John Lennon has been hot property this year, given it's 30 years since he was murdered by some mentally-defective cunt and that he would have been about to turn 70 in October had the above not happened on that fateful evening.
Between the documentaries lauding his genius and retracing the creation of some of his most famous works, what I found most refreshing was a dramatisation of his 67-70 years, featuring Christopher Ecclestone as Lennon. Apart from its touching insights into the psychology and backgroud of this most complex of superstars, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive light it shone on Beatle John's wife and muse, Yoko Ono. That this was then pursued in an excellent documentary on the recording of John's debut solo album (also called Plastic Ono Band and released in 1970 with a mirror cover of Yoko's) was a truly refreshing change from the contempt, condescension and downright viciousness that has tended to colour most portrayals of the enigmatic Japanese artist. In fact, both shows were excellent at exposing the racism and misogyny she had to contend with, and which still lingers today, to the point that I saw some daft twat, in a review of their collaborative Live Peace Toronto 1969 (released as the Plastic Ono Band, just to confuse us all more), actually asterisk out her name when describing her contributions!
And I will say it straight off the bat - Yoko Ono was and is an artistic genius, and one of the truly exciting experimental artists of her generation. Let's debunk a serious myth: Yoko Ono didn't break up the Beatles (Ringo's comments on this in the above-mentioned documentary are telling), nor did she use John Lennon to further her own reputation. Yoko Ono, creatively at least, did not need John Lennon. Emotionally, for sure, as did he need her. But where her light had been shining brightly in the field of avant-garde art for some time, it was only through meeting Yoko that Beatle John was able to push back his own boundaries and create some truly adventurous stuff, from the brittle "Yer Blues" and the weird "Revolution No 9" when with his band, to the experimental musical collages of the Unfinished Music albums, to the primal screaming on "Mother" on his debut solo album. Emotionally and artistically, they complimented and fed off each other, and whilst his talents were considerable, any appraisal of them cannot be done to the detriment of Yoko Ono. Simply put, she made John Lennon better, and I would be so bold as to say that the material on his version of Plastic Ono Band is superior to 95% of anything The Beatles ever did.
Which puts Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono Band (Apple, 1970) in another dimension altogether. Before putting it on the first time many moons ago, I had literally no idea what to expect, other than that it would be experimental, and that a lot of narrow-minded prigs who love "Let It Be" and "Love Me Do" think it's shit. But no matter how much that definition tantalised me, nothing prepared me for the dementia I ended up experiencing.
Plastic Ono Band is one of those albums that are singularly difficult to pigeon-hole (always a good thing in my book). When you hear the words "experimental rock", you think the more out-there moments of Sonic Youth, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson or The Velvet Underground. To be honest, I'm not even sure Plastic Ono Band counts as "rock" music per se. It has the instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and the drive, but it is somehow "other". I mean check out the guitar that surges out of the speakers on demented opener "Why?". Remember, this is 1970. The only sound comparable in modern rock music at the time was the guitar on "Sister Ray" by The VU, another "not quite rock" band. Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Metal Machine Music and Arto Lindsay were years away yet. It's lacerating, off-key, like an electric violin on full volume being dragged over a cutting saw. And who's playing it? Fuck me, it's John fucking Lennon! A Beatle playing like Ron Asheton, only a Ron Asheton who seems to have forgotton how to use distortion, chorus or delay properly. And who's on drums? Ringo fucking Starr! That most-maligned of drummers is thundering out the most unhinged, primeval and untidy garage backbeat in the world, something anchored in the blues, basic and brutal, but with the discrete suppleness of a jazzman.
And you're still trying to get your mind around this astounding realisation, reading and re-reading the album credits, when John's guitar segues effortlessly (and apparently unintentionally) into a series of vocalisations so demented, so unrelenting and so primordial that I do have to admit (grudgingly) to understanding why some people will recoil in horror, and did. Yoko Ono doesn't sing, she screams. Over and over, this high-pitched, rattling wail repeats the word "Why" like a fucked-up mantra, sometimes drawing the word out, at others blurting it out like an insult. It may be a tough sell, but in this one track, released as the Vietnam War continued unabated and America's National Guard was shooting its own citizens, Yoko Ono manages to perfectly capture the pain and confusion of a society going mad. It wasn't enough to ask why the horror and violence wouldn't go away, you had to scream it. Get it out. In our current climate of corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen and ongoing armed conflict, it is still achingly relevant.
By the next track, "Why Not?", she sounds defeated, her voice now a drained croak over a shuffling blues motif. Perhaps this song can be seen as the moment the couple realised the bed-ins and "Give Peace a Chance"-esque odes to peace and good vibes were no longer enough. Idealism hitting the wall in the face of sheer brutality, in their case perhaps some of the scorn and bile they encountered from the press for their starry-eyed optimism.
Later, Ono brings her experimental credentials to the fore. She's joined by The Ornette Coleman band on "AOS", the most difficult and surprisingly unsuccessful piece on the album, whilst "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City", an ode to her lost daughter Kyoko (who was more or less kidnapped by her father, Yoko's previous husband), or perhaps to the children she at that time appeared unable to have with John, shows her knowledge of traditional Asian music. It's a quieter, haunting piece featuring chanted double-tracked vocals that are downright eerie, while John, Ringo and bassist Klaus Voorman lurch through a funky, infectious and driving tune, like early Neu! slowed down to accomodate a Tibetan monk on vocals. It, and sumptuous closer "Paper Shoes", predate the raga-folk trend of recent times by nearly three decades, again showcasing Ono's adventurous spirit and sense of innovation.
Plastic Ono Band manages to encapsulate not only the best of the rock/avant-garde mixture, but it also stands as one of the very great extreme proto-punk albums of its day, to be ranked alongside Fun House, Kick Out The Jams, White Light / White Heat, Neu! and Modern Lovers. It paves the way for Public Image Ltd, Lydia Lunch, the Riot Grrrls, Sonic Youth, and a whole sleuth of more recent experimental rock and noise bands who use vocals more as an extra instrument than as a way to express redundant lyrics, and who aren't afraid to challenge, surprise and defy audiences' sensibilities. For that reason alone, the damning and downright hateful speech aimed at Yoko Ono and her work should stop, and she should be allowed to take har place among rock and art's great innovators and creators. It's certainly the place she occupies in my and many others' hearts.