Friday 4 July 2008

Review 54) Yoko Ono "Approximately Infinite Universe" (1972)

You can buy 'Remember - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of John Lennon and Yoko Ono' in e-book form by clicking here!

On which Yoko records in an approximately infinite array of styles…

Track Listing: Yang Yang/ Death Of Samantha/ I Want My Love To Rest Tonight/ What Did I Do?!?/ Have You Seen A Horizon Lately?// Approximately Infinite Universe/Peter The Dealer/ Song For John/ Catman (The Rosies Are Coming)/ What A Bastard The World Is/ Waiting For The Sunrise// I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window/ Winter Song/ Kite Song/ What A Mess/ Shirinkatta (I Didn’t Know)/ Air Talk// I Have A Woman Inside My Soul/ Move On Fast/ Now Or Never/ Is Winter Here To Stay?/ Looking Over From My Hotel Window (UK and US tracklisting)



For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: Death of Samantha, Approximately Infinite Universe, What A Bastard The World Is, I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window, Kite Song, Move On Fast

Ones to skip: I Want My Love To Rest Tonight is a worthy try, but doesn’t have the wonderful yearning melodies the other songs on this album have.

The Cover: Yoko stares moodily into space, which is approximately infinite don’t forget.

Key lyrics: “Bury your past and move on fast” “When I’m on the phone, I thank God my voice sounds smooth and clear without a trace of tear, when I’m at work, I thank God I still have the smile that mum used to say lit up her day - but something inside me died that day” “Talking to them is like watching ice cream melt when you’re hungry” “When I was in a restaurant, watching their mouths move faster and faster, I thought of the kite that was flying high in the sky and made sure that my hand was holding tight to the string, that was long time ago, many skies went by since then, now I’ve stopped holding anything and I’ve learned to take a walk instead” “It’s now or never or no time at all” “If I ever die please go to my daughter, tell her that she used to haunt me in my dreams” “People tell you stardust and gold-dust are it, but they never tell you stardust chokes you just as sawdust does”

Original UK Chart Position: DNC. Except for some post-Lennon sympathy with her 1981 Season Of Glass LP, none of Yoko’s solo albums have ever made the British charts.

Singles: Death Of Samantha and Now Or Never, both of which were inspired choices for singles, but both of which DNC. Kite Song and Move On Fast might have had better chances of being a hit, however.

Official out-takes: The Onobox six CD retrospective includes a sparser alternate version of Have You Seen A Horizon Lately? and a stunning alternate take of Kite Song that breaks down at the end. A few other tracks are alternate mixes, most notably I Have A Woman Inside My Soul (which sounds better) and Peter The Dealer (which sounds worse). The rare 1997 CD issue adds two slightly later demos for two songs later re-recorded for even rare album A Story. 

Availability: One of the most obscure albums on this list, your best bet of finding this album is to get hold of the superlative 6CD Onobox (if you’re feeling committed that is – this set actually well worth the price and despite its 8 hours running time has too little, not too much of Yoko’s work, although you might not play the first ‘screaming’ disc too many times). A note will be added to the website when (or if!)  this album is ever given a proper CD release. STOP PRESS: Did I really see an advert for this album on CD via the other day?! I might have been hallucinating (writing websites like this one will do that to you) but, just in case I wasn’t, keep your eyes peeled. STOP PRESS YET AGAIN: I’ve managed to track down a new ‘limited edition’ release of this album on 2 CDs from 1998. Worryingly, it’s not even reached half of it’s 20,000 release yet in 10 years (mine’s numbered 9000 and something) so it’s not actually as obscure as first thought (bet you won’t find it in the shops though).

This album came between: The previous album was the interesting but not very listenable avant garde album Fly (1971), on which the glorious rocker Midsummer New York and some other interesting odds and ends are undermined by Yoko pretending to be an insect for 20 minutes; The follow-up album was the hideously jazzy Feeling The Space (1973) – the worst of Yoko on one album. In truth, the only album of Yoko’s close to Universe in style, beauty and ambition is the originally unreleased but intended Universe follow-up A Story, which finally came out sometime in the 1990s, but that too is sadly difficult to track down at present unless you want to own a 6-CD box full of Yoko (actually after hearing this album you probably do).

Line-up: Yoko Ono with Elephant’s Memory, Wayne Gabriel, John Lennon (as Joel Nohnn) and others (produced by Yoko Ono and John Lennon)

Putting The Album In Context:

ONE of the Ono-Lennons spent most of 1972 crafting away on a cracking double album, chock-full of staggering pioneering songs that covered a ridiculous array of styles the performer had been painstakingly learning over the past four or so years after being cast into the deep end of an alien art world, forsaking their amateur status to drill a bunch of session musos at the top of their game and end up, a few months later, with the best release of their career. For once in the pair’s career, that someone wasn’t Beatle John. While Mind Games revealed a tired, drained performer going through the motions (in Lennon’s own dismissive words that year ‘it’s just another record, going round like any other record does’), Yoko was working on easily the best songs of her career, a staggeringly brave yet undeniably beautiful and listenable album that’s actually a better best-of than any of the Yoko compilations out on the market, featuring nearly all of the best songs of the misunderstood avent gardist’s career. And yes, I do mean songs. Yoko’s early sound-effects-and-squawking experiments like Fly and the Yoko/Plastic Ono Band album are badly under-rated and have their share of good ideas if you’re in the right mood for them, but in truth their off-the-wall subject matters and guttural screams were only ever going to be enjoyed by a minority audience. Universe really is an ‘album’ though, to be enjoyed by approximately everybody – true it has an underlying feminist theme that shapes nearly all of the songs and makes this record an uncomfortable listen for some, but even these are challenging anthems written in the rock idiom rather than the rather empty sloganeering you might remember from Yoko’s contributions to John’s B-sides of the period (not Listen The Snow Is Falling, though, that’s just class). This album even has cohesion on it’s side, with a similar but not-so-similar-they-sound-the-same atmosphere running through most of the songs, a bunch of America’s best session musicians fully devoted (for once) to making Yoko sound good and a glorious production sheen that finishes the job.

