Few figures in contemporary pop culture are more unnecessarily reviled than Yoko Ono. A respected activist, philanthropist, and performance artist with a five-decade body of work, she is more colloquially remembered as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles: that wild-haired, hippy-dippy weirdo who broke up John Lennon‘s marriage, got him hooked on heroin, and wedged herself inextricably in the middle of his band. This narrative is, of course, categorically false. Lennon, a committed philanderer with a longstanding penchant for self-destruction, didn’t need Yoko’s help to cheat on his wife or discover hard drugs; if anything, his relationship with a committed feminist like Ono seemed to have aided him in managing his most reprehensible qualities, particularly the domestic violence to which he subjected his first wife, Cynthia Powell. And, as anyone who sat through the last few episodes of The Beatles Anthology would know, the Fab Four were already going their separate ways well before Yoko entered the picture. Yet the popular impression of Ono the home- and band-wrecker persists: only really eroding in recent years, with the revival of interest in her art career and a resurgence of influence among multiple generations of indie and experimental musicians.
I know all about the Yoko hate; I’ve experienced it firsthand. My first real Internet fight was in defense of Yoko Ono, on LiveJournal (!) with a member of a band that got some minor blog buzz in the mid-2000s (I’d put them on blast, except I don’t think you’d remember them). But I’ll also admit that, even as a committed member of the Yoko defense force, I myself have been guilty of underestimating the scope of her musical artistry. It isn’t all screaming onstage in a bag; she produced some of the most radical, forward-thinking rock music of the 1970s, often recorded concurrently with her husband’s solo albums, using backing musicians who tended to be bemused by her vision at best and disinterested at worst. Yoko Ono’s struggle to stretch the borders of popular music was in many ways the Ur-struggle for serious woman artists to be treated with respect in a male-dominated industry; for that reason alone, she is as important a figure in the history of women in rock as Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, or the Slits.
So today, on the occasion of her 83rd birthday, let’s look back at Yoko Ono the musician: woefully misunderstood, profoundly influential, and in her own way, never equalled. I don’t know if Ono will ever shake off her reputation as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles; at the very least, however, this guide serves as evidence that she was more than capable of creating as well as destroying. And anyway, who needs another boring ol’ Beatles album when there’s Approximately Infinite Universe?
As we’ve already established, Yoko Ono is most widely known as the second wife of former Beatle John Lennon–particularly since his death in 1980, when she became the executor of his estate and the most visible (and voracious) guardian of his legacy. But, contrary to popular belief, Ono was a well-established artist in her own right long before she and Lennon crossed paths. She was a founding figure in the New York-based Fluxus movement of conceptual and performance artists in the early 1960s, alongside the likes of John Cage and LaMonte Young. During this period, Ono gained notoriety in the contemporary art world with radical performances like 1964’s “Cut Piece,” a powerful statement on gendered privilege and violence in which the artist sat silently on stage while audience members cut away pieces of her clothes with scissors. That same year also saw the publication of Grapefruit, a “book of instructions” for readers to enact conceptual art of their own. One such set of “instructions,” “Cloud Piece,” would reach a wider audience in the following decade, when it inspired a little-known British pop song called “Imagine” in 1971.
Ono was also no stranger to music in her pre-Lennon days. She studied classical piano as a child (her father, Ono Eisuke, was a former pianist), attended John Cage’s composition class at the New School for Social Research, and performed a set of avant-garde music at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961. “AOS,” from her 1970 album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, was recorded in February 1968, after she and Lennon had become involved but before their relationship got serious; on it, she is accompanied by free-jazz luminaries Ornette Coleman, Edward Blackwell, Charles Haden, and David Izenzon. Indeed, free jazz provides a useful rubric by which to understand Ono’s unique, improvisatory, and dissonant vocal style–along with hetai, a vocal technique from Japanese kabuki theatre involving the deliberate straining of the vocal chords. But then, it’s also worth questioning whether such a rubric is really necessary; Ono’s screams and moans, on “AOS” and elsewhere, come from primal, immediately recognizable emotions–no musical theory required.
