In 1972 and 1973 Yoko Ono released two of her most successful albums, Approximately Infinite Universe and Feeling the Space. Both of these albums are focused on issues of women’s rights and the pain of living in a male-dominated world, and they contain some of Ono’s sharpest and most interesting songwriting as well as an attempt to create music that sounded like rock music of the time in order to carry her message forth.
From Avant-Garde Artist to Rock Singer
Yoko Ono is a magnet for controversy, and that’s by design. Though it has always been a part of her intention to promote peace with her work and her life, and despite her Japanese heritage and the influence of Zen philosophy on her art, she is not afraid to be confrontational. In a way her work is playful, taking aim at expectations and norms, poking at pretension with humor, but with the knowledge that the blow-back will be overstated and furious.
1973 was ground zero for the American feminist movement. Roe v Wade was decided. There were no women in the U.S. Senate for the first time in 24 years. The ERA was under consideration and Women’s Equality Day was created. Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a widely publicized tennis match.
Yoko Ono had already been challenging notions about what women could or should do as a member of the worldwide elite avant-garde artistic community for more than ten years. Her 1964 performance “Cut Piece” raised questions of submission vs aggression, abuser vs victim, deep notions of sexuality and violence. Like most performance art at the time, it also sought to destroy the distance between the artist/performer and the audience.
The same year saw the collection of Ono’s book Grapefruit, presented in a limited edition of 500 copies. In 1970 it was published for the whole world to participate in. The book’s brief, poetic instructions for conceptual art pieces read like aphorisms or Zen koans and their function is similar: to teach us, to remind us, and to help shake our complacency and destroy our expectations, both of art and of our life.
Grapefruit was odd in its time, but now it seems as though in many ways like a series of social media posts. Ono really wanted people, both artists and not, to do these things that she suggested. And again, the book’s poetic but not-quite-poetry vibe make it reminiscent of a Zen Buddhist text.
When Ono and John Lennon began to record together, it was first in Lennon’s home studio, utilizing tape loops, some various instruments, and Yoko’s voice. Over the course of three albums, the duo recorded what they described as an attempt to make “records of their life together.” In these first ventures, it is Ono’s world, the world of experimental and avant-garde art, that predominates, and it spilled over onto the next Beatles project, the White Album, in the guise of Side Four’s Stockhausen-influenced ‘Revolution No. 9.’
Ono’s work was still on the avant-garde edge, but she spent time in the studio with The Beatles, and though the mood was acrimonious, she still had the opportunity to observe a working group in a professional studio. When she and Lennon recorded the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band albums, hers was something of an afterthought, recorded during a single afternoon, and overall it was still pretty avant-garde.
1971’s Fly, a double album, contained what by now was the usual experimental music and rock/improvisation but there were clear signs that Yoko was interested in writing songs and performing them in some kind of recognizable pop music style. The opener “Midsummer New York” and “Hirake,” which was based on an outtake from Plastic Ono Band known as ‘Open Your Box, ” both serve as evidence that Yoko had turned her formidable ideas toward the rock music genre and actually creating rock music that would be heard.
At the same time, she had discovered inspiration for her lyrical content. When Yoko and John moved to New York City they quickly fell in with the politically motivated left-wing counterculture crowd. Lennon was into writing and recording songs quickly, as a type of political broadside even though his stature made that almost impossible, just as it made Paul McCartney’s attempt to ‘start over’ with Wings impossible.
The songs he wrote for the album Some Time In New York City--“Angela,” “John Sinclair,” “Attica State,” “Luck of the Irish”–were straightforward agitprop, made for a purpose, but they did not go over well with a rock audience then, and they haven’t aged well because most of the people and situations they reference are long forgotten for most people.
Yoko’s contributions to the album have aged much better, largely because they tackle universal themes that are, unfortunately, still with us. “Born in a Prison” is about an educational system that feeds a dysfunctional society, while “We’re All Water” is about how we are basically all the same. But it was feminism that really stoked Yoko’s songwriting at this time. “Sisters O Sisters” was the anthem she recorded for Some Time In New York City. And though Lennon sang “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” it was a phrase Yoko had been using for some time.
Approximately Infinite Universe
In 1972 Ono published an essay titled “The Feminization of Society.” It was published in edited form in the New York Times and in its complete version in Sundance magazine. In it, Yoko argues that it’s not enough for women to want to get to equal positions with men in the current society, they should instead look to change society’s norms and priorities in a way that doesn’t inherently support suppression.
In that context Approximately Infinite Universe, recorded in October/November 1972 and released in January (US) and February (UK) 1973, might seem like an odd strategy. This double LP set featured 22 new songs all well within the norms for rock/pop music of the time in terms of melodic content, instrumentation, and song structure.
In terms of sound, Ono is aided in pulling this off by the versatility of Elephant’s Memory, the band that had accompanied her and Lennon on Sometime In New York City. While at first blush many of the tracks may register as pastiches of certain rock styles, there are details that add a lot of sonic depth to the record–the gentle filigree keyboard figures on ‘Have You Seen a Horizon Lately’ or the klezmeresque clarinet near the end of ‘Yang Yang.”
And Yoko remains a subversive presence despite her nods to rock convention, which is likely as she intended. Her vocal style is pleasant enough but still an acquired taste. She sings softly, she speaks and recites through sections (“What Did I Do?”) and she very occasionally breaks out some squawks and squeals, but they are all the more effective for their rarity.
It’s not just her voice, it’s the lyrics to these songs and her overall attitude and delivery that make Approximately Infinite Universe an incredible album that had a definite influence on a variety of music that was to come. If you mention Approximately Infinite Universe or Feeling the Space to a bunch of random music fans, those who have heard of it at all will very likely identify it as a ‘feminist album’ or say that Yoko Ono was a ‘strident feminist’ at this time of her life. But the songs on Universe take a variety of life circumstances as their topic, and sometimes in a personal way.
The title character in “Death of Samantha” isn’t overtly selling women’s liberation. After all, she reminds us, “People say I’m cool/Ya’, I’m a cool, chick baby.” She lives by society’s rules and everybody loves her, but that can’t protect her: “But something inside me/Something inside me died that day.” The ‘something’ could refer to so many things, from small details to life-shattering events. The girl in the title song could be the same girl or a different one:
In this approximately infinite universe,
I know a girl who’s raising constant hell.
No love or bottle could fix her good,
‘Cause there’s a thousand holes in her head
Sure, there are the obvious feminist screeds like “What a Bastard the World Is” but most of the songs here are about the way that a male-dominated society, obsessed with appearances, celebrity, war, and consumerism works to defeat everyone. She upset her feminist comrades with the lullaby “I Want My Love to Rest Tonight” with its conciliatory lyrics: “If we all knew that no one’s to be ashamed/But that the society is to be blamed/We could then come together again/And direct our energies towards changing the world.”