It really is all Yoko’s work too – every song is hers and there are no co-writes, although Lennon naturally features on a couple of tracks (** see note). Lennon always reckoned that Yoko’s Japanese background was a good preparation for rock music (Japan’s most traditional art-form, the haiku, is a short and fractured poem and is in a sense the three-minute rock song of the poetry world) and the two fully-fledged rock-adrenalin basic bursts where Yoko really lets herself go are two of the album’s best songs. But it’s the glorious ballads, unwinding tunes and complex lyrics that make this album the great little masterpiece that it is, a staggering achievement from someone who had never actually made a ‘proper’ album of songs before and this double-set reveals more attention-to-detail and sophistication on each listening. Indeed, has there ever been two stranger back-to-back albums than Fly and Universe? Sacrificing weird sound effects, bizarre screaming and confrontational backing tracks, Universe gains by delivering tight, concise songs, detailed lyrics that tell us of how Yoko is screaming inside but can’t get anybody to listen and confrontational songs played to tight backing tracks that pack a punch now, never mind back in 1973 when female performers just weren’t meant to be able to do this sort of thing (grace Slick and a few others aside). Not a bad swap, and unlike many experimenters who ’find’ ’proper’ music from Frank Zappa to Tiny Tim, any accusations of Yoko ‘going soft’ simply go out the window when you read almost any of the lyrics from this album.

This double set is, you see, pretty revealing about Yoko’s personal feelings, reflecting not only on her growing unease at her marriage to John but also her troubled childhood growing up in Japan, her confused relationships with the parents she hardly knew, her regret at losing custody of her daughter Kyoko to her former husband Anthony Cox, her own feelings of outsiderness cut off from her avent garde world during her time with Lennon and her confusion at being a figure of hate or at least suspicion for many Beatles fans (**see note 2). Good songwriters need stress and anxiety in their lives to shake them up and make them question what is important to them – Yoko was unlucky enough to have more problems than most during the 70s and in many ways this album is like a two-year-delayed outpouring of grief in the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band mould, albeit with more melody and layered production. Yet Yoko is content to show off her warmer side too, engaging in a couple of delightful upbeat and optimistic songs that could easily pass as fun-sun-surf period-Beach Boys or the Monkees at their most care-free.  

All that personal angst and hummable pop songs only accounts for half of this double album though: sprinkled throughout both discs are several pioneering and brave feminist anthems. Many of Yoko’s attacks on the male species before and after this album are simply embarrassing (Women Power on Feeling The Space springs to mind, which almost rivals the godawful empty ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls in its sheer pointlesness  - ** see note 3 -  but not quite, thank God) and like Lennon at his worst Yoko’s sloganeering often makes her songs feel like hard work rather than showing off her fine feel for melody and production. On this album, however, there are no such worries – whether being cute, intelligent, dramatic or downright rude, Yoko backs up her ideas with some clever arguments and is more than a mite brave in putting such controversial thoughts in front of an already-dismissive male-dominated rock audience in the comparatively narrow-minded 1970s. Yoko even burned her bridges with the few supporters she had in the name of art and her feelings – the feminist movement dropped her like a brick after hearing Mrs Lennon express sympathy for her tired-looking husband on I Want My Love To Rest Tonight. Most Beatles fans who are none the wiser assume that Yoko doesn’t react to their provocations in public because she’s stupid and none the wiser about their attacks on her character. In fact Yoko proves her intelligence, bravery and occasionally her humour several times on this album which – had this album developed slightly more of a cult following – might have shut them up a bit quicker (this album is by far Yoko’s best-loved record among her fans but unfairly she seems to have precious few of those). It’s worth noting her too that Lennon never addressed anybody else except Yoko as his ‘intellectual equal’, even McCartney and he wasn’t exactly cowardly or stupid himself. 

If Yoko still seems to be having a surprising struggle with the English language in places (she’d been living in America quite a while by the time of this record) you can take nothing away from her vocals on this album – spirited yet accurate, feisty yet warm, most musicians would give their two front tea-chest basses to sound like this. As for the backing musicians—Elephants Memory sounded like a mess on the sprawling Lennon epic Sometime In New York City; here they sound disciplined, clever and—more than anything else—inspired. Best of all, however, is session guitarist Wayne Gabriel—Yoko’s most sympathetic of her many musicians throughout her long career, whose liquid guitar runs do a fair mimic of Yoko’s reserved but deeply deeply passionate vocals. However, its Yoko herself who is the star of this record—singing in a second language, writing in an idiom that was alien to her for most of her life and writing deeply personal songs in the knowledge that anything she said was going to come in for attack during this uncomfortable phase of her life, her vision still shines out from this record loud and clear.

I write this review in the full knowledge that this double-disc set is quite hard to get hold of by the way – so please don’t complain that they don’t have the CD on the shelves at Asda or Morrisons. The only copy I’ve been able to track down formed CD two of Yoko’s Onobox career history set (luckily the album is near-complete – but only near so apologies for the two songs that are missing from this review) – so I write no 54 on this list either for the people who are privileged enough to have heard it already or in the hope that the album will get a decent CD release of its own one day soon and albums archives fanatics won’t have to mortgage their houses to hear what I’m raving on about.


