Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (1968)
You’re here because you need relief. You’ve read the careful praise, the critics striving to do justice to the intensely personal work of a never-more-remembered Beatle (retroactively analyzing “Imagine” for the 20th time? Good luck, pal). After digesting John Lennon‘s more compatible sojourns — first into himself, then the search for peace, then dubiously tactful politicking, then leaving Yoko Ono for the wild west, and finally back to the arms of domestic happiness — it’s natural and exciting to stumble upon the fact that the stark, declarative Plastic Ono Band wasn’t his first record without his mates. Almost as exciting as seeing someone you’ve obsessed over bare all for the first time.
Lennon must have known his first release without the “McCartney” following his name would be scrutinized beyond all reason, so he shrouds artistic expression in experimentation as a defense. Oh, he reveals himself all right, and so does Ono; after the fact, he joked that the real reason people found the famous nude album cover offensive was that the gangly pair wasn’t more attractive. As for the music, well, it was challenging.
Slowed-down gobbledygook? Extended silence for silence’s sake? Wordless screeching? I’ll be cliché and say I prefer his earlier work. With no individual tracks, just one continuous challenge per album side, Unfinished Music Vol. 1: Two Virgins goes full force with its anti-rock stance, like “Revolution 9” spread over 40 minutes. This is Lennon and Ono’s sly checkmate: Two Virgins is so diffusive and off-putting, yet intentionally so, that even mild praise sounds hyperbolic, while harsh criticism feels predictable and obvious. And so after listening again and again to the shrieks, samples, and shivers of this first Unfinished Music, the only fair rating splits it down the middle. Lennon had awed us before, but now he was set on confusion.
The most controversial woman in rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t get equal billing for nothing. This is as much an Ono concoction as a Lennon creation, and while it was recorded at Lennon’s house, Ono has the true home-field advantage here. Her wails are the most piercing part of this work. Surely commercial viability had something to do with it. Still, perhaps partly because of her influence and participation, Two Virgins wasn’t included in the batch of reissues celebrating Lennon’s solo work on what would have been his 70th year (along with Unfinished Music Vol. 2: Life With the Lions and Wedding Album).
The recording was cobbled together on a night in May 1968, the morning after which Lennon and Ono supposedly made love for the first time. Just as only the most ardent Lennonphiles — namely, graying novelty record store owners and a certain breed of fedora-wearing college student — will find that bit of trivia creepily relevant, Two Virgins doesn’t feel particularly historic or even necessary.
The atonality ends three minutes into the album, with pounded piano giving way to a distorted guitar. Lennon even locks into an innocuous strum for a few seconds before a piercing scream breaks the fog. However, any time the record hovers around an echo of a groove, Ono’s avant-garde instincts snap it back into focus. Calling it “background music” almost gives Two Virgins too much credit, unless you host a fucking wild dinner party: this would have been more appropriate as the soundtrack to one of Ono’s art installations.
Songwriting-wise, Lennon was on top of his game in 1968 even as the world’s beloved Beatles began to splinter. Lennon appeared to be fraying on record sometime after the death of Brian Epstein. Beginning with songs like “Hey Bulldog” and blossoming on The Beatles, Lennon didn’t so much twist and shout as writhe and scream on record. Two Virgins has no lyrics, but plenty of screaming. Despite the obvious pressure to make his first solo joint count, it’s hard to hear Two Virgins as the sound of someone too full of fear to function. On the contrary, the John Lennon of the 1960s rarely sounded more liberated than he does here. He could have put out a great solo record that year with non-White Album cuts like “Child of Nature”; he just didn’t care to.
It takes a man (and woman) with a great, great deal of clout to sell a stunt like this — even Dylan didn’t have the audacity for this. John’s career would taper off into more streamlined sounds, and he would take Yoko with him for their final sessions before his death in 1980, with Lennon, in particular, laying the foundation for today’s Adult Contemporary, but not before crawling further down the rabbit hole. Two Virgins may have been Lennon letting off steam, but it’s like a Halloween funhouse mirror, only without fun or purpose, two things that Lennon’s work rarely lacks. — Alex Bahler