Book Review: John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band

The Plastic Ono Band maquette (1968) with Yoko Ono and John Lennon, page 19 of John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, photo by Ethan Russell © Yoko Ono Lennon

John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band

by Yoko Ono and John Lennon

288 page hardback book

published by Thames & Hudson Ltd in October 2020

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, February 2021 

The secret power of The Plastic Ono Band philosophy, because it was lost near the start, remained to be discovered in the future. As recounted in The Ballad of John and Yoko song by The Beatles, in 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to marry in Paris. They chartered a private jet in England and flew to the French capital on March 16th to do so. Unfortunately, the French authorities refused permission. They had not legally lived in France long enough, so they wed instead in Gibraltar (a British protectorate) on March 20th. Following this well-publicized wedding ~ based on a 1968 multi-media machine maquette called The Plastic Ono Band ~ the couple decided that their future art-music endeavors would be credited to that conceptual art vehicle.  

The Plastic Ono Band multi-media sculpture, photo by Iain Macmillan © Yoko Ono Lennon

The Plastic Ono Band concept of an automated staged multi-media music presentation (if not yet named that) was conceived of by Ono in 1967 for a Berlin art show. The maquette was constructed by Lennon out of small found plastic containers, including a cassette box. When fully-realized, The Plastic Ono Band consisted of four Perspex plastic acrylic container objects housing electronic equipment: three tall, and the other a shorter square figure at the back (like a seated drummer at his kit). Indeed, the shape of The Plastic Ono Band might allude to The Beatles: John, Paul, George and Ringo, minus the actual hairy humans. Encased within the movable transparent structures of The Plastic Ono Band were an amped tape recorder, a closed-circuit TV camera, a record player with amp, and a miniature light show and loud speaker; stocked by electrician-artist Alexis Mardras of Apple Electronics. According to Lennon’s drawn specs, The Plastic Ono Band assemblage needed enough sound producing power to be the loudest band on earth.

The Plastic Ono Band movable media project should properly be considered within the context of intermedia: the term used already in the mid-1960s by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to describe inter-disciplinary art activities. Another probable influence is Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, when considering his prescient Exposition of Music: Electronic Television exhibition (1963) at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal. Going further back, there is also the precedent set by experimental musician John Cage’s Williams Mix (1952), a piece of electronic music composed using chance operations derived from the I-Ching that was Cage’s first composition for tape recorder. Williams Mix was first performed from only quarter-inch magnetic tape in Urbana, Illinois in 1953, where its musique concrète sounds were played on four stereo tape machines connected to eight speakers. No human performers were required. So Higgins, Paik and Cage had already demonstrated artistic uses for electronic media presentations that marked the beginning of long careers during which they foresaw and actively influenced the technological, philosophical and social development of the new media: television, video and computers. Certainly Paik’s idea of an anti-technological technology set the stage for The Plastic Ono Band’s anti-pop pop. Also when one thinks of Fluxus-related precedents for a Plastic Ono Band type music presentation capable of creating visceral sound presentations without the necessity of musicians, La Monte Young’s continuous and autonomous electronic drones come to mind, typical of The Dream House. Beginning in 1962, Young had begun formulating the concept of a continuous sound environment requiring no human performance, but facilitating it, if desired. In a 1964 program note for this Theatre of Eternal Music project, Young describes the Dream House as that which will allow music to propel itself by its own momentum.

Simultaneously flat transparent image, sculptural form, and media machine assemblage, The Plastic Ono Band realized maquette had several aspects that marked out its short but prolific oeuvre. The use of up-scaled maquettes played a key aspect within minimal-conceptual art, at least since while recovering from an automobile accident at home in 1961, sculptor Tony Smith started creating small sculptural maquettes (with the help of his three daughters) using agglomerations of tetrahedrons and octahedrons. The use of maquette-based scaling is fundamental to moving from the industrial mechanical age into the speed-info-mechanic-electronic approach towards culture, hallmarked by the promotion of project-based on-time scalable intelligent apparatuses. Maquettes, boxes and conceptual plans typified the minimal art movement that Ono had been enthusiastically taking part in; where art works often aimed at escaping narrative in favor of anti-subjective formalist explorations. In that sense Ono was to be both modestly innovative and very influential in guiding The Plastic Ono Band project to its fragile physical fruition ~ apparently the media sculpture was presented once in London on July 3rd in 1969 onstage at the modestly attended Apple Records launch party for The Plastic Ono Band record single Give Peace a Chance held at the Chelsea Town Hall. Judging by photos, it was rather overwhelmed by a huge collage display by designer Christine Marsh of well-known faces hung behind it. Though the live camera feed showed images of members of the audience incorporated into The Plastic Ono Band sculpture on stage. Give Peace a Chance is an anti-war song written by Lennon (credited to Lennon–McCartney) recorded live with Ono, Tommy Smothers, Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, Dick Gregory, Allen Ginsberg, and others during the famous Lennon-Ono Plastic Ono Band Bed-In media happening in Montreal. Give Peace a Chance was the first solo single issued by Lennon, and was released with The Plastic Ono Band sculpture printed on the record sleeve, while Lennon was still a member of the Beatles. Give Peace a Chance became something of an anthem of the American anti-war movement during the early-1970s.

Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance single issued by Apple Records with The Plastic Ono Band media sculpture printed on the record sleeve

As the video feed wished to suggest, The Plastic Ono Band project’s original aim tried incorporating the Fluxus values of ‘welcome all’ interactivity by promoting a “You Are The Plastic Ono Band” attitude. I think this very Fluxus attitude was a central part of Lennon’s attraction (and contribution) to The Plastic Ono Band idea. That his insufferably bloated reputation, so often the result of the excesses of celebrity culture and its attendant cult of personality, could be self-combated by evoking a sense of collective impersonality that could be used to oppose forms of assumed technological progress ~ namely the use of the reduction of private property utility in favor of collective incoherent chaos and caprice (basically the hippie free-share revolution) and resistance to cultural expectations. Though it would prove highly impractical for famous wealthy artists like Lennon, The Plastic Ono Band placed emphasis on encouraging an impersonal social realm for open counter-cultural culture. Within the conceptual-minimal movement of the mid-60s, autobiographical symbolism was generally regarded as corny by artists like Robert Morris, who rejected the presence of a singular and particular hand in favor of impersonal formal qualities that were perceived as new and mesmerizing. Ono’s Zen-Fluxus conceptual-minimalist films did that too ~ like Fluxfilm no. 14: One (a.k.a. Match) (1966): a silent 4:30 minute piece shot on high speed film by Fluxus photographer par excellence Peter Moore in which in super slow-motion a wooden match is struck. Also consider the cold formal abstraction of an ostensibly biographical piece called Self-Portrait (1969), Ono’s rarely seen 42minute film that unflinchingly frames the semi-erect penis of Lennon in its states of tumescence and de-tumescence. This brio but sang froid approach to only framing a bit of her lover (though the title Self-Portrait suggests this is more of a Lennon-Ono Plastic Ono Band galvanized project than a film by Ono) is the opposite of mawkish sentimentality. Reintroducing formalism to a warmer autobiographical intent is the short Apple Film Two Virgins, the second John and Yoko film collaboration. Again using Ono’s typical slow-motion approach, it beautifully merges John and Yoko’s heads together, before the couple face each other. John and Yoko’s LSD influenced intimate noise album Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, created the night before they first made love, provides the ambient abstract soundtrack, and lends the film a mobile and marvelous mood. Two Virgins may be their most successful collaboration in terms of balanced equity. It certainly sets the standard of precedent for their choice to merge their creativity together (for better or worse) as years go by. Without it there is no Plastic Ono Band that gave itself the task of judging life, opposing supposedly higher values by measuring Fluxus values against them and restricting and condemning them. It was therefore fated that pop art and popular music degenerate as they developed ~ taken in by their own popular masks. 

The Plastic Ono Band congregated structure coincided with Lennon’s tumultuous personal and artistic transformations occurring around the breakup of The Beatles and is the unearthed archival subject of the John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band book by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, published by Thames & Hudson Ltd: a celebration of the couple’s bond and a product of their collective creative energies that rotated around their mutual interests in radical politics, experimental film, and avant-garde musique concrète audio art ~ best demonstrated with their astonishing indulgent aforementioned Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins and Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions recordings. 

Their interactive Plastic Ono Band media sculpture and unfixed approach to POB musical participants encapsulated and extended their ambition to expand into society their corresponding no holds barred creative union ~ and the book concentrates on these days: their early, radically tender years together, roughly between 1968 and 1971. Certainly it was a period drenched in drugs, but also focused on sincere searches for love, truth, meaning and peace. In that sense the book cannot fail but to un-cynically inject a sense of the possibility for progressive change and new viable lifestyle alternatives into our conservative and confined times.