The Music:

Yang Yang is a powerful opener with a gradual build-up of tension, setting out most of this album’s plus points from the word go. This song’s Eastern philosophy shares much in common with George Harrison’s I, Me, Mine in the way it explores the imbalance of ego without humility for the greater whole (or ‘yang’ without the ‘yin’). Yoko builds the song to a great height in the second half, reaching an early wrath of indignation about narrow-minded people who wouldn’t notice the world changing if it happened right under their noses, which it is—or so she hints. The song’s military-like precision and pace is counterbalanced by guitarist Wayne Gabriel’s glorious liquid runs in the right speaker, setting out much of Universe’s beauty and anger with aplomb and discipline.

Death Of Samantha quickly shows us the other side of Yoko, a slow melodic and ethereal low-key ballad which just oozes melancholy. Yoko may hide behind a character in this song, but this tale about gradually realising you’ve given up your own identity to live up to someone else’s opinion of yourself is obviously about Yoko herself. Sung as if in a dream throughout, Yoko’s narrator can no longer tell the real from the unreal, outwardly thanking and agreeing with the few people around her who say she is still a ‘cool chick baby’ while inwardly full of self-doubt and suffering a lack of confidence. Trying to remember how her smile used to ‘light up’ her mother’s face, she reflects where all that hope and magic went – deciding that even back in her childhood her smile disappeared when she was alone and she no longer had to pretend to be someone else for other people. By the last verse Yoko lets her guard drop, telling us that her whole demeanour was ‘an accident – a part of growing up’ and an effort not to get hurt  - the drum rolls that build up after this last admission just before Yoko has to go back to ‘acting’ her cool, calm self is particularly clever. A great song about facades that would do even Justin Hayward or Paul Simon proud, Yoko’s vocal is icy-cool in this song, portraying the strong silent adult she likes to portray herself as in the press, even while the lyrics point towards the vulnerable helpless child underneath it all. No wonder Lennon fell head over heels with her – he himself sang of hiding his true feelings several times in his career and of putting on a front to ‘help’ cover up the vulnerability he felt in private, despite his outward toughness. The detached manner of the song, especially the cocktail lounge laidback jazz feel, works in contrast to Gabriel’s power guitar work, which pierces the song with razor-blades of sharp emotion throughout., even while the rest of the band seem to be innocuously laying down this song between drinks at the bar. Yoko finally drops her icy demeanour for her heartfelt cry at the song’s end: ‘what to do? What can you do?’, with the feeling of helplessness that lies at the core of many of the tracks on this album.

I Want My Love To Rest Tonight is genuinely warm, however, one of several gorgeous ballads Yoko dedicated to her husband in the 70s. Even this early into the album, when Yoko’s feminist oeuvre hasn’t properly been laid out yet, she’s already questioning her attacks on male society to some extent- or at least the times when she should use her attacks. Yoko sees her tired and worn-out husband needs care and to some extent is undermining her previous stance, reflecting here how her ‘man’ at least cannot help the way he acts: he’s been programmed down the years by women as to act in a particular way (**see note 4). Nothing is safe from falling apart on this album, with Yoko painting all the things she believes in as having flaws—notably, she undermines her own feminist songs coming up later on this album by giving us this opposite argument first. It’s interesting to note how similar this song is to several Linda McCartney records, starting off with solo piano before gradually being joined by an orchestra and with lyrics showing a toughness behind their sweetness; polar opposites in other ways they may have been but both songwriting Beatles were well matched by their chosen partners. If Tonight is strong on ideas, however, it falls down in the recording: Yoko’s vocals wobble off the note a few too many times for comfort and her angular melody isn’t quite up to her other efforts on this album. Still, the song picks up for the group performance when Lennon joins in the vocals – although the lyric about males being ‘frustrated would-be presidents of the united states’ seems a bit harsh; after George W Bush I don’t think many males would care to imagine themselves in that role ever again.

The tempo picks up again with What Did I Do?, the only instance on this album of Yoko returning to her 60s screaming, albeit with a song attached somewhere too. Yoko’s guttural squawks can be hard going over a whole album it’s true, but Yoko can squeal like no other singer and her wordless piercing wails are the nearest a singer has ever got to expressing vocally the out-of-control feedback drone of musicians reaching for the very edge of what is possible in music. The song, where Elephants Memory do their usual scary magic by making an innocent 50s rock and roll beat sound scarily unhinged, is punk three years early, with a primitive but great drum pattern, spiky guitar-work and a basic lyric about things going wrong. Yoko might start out talking about how something as trivial as losing belongings has caused her frantic anxious mood – she herself admits after a few minutes she can’t remember what she was looking for anyway – but the song takes a sinister turn in the second verse where her ‘closet’ becomes a place of filed-away memories, fears and doubts from her past, each with a story she’d rather hide. ‘Closing the door real fast’, Yoko sets out on a journey across the world looking for answers, accusing her partner of not helping her along the way, while the angry rattled out chorus exclaiming variously ‘where is it? where can it be?’ and ‘what did I do?, making for a typical Yoko postscript, half self-questioning and half accusing.  

