Yoko Ono Walking on Thin Ice
Photo: Still from "Walking on Thin Ice" video

Yoko Ono’s Greatest Work Is Aptly Represented on ‘Walking on Thin Ice’

Released in May 1992, Walking on Thin Ice is a great primer for the kind of esoteric, avant-garde pop Yoko Ono forged in the 1970s.

Walking on Thin Ice
Yoko Ono
7 May 1992

I really felt that my voice was my instrument. I kind of explored this instrument. Well, in my own way.

Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono’s greatest hits? I can already hear people ask: “Is there such a thing?” In 1992, Rykodisc set out to release a mammoth six-CD collection of Ono’s most extraordinary material. Ultimately, they distilled that exhaustive anthology of works into a 19-track single CD compilation that gathered some of the greatest moments of the rock eccentric’s career. Walking on Thin Ice—named after her most recognizable hit—is a perfect primer for the kind of avant-garde pop that Ono pioneered. It made the case that she was a significant artist in her own right.

Let’s not forget that, for many observers, Ono’s career was one of extreme dilettantism and nepotism. She’s rock’s ultimate widow, using her marriage to John Lennon to bankroll and support a musical career that was self-indulgent and unlistenable. Even today, however, Walking on Thin Ice proves that instead of being a rock imposter, she is a sensitive and exciting singer-songwriter who challenged the forms and norms of pop music. She looked at the structure of a radio-ready pop song and pulled apart the sturdy armature, tossing out standards of pop vocalizing. In the process, Ono looked at pop music as a means of experimentation in much the same way she did with her visual and performance art.  

Yoko Ono will never be an artist that enjoys a broad consensus among fans or critics. Naturally, she’s polarizing because of her personal life, politics, and stewardship of John Lennon’s legacy. Beyond that, though, she’s divisive because so much of her music sounds unrecognizable to what is considered “good” or “competent” pop songwriting and pop singing.

Granted, popular music doesn’t necessarily require its singers to be spectacular vocalists—the genre relies on charisma, stage presence, and catchy production—but pop singers should at least have pleasant voices. Contentiously, then, Ono’s slippery, thin voice was shaky and unpredictable, seemingly unable to conform to the standards of mainstream pop singing. Though melisma and soul wailing were common in popular music, Ono would screech, howl, scream, and create guttural sounds as part of her distinctive vocals.

So, given Ono’s sharp divisive reception, Walking on Thin Ice is a hard sell for many audiences. It’s not going to be a record that brings back memories for many casual listeners because so much of the music is niche. For her fans, it’s a fantastic encapsulation of her brilliance, especially if the six-CD Onobox proves to be too daunting and intimidating. A careful listen to the album shows Ono’s influence on a wide range of artists who followed her: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Björk, and the B-52’s Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, among others. Without a doubt, one can hear her deconstructive approach to pop in the music of these equally innovative performers.

Because Ono rarely had “hits” on the pop charts—some of her tracks found their way onto the dance or rock charts, though—there’s the freedom to compile her work. Walking on Thin Ice looks to a couple of her musical guises. Namely, it relates to her time as an explosive pre-punk avant-garde musician in the 1970s and her more conventional pop diva persona from the 1980s. The tragic death of Lennon can date these two musical personae. After his death, she released 1981’s deeply personal and cathartic LP, Seasons of Glass. Then, she spent the rest of the decade trying to heal herself and her fans by releasing a pair of shiny pop albums that strove for optimism.

During this period of her career, she graduated to being a professional celebrity. As a result of this breadth, the sonic quality of Walking on Thin Ice can feel all over the place. It’s not arranged in chronological order, so we move quickly from the classic New York dance-rock of “Walking on Thin Ice” to the funky disco-punk of “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (which ends with the sounds of Ono climaxing ecstatically). Both Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb” owe a debt to this sexual performance.

Another remarkable thing that jumps out when reconsidering Ono’s music is how it benefited from her celebrity and multifaceted relationship with Lennon. Specifically, those standings meant that, despite her music being decidedly counter to mainstream rock or pop, many of Walking on Thin Ice‘s feature fantastic session musicians. Some of rock’s greatest session players and stars joined Ono in the studio, including Earl Slick, Hugh McCracken, Tony Levin, Phil Spector, Robbie Shakespeare, Nona Hendryx, and Lennon himself.

