Why I’m sorry I ever laughed at Yoko Ono

My first memory of Yoko Ono is of making fun of her. 

It’s unfortunate, but I remember listening to John Lennon and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy many years ago with friends, long after John was shot and killed. We all loved “Watching The Wheels,” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the other Lennon tracks, but the Yoko ones that alternated with his were… jarring. 

Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” slammed open the barn doors after the laid-back charms of album opener “Starting Over.” What was this weird, defiant prancing melody? Yoko suddenly starts screaming “Why death? Why life? Warm hearts / cold darts” and holy moses, what a mood-changer. When the song dissolves into a cackling chorus of Yokos moaning and groaning and ululating their way into a mock orgasm, we couldn’t help it – everyone listening burst into laughter. (To be fair, it is a kind of funny, chirpy song.) 

And yet. 

I keep coming back to Yoko’s oft-maligned solo work in recent years, much of which has that same fierce, uncompromising power in that same way “Kiss Kiss Kiss” bursts into the room. Yoko, more than 50 years after the Beatles ended, still gets people going. She didn’t break up the Beatles, of course, who were going to split no matter what happened. But for far too long, she’s been painted as the villain in their story. 

Yoko turned a lot of people off with the defiantly experimental Unfinished Music No. 1 and No. 2 she did with John before the Beatles even broke up. The fact the couple posed stark nekkid on the cover of Two Virgins didn’t help, and to be honest, these two albums are very odd, hard to listen to, noodling noise compared to what both did later. Appearing with John live in the late 1960s, her howling anarchy put a lot of people off. While it’s definitely intense and abrasive, 50 years on the catharsis of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” feels passionate and raw – Yoko went for it. She didn’t care what they said about her sex, her race or her boldness – she just yelled. 

The controversy around her shaped much of the reaction to Yoko’s own solo albums of the 1970s like Fly, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling The Space. They’re less experimental than her most-out there stuff (like recording her own miscarriage), and as a result they hold up pretty well, marrying compulsively offbeat grooves with her infinitely flexible voice, a yowl one second and a croon the next.  I don’t argue that all Ono’s work was great – lyrics generally aren’t her strong point, and few singers could make lines like “We’re all blind and crippled mates / Frustrated would-be presidents of united states” work. 

These albums still dazzle with as much energy and invention as the great krautrock records of Can and Kraftwerk, her howling as passionate today as Kim Gordon and Courtney Love’s would be decades later. Listened to today, a propulsive stomp like Fly’s epic trance “Mindtrain” sounds a lot more modern than some of the stuff John, Paul and George were doing in 1971.  

Yoko pushed Lennon in uncompromising directions too, although for the most part his ‘70s work was actually far less inventive and more nostalgic than Ono’s. She and Lennon released Plastic Ono Band albums with almost identical covers and titles in 1970, but while his is part of the canon now with super-deluxe reissues, her own angrier, rawer Plastic Ono Band is somewhat forgotten.

From the very first song, a chattering, shrieking psych-freakout called “Why”, it’s an in-your-face statement that even manages to make Lennon’s stark and powerful “Mother” opening his own album feel a bit restrained. In an era filled with Carpenters and ABBA, Yoko was singing song titles like “I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window,” “Angry Young Woman” and “What A Bastard The World Is.” 

Yoko’s 88 years old now and John’s been gone for 40 years, but she’s still sharing her art and her music – her latest, Warzone, was released when she was 85! Listen to 2014’s Between My Head And The Sky, which starts off with Yoko’s patented screeches and moans packing way more power than a senior citizen rocker should. 

In everything, Yoko goes for it. Sometimes that “it” can be a bit much, but nobody would ever accuse her of holding back onstage. 

Yoko is a pioneer shunned in her own time – imagine in 1970 a Japanese woman with a very big voice daring to demand her place at the side of one of the most famous men on the planet, on doing her own creative work wherever it led and seemingly never, ever embarrassed of being who she was?

Yoko had to fight racism, sexism and Beatle fanboyism all of her life, and it still lingers to this day. The criticism back in the day was that Yoko didn’t know her place. Yoko always knew her place. Yoko’s even been pretty big in the clubs in recent years), and her spirit of independence, defiance and confidence can still be found everywhere in 2021 among brave young artists. 

Sorry we laughed at you, Yoko. 

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again. 

Why George Harrison is my favourite Beatle these days

Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo? 

But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me. 

The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined. 

It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.  

Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold. 

1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition. 

Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”). 

The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death. 

Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace. 

There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat. 

Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. 

George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.

George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes.  Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life. 

Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle.