To kick off our celebrations of John Lennon’s 80th birthday, we’re going where no other music magazine or website has ever been before: on a deep dive into one of his most inspired and challenging albums ever: John & Yoko’s Unfinished Music No.2, Life With The Lions. Perhaps the highest-selling Avant-Garde album in music history – Lennon claimed it sold 60,000 copies in the US alone, versus 25,000 for Two Virgins – drop the needle on a copy and join Ian Peel for a slice of life with the Lennons…
Life with the Lions: Unfinished Music No. 2 is a whirlwind audio-verité circus. Having received universal critical condemnation when first released on 09 May 1969, more than fifty years later – post-samplers, post-‘zoo’ media and post-ambient – it’s an album stands out as an accessible, yet still-challenging time capsule of the personal and public mayhem that once surrounded Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
A sound collage of almost every emotion they experienced during 1968 and ‘69. Following Two Virgins, this is the second part of the Ono/Lennon “Unfinished Music” series. 1969 also saw the release of The Wedding Album just three months later and, by the end of the year, demos had been recorded for “Unfinished Music No. 4”.
Cambridge 1969 occupies all of Side One and documents an outlandish jazz concert given by Ono at Cambridge University’s Lady Mitchell Hall on the evening of 02 March 1969. Yoko had been asked to contribute to the day-long event which also witnessed a huge improvisational session by jazz musicians from all over Europe. Asked to assemble a band for her performance, she called on John Stevens (a collaborator at the February ‘68 Ornette Coleman concert at the Royal Albert Hall), Danish saxophonist John Tchicai (a friend of Stevens’ and a former student of John Coltrane), and John Lennon (whose involvement she kept secret until he walked on stage).
The 26-minute track that resulted is a classic example of Ono’s infamous vocal modulation techniques. Like an emergency siren, her wordless microphone tirades are disturbing and disorientating, yet at the same time precise and measured. As Yoko played various unique vocal tricks and ambushes on her audience, John Lennon crouched on the floor at her side and ground out guitar/amp white noise and feedback. Three and a half minutes into the piece, Lennon’s guitar begins to modulate and imitate Ono’s voice patterns as the two elements take on their own texture. Lennon later recounted how, at this concert, he abandoned his traditional rock and roll approach to guitar playing and everything he had learnt from his contemporaries:
“I gave up trying to play like that (“Eric… George… BB King”) and just played whatever I could, whatever way I could, to match the guitar to her voice.”
After eight minutes, the two elements of guitar and voice almost begin trading riffs before flying away together in some new direction. Halfway through, the vocalising calms before Lennon’s guitar erupts like a volcano, Yoko’s voice runs away screaming only to turn on the terrors that are being conjured up and fight them off into the distance.
Although seemingly largely improvised, Ono had predetermined the direction of Cambridge 1969 to some extent. Listen how, in the latter stages of the piece, her shimmering vocal drones and Lennon’s guitar morph into staccato jumps while at the same time Yoko’s vocalising moves from drawn-out wails to more random textures. At this stage the catharsis is furthered as they were joined on stage by John Tchicai and John Stevens, on saxophone and percussion respectively.
John Tchicai in particular sweetens the tone and – while this was taking place – John and Yoko were seen to leave the stage for the new players to take the music in their own direction and conclude it in their own way. Instrumentalist Jim Keltner worked with Ono on the Fly album in this same way and, although apparently cautious at first, he admired Yoko’s unique style and the results it produced:
“She told the horn player next to me to throw away his mouthpiece and make his instrument sound like a wind that was sliding down a frog’s back… she then piled towels on top of my tom-toms and told me to hit them with a stick. I rolled my eyes because it all seemed so strange and ridiculous. When we were finished, the track sounded perfect. I realised Yoko knew exactly what sounds she wanted and how to get them.”
No Bed for Beatle John
The majority of Side Two of Life With The Lions is an audio document of Yoko Ono’s stay in Queen Charlottes Hospital, London during November 1968. A harrowing time for her and John, Yoko was five months pregnant but was to miscarry their baby. As the front cover of the album shows, to begin with there was no spare bed for John to stay by Yoko’s side so he sat for hours on the floor in a sleeping bag. Hence the title No Bed for Beatle John.
During recuperation in Room One of the Second West Ward, the couple recited press clippings covering their exploits onto tape: depressing extracts from the media hounding they were enduring. “No Bed For Beatle John…” read the first headline and the start of Yoko’s recital. “…Beatle John Lennon lost his hospital bed yesterday to a patient.” As the pair chant together the track takes on a hypnotic air. Yoko is firmly in the foreground, with John’s chanting barely audible.
“The Bealtes Win Battle Of The Nude LP” is the next news piece Yoko recites, her voice lowering from a chant for the first time to a sarcastic whisper and then a giggle as the report says of Two Virgins (which had finally been released that month), “The Beatles have won their fight to put out an LP record with a sleeve showing John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the nude”.
John’s voice is still difficult to determine at this point. As Yoko pauses, his lifts to a lighter air and the pair continue. These vocal tracks were taken back to Yoko and John’s home studio and a few weeks later edited into the finished No Bed for Beatle John. Without the addition of any musical backing this track has an air of haunting whimsy. There is no ranting and raving on John or Yoko’s part, the Gregorian-style chanting allowing the words to speak for themselves, highlighting just how confused the media were about the couples’ new art.
The idea behind No Bed For Beatle John was not dissimilar to another project Yoko had conceptualised during the same period. Hate mail addressed to her had piled up over the previous months at the Apple offices and Yoko took the only sanity-preserving option, which was to see the perverse humour in these attacks. Some of the more extreme letters blamed Yoko for World War II! John Kosh, a friend and graphic artist at the Royal Opera House, was asked to design a book featuring some of the more extreme examples of the public antagonism she was experiencing. Although this never came to fruition, it was another example of how Yoko had found that in 1969, the only way not to crack was to turn the pressure she was under into concept art.
A week after the recording of No Bed, Yoko and John had lost their baby. But during the interim John had recorded a few seconds of the unborn John Ono Lennon II’s heartbeat. He took the tape back to the studio and looped it over almost five minutes to create the track Baby’s Heartbeat. Never before had an avant-garde field recording and tape loop merged with such a personal statement. If one can imagine the sheer joy and hope of the parents-to-be from this cut, then nothing is as overwhelming as the event – and track – which followed.
Onologists will note that a year later a similar recording technique was used when a stethoscope-shaped microphone (as used in hospitals of the day) was procured for Yoko and John to record each others heartbeats during the Wedding Album sessions and a final version of this technique appeared some three years later in more playful surroundings, as John cavorted with Yoko for the cameras on a New York waterside during the making of the Imagine film.
As Life With The Lions was being put together, Yoko’s path crossed with the fledgling multimillionaire founder of Virgin Records, Richard Branson. After an informal discussion, Baby’s Heartbeat was been agreed for use as a flexidisc insert in his monthly college magazine although the finished product fell foul of legal wrangling.
Two Minutes Silence
The next track, Two Minutes Silence is exactly that. It follows the excitement of Baby’s Heartbeat with two minutes of utter despair, punctuated only on its initial release by the random hiss and crackle of vinyl. As with the tape looping effect in the previous track this was not a new idea, but few experimentalists had combined such innovation with as much personal sentiment. Some years before, John Cage (one of Yoko’s key collaborators during her early involvement with the New York Fluxus movement) recorded, scored and performed the legendary 4’33”, four and a half minutes of total silence.
After Cage passed away in 1991 Yoko paid tribute to his misunderstood genius by breaking a long public silence and recording a new tape composition, Georgia Stones for a Cage memorial CD. By this time a myth that Cage had written 4’33” for Yoko had emerged, which was put to rest by Gary Davis, producer of the album A Chance Operation – The John Cage Tribute. Speaking at Rolywholyover Circus Log – the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 1995 John Cage exhibition – he explained:
“I can tell you that John Cage did not write 4’33” for Yoko Ono. It was written in 1952 and received it’s premiere performance that same year with David Tudor at the piano. Ono and Cage met in the early sixties. Ono also met Tudor and wrote pieces for him. Both these artists are on the album as is Frank Zappa who performs the infamous 4’33” for the recording. There is, in fact, a later composition entitled 0’00” which is dedicated to Yoko and Toshi Ichiyanagi (her husband at that time and also an artist). And further this work does have the subtitle, 4′ 33″ (No. 2).”
Life With The Lions closes with Radio Play, a stark 12-minute radio soundscape created by switching off, switching on, re-tuning and recording the crackling static electricity of transistor radios. Extra textures were then added, primarily recordings of Yoko and John making telephone calls (John can be heard talking to their assistant Anthony Fawcett). Also cropping up in the mix are the faint murmurings of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da from The Beatles’ ‘White Album’. Light years ahead of its time, Radio Play may have been unlistenable for 1960s pop lovers (Rolling Stone decided it was “of little interest”), but it laid the foundations for the experiments of Brian Eno, Can and even mid-1980s Introducing Radios-period Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark. To say nothing of Scanner, whose acclaimed eponymous 1995 album combined radio surveillance and secretly taped mobile phone conversations with ambient washes.
Although – by necessity – Yoko’s Film No. 6/Rape had no soundtrack and minimal dialogue, a short excerpt of Radio Play can be heard over the closing credits.
