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On Yoko Ono, And The New Reissues That Reestablish Her Musical Legacy

by Aaron Carnes

On November 14, 2016

Yoko Ono. The name stirs up strong emotions from people, most of whom know next to nothing about her. Few have listened to her albums, watched her movies, or even seen her art. There is—in particular—a vehement hatred directed towards her by men that see her as committing the ultimate sin: getting in-between bros. Just listen to Bill Burr’s bit from his podcast a few years back about John Lennon being “pussy-whipped.” The audio was uploaded to YouTube, with near viral views. The comments are, well, revealing.

Writer Lisa Carver attempted to make some sense out of Ono’s misunderstood legacy in Reaching Out With No Hands: Reconsidering Yoko Ono, which was released in 2012. She recounts a story about Muse’s Matt Bellamy, who was dating Kate Hudson. It got out that his bandmates were referring to Hudson as “Yoko Ono.” They denied it of course, saying they would never insult her like that.   

Carver writes: “To call someone “Yoko Ono,” this incredibly transgressive artist active for sixty years in a dozen countries, a woman who has recorded close to twenty albums, and creating as many different art exhibits, films, books, and social activist campaigns, is an insult?”

Some of those stereotypes are finally falling by the wayside. In addition to Carver’s book, Ono is having a period of re-examination. In 2014 MoMa ran an exhibit on Ono’s artwork from 1961 – 1970. Now, Secretly Canadian is planning on re-issuing her musical catalog from 1968 – 1985. They release three albums on November 11, with eight more scheduled for 2017.

The timing is right. Ono is relevant purely as an artist in a way she’s never been before. In 2013, at the age of 80, she released the phenomenal Take Me To The Land of Hell, her fifteenth solo album, and third as the revived Plastic Ono Band with son Sean Lennon, which started back in 2009. Few artists have the energy to create in their 80’s, let alone come up with an album as vibrant, playful and emotionally potent as Take Me To The Land Of Hell. Ono’s avant-garde sense and disregard for genre-borders is practically normal now. Young audiences are discovering her without being entrenched with the sexist misinformation as being “the girl that broke up the Beatles.”  

What’s crystal clear is that younger musicians want to work with her. Take Me To The Land Of Hell features some interesting guest musicians: Yuka C Honda (Ciba Matto), Cornelius, tUnE-yArDs, Questlove, Ad-Rock & Mike D (Beastie Boys), Lenny Kravitz, and others.

One re-occurring theme in Carter’s book is this false notion that Ono was a hanger-on to the Beatles. In fact, Lennon had almost no influence on her subversive work, whereas she influences his later-Beatles and solo work tremendously. Lennon was a great admirer of her as an artist, and said so often. It’s not hard to see why. He was trying to broaden his mind creatively. He wanted to take music and arts to new previously unexplored heights. She lived there.

Ono’s early musical output is like nothing else at the time. It’s weird, funny, emotive, and at times punishing. The question of how to listen to her music is a valid one. You don’t listen to Yoko Ono the same way you listen to the Beatles. Not everything she records is even music. It’s art. But it’s more than art. Whatever she produces, in whatever form she produces it in, she is always unapologetic.

Secretly Canadian will release Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, Plastic Ono Band on vinyl and digital downloads on November 11. These records have been out of print for a while, and have never gotten a digital release. Same is true for the eight more scheduled for 2017. Each will come with bonus tracks. Let’s take a closer look at the first batch of reissues:


Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins (1968)

Folks might be more familiar with the album cover than its content. It’s the famous image of Lennon and Ono standing together, naked. It was released by Apple, and actually reached 124 on the UK charts. Surely, most people didn’t know what they getting. The album consists of a lot of tape loops, and Lennon playing various instruments with Ono singing in weird voices. The couple weren’t together when they started it, but fell in love in the process. So, I guess you could say this is the sound of them falling in love. Critical and public reaction to this record was overwhelming negative.


Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions (1969)

This was the next in the Unfinished Music series. Lennon and Ono were planning on having this be ongoing: recording little pieces of their lives. Side A consists of a single 26-minute track, a recording Ono and Lennon did for Cambridge University in 1969. It was the second time they performed together. It’s easy for narrow-minded people to write this jam off as nonsensical, but it’s subtle, dynamic and takes free-jazz principles to a whole new level. The record is slightly more “musical” than Two Virgins, but no less strange. It’s also a glimpse into Lennon and Ono, as a couple, actively documenting their life together in the “life as art” concept.


Plastic Ono Band (1970)  

After three experimental albums with Lennon (Wedding Album was the third after Life With Lions and Two Virgins), Ono formed Plastic Ono Band. The band features Ono on vocals, Lennon on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums, and Klaus Voormann on bass. The record has some guest musicians, most notably Ornette Coleman. The first three albums were not only collaborations for Ono, but more in the realm of sound art. Plastic Ono Band features Ono in full form as an avant-garde musician. The results are eerie, and unsettling. It was beyond bizarre in 1970, but it’s not hard to imagine a band in 2016 playing this at an art gallery show. The band is rocking pretty hard, and Ono’s vocals are unrelenting. Opening tracks “Why” and “Why Not” really show off her unusual sense of humor. It also has moments that are kind of delightful.

We’ll have this in the Vinyl Me, Please store, which opens on November 16 at 12pm EST. 


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