If the decade of the1960s was a period in which many bands helped expand rock’s expressive language, the following decade, at least in the United States, was dominated by singer-songwriters voicing personal takes on life and love, and on a range of social and political issues, too.
Reaching beyond familiar be-my-baby, my-baby-left-me clichés to plumb more complex emotional depths, singer-songwriters of the 1970s were legion: Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Carole King, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, John Denver, Jim Croce, Todd Rundgren, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen…
…and Yoko Ono.
Yes, Yoko, who in the early 1970s composed and recorded a series of albums whose technical innovations, narrative themes, and emotional temperatures were as wide-ranging as those of many of her chart-topping peers. Now, these stylistically diverse Ono albums, including Fly (1971), Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), and Feeling the Space (1973), have been jointly re-released by Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music. They constitute the second batch of newly re-mastered Ono albums from past decades that have been jointly issued by these two U.S.-based labels since late last year. Over the next few years, they will continue re-releasing all of the albums Ono made through the mid-1980s as vinyl LPs, compact discs, and digital downloads.
Ono, who was already well known on New York’s avant-garde art and music scene, married John Lennon in Gibraltar in March 1969. In December of the following year, they issued their first solo albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Then, in early 1971, they began producing Fly at a studio they had set up at their home near London around the same time Lennon started recording the tracks that would become Imagine, his second solo album after the Beatles’ break-up in early 1970.
Lennon and Ono regarded JL/POB and YO/POB as companion musical statements reflecting the fruitful exchange of aesthetic, musical, and other ideas they had enjoyed since the beginning of their romantic relationship and creative collaboration, although it would take years for critics (of rock music and, later, visual art) to appreciate the varied and profound ways in which these two artists from dramatically different social, intellectual, and cultural backgrounds had influenced each other’s thinking.
Lennon’s pun-loving humor and penchant for soul-baring introspection (in such songs as “Help!,” “Nowhere Man,” “Mother,” and “God”) blended remarkably well with the distinctive strain of idealism and self-containment expressed in Ono conceptual, often instruction-based art. Meanwhile, the Japanese-born artist, who had studied music composition at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1950s before moving to Manhattan to pursue her career as an artist, was a quick study once Lennon introduced her to rock’n’roll and the workings of the modern recording studio.
Reflecting his state of mind following the Beatles’ break-up (during which period the Lennons took part in the Los Angeles-based psychologist Arthur Janov’s primal-scream therapy), Lennon’s first solo album featured spare arrangements, stripped-down lyrics, and raw emotion.
But already in the late 1960s, Ono had begun using screams, yelps, wails, grunts, and bursts of guttural sounds in performances set against the improvisational accompaniment of an ensemble such as Ornette Coleman’s free-jazz quartet. She brought those orgasmic screams, squeals, gasps, and whispers to the making of YO/POB, which opened with a searing barn burner, “Why,” and included the multilayered sound collages “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City” and “Paper Shoes.”
On Fly, a double-record set, Ono brought experimental sounds and textures to both familiar song forms and more unconventional compositions. The album erupts with “Midsummer New York,” a straight-ahead rocker, then bumps up against “Mindtrain,” a long, funk-rock romp in which Ono’s sputtering, multi-tracked vocals ride the wave of a throbbing, driving beat.
The album features guitarists Lennon and Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voorman, and drummer Ringo Starr on “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow),” in which Ono warbles and shrieks a portion of the song’s title against a slashing rhythm section. One of the singles from the album was the ethereal ballad “Mrs. Lennon,” with its unfolding of yearning minor chords rising gently from Lennon’s piano. Fly’s arrangements often feature mood-setting, layered percussion, including such instruments as claves and the tabla in songs like “O’Wind (Body is the Scar of Your Mind).”
Elsewhere, Ono uses tape delay and vocal overdubs to create fluttering, polyrhythmic passages in such sound-collage compositions as “Airmale” and “You.” Fly’s title piece served as the soundtrack of Ono’s 1970 film of the same name, in which the camera follows a fly crawling over the surface of a reposing, naked woman’s body; the artist vocalizes in imitation of the insect’s erratic buzz. The album’s sound is also distinguished by original musical instruments created by Joe Jones (1934-1993), Ono’s friend and colleague in the avant-garde Fluxus artists’ group of the 1960s and early 1970s.
If, on YO/POB and Fly, Ono most demonstrably fused rock and avant-garde music, on Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), another double-record set, she explored rock and Western pop-song genres — blues, ballads, Latin beat, folk, and more. As with the varied song stylings of such 1960s bands as the Kinks and, yes, the Beatles (notably on the 1968 White Album), or of a 1970s soloist like Todd Rundgren, the tracks featured on Ono’s AIU range from the sultry-brooding “Death of Samantha” to the funky “What Did I Do?,” the bluesy “Is Winter Here to Stay?,” and “I Have a Woman Inside My Soul,” a molasses drop of melancholic reverie wrapped in a coating of smoky soul.
