Album Spotlight: Yoko Ono—Plastic Ono Band

Yoko Ono has always incited strong opinions. Put an album of hers on for friends, and most will turn white and flee the room before a minute has gone by. Many Beatles fans hate her with a gag reflex: she broke up the Beatles, she put John under her mind control, she’s a witch, she’s a bitch, she exploits his memory, et cetera.1

Yet Ono is so much more than these dismissals of her talent. Her solo career is filled with self-penned songs which defy and attack convention, and also move receptive listeners. Plastic Ono Band, recorded at the same sessions as her husband’s album of the same name, is her first solo album and one of her best.

Like John’s album, the record’s content was inspired by Primal Scream therapy with Arthur Janov, in which the couple underwent therapy which had them screaming nonstop until they had purged themselves of their fear and anger, leaving them in a peaceful state of mind. John used this therapy to pen songs which articulated his love, hate, resentment and other emotions with lyrical insight. Yoko took her own approach; she purged her emotions with her naked vocal sounds.

Plastic Ono Band (Yoko’s version here on out) is not an album of songs as much as one of musical and vocal improvisation. In that respect, it resembles jazz; but the instrumentals are definitely rock. (Most of them. More on that later.) Yoko uses her voice as an instrument, in the Japanese tradition of hetai, making sounds which at times resemble John’s guitar. In fact, in the first piece, Why, his guitar solo in the first minute is enough to fool you into thinking it’s Yoko’s voice…until her voice actually comes in.

I think that part of the resistance people feel to Yoko’s “screaming” (which actually happens very little on this record) is their unfamiliarity with this type of vocal technique. If one loses one’s preconceptions, however, Yoko’s talent shows much more clearly. Why is a rocking piece, with excellent instrumental work from John, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo’s phenomenal drumming. All of the musicians are committed to their playing as much as Yoko is to her vocalizations. No one’s pretending here, or fooling around. Yoko lets her voice go, crying, “Why?” over and over again, making you feel it.

Why Not is a slower, bluesier version of the same emotion. The best part of it is right at the beginning, with Yoko’s trills over Ringo’s drumbeat sounding a bit like an insect. When Voormann’s bass comes in and they begin playing a blues riff, it starts to drag a bit. Still, it’s an interesting piece, with great playing from everyone (Yoko included). It ends with the sound of trains, which will be heard again later.

Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City, while having much too long a title, is probably the best piece on the record. Yoko took a discarded bit of tape of a sitar riff by George Harrison and distorted and looped it and echoed her voice to create an eerie opening. The funky instrumental which follows continues her echo and puts it onto the drums, slowing her voice into a deeper register. It’s truly mesmerizing and chilling, particularly once you know that it’s about a miscarriage. At the end, we hear birdsong, almost as a sound of hope.

AOS, the only piece on the album not recorded at the Plastic Ono Band sessions, features jazz legend Ornette Coleman on trumpet and his band (Ed Blackwell on drums, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon on bass guitar) improvising with Yoko. This was recorded in one take at a rehearsal on February 29th, 1968. It’s full of eerie silences, with Coleman’s trumpet echoing Yoko’s whimpers, moans and sighs, until everyone lets go with her as she shrieks. To reiterate: If you listen to her voice as an instrument rather than getting hung up on the screams, what she’s doing is truly amazing. (Think it’s easy? You say you could do that? Try. She lets herself go with no self-consciousness. That’s very hard to do.) I suspect this was included to underline the point that Yoko’s record was not meant as a collection of songs, but as free jazz instrumentals.

Touch Me, another funky piece, most closely resembles Why in its sound. Again, Ringo particularly excels. (He said in one interview that he felt his drumming on these sessions was some of his best.) It shifts from fast to slow abruptly, with truly fantastic interplay between Yoko’s voice and his drums. Paper Shoes opens with the sound of a train chugging back and forth between the speakers, creating its own hypnotic beat before shifting to an instrumental jamming around the same time signature. Yoko’s electronically distorted singing of “Paper shoes” echoes around the room, sounding like a strange fever dream. It’s an eerie conclusion to the original album. The final sounds are of dogs whimpering and howling while Yoko says quietly, “Don’t worry.” An interesting combination.

Ryokodisc’s 1997 CD release contains bonus tracks which are almost as good. There’s an alternate version of Open Your Box (which later turned up as the B-side of Power To The People and was included on Yoko’s next album, Fly) which is less funky but more driving. It’s centered around a simple but catchy riff, designed to let Yoko’s voice do its thing all over the place. Something More Abstract is a very brief instrumental which sounds as if it’s about to go somewhere, but stops when Yoko has a question for John. At less than a minute, it’s more of a curio. The South Wind, the longest piece by far at over sixteen minutes, sounds almost folk at first, then goes off into a duet between John’s guitar and Yoko’s buzzing vocals. It sounds like an early take of their later piece Fly (which was the 22-plus minute track on the aforenamed album), and it may well have been. Both pieces are too long to maintain my interest, honestly. The current digital re-release also contains an extended version of Why, which shows how the instrumental developed from a more conventional rock jam into a wilder, more free-form piece. It’s interesting, and great if you really love that track, but I didn’t feel it was worth purchasing. I might pick it up on iTunes at some point.

The cover photo was a deliberate mirroring of the one taken for John’s POB album. In this photo, he’s sitting against the tree and she’s leaning on him; on Lennon’s record, she’s sitting up and he’s leaning on her. The similarity of covers fooled some people into buying the wrong record, even though there’s a photo of her as a child on the back (again, like John’s album, which has a childhood photo of him).  I suspect most of them ran to the store and demanded their money back. Pity.

Plastic Ono Band was released December 11th, 1970. Reviews were mixed, depending on how progressive or reactionary said critic was. If you have an open mind, I suggest you give this album a listen on Spotify. You might just find that you love it.