John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Unfinished Music No. 1 & 2 and Wedding Album (1968-1969)

Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968)

History: Recorded right before John and Yoko consummated their relationship, he invited her over to his home while Cynthia was away to hear some tape loops he had recorded with Pete Shotton.  They quickly decided to record their own “music” using these tapes and whatever else was available in his home studio.  It is referred to as unfinished because we are supposed to finish the music in our own minds.  Yoko was deeply involved with the Fluxus movement before she met John, a highly experimental and non-traditional exploration of art that included noise music.  All three of these albums are far closer to noise art than music in the traditional sense.

My own history with the album and initial prediction:  This is absolutely one of the albums I have avoided before now.  I heard little snippets when it is mentioned in the Beatles Anthology, and it definitely didn’t sound like anything pleasing on the ears and it didn’t make me want to go out and find it.  I spent a bit of time groaning, debating on whether I truly wanted to cover this since it isn’t post-break up anyway, and then did my best to open my mind and just listen to it for what it is.  Maybe I would be surprised.

What I worked on while listening: Here’s The Last Unicorn slowly progressing as I got through all three of these.

Review:  Being married to a musician, particularly one that rarely has any interest in just sticking to the same formula, I’ve been exposed to many different genres since knowing him, and noise art is on that list.  I’ve seen him and a couple others perform it live as well.  While I’m sure there are some who truly love it and would listen to it regularly just for the love of the art form, it is absolutely not my cup of tea.  The live performances, particularly those that bring in elements of performance art, can be something worth watching, but a recording is a bit different, and depending on how much it changes can get old very quickly. 

You can tell this is definitely Yoko’s strength here more so than John’s.  He’s putting on the tape loops, and she begins to make sounds to go along with them, repeating them and changing the tempo, loudness, etc. until she feels they have run their course.  John is plunking away on the piano or making effects with his guitar with her, but I get the impression that she is running the show.  He occasionally will bring in lines that sound as if he’s trying to act out a play “Our friends are coming over for tea” or other similar comments, but very little comes of them beyond Yoko giving him a quick response.  He’s doing a lot of silly voices and occasional screams, but he doesn’t seem as experienced in using his voice as an abstract instrument in the same way she does.

There are a couple times when it sounds like she is moaning in a sexual way, which made it a bit uncomfortable given what I know they would be doing once they finished recording this.  There’s also an extended bit on the beginning of side two where she manages to make herself sound like a crying baby and as such it’s very unpleasant to sit through.  But I think it is still an interesting one time listen.  When John occasionally plays a snippet from an existing song, you can’t help but think of it as an early attempt at sampling.  I also happened to listen to this on headphones, and there’s an occasional panning from right to left that happens and really fits with the disorienting nature of the whole thing.

Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969)

History: The first side of this album is a recording of a live performance at Cambridge University that featured Yoko with John, as well as a few other musicians providing small contributions toward the end.  The second side was recording at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital while Yoko was recovering from a miscarriage. 

My own history with the album and initial prediction: I hadn’t heard of this one before now, but obviously after having listened to Two Virgins I’m basically expecting more of the same.  The same goes for the Wedding Album below. I decided to group them all into one post because I felt like I would be repeating myself too much if they were separate entries.

Review: Side 1 of this album makes Two Virgins look like absolute genius by comparison.  Knowing what I know of the Fluxus movement, I have to wonder if the purpose was to be as annoying as possible and see how many people would be compelled to walk out of the audience.  The entire thing is over 26 minutes in length, and features Yoko making a sound very similar to what was dubbed “the most annoying sound in the world” in the  Dumb and Dumber film while John creates feedback on his guitar.  Toward the end some orchestral musicians join in with a few discordant notes. That’s it.  Two Virgins at least had some variety.  This felt like a painful slog to get through.

Side 2 is at least a bit more varied.  It starts with “No Bed for John” which is Yoko singing a gentle melody reading a newspaper article that talked about the two of them as well as the Beatles.  “Baby’s Heartbeat” is a looped recording of their child’s actual heartbeat before it passed away.  That is followed by “Two Minutes of Silence” which is exactly that.  “Radio Play” follows, an over 12 minute recording of someone (I believe it is John) continually turning a radio dial back and forth so that you just get snippets of sounds coming through.  There’s also occasional chatter in the background.  This side is once again not something I would qualify as music, but could potentially be called art.  A couple arriving at the hospital, hearing the few fleeting moments of their expected child’s life, the silent grief that follows, and then the radio bits representing the disconnected feelings and inability to focus that often comes after such grief.  Obviously not the kind of thing meant to be listened to over and over, but I can at least see exactly what they were going for here.

Wedding Album (1969)

History:  The first side of the album features John and Yoko calling out each other’s names again and again in various ways overlaid over the sound of their hearts beating together.  The second side is a mix of bits and pieces recording during their honeymoon in Amsterdam, where they staged a bed-in for peace and invited the press to come see them.

Review: While the first side of this album is better than the first side of Life with the Lions, it is once again very much a test of patience.  22 minutes in length of them saying the other’s name. Moaning it, screaming it, sounding confused, angry, sad, joyous, questioning, maybe even constipated.  John gets a slight advantage in making his side more interesting because he has two syllables to repeat while all Yoko can do is say the one slightly longer or shorter.  Toward the end they appear to be sharing an apple or something similarly crunchy, and as a person who is very easily disgusted by the sounds of people chewing and swallowing, I was really, really ready for this side to end.

Side 2 is another kind of diary of their lives.  We hear them working on songs, being interviewed by the press of various countries, ordering room service, enjoying that marijuana is legal in Amsterdam, and you can occasionally hear seagulls or church bells in the background.  I remember when I was young feeling so confused by what exactly they were trying to do with the bed-in and other such protest events they were staging at the time, and I think the reasons why are on display here.  I don’t know if it’s that they were under the influence of something or just ill prepared, but they never seem to come off very eloquently.  They make a point and then immediately back off from it, saying they don’t know all the history or aren’t trying to tell people what to do. They come off incredibly noncommittal about the whole thing.

Having now been through all three of these, I can safely say I will probably never revisit them.  If you are curious about them, I’d recommend not listening to them all within a span of a couple weeks like I did.  Space them out quite a bit and obviously do not go into them expecting to hear much actual music.  While I felt okay after listening to Two Virgins, there were definitely parts where Life with the Lions and Wedding Album started to feel like torture.

Next time: We listen to George’s own experimental music release, Electronic Sound.


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