Yoko Ono Didn’t Break Up The Beatles, John Lennon Did

Almost 50 years after she recorded it, are we any closer to becoming comfortable with Yoko Ono's music as a culture?

Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono. Iain Stewart Macmillan

Rooting through record bins one day at the late, great Central Records in Cambridge, Mass., I came upon a stash of Yoko Ono albums and asked the sagely aging raver behind the counter what they were like. Were they song-based records or more of her avant-garde, musique concrète stuff? Were these albums enjoyable on their own accord, or just Yoko pushing the envelope for envelope pushing’s sake? Refusing to answer my question directly, the man looked down from his stool, lowered his glasses and told me, “Yoko Ono didn’t break up The Beatles—John Lennon did.”

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Now that was a contrarian claim to this college kid, liberal arts education be damned. The “jealous woman breaking up the band” archetype has become so embedded in our cultural subconscious that the name “Yoko” is lobbed at any woman perceived to be threatening a band’s unity. Paul, George and Ringo also apparently agreed that no spouses were allowed in the recording studio, but John did not.

“This is why I’ve started with the Plastic Ono and working with Yoko…to have more outlet,” Lennon told New Musical Express in ’69. “There isn’t enough outlet for me in the Beatles. The Ono Band is my escape valve. And how important that gets, as compared to the Beatles for me, I’ll have to wait and see.”

Now that Secretly Canadian has begun an extensive reissue campaign of Ono’s solo output, we can finally look at Ono’s complete catalog with a less misogynistic lens.

Last week saw the first three releases of her catalog—the two Unfinished Music albums with Lennon from 1968, Two Virgins and Life With the Lions, along with her startlingly powerful blast of free-jazz proto-punk, 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band

Here is the lucid beauty of an affair and the horror of miscarriage, laid before us.

“Anyone performing avant-garde music is laying themselves open to a certain amount of hostility and derision at the outset,” wrote Lester Bangs in his review of Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.

“And if that person also happens to be Yoko Ono, who has not only displayed a gift for hyping herself with cloying ‘happenings’ but also led poor John astray and been credited by more than one Insider with ‘breaking up the Beatles,’ why, the barbs and jeers can only be expected to increase proportionately. Not only do most people have no taste for the kind of far-out warbling Yoko specializes in; they probably wouldn’t give her the time of day if she looked like Paula Prentiss and sang like Aretha.”

What Bangs negates in calling her first two records with Lennon, “the ego-trips of two rich waifs adrift in the musical revolutions of the Sixties” and “Dilletente Garbage, simply” is an understanding of the processes and concepts informing her practice.

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Ono’s first husband, Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, introduced her to John Cage after one of his composition classes at The New School for Social Research, and Cage’s work is crucial to unpacking Ono’s work. Cage saw no negative space, only a positive void. “If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego,” he famously said. “You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.”

This is a healthy lens to view those first two Ono and Lennon records through because, well, they’re still challenging.

Two Virgins, with its infamously unsellable cover of the pair standing nude, is largely formless. A bird song opens the album, but quickly morphs into oscillations, twinkling piano keys, pitter-patter and Ono’s now-trademark warble. Recorded at Lennon’s home studio while his wife was away on vacation, Two Virgins captured a moment of union between the pair just before they consummated their relationship, and as such becomes a vital document of musical history. “It was midnight when we finished, and then we made love at dawn,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1970. “It was very beautiful.”

Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins Secretly Canadian

By that point, Ono had also been involved in the Fluxus art movement for a few years, with its penchant for Neo-Dadaist noise and word-of-mouth happenings that birthed many new forms of avant-garde art.

“Typified by artists like La Monte Young, John Cage and Yoko Ono, your average cultural observer doesn’t think much about Fluxus because, well, part of their game was that they ran silent and ran deep,” wrote my colleague Tim Sommer in his excellent profile on Fluxus luminary La Monte Young. “Those who witnessed the innovative destructions and reconstructions of Fluxus were inspired to build something new out of the ashes. See, it was these people—the ones whose ears were left ringing by the minimalism of Fluxus’ nude bombs—who created the future.”

Velvet Underground violist John Cale recalled his friendship with the Fluxus co-founder when I saw him speak at Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal a couple of months ago.

George Maciunas of Fluxus was a friend, a pimpernel,” said Cale. “He made a business of helping artists move into lofts of Tribeca and Soho…it made it possible for Andy and The Factory to be a protected situation.” Maciunas would buy up large blocks of property in Soho for artists to use, then encourage them to apply for Artist in Residence certificates that they could place on their studios to live and work there for a fraction of the rental price.

This taught me that, though Fluxus operated under the radar, we can’t discount its influence on New York’s emerging art scene, or Yoko’s work. And as such, Fluxus artists are inexorably tied beyond form experiments.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk9VUUo10Ug&w=560&h=315]

Consider the next “Unfinished Music” release, Life With the Lions, recorded in the hospital as Lennon lay beside Ono following her miscarriage. For all the “otherness” projected onto Ono for her partnership with Lennon, here was someone willing to put her most intimate struggles onto acetate in the interest of fostering a personal connection with intrepid listeners. When we listen back to her reading a newspaper article about Two Virgins on the recording, it’s clear now that the responsibility for interpreting the work as a conceptual sonic autobiography rested on us as listeners.

