Yoko Ono as a recording artist has a polarising effect on audiences. People tend either to be in Camp Yoko with every fiber of their being or to find her unlistenable, an aural emetic. A smaller group of people are simply neutral. I crossed over from that less populous place of neutrality in the 1990s and nudged into fandom. It was at a time when Ryko was reissuing every Ono album in expanded form on compact disc. Her work had renewed press interest and some degree of reappraisal. My curiosity was rooted in a fascination with how viciously her detractors spoke about her. I figured that anyone who could prompt such an outpouring of hate (not to mention racism and misogyny) was unlikely to be boring and, to my then partner’s derision, I bought the Season of Glass (1981) album.
Within days, I was a convert and had acquired the lot (yes, even Two Virgins). I don’t think everything Ono does is an unqualified success, but in the 1970s she peaked with two punk-jazz double-albums, Fly (1971) and Approximately Infinite Universe (1973), that remain great starting points for the uninitiated. Those two collections represented a transition from scream-based experimental rock to conventional song structure and melody. She mellowed a little on the excellent Feeling the Space (1973) – the nearest she ever came to a supersession of an album, flanked by names like Jim Keltner, David Spinoza, and Ken Ascher (its 1974 follow-up, A Story, unreleased at the time, was in the same vein) and then stopped recording for a while. Recently, a reissue programme from Chimera Music and Secretly Canadian has brought some of these titles back to the market in high-quality vinyl editions.
In the 1980s, Ono was back on top form with Season of Glass, made in the immediate aftermath of trauma, every song a gut-twist of emotion. Then came a sudden dip in quality for It’s Alright (I See Rainbows) (1982) and then another one with the world music-flavoured Starpeace (1985), at which every last bit of available studio gadgetry and tech was thrown to the ultimate detriment of the finished product. Generally, her releases of the ’90s and beyond have been artistic successes, especially Take Me to the Land of Hell (2013). Warzone, however, is in the Starpeace mould (indeed, it revives several of that album’s songs). It’s a message album on which Ono revisits songs from her past. It’s not without merit and, as always, Ono’s never boring. But not everything on it works wonderfully well. Albums of re-records are a risky venture in any case; rarely do they become the most embraced or celebrated entries in an artist’s catalogue. What can make them more successful is if there’s a thematic point or purpose and, in this case, Ono has assembled songs with a socio-political bent, many of them cautionary and portentous.
Now that’s she nearer to 90 than 80, there’s a slight muffling of her consonants, but that aside, she sounds as sharp as ever. With co-producer, Thomas Bartlett, she keeps things spare and uncluttered, with traditional instrumentation, including strings, plus electronics and sound effects. There will always be people to whom it’s unpalatable that someone living in splendour sees fit to issue edicts to the rest of us, but Ono does so, and they mainly amount to “No More War”, “No Misogyny”, and “Be Kind”. No reasonable person could object to them. In and of themselves, they aren’t original or imaginative. What makes them so is the way Ono expresses them using quirky aphorisms and odd turns of phrase. And the questions she asked years ago, such as “Are we gonna keep pushing our children to drugs? / Are we gonna keep driving them insane? (“Now Or Never”, originally on Approximately Infinite Universe) haven’t lost any of their pertinence or urgency, regardless of who’s doing the asking.
A hefty chunk of Warzone is devoted to songs from Starpeace. The decision to re-record “Children Power” is intriguing. Given that the original “Children Power” (itself a companion piece to the infinitely superior “Woman Power” from Feeling the Space) was risibly rinky-dink in its synthetic production, to have rendered it even more so in 2018 is something of an unintended achievement. It’s one of those songs that revels in a kind of lunatic simplicity, with a rigid two-note refrain, utterly devoid of syncopation. It will drive you mad unless you give in to its relentlessness and embrace it as a piece of well-intentioned fluff.
I’m fond of the way Ono writes; it’s mischievous and fun. But her observations on “I Love All of Me” (another Starpeace re-record), while undeniably full of warmth and heart, were not particularly illuminating and haven’t become so in the intervening years. “Hell in Paradise” (yes, Starpeace again) was notable chiefly for its accompanying video, in which Ono danced with a troupe of men ranging in height from about three feet to seven. Here, it takes on a less poppy and more menacing shape, perhaps fitting given its dark lyrics about political narcolepsy, consumerism, and apathy.
On the plus side, there are performances on Warzone quite arresting in their stark, harrowing power. “Where Do We Go From Here”, a simple, two-chord ballad, is a nightmarish, gothic nursery rhyme, while ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, another refashioned Starpeace song, is full of Ono aphorisms. “You say life is a bowl of cherries / While trying to hide your bowl of pits.” The fact that ‘pits’ now sounds like ‘piss’ only adds to the song’s impact.
“Teddy Bear”, underpinned by co-producer Thomas Bartlett’s piano, revives the melody of “Coffin Car” from Feeling the Space. “I Love You Earth” is a final Starpeace reworking before the album concludes with “Imagine”, a song that featured prominently in the tour Ono undertook at the time of Starpeace. Here, her voice is prominent in the mix, with the accompaniment (an organ-like keyboard gradually yielding to a piano, playing a simplified version of the original Lennon piano part) placed in the back.
No album of Ono re-records would probably be complete without “Why”, the wailing, one-word proto-punk-rocker that introduced her as a solo artist on 1970’s Plastic Ono Band. It’s been shortened, but it’s no easier a listen than in its earlier incarnation, and one presumes it was never meant to be.
While Warzone isn’t as exciting as an all-new Ono album might be, the questions it asks need to be asked. Ono’s primary subject matters remain feminism, war, peace, kindness (“Live and let live,” she chants, during the spoken-word section of “I Love All of Me”, “can’t we just burn the crosses instead of people? I happen to think that’s healthy and not blasphemy”), causes she hasn’t shied from in her ninth decade. These are songs with some of her most simple, basic, elementary and repetitive musical structures and perhaps that makes them good vehicles for the message they convey. And her impish humour means that, unlike other multi-millionaires given to issuing instructions and political messages from on high, Ono doesn’t come across as insufferable, grand or out of touch.