piece in the same vein as “Mrs Lennon”, describing a walk with John.
“Catman [The Roses Are Coming]” is a highly commercial piece but the lyrics are somewhat dubious: it appears to be about a certain band of women who prowl the town doing rather unpleasant things to the men they snare! At the end she chants variations of “Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake, Baker’s Man” while Elephants Memory bounce along behind. Wonderful: I’d like to see it released today!
Although “What A Bastard The World Is” is in the first person, Yoko has subsequently denied that it is autobiographical. It is a beautiful ballad centring around a lovers’ tiff, featuring a simple piano melody and some rather operatic vocals. “Waiting For The Sunrise” is an unusual song, quite different from anything else on the album. To a reedy woodwind accompaniment, Yoko sings of the beginning of a new day in which she can’t wait to go out and do things with John e.g. “Go to the docks and watch boats go by”. It is a joyous little number full of the excitement of being in a new city [they had just settled permanently in New York].
Side 3 begins with “I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window” – an expression of Yoko’s frustration at being unable to communicate with her wealthy, socialite parents. The song is interesting in that it successfully employs several changes in tempo. “Winter Song” is one of the most beautiful songs Yoko has ever written, a real smoochy number simply telling the world of her love for John and how they need only each other to survive.
“Kite Song” is an uptempo rocker but not particularly different or special. “What A Mess” is a witty little piece, really putting the knife in about mens narrow-mindedness. The tune skips along to a hand-clapped accompaniment; very commercial but could not have been a single because of its references to masturbation and abortion.
“Shirankatta [I Don’t Know]” is a mournful ditty not unlike John’s beautiful “Aisumasen [I’m Sorry]” , for it is an apology to John for not always realising his moments of pain. Yoko demonstrates her skill as a linguist by singing a verse in Japanese, one in French and one in English. There is something particularly endearing hearing her sing in her mother tongue; a gimmick she used with considerable success on “Your Hands” from “Milk And Honey”. “Air Talk” is an interesting attempt at ska, 7 years before the Coventry sound hit the charts.
Side 4 opens with “I have A Woman Inside My Soul” – my all-time fave Yoko song [although it is a hard choice]. It is a mellow soulful ballad, complete with moody sax, silky guitars and gospel-type backing vocals provided by a group named the “Choir Boys”. It is pure music to melt the soul; one just has to lie back and soak it up.
For 1972 “Move On Fast” sounds quite contemporary; a biting rock track which NME though could have been a hit single [it was the B-side of Now or Never, which failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic].
“Now Or Never” is an interesting track to review: in one of his last interviews John was talking about the influence Bob Dylan had had on his music, and mentioned that Yoko had never fallen under his spell; on listening to this track I find this hard to believe. With its acoustic guitar accompaniment and the social comment of the lyric it sounds so much like a Bob Dylan track.
I played it to one of my friends and he thought it was in fact a cover version. However I see this comparison to one of the greatest names in popular music as a point in Yoko’s favour.
“Is Winter here To Stay” is arguably the weakest track on the album as it consists entirely of groaning and wailing, but then again it is the one token avant-garde track on a double album which embraces a number of musical styles.
“Age 39 [Looking Over From My Hotel Window]” is another highpoint of the album: a rather sad song in which Yoko sounds depressed and suicidal as she watches youngsters frolicking in Central Park and realises she is on the threshold of middle age. The lines “If I ever die / Please go to my daughter / Tell her she used to haunt me in my dreams” are genuine tear-jerkers. The minimal musical accompaniment accentuates the feeling of isolation and her own voice is overdubbed to give the impression of echoes in a lonely, empty hotel room. However at the end she sings “the weight gets lighter”, indicating that her depression is beginning to pass. It is a thought provoking number with which to finish the album, and I for one am thankful that such a moving and melodic masterpiece does not end on a totally negative note.
By Jo Segarra