Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Better as a Single: "Fly" by Yoko Ono

It takes a lot of courage to release a double album when every potential record purchaser in the country (the UK at the time) was in the process of hating your guts. Obviously, Fly was every bit the bomb that anything Yoko Ono might have put out in 1971 would have been, be it a single record or a 10 LP box set. The time was right for Yokophobia.

The hatred commonly felt toward Yoko Ono in the early seventies was a pity inasmuch as it was completely unfair, based on fallacious reports of the undoing of the Beatles and more than a little sexist, racist and xenophobic. But to a lesser extent, it was also a pity in that it blinded the public's eyes to the amazing music she was making at the time. Well, to be fair she had a lot of that coming: the public face of Yoko Ono the musician will probably remain her standing on the stage in Toronto with John Lennon and Eric Clapton, shrieking atonally over a wall of feedback for 10 minutes. There is plenty of that in Ono's initial excursions on the overlap between conceptual art and popular rock and roll. But there is also much that is much more conventionally listenable, too. Much is on this very album.

I say 'overlap', but I think that's part of the problem with Fly. It's less a double album than a collection of two single albums: one disc thoroughly grounded in then-current and then-cutting-edge rock and roll strains and one disc grounded in the avant garde. I think this failure to let the two themes properly meld allowed people to review the second disc while ignoring the first. And unfortunately a lot of conceptual art just seems ugly and pretentious when presented to people on the outside. Much of that is on this album, too. I don't know if Fly should have been released as a single or not, but I do know that this is one project where I genuinely feel that my thinned single-disc edition is not only much more playable than the double but also might have calmed down some of the spite that was felt at the time towards Yoko Ono. Or it might not have. Who knows, really.

As it turned out, Fly was, remarkably the first of three consecutive doubles Yoko released. Learned her lesson? Defiantly, no. However, she never again went into the field of 17- or 23-minute songs. Not until the 1990s, anyway.


Side one
  1. Mind Train (16:52)
  2. Don't Count the Waves (5:24)
Side two
  1. Mind Holes (2:47)
  2. Midsummer New York (3:51)
  3. Mrs. Lennon (4:12)
  4. Hirake (3:31)
  5. You (8:59)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Fly, Single-Disc Version «

Midsummer New York: keep (side two, track two)

On the double, this is the opening track, and it is a most fitting, purposeful album opener, too, showing that Yoko Ono did have more than a little savvy when it came to programming albums. A surprisingly conventional twelve-bar, this song contains an excellent vocal performance by Yoko, sounding for all the world like Bjork would twenty years down the line. I'm not a fan of twelve-bars, but this is just askew enough to keep my interest. It's all about Yoko here: the all-star band she's fronting here wails away convincingly, but it'd all be bar band stuff if Yoko wasn't there giving a virtuoso, commanding performance over top.

As great an opening track as I feel this is, my programming of the single-disc Fly was dependent mostly on things like song lengths and contrasting moods, so I wasn't able to keep this song at the beginning. As it is, I put it as track two of side two, which is quite a different place. At least since I put it after a mood piece, it feels like a wake-up call again.

Mind Train: keep (side one, track one)

There aren't that many 17 minute songs that keep my attention, but this one doesn't seem a minute overlong, really. I could compare this to Krautrock, and the beat does have a 'motorik' sense to it, but it's also a kind of funk, really - a great groove is established here and then ridden as far as it needs to be. People who say Yoko is not a great singer and people who say Ringo is not a great drummer both need to listen to the amazing performances given by both of them here: underdogs having the last laugh. Yoko is again compelling, with her full arsenal of sound effects on display here to give an edgy performance underscored by the jump-cut overdubbing here. It might be a study of psychosis, or perhaps just a person's volley of random thoughts put to music. Either way, it's fascinating. Art, yes, but pop too - or something like it.

I don't know that it's appropriate to start an album with a seventeen-minute track, but that's what I do here, putting this as side one, track one. It's up to the task - its locomotive feel gets the album into gear handily, but it's a bit of a risk to start off so demanding of the listener. Oh well. 

Mind Holes: keep (side two, track one)

Side two starts with this acoustic drone piece: acoustic guitars and wordless vocals. John Lennon plays very good guitar here in a manner we never hear in his own oeuvre. This is a soft mood piece, soothing and a little upsetting too, all at the same time.

I want to include this song mostly for the purpose of sonic variety. I've decided that it works as an 'introduction' well enough to keep it here as it was on the double: the opening track of side two, which now alternates down the line between soft and hard.

Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow): lose

This is probably Yoko's signature piece, by which I mean not that it's the best or most famous one but the one that perhaps in the greatest way 'defines' her. It is a holy hell of a song. I've often wondered what the hell her estranged daughter Kyoko must have thought while listening to this, the least reassuring performance ever of words of reassurance. The idiom, hard rock, is not something that I'm generally fond of, but in this case Clapton and Lennon et al get away with it, because what they're doing is providing the sounds of the apocalypse that Yoko is trying to tell her daughter not to worry about. I suppose. It's great art, no doubt. It's a great and thoroughly enjoyable song. But it's also the one that gave me greatest thought regarding its inclusion, because it's not by any means of the Fly era - it's an old song tacked on to fill up space. I enjoy it a lot, but if the Beatles had decided to stick 'Strawberry Fields Forever' on The White Album just to fill it up, would I argue for its inclusion there, great a song as it undoubtedly is? So I've decided, begrudgingly, to leave it off.

