Yoko Ono: Fly (1971)
By Madeline Bocaro ©
The double album Fly, released September 20, 1971 was the follow-up to Yoko’s debut (Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band). Parts of Fly were recorded around the same time as John’s album, Imagine which was released a few weeks prior. Both albums, on Apple Records were recorded at Abbey Road and also at John and Yoko’s home studio at Ascot (UK). Fly was completed at Record Plant (New York).
The gatefold album cover features a distorted photo of Yoko’s face taken by John Lennon through a glass vase, which makes her look like she is crying. Several goodies came in the package, including a cool full-sized poster by Raeanne Rubenstein, and a postcard (A Hole to See the Sky Through) to order Yoko’s book Grapefruit. These items are particularly charming in miniature when later released as a CD mini album in Japan.
Just as Yoko inspired John to experiment, Lennon instilled something in Ono that would drastically transform her amorphous music – a beat. Beginning with the seventeen-minute long ‘Mind Train’ and ‘Midsummer New York’, Yoko began writing structured songs with evocative lyrics in a more conventional framework.
“You see, I was doing music of the mind – no sound at all, and everybody sitting around just imagining sounds… But I felt stifled even with that, I was dying to scream, to go back to my voice. And I came to a point where I believed that the idea of avant-garde purity was just as stifling as just doing a rock beat over and over.”
– Yoko to Jonathan Cott – Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice
Rolling Stone March 18, 1971
The rocker ‘Midsummer New York’ was Yoko’s take on Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
“‘Midsummer New York’ is about the deep insecurity that I have in me that I associate with my life in New York before I met John…I always wanted to make a song that uses the word ‘shaking’ with a double meaning, as I discovered the use of the word in rock in 1968.”
– Yoko Ono *
The epic album version of ‘Mind Train’ is a nearly 17-minute long jam, taking us off the rails to places we’ve never been before! Yoko’s train journey predates Kraftwerk’s clanging ‘Trans Europe Express’ by five years. The players are; John Lennon – guitar, Klaus Voormann – bass, Jim Keltner – drums, and Chris Osborne on dobro.
At her Concert for Japan (March 29, 2011) Yoko introduced the song with an anecdote. “‘Mind Train’ was about 16 minutes long. John insisted on playing it for an unnamed famous musician.” Yoko expressed her regret of having this person endure the whole 16 minutes. Hopefully, it was someone who was well deserving of the wrath of Yoko and wish that it could have been myself instead. After all, one man’s pain is another’s pleasure!
(I later realized that Yoko was referring to the time that she and John played ‘Mind Train’ for Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight in August 1969. Consider how preposterous and hilarious this is – the prolific poet of rock ‘n’ roll politely listening to something so lyrically abstract and lengthy!! I have much more respect for Dylan now!)
A punk/funk chugging, plodding beat merges with free-form instrumentation and vocals. It was once described as Can doing ‘The Loco-Motion’. The reggae rhythm picks up speed toward the end, becoming a total freak-out – especially enthralling when Yoko performs the song live!
Yoko’s somewhat spoken lyrics on ‘Mind Train’ alternate with her trademark wordless utterances. The lyrics are dark at times, repeating, “I thought of killing that man” as if the singer is taking a train ride to alleviate or misdirect anger. The train is conceptual, as Yoko also repeats in a verbal beat, ‘Dub-dub train ploughs through my mind.’
Another recurring line is, “33 windows shining…” In Japan, the number 33 signifies misfortune – it translates as, ‘SAR-ZAN’, which also means “misfortune without a way out”. The Tibetan Book of the Dead has 33 heavens. In Buddhism, the number 33 reflects the interface of the familiar world with a higher spiritual realm. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, the sacred goddess Kuan Yin assumes 33 appearances and undergoes 33 transformations in 33 holy places. She aids souls in reaching nirvana.
‘Mind Train’ – album version
A REALLY COOL live version:
Yoko Ono & IMA – ‘Mind Train’ – live Melkweg Amsterdam Holland 25 May 1996
featuring Sean Lennon & Timo Ellis & Sam Koppelman
Live @ Concert For Japan, NYC 2011
Mind Train (Live @ Nakano Sun Plaza) Japan, 1974
(The live @ Meltdown version in 2009 is also amazing!)
Imagine film segment of ‘Mind Train’
‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ – a rocking free-form plea to her young daughter (recorded during the Y.O. POB album sessions with Eric Clapton on guitar) was John Lennon’s vocal inspiration on ‘Cold Turkey’.
“John is the first person I met who knows how to be free, and that is why he plays such an important role in all of my pieces…Most of the pieces in this album are centered around a dialogue between my voice and John’s guitar. John and I crawl, roll and fly together. John brought in musicians that are fine samurais. John, as a rhythm guitarist, leads the rhythm track. He pushes them, drops them, chased them and frees them. He makes it easy for them to fly with me.”
– Yoko Ono *
Other than these rockers, Fly mostly reflects Yoko’s avant-garde background. The album’s ambience is spectacular with its custom home-made instruments and strange textures. Drum machines and drones were specially made by Fluxus musician Joe Jones (an associate of composers John Cage and LaMonte Young). These atmospheric instruments were used on ‘Don’t Count the Waves’, ‘You’ and ‘Airmale’. Photos of them can be seen in the album’s gatefold.
