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TBC Selects

The Beatles’ Outer Limits

January 15, 2023

The Fab Four’s weirdest, most radical moments—with a little help from Yoko.

This post was originally published on August 2, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here

Kudos to Secretly Canadian and Chimera Music for their reissues of Yoko Ono’s early albums. Though I don’t think any one of them is an outright masterpiece (Ono is too Fluxus-inspired to achieve, or desire, perfection), each contains a clutch of brain-twisting pieces that rank as some of the most boldly experimental freak-rock of the ’70s. “Mindtrain,” from 1971’s Fly, is 17 minutes of her freely improvised shrieks and ululations puncturing muddy, hypno-blues riffs that have more in common with Krautrock than classic rock. Then there’s “Mrs. Lennon,” an atmospheric piano ballad so sublime in its bleakness that Alex Chilton felt compelled to use it as a template for Big Star’s downer plea “Holocaust.” These reissues continue to spark endless, combative debates between the anti- and pro-Ono contingencies.

The former largely are rock dudes (though not always) who dismiss her as a talentless, caterwauling hanger-on; the latter, meanwhile, are underground heads who hail Ono as an avant-garde visionary and The Beatles as a silly over-hyped band for dads. It’s a battle in which I’ve never partook, and I have my mom to thank.

When I started exploring The Beatles’ universe in high school, she instilled in me two opinions: (1) Ono is unique, strong artist to be taken seriously, and (2) The Beatles were at their most interesting on 1968’s self-titled release (a.k.a. “The White Album”), a strange, 30-track beast riddled with heavy metal, atonal blues, electronic music, lo-fi, and acid folk.

Because I’ve never harbored prejudices one way or another, I don’t hear a gulf separating The Beatles’ eccentric late-’60s work from Ono’s own. Rather, I hear a natural progression in sonic radicalism, one that begins with the all-over-the-map “White Album,” winds its way through the earliest solo efforts from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, and reaches peak intensity on Ono first few full-lengths.

Let’s take the aforementioned “Mindtrain”: It’s far out, no doubt, yet it also feels of a piece with a whole clutch of bluesy, experimental rock songs. In addition to Lennon’s primal-scream scorcher “Cold Turkey,” there’s the Abbey Road epic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” whose final three minutes is proto-doom metal soaked in Moog-generated white noise; the intentionally shattered “Yer Blues”; and, of course, McCartney’s “Helter Skelter,” which very nearly matches Ono in terms of sheer bludgeoning cacophony.

As for her barbed vocal acrobatics—of which the proto-no waver “Why” and plodding “Dont Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In The Snow)” are prime examples—it should be noted that Harrison himself tried out a similarly shrill approach on the closing 30 seconds of his ghostly, ambient lament “Long, Long, Long.” Over violently rattling percussion that sounds like it belongs on a free-jazz record, he wails and moans like a mortally wounded cat. So yeah, if you don’t dig Ono, then you probably don’t dig the chilling finale to one of the most striking ballads in The Beatles’ entire catalog.

As any Beatles fanatic will tell you, this represents just the tip of the iceberg. The 1968-1972 stretch contains a wealth of interconnected experiments that push rock and pop into music’s outer limits. When the musique concrète composition “Revolution 9” appeared on “The White Album,” it marked the beginning of a whole slew of electronic-based exploration. Lennon and Ono’s Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions submerges listeners in grainy field recordings and sound collage on par with William S. Burroughs’ own tape experiments (recorded around the same time, in fact). Harrison also got into the act, releasing Electronic Sound, which consists of a pair of forays into longform synthesizer music. Also not to be overlooked is McCartney’s “Kreen-Akrore," a Brazilian-inspired percussion track that sounds like the spiritual ancestor to Animal Collective’s psychedelic tribalism.

If you’re an anti-Ono classic rocker, please approach my playlist with open ears. Who knows? You may hear a searing guitar jam that will surprise you. (“Don’t Worry Kyoko” features Eric Clapton, as a matter of fact.) And if you’re a pro-Ono Beatles disser, kindly do the same. You, too, may discover that the band unleashed some wonderfully challenging music. The rhythm track alone on the phantasmagoric “It’s All Too Much” is sure to give you a contact buzz. In the name of great music, it’s time to make peace, folks.

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