John Lennon famously once quipped that Yoko Ono is “the world’s most famous unknown artist,” a point which, even now, fits the high-priestess of the avant-garde like a glove. A member of the Fluxus movement, Ono was well-respected and admired in modern art circles by the time she first met the young Beatle at London’s Indica Gallery in November 1966. Mysterious, unapologetic and with a total inability to excuse or make allowances for her art, it’s easy to see what Lennon saw in her – simply, creative talent of an entirely different order to the one that he was both liberated and imprisoned by. She had already introduced her performance art Cut Piece across Britain, North America and Japan; the first of many powerful, feminist messages in her long, varied career. But meeting John Lennon influenced Yoko Ono every bit as much as she influenced him, and her choice medium was changing, by early 1968 she was stood on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, experimenting with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Two years later she was in the shops with debut LP Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs loved it, but nobody bought it. Abrasive, almost scary and decades ahead of its time, the album disappeared without a trace – a common theme for Ono even now, nearly fifty years later. A leading figure in feminist rock, an admired collaborator, and “musician’s musician” as she is, it is a sad truth that her unfounded reputation as the “dragon lady” often continues to precede her.
But this is partly why Ono’s transformation to dance artist extraordinaire has been so impressive. Utilising the impressive stable of artists influenced by her unquenchable thirst to be on the cutting edge, Ono has reached double-figures for No. 1 records on the Billboard Dance charts, with many of the tracks eventually coming together for Ono’s first remix compilation Yes I’m A Witch in 2007, featuring such luminaries as The Flaming Lips, Peaches and Antony. Nine years later, with Ono’s dance successes continuing unabated, a sequel has found a release, with a similarly impressive list of collaborators from genre-hopping art rockers Sparks to indie darlings Death Cab For Cutie. Although fascinating to observe how such an eclectic mix of artists utilise a muse as personal and unpredictable as Ono, the results are – unsurprisingly for an album so diverse – an ultimately inconsistent work, with genuinely well-worked mixes carrying the rest of the album.
When it hits its peak, it successfully shifts Ono’s art into new territories – sometimes even to the point of heightening it. “Mrs. Lennon” – originally an elegiac piece of discordant guitar and piano mourning Ono’s perceived loss of self as a “Beatle wife” – has been crafted into a full-band piece of modern indie rock, with Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and John remoulding the originals’ stifling ennui into a more typically Ono-esque contemptuous defiance. The power of music to change the manner in which we understand the vocals is similarly proffered by Sparks, who take Double Fantasy‘s new wave cry of dissatisfied desperation “Give Me Something,” injecting a sarcastic, playful piano to the point that it sounds more like a playground taunt. More modernising effects comes courtesy of Automatique, who tackle the feminist statement of “Coffin Car.” Relatively faithful to the 1973 original, it wraps itself delicately around the powerful lyrics; Yoko’s bitterness sounds every bit as real as it surely did over forty year ago, which is in itself a powerful statement of the times.
It is, when all is said and done, the versions which remain most faithful to Ono’s original vision that are the most effective and, interestingly, the most modern sounding. Sean Lennon’s respectful take on his mothers’ “Dogtown” quietly plays the support to Yoko’s unique voice and insightful, sometimes savage, words. American rockers Portugal. The Man’s vision for “Soul Got Out Of The Box” breathes a whole new life into a latter-day Ono favourite, the gorgeous backing vocals and sweeping orchestration inviting us on an excursion into something more akin to Air or even Portishead. Perhaps the most surprising cut on the album, Ebony Bones!’ take on “No Bed For Beatle John,” an almost tuneless rumination from the second Ono/Lennon Unfinished Music record Life With The Lions, is the biggest success story; building a sinister, harrowing soundscape around an avant-garde piece recorded in the wake of a miscarriage. An oft-ignored piece of tragic art effectively saved from obscurity.
But such highs are not always sustained. Enveloping the album are “Walking On Thin Ice” – arguably Ono’s most famous song – in a version that sounds more like a preface than a standalone song, and the closer – Moby’s take on “Hell In Paradise” is a near ten-minute piece which seemingly goes nowhere. Some of the less successful recreations can even leave a sour taste, with powerful feminist anthems such as “She Gets Down On Her Knees” and “Wouldnit” overhauled into dancefloor ephemera. Other songs, such as producer Jack Douglas’ reimagining of rocker “Move On Fast” are perfectly enjoyable sonic translations of older pieces, but fail to take the subjects in new, unexpected directions.
In the end, the main question to ask about Ono’s remix albums is – to quote one of her greatest songs – “Why”? They are, essentially, existent in order to convince her vociferous critics that her back catalogue is worthy of conclusion in the great rock pantheon, and indeed their record collections. Utilising a steady stream of more critically admired friends to prove herself, she is compromising a multifaceted oeuvre which was always uncompromising by its very nature. In a way, it is about as far away from the Ono we’ve come to know and love (or indeed hate) as we’ve seen. Ono is mellowing with age and now communicating with the mainstream in a way she hasn’t since she said “I do” in Gibraltar nearly half a century ago. But, regardless of any criticisms, Yes I’m A Witch Too is a success – yes, some songs work better than others, but this ageless octogenarian is slowly finding herself on the right side of music history, though it will be for her original output that she will eventually be commended – when that time comes, Yes I’m A Witch Too may just have outlived its usefulness.