History: John and Yoko moved to New York City in September of 1971, and very quickly become involved with various protests and political movements across the US. Their activities were enough to make the always paranoid Richard Nixon nervous enough to call for the FBI to start an investigation against them. They wrote songs related to the various protest marches they attended, and also helped the band Elephant’s Memory record their own record while also inviting them into the studio to be incorporated into the current lineup of the Plastic Ono Band. This album is a double LP, the first disc being primarily the protest songs and the second being a live jam made up of two performances. The first was a concert in December 1969 which included George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Klaus Voorman and Keith Moon, and the other a performance from June 1971 that was done with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
My own history and initial prediction: I have heard of the first song on this album, though I can’t remember if it’s just that shocking title I don’t feel comfortable repeating right now or if it’s because I heard it at some point. The album title doesn’t sound familiar to me, so it just goes to show how little I ever really dove into their solo catalogues. I also had no idea what in the world was going on with that band credit. Are Elephant’s Memory and Invisible Strings just an imaginary performance art thing, or the names of bands of some kind? You probably just found out in the history section above but as I write this one first I honestly have no idea. I’m a little leery for what appears to be such a Yoko heavy album but I’m at least hoping for something that is more music than noise art.
What I worked on while listening: I’m still feeling hesitant to work with a blank canvas right now, so I started one of these paint by number projects I have.
Review: This album is first and foremost a political and protest album rather than an attempt at making commercial pop music for the masses to enjoy. John and Yoko had certainly not shied away from politically charged messages before this, but while John’s prior albums were a mix of those messages with personal songs, the only real song with a personal message is “New York City” and that one is a diary of sorts, similar to “The Ballad of John & Yoko” where it largely just speaks of their activities since moving to the city. The rest are all themed to get various messages across, whether it be statements on sexism, prison rights, or the plight of political prisoners of the time such as John Sinclair and Angela Davis.
Since it’s first in the line up, let’s approach “Woman is the N****r of the World” first. Since the title appears uncensored in most areas, a younger person might assume that the title didn’t cause as much of a stink then as it would now, but you’d be wrong. It was absolutely controversial then, and I wonder, if Lennon was still alive, if people would be calling it to task now. Yoko is actually the one who used the phrase first, but my guess is that no one really gives this song too much thought now or there might be more uproar. I certainly, as a white woman, don’t feel comfortable saying it. John and Yoko went through great lengths to stress that they meant no disrespect to African-Americans, and the point is an extreme way to express how women have been oppressed throughout history and in nearly all cultures. I understand the sentiment, and I do think the phrase “we make her paint her face and dance” helps connect the metaphor and is a good way to express how we treat women. But I also feel like I’m not the right person to speak on whether or not this was ultimately fair for them to do or not. Ironically, I also feel like it’s the only song on the album that is particularly effective at getting its message across.
While the cry against sexism is also clear on “Sister, O Sisters” and I understand the messages behind “Attica State,” “Born in a Prison,” “Sunday Blood Sunday,” “The Luck of the Irish,” and “We’re All Water,” the problem is that all of the messages are only skin deep. They are telling us there’s a problem, that we need to come together or treat others better, but they’re not really doing much to make you feel anything about these issues or perhaps get those who feel differently to understand the problem. In the case of “John Sinclair,” I get that he was unjustly imprisoned, but saying only “he got ten for two” doesn’t even help you to understand that it means ten years for handing two joints to an undercover cop, and I know literally nothing else about the man. “Angela” is even worse, as just listening to the song I don’t even know her full name, let alone what she was fighting for or why she was imprisoned. Maybe at the time these two and their plights were present enough to most people that they understood, but listening nearly 50 years later there just isn’t as much to connect to.
Musically, I do have mostly positive things to say about these songs. There are a lot of numbers with a classic rock and roll sound, as well as blues and folk elements. They’re bouncy and catchy in a lot of ways and there’s great instrumentation. The saxophone in particular adds a little something extra to these songs, and pairs nicely with some of Yoko’s vocalizations. Speaking of which, I think she shows nicely on “Sisters O Sisters” and “We’re All Water” that she’s not the tone deaf, talentless singer that some people make her out to be. The wails and screams and cries she makes on other songs are a deliberate choice for those, and should not be confused with a lack of ability.
Speaking of those sounds, let’s get to the Live Jam LP. The performance of “Cold Turkey” and the cover of “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” are pretty standard performances you might expect from a rock concert, but the rest are once again a test of patience for those us who don’t care for Yoko’s wails. “Don’t Worry Kyoko” is 16 minutes long, and I felt like someone should have handed me an award for managing to sit through the whole thing. Knowing the story of how she lost custody of her daughter, I absolutely understand what she is doing here, and I feel for her, but it’s very hard to listen to in its entirety. I recently watched the documentary Zappa, and I walked away from it finding him an interesting individual with no real desire to dip into his catalogue because I felt comfortable it was not for me, and the remaining tracks here, “Jambag,” “Scumbag,” and “Au” certainly didn’t change my mind. Though it’s worth noting that Zappa was unhappy with this mix, seeing as how it excluded some of the members of the Mothers of Invention’s tracks altogether, and he would eventually release his own versions of the recordings in 1992. To my ears at least, based on the small sample I tried out, I don’t see a huge discernable difference, just a few more backing vocals added in to the chaos.
Having seen no mention of the Invisible Strings anywhere on Wikipedia, I’m assuming it’s another example of John and Yoko saying “the music is in your mind” similar to how they did on the Unfinished Music albums. If anyone out there knows differently, please let me know.
Overall I’d say the first disc of this album is worth a one time listen at least, even if it’s not something I necessarily plan to return to much beyond maybe “Luck of the Irish” which I did find to be a good solid folk song. The Live Jam is only for those who love the more experimental side of music, the rest of us can leave it on the shelf.
Singles released around this time:
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” – Another of their songs I’ve always really enjoyed. I enjoy hearing it every Christmas, and am not even too bothered when it inevitably gets stuck in my head. Even the children’s chorus, which I can sometimes find to be a bit much in other circumstances, works well here.
Next Time: The band’s name is changed to “Paul McCartney & Wings” and they release Red Rose Speedway.