Have You Seen A Horizon Recently? is a slow bluesy song with yet more saxophones dreamily skating across a background of rhetorical questions similar in style to Yoko’s book Grapefruit (extracts of which she sent everyday to Lennon while he was with the other Beatles and the Maharishi in India, the point where most commentators believe their relationship became more than just friends or fellow artists). The song is interesting without being as ear-catching as it’s more boisterous cousins on the album, although these lyrics – about the self-induced limits of human potential and how we keep telling ourselves we’ll never amount to nothing, so we don’t try – are impressive when you study them in detail.

The title track kicks off the second side with an atmospheric song on the same lines: with an approximately infinite universe out there to study why does the ‘window of now’ and all its problems keep blocking out eyes to the real questions of life? These next batch of poetic lyrics also possibly touch on Yoko’s drug addictions, of how the hundreds of holes in her arms from her injections are there out of desperation to cover up the ‘hundreds of holes in her head’ and later ‘the holes in her dreams’. Again, though, Yoko sings these seemingly autobiographical statements in the third person, as if unable or unwilling to face up to them being about her true self (many beginning songwriters use this trick actually, as it’s an easy way of feeling less self-conscious about your work). The song is again sung by Yoko in a detached monologue-sort-of-way while the backing band cook up a storm behind her, with wailing saxophones meeting another exemplary Wayne Gabriel solo, layered with lots of echo as if the guitarist is having a conversation with himself. The tight drama of the song is impressive, as is Yoko’s elliptical lyrics which seem to suggest that - despite the isolation she feels - she takes some comfort from the thought that she is just one of many millions of beings across the galaxy suffering the same self-questioning self-destructive fate.

Peter The Dealer is another half-edgy, half-playful song about Yoko’s drug problems, with Yoko getting annoyed first at her dealer for not getting to her quickly enough and then at herself for her dependency on him. The song doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially the arrangement which lightens the tone by handing the main lick over to a honky-tonk piano, but it’s more than simple comic parody: the relentless march of the song and its military tempo gives the song a sinister vibe that suffocates us long before it reaches the end of it’s relentless march. The lyrics also show Yoko’s frustration behind some genuinely funny lyrics: the single-line chorus of ‘this life is a hell of a lot of wasting time’ makes it clear that she can’t function any more before taking her daily ‘fix’, a sorry state of affairs considering that it was to ‘fix’ or at least hide from these daily problems that made her take up the drug in the first place. The song does it’s best to distract us with its ear-catching swagger and jokey comedic gait, but the bleakness of the recording as a whole makes it clear that for the ‘inner’ Yoko, this is no laughing matter. The lyrics feature a third take on the emptiness and smallness of Yoko’s characters’ lives, juxtaposed against the equally empty but infinitely bigger universe as a whole: “We count the stars and tell ourselves this life is a hell of lot of wasting time’. A forgotten, impressive song that makes a fine riposte to Lennon’s song Dr Robert (see Revolver, review no 6).

Song For John is another sweet slow ballad without the irony or biting kick of the other songs on the album, heavy on atmosphere  (Yoko playing the piano with the ‘loud’ or echo pedal full on, with crashing cymbals and added percussion makes for a very moving sound), but not much in the way of composition. As the title makes perfectly clear, this funeral-paced ballad is written directly for Lennon and makes for quite a moving epitaph to the first part of their marriage together, reflecting first on their shared dreams and desires together and ending with a rather uncomfortable head-shaking over what they can possibly do together now they no longer seem to be working as one. There are plenty of Ono-friendly lyrics in this song, from the images of bare trees blowing sadly in the wind after being so full of blossom so shortly before to Yoko’s final pause over the line ’piled up like grapefruits’ - the book that Yoko published in 1968 and sent several extracts from to Lennon during his stay with the Beatles in India. (What is it with the Beatles and fruit? They gave us the Apple record label too of course). Chances are you have to be either John or Yoko to understand most of the images in this song and unusually for the personal-universal balancing act the listener is more likely to feel excluded from this track than involved. 

Catman (The Rosies Are Coming) goes through some very strange territory indeed, being Yoko’s biggest feminist anthem on the record, albeit one that mixes a claws-out chorus, obscene nursery rhymes in the middle eight and seductive cat-like purrs throughout. The song starts off as a sarcastic re-write of a typical male-chat-up line, with the female in the assertive role before telling us that ‘the Rosies are coming to town’ – yet another of this website’s references to the idea of the ‘rose’ as a modern female rising out of the dirt of centuries of oppression (see Nuclear Furniture, review no 88, for a fuller exploration of this theme). A sudden flurry of drums just as the song seems to be about to fold in on itself leads us back into more teasing-but-angry territory and onto some lurid sexual imagery as Yoko recasts the traditional song ‘pattacake, pattacake’ from her own peculiar perspective (you’ll never hear this rhyme the same way again). An angular, scratchy brass riff then joins Yoko’s squeals on the song’s fade, although she’s having a ball with her double-tracked vocals on the rest of the song. Never mind the fears of selling out, Yoko makes the sentiments of Lennon’s Woman Is The Nigger Of The World sound positively tame with this cut. My friend Rosie is back again thinking this song is about her (Lizzie too for her name-check on the middle-eight) – I give up, this is meant to be a website not a phone book!

