Six Vocalists on the Power and Influence of Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono. Photo by Keith Macmillan.

Photo of Yoko Ono by Keith Macmillan.

On the Friday after Election Day, Yoko Ono’s Twitter account posted a statement from the artist about the victory of President-Elect Donald Trump:

“I would like to share this message to you as my response to @realDonaldTrump,” it read. “Love, Yoko.”

The note was followed by an audio clip of Ono screaming into a computer mic, not unlike the caterwaul she perfected on “Why,” the opening track to her groundbreaking 1971 solo LP Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Even at age 83, Yoko showed in those few seconds that she still possesses one of the most visceral and commanding voices in pop music: a sharp shard of avant-garde primal scream therapy, piercing enough to draw blood, despite the fact that it comes from a person who has spent the majority of her life spreading a message of peace.

It was a fitting reminder to the importance of Ono’s living legacy as one of the most prolific and confrontational purveyors of outsider art in modern history, someone whose association with The Beatles through her marriage to John Lennon was met with a tsunami of polarized opinions. For many Fab fans at the time, Yoko was labeled a pariah who cast some kind of spell on Lennon and caused the band to break up. So when she and John began recording together, first in 1968 with Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, then in 1969 with Unfinished Music no. 2: Life with the Lions, the results weren’t warmly received. Upon reading some of the reviews published at the time, it seems as though most critics failed to recognize the crux of the couple’s creative direction, which was to capture their budding life together in a way similar to the art house films of Yasujiro Ozu or Robert Bresson. The music didn’t inspire so much as fuel ire, and Yoko’s contributions to art and music were routinely met with cynicism, anger, and ugly instances of sexism and racism by those who made her the scapegoat for The Beatles’ demise.

“One is left with a sick feeling and the impression that Yoko is completely mad,” scowled critic Edmund O. Ward, for instance, in his review of Life with the Lions in the August 9, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone (this after comparing her voice to, “a severely retarded child being tortured.”)

However, thanks to a generation of underground acts heavily influenced by her solo output—artists like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Diamanda Galas and the Boredoms—Ono’s albums have been reassessed, finally critically understood in some circles for the visionary works they are. Where some people only saw Two Virgins for the nude portrait of its creators on the cover (nevermind the fact the couple recorded the album while Lennon’s first wife was on holiday), younger artists heard the genius in the way the guitarist, enraptured by Ono’s artistic daring, took the experimentation the Beatles were exploring on Sgt. Pepper and The White Album and made a hard left into John Cage territory, employing tape loops, assorted instruments and, most importantly, the elasticity of Yoko’s voice. Life with the Lions, the second release on Apple Records’ short-lived spoken word/experimental subsidiary Zapple (which also released George Harrison’s second studio LP Electronic Sound), was partially recorded at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London while Ono was admitted for a rocky pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage. The infant, who the couple named John Ono Lennon II, can be heard on the track “Baby’s Heartbeat,” in which a portable Nagra microphone was used to capture and loop their first child’s fading heart sounds. The track is immediately followed by “Two Minutes Silence”, a direct homage to Cage’s composition “Four Thirty-Three”; it consists of complete silence, save for any subtle natural sounds picked up by the microphone. It is said to be a memorial to their unborn son. The entire first side of the record is comprised of a 26-minute improvisational piece culled from a March 1969 performance a Cambridge University featuring a caustic back-and-forth between Yoko’s voice and John’s guitar feedback, before the duo were joined onstage by acclaimed free jazz musicians: John Tchicai on saxophone and drummer John Stevens. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is the most fully-realized work of the three, recorded with a full band consisting of Ringo Starr on drums and longtime Beatles associate Klaus Voormann on bass. Free jazz once again plays a prominent role, this time on the propulsive side two opener “AOS,” cut live in 1968 with The Ornette Coleman Quartet featuring Ed Blackwell on drums and double bassists Charlie Haden and David Izenzon.

