In Retrospect: Yoko Ono is a fucking genius

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COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

To the reader: I understand, you are rolling your eyes at the prospect of having to respect a musician as universally written off as Yoko Ono, but I assure you that this is a well-researched piece and not a merely hipster nor unorthodox article for the sake of being controversial.

Yoko Ono — the cruel temptress who ruined the greatest band ever, pulling John Lennon into her corrupted, screeching embrace, away from his band members. The bizarre, unbelievably ridiculous musician whose primary vocal skill is her disgustingly abrasive screech: Yes, that very same Yoko Ono, friends, is actually a musical genius.

To start this piece, there is a significant amount of mythology surrounding the larger-than-life persona which needs unraveling. First and foremost: She did not break apart The Beatles. While this is a larger and more complex narrative than space in this article allows, essentially: The creative tensions between members Lennon, Paul Mccartney and George Harrison, who all had different visions for the music trajectory of the band and no way of bridging them, resulted in a married Lennon looking for a creative collaborator more in tune with his musical vision, of which he found in Yoko Ono. Through the ensuing drama of the fab four’s breakup lies the mythical ballad of Yoko, eclipsing her own talent as a musician.

In fact, Yoko Ono is, according to revered music critic Robert Palmer, the bridge which connects the popular rock culture of The Beatles with the avant garde work of composers such as Philip Glass and John Cage.

In this sense, as the enabler and cross breeder of such diverse musical genres, one might conceptualize Yoko Ono as a figure like Gertrude Stein, whose nightly soirees connected artists like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Ono’s legendary apartment in New York was a blooming point for an avant-garde music and art scene of the 1960s.

Yet, as a musician in her own right, Yoko’s body of work consists of some of the most avant-garde, boundary pushing music of the 20th century: Album after album, Yoko pushed the boundaries of what constitutes appropriate vocal expression. Recording much of her work during the turbulent Vietnam War era, the sheer abrasiveness of her iconic vocals speaks miles about the anger, rage and frustration that plagued her time. This expressiveness was in stark contrast with the polished nature of pop music in the 1970s. These screeching, cacophonic vocals, devoid of traditional pitch or harmonizing would be a crucial touchstone for punk musicians in the 1980s who wanted to throw out all the conventional rules of music in favor of raw expression.

Her first solo album, 1974’s “Plastic Ono Band,” shows her using this vocal screech, pairing these vocals with irreverently cool bass and chord progressions. The opening track, “Why,” opens with an uptempo bassline and drum fill syncopated against a heavily distorted slide guitar. As Yoko unintelligibly screeches onto the record, the syncopated slide guitar actually harmonizes with the pitch of her vocals, creating a sonic dissonance: The groove of the backing instrumentals completely clash with the hectic chaos of the lead guitar and Yoko’s vocals, and yet the result somehow works: The bass line on this song is so fucking good it can’t help but work.

Yoko Ono’s strength lies less in her vocals, however, as it does in the brilliance of her instrumental arrangements: Combining lush orchestral string and brass arrangements with distorted guitars and bluesy bass lines. For example, “Born in a Prison,” off her collaborative record with Lennon, “Sometime in New York City,” combines soulful, boom bap drums and chord progressions with a prominent alto saxophone which takes the foreground in relation to Yoko’s restrained vocals. The harmonies on this song are absolutely incredible, creating an expressive collage of sounds culled from various genres.

Despite the dearth of serious music writing about her own solo impact as a musician, Yoko Ono has nonetheless managed to create one of the most innovative and daring bodies of work throughout the last 50 years, remaining active well into her 70s (she even released a full-length LP last year). Her ability to provoke and innovate has resulted in a phenomenal discography, which unfortunately does not well receive the amount of respect it deserves: Yoko Ono is a fucking genius.

34 COMMENTS

  1. She is very ahead of her time. A wonderful artist and a great review of her work . Just a little correction Her first solo album if not including the Lennon/Ono collaborations was the album plastic Ono band which came out in 1970 not 1974 as the article currently says.

  2. A genius ! Hardly… she is a no talent wannabe who lucked out leeching onto acid casualty. Her “music” is dreadful.

  3. Of course she is a genius. She has to be, as she, without any talent, being ugly outside and inside ( a sociopath indeed) with the most terrible voice on earth, a voice that almost killed my dog, is l considered as genius by some. She managed to convince John she was better than Paul to be her musical partner! OMG! She has to be a sort of genius. She is inteliggent and powerful, no doubt about that. The truth is that without John, nobody would have never heard of her. This woman managed to destroy the most beautiufl dream we had. Allthough some say today she was not the cause of the separation, John himself said she was the one who gave him strengh to split. And also George told so. She was there to separate them. She managed to sing with the Beatles, to be on the cover of their last single, to participate in their last message for their fans…She ruined that last message. She ruined the song Bungallow Bill. But, in spite of that, some fans keeps think her dress is wonderful. They can’t see it, but they think that those who cant are not smart enough. But..the reality is that The Queen is Naked.

  4. I don’t see much research here. The Plastic Ono Band album came out in 1970, not 1974, from what I recall. She did provide inspiration to John, who was a survivor, and would have survived anyway if he hadn’t met her, in spite of what he himself said. Yoko is a good woman and a good artist. She did influence John musically as well, but she would not have achieved the fame she achieved in her own right. I don’t agree with the “fucking genius” statement.