What A Bastard The World Is marks the return of the heartfelt feminist ballad; this character’s drunken husband goes off partying without her and although she wants to remonstrate with him she is so afraid of losing him completely that she fakes being asleep and plays innocent to all that has happened. Married to one of the album’s greatest tunes – so lovely is the melody line that this song would have been a huge hit with more mainstream words attached, but that’s not really the point of the song – this is Yoko, alone at the piano, playing out a whole role-play in her head of which her partner is completely unaware, thinking she is still asleep. The song undermines itself with a rather unnecessary coda (telling us how Joan of Arc could act how she wanted but females of the 1970s had too much to lose if they kicked up a fuss – a subject already covered perfectly well by the role-play here) but is otherwise one of the biggest successes of the record, reflecting first Yoko’s pain and misery, her no holds-barred anger (‘You jerk! You pig! You scum of the earth! You good for nothing!’) and eventually her remorse. This song may well be another made-up tale but, like much of the material on this album, it rings too true to seem fictional, especially given that Yoko like John in this period believed in ‘art’ reflecting ‘truth’. If so, then this is a scathing attack on Mr Lennon indeed – pre-facing the known incident that led to the Lost Weekend where a drunken Lennon ran off with another woman at a Yoko-hosted party, leaving his wife to gaze wistfully at the floorboards, unwilling to interrupt and chastise her husband, much to the surprise of her friends who seemed more angry with her than with John. This song is almost that scenario played out in a song, with the reserved Yoko wishing that she could raise her temper and get angry for real—but she’s too scared by this sudden insight into being lonely again to risk losing her husband completely. Forget the wish-washy songs about family life that filled up most of Double Fantasy – this is the sound of a real relationship being played out here, with the Lennon character not coming off at all well by the song’s end.

Waiting For The Sunrise is another beauty, but one in sharp contrast to the worries of the last song or indeed most of this album as a whole. Another elliptical set of lyrics attached to a winning pop tune, this is suddenly Yoko glad to be alive and eager to experience as much of life as possible, enjoying the time she is spending with her partner. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also sounds rather like one of Lennon’s early Beatles songs in its unbridled optimism and enthusiasm and makes a fine companion also to John’s later-period song about escaping problems and enjoying life, I’m Steppin’ Out. Yoko ends this first album on an impressively bouncy note, unable to wait the whole night  before experiencing the gorgeous sunlight filtering into her window from outside. (More worryingly, given that this jolly track seems to appear out of absolutely nowhere on this record, is this Yoko waiting for her long dark ‘night’ of problems to be over, dreaming of a time of ’sunrise’ when her difficulties might have disappeared?)


The Music (Continued):

It’s all gone wrong by side three however. The second album of the double starts with the memorably titled I Felt Like Smashing My Face In A Clear Glass Window. Like most of Yoko’s tracks on the Lennons’ collaboration Sometime In New York City, it shows Yoko had a great gift for writing 1950s-style rock songs with a sinister edge. Like that other album, it’s probably Elephants Memory playing here again and they cook up a great Johnny B Goode-type storm complete with brass backing for Yoko’s song of teenager-ish frustration at life, trying to get attention from a world of parents, friends and partners that don’t seem to care if she exists or not. The song makes it clear that if no-one will take any notice of Yoko’s narrator she will take up vandalism – venting her anger by smashing up a phone-booth round the corner and hoping that it will bring her some attention, with even the wrong sort of attention better for her than being ignored. Most of this song is obviously fictional – you can’t imagine Yoko smashing up pillar boxes somehow – yet the pictures of her distant parents who hardly saw her growing up (in the song her mother is dressed up like an old movie star and her father smells of alcohol) ring at least partly true and her feelings of having nothing in common with her peers is probably fairly true as well given the other autobiographical clues we get in Yoko’s songs and her early work as a foreign left-field artist scratching out a living in America with works that make even the ‘Tate modern’ prizes sound conservative in their approach.

The song is played tongue-in-cheek for the most part, but in common with most of this album Yoko lets down her guard in the second half, suddenly singing straight about how alone and isolated she feels. ‘Is it me that’s going crazy or just the world?’ she sings at one point – telling how her hopes of receiving love from her parents are always cruelly dashed and her tale of feeding her birthday cake to her dog when nobody turns up to her party to share it with her would be hilarious if it wasn’t sung in such a lonely and hurt way. Like many of the songs on this album, the impressive backing suggests that Yoko has been borrowing her husband’s Chuck Berry and early Elvis records, but the spirit is punk rock three years early.

Winter Song is back to Yoko’s prettier style, with a gorgeously delicate not-really-there melody and some wistful lyrics hoping that, like the seasons, her bad times will finally pass even if she feels the ice ‘spreading rapidly’ and the clock representing her patience gradually ‘ticking away’. This song shares much in common with George Harrison’s early solo work, especially that covered already on this list, being equally quietly optimistic and full of images of nature always moving on and changing, but there are two important differences. The first is the lack of religious references in the song: Yoko’s world is very much man-made and she feels spiritual debts to no one. The other is the idea that, instead of George’s live-and-let-live nature, Yoko wishes that all of her fellow human beings will one day disappear and leave her and John alone to appreciate the world, because from what she feels from the world at large, only she and John deserve to see the world as it truly is.

Kite Song is my favourite track on the album, with typically Ono-ish imagery about trying to hold on to our dreams through life’s obstacles, using the metaphor of a children’s kite and telling us about when Yoko was forced to grow up and let it go. The lyrics might be poetic but the backing track is pure rock and roll, cooking up a terrific storm with a riff that Lennon himself would have been proud to have written (that’s John on the overdubbed edgy, spiky guitar by the way). Reflecting on our missed chances in life, Yoko recounts certain moments in her life when she realised the ‘kite’ was slipping from her grasp, including the time she was in a restaurant trying to keep up with an impressive crowd despite never understanding the words they were saying. Yoko’s vocal is at it’s best here, especially at the end of the track - which has remained impressively together and cohesive for all of this time - only to suddenly dissolve into near-chaos at the end, with squealing saxophones, twirling keyboards, rattled drums and screaming guitar all heading into feedback mode. There’s a stunning alternate take of this song on the six CD Onobox that might well be superior to the finished version here. Yoko misses a trick at the end of this slightly different version though – you can hear her berating her co-producer John in the control room for letting the band get carried away and messing up a potential take by having the whole band descend into chaos a bit too early. Lennon’s reply, that it sounded alright to him, must be the understatement of the year; all in all this is one of this album’s most stunningly inventive, swinging and original tracks on a stunningly original album.

