Even by the standards of the end-of-the-’60s underground, there are few precedents for the sheer force of Ono’s LP.
As with John Lennon’s own solo “debut,” Plastic Ono Band was actually Yoko Ono’s fourth LP. Having collaborated with her husband on two studio records and one live album of experimental music, Ono entered Abbey Road Studios with Lennon in late 1970 and, during a day recording material for his Plastic Ono Band, slapped together her own using the same studio musicians. Like Lennon’s album, Ono’s was grounded in primal scream therapy, yet where the ex-Beatle wrangled that catharsis toward structured pop articulating his grievances and hangups, Ono opts for the pure maelstrom of the scream. Even by the standards of the end-of-the-’60s underground, there are few precedents for the sheer force of Ono’s LP. Birthed of free jazz more than rock ‘n roll, Plastic Ono Band is unmistakably the work of its maker, blending cutting-edge noise with traditional Japanese forms.
Nowhere outside of White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground does rock of the end of the hippie era get as purely caustic as opener “Why,” which erupts from the first second in Ono’s warbling shrieks and a method of guitar playing that might frighten even Captain Beefheart. Lennon runs his hand up and down the neck of his instrument, creating atonal slides of noise as Ringo Starr, that most delicate of timekeepers, leaves a hole right in the center of his playing, sending snare hits careening off to each side of the mix. Liberated from lyrics, the song is pure scream, less a composition than a conflagration. Somehow, its companion piece, “Why Not,” is even stranger, collapsing into a loping blues rhythm shot through with Ono employing breathy yelps at the staccato pace of submachine gun fire. In what sounds like the ür-text for Mike Patton’s entire approach as a vocalist, Ono zigs and zags, moaning and scatting as she abruptly changes speed and pitch over the band’s staggering beat.
These tracks are at least putatively rockish, with their roots in corrupted blues and pre-punk savagery, but elsewhere genre is left far behind. “Touch Me” makes Lennon sound like free improvisation genius Derek Bailey if he plugged his guitar into an improperly grounded amp and electrocuted himself, all spikes of broken chords. Then, in the final minute, the band drops out to give Ringo center stage as he once again displays a ferocity all but entirely absent from his work before or since, a caterwauling bit of cymbal abuse as Lennon regroups for a few final stabs of guitar. “Paper Shoes” continues the musique concrète of “Revolution 9” and even refines it. Opening with an extended line of hissing near-silence, the track picks up when Ono fades into this mix with etheral, eerie chanting. A kind of approximation of the CIA’s Operation Wandering Soul psyop, the track sounds like a ghostly nightmare, riding a locked groove that does not sound too far removed from the hypnotic percussive trances that would come from Krautrock. Where the Beatles’ most notorious experiment meanders and stagnates, this captivates and unnerves.
If Ono’s Plastic Ono Band lacks the grounding screeds against religion, abandonment and the like that give Lennon’s album shape, there are nonetheless moments when personal anguish seeps through. “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City” is a haunting elegy to the baby that Ono miscarried and the trauma it induced. Over a scraping violin, Ono chants in a buzzing drone that warbles like the electrified air around a theremin. Even when a guitar riff and drum pattern coalesces the track into something more propulsive, Ono’s voice only grows more distended as it stretches and fades into echoing moans. Without using words, Ono conveys a great spiritual absence, a tear that cuts deeper than the self-pity that defines much of her husband’s debut.
Perhaps the most remarkable moment, though, comes with “AOS,” an impromptu collaboration between Ono and free jazz legend Ornette Coleman that had been recorded a few months earlier. Coleman, then branching out from his signature alto sax into trumpet, creates arrhythmic squeals that throw Ono’s reedy voice into sharp relief. Within seconds, it’s easy to sense the musicians’ kindred spirits: Coleman pioneered a form of jazz that swapped discipline and theoretical mastery for untrammeled emotion, and the primal emotion of his work makes a fitting foil for Ono’s own avant-primitive style. The track starts surprisingly reserved for two artists renowned for their soaring passions, a smoldering intensity shines through the song’s ample negative space, setting the stage for an absolute explosion in the second half as Coleman’s trumpet melts into shards and Charlie Haden’s bass sounds like magma bursting from a tectonic seam. By the time the track fades back out, one is left with a work both elegant and terrifying, a testament to Ono’s unclassifiable ability to wring beauty from the album’s garish sheets of fury.