Americans in the '70s would not accommodate a female Japanese performer of experimental music that is designed to provoke. Have we grown since then?
Having been enthusiastically received as a vinyl re-release and digital download, it's safe to say that Yoko Ono's debut album has now shaken off the sexist and racially insensitive critiques, distortions and misrepresentations that dogged it for so long. You would think.
Yoko's Plastic Ono Band was originally released in the same month -- December 1970 -- that Esquire magazine deemed it okay to publish an article by Charles McCarry titled 'John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie', a piece that not only mocked the artist's Asian accent, but also conveyed a full-page caricature of her as a wild-haired giant holding a miniature John Lennon on a leash, who in turn takes the form of -- wait for it -- a beetle. The album subsequently struggled to number 182 in the US and failed to chart in the UK, evidence that the listening public refused to buy into the 41 minutes of uncompromising music that it had to offer: six avant-garde and heavily improvised tracks, variously consisting of the word 'why' wailed desperately over and over, screaming, guttural outbursts, frenzied guitar, heavy breathing, an echoing sitar, free jazz, tom-toms and railroad clatter. However, in our more enlightened times, we have come to recognize its true significance as an art form and its contribution to the development of post-punk and alternative rock, having long dispensed with old prejudices in order to treat it sensitively, represent it accurately and give it the respect it deserves. Well, almost. Maybe.
Certainly, on the face of it, cultural attitudes have progressed a long way in relation to Yoko's debut solo record. We have seen it placed, for instance, at number 136 of a NPR Music list in July 2017 called 'Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women', its mere inclusion in a list being a point of some significance. We have also seen plentiful, seemingly positive criticism focused on the 'long-overdue' vinyl rerelease and digital availability of the album in November 2016, as part of an ongoing reissue campaign of Yoko's back catalogue by Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music, which has also included her collaborative albums with Lennon, Two Virgins (1968) and Life With the Lions (1969). Added to this has been the wider recognition of Yoko's musical legacy that has attended the decision by the National Music Publishers Association, in June 2017, to award her a writing credit on the song 'Imagine', after the NME presented her with an 'Inspiration' award in February 2016. It all speaks of an album and an artist being finally acknowledged, but only an assessment of the individual prejudices unique to Yoko's first LP, from then to now, will reveal the whole story.
The initial obstacle for audiences in accessing Yoko's Plastic Ono Band on its original release was, of course, the sexism and racism that reduced its Japanese creator to the status of Dragon Lady, a popular stereotype of a domineering Asian woman who had supposedly just steered her new husband away from being one-quarter of the most-loved rock band in the world. The first appreciative reviewers of the record were clearly conscious of this widespread hatred towards her, fuelled by articles of the 'Excrusive Gloupie' variety, when they came to critique her work. Lester Bangs, for instance, sardonically described her in Rolling Stone for March 1971 as one who has 'led poor John astray and been credited by more than one Insider with "breaking up the Beatles".' Dave Marsh of Creem, the same month, was equally mindful of the prejudice when he commented on the LP, 'for those who still find Yoko appalling, it isn't going to sink in the first time around' (Rock's Back Pages, 1971). Meanwhile, Duncan Fallowell, in his pop music column for The Spectator, complained: 'I doubt whether this album will receive the attention it deserves, such is the antipathy to Yoko Ono that she can do no right' (elsewhere.co.nz, 21 November 2016).
However, we are now, at least, privileged to be able to approach the album in the knowledge that Paul McCartney himself has absolved Yoko of any blame in the Beatles split, having left little room for misinterpretation when he said to Sir David Frost in 2012: "She certainly didn't break the group up" (Rolling Stone, 29 October 2012). And yet, for all his (belated) diplomacy, the phrase 'pulling a Yoko Ono' continues to hold currency, defined in the Urban Dictionary as 'the incidence when a Woman successfully breaks up your crew'. The vocabulary to belittle this particular artist as a controlling spouse, therefore, is still extant, should you wish to continue dismissing her album.