When Ono and Lennon did get together in early 1968, it was as musical partners as well as lovers. Artistic collaboration was woven into the fabric of their relationship from the beginning: the first weekend they spent together at Lennon’s Kenwood estate in May of 1968, they stayed up all night recording their musique concrète-inspired project Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, then, in Lennon’s words, “made love at dawn.” Two other experimental albums, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album, followed the next year, documenting the early months of their romance: the former chronicling the miscarriage of their first child in November of 1968, the latter following the events after their March 1969 marriage, including the infamous week-long “Bed-In” for peace with which they celebrated their honeymoon in Amsterdam.
By the summer of 1969, John and Yoko had formalized their musical collaborations into a discrete entity known as the Plastic Ono Band. Rock critics have predictably emphasized Lennon’s role in the partnership while diminishing Ono’s, yet the “Plastic Ono Band” concept is pure Fluxus: not a traditional rock group at all, but a “movement” consisting of John, Yoko, the audience, and whomever else happened to be in the room with them at the time. And, while John inevitably scored all the hit singles under the “Plastic Ono” moniker, Yoko’s B-sides tended to make for bolder, more adventurous music. Take, for example, “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)”: the flip side of Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” recorded with the same lineup of Lennon and Eric Clapton on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo Starr on drums, it takes that song’s proto-grunge aggression and boils away all but the purest, most visceral elements.
The Plastic Ono Band also served as a vehicle for another, less-discussed side of Ono’s work, which emerged in recorded form on the B-side of 1970’s “Instant Karma!” “Who Has Seen the Wind?” is just about as different from “Don’t Worry Kyoko” as a song can be: understated and melodic where the latter is chaotic and dissonant, it’s a slice of harpsichord-driven post-psychedelic pop that would have fit right in on side two of the White Album. The beautiful, childlike simplicity of Ono’s lyrics and melody are an obvious influence on John’s songwriting of the same period, particularly the koanlike acoustic ballad “Love.”
John and Yoko reaffirmed their status as equal partners in December 1970, with the simultaneous release of two concurrently-recorded “solo” albums, both titled Plastic Ono Band. The records are each great, with Lennon’s earning a rightfully-deserved reputation as the best of his post-Beatles albums; but to these ears, in early 2016, it’s Ono’s that has aged the best. Opening track “Why” is basically No Wave seven years before anyone bothered coining the phrase: five and a half minutes of a pulverizing drum and bass groove by Voormann and Starr, while Ono screams variations of the single-word title and Lennon plays some of the most electrifying guitar of his career.
Other tracks on Plastic Ono Band defy such simple categorization. There’s something almost trip-hoppy about the droning groove on “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City”–right down to its early use of sampling technology, appropriating a tape loop of yet another ex-Beatle, George Harrison, playing the sitar. Yet the track was otherwise created entirely live in the studio, with some added echo on Ringo’s drums serving as the only studio trick. In short, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band sounds by turns like it could have been recorded in 1978, 1994, yesterday, or the future; the one thing it never sounds like is of its time.
Ono’s next album, Fly, was another companion piece, largely recorded at the same 1971 sessions as Lennon’s Imagine. But Yoko was growing more ambitious. While Imagine was conceived as a deliberate bid for the pop charts, with traditional pop/rock song structures and a sound Lennon himself described as “sugar-coated,” Fly was a sprawling double album, including previously-released singles (“Don’t Worry Kyoko,” as well as “Hirake,” a.k.a. “Open Your Box“), music from John and Yoko’s avant-garde films Fly and Erection, and a few songs that even approached accessibility. “Mind Train”–presented here in its four-minute single edit, rather than the full 16-minute jam (you’re welcome)–is Yoko’s version of early ’70s blues rock, with more savage rhythm guitar work by John. The following track, “Mind Holes,” is downright pleasant to listen to: with no instrumentation outside of Lennon’s multitracked acoustic guitar and Ono’s voice, it could almost pass for something from the second side of Led Zeppelin III.