Mrs. Lennon: keep (side two, track three)

The 'single', perhaps the most conventionally 'playable' song on the package. Sonically, this is gorgeous stuff, with fragile vocals over a fragile arrangement that builds in a predictable but enchanting way. Slow, stately, elegant, graceful and more than a little foreboding, this is moving, personal art that was frankly never going to be a 'hit', however worthy it is of being one.

On the double, this follows "Don't Worry Kyoko" well, being a kind of calm-after-the-storm. Here it slots right in the middle of my side two (track three) for no real reason except to maintain the soft-hard-soft-hard-soft mood of side two. It sounds good sandwiched between its noisy neighbours, however. 

Hirake: keep (side two, track four)

This is properly funk, even more so than "Mind Train" - in some twisted universe, it could almost be James Brown. Hard to see it as the creation of a bunch of white English men and a Japanese woman. until the vocals and that discordant guitar come in, that is. This song was controversial, and censored, at the time for allegedly sexually graphic lyrics. It's tough to see what the big deal is now, but the fact remains that the edginess of the vocals and the overall feel of the track are decidedly unsexy. Confusing, frankly.

This wacked-out mess of a song gets the penultimate position on my single-album as track four on side two, and this time I think it makes a bit of sense: call it a kind of crescendo of passion before the long, sighing conclusion that follows it. 

Toilet Piece / Unknown: lose

This is what I look like when rolling my eyes. This might be a component of some installation she was working on, some conceptual piece that made sense in the gallery. But here, recording the sound of a toilet flushing and calling it a song is no way to be taken seriously. Again, it's what I've said about Fly that what is from the art world and what is from the rock world don't seem to have anything to do with each other here, and I think that cuts into the overall success of the album as a listening experience. 

O'Wind (Body is the Scar of Your Mind): lose

There's song fascinating percussion here, but the whole thing seems like a warm-up to the formal breakthroughs of side three. And the sad fact is that it outstays its welcome. Tiresome, eventually.

Airmale: lose

Side three of the double is entirely given over to a series of tracks recorded with Joe Jones featuring vocals by Yoko and all manner of homemade instruments. The idea is fascinating, but again, presenting them all together moves disc two into the realm of art documentary, not art itself. It's a bit tough listening to all three tracks back to back, though each of them is enjoyable enough by itself. To my ears, they are arranged in reverse order of interest. "Airmale" is, like the title track, the soundtrack to a movie, in this case about construction - and it does have a factory-like feel to it. Like the title track, then, it is missing something removed from its visuals. I get the feeling that "Airmale" primarily gets its raison d'ĂȘtre solely from juxtaposition, whereas the other two tracks try to establish distinct moods. And, frankly, it just goes on too long.

Don't Count the Waves: keep (side one, track two)

Uses echo and silence as instruments, and succeeds in evoking a kind of Star Trek sci-fi feel. This has nothing at all to do with 'popular music', but it is enthralling all the same, if you allow it to be. It slowly builds in mood and accomplishes what "Airmale" couldn't.

I put two of the Joe Jones songs on the album. Unlike the double, I thought it was important to break them up, so that they can shine in contrast with the rock instrumentation we hear elsewhere. It was probably that one decision, though, that ultimately established the entire structure of the album. The Joe Jones songs now serve as conclusions to each of the two sides, so "Don't Count the Waves" gets put after "Mind Train" as the second and final track of side one. Nowhere else made sense. 

You: keep (side two, track five)

The most successful of the Joe Jones pieces, in my opinion, this is an enchanting piece of art. The vocals and the instruments work together very well in the establishment of a distinct mood. And though ethereal and fragile, the mood established is also one of distinct tension. This piece just keeps building and building, all tension and no release, for an amazing six and a half minutes, before Joe Jones's most interesting 'automated instrument' lets the song slowly exhale to a halt, like Sonic Youth's "Expressway to yr Skull".

On the double, this closes out side three, but I think it is a great way to close out the whole album. I like it when an album ends in such a way that you find yourself rapt listening to the silence that follows it for a while before shaking off the spell and putting something else on. 

Fly: lose

Vocally, a bravura performance, "Fly" is: a) the soundtrack to an intriguing movie documenting a fly's travels across a woman's naked body and b) a kind of affected attempt at evoking the sound and mood of a buzzing fly using a capella wordless vocalisations. For twenty-three minutes. Yes, side four of this album is, with a small exception, given over entirely to Yoko Ono making fly-sounds and nothing else. Now, I think we need to discuss here why Yoko is so misunderstood. I think that the best conceptual art has a lot of savvy and guards itself against accusations of pretension. If you're so committed to what you're doing that you fail to consider public reaction, however, you run the risk of releasing material like this. This is guaranteed to make a fine artist into a laughingstock. That's harsh, I know, but it's true. Whatever value this has as a soundtrack, it's impossible for me to imagine anyone getting entertainment value out of it on a turntable. I guess that's the point here, really - that it's possible, desirable even, to integrate art and entertainment. But if you merely present art and call it entertainment, you won't fool anyone. 

Telephone Piece: lose

And the album ends with a phone ringing. Yay. Again... art, maybe. Entertainment? I'm afraid not.


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