A second sexist attitude that worked against Yoko's debut record on its initial release lay in audiences simply not being prepared to judge it on its own terms, but rather in relation to Lennon's first solo album, simultaneously released on 11 December, with the same title of Plastic Ono Band. Both LPs were issued on the Beatles-founded Apple Records label, both predominantly featured the same all-male band consisting of Lennon on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums and Klaus Voormann on bass, both were unadorned by title, artist or tracklist, and both featured a front-cover photograph of Yoko and John lying on the ground beneath an oak tree. In fact, one of the few elements that distinguished Yoko's album visually was the appearance of her leaning on John beneath the tree, whereas on John's the situation is reversed, a circumstance seemingly known only to record-store assistants at the time, who would find themselves having to ask customers purchasing the Yoko LP, "Are you sure?" The same oral tradition tells of Lennon fans returning home with their record only to discover they had purchased Yoko's album by mistake, leaving them feeling duped while imposing upon the LP the unenviable status of booby prize.
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By now, though, we have had plenty of time to compensate for not recognising the defining characteristic of Yoko's front cover and also to appreciate that Yoko reclining on John is significant in marking her out as the protagonist of the album. From the picture, we can perhaps imagine her as a patient finding comfort after a particularly heavy session of reliving episodes of childhood trauma as part of her primal scream therapy under Dr. Arthur Janov, the experience of which she is known to have fed into the record. It's just unfortunate, then, that one particular retail outlet, San Francisco's Stranded Records, should continue to flaunt the historic disregard of this cover image by stating in its website review: 'only a childhood photo on the back told you which record was which'. Didn't they get the memo?
The subsequent barrier to success for Yoko's Plastic Ono Band was the unfair subjugation of the music beneath John's; again, in the context of the album's twin release. Sexist and racist orthodoxy dictated, first of all, that in the many combined reviews that accompanied the two albums, Lennon's disc was always given primacy in the order of discussion. It was a pattern that proved particularly detrimental to Yoko in an unsigned review for Disc and Music Echo, which described John's material as 'predictably mysterious and way-out' (four stars) and continued with: 'It's senseless to try and define Yoko's efforts', the record being 'simply a wicked waste of wax!' (no rating) (quoted in Keith Badman, The Beatles: The Dream is Over: Off the Record 2). But while Bill McAllister for Record Mirror in December 1971 followed the same procedure, he fully recognised the hostility to Yoko's record that would inevitably result from listening to it after Lennon's: 'Yoko's album, if you like melody and what we recognise as logical form, is much harder to take' (quoted in Scott Wilson, Stop Making Sense: Music from the Perspective of the Real, p.155).
Certainly it was and remains a futile exercise to try and contrast the two LPs, because even a cursory listen tells us that Yoko's in no way conforms to the idea of Western rock music made by men, with verses, choruses, lyrics, melody and anything else that might mark it out, broadly speaking, as entertainment. Instead, it conforms to the idea of confrontation, and freedom of expression as a weapon of self-empowerment, Yoko herself having said: 'I come from the Asian tradition of making music with anything, almost like a warrior'. She has further emphasised how she worked 'in the style of jazz', where: '"Let's go" was the idea, following the sound of my mind' (New York Times, 27 October 2016). So clearly, different processes and concepts informed her record, not least those of collective improvisation and primitivism then practiced in free jazz by the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, inspiring her to move beyond musical boundaries, and even, you could say, beyond music.
Now, in a world more used to musical rule-breakers who deal in ambient, noise and out-jazz forms, it's clear that a set of evaluative criteria needs to be applied to Yoko's album that does not involve making unfair comparisons with John's record. It's also clear that Yoko's creative techniques in the 1968-70 period should not be undervalued in the way they had a massive impact on the music John was making back then, evident in his agonised cries at the end of 'Cold Turkey' (1969) as well as 'Well Well Well' on his Plastic Ono Band, where he was inspired, as he has said, by the way, Yoko 'does not inhibit her throat' (Rolling Stone, 21 January 1971). Indeed, it's important to note, in this respect, that one track on Yoko's LP -- the jazz-inflected 'AOS' -- actually predates John's Plastic Ono Band by over two years, by having been recorded live with the Ornette Coleman Quartet in February 1968, while the remainder of it was put down simultaneously with Lennon's in October 1970.