  5. I think it’s incorrect to say (as one commenter does) that no one would have heard of her had it not been for John Lennon. In fact she was quite well known in her own right in trendy NY art circles before anyone in London including the Beatles had ever heard of her, and she certainly had an interesting and original mind. Equally to the point, that cool zen quiet concealed an enormous ambition (and let’s not forget that the first Beatle she contacted was Paul, who referred her to John).If the Beatles never existed she may still have made a reputation, but it would have been a different one.

    However I also think it’s grossly incorrect to say (as the article does) that she was a bridge between the Beatles and avant garde. That connection began long before she appeared and it was only because Paul and John were already interested in avant garde ideas musical and otherwise via the Miles-Dunbar-Hopkins Indica underground scene that their orbits crossed. They were incorporating found sounds, cut-up and tape loop experiments on record since Revolver (even ignoring Carnival of Light etc), long before Yoko, and Paul’s influences and connections were an important link there. Her effect on them musically was minimal really. I think John could well have done something comparable to Revolution Number 9 on his own – or something equally wild but different with someone else – if she’d never come along.

  6. Imagine… If she had a single talented bone in her body (other than John’s erection) quizzes would have questions about her that wouldn’t be about her relationship with John or the Beatles.

  7. Just a nitpick, but harmony and dissonance are mutually exclusive terms in music theory. Other comments have pointed out errors in dates and titles and that the avant garde influence on The Beatles predated her appearance, Article could have been better researched. Agree that Yoko did not break up the band. Being John’s band from the start, he was pretty much done after the 1966 tours with the harrowing scrape in the Phillipines, death threats in Japan and the Jesus controversy in the US among other factors. Paul managed to keep the band together for a few more years, but John’s heart was barely in it. Probably the same for George. The boys were growing up and starting families and their interests were diverging. Yoko fired John’s imagination and passion.

    As an artist, I think she is interesting, and had some good ideas. As a musician, I think she had some good ideas, but kind of hit and miss. Interesting, if abrasive, vocals. And, yes, she was influential on the punk movement. I wouldn’t call her a genius, but glad she has been out there doing her thing. If she inspired someone to create and push the boundaries, that’s not a bad thing. And John made his choices. He chose to leave the band. He chose to leave Cynthia and Julian to be with Yoko.

  8. I guess I would say that I don’t get her musical style. I like different genres but I could never get into jazz (and I have tried) so If this is musical genius it is just another style I can’t get into.

  9. There was a clip on youtube and a commenter had written ” sounds like my dog being ass f ++++d”. Nothing more to be said !!!!!!

  10. 5 ONO facts for all you haters…
    1. MUSIC – She has 13 #1 Hits on the Billboard Dance Club Charts and an additional 11 songs in the top 25. She has produced 30 albums, mostly without screams. (Haters – how many hits do you have?)
    2. ART – Her exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC during 2015 drew record breaking crowds. She continually has art exhibits at virtually every major art gallery all over the world. She has permanent exhibits in Rykovik, NYC and Chicago. (Haters – where’s your art shown?)
    3. PHILANTHROPY – She is one of the first to send money to any country that is the victim of a natural disaster such as an earthquack or tsunami. With the BMI association, she founded the John Lennon foundation which awards scholarships to young songwriters. (Haters – how do you contribute?)
    4. EDUCATION – She sponsors the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus which travels to schools all over the US to teach young people about the recording industry. There is a complete recording studio within. (Haters – do you educate the next generation on anything besides hate?)
    5. BEATLES – She did NOT break them up. Even Sir Paul McCartney has publicly stated many times that she did not break up the beatles. (Haters – were you there? Paul was)

    • Thank you Jeff. She has earned in her own, but Yoko is keeping the memory and helping to teach music in their names. I’ve seen some of the results that come out of the Lennon bus and these kids are amazing. As for all the other good Yoko does…Brovo.

    • So true. People should just get over all their hate for once. The Beatles would have perished anyway. They all wanted to be strong and independant individuals.

  11. As a long time listener to Yoko and John’s work, I want to thank you for your support. I’ve been listening to their music since 1975 and as any Lenono fan knows, one has to have a pretty thick skin to cope with the nasty abuse coming from “haters” – especially since the Internet arrived.
    It was much different back in the early 1980’s when I was in high school and being vocal about my appreciation for Yoko. That teasing I could cope with, but the outright anger and ugliness being spewed out on videos such as “Bad Dancer” is mind boggling. Talk about misplaced rage!
    We, as fans, go on though. And we are not just fans of Yoko – we are friends who understand.
    Many thanks to the people here who have suppported Yoko. It means a lot to take the time to comment. John would of appreciated it very, very much.

  12. I couldn’t stand even 30 seconds of listening to her horrible scratchy voice. To irratate someones ear drums does not spell genius to me.

  13. Musical boundaries? She pushed no envelope, only pushed her awful caterwauls on the public because she’s nobody and has no talent. The only reason anyone talks about good old Yoko is because she married Lennon. Otherwise, she’d be an old woman in Tokyo selling her own books and wondering where she went wrong. How can anyone compare Yoko to an artist like Picasso or anybody? She’s terrible. Suppose I can get the tape recorder and record myself screaming at pigeons and that’s groundbreaking art according to the jackass who wrote this idiot suck up piece.

  14. wow.. you call yoko a genius when you name the only album that they announced their true nature on.. That song “jamrag” in “Sometime in New york city” is not theirs. Its an original composition from Frank Zappa titled “King kong”. They stole it. Sure, she screamed a lot… they’re still both lying deceitful thieves and not worth any musical acclaim.. Dishonest music is the worst type of music…

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