25 Nov 2018

Yoko Ono's Warzone

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 25 November 2018

Yoko Ono - now 85 years old - is back with a new album, Warzone, on which two things are clear: firstly, she's still very much a political animal, and secondly, she's at ease with the music of her past and she's happy to revisit it in 2018. William Dart is a long-time fan.

Yoko Ono in 2011

Yoko Ono in 2011 Photo: Earl J McGehee via Flickr CC2.0

In the early days of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s partnership, Ono didn’t really make an immediate impact in pop or rock circles. Her first solo album, in 1970, was released at the same time as a Lennon LP with songs that had the sinew and clout of a Merseyside Dylan.

Alongside Lennon’s 'Working Class Hero', Ono’s outing was resolutely avant-garde. This was a woman who, after all, had made a feature film based on a series of human posteriors, caught on camera, close-up, while their owners walked a treadmill.

On this first disc, she brought in jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to jam with her and, on two complementary tracks, considered the existential ramifications of the simple questions, 'Why' and 'Why Not'?

While many back then thought Yoko Ono was a wailing eccentric, some of us knew that, deep down, she wanted to be a songwriter.

She’d written and sung a sweet and tender lovesong for the flipside of the 1969 tubthumping Beatles' single, 'Give Peace a Chance'. Sung with a frail and almost childlike voice, it’s a ballad with the white-key elegance of an admittedly simple eighteenth-century song, right down to Mozartian turns in its cadences.

The real astonishment came in 1973 with Yoko Ono’s double album Approximately Infinite Universe. Like the earlier Fly, this has recently been reissued, remastered with the obligatory extra tracks.

You can sense a style and individuality in Ono’s new songs here, so often set out over what would become a template of one harmony per bar.

'Death of Samantha' is one of the best with its portrait of a woman who’s simply too brave or maybe too oppressed to cry.

At 85, Yoko Ono is still a force to be reckoned with. Her new album is titled Warzone and makes two things very clear. One is that this woman is still very much a political animal  — after all, didn’t she put her wild ululations to good use two years ago responding to Donald Trump being elected as president.

Secondly, she’s also at ease with the music of her past and happy to revisit it in 2018.

She first sang about 'Hell in Paradise' on her 1985 collection Starpeace, a concept album that spoke out against Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars defence plans. She even managed to get the song well up in the dance chart of the day.

Uncannily, on Ono’s new album, it’s just a relevant, with Trump’s talk of space being his next military goal.

She has new aiders and abbetters and they’re a dream team. Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly featured on New Horizons a few months back, having fun with Colin McPhee’s gamelan music. For Ono’s new take on 'Hell in Paradise', Bartlett's hands float over ghostly keyboards while Muhly pens charts for a quartet of violinists.

And when the singer goes into free vocalizing mode, she takes elephants, baboons and panthers along for the ride.

Yoko Ono's new version of her song 'It's Gonna Rain' has me bewitched to the point of besotment.

It comes with a gleaming, minimalist backdrop, courtesy of Thomas Bartlett. Her handling of the word “rain” will either have you in raptures or repulsed. And at the end, there’s some vocalizing that you’ll either adore or loathe. Needless to say, I’m in the first camp.

After Yoko Ono’s dozen originals on Warzone, the album ends with a cover, as touching as it is personal.

John Lennon was assassinated in 1980 and didn’t live to see his song 'Imagine' subjected to the indignity of being recited by Joan Collins against Royal Phiharmonic strings or crooned by the oleaginous Jack Jones. Both of which pale beside Yoko Ono’s fiery live version with rock band during her Starpeace tour in 1986.

Now 'Imagine' is the closing track on her new album – an envoi if ever there was. It’s a spectral love song, a hushed and still necessary plea to an uncaring world, with Thomas Bartlett’s keyboards and electronica taking minimalist backing to a new and breathtaking lean.

Listen to these tracks and others by clicking on the 'Listen' button above for the complete programme.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'Telephone Piece' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Fly
(Ryko)

'Mrs Lennon' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Fly
(Ryko)

'Working Class Hero' (Lennon) – John Lennon
Wonsaponatime
(Capitol)

'Why Not' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Plastic Ono Band
(Ryko)

'Remember Love' (Ono) – John Lennon, Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No 1, Two Virgins
(Apple)

'Death of Samantha' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Approximately Infinite Universe
(Ryko)

'Hell in Paradise' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Starpeace
(Ryko)

'Hell in Paradise' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Warzone
(Chimera)

'Woman Power' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Feeling the Space
(Ryko)

'Woman Power' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Warzone
(Chimera)

'It’s Gonna Rain' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Warzone
(Chimera)

'Teddy Bear' (Ono) – Yoko Ono
Warzone
(Chimera)

'Imagine' (Lennon) – Yoko Ono
Warzone
(Chimera)

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