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Yoko Ono's big scream still echoes, and surprises

Reissue of Japanese artist's early recordings contains the seeds of an unwittingly influential sound

Yoko Ono performs onstage in Japan in 1974. For all the negative criticism her first solo album attracted decades ago, its influence can be heard in later rock music styles ranging from punk to new wave to grunge. (Getty Images)

TOKYO -- It was a scream heard round the world -- a revolutionary roar that, half a century ago, ripped through the divergent worlds of avant-garde art and rock music.

The source of that big sound was Yoko Ono, a small-framed Japanese woman who had become Beatle John Lennon's partner in art-making and in life, shaking up the creative fields the two of them represented and, over time, becoming an influential bridge between Eastern and Western sensibilities in the emerging global pop culture of the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Ono's impassioned wailing of the single word "why" over a throbbing beat in a song of the same name appeared at the beginning of her debut solo album, "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band," which was released on the Beatles' Apple Records label in December 1970. So was, on the same day and in a cover sleeve with a matching photo, "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band," her husband's first solo album, which appeared several months after the breakup of the Beatles earlier that year. Like Lennon's, Ono's album was recorded in London in the autumn of 1970; Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and the bassist Klaus Voormann, who had helped make John's record, also appeared on Yoko's disc.

The two artists regarded their albums as companion statements, even if that intention got lost in the tide of critical attention that focused primarily on the ex-Beatle's maiden voyage as a solo act. Critics who did comment on Ono's record misunderstood and rejected it, comparing its wild vocalizations to those of a tortured banshee or the sound of a snake slithering through the grass.

Now, following the presentation of "Double Fantasy – John & Yoko," an exhibition at the Sony Music Roppongi Museum in Tokyo, and coinciding with the recent release of a richly photo-illustrated book, "John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band," art and music aficionados who thought they understood the extent of Ono's influence on Lennon and of her involvement in the various fields in which she has long worked in a multidisciplinary manner are in for a surprise. (The new book has been published by Thames & Hudson in the United Kingdom and by Weldon Owen/Simon & Schuster in the United States).

Top: The new book "John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band" documents the history of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s music-making partnership, for which their Plastic Ono Band, with an ever-shifting lineup, became their vehicle. Bottom: Photos in the book show Lennon and Ono on their wedding day in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969. (Top: Book-cover photos by Richard DiLello © Yoko Ono Lennon; Bottom: David Nutter photos © Yoko Ono Lennon)

Ono's impact is revealed in a newly released 50th-anniversary edition box set, "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection" (Capitol/UMe), which includes six compact discs and two Blu-ray audio discs packed with an all-new remix of Lennon's now-classic album, plus demos, outtakes, and in-progress versions of what would become the record's definitive edit. But one disc contains the raw recordings of the jams Ono supervised and then later crafted into her remarkable first solo album.

Especially in Japan, for dedicated Beatles fans interested in everything related to the band that forever changed the character of popular music, the scope of Ono's achievements remains sketchily understood at best.

The "Double Fantasy – John & Yoko" exhibition, earlier presented at the Museum of Liverpool in Lennon's hometown, shone a rare spotlight on details of Ono's music career and her personal story. Born into an affluent family in Tokyo in 1933, her father, a trained pianist, was a banker who was often sent overseas. Yoko attended prestigious schools and after World War II became the first woman to enter the philosophy program at Gakushuin University in Tokyo.

Top: The 50th-anniversary box set "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band: The Ultimate Collection" contains a disc featuring the original in-studio jams that Ono transformed into the tracks that appeared on her influential 1970 debut album. (Courtesy of Capitol/UMe) Bottom: The front cover of "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band" shows Ono lying in Lennon’s lap beneath an oak tree. The record was jointly rereleased in 2016 by the labels Chimera Music and Secretly Canadian. (Original album photo by Dan Richter, © Yoko Ono Lennon)

However, she soon joined her family in the New York area, where her father had been stationed, enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College. The school's strong arts programs allowed Ono, who had begun studying piano at an early age, to meet avant-garde artists, poets and writers. She studied musical composition, even though her father had told her it was not a subject for women. Inventively and poetically, she sought to capture birdsong in written musical notation.