Much to the chagrin of Lennon’s fans, the couple collaborated directly on their next project, 1972’s Some Time in New York City. Another double album, it’s frankly a bit of a mess: pairing two sides of strident, ripped-from-the-headlines protest rock from the increasingly radicalized duo with two sides of all-star live jams featuring the likes of Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie, George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Keith Moon, Billy Preston, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers. For Yoko, though, it was a chance to experiment with more traditional song structures. I’m an unashamed fan of her feminist rallying cry “Sisters, O Sisters”: the language may be dated, like a parody of Second Wave revolutionary discourse, but the pre-Beatles rock’n’roll arrangement is infectious (and authentic: Some Time in New York City was co-produced by “Wall of Sound” master Phil Spector). It also provides a glimpse at Ono’s oft-ignored sense of humor: just listen to the intentionally chirpy voice with which she delivers her feminist tract, like a girl group frontwoman possessed by the spirit of Angela Davis.
By 1973’s Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono’s confidence as a pop songwriter had clearly grown, to the point where she was now bringing more traditional songcraft to her own work. And in many cases, her work was deeply revelatory of the rift growing between her and John. “Death of Samantha” is a devastating blues-rock ballad with soulful accompaniment by Elephant’s Memory, the same backing group Lennon and Ono had used on Some Time in New York City; the lyrics dramatize one of the turning points in the couple’s relationship, when John got drunk at a party the night of Richard Nixon’s re-election and had sex with another woman in full earshot of Yoko. “Something inside me died that day,” Ono sings, her voice heavy with real emotion. It’s an incredible performance of an incredible song, frankly putting to shame a lot of the more rote, flaccid numbers on Lennon’s contemporaneous album Mind Games.
With another ballad, “What a Bastard the World Is,” Ono castigates her husband in ways more oblique and complex. The piano-led song begins with Ono waiting for her man to come home after a night of presumed carousing: “What a bastard you are,” she sings, “Leaving me all night missing you.” Her accusations soon escalate to a feminist tirade: “You know half the world is / Occupied by you pigs / I could always get another / Pig like you.” But by the end of the song, she’s apologized for her outburst, begging the man not to leave. “Female lib is nice for Joan of Arc / But it’s a long, long way for Terry and Jill,” she admits. “Most of us were taught not to shout our will / Few of us are encouraged to get a job for skill / And all of us live under the mercy of male society / Thinking that their want is our need.” Her lyrics do admittedly suffer from the same on-the-nose quality as those on Some Time in New York City, but the picture they paint is rich nevertheless; on this and other songs from the era, Ono took the “personal is political” mantra of Second Wave Feminism and turned it into vital, riveting music.
Anyone hoping for a reprieve from Ono’s feminist messages with her next album, Feeling the Space, would have been sorely disappointed. The sleeve, on which Yoko’s face appeared superimposed over the head of the Sphinx, came with the inscription, “This album is dedicated to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society.” And the music is no less overtly political, with tracks like the country-flavored “Angry Young Woman“–featuring pedal steel by Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers–and the soulful “She Hits Back” directly taking on the plights of women under patriarchy.
But Feeling the Space wasn’t all po-faced social commentary. “Woman Power” is a fun, funky bit of agit-pop: as rousing as (and significantly more sample-able than) John and Yoko’s 1971 single “Power to the People.” Meanwhile, closing track “Men, Men, Men” cheekily turns the tables on the male gaze with a saucy, cocktail-jazz arrangement and Yoko doing her best Betty Boop, cooing come-ons like “Pardon me, starstud, your codpiece is showing.” At the end of the song, you can hear John’s voice meekly saying, “Yes, dear.”
