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The belated reassessment of Yoko Ono

Vilified for The Beatles breakup, she is now getting her due, with a tribute album planned for her birthday in February

Yoko Ono with John Lennon at their ‘Bed In For Peace’ event in 1969.
Yoko Ono with John Lennon at their ‘Bed In For Peace’ event in 1969.

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For many decades, Yoko Ono has borne the blame for breaking up The Beatles. Now, more than 50 years later, her role is finally being reassessed and her own music is getting its due.

In the late 1960s, when tensions surfaced within The Beatles, the public perception was that it was Ono and her relationship with John Lennon (to whom she was married for 11 years, till his death) that led to the demise of the group. The British press even described her as “the woman who broke up The Beatles”.

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That was probably unfair. On many occasions, Lennon and other members of the band, notably the late George Harrison, denied that Ono had anything to do with the band’s demise. In fact, friction between band members is believed to have begun long before Ono, a Japanese artist, singer and songwriter, came on the scene.

Now, this view is finally gaining currency. Those who have watched Peter Jackson’s new documentary series, Get Back, will likely get an idea of how Ono may have been misunderstood during her time with The Beatles. The series covers the recording sessions for the band’s 1970 album and although popular perception about those sessions was that they were fraught with intra-band tensions, the series depicts them as surprisingly upbeat. And although Ono is not a central figure in the series, her presence and involvement with the band during those sessions are quite free of any kind of animosity or aggression.

After the series was released last November, there has been a rethink about Ono. In today’s reassessment, the hostile reactions Ono faced from fans and the media in the late 1960s and 1970s are being interpreted as sexist, racist and xenophobic .

There is another kind of reassessment that is happening. Ono had been an accomplished musician long before she met Lennon but her achievements have perhaps not attracted the sort of appreciation they deserved. Many Beatles fans do know that on records such as the White Album, Ono has sung choruses (famously on the song The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill) and some have heard her compositions, which can sound unfamiliar and even somewhat unsettling.

In one of her early tracks, 1970’s Why, her shrieks of “why” against the background of a lead guitar riff and a thumping bassline can sound eerie and otherworldly. Her high-pitched scream just repeats the word, while Lennon sings “Hey! Hey!”

Then, if you sample the track Midsummer New York from her 1971 album Fly, it is like a reinterpreted bluesy rock ‘n’ roll song on which she sings: Wake up in the morning, my hands cold in fear/ And midsummer New York my heart shakes in terror. If you switch to the album Feeling The Space (1973) and play the song Growing Pain, it’s a tender composition: I’m a battleship, frozen by my mother’s anger. Anchored in the North Pole Sea/ I’m a sphinx, stamped on the Hilton poster/ Hoping to see the desert/ I’m a woman without country or state/ Opening her head to the universe/ Hundred thousand people in me/ Ev’ry day they’re growing/ Ev’ry day they’re feeling. It’s such a touching song that when I heard it, I put it on repeat four-five times.

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If you run through Ono’s discography—she has 14 studio albums and eight collaborative ones, including Double Fantasy with Lennon—you can easily see the massive breadth of her work. From teenybopper pop to classic rock, jazz and avant-garde postmodern genres, she has done it all. Heck, there’s even a collaborative album with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore in 2012, titled Yokokimthurston, and it’s as experimental as it can get.

Indeed, Ono’s music—with or without the Plastic Ono Band that she and Lennon formed back in 1969—is so diverse that even on the same album you can find her gliding from one genre to another without skipping a beat. It’s a pity that she did not receive the sort of accolades she deserved in her prime.

Things could change now. Ono will turn 89 on 18 February and to mark her birthday, a much younger indie musician, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, has put together a tribute album on which contemporary musicians cover Ono’s songs.

Ocean Child: Songs Of Yoko Ono will be released on her birthday and will feature contributions from musicians such as Sharon Van Etten, Death Cab for Cutie, David Byrne and Yo La Tengo (YLT), Deerhoof, Flaming Lips and Jay Som. One of the tracks, Byrne and YLT’s version of Ono’s Who Has Seen The Wind? (she released it as a B-Side with Lennon’s 1970 single, Instant Karma!), has already been previewed and Byrne’s smooth vocals waft over YLT’s typically lo-fi and understated soundscape.

The release of the new tribute album will hopefully rekindle interest in the work of a much misunderstood yet talented musician once unfairly described as the “dragon lady” who broke up The Beatles.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    17.01.2022 | 09:00 AM IST
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