MONM 2011 Day 13: Yoko Ono’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band

Yoko Ono – Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970, Apple)

Compared to most of his work with the Beatles, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a remarkably raw piece of work. The album in general and lead single “Mother” in particular were a direct result of Lennon’s primal scream therapy – hence the increasingly raw shouts that end off the track. For a singer mostly known for pretty melodies and playful surrealism, it must’ve been a shock.

But nowhere near the shock of the flip-side to that single, “Why,” the first track from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. If “Mother” is a pained reflection with a moment of catharsis, “Why” is pure screaming id, a sonic assault that has more in common with Captain Beefheart than Sergeant Pepper. No wonder the public pegged her as a no-talent hanger on – this is not music meant for mass consumption.

Forty years has done nothing to dull Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’s abrasiveness. Even speaking as someone who’s listened to his share of noise, this one still stands out. Put “Why” next to Deerhoof’s noisiest output, and it’s still going to turn heads. Its follow-up, “Why Not,” has a more conventionally bluesy backing track (a jam between Lennon, Ringo Starr, and bassist Klaus Voormann), but Ono’s voice brings it right back to the edge of terrifying.

There’s hardly a moment to steady yourself. Even the one track that doesn’t come from the Lennon/Starr/Voormann jam session, the Ornette Coleman collaboration “AOS,” refuses to give the listener a break. There’s a minute or two where it seems Ono is trying to seduce you with sex-kitten moans, but then, with no warning, she’s shrieking in your ear like an injured beast while Coleman’s quartet breaks into pure freeform anxiety. And then it’s back to the Lennon/Starr/Voormann session for two more spaced-out jams, both of which should quell any notion that Starr was too straight-laced to push boundaries like his bandmates did.

It’s frightening how powerful of a reaction Plastic Ono Band can still provoke. I won’t be able to end this better than Lester Bangs ended his own review of it (which you should read in its entirety, because it’s far more eloquent, knowledgeable and thought-out than I’ve managed):

This one will grow on you. They haven’t ironed out all the awkwardness yet, but this is the first J&Y album that doesn’t insult the intelligence—in fact, in its dark confounding way, it’s nearly as beautiful as John’s album. Give it a try, and at least a handful of listenings before your verdict. There’s something happening here.

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