Lennon and Ono separated in mid-1973, at Ono’s behest. John spent much of the ensuing 18 months in Los Angeles, partying with the likes of Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson, and recording the albums that would become 1974’s Walls & Bridges and 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Yoko stayed busy as well, pursuing her own career in New York and recording a fifth album–her first without Lennon’s input–with guitarist David Spinozza. The album would not see release until 1992, when it was issued as part of Ono’s career-spanning box set Onobox–most likely, it’s sad to say, because of label disinterest due to Lennon’s non-involvement. In recent years, however, the song “Yes, I’m a Witch” has become an anthem for Ono: a defiant retort to her critics, it provided the title for her 2007 remix album and its upcoming sequel, Yes, I’m a Witch Too. It also has the distinction of having beaten Meredith Brooks’ 1997 radio hit “Bitch” to the punch by almost 25 years, and doing it better, to boot.
In early 1975, John and Yoko reunited; their son, Sean Taro Ono Lennon, was born on October 9, John’s 35th birthday. Both Ono and Lennon spent the rest of the 1970s out of the public eye; they returned with 1980’s Double Fantasy, the first album on which they shared equal billing since Some Time in New York City. Once again, Ono’s songs have arguably aged the better. While John was turning in comfortable soft rock ditties that betrayed his entry into middle age, Yoko was catching up with New Wave, a genre for which she’d helped build the foundation, with “Kiss Kiss Kiss”: an angular piece of Scary Monsters-esque art-funk that ended with the reliably avant-garde 47-year-old simulating orgasm. As always in her work, though, there was also warmth and humor to spare: “Yes, I’m Your Angel” picked up where “Men, Men, Men” left off, replacing its wryly inverted chauvinism with a sweet declaration of love for her husband, too tongue-in-cheek and self-aware to be cloying.
Of course, we all know how this story ends. On December 8, 1980, less than a month after the release of Double Fantasy, John Lennon was shot in the back four times while he and Yoko were returning to their home in Manhattan’s Dakota building. He was rushed to St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. That night, the couple had been at the Record Plant, putting the finishing touches on a solo single for Yoko called “Walking on Thin Ice”; John was holding a final mix of the song in his hand when he was murdered. It’s thus difficult to listen to the song without confronting its deeply unfortunate circumstances–the knowledge, for example, that Lennon’s quavering, dischordant guitar solo, one of the most adventurous of his career, was the last piece of music he ever recorded. And that’s a shame, because even without its grave historical context, “Walking on Thin Ice” is a solid track: like “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” it sounds remarkably like the music David Bowie was making around the same time (indeed, both tracks coincidentally feature Bowie’s former guitarist, Earl Slick). In the end, however, there are worse epitaphs for Lennon; and an epitaph is exactly what “Walking on Thin Ice” became: when the song was released as a 12″ single on January 6, 1981, its front cover did not feature Ono’s name, instead carrying the simple inscription, “-FOR JOHN.”
Ono’s next full-length, Season of Glass, was released later that year. Like “Walking on Thin Ice,” it served as an epitaph for Lennon; but it was a stark, unsparing tribute. The album quickly became infamous for its cover: a photo taken by Yoko of the bloodstained glasses John had been wearing at the time of his murder, sitting next to a half-empty glass of water on a windowsill overlooking Central Park. Much of the music on the album was similarly grim. In particular, “No, No, No” begins with the sound of four simulated gunshots, followed by Ono’s anguished scream; the lyrics and arrangement are anxious and disjointed, reflecting what Ono later described as the perspective of “a woman who was in such a pain that her heart was cracking while she kept her mind clear, so she could survive for herself and for her son.”
Still, even amidst the pain, Season of Glass has its moments of light. There is, for example, “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do”: a retro-flavored love song–co-produced, like the rest of the album, by John’s old sparring partner Phil Spector–that is heartbreaking in its sweetness and simplicity. It’s likely that for many John Lennon fans still reeling from his death only six months earlier, the intense catharsis of Season of Glass was too much to bear; looking back, though, it’s a moving and accomplished document of Ono’s grief, and everyone’s.
