Friday, October 12, 2007

The Most Important Record You've Never Heard: Life with the Lions

In the year between November 1968 and October 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released three albums of avant-garde sound art onto an unsuspecting world. It is not difficult to imagine the shocked reactions of Beatles fans looking for something along the lines of "Glass Onion"; all one has to do is go to Amazon and see the same open-mouthed dismay forty years on. But in all this reactionary fervor few have decided to actually listen to the albums, an oversight I will partially remedy in this article.

On 11 November 1968 Ono and Lennon released Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, famous for its full-frontal nude photo of the couple. On 20 October 1969 they book-ended the trilogy with Wedding Album, which came with a slice of wedding cake (or at least a photo facsimile) and a copy of their marriage certificate.

It is for these artifacts rather than the content that the records are best known. Certainly it's easier to argue about a cover photo than it is to apprehend the experiments in musique concrète, recitation and atonal music that fill these vinyl sides.

But it is the centrepiece of this trilogy, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions, released 9 May 1969, that I wish to examine. Because it's a fantastic overlooked treasure that transcends its kin.

Side two starts with "No Bed For Beatle John" in which Yoko sings "EMI, the world's biggest recording company..." to hilarious effect. This Gregorian chanting of news items about the couple is funny, but also chilling (when one considers the panopticon in which they lived) and touching. John's voice is quiet throughout, but becomes foregrounded at the end of the piece, as he recites a clip regarding his divorce proceedings with Cynthia Lennon. The musical reference to liturgical procedures is thus doubly appropriate.

I do not know if Yoko and John planned on releasing these recordings before she miscarried. But a five-minute section of "Baby's Heartbeat" is not morbid, but rather a warm and fuzzy reminder of life, as is the "Two Minutes Silence" which follows. I think it a misinterpretation to see this as simply a memorial. Cage's famous piece on which it is partially based is a celebration of the life that exists without a score to keep it going. Though this counterpart loses substantial meaning played from CD, on vinyl the clicks and scratches it accumulates from repeat listens brings it to life. Much like the bumps and bruises a child gains as it grows up shapes who it will be.

"Radio Play" is a radiophonic play on words, for it is both a rhythmic playing with the radio and a snapshot of their domestic drama: discussions in the background, John making prosaic phone calls. And though they think they are in a play, they are anyway, as the constant press attention referenced in "No Bed For Beatle John" attests.

For an ex-Beatle the importance of the radio cannot be over-estimated, and the fact that snippets of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" make their way into the proceedings is not a self-referential twinge of the artists, but a solipsistic gesture on the part of the world itself. No wonder John wanted to turn the radio off. And then on again. And then off. It was one way of controlling the super-saturated media world in which he lived. Now that we have all become the centre of our own media spectacle (I am publishing this on a blog, right?) his gesture has become ever-more relevant, one possible way to contend with the third order of simulacra.

It should not pass unmentioned that these tracks were recorded, not in a studio, but on cassette tape over a three-week period at Queen Charlotte Hospital, London. The cover pictures John on the floor beside Yoko in bed. The presentation and content are entirely consistent: this is a documentary.

I have purposefully addressed the flip-side first. Given that the first side is more overtly "musical" (there are instruments) some might see the experiments relegated to the b-side as filler. Listening to them first makes clear that they are rather the foundation for "Cambridge 1969". (Besides, they came first chronologically.)

This live performance at Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge is astounding. Yoko starts first with an undulating microtonal meander, very intense and thin in the recording (as a sound engineer I feel sympathy for the microphone!). Lennon's guitar feedback manages to create it's own pulse out of disparate drone notes, and also plays in and out of the tones Yoko is singing. Before the twenty-six minutes is over they are joined by saxophonist John Tchicai (who played on John Coltrane's Ascension) and percussionist John Stevens (who recently had played with Evan Parker).

This is riveting stuff, the template for any number of sonic experimenters since. In fact this piece exists on an axis from free jazz through the krautrock brigade to Can, post-punk, Sonic Youth and right back to Japanese noise artists. The following year the Plastic Ono Band would distill this into a more palatable rhythm-driven template. That's alright too, but this is the raw uncontained essence.

For a record that has been slagged thoughtlessly for four decades, I find "Life with the Lions" to be a complete success, save perhaps a few minutes of the over-long "Radio Play". Partly this is because it lacks the naive calls for "peace", the baggage of "bagism", that the other records get stuck to. This album avoids an overtly political reading by focusing mercilessly on the personal, and the relationships of body to media.

The overt exhibitionism and documentary nature of the trilogy make it obvious that Ono and Lennon's agenda was not at all musical. By exposing their private lives for all to see, the couple replaced musical expectations -- "the next Beatles record" -- with unexpected gifts of love (much of Ono's art follows this trajectory). But, as we know from Marcel Mauss, it is free gifts that have the potential to cause the most upset. A gift establishes a debt and hence a power relationship with the recipient.

It for this reason, and not simply because listeners were expecting "music" and got "sound", that "Life with the Lions" upsets so many. This is the "record" of loss through miscarriage and alienation through media, driven by pure emotion (Ono's voice) and suffused in the power of "being-in-the-moment". The home recordings, lack of editing and near absence of conventional musicianship signals an ethnographic, even psychogeographic approach, not a phonographic one as it has been understood since the time of... well, since The Beatles invented modern pop recording.

This intimate sharing calls for a re-evaluation of one's relationship with the record album and hence with consumer society at large. That's a sentiment that attracts many adherents today, but almost forty years ago it was new and challenging.

Actually, it's still challenging. Give a listen to this Life with the Lions and see if you agree.

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