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.