Album review: Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band

Posted: February 10, 2011 in Album Reviews, Beatles

There was a time I fell into the naive segment of Beatles fandom who believed John Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono was a big factor in dissolving the band.
I also was pretty dismissive of Yoko’s merits as an artist, particularly as a musician, without ever really listening to her music and investigating what it was John found so groundbreaking about her work. I used to think it was just John’s blind love for Yoko which made him be such a staunch advocate of her work, but as the old Beatles song goes, I should have known better.
And while the chances of Yoko reading this are almost as likely as me winning the lottery tomorrow, I’d still like to issue a public apology for the ignorance of my youth.
As I’ve delved into Yoko’s work, I’ve found much to like. I’m fast becoming a big fan, actually.
Yoko’s first real foray into rock came with the 1970 release of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. She and John had released a few avant garde sound experiments in the previous two years, but here Yoko fronts what amounts to a kick-ass garage band: John on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums and longtime Beatle friend Klaus Voormann on bass.
An advance warning to anyone seeking out this release: it’s a far cry from anything the Beatles ever did, yet it’s unbelievably interesting all the same.
The band often times plays with ferocious intensity, particularly on the opening track ‘Why.’
Yoko, who would eventually write more conventional rock songs on later releases, really gives her voice a workout on this album. It’s not so much singing as screaming, but her voice conveys such raw emotion even though there aren’t really lyrics per se. On ‘Why,’ Yoko basically screams ‘Why’ in many different ways, holding it out longer and also saying it in shorter bursts. It was during this era that John and Yoko had taken ‘primal scream’ therapy, a sort of psychological exorcism in a way where one expresses deep-down emotions by ‘screaming it out.’ I’m probably over-simplifying the therapy, but that’s the basic gist of it. On John’s companion album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he employs some intense screaming of his own on tracks like ‘Mother’ and ‘Well Well Well.’
While John called that album his ‘primal scream album’, Yoko’s is even more true to that feel.
On ‘Why,’ you almost feel a part of her primal scream therapy, as her searing vocals seem to convey her releasing emotions about something bad that has happened to her. You feel anger, sadness, frustration all at once, and the music backing it is appropriate. John really gets the guitar going at full blast, the backing track almost sounds grungeish, predating the genre by 20 years. The next track ‘Why Not’ is the flipside to ‘Why’. It’s a nearly 10-minute slow-burning blues track, and Yoko’s vocals are certainly toned down. If ‘Why’ is the realization and vocalization of something gone terribly wrong in one’s life, ‘Why Not’ is the coming to terms and dealing with the problem.
The next track is my favorite, the spacey, trance-like “Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City.” It’s definitely got an Eastern feel going in the beginning, before the band settles into a steady groove. Yoko’s vocals are mesmerizing here, seeming to portray a sense of loss (maybe from the recent miscarriages she and John went through). It’s powerful stuff and proof you don’t need a lot of lyrics in a song to bring real feelings through.
‘AOS’ is the only track done here not including Lennon, Starr and Voormann, as it was recorded two years earlier with the Ornette Coleman Jazz Quartet. It’s interesting, but a bit long for my taste and I find myself missing the band. They return on the album’s final two tracks, “Touch Me” and “Paper Shoes.” The final track, “Paper Shoes” is another favorite of mine. It starts out with nearly two minutes of sound effects, basically of a train chugging along the tracks from a distance. Ringo’s manic bass drum eventually takes over for the train sound, with Yoko’s vocals soaring over top of the menacing beat. “Touch Me” stops and starts and stops again, speeding up and slowing down at will. The bonus tracks on the cd version are pretty good as well, especially an early version of “Open Your Box.” It’s pretty funky and fits well with the rest of the album. The 16-minute “The South Wind” gets old after awhile, but still is worthwhile to hear John and Yoko basically coming up with something on the spot. John noodles around with his acoustic guitar to produce some strange sounds while Yoko vocalizes.
Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was heavily panned upon its release in 1970. It appears the music establishment wasn’t ready for something so abrasive, so bold. Also, there was a great deal of people still pissed off about the Beatles’ breakup and a good many of those placing the blame squarely on Yoko. But as time has gone on, many punk musicians and prominent female rockers cited Yoko’s early work as an influence. The Allmusic album guide gave it 4 1/2 stars and praised its cutting-edge aesthetic. It’s no easy listening, that’s for sure. And the screaming can be a little offputting at first for the uninitiated. But once you really get into the record, you find yourself listening to it again and again, as there really aren’t too many (if any) like it. And Beatles fans should find it interesting to hear John really let loose on the guitar and Ringo pound on the skins like a man on a mission. I’m very glad I gave this album a chance. Open your mind, and you’ll find the same.

Sod rating: **** 1/2


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