“I wanted to explore emotions and vibrations which have not been explored as yet in music. I thought of building a house on a hill which makes different sounds by the wind that goes through different windows, doors and holes… ‘Airmale’ is Yang and ‘You’ is Yin. ‘Don’t Count the Waves’ is the water that connects the two Yin and Yang islands. ‘Airmale’ expresses the delicateness of male. ‘You’ expresses the aggressiveness of female. ‘You’ has all the feminine resentment; moaning and satisfaction in it. Finally, there is just a wind blowing over a sand hill over dried white female bones, but still, with emotion. A wind created with tape feedback is what I always wanted to do – a rock number with at tape loop of feedback as a riff. But this will do for now.”
– Yoko Ono *
Yoko explained: “The first and second sides are rock songs with a physical beat. The third and fourth sides are songs to listen to – mind music with a mind beat.”
As much as Yoko repeats the words ‘Don’t Count the Waves’ I can’t help envisioning waves and counting them! Joe Jones’ weird percussive instruments lend an earthy ambient timbre, as Yoko’s voice reverberates and reiterates. ‘Mind Holes’ is an acoustic blues that blows through the holes in your mind like the wind, clearing out your head.
The album includes two soundtracks. ‘Airmale’ was the audio to John Lennon’s film Erection (a reverse homage to Andy Warhol’s film Sleep, which features the close-up face of a man receiving a blow job). Despite its suggestive title, Erection ironically shows a time-lapse of a building being erected. Yoko speaks the lyrics to ‘Airmale’ quietly and casually, as if talking to an intimate friend, suggestively saying. “Hey, why don’t we have some fun and then go somewhere?”
The title track ‘Fly’ (Yoko vocalizing the part of the insect) is the soundtrack of Yoko’s film of the same name (a.k.a. Film No. 13). In the film which portrays submission of the female, a crawling fly uses the body of a naked woman as its landscape as she lies perfectly still. The track was recorded by John at the St. Regis Hotel in NYC in December 1970. It was the first song recorded for the album.
Yoko Film No. 13: Fly
By Madeline Bocaro ©
On the 2017 Secretly Canadian/Chimera reissue of Fly, ‘Head Play’ medley (‘You / Airmale / Fly’) bonus track) swirls around your head like a cyclone! These wordless vocal pieces communicate much more than any language.
Why does Yoko, who speaks two languages fluently, choose to completely evade words? BECAUSE THERE ARE NO WORDS!
“I realized that the classics, when they went from 4/4 to 4/3, lost the heartbeat. It’s as if they left the ground and lived on the 40th floor. Schoenberg and Webern – Webern’s on the top of the Empire State Building. But that’s all right. Our conceptual rhythm got complex, but we still have the body and the beat. Conceptual rhythm I carry on with my voice, which has a very complicated rhythm even in ‘Why,’ but the bass and the drum is the heartbeat. So the body and the conceptual rhythms go together. These days I’m putting a beat under everything I do.”
– To Jonathan Cott, Yoko Ono and Her Sixteen-Track Voice,
Rolling Stone March 18, 1971
‘Mrs. Lennon’ (written in 1969) is one of many haunting and eerily prescient songs by Yoko that induces calm despite its sadness. John Lennon’s echoing piano, Klaus Voormann’s bass and delicate bells accompanying her somber vocals place Yoko in a ghostly realm, as she contemplates her position as John’s wife and the sublimation of her own identity as an artist. The echoing lament of her vocal is chilling. Especially the line, “Half the world is always killed you know.” Yoko’s melody was the inspiration for Big Star’s song ‘Holocaust’.
In a segment from the Imagine film, John and Yoko desperately search for each other through the morning mist. Through all the strife and hell that they have gone through so far as a couple (with much more to come) she relents, “I guess it must be alright”. The second half of the song predicts their separation. Although we all know this very well, she says, “neither of them ever left each other”.
And our children, o’ our children
Did they have to go to war?
Yes, my love, it’s okay
Half the world is always killed you know
Husband John extended his hand
Extended his hand to his wife
And he finds, and suddenly he finds
That he has no hands
They’ve lost their bodies
They’ve lost their bodies
Yes, they lost their bodies
Neither of them, o’ neither of them
Ever left each other
Yes, my love, it’s okay
Half the world is always dying you know
A gorgeous version of ‘Mrs. Lennon’ remixed by Peter Bjorn and John (Yes, I’m a Witch Too, Feb. 2016) highlights Yoko’s stunning vocals.
Listen to a sample here:
‘The song also inspired Alex Chilton’s band Big Star to write their song ‘Holocaust’ on which they lift the exact chord sequence and haunting ambiance. The demo is even more beautiful.