What A Mess takes us back to the playful-sinister Yoko, with an out-of-control piano lick from Lennon (who was never a natural player of the instrument - there’s quite a few wrong notes at the end of the song!) and a towering feminist lyric rubbishing the anti-abortion brigade. In truth this spoof honky-tonk song sounds more than a little bit of a come-down after the last song and for once Yoko sings the song as if she doesn’t fully believe what she’s saying, rattling off her complex lyrics at a pace so fast she’s struggle to imbue pathos into them whatever they were. Yet lyrically this piece is the cornerstone of the entire album, with Yoko seeking to re-claim back ‘women’s bodies’ from the male domination she sees in the world and this is one of the bravest, most obscene and at times witty set of words she ever put together. Yet compared to the personal tale of What A Bastard The World Is and the sheer glee with which Yoko sings The Rosies Are Coming, this song feels strangely hollow when heard as a performance rather than read. Yoko’s feminist anthems always sound much more impressive when related to her personal story  - here telling us that ‘equal is not equal enough’ without telling us why she feels so strongly or what made her think these thoughts in the first place is a bit of a lost opportunity. The lyrics about dealing with ‘phonies’ point the way to Yoko’s later Double Fantasy song I’m Moving On, suggesting that she might be talking about Lennon again here (if so, then this description by his wife would seem to make a mockery of his song Gimme Some Truth and the whole of the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP.

Shirinkatta (I Didn’t Know) is another classy song, most memorable for its beautiful repetitive piano lick which seems to sleepwalk its way through Yoko’s head, as if she’s muttering words in her sleep. This song’s lyrics about miscommunication and not realising the extent of another person’s (John’s?) hardship is the perfect match for the tune. To drive home the point about not being able to understand her partner or realise how ‘in pain’ he was, the song’s only verse is sung in French, Japanese and some other language (help!) before we finally hear it in English. We don’t understand what Yoko is saying at first (well, not unless you’re extremely well versed in European languages at any rate) and by the time we finally realised what Yoko is saying— I didn’t understand you— we know exactly how the narrator feels. Yoko sounds tired and weary again here, but still tries to rise to the occasion by showing support, musically kicking herself for not noticing her partner’s sorrows by repeating ‘I didn’t know’ several times over.

Air Talk comes next and is one of the lesser spots on the album. With Yoko again narrating rather than singing over a sprightly Elephants Memory backing, this is a curious mix of a very retro 50s and rock and roll groove with some of Yoko’s most obscure and fragmented lyrics. The basic theme of this song is that two people can never be perfectly in synch with each other and will always have some part of their make-up that makes them different from their partner—which is what makes us unique. ‘There is always air between us’ sings Yoko, no matter how close we are in spirit, with a few interesting verses about the Lennon’s being brought up in different cultures and speaking different languages and yet they still seemed very compatible when Yoko wrote this song, implying that some things about human nature exist across geographical boundary lines.

Lennon provides one of the best backing harmonies of his life on the side four opener I Have A Woman Inside My Soul, a decision you’d think rather strange given this song’s title but no matter. In stark contrast to the picture of two lovers heading their own sweet ways, the two Ono-Lennons have rarely sounded as harmonious or as close as they do on this track. Another slow and dreamy song, this is peculiarly relaxed for an Ono epic. It doesn’t quite have the beauty or the attack of the other songs on the album, but the jazzy accompaniment is pretty good even so and Yoko’s latest feminist statement – trying to understand what her sexes’ place in the world really is, now that they have more freedom and a little bit more power – is impressive. With more metaphors taken from nature, Yoko feels as if she is getting a ‘message’ from the things she is seeing – but can’t work out what that message is. On another level, this song is Yoko growing up, trying to remember when she became a ‘woman’ rather than a child and when it exactly it was that boys were no longer with girls. This song is the second-longest track on the album but, far from overstaying its welcome, its quiet beauty makes you wish it would carry on for a lot longer than it does.


Move On Fast is the album’s second classic rocker, with Yoko racing a rasping saxophone to a quick-tempoed finish and putting her squealing rock voice to it’s best ever use. The song’s punchy lyrics, detailing how life is best lived in the here and now, are also perfect for a rock song and the riff itself is a gem, perfectly moulded to Yoko’s vocals at her most basic. Sounding more punk than punk rockers, Yoko’s screams were never more suited to a backing track and the saxophones of Elephants Memory and more of Lennon’s impressive guitar improvisations back her up well. Listen out for yet more lyrical references to ’infinity’. As the album title implies, time hangs heavy over this album, with Yoko worried that her problems will carry on forever—and at the same time aware that all the things that made her happy seem to have eroded away, willing time to speed up and get this horrible portion of her life over with. The range of styles on this album is breath-taking and this song’s juxtaposition after the last track is a masterstroke, being full of punchy aggressive assertion and confidence in contrast to the last song’s worries and self-doubt. Another feather in Universe’s multi-coloured hat.