Song For John
Although Radio Play closes the original issue of Life With The Lions, the 1997 Rykodisc re-issue, compiled and re-mastered with the full co-operation of Yoko herself, includes two bonus tracks. The first is Song For John, an original demo of a piece that would eventually appear on Yoko’s 1973 album Approximately Infinite Universe. In fact this song had originally been released around the same time as Life With The Lions, along with No Bed for Beatle John and Radio Play for the Spring/Summer 1969 edition of the American ‘arts-in-a-box’ magazine, Aspen. Again, John Kosh was called in to supervise the design and production of this project, the music appearing on a flexidisc. Having been recorded on the same day as No Bed For Beatle John, Song For John is a simple marriage between Lennon’s melodic acoustic guitar and Ono’s lyrics and vocals.
Song For John is actually a medley of three musical ideas from that period – Let’s Go On Flying moves momentarily into Snow Is Falling All The Time before concluding with the debut of the classic Don’t Worry Kyoko. Recorded live and in one take straight onto tape, this is a chance to hear Yoko’s songwriting at its most embryonic stage. Snow Is Falling All The Time would appear a year later in finished form as Listen The Snow Is Falling. With the addition of sound effects of feet trudging through snow, this track was used as the B-side to the Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Don’t Worry Kyoko would later be performed live by the Plastic Ono Band at the Toronto Rock N Roll Revival Festival (subsequently released on the resulting Live Peace In Toronto LP) before a finished version appeared on Yoko’s 1971 album, Fly. Let’s Go On Flying, a classic Ono song of optimistic whimsy, never found a finished outlet.
The second bonus track, Mulberry is even rarer. Found on the same reel as Song For John (both tracks were recorded using a Nagra tape deck), it never received a finished airing. Essentially a scratch-pad of ideas, Mulberry features Lennon on guitar, strumming, scratching plucking and tripping his way through a collection of ideas as an introduction to some experimental vocal sparring from Yoko. In the closing stages of the track, Lennon is again banging on the sound box of his acoustic guitar and trading riffs with Yoko’s vocal chords exactly as they had done at the Cambridge concert. The perfect finale to the 1997 version of Life With The Lions, Mulberry is an eerie, intensely melodic and intimately personal acoustic answer to Cambridge 1969. Although never finding an official, finished release, Mulberry has since been revised in the live environment by Ima, Sean Ono Lennon’s mid-90s band.
Placed in its historical context, Life With The Lions is perhaps one of the most ground-breaking albums in rock history and at least 15 years ahead of its time. But on release in 1969 it was considered largely unlistenable by the critics. The previous year’s shock of Two Virgins and the limited exposure the album received on Apple Records’ Zapple imprint did nothing to cushion the blow. Some years earlier Lennon had filled out a pop quiz for Disc & Music Echo magazine, voting the children’s show from which they had adapted the title ‘Life With The Lyons’ his favourite TV programme.
But the same magazine could only deem Unfinished Music No.2, “A sad endurance test.” New Musical Express went on to write “If you enjoy the sound of a baby that won’t stop crying, this is for you. It sounds as if some dreadful torture is being performed on Yoko and John is recording her vocal protests.” Perhaps the easiest comment to make at this time came from George Martin whose sleeve note simply read “No comment”.
But by the 1980s, attitudes were beginning to change and New York Times critic Robert Palmer reflected “the basic elements of Yoko’s vocal artistry has often led to puzzlement, misunderstanding, false assumptions. Hearing her strain her voice slightly, for example, can lead to the conclusion that her vocal abilities aren’t quite up to her music. It’s just that most pop listeners aren’t used to hearing multi-cultural and avant-garde vocal techniques used in what are unambiguously pop-rock tunes.” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore for one can place Life With The Lions in its historical context and comments on the sleeve of the Rykodisc re-issue, “I make sounds to look at. This I know from Yoko. I live in her shadow”.
On the album’s re-release in 1997, the Sunday Times (UK) summed things up perfectly: “…Nearly thirty years later – having had our musical vocabulary widened by everyone from Sonic Youth to Bjork – it suddenly makes musical sense. As an instrument Yoko’s voice is in every way the equal of Hendrix’s guitar or Miles Davis’ trumpet. This woman is a genius. And, God, how stupid Lennon must have thought the rest of the world was for not seeing this.”
The critical reception Life With The Lions was a contributing factor in Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s decision to relocate to New York in the early seventies. As Lennon pointed out, the frantic sound array of Life With The Lions could have easily been a soundtrack to modern life in New York, and this opened their music to a more appreciative audience. He told Melody Maker:
“We sold twenty-five thousand copies of Two Virgins in the States and sixty thousand of Life With The Lions. That’s good going in the States. Our new album, John and Yoko’s Wedding Album is going to sell as well. But in Britain we only sold about five thousand of each of those albums. I can understand that though. See, Americans like our albums because if you land in New York, it’s like Life With the Lions anyway. If you play it in Britain, it doesn’t have the same urgency, because of the environment. It’ll be a few years before they turn on to that sort of thing properly here.”
And as Yoko concluded optimistically, “…But we are patient, because we are doing something worthwhile”.