November 9th 1966 was quite an auspicious day for John Lennon, and for the rest of the world in some small way, because when walked into London's Indica Gallery he met Yoko Ono. The lives of both were forever altered by the other, perhaps more so for Lennon as Yoko introduced him to the avant-garde art world from a perspective that was wholly new to him, and a world beyond Beatledom.
Four years later the albums John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band were simultaneously unleashed on Apple, the name of the label inspired by Yoko Ono, each featuring matching photos of John and Yoko under a tree on the front cover and a photograph of them as a child on the reverse. Both albums explore the themes of basics, innocence and childhood. On the John Lennon album, Yoko is credited with "wind".
John Lennon's first solo album after splitting from the Beatles obviously had an inbuilt importance, and probably outsold the Yoko Ono album many thousands of times over, but Yoko's was probably the more innovative and ahead of its time, and still sounds heady, fresh and exciting today.
The album starts with the sound of a tape machine being turned on and the sizzling rhythm section of Klaus Voormann and Ringo Starr begins, abetted by the sounds of John Lennon's screaming guitar in a style far more liberated than on any Beatle record. When Yoko comes in, screaming the title of the song, "Why" (the only discernable fragment of lyric on the whole album), we realize that Lennon's guitar has been cleverly mimicking and anticipating Yoko's vocal, which has an awesome ferocity and intensity, and in that moment she redefines the role of woman in music for generations to come. The following track, appropriately, is Why Not. Some of this intensity no doubt derives from the "primal therapy" of Arthur Janov that she and Lennon had undertaken prior to these sessions.
The Plastic Ono Band accompany Yoko throughout the album with a confidence and empathetic sure-footedness that carries the listener along with them, embellished only by some evocative sound effects. Ringo plays with a freedom and swing we had never heard from him before. The sessions, at Abbey Road in October 1970, must have been something to behold and one envies the four engineers who presided.
The Plastic Ono Band do not appear on one track, which is a rehearsal for an earlier free-jazz show at the Albert Hall on 29 February 1968. While the Beatles were recording Lady Madonna at Abbey Road, Yoko Ono had returned to London to perform her original composition at a concert with the innovator Ornette Coleman at his invitation, and on the piece AOS they are assisted by legendary bassist Charlie Haden, along with David Izenzon and Edward Blackwell. The piece demonstrates that Yoko was part of a tradition of experimental, revolutionary music before the Beatles explored any such ideas on the White Album. It was because of her return to London that she and John Lennon were able to renew their personal, musical and creative relationship, of which one of the first results was the White Album's Revolution Number Nine.
It is a landmark album.
The three bonus tracks on this overdue CD edition are disappointing. Only the unnecessary 44-second fragment "Something More Abstract" comes from the Plastic Ono Band sessions, whilst the previously unreleased 7:30 version of Open Your Box is a raw early version of the piece, probably recorded in September 1969, before its final tempo and structure had been established. The finished version that debuted on the Power To The People single in the UK, dates from 1971 (confusingly, the same recording was re-titled Hirake for the album Fly). The final improvisation, The South Wind, features John and Yoko at home in New York, which puts it in a different time-frame, and more properly belongs on an album like Life With The Lions. After 16 long, long minutes, we are grateful that a telephone call brings the piece to a conclusion. Far more welcome would have been the Plastic Ono Band B-sides Remember Love and Who Has Seen The Wind? which have yet to make a CD appearance