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Yoko Ono

Love her or loathe her, well-to-do Japanese artist YOKO ONO (born February 18, 1933, Tokyo) has served her time in the music business since her wildly controversial induction in the late 60s side by side with BEATLES revolutionary JOHN LENNON. Often rebuffed by media journos as a hanger-on and the cause of the Fab Four’s musical disintegration, she has now proved her worth in the fickle world of rock and pop, as her time with the ill-fated LENNON (just as they were “starting over”) and The PLASTIC ONO BAND and a latter resumption towards the end of the 00s will testify.
Having relocated to New York City at the onset of the 50s, a young Yoko was soon writing poems, joining the bohemian set and taking an interest in the avant-garde classical music movement (John Cage, et al). In the beatnik-flower-power 60s (having divorced her first hubby, jazz musician Anthony Cox), ONO branched into art/film making, meeting icon JOHN LENNON at one of her exhibitions. After/during his separation from wife Cynthia in 1968, the Beatle invited Yoko to spend some time with him, subsequently recording an album together as er… `Two Virgins’. Deemed unlistenable by critics, the album’s sound was compared to an experimental track on The BEATLES’ “White Album” entitled `Revolution #9’. The record was duly sold in a brown paper bag due to the cover shot which showed John and Yoko naked, while a similarly uncompromising `Unfinished Music No.2: Life With The Lions’ was issued shortly afterwards. Yoko married John (now divorced from Cynthia) in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969. Together with Klaus Voorman on keys and RINGO STARR on drums, they formed The PLASTIC ONO BAND, releasing a number of protest-themed hit singles (i.e. `Give Peace A Chance, `Cold Turkey’ and `Instant Karma!’).
The BEATLES had another massive No.4 hit with the LENNON-penned `The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, detailing their constant harassment by the press. In such a short space of time, the pair had become one of rock music’s most high-profile couples, attracting the attention of the world’s media in almost everything they did; another dual LP `The Wedding Album’ was released late ‘69.
Delivered only a month after her man’s `John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band’ (recorded concurrently with her own), the somewhat confusingly-titled YOKO ONO / PLASTIC ONO BAND (1971) {*7} was a mixed batch of jam-friendly improvs, a tad too eccentric and wigged-out for many ex-BEATLES acolytes. From the opening, `Why’ – think PiL on pills – to `Paper Shoes’, one can safely file this under weird but wonderful.
Taking weird to new extremes, her double-set follow-up FLY (1971) {*7} – named after one her films and featuring the epic 22-minute title track – one would have to dig hard for resilience and stamina; it did contain her ode to her seven-year-old son in `Don’t Worry Kyoko’, together with the poignant `Mrs. Lennon’ single. She combined solo activities with her JOHN & YOKO/PLASTIC ONO BAND work; but `Some Time In New York City’ was delivered under a cloud of Nixon-ite political upheavals and it bombed some time in ’72.
Early the following year, YOKO ONO released what has come to be regarded as her most contemporary statement to date in double-set, APPROXIMATELY INFINITE UNIVERSE (1973) {*5}. Backed by New York’s ELEPHANT’S MEMORY (who’d augmented ONO’s POB on many occasions), it was as uncompromising as ever; for many a stark, beautiful piece of proto-feminist rock.
With her previous solo albums only managing to scrape a US Top 200 placing, Yoko delivered her fourth set FEELING THE SPACE (1973) {*4}, a record that fared even worse. Her domestic life was equally rocky at this point, having split with John early in 1974 and losing out on the release of a fifth album (later issued as A STORY in 1992 (on a boxed set) and on its own in 1997. The pair reconciled at the end of the year after she watched one of John’s famous last performances. She fell pregnant soon afterwards, giving birth to their son, SEAN Tara Ono LENNON (coincidentally on John’s 35th birthday) on October 9, 1975.
After a 5-year hiatus from the music business, both were back from their long sabbatical as LENNON’s comeback single (she was on the B-side), `(Just Like) Starting Over’ began its steady rise into the Top 10. A JOHN LENNON & YOKO ONO album in name, `Double Fantasy’ was issued soon after, featuring a handful of good ONO tracks such as `Kiss, Kiss, Kiss’.
Tragically their comeback was cut short following LENNON’s assassination at the hands of crazed gunman Mark Chapman on December 8, 1980. Ironically enough, ONO had her first taste of success soon afterwards when she hit the singles chart by way of `Walking On Thin Ice’, a prelude to her cross-Atlantic Top 50 album SEASON OF GLASS (1981) {*7}; the need for gunshots before `No, No, No’ and John’s blood-stained spectacles on the album sleeve only caused more friction between her and the fans, although many thought her right to grieve was understandable.
Through Polydor Records, Yoko released three further albums in the first half of the 80s, her upbeat solo IT’S ALRIGHT (I SEE RAINBOWS) (1982) {*5}, a posthumous work with John in `Milk & Honey’ (1984), and the Bill Laswell-produced STARPEACE (1985) {*3}. The latter commanded the presence of reggae/dub giants SLY & ROBBIE, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, jazz drummer Tony Williams and former PERE UBU sticksman Anton Fier, but it served no purpose than giving the 80s another album to bin.