Big Star ‘Holocaust’
Big Star ‘Holocaust’ Demo
The best gift of all on the Secretly Canadian/Chimera reissue of Y.O. POB, (2016) is the previously unreleased 7+ minutes long ‘Open Your Box’ – a wild version of the B-Side of John’s ‘Power to the People single, later included on Fly as ‘Hirake’ (ひらけ) which means ‘opening’ in Japanese. There is an astonishing section on the outtake where Yoko’s voice soars, miraculously multiplying to resemble a distressed flock of angry birds. (A very rare single with a different version of ‘Hirake’ – (‘Open Your Box’) was pressed b/w ‘Greenfield Morning…’ on the b-side.
Whenever I listen to Yoko, no matter what song it is, I’m thinking, “This is my favorite song!” My friends always say, “Oh is that the one that goes “Akkkk akkkk akkk akkk?!” I honestly must say, “YES!!!” But this version of ‘Open Your Box’ is my all-time favorite!
Here it is:
Upon release in 1969, the song was banned by BBC radio. In the original lyrics (1969), Yoko asks us to:
‘Open Your Box/trousers/skirt/legs/thighs/flies/ears/nose/mouth/cold feet/
Let’s open the cities / let’s open the world’
In a censored single version, an added echo muffled the questionable lyrics. Yoko re-recorded the replacement lyrics in March at Abbey Road Studios. ‘Trousers’, ‘skirt’, ‘legs’, and ‘thighs’ were changed to ‘houses’, ‘church’, ‘lakes’, and ‘eyes’. The song was completely censored in the USA, and a different Yoko song, ‘Touch Me’ appeared on the B-Side of ‘Power to the People’ instead. (There is also a 2001 remix by Orange Factory).
The swishing sounds on the censored single version actually sound really cool! It’s also a really nice mix.
‘Open Your Box ‘-censored single version
Yoko performed the song live on August 30, 1972 at the One to One concert in NYC. This is from the rehearsal:
Five (possibly six) rare copies of the single were made for Yoko’s approval on a white label with ‘Greenfield Morning’ on the B-Side – ‘Made specially for Yoko Ono’.
‘Telephone Piece’ ends Side Four of Fly. A phone rings six times, Yoko answers it and says ‘Hello, this is Yoko’. It is so cool that she voiced it in the language (and particular ringtone) of each country that the Fly album was released in; USA, UK and Japan.
Listen to all three versions here.
(In the case of the UK version, the phone ring is different. On the Japanese vinyl, Yoko answers, “Moshi moshi, Yoko desu.”)
‘Telephone Piece’ began as an instruction in Yoko’s book Grapefruit (1964).
ECHO TELEPHONE PIECE
Get a telephone that only echoes back
Call every day and talk about many
Telephone Piece later evolved into an interactive museum piece at Yoko’s exhibitions. A telephone sits atop a pedestal in the middle of a Plexiglas maze (actually, her artwork called Amaze) with the instruction:
When the phone rings
Know that it’s me
(For her Dream Come True exhibit in Argentina (2016), the telephone was red, harking back to the 1960s when volatile phone communications between countries were called ‘red phone’.)
‘Midsummer New York’ – 29 September 1971 (USA) and on 29 October 1971 (UK).
The B-side was an edit of ‘Mind Train’
‘Mrs. Lennon’ was released as a single with the B-Side ‘Midsummer New York’.
‘Mind Train’ – January 20, 1972. A four-minute edit of the long album version. The single was also released in a picture sleeve and features the special Yoko/Apple label on the A-Side and the sliced apple on the B-Side.
The B-Side was another solo Ono composition, ‘Listen the Snow is Falling’, which had previously backed the single ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’ in America in December 1971.
Also see: Yoko Songs: ‘Listen, the Snow Is Falling’
By Madeline Bocaro ©
* Notes on Fly, written at the St. Regis Hotel, New York City, Fall 1971 – Yoko Ono
(All songs written by Yoko Ono)
” Yoko Ono – vocals, claves on “Airmale” and “Don’t Count the Waves”
” John Lennon – guitar, piano on “Mrs. Lennon”, organ, automated music machines on “Airmale” and “Don’t Count the Waves”
” Klaus Voormann – guitar, bass guitar, bells on “Mrs. Lennon”, cymbal on “O’Wind”, percussion on “Don’t Count the Waves”
” Bobby Keyes – claves on “O’Wind”
” Eric Clapton – guitar on “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)”
” Jim Keltner – drums, tuned drum, tabla, percussion
” Ringo Starr – drums on “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow)”
” Jim Gordon – drums on “Hirake”, tabla on “O’Wind”
” Chris Osborne – dobro on “Midsummer New York” and “Mind Train”
” Joe Jones – automated music machines on “Airmale”, “Don’t Count the Waves” and “You”
” George Marino – mastering engineer
1998 Reissue bonus tracks:
‘Between the Takes’
‘Will You Touch Me’ (Demo). This was recorded during the Fly sessions in November 1971.
A new version was made for Yoko’s album Season of Glass (1981).
The original is on the Rykodisc reissue of Fly (1998).
2017 Reissue bonus tracks:
Fly was reissued by Secretly Canadian/Chimera Music on Vinyl, CD, and for digital download in July 2017.
‘Head Play (Medley: You/Airmale/Fly)’