It’s unfortunate, I think, that legions of Beatles fans turned on Yoko Ono with such ferocious animosity after the breakup of the band. Most fans still absolutely despise Yoko. (See the legion of often crudely misogynist comments under every Youtube video in which she appears.) Sure, her voice and music is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but without her artistic and conceptual influence on John Lennon post-Beatles, it’s unlikely his amazing solo albums John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971) would sound the way they do. Yoko, in fact, more or less gave Lennon the seeds of “Imagine,” the song, in her quirky 1964 self-published book, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings, though she never took the credit for it.
Like it or not, if we love solo Lennon, we have no choice but to take the more traditionally great songwriting with the messy, experimental, and sometimes unlistenable. They cannot be completely untangled, to the dismay of a great many people. As Damian Fanelli at Guitar World comments on Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s impromptu performance/jam with Eric Clapton in Toronto in 1969, “Yoko screams—very loudly—during the entire otherwise-decent performance.” This is not an exaggerated or especially biased characterization. “Someday,” Fanelli then goes on, “I’ll vent about how terrible and depressing this is.” Fine, but whether we think of her singing as challenging performance art or “depressing” caterwauling, we’re stuck with it. But do the dynamics of John and Yoko onstage change when we add another polarizing weirdo—Frank Zappa—to the mix? See for yourself in the videos here, from an onstage jam session the two did with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore East in 1971.
See Zappa, Lennon, et al. do Walter Ward’s “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go),” which Fanelli declares “the highlight of the jam, for sure.” Zappa announces to the band the key and “not standard blues changes,” then Lennon introduces the tune as “a song I used to sing while I was in the Cavern in Liverpool. I haven’t done it since.” Zappa rips out a fantastic solo and the band—though seemingly in the dark at first—lays down a righteous groove. And Yoko? Well, it’s true, as Fanelli notes, “all she did was scream her head off.” In this straight-ahead blues number, I have to say, it’s pretty obnoxious. But her vocal tics play much better in more freeform, oddball, Zappa-lead jams like “Jamrag” and “King Kong,” and the shouty, repetitive “Scumbag,” which sounds almost like a Can outtake.
Zappa and band, as always, are in top form. Lennon at times looks out of place and uncertain in their improvisatory environment, but he gamely keeps up. Yoko… Yoko does her usual lot of screaming, howling, yodeling, etc. But before you gin up to tear her to pieces in yet another nasty online comment, bear in mind, for what it’s worth, no Yoko, no “Imagine.”
As Fanelli notes, “the performance was released as part of Lennon and Ono’s poorly received (and not very good at all) 1972 studio/live album, Sometime in New York City.” See Allmusic’s review for a much more thorough, fair-minded assessment of that recording, which “found the Lennons in an explicitly political phase.”