John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions
“When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience. The long battles to prove he was a Saint.”
So speaketh Paul McCartney on the cover of Two Virgins, and he’s not wrong. Yoko Ono is one of the most misunderstood, most vilified women in rock and roll history, for one simple reason: John Lennon loved her. Racism and sexism ruled the day, and was constantly thrown at them from the press, the music industry, and so-called “fans” of The Beatles. It still persists today; go to any Facebook group dedicated to The Beatles, John Lennon, or the Sixties, mention her name, and sit back and watch the hate and animosity.
But a funny thing has happened. In spite of being dismissed and forgotten about, Yoko Ono has done the opposite. She’s become influential, and the music she made is considered some of the most important of the era. She’s done it all, too; hard rock, experimental, free-jazz, feminist-minded folk rock, pop, and new wave—her long and storied career has encompassed all of these things and more. As a teenager, I was deeply enthralled by her music (you can read about it in the first issue of my print zine, The Recoup), and continue to be today. So when I heard about the reissue of her back catalogue, I couldn’t wait.
Unfinished Music Number 1: Two Virgins is often derided as being unmusical. The criticism isn’t unfair; while it’s an experiment in sound, it isn’t really music. The original album featured ten segments, but for the digital release they’ve been edited together into two fourteen minute pieces. On one hand, it was quite prescient for Lennon and Ono to record the beginning of their relationship. On the other hand, the sound of Two Virgins veers from Yoko’s vocal stylings alongside John coming up with ideas on his guitar and his home recorder. It sounds exactly like it is: two people goofing around, feeling each other out and exploring each other’s creativity. Much more compelling is the bonus track, “Remember Love,” taken from the b-side to “Give Peace A Chance.” It’s one of John and Yoko’s first solid, concrete musical collaborations. Her singing is childlike and beautiful, enhanced by John’s gorgeous acoustic guitar strumming. It’s not too far removed from the mellower moments of The Beatles, and I vaguely recall hearing a similar melody on demos recorded after Rishikesh as well as during the Get Back sessions. But the song proves that Yoko Ono has a beautiful singing voice. If anything, Two Virgins feels like a demo session for their sole Beatles appearance, “Revolution 9,” which would appear later that year.
Much better is the follow-up album, Unfinished Music Number 2: Life With The Lions. Side one is a recording of Yoko and John’s first public performance entitled “Cambridge 1969.” It’s an impressive recording, too; the world is introduced to Yoko’s version of hetai singing, one that produces guttural vocal whelps similar to throat singers. It’s striking, it’s impressive, and, yes, it can be off-putting if one isn’t prepared or open-minded enough for it. John tempers her singing with guitar feedback, which adds a wonderful dimension to the proceedings, as do the appearance towards the end of a number of free-jazz musicians. To be sure, it isn’t for everyone, and it’s easy to understand why Beatles fans were not enamored of it.
Side two offers up some more sonic experiments. “No Bed For Beatle John” is a recording made during Yoko’s hospital stay, and refers to the image on the cover. In it, she sings newspaper articles about them, about the Two Virgins controversy, while John quietly sings a countermelody, resulting in a unique audio vérité that documents the world’s perception of the couple. “Baby’s Heartbeat” is an in utero sonogram recording of the baby Yoko was carrying—and subsequently lost—and a two minutes silence immediately following it. It’s haunting and painful to listen to, but that’s the point; John and Yoko’s private life was lived publicly—both willfully and unwillingly—so to share this joy/grief moment with the world makes perfect sense.
“Radio Play,” however, makes no sense, and is the only truly worthless recording to bear Yoko’s name. Why? Because all it is, really, is the sound of them turning on a tape recorder in their house, letting it run as they go about their day, and then adding an odd static to it. You can’t hear anything they’re saying, and it doesn’t offer anything but thirteen minutes at the end of a record. Not everything that qualifies as “experimental music” is worthy; simply because someone did it doesn’t mean that it will be good. The two bonus tracks are quite interesting, being early versions of two songs that she would revisit years later; “Song For John” is a short love song, featuring John providing a haunting, sublime acoustic accompaniment, and would appear on Approximately Infinite Universe, while “Mulberry” is the earliest sketches of an idea she would revisit in 2001. While the later version of “Mulberry” is a haunting narrative about her early childhood, this version doesn’t contain the narrative, and is the sound of John playing some acid folk-style blues guitar licks while Yoko works on her vocals.
These two albums are most certainly not easy listening, but they are important. They laid the foundation for the rest of Yoko’s musical career—one that’s still going strong—and no mainstream artist on the scale of Lennon has ever released anything remotely like it since.
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