Now into her sixties, she and Capitol Records put together an ill-advised (or inspirational – delete as appropriate) musical comeback with an off-Broadway production of her life with John, entitled NEW YORK ROCK (1994) {*5} it was released Stateside as an album and many of her fans would recognise songs from her halcyon days. Hot on its heels was RISING (1995) {*5} – shared with Ima (a band featuring her son Sean) – although its DIAMANDA GALAS banshee wailing/primal screaming was a tad too possessed for most; just to cement in concrete her outsider appeal was the subsequent RISING MIXES (1996) {*5} set which was a slight improvement featuring the likes of The BEASTIE BOYS (aka the ABA All-Stars), CIBO MATTO (with Sean), THURSTON MOORE and even WEEN).
She certainly hadn’t mellowed with age, although 2001’s BLUEPRINT FOR A SUNRISE {*5} did feature a handful of tracks which approached established rock music forms with influences ranging from funk to reggae (`It’s Time For Action!’ to `I’m Not Getting Enough’). The remainder of the noughties was a transitional time for “Mrs. LENNON” as she undertook a career on the dance floor (well, at least through DJs and collaborators). Now in her seventies, she delivered her most astute record to date in YES, I’M A WITCH (2007) {*6}, unveiling best of remixes with several top indie acts such as The FLAMING LIPS, The POLYPHONIC SPREE, PEACHES, PORCUPINE TREE and APPLES IN STEREO.
Re-forming The PLASTIC ONO BAND without the might of John at the controls was never going to be an easy concept to get across, but with the help and guidance of their talented laddie SEAN LENNON (about to launch his own The GHOST OF A SABER TOOTH TIGER), CIBO MATTO and CORNELIUS, their album BETWEEN MY HEAD AND THE SKY (2009) {*6} seemed to work well within the structures of today’s music. Whether tracks such as `Waiting For The D Train’, `Hashire, Hashire’ and electro-acid piece `The Sun Is Down’ had anything to do with the POB of old was very much in question, but Yoko was now over 75 years-old and well past retirement age – but not according to this grand old duchess.
A fan of the sparse SONIC YOUTH alumni, ONO duly teamed up with two of their clan for the eponymous off-kilter YOKOKIMTHURSTON (2012) {*5}. Running the risk of harking back to her days as a strictly non-dancing avant-garde artist, a narrative/chanting Yoko (with noiseniks KIM GORDON and THURSTON MOORE) performed 6 tracks in an hour of metallic machine music on a scale of curiosity rather than an adornment to their separate CVs.
A tad more accessible was YOKO ONO and PLASTIC ONO BAND’s follow-up set, TAKE ME TO THE LAND OF HELL (2013) {*7}. A gamut of experimental, electro, funky and alt-disco motifs; augmented as she was by son Sean and others from CIBO MATTO (Yuka Honda), Nels Cline (of WILCO), Keigo Oyamada (of CORNELIUS) and guests including LENNY KRAVITZ and tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, the stylish and uncompromising Yoko (at 80!) sounded half her age. From the spacy `Moonbeams’ and harder-edged `Cheshire Cat Cry’, to the haunting `Little Boy Blue Your Daddy’s Gone’ and lifecycle `Watching The Dawn’, the ONO contingent were top drawer.
Delivered a day after her 83rd birthday celebrations, version 2.0 of YES, I’M A WITCH TOO (2016) {*7}, brought Yoko further accolades from her peers and loyal fanbase. Nine years on from her previous re-mix collaboration, the CIBO MATTO connection (with son Sean) was still a necessary ingredient, but now it was also down to DANNY TENAGLIA’s orchestral manoeuvres for the fragile `Walking On Thin Ice’, the heavenly Peter Bjorn and John for `Mrs. Lennon’, the up-beat Penguin Prison for `She Gets Down On Her Knees’ and the brightest star among them, SPARKS, for `Give Me Something’. Add to these the punk-driven `Move On Fast’ with Jack Douglas and re-works with MOBY, DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE, tUnE-yArDs and others not so well-known, ONO was relentless in re-inventing the musical wheel, instead of merely watching it from a safe distance. We salute you Yoko!
Not many artists aged 85 could maintain their street-cred in the day’s world of fickle pop/rock music and American “anti-politics”, however YOKO ONO was managing her own stab at the #metoo `Women Power’ movement via WARZONE (2018) {*6}. As if to finally substantiate her recently-acquired co-credit on `Imagine’ (her re-imagined version anchored here), there were similar stripped-back experimentations on her life-span of works, including the cathartic `Why’, the tearful `Teddy Bear’, the austere `Where Do We Go From Here’, and the sombre industrial title track.
© MC Strong 1994-2000 // rev-up MCS Dec2011-Oct2018

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