On the 50th anniversary of the Ono-Lennon union, it’s thrilling to see just how far the music she made—both with her husband and on her own—has come in terms of gaining appreciation from the public ear. We spoke to six artists on Bandcamp about these three LPs, and how they helped to shape their own perceptions on the parameters of the human voice and its power as its own instrument of free expression.

Stephen Sowley, Fake Limbs

Yoko Ono is my favorite Beatle. Yoko Ono makes me long for my childhood tenor, and its ability to freeze time with its scream. Yoko Ono gave me nightmares at age nine and inspiration at age 18. Two different kinds of lighting under the same sky. Yoko Ono is glass. Yoko Ono is snow. Yoko Ono is ice. I hope Yoko Ono outlives every baby boomer icon.

I hope every bad man that has more Beatles records than they do a working of knowledge of rock, art, and space has to reckon with their racist, misogynistic worldview. Yoko Ono didn’t break up the Beatles. Four lads broke up the Beatles. I hope if Yoko Ono ever crosses over to the next universe, we all meet at the park. We meet at the park, and break the sound barrier with a cacophony of shrieking gratitude, forever on in noise and ugliness and love and loss.

Kiran Leonard

In my opinion, the crux of what makes Yoko Ono’s music so entertaining and significant has already been spelled out by Lindsay Zoladz in this article for Vulture.com. I will tell you that to do what Ono does with her voice on Plastic Ono Band is no easy task. I think that’s a common misconception; the strength and range of vocal techniques on that record is simply astonishing (so is the musicianship as a whole, in fact). What’s more, the virtues of anyone who inspires such a disproportionate amount of ire just for making wordless noises with their mouth should be extolled at any given juncture. But I mostly like Yoko Ono because she wants to make me laugh; she takes a hate-filled world, and the deluge of ignorant, undeniably misogynistic vitriol flung her way, and makes humorous and optimistic art with it (see: album entitled Yes, I’m a Witch).

People never give conceptual artists credit for how funny they are. This is a fate that often befell Ono’s good friend John Cage, who was brilliant as well as hilarious, but it’s a false supposition that really stubbornly clings to her. I wish it didn’t; a huge component of the appeal of her work is its knowing wink (one that hides something much more profound). My favourite work of hers is an instructional poem called “Chess Piece.” In it, two people play a normal game of chess, except both players’ pieces are white. So, after a while, you just have to trust that the other person is only going to move the pieces that belong to them. It’s quite moving in its own way, because the fact that it could never work says a lot about human nature. It’s an explanation for nuclear standoff in a single, inherently hopeful gesture. They think they can’t trust the other side—maybe we can! But at the same time, this whole set-up, it’s just daft really, isn’t it? Of course! And isn’t that great?

Ann Magnuson

I really only became aware of Yoko Ono as a groundbreaking artist when I got to NYC in the late ‘70s. When I was growing up in West Virginia, all you ever heard was that she was this evil dragon witch lady who broke up the Beatles. The word ‘ugly’ was used a lot too. The more hated she became, the more I thought, ‘Hmmmmm, this woman must be on to something.’ I was distracted by a million other things, so really didn’t hear her music until I was in my early 20s. I first heard those records in the downtown New York punk clubs played by the more adventurous DJ’s. It wasn’t exactly easy listening, but it stopped everyone in their tracks. Plus, it made me laugh, and I loved how it annoyed ‘the straights’. She was on the cover of the Soho Weekly News the week or so before John Lennon was shot, and the subhead was a quote of hers that said something along the lines of, ‘Those hate vibes can be as strong as love vibes.’ I was inspired by that; that she used the horrific (and usually male) antagonism towards her to not only soldier on but to fortify her. People joked that her voice could shatter glass, but it was her spirit that shattered many an artistic glass ceiling. I’m not a regular listener of her records but some things, like Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, only need to be heard once to change your perception of absolutely everything.