The following year’s It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) was also concerned with grief, but from the other side of the veil: as the optimistic title suggests, it was an album about Ono coming to terms with unthinkable personal tragedy. “It’s Alright,” the song, makes touching use of a vérité-style clip of six-year-old Sean imploring his mother to get out of bed; the recorded domestic scene recalls the documentarian impulse of John and Yoko’s early records, while also dramatizing Ono’s lyrics, a mantra of day-to-day resilience in the face of sorrow: “Sometimes it’s such a drag / I don’t feel like getting up in the morning / Then something happens / It clicks in my head / I feel like crying / But I know it’s gonna be alright.” Elsewhere, “Let the Tears Dry” offers a haunting, spiritual elegy for John. Like the previous album’s “No, No, No,” it begins (and ends) with the sound of simulated gunshots, but here they serve an almost ritualistic purpose: giving way to a drumbeat and chant reminiscent of traditional Native American music, with lyrics about moving on from loss.
It’s Alright had a notably “poppier” sound than its predecessor, heavy on keyboards and light on guitars. With her followup album, 1985’s Starpeace, Ono got even more polished, recruiting co-producer Bill Laswell and a who’s-who session crew that included Bernie Worrell, Nona Hendryx, Sly & Robbie, and others. It is, to be honest, a little too slick around the edges, and the utopian lyrical themes are obviously a product of the same era that gave us We Are the World and Live Aid; at the very least, however, songs like the wiry art-pop-funk number “Cape Clear” are the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Yoko Ono make her way into Jheri Curl June.
A year after the release of Starpeace, Ono embarked on her first solo world tour, with the intent of spreading her message of world peace to Eastern Europe. She was met with some success, but also widespread derision: in one, especially shocking case, a German disc jockey encouraged his listeners to turn up to Yoko’s show and pelt her with glass bottles. Later, a planned U.S. leg of the tour was cancelled due to low ticket sales. The discouraging experience led Ono to take another lengthy sabbatical from music. During her time away, however, she experienced something of a critical rehabilitation. First, there was Yoko Ono: Objects, Films, a 1989 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art that marked her re-entry into the art world. Then, there was Onobox: a personally-curated six-CD compilation of Ono’s music from 1968 to 1985, released by Rykodisc in 1992. The box set’s reception was unsurprisingly cautious; Ryko hilariously issued a press release promising prospective buyers that it was “not as bad as you might think.” But its release ultimately prompted a reappraisal of Ono’s work, introducing it to a new generation more prepared for radical experimentation in rock music.
Clearly, the time was ripe for a comeback. Ono first produced New York Rock, an autobiographical off-Broadway musical featuring a selection of her songs, in 1994. Then, the following year, she released a whole new album: Rising, a stripped-down effort with musical backing provided by her now 19-year-old son’s band IMA. In its own way, Rising is as much a product of its time as Starpeace: IMA’s post-grunge alt-guitar-rock is clearly the work of teenagers in the mid-’90s (also, peep that graffiti-style font on the album cover). But it’s actually a pleasure to hear Yoko sing a straight-up rocker like “New York Woman,” a song for which I’m convinced there is an alternate-universe Lou Reed cover. Elsewhere, the album gives us more of the Yoko Ono we know and (hopefully) love. “Will I” is ruminative spoken-word poetry that could have come from the pages of Grapefruit; and Rising‘s epic, 15-minute title track sees the return of Ono’s trademark hetai-style vocalizations after over a decade’s absence. Her detractors are unlikely to be won over, but for aficionados, it’s a welcome effort.
Ono next reemerged in 2001 with Blueprint for a Sunrise, a return to the overt feminist themes of her ’70s work. The album begins with “I Want You to Remember Me,” a pulsing, rage-filled track built on a sample from “Coffin Car” on Feeling the Space. Ono’s vocals–recorded, lest we forget, when she was pushing 70 years old–are incredibly visceral. “Is This What We Do,” a protest song with flamenco-style guitar by Sean, is more melodic, but no less intense: the result of what Ono described in the liner notes as “waking up in the middle of the night hearing thousands of women screaming.” Blueprint for a Sunrise was a far cry from commercial success: a 2009 Billboard post stated that it had only sold 3,000 copies in the U.S. Artistically, however, it was proof that as she approached her fifth decade as an active artist, Yoko was nowhere near slowing down.
