The last few years have seen a much-deserved critical rehabilitation for Yoko Ono: once reviled as the Woman Who Broke Up the Beatles (whatever that’s supposed to mean), she’s now widely recognized as a key figure in conceptual art; even her avant-garde music has entered the canon as an inspiration for punk and alternative rock. But one facet of Ono’s artistry that I think remains underrated are the more commercially-minded albums she released in the 1970s, while married to (and in collaboration with!) ex-Beatle John Lennon. These albums were not only, in many cases, more interesting than the records Lennon himself was releasing around the same time (yeah, I said it); they were also arguably the first serious attempts to marry rock music and radical feminism–decades before the riot grrrl movement, and using her famous husband’s musicians, no less.
On “Yang Yang,” from her 1973 masterpiece Approximately Infinite Universe, Ono takes a grinding blues-rock arrangement by the Greenwich Village street band Elephant’s Memory (with a certain “Joel Nohnn” sitting in on guitar) and pairs it with lyrics that make “I am Woman” sound like “Stand by Your Man”: “No kick is good enough for lifetime substitution / No brick will give you a lifetime consolation / And whether you dig it or not / We outnumber you in population / And leave your private institution / Get down to real communication / Leave your scene of destruction / And join us in revolution.” This is the stuff of radical women’s liberationist pamphlets, not mainstream rock albums released by the wives of former Beatles. And while, predictably, Yoko never got her proper due for inventing feminist rock, at least we can appreciate it now.
If this post has piqued your interest, check out the full-scale guide to Ono’s discography I wrote last year; last month, my sister and I also recorded a podcast about her larger influence as an artist. And of course, we’re writing about important contributions by women in music all March on our blog Dystopian Dance Party. And, if you’d like to start seriously getting into Yoko’s music, you’re in luck: Secretly Canadian Records is currently reissuing her albums on vinyl and streaming services, from 1968’s infamous Lennon collaboration Two Virgins to 1985’s Bill Laswell-produced (!) Starpeace. It’s quite the journey, but well worth checking out!