Larkin Grimm

Yoko Ono has long been falsely accused of breaking up The Beatles, but what her extraordinary, extreme voice really broke was pop music, as much as Ornette Coleman’s wild saxophone howls broke jazz.  It’s no wonder that Ornette and Yoko collaborated and became lifelong friends.  My feeling about Yoko has always been that her legacy as an artist was harmed by her association with John Lennon more than it was helped.  Partnering with John undermined her unique ideas and pushed her in front of an audience that wasn’t ready to meet her. She was ahead of her time—maybe 20 years ahead of her time—and that always hurts. The love of John Lennon made her the most loathed woman in the universe, because she was so powerful and so brilliant that our biggest rock star sacrificed the pop glamour of the Beatles lifestyle in order to love her and learn from her. The world could not accept a woman with that much power. Who would she have been without all that hatred and grief marking her life? I certainly prefer her solo records to the ones she recorded with John Lennon, but it is nice to see that the world has changed enough to reissue these first records that Yoko and John made together.

When life gets me down I think of Yoko and find strength in her bravery. She is a feminist icon.  Her work is always getting me to see the limitations of my own sight, forcing me to look from different angles or think in spaces I had never considered exploring before. Often, her work seems to expose our own ridiculousness and weakness.

Listening to Life with the Lions, I can’t even imagine the strength it took for Yoko to record an album in a hospital bed while having a miscarriage.  I once tended to a friend of my mother’s during her miscarriage, and the grief, the horror, and the pain this friend experienced marked my mind forever.  She had all the agony of childbirth and none of the reward.  This is one of the reasons why I scoff at the phrase ‘He’s got balls’ to describe a person’s bravery.  Having kicked a person in the balls and having given birth to a son, I’m pretty sure the uterus is the stronger one.  Yoko the Brave, we should call her.  Yoko the Enduring. She has eggs, that woman.  She sang through her pain and expressed the sorrow and ecstasy of women everywhere that was simply not being heard.

I hope that Yoko knows how much she is loved and admired now, and I hope that she really has forgiven us for what we did to her, what we said about her, and all the racist, misogynistic dismissal of her brilliant work.  History will expose us all for the fools we have been.

Shana Falana

Yoko Ono has always been so fearless, so punk rock to me. That’s what I hear when I listen to these albums—someone who doesn’t care for definitions or categories. We need her now more than ever. There’s a positivity to her work; she’s known for inspiring everyone to try new things. If you’re at one of her exhibits, she’ll have you climb into spaces and up ladders, and when you get to the top you find a note from her that says, “Yes.”

Jeff Klein, My Jerusalem

I think I feel like the first time I heard Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, it sounded like some weird Mike Patton shit to me. The vocal gymnastics reminded me of all of Patton’s non-Faith No More stuff. It’s purposeful and controlled, but it’s batshit crazy. And I would put it on because it’s oddly soothing background music for working in a record store, as well as a good conversation starter. Hers was probably one of the first voices utilized as an instrument that I heard, outside of Bobby McFerrin. And it has a very New York vibe to it; the loose funk of it. It’s pretty nerdy in a way that wasn’t ‘jam band nerdy,’ particularly Lennon’s guitar playing. That record is definitely some of his best sounding guitar work. Even on “Why,” the way he and Yoko are riffing off each other—the guitar tones are pretty impressive, and volley between tight and focused to weird distorted jagged riffs. All of it is tasteful, even if at times it’s jarring. The instrumental portions feel equal parts psych-droney and something akin to Thurston Moore or Nels Cline, especially when you get to “AOS,” with the Ornette Coleman Quartet. I’m pretty sure most of the album was recorded in one day, too, right in the middle of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band sessions. It’s kinda like if John Cage discovered delay and roots music on the same day. I think my first reaction honestly was, ‘I can’t tell if this is brilliant or complete bullshit.’ It takes a while—at least, it did for me. I think a lot of people probably dug into it because of John and Ringo’s participation. And then you hear Yoko’s manipulated vocals and it’s like, ‘WTF is this, jazz?’ I mean, how were these albums accepted back then? Because I assume at that point, she was just marked as the woman who broke up the Beatles by the public. And then her and two Beatles put this out and it took the concept of the Fab Four to a whole new level.

Ron Hart

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