Then, sometime in the mid-2000s, something strange happened: music finally caught up with Yoko Ono. “Japanese noise,” once a pejorative applied to Ono’s music by angry Beatles fans, was now a genre you could read about in Pitchfork; and a whole host of indie artists–quite possibly the same kids who heard Onobox in 1992–now named her as an influence. Ever the shrewd businesswoman, Ono capitalized on the sea change with Yes, I’m a Witch, a 2007 compilation of remixes by contemporary artists including Cat Power, Le Tigre, and the Polyphonic Spree. The new context worked: introducing Ono’s music to yet another audience, while also adding a new dimension to songs like “Toyboat” from Season of Glass, which received a fittingly ethereal treatment with violin by Hahn Rowe and backing vocals by Antony Hegarty.
Ono’s next step was among her boldest to date: a full-scale revival of the Plastic Ono Band, now featuring Sean, Yuka Honda of the profoundly Yoko-influenced Cibo Matto, and Japanese multi-instrumentalist Oyamada Keigo, better known as Cornelius. The resulting album, Between My Head and the Sky, was Yoko’s best work in decades. At times, as on opening track “Waiting for the D Train,” the new band channels the fury of the original Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band; but the album is even more interesting when it’s striking out in quirky new directions. “Ask the Elephant” is a playful jazz-funk shuffle, while the title track sounds–in the best way–exactly like you’d expect an Ono/Honda/Cornelius collaboration to sound. Between My Head and the Sky is a rare effort for an artist at Yoko’s stage of her career: an album that recalls her earlier heights, while also striking forth in exciting new directions.
Indeed, the return of the Plastic Ono Band put Ono in a position she’d never before had the chance to occupy: respected elder stateswoman. In 2011, the Plastic Ono Band collaborated on an EP with neo-psychedelic freaks the Flaming Lips; their dreamlike “Brain of Heaven” is among the highlights of the Lips’ (admittedly patchy) recent work. The following year, Ono also recorded as YOKOKIMTHURSTON with Sonic Youth co-founders Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Then, in 2013, she curated London’s annual music and arts festival Meltdown, which featured, along with more traditional fare, a reprise of Ono’s own “Cut Piece” performance by electroclash provocateur Peaches.
The Meltdown festival coincided with a new Plastic Ono Band single, “Moonbeams,” which lurches to life with a euphoric kick that suggests Yoko had been listening to Acid Mothers Temple. Its parent album, Take Me to the Land of Hell, followed in September. Though perhaps less surprising than Between My Head and the Sky, Land of Hell is just as good: playing out like a cross between the previous Plastic Ono Band album and Yes, I’m a Witch, the album pairs Yoko with special guests like Mike D and Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, whose beats liven the quirky house pastiche of “Bad Dancer,” and ?uestlove of the Roots, who turns “7th Floor” into a mashup of Yoko’s poetry and keyboard lines straight out of Minneapolis funk.
Ono, as noted before, turns 83 today, and remarkably shows no signs of slowing down. Tomorrow, she releases a sequel to Yes, I’m a Witch, featuring more re-envisionings of her catalogue–including the track chosen for this playlist, a remix/cover of “Soul Got Out of the Box” from Blueprint for a Sunrise by Alaskan indie rockers Portugal. The Man. After that–who knows? At this point, the one thing that can be predicted about Ono’s work is its unpredictability. But wherever she takes us next, the legacy she’s left behind is already beyond parallel. Even if she did break up the Beatles–and mind you, I’m not saying she did–I can’t think of another person more worthy of that honor than Yoko. So happy birthday, Ms. Ono. We love you.