These professionals help reign in some of Ono’s indulges and eccentricities, so they’re essential. Without them, her music may have been unlistenable (which is ironic to write, given that many people feel that way about her music anyway). Though she’s an inventive singer and a supremely talented songwriter, she’s not a musician in the classic sense. So much so that she rarely plays any instruments on her records, choosing instead to let more skilled practitioners take on those tasks. Therefore, even at its most “out there”, Ono’s music has enduring accessibility and familiarity because of the grounded work of the seasoned instrumentalists and players who support her peculiarities.

Ono started recording music in 1968, collaborating with Lennon on a trio of highly experimental albums that indulged in the pair’s idiosyncratic inclinations. In 1970, she released her debut album, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. It was brilliant and married her proto-punk instincts with a buzzy New York rock courtesy of some musical giants like Lennon, Klaus Voorman, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Ornette Coleman. Ono’s vocals were raw and unbridled, shocking in their savage ferocity. Her wild vocalizations slashed and sliced, providing the perfectly muscular rock instrumentation to suit her oddness.

But none of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band made it onto Walking on Thin Ice. It’s as if Rykodisc knew that the direction of the compilation record should point toward her (relatively) more conventional approach to pop music. It’s a shame that the label didn’t trust listeners to take in anything from that first album because it’s easily her most significant statement as a solo artist—that is, until her magnum opus, Seasons of Glass.

One of her most experimental works after Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is 1971’s Fly, represented here by “Midsummer New York”, a bluesy rock number that has echoes of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. In particular, her phrasing in the opening lyrics, “Wake up in the morning / My hands cold in fear”, mirrors Presley’s “Since my baby left me / I found a new place to dwell.”

As the 1970s progressed and Ono moved further away from the avant-garde rock of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, she started to fold different rock and pop sounds into her compositions. Because it was the 1970s, funk, disco, and new wave dominated her work. With her collaborators, she explored how she could apply her distinctive take on popular music and stay true to herself while still producing high-quality songs.

The results may not have been as exciting as the blistery propulsion of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Nevertheless, it was great to hear how Ono looked at the New York rock scene when creating her signature sound. Thus, the songs from 1972’s Approximately Infinite Universe aren’t exactly radio-ready pop tunes, but they are fascinating insights into how she started to apply more standard singing arrangements in her music. Consequently, her shimmering voice was exposed. For instance, the moody ballad “Death of Samantha” sees Ono sounding strong and assured, eschewing the verbal pyrotechnics and caterwauls to demonstrate that she’s a first-rate vocalist.

It makes sense, though, that Seasons of Glass is the record that dominates Walking on Thin Ice. It’s a classic work that ushered Ono into a new decade, wherein she further embraced mainstream music to the point of examining the current MTV pop trends for 1982’s It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) and 1985’s Starpeace.

Seasons of Glass contains some of her most introspective and affecting music—which is understandable since it directly responded to Lennon’s murder. Therefore, if one makes a case for Yoko Ono as an important artist, they have to reference Seasons of Glass. Its emotion is raw and unvarnished, and her pained vocals are largely unadorned with her eccentric flourishes and tangents.

Honestly, Seasons of Glass better represents Yoko Ono as an artist than Walking on Thin Ice. However, this compilation is still an excellent primer for the kind of esoteric avant-garde pop that Ono forged in the 1970s. It’s also an essential record in that it highlights the oft-misunderstood and underrated talents of this singular and uncompromising woman.

Is she unimpeachable? Of course not. After all, this woman wrote “Woman Is the N***er of the World”, a track that clumsily conflates racism with sexism and thoroughly ignores intersectionality in favor of crafting a provocative bit of agitprop-pop. Plus, Ono has had a complicated relationship with the remaining Beatles and Lennon’s son, Julian, from his first marriage. She has also been criticized for allowing the use of some Beatles and Lennon songs for commercial use by companies such as Nike.

These criticisms are fair and warranted, and as an artist, Ono can occasionally be self-indulgent. However, as the best tracks on Walking on Thin Ice make evident, Yoko Ono is a genuine and talented performer.