I could go on about that song all day – but the lyrics have told me to ‘move on fast’ so I will. Now Or Never is yet another song in contrast, showing off Yoko at her most lyrical with a very Dylan-like protest folk number about how mankind has to act now if it wants to solve problems for future generations. The lyrics are among Yoko’s cleverest, repeating the mantra of several period Lennon songs with their assertion that ‘dreams we dream alone are only dreams, but dreams we dream together is reality’. Yoko is also spot-on in her assertion that the 20th century will go down in history as ‘the century that killed’ – sadly Yoko and her contemporaries’ efforts to turn it into a ‘century of hope’ never quite came off, though the Ono-Lennons worked harder for that end and were more successful than most. Sadly the song has a rather weak tune to go with the clever lyrics and the recording places rather too much emphasis on Yoko’s voice (she’s really struggling with her tricky wording here and her efforts at double-tracking aren’t in the same league as most of her sterling work on this album). This song is no Give Peace A Chance admittedly, having none of that song’s gee-this-all-sounds-so-wonderful-I-want-to-join-in spirit, but then again it’s not as pointless and empty as Lennon’s Power To The People either.

Is Winter Here To Stay? doesn’t quite fit on the album somehow, having more in common musically with Universe’s follow-up Feeling The Space’s jazzy flourishes or Yoko/Plastic Ono Band in the unwelcome return to Yoko’s wordless wails.  This is surprising given that the song’s title could pretty much be the sub-heading for this album, with fears of darkness hanging around unwanted forever, with the characters totally helpless in their attempts to shoo their troubles away. In truth this is even less of an excuse for a song than Yoko’s previous experimental material, such as flushing toilets or Yoko chanting ‘don’t count da waves’ for 20 minutes over a backing that sounds as if its been lifted from the soundtrack of a Dr Who episode. The only song on this album to approach ‘filler’ status, it’s a shame Winter wasn’t booted off the album altogether – goodness knows this double-album is long and varied enough!

The album then rounds off, uncomfortably, on its most depressing note. Yoko, aged 39, looks from her hotel window at the seemingly fulfilled and happy people below, wondering why she isn’t allowed to be like them and, in her own words, ‘wondering whether to jump off or go to sleep’. Yoko sounds like she’s fed up of the ‘world’s clowns’ image the Lennons had at the time and her spirit has been truly broken by all her problems. Yoko also feels that stardom – or at least her partner’s stardom - has cost her dearly, robbing her of her privacy without even giving her the rock star’s aid of an audience that will listen to what she has to say – if ever there was a ‘cult’ artist who should never had her work thrust into the spotlight but should have had it adored by a small core audience built on word-of-mouth then it was Yoko. The fact that all the attention she craves comes because of who she married—a big no no for any practicing feminist—and that most of that attention is critical, full of attacks from people who felt Yoko was ‘using’ John at a time when probably the opposite was true, and you begin to see why this is such a depressing song, with Yoko wondering why life has led her into such a dead-end. Yoko’s couplet focussing on her missing daughter, then in the hands of her former husband despite many years of fighting to win her custody back, is particularly moving when you know of Yoko’s story and it’s easy to imagine her walking to the piano and, unable to sleep through her grief and guilt, coming up with this simple song. Like much of the album, though, Yoko sings her lyrics as if she is detached (an effect helped by the electronics on her voice which make her sound ‘alien’ and incomprehensible to the world around her), even singing ‘no trace of resentment, no trace of regret’ in one line although the rest of her paranoid, agonising lyrics make it clear that she is full of both of these feelings. The only saving grace for Yoko is the closeness she feels with Lennon – ‘show me your blood John and I’ll show you mine’ – but even as she sings these words you can tell Yoko is worried that he too is slipping though her fingers. The sudden end of the song, with the last words floating away into the ether, makes for a haunting close to an album that sounds very much like it was Yoko bringing us up to date with her thoughts come 1973, when Yoko was standing at her crossroads of her life, wondering what on earth can come out of the gloom to spur her on. So mournful is this closing song that you half feel like jumping off the window-ledge with her.

Luckily, her next batch of albums find Yoko in a comparatively happy state of mind – even the soliloquy over Lennon’s assassination that dominates Broken Glass (1980) is comparatively upbeat and at peace with life, thankful for the happy times if dreading the sad ones to come. Unfortunately for her, Yoko - like many artists, her husband included - only writes her best material when she is unhappy and sadly she never approached Approximately Infinite Universe’s casual brilliance even partly again, happily because life got much better for her. Yoko gets melancholy again many times over the course of her career but, generally speaking, its because she’s remembering and re-living the awful events in this troubled period. Maybe too Yoko’s melancholy fades because she knows with this album that she’s finally put together a work of art that any writer or singer would be proud of—Yoko was never going to get the whole world to love her music, but with this fine album she came as close as she needed to to prove to her talent to herself.  Back in 1973 many cruel commentators said that John Lennon’s Mind Games album was a so-so record that finally had Lennon seeing the light by not giving over half the record to Yoko’s warblings as had happened on Sometime In New York City and various singles. Actually, the lack of Yoko’s songs on that album were hardly because Lennon has ‘finally come to his senses’ as many critics thought – surely it’s far more likely that Yoko would have overshadowed her spouse if even the worst of these songs had been placed on Mind Games. Even if Yoko has never approached again the best of this record, well, that’s OK; most artists haven’t touched the depth, wit, melody and ideas of this album either. A forgotten treat for listeners with open minds and open ears Approximately Infinite Universe covers nearly as much varied ground as the universe itself.


