In Retrospect: Yoko Ono is a fucking genius

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.

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