In the 1950s, Ono moved to New York City and fell in with its community of experimental artists, composers and performers. Participatory in nature, her early artworks invited viewers to complete them, physically or in their imagination, by stepping on them, watching the light sweep over them, or otherwise bringing their own creativity to such ephemeral-feeling creations.

She became a key figure in Fluxus, an international community of artists in the 1960s and 1970s who, using humor and audience participation events, blurred the border between art and everyday life. In 1966, Ono presented her work and a talk at the "Destruction in Art Symposium" in London. Later, in November 1966, she first met Lennon when she was preparing a solo exhibition of her conceptual-art pieces at John Dunbar's Indica Gallery in London. As their romantic-artistic relationship developed, so did their exchange of musical knowledge and interests, with Lennon, whose roots were in classic rock 'n' roll, learning about the avant-garde's Zen-inspired, austere gestures, and Ono quickly absorbing the spirit and song structures of rock.

“Painting to Hammer a Nail,” 1961 (recreated 1966-2019), one of Yoko Ono’s early works, invites viewers to hammer nails into a board in order to collectively create an artwork consisting of painted wood, metal nails, a hammer, a chain, and the artist’s brief text. It was on view in the exhibition “Yoko Ono: Remembering the Future,” at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, in 2019. (Photo by Edward M. Gomez)

By the time they entered Abbey Road Studios in London in October 1970 to record their twin albums, they had used their fame as a launching pad for an international peace campaign at the height of the Vietnam War and weathered the mainstream media's opprobrium, much of it racist and aimed at Ono. The media had dismissed them as conceptual-art kooks. Emerging from primal-scream therapy, they produced albums filled with raw emotion. Lennon's record offered a spare, introspective essay in song, while Ono's was a psychic-sonic voyage in which the unfettered human voice became an instrument of gentle cooing and blistering force, expressing a ferment of yearning, fear and rage.

In Ono's raw tracks contained in the new Lennon box set, the energy of the basic jams she reworked into the finished compositions on her debut album is inescapable. They became the album's barnstorming "Why," its bluesy "Why Not," and its haunting "Paper Shoes," with its sounds of a passing train, rain, and thunder giving way to Ono's voice sweeping into the mix in hypnotic, overlapping waves.

In the newly unearthed recordings, listeners can savor the raw material that became Ono's sound-collage masterpiece, "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City," in which the composer's voice, introduced by a repeated sitar riff from George Harrison, wafts like gusts of wind over an undulating rhythm, with each of Ringo Starr's drumbeats popping out of the music's sonic weave. To listen to Ono's earliest records is to realize how quickly she learned, as had the Beatles, to use the recording studio as a versatile music-making tool.

Top: A page in the booklet accompanying the 2016 reissue of "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band" shows Lennon and Ono, and the front and back covers of the Plastic Ono Band’s 1969 single “Cold Turkey”/”Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow)” (Unidentified photographer, © Yoko Ono Lennon; photo of CD-booklet page courtesy of Secretly Canadian) Bottom: Ono at her home in New York in early 2018; in recent years, the artist has withdrawn from the spotlight of public events and performances. (Photo by Edward M. Gomez)

In 2000, as Ono was preparing to unveil "Yes Yoko Ono," her first-ever career-spanning exhibition at the Japan Society in New York, I asked the artist about her music and the impact of her first solo album. "It turned out to be very influential, surprising even me," she said.

For all the negative criticism it attracted decades ago, her first solo album directly or indirectly influenced such later rock music styles as punk, new wave, new wave dance music, grunge, and the riot grrrl feminist punk-rock sound of the 1990s.

In conjunction with the new rerelease of "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band," Ono recalled the approach she and Lennon took to creating their respective debut albums. In a statement accompanying the box set, she explains, "John and I liked the idea of this really raw, basic, truthful reality that we were going to be giving to the world. We were influencing other artists, giving them courage, giving dignity to a certain style of vulnerability and strength that was not accepted in society at the time. It was a revolution for a Beatle to say, 'Listen: I'm human, I'm real.' It took a lot of courage for him to do it."

It also took guts to let rip that unforgettable scream, radically shaking up the art and music worlds -- and unwittingly opening a door to other artists' future, unbridled experimentation.

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