Yoko Ono released some of the most useful records of the early '70s. Anyone who wanted to clear a room could just slap on one of her babies and await the stampede.
How wrong we were. Those Yoko records -- originally seen as the most terrifying of their day -- were, in fact, terrifically creative outbursts, presaging trends that would not significantly mar the pop consciousness for another two decades.
A new six-CD retrospective affords us the luxury of this re-think of Yoko's music, ranging from her first shrieks in 1968 through the last mushy gasps she recorded in '85.
Unfortunately, nearly all the music of true note on this sprawling set is on its first two CDs, with much of that bunched up on the initial "London Jam" (melding material from "Fly" and "Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band"). Cut from 1968 to '71, these brilliantly disruptive records anticipated industrial music, explored world beat and made a connection between free-jazz, blues and crushing rock that only Led Zeppelin and Captain Beefheart were sufficiently avant to make at the time.
That last leap should come as no surprise, considering Yoko's early artistic life. In her years B. J. (before John), she had jammed with Ornette Coleman, as well as John Cage, thereby intersecting jazz with music-as-conceptual-art. You can hear the latter in tracks like "Toilet Piece," a symphony of flushing johns. But those put off by such things can rest easy. World beat and Coleman-style jazz are far more pervasive influences. To reflect the former, Yoko's numbers were derived from wild jams (later pared down in the studio). Particularly amazing work was done on her vocals, recorded in countless tracks, then edited to created sounds unlike anything heard on this planet.
In cuts like "Paper Shoes" or "Mind Train," Yoko trills, squawks and buzzes, sounding like, by turns, a creeky violin, a gaggle of bleating geese and a swarming plague of locusts. Contained in these machine-gun blasts of banshee wails is a globe-trotting array of native influences, from the braying folk cries of Arabic women to ancient Asian chorales. Far from the random yelling of which she was originally accused, Yoko's vocal whinnies and chortles are, in fact, emotionally coherent and rivetingly fierce.
Ditto their instrumental support. Take John Lennon's groundbreaking guitar shards in "Why." Combined with a driving beat, this ranks as the most brutal industrial record Ministry never made. Listen as well to the inspired tabla work on "O'Wind" (another nod to world beat), or the chilling blues from Eric Clapton in "Don't Worry Kyoko." The latter nudges Clapton close to what Jimmy Page was simultaneously exploring on "Led Zeppelin III" (the band's most out-there concoction). Except here, Yoko out-weirds even Robert Plant.
Perhaps the most liberating connection made on the record, though, is "Midsummer New York" wherein Yoko hiccups into Little Richard-style '50s rock. In the process, she links free-jazz and early rock 'n' roll through sheer outrageousness.
Never again was she so exciting. Beginning with her 1972 album "Approximately Infinite Universe" (contained here on "New York Rock") she explored conventional song structures, a format that eventually proved less flattering to her. Still, for most of the second CD she remains a forward-looking force. Sharp cuts like "I Feel Like Smashing My Face Into a Clear Glass Window" anticipated female punk, especially the late '70s work of Poly Styrene ("Oh Bondage, Up Yours") and Lydia Lunch. "What a Bastard the World Is" leans into feminism at its most thrillingly shrill ("half the world is occupied by you pigs"), while "Death of Samantha" provides blueprints for the hard personas of Chrissie Hynde and Johnette Napolitano. "Everyday I thank God I'm a cool chick, baby," she sings, grateful for the natural toughness that camouflages her pain.
Yet by her next album, Yoko's feminism descended into sloshy slogans and syrupy music. In fact, she doesn't regain her tough muse (albeit briefly) until the fifth CD, with a few 1980 tracks, including "Walking on Thin Ice." Here she combines her early vocal adventurousness with the compellingly stern dance rhythms of Grace Jones. From there, it's a swift plunge into pure drivel ("I Love You, Earth.")
So what's a consumer to do? You could search out "Fly" at a rare record store; this entire set is too expensive, and padded, for most. Ultimately, then, the package has more practical use in setting the record straight: It's final proof of how grand and brave Yoko's early noise really was.