Of all her early albums, Fly might well be one of the most cohesive in terms of presenting an accurate overview of Yoko Ono’s aesthetic.
Of all her early albums, Fly might well be one of the most cohesive in terms of presenting an accurate overview of Yoko Ono’s aesthetic. From the start, the physical album itself functioned as an extension of her Fluxus period, with its gatefold sleeve and assorted accompanying inserts, including a postcard to order her conceptual art book Grapefruit. Two of the album’s tracks (“Airmale” and the title track) also served as soundtracks to Ono and John Lennon’s own experimental films (Erection and Fly, respectively). But beyond the packaging and its assorted accouterments, the album itself is a masterpiece of early avant-rock exploration in a multitude of styles. From rock ’n’ roll to Krautrock to blistering blues rock to minimalist experimentations, Fly offers a little bit of everything the underground had to offer circa-1971, all delivered in Ono’s inimitable, often widely-derided-by-Beatles-fans vocal stylings.
Coming out the same month as her husband’s Imagine album, Fly is a polar opposite in terms of creative expression and willingness to push the envelope beyond the bounds of what most consumers of pop music would’ve ever considered possible. Perhaps somewhat piggy-backing on Lennon’s success with Imagine, Fly managed to reach #199 on the Billboard charts, an impressive feat for an album so vehemently anti-commercial. Yet it’s this most obvious of connections that allowed Ono to be able to record and release an album this wildly imaginative on a scale that would aid in its being heard by far more than the most fervent of avant garde purists. In other words, were she not “Mrs. [John] Lennon,” there’s a good chance Fly would not have registered with more than a handful of listeners.
And compared to Imagine and its iconic – if overplayed – title track, Fly is a bracing revelation of unbridled creativity and emotional catharsis and a steadfast refusal to play it safe. Both “Mrs. Lennon” to “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow)” continue Ono’s penchant for self-referential, almost diaristic bits of songwriting, while “Toilet Piece/Unknown,” furthering the field recording approach found on her early collaborations with Lennon is literally nothing but the sound of a toilet flushing. Meanwhile, “Midsummer New York” sounds like a sort of proto-Patti Smith track, Ono’s strangled vocals snarling over an early rock ’n’ roll groove borrowed somewhat abstractly from Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” It’s a far cry from anything Ono had released previously in terms of commercial accessibility and was subsequently put out as the B-side to the album’s first single, the aforementioned “Mrs. Lennon.”
“Mindtrain” is a loping bit of vocal weirdness with Ono exploring myriad vocalizations over the course of the track’s nearly 17-minute run time. With a group of sympathetic players behind her, the band settles into a groove early on and simply rides it out in an almost Krautrock-esque bit of motorik rhythmic exploration. It’s beyond hypnotic as it rolls along, Ono’s voice employing all manner of multi-tracked experimentation and vocal gymnastics to delirious effect. Certainly not a great starting point for those looking to get into Ono’s music, but a definite must for those having already willingly dipped a toe into the often difficult waters and having found the experience a more or less pleasant one.
She takes an almost inversely proportionate approach in the deconstructionist nightmare that is “Airmale,” an almost 11-minute vocal workout that shows off her impressive level of control and commitment to pushing the human voice to its extremes, all while retaining a resolutely abstract and decidedly avant garde bit of instrumental, primarily percussive backing. “O’Wind (Body is the Scar of Your Mind)” is similarly deconstructed, the track built solely around Ono’s ululations and increasingly manic hand drumming with a decidedly Eastern flair (a nod to Lennon’s time in India, perhaps, or the Beatles own flirtations with Eastern instrumentation taking to the extreme).
The epic title track again finds Ono utilizing all of her vocal techniques and then some, often sounding a bit like assorted horn players of the era (Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, et. al.) who produced all manner of shrieks and squeals, clicks and clacks through the at times violent manipulation of their reed and mouthpiece. Virtually unaccompanied throughout the whole of the track’s nearly 23-minute running time, it’s an early example of the vocal extremes later employed by the likes of Diamanda Galas and others trafficking in the vocal-based avant garde. In other words, it’s yet another example of Ono being simultaneously of her time and exceedingly ahead of it in terms of her willingness to experiment and her long-lasting influence on generations of musicians to come. Those looking to take their appreciation of Ono and her singular artistic vision to the next level need look no further than Fly for everything they could ever hope for and more.