Several of Ono’s songs on AIU tell stories — women’s stories, either from an introspective, first-person point of view, or from that of an attentive observer — including its explosive title number, in which she sings:
In this approximately infinite universe,
I know a girl who’s in constant hell.
No love or pill could keep her cool,
’Cause there’s a thousand holes in her heart.
“Sometimes a song will begin with the words,” Ono told me in an interview at her home in Manhattan late last year. More recently, during a chat on the occasion of the artist’s 84th birthday a few months ago, I asked her about the characters whose slice-of-life images she paints in her songs. She said, “Their emotions are very real. They’re all of us, really, like the girl who walks across the lake in ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ . She senses that it’s dangerous but she takes a chance. When I made those records, I paid close attention to how I sung certain words, because they’re key to how a story is told and to how a listener understands.” Ono then softly sang, “I know a girl who’s in constant hell,” tapping her knee on “girl” and “hell.”
Sean Ono Lennon, Ono’s son with John Lennon, has served in recent years as the music director of the Plastic Ono Band. In a telephone interview, he observed, “Yoko can pack a lot into a lyric. The phrase ‘approximately infinite universe,’ for example. What does that mean? The universe is infinitely large, so how can it be ‘approximately’ infinite? Here it helps set up a contrast between the vastness of someone’s potential experience in life and the more limited, painful situation of the woman who’s the subject of the song.”
Ono continued her exploration of women’s experiences on Feeling the Space. Unabashedly feminist in outlook, it mixed humor, humanism, history and politics in another trove of stylistically varied songs.
On FTS, Ono examines a young woman contemplating her awareness of life and the flow of time in the wistful “Growing Pain.” “Run, Run, Run” offers a soulful recollection by a nerdy young woman who was so drowsily absorbed in “feeling the air” and “feeling the space” around her that she “tumbled on roots, stumbled on stones, lost my marbles,” and stepped on her glasses.
FTS also features “Woman Power,” Ono’s stirring feminist anthem, and “Men, Men, Men,” a jazzy-bluesy number that teases, “I want you clever but not too clever” and “I like you to shut up but know when to say yes.” One of the album’s most unusual numbers surely must be “Woman of Salem,” in which Ono recalls the fate of a woman sentenced to death in the colonial-Massachusetts witch trials of the late 1600s.
“These albums of the 1970s were very well recorded,” Sean Ono Lennon told me. He and several collaborators worked together to produce and engineer the re-releases. “In making new digital masters from the original analog tapes,” he explained, “we heard how good their sound quality was. Everybody was working at their peak in those days — my mom as she explored new song styles, the best session musicians of the time, and the engineers who were working with what was then pre-digital, state-of-the-art recording equipment.”
Today, reminders of the 1970s’ musical legacy abound. Carole King’s life story has become a hit Broadway musical. Singers keep revisiting the great singer-songwriters’ tunes, as the veteran Broadway performer Jessica Molaskey does in her soon-to-be-released album, Portraits of Joni (Ghostlight Records), which dives deeply into Joni Mitchell’s oeuvre.
Since the 1980s, various musicians have dipped into Ono’s big songbook, too. Among them: the B-52s, whose new wave sound owed a lot to the spirit of Ono’s 1970s avant-rock; Boy George, who covered “Death of Samantha” on his 2013 album, This Is What I Do; and numerous alternative-rock bands. Of special interest: Galaxie 500’s version of “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” (1990) and Of Montreal’s take on “I Felt Like Smashing My Face Through A Clear Glass Window” (1999).
In a recent interview, Justin Vivian Bond, the gender-fluid singer known for one of the cabaret stage’s most unusual and compelling repertoires, recalled being introduced to Ono’s music through her 1981 album Season of Glass. Bond said, “As a student of performance, studying theater and voice, I was interested in discovering artists who combined raw emotion with their vocal technique and I have always felt that Yoko’s music offers a perfect combination of emotion, intellect, and artistry.”
Bond has performed such Ono songs as “What a Bastard the World Is,” “Walking on Thin Ice,” and “Every Man, Every Woman” (a reworking of “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him,” from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 Double Fantasy album). Of “What a Bastard…,” from Approximately Infinite Universe, with its conflicted emotions and sexual politics, Bond said, “As a transgender feminist, I have always felt that song to be tremendously compelling.”
I asked Bond what else might help explain the durability of Ono’s sound. The singer stated, “Of course, there is no one, in my opinion, whose music is better to dance to.”