** Note: As an interesting note, Yoko dedicates this album to ‘John – my favourite member of the second sex’ and that’s sums up their relationship at the time pretty well – if this album can be read as genuine comment on their marriage (and Yoko drops enough hints that these songs are at least partly autobiographical) then Mrs Lennon seems unable to decide whether to strangle John or give him a great big hug half the time. The ‘lost weekend’ separation is only 18 months away and you can hear quite a bit of that growing tension on this record – although Yoko still admires and respects Lennon enough to use him as a producer (you can hear him talk at the end of Kite Song for instance), as a guitarist (Move On Fast), as a pianist (What A Mess, with Lennon’s goonish cry of ‘boogie woogie’ at the beginning) and as a harmony singer (I Want My Love To Rest Tonight).

**Note 2: Prejudiced Beatles fans still struggle to take in the idea that John had his choice of just about any female he wanted in the 60s and yet he still fell in love with a member of a different ‘race’. This idea is quite palpably nonsense to our hopefully slightly more modern and forward thinking age (but then again…), especially as Lennon wasn’t singing about freedom and equality for nothing in his lyrics of the day. There were however two more, often overlooked obstacles in the couple’s relationship. The first is that – despite assumptions to the contrary – Yoko is Lennon’s elder by seven years and this in a day when split-age romances were even less common than they are today. The second is that Yoko, like Lennon, was married when they met (albeit separated from her husband) – in fact she had been married twice before she met John, which was enough of a stigma to create a hoo-hah in the late 60s even if she hadn’t fallen in love with one of the most famous men on the planet. While most fans know about John’s son Julian (and presumably anybody interested enough to read this detailed a website knows about John-and-Yoko’s son Sean), many Lennoniacs forget that for a while John was also an adoptive father to Yoko’s daughter Kyoko from her second marriage to Tony Cox. However, the couple were going through their most harrowing period at the time they were meant to be ‘looking after’ her– ie drugs, broken up Beatles, primal scream therapy and Cold Turkey – and after a well-publicised car crash that injured the extended Lennon family of 1969 (was Lennon on drugs at the time he was driving? Probably not, but something that’s been hinted at in the years since too) Yoko’s former husband, naturally afraid for his daughter’s safety, got a court to decree that the Lennons were ‘unfit’ to look after Kyoko.

So far so natural, but Cox was so afraid that Lennon would come looking for him that he promptly fled, in the eyes of the law ‘kidnapping’ his daughter and starting a new life for them both in mysterious circumstances. This turn of events must have been hard on Yoko who never saw her daughter again during her childhood years (Lennon saw equally little of his son Julian in this period, possibly out of sympathy to Yoko or more probably guilt and shame at the end of his first marriage) and this fact only added to the misery felt when Yoko mis-carried the couple’s first baby together, also in 1969 (the pair recorded the baby’s heartbeat for particularly harrowing listening on the second of their Unfinished Music Series – Life With The Lyons). Many fans have wondered if Yoko lost her baby because of the couple’s escalating drug use – if so, what with the events surrounding Kyoko as well, its no wonder that Yoko seems to be opening a bottomless well of guilt and despair on parts of this album. Thankfully her personal story—which seems to have only a miniscule chance of happiness on this album— had two happy endings; the birth of son Sean in 1975 and a sudden contact from her daughter Kyoko sometime in the 1990s - rumour has it the pair are much closer nowadays after an edgy start.       

**Note 3: Has anybody else ever come up with a debut single so stupid and so brazenly artistically bankrupt that they get away with the chorus line ‘I really really really wanna zig-a-zig-ah’ repeated no less than four times in a song? And what is it with the promo video for this debut single—the ‘girls’ manage to insult a homeless person before even singing a note of their first song?!? (One of them actually aims a kung fu kick at the tramp while another goes ’ha ha’ - before the spice girls finally get on with it, walk into a nightclub and sing. Well, do something that vaguely equates to singing in the loosest sense of the word, anyway). And did you know the Spice Girls are now knocking on the doors of the top 150 most successful artists ever (in UK sales terms at least?!?!?!) How the hell did that happen? That’s nearly the same success rate as the Kinks for goodness sake!! (And they took 40 years to reach that point). Talk about Wannabees… (Rant over, now back to the article).

**Note 4: As discussed, more than one commentator has pointed out that Yoko provided the domineering spirit of his carer Aunt Mimi with the warmth and unconventionality of his real mother. Forgotten by nearly every Lennon commentator however is the fact that Yoko too always dreamed of a strong but freedom-loving soul-mate in her early work – a ‘father figure’ who still retained his childlike innocence throughout his life and far from being disapproving of Yoko’s craziest, most off-the-wall ideas, positively encouraged her. Say what you will about Yoko’s talent or Lennon’s for that matter - these two were well-matched and seemed, at least on the surface, to be exactly the sort of persons the other had been dreaming about for most of their early life.  


'Imagine' (1971)

'Sometime In New York City' (1972)

'Mind Games'(1973)

'Walls and Bridges' (1974)

'Double Fantasy' (1980)

'Milk and Honey' (1982)

Non-Album Recordings 1969-1980

Live/Compilation/Unfinished Music Albums 1968-2010

The Best Unreleased Lennon Recordings

Surviving TV Clips 1968-1980

Essay: Power To The Beatle – Why Lennon’s Authenticity Was So Special

Landmark concerts and key cover versions

Yoko: 'Approximately Infinite Universe' (1972)

Yoko: 'A Story' (1974/1998)

Yoko Complete Solo Album Guide 1971-2014

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