John and Yoko on the roof of Apple, photo by David Nutter © Yoko Ono Lennon

The generously scaled book is beautifully designed and produced and is packed with evocative and revealing letters and recorded conversations, but rightfully takes The Plastic Ono Band apparatus and Lennon’s handwritten song lyrics as central. The book also does a good job exploring Ono-Lennon’s DIY all-inclusive hippie cultural views that they bravely/naively took up in the face of Lennon’s crippling celebrity status, heightened further during this highly charged post-Beatles transformative period. The dominant black and white look of the book is gorgeous and it rivets the eye on Plastic Ono Band first-person recollections, particularly when Lennon talks about his painful relationship with his parents. Listening to the relevant Plastic Ono Band tracks makes for a rich stay-at-home cultural experience. It is heartwarming when Ono speaks touchingly about falling in love with Lennon. We also hear Lennon’s important psychic experiences within Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream Therapy ~ something central to The Plastic Ono Band expressive project. For added flavor, there are short written contributions from Petula Clark, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Eric Clapton; and many previously unseen photographs by Annie Leibovitz, Ethan Russell, Richard DiLello, Iain Macmillan, John Reader and David Nutter. The book ends with reminiscences of those musicians who performed on The Plastic Ono Band albums and with short text contributions from Leibovitz and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone Magazine.

Though begun as a conceptual art project ~ interesting in its own right ~ the emphasis in the book (I guess understandably) is on the music. The Plastic Ono Band proper delivered two ‘solo’ music albums in 1970 by the pair, both recorded with the participation of Starr (drums), Klaus Voormann (bass), and a bit of Billy Preston (piano). Lennon’s highly acclaimed disk is an intense dive into self-demystification, called John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Co-produced by Lennon, Ono and Phil Spector, it is widely regarded as Lennon’s best solo album, due to its raw, stripped-back-to-basics lyrics that are matched to an equally just-the-essentials musical rock-blues style. (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band preceding the also acclaimed Imagine solo record that was released in 1971.) Magnificent Lennon songs on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band include Mother, Isolation, Working Class Hero, God (with Preston’s gospel-tinged piano and the then shocking line “I don’t believe in Beatles”), the nursery rhyme-like My Mummy’s Dead and the deliciously delicate Look at Me. 

Ono’s esoteric, improvisational and more experimental album Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was released simultaneously with Lennon’s ~ thus begging comparison. From the standard (popular taste) point of view, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band is often considered pretentious and/or abysmally vapid. One could stupidly say that of Kurt Schwitters’ transcendent Ursonate vocalizations too, I guess, but from a noise music appreciation point of view, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band can be viscerally compelling and as majestic and gorgeous as the roaring ocean. Ono created tracks there tinged with an eroticism that ranged from subtle insinuation to salaciousness by surpassing tonal expectations with atonal saturation. Some can be musically accommodating to an altered state of emotional scale and time not dissimilar to the John Coltrane Vigil cut on Transition from the same year. Certainly Ono’s record appears more musically daringly and original than Lennon’s when seen from the experimental free jazz, downtown art music scene, and/or free feminist points of view. Lennon, though once an art student, was not the most adventuresome as far as The Beatles’ use of musique concrète. Listen to Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Sound Collage CD (that goes back to 1963) if you have any doubts who was. 

Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was no art music fluke and was soon followed up by the Fly recording in 1971 that has on it the track Open Your Box (first released as the B-side of Lennon’s single Power to the People). I love the way it constructs a dissonant noise happening in hyper-space seemingly shrunk to fit inside an opened bag (apropos Ono’s self-described Bagism performances). Lyrics include “Open your box, open your trousers, open your sex, open your legs, open open open open open …”. But compared to her Plastic Ono Band album, Fly has other less interesting/more accessible tracks on it ~ like Mindtrain. With it she continued to try to push the pop envelope without getting close to making popular music. A fool’s task. Yet I appreciate what Ono does on both recordings (both produced by Lennon, by the way), as it seems to me she was conveying ~ through her pained yelps and glossolalia-guttural Kabuki-style shrieks and murmurs and tremulous wailings and scat jazz vocalizations ~ volatile female emotions beyond normal human language. That or the pleasures of the erotic female in the throes of orgasm. (I think of the Why and Why Not cuts here from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band). Though usually regarded as an affront to the ear, some of the cuts on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, like Why Not, and Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City, can actually be hauntingly beautiful if one concentrates on sticking with them and open-mindedly listening to them. Like the great Diamanda Galás, Ono’s vocal soundings ~ on both tracks ~ might seem offensive and objectionable to some, but after a time, the ear-mind takes little further offense and a euphoric acceptance, verging on enjoyment, begins ~ that can even spark euphoria. In that sense, Ono is far more experimentally valuable and certainly more artistically daring than Lennon within The Plastic Ono Band. Lennon’s stark autobiographical blues rock music is tightly structured and harmonious, making it commercially acceptable, just as a very good pop song must. Rather, Ono’s cut AOS, recorded with The Ornette Coleman Quartet, is an excellent piece of noise music that merits repeated listening by the artistically adventurous. But for me, the best Ono Plastic Ono Band track is The South Wind, because of its delicate, phantasmagoric treatment of noise. By comparison, Ono’s vocal output on Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow) (released on The Plastic Ono Band’s 1969 Live Peace in Toronto album and again in a different version on the 1970 album Fly) is notable for the fact that it uses a great deal of vocal atonal dissonance while the others musicians, including Lennon and Clapton on electric guitars, display too little. What works best with her voice are the handmade Fluxus musical machines of Joe Jones, who co-produced the Fly record together with Lennon and Ono. The album Fly (that contains the long Fly track, that creates the soundtrack to the Plastic Ono Band film Fly (1970)) contains three confounding cuts with Joe Jones’ automated music machines: Airmale, Don’t Count the Waves and You. Airmale is especially notable and was used in 1971 as the soundtrack to The Plastic Ono Band film Erection; a time-compression film shot over a period of eighteen months showing the sped-up construction of a hotel in London in nineteen minutes. 

For some reason, Fluxus artist-musician Joe Jones does not get a mention in the John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band book, but had important input during the New York Plastic Ono Band period, not only co-producing the album Fly but presenting a two-month long Plastic Ono Band Fluxus festival in his JJ Music Store (aka Tone Deaf Music Store) at 18 North Moore Street. From April 18th to June 12th in 1970, Plastic Ono Band enjoyed carte blanc there, presenting a series of Fluxus art events and concerts called Grapefruit Flux-Banquet, promoted with a poster designed by Fluxus leader George Maciunas.

Yoko Ono mask designed by George Maciunas (1970) worn by participants in the Come as John & Yoko event at the Grapefruit Fluxbanquet party for the John & Yoko Fluxfest + Fluxus art festival 

Perhaps some Plastic Ono Band participants have been forgotten, as it featured an ever-changing line-up of musicians; including Clapton, Preston, Voormann, Starr, Alan White, George Harrison and Jim Keltner. Clapton’s slide electric guitar contributions to the recording of the 1969 Live Peace in Toronto album stand out, particularly on the live version recording of Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow). Lennon’s fantastically gut-wrenching rendition of Yer Blues, a song he originally issued as a Beatle on The Beatles 1968 record The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) is on that Plastic Ono Band Live Peace in Toronto album too.

The Plastic Ono Band in performance, photo courtesy of Yoko Ono Lennon

If you like counter-cultural art-music historical detail (as I do) ~ for example did you know The Plastic Ono Band song Cold Turkey is not about withdrawal from heroin addiction, but rather from methadone addiction (bizarrely Ono and Lennon skipped over smack and got straight into methadone) ~ be assured that the John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band book is interspersed with lots it; along with hundreds of photographs (several published for the first time), John’s handwritten lyrics and funky drawn cartoons, and reproductions of posters used to promote The Plastic Ono Band.  

After enjoying and digesting all of it, I found in the end a great contradictory tension in The Plastic Ono Band project that stirred my imagination in two ways. First, the chosen confines of The Plastic Ono Band’s minimalistic aesthetic form was radically contradicted by its ideological, intentionally open-to-all, free ethic. These two aims appear as mutually exclusive to me. This contradiction is then complicated further as The Plastic Ono Band’s cool impersonal aesthetic is perversely ignored (or counterpointed) by Lennon’s musical participation: his songs doubled down on personal autobiographical qualities, even while using the bare bones minimalism of a basic trio and by avoiding the sophisticated studio production techniques that made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the Beatle masterpiece that it is. Perhaps Ono and Lennon, already weary from Lennon’s worldwide fame, missed the irony of the parallels between The Plastic Ono Band (a fabricated collective/installation/concert mechanism) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (another fabricated imaginary group). Certainly no such comparison is drawn in this Ono-approved book. But to me, both faux groups conveyed longings for forms of de-personalized idea-based art-music that were, in fact, no longer possible for Lennon to make after Beatlemania. What remained was an illusion of critique and a phantom of free creation. WM 

“To create is to lighten, to unburden life, to invent new possibilities of life.” 

~ Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on A Life 

 

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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