Taken in consideration of another Fluxus luminary, the German artist Joseph Beuys, we can also now look at these works as Ono’s attempt at a social sculpture.

Social sculptures were kind of Beuys’ thing, wherein human activity shapes a larger understanding of society. Ono would own this earlier in her 1964 work Cut Piece, wherein pieces of her clothes were slowly cut away to reveal the naked human within. She also put the concept into practice that same year upon releasing her collection of prose, Grapefruit, laden with instructional, participatory activities that provoked interaction. But on those first two Unfinished Music releases with Lennon, she’d captured that power in sound. Here is the lucid beauty of an affair and the horror of miscarriage, laid before us.

Almost 50 years after these three albums were first heard, are we any closer to becoming comfortable with them as a culture?

Ono and the Fluxus artists greatly admired the great media theorist Marshall Mcluhan for a similar reason. McLuhan’s message that how we consume media ultimately informs its message was a powerful one, but his ideas of a “global village” predicted a future of electronic interdependence and reliance on a collective identity with a “tribal base.” McLuhan basically predicted the internet, and electronic music’s ubiquity. But he also prophesied that the ideas of a larger social concept embedded in a work would soon bind us together. This was our ability to distill conceptual meaning from abstraction, and that’s precisely what Ono was doing with her work.

“I mean, it makes more sense when we do it together, you know,” Ono told McLuhan in 1969. “I wasn’t working with anybody before that. Always doing things myself. And somehow I find it easier now, because, well, I was getting into a point that it was so much tension and all that. There was very little hope so that I said, well, if I stand in front of White House, you know…and if I get shot, then the world might start to think about peace. That’s how difficult it is to communicate, you know. And, of course, John has much more access to communication, you know, and all that. So, we’re using that. And then ideal-wise, the both of us come up with ideas, you know, together. And it’s easier that way.”

These ideas crystalized in 1970’s Yoko Ono/ Plastic Ono Band, released in conjunction with Lennon’s separate Plastic Ono Band record.

“Now Yoko finally has an album all her own out, and it bodes well for future experiments by the Murk Twins along these lines,” wrote Bangs. “For one thing, Yoko has excellent backup this time: one track features an Ornette Coleman quartet, and the rest find John, Ringo and bassist Klaus Voormann working out accompaniments that are by turns as frenzied as Yoko herself and quite restrained. It always sounds thought-out, carefully arranged, appropriate; and with Yoko’s music that’s saying something.

“John’s guitar is strong and sizzling, a crazed file cutting through with some of the most eloquent distortions heard in a long time. He’s really learning this language now, and his singing high notes and guttural rhythms speak with the same authoritative voice he showed with the Beatles. And when he suddenly shifts down from those flurries into an expertly abstracted guitar line straight out of Chuck Berry (as in ‘Why’), it just takes your breath away.”

"I'd like a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man's hat."
“I’d like a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man’s hat.” Youtube

In April of 1970, Ono and Lennon underwent the controversial Primal Scream psychotherapy, which asked the patient to scream their heads off in the interest of uncovering some childhood trauma. Ono had warbled and screamed before, but the idea that Arthur Janov’s new therapy embraced the same sort of actions she was already gravitating toward was significant. She’s still finding solace in the scream today, most recently in this video, following the results of our recent presidential election:

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“I can’t think of a better time in history to hear a woman scream-sing her head off,” wrote Merrill Garbus of tUnEyArDs in this Pitchfork round-up of artists commenting on Yoko’s significance. “Leaps of faith inspire other leaps of faith…What a vulnerable thing it is to sing at all! Let alone sing in the unpretty, intense, often ecstatic timbres of life as a woman and mother, as a wife—this particular wife. Yet there is no hesitancy or insecurity in Yoko’s work. I hear only inventiveness, curiosity, and the brazenness of the female scream-sing.”

Garbus’ words make me wonder if, almost 50 years after these three albums were first heard, are we any closer to becoming comfortable with them as a culture? Is that even the point? Ono’s MoMa retrospective last year still seemed avant-garde, otherworldly but not alien. Her current exhibition in Iceland, “Yoko Ono: One More Story…” does, too, in which she recreates the farcical bar order made by a Yoko stand-in at Moe’s Tavern in an episode of The Simpsons—a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man’s hat. Now that’s what you call a social sculpture.

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional & commercialized culture …” wrote George Maciunas in his Fluxus manifesto, which was ultimately rejected by the participating artists. “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART, … promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals … FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action.”

Some work is intended to make us think and to shake us up, while other work sits on another shelf as pure entertainment. Now, at 83, Yoko Ono still sounds otherworldly.

But though she may well be from the future, we must be careful not to keep calling her futuristic, lest we distance ourselves from the raw humanity and sense of engagement she sought to help us feel. The ability to come together and express ourselves through conceptual abstraction belongs firmly rooted in the present. We sorely need it now.

Yoko Ono Didn’t Break Up The Beatles, John Lennon Did