The chronology of events makes plain that there's simply no basis to paint Yoko's record as some kind of response or reaction to John's LP in the manner of, say, the influential blog One Week // One Band, who called it, in 2015, 'the counter piece to Lennon's Plastic Ono Band'. It's also right and proper that the Secretly Canadian reissue project should free Yoko's album from this context altogether and instead issue it within the entirely unique framework of her own 'essential musical output from 1968 to 1985', making it doubly disappointing to find the Elsewhere website, in a subsequent review of November 2016, still happy to describe it as 'a companion to John Lennon's soul-baring album of the same title' (elsewhere.co.nz, 21 November 2016). Is Lennon's record ever 'a companion to Yoko Ono's soul-baring album of the same title'? I think not.
As already alluded to, an added contributor to the widespread rejection of Yoko's Plastic Ono Band was a culture not ready to accommodate a female performer of experimental music designed to provoke. Lester Bangs, himself amenable to more outré sounds -- as is well known from his passion for the Velvet Underground's anarchic White Light/White Heat (1968) -- recognized this public distaste when he stated in his review: 'Anyone performing avant-garde music is laying themselves open to a certain amount of hostility and derision at the outset' (Rolling Stone, 1971). Yoko actually courted this hostility, her attitude being, 'I don't accommodate the audience, I ask the audience to accommodate', adopted, no doubt, through her association with the John Cage-influenced Fluxus art group, with one of its concerns being to confront people's ideas of what constituted 'music' (The Guardian, 22 February 2016). Bangs, to his credit, praised the songs for making 'distinct statements', though without elucidating too much on what they were, while their capacity to rile or offend listeners remains clear. 'Why', particularly, is raw, aggressive, menacing and, yes, primal, wherein Yoko screams her 'why' in different tones as an apparent method of emotional catharsis, the savage sound of the band reflecting her inner turmoil and rage. And on 'Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City', based around a sample from a discarded tape of George Harrison playing the sitar, Yoko expresses the pain she feels over a recent miscarriage. Further along, 'AOS' contains the loudest and most frightening screech imaginable, which throws the band into a collective frenzy, while 'Touch Me' and 'Paper Shoes' also confront the listener with outpourings of her inner torment.
Today's audiences have, to some extent, come round to Yoko's raw and aggressive sound by accommodating the album within the context of the punk movement. Gillian Gaar, in her influential study She's a Rebel (1992), was instrumental in placing it within this recognised musical tradition in her bid to forge the first full history of women in rock and pop. She has even called it, in the May 1999 edition of The Strangler, the 'bridge between the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith'. Strictly Canadian has subsequently aimed to exploit this elevated status when formulating the publicity material for the 2016 reissue of the record in relation to the '70s, claiming that it 'predicted the intersection of the avant-garde and rock that would take place in the second half of that decade' (secretlycanadian.com, 6 September 2016). NPR Music has further drawn on these punk credentials on its inclusion of the record in its 'Turning the Tables' list, or 'intervention', in July 2017, aimed at establishing 'a new canon' in pop music where albums by female artists are not defined in relation to men'. In doing so, it asked, 'Has there ever been a female artist so overshadowed by her proximity to male greatness than Yoko Ono?', before hailing her debut record as 'jarring, experimental and stunning' in its own right (NPR.org, 24 July 2017). Its crucial point was, however, slightly undercut by the inset image used to accompany the piece, recognizable as the cover of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
A further and most particular sticking point in the original reception of Yoko's debut was dismay at the performer's vocal style, sustained by the racist attitudes then prevalent towards her. Few, indeed, will have been attuned to her favored form of Japanese Kabuki drama, which she has described as a 'singing style called hetai', being 'a kind of storytelling form that's almost like chanting and requires you to strain your voice a bit' (Rolling Stone, 11 November 2016). Few, also, will have been familiar with her other Eastern influences like Indian singing and Tibetan singing, which she fit in with vocal stylings developed through primal scream therapy, with its emphasis on the letting go of emotions via yelling, screaming and crying. This is not forgetting widespread ignorance of the jazz element of her art which entailed improvising vocal sounds instead of words, the culmination of which prompted Bangs to affirm: 'most people have no taste for the kind of far-out warbling Yoko specializes in' (Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971). The rock critic Robert Palmer, in 1992, correspondingly speculated on the contemporary response: 'Yoko's singing may have sounded unrelenting to early Seventies listeners who were unaware of the parallel directions being taken in free jazz' (Onobox, 1992).
