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.)
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.