Today, we are undeniably more attuned to the vocals on Yoko's Plastic Ono Band from having experienced punk and new wave provocateurs such as John Lydon of Public Image Limited, Ari Up of the Slits, Lydia Lunch and Patti Smith, not forgetting Cindy Wilson of the B-52s who famously paid tribute to Yoko with her screeching on 'Rock Lobster' (1979). We are also acquainted, since the '80s, with female alternative rockers like Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh, both powerful and abrasive singers, while the popularity of 'world music' has put us on a much surer footing with Indian and Tibetan singing than was the case in 1971. Yet our appreciation of Yoko's vocals is also down to the hard work of critics such as Dave Marsh who, having laid the groundwork for this in his Creem review when he directly related them to the contemporary free jazz scene, called Yoko the 'first rock scat singer' and affirmed that on 'Why' she used her voice 'as John Coltrane used his horn', as a means to 'explore every possible nuance of the word-sound (chord) she scats about' (Rock's Back Pages, 1971).
Avant-garde enthusiast Julian Cope has furthered the cause of Yoko's vocals by praising the singer, in 2000, for her 'Janov-inspired freeing of internalised pain', while emphasizing how her vocalizing 'remarkably sounds like a free jazz saxophone at one point' (headheritage.co.uk, October 2000). Moreover, following the album's rerelease, Christopher R. Weingarten for Rolling Stone opined that it is a 'true showcase of Ono's voice as both jazz instrument and pop boundary-destroyer', such that the album's importance 'should not be understated', albeit beneath an inset image of our old friend, John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band (Rolling Stone, 11 November 2016). NPR Music further viewed her voice as the LP's focal point in July 2017, calling it 'a powerful instrument' that is 'honed to near perfection on this album'. However, Yoko will, surely, be most proud of the reaction she provoked from Spill Magazine: 'The album rocks, but Yoko's vocals may not be for everyone's tastes' (spillmagazine.com, 2016). It's the kind of non-committal response every avant-garde artist aspires to, right?
We've touched upon a lot of prejudices here for a single album to endure over its lifetime, while making the unfortunate discovery that many of them have survived, in one form or another, to this day. There is now, also, an additional sexist viewpoint being taken up by critics that maintains that the primary reason to listen to Yoko's debut album is to enjoy the famous male musicians playing exhilarating avant-garde rock as you've never heard them before. It would be respectful, as Palmer has done, to suggest that Yoko 'facilitates' this musicianship by creating a 'free and open atmosphere' in the studio, but it's not a concern shared by everyone (Onobox, 1992). AllMusic, in its December 2016 review, certainly has no qualms in stating of the album: 'it's good, if only to hear John Lennon really get the guitar cranking on the opening cut' (www.allmusic.com). Pitchfork, the same month, similarly takes the view that it is 'iconic because it contains some of Lennon's most aggressive guitar work' (pitchfork.com, 5 December 2016). Whose record is it again?
Having considered all the evidence, it's tempting to once more apply the cliché 'way ahead of its time' to Yoko's Plastic Ono Band, in an admission that we still have a way to go in understanding it. Certainly, we have dealt with the whole Dragon Lady issue and worked hard to contextualize the album and categorize it as punk or post-punk or alternative rock. Yet it remains untamed, subject to regular indignities in the music press and still floundering in the shadows of John Lennon's all-pervasive debut album. Perhaps, though, it is the record's greatest triumph to remain untamed and to still sound radical and experimental and ultimately unclassifiable in today's rock climate (helped along, I'm sure, by the continued ubiquity of Coldplay). Indeed, as a profound personal statement, it has lost none of its power to shock and shake us out of our musical complacency, with tracks that still never get played on the radio. Long may it be so.
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