Yoko Ono is often dismissed as being an irrelevant avant-garde artist. The track “Why” from this album proves that she was capable of producing some of the most exciting rock music of 1970.
By the time I finished my first year of teaching in the Summer of 1977, I realised that I wasn’t very good and it may have been a poor career choice. I was quite good with high ability children and teaching A level – I knew the material and my dry sarcasm / acerbic sense of humour were understood by pupils in these classes. I was also appreciated by the quiet, “invisible”, children in other classes because I paid them a lot of attention. I was, however, pretty hopeless with children that demanded attention and who wouldn’t follow the rules of a classroom. Lacking the charisma and perspective of some of my more talented colleagues, I was struggling to maintain discipline in a majority of my classes. Having made the classic mistake of smiling before Christmas, I was perceived as a soft touch by a small minority of students who were making it difficult for me to regain control. I resorted to writing examples on the blackboard and getting students to copy them out, filling in the blanks, because I was unable to get some of my classes silent for more than about a minute without interruption. A new Head of Department had arrived after one term and given me a huge amount of encouragement, support and advice but by this time it was too late to regain order with the classes I had. I was advised in my second year to start much more strictly. I was to have all new classes apart from my 4th Year class with Debbie Smith and Tracy Hughes, who I was to take through in the 5th Year to the end of their C.S.E. course and they continued to be a nightmare.
When I started my second year of teaching in September of 1977, I was determined to assert my authority from the start. One boy, I forget his name, sat at the front of my Computer Studies C.S.E. class and when I started to speak, he picked up a copy of the most boring book in the world “Primer Of Computing”, which was to be the bedrock of the next two years very dull course and interrupted me by asking what was in the book. I blasted at him, raising my voice and making it clear that he wasn’t to interrupt me, that I was talking, that he was just a pupil and I was the teacher. He looked genuinely hurt and surprised. He wasn’t a perfect student from that moment on but, by the end of the two years we had learned to co-exist peacefully. I was similarly intolerant of interruption with all my other classes and frequently raised my voice. I don’t want to say that I shouted or screamed at classes although there were probably times when it would have been possible to de-classify a raised voice as a shout. A very quiet girl in my 4th Year class told her form teacher that she was scared of me. Ruth Brent: I’m sorry.
From the perspective of 2021, I regret ever having raised my voice at a child. For some young people, all they ever experience is being shouted at. What they need is love, not hate. All you need is love. Raising the volume of interactions between adult and child is counter-productive.
On the other hand, letting teenagers know the consequences of their behaviour is necessary for them to understand how they are part of a large human system where everyone has feelings. Setting out clear boundaries and making it clear that crossing these boundaries is unacceptable is doing children a favour, it’s not a hindrance.
My deeply felt feelings were rarely directed at children from a poor, deprived home. The ones that really annoyed me were the spoiled, entitled children who experienced no boundaries at home and felt that the rules didn’t apply to them. Despite all this self-justification, I wish I could say that I had gone through 40 years of teaching without ever having raised my voice at a child, let alone shouted at one.
I worked with lots and lots of lovely teachers (and a few who were not so lovely). I also worked with some brilliant teachers (and a few who were not so great). Being a lovely person doesn’t make you a great teacher. In fact, I would say that to be a successful teacher in a British Comprehensive School, you have to have a hard edge. I can remember one really lovely guy that I once worked with and I still occasionally see him socially. He worked very hard and had the best interests of his classes at heart. Many of the pupils that he taught really liked him a lot and yet he gave up teaching after a few years because he couldn’t be tough and mean with his classes and a small minority of children gave him the runaround and made his life a misery.
There have been times when my raised voice has turned into an angry shout. Sad to say, but after letting rip at a child, I quite often felt calmer. I think I found it cathartic at times to express my frustration by showing my true feelings. It doesn’t make me a good person to have angry feelings when dealing with children but I would defy most people not to feel angry when, for example, a loud mouthed, large, intellectually challenged boy bullies a small, timid girl by making her feel unwanted and hated. Or when a class full of motivated students have to sit in silence while two lazy spoiled boys have an angry interaction between themselves making it impossible for me to teach or for the class to learn.
I’ve just googled “Is shouting good for you” and various websites claim that a good way to take the edge off of anxious feelings is to scream. Hitting a punching bag can also help to relieve frustration. Ancient Chinese wisdom promotes yelling loudly. Tennis players often grunt whilst serving and this increases strength. Letting anger simmer beneath the surface is very bad for your health and can cause high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks or headaches. My own experience certainly corroborates the idea that an angry outburst is often followed by a feeling of calmness.
In 1970 John Lennon and Yoko Ono underwent primal scream therapy in England and the USA under the tutelage of Arthur Janov. By reliving the pain of birth, repressed emotions can be released. When I wrote about John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album, I said “Arthur Janov is clearly a nutcase. On the first page of his “Primal Scream” book, he claims that primal scream therapy can cure homosexuality, cramps and PMS, it can fix terrible posture, men can grow beards for the first time and women’s breasts can grow larger.” (James Earl Jones claimed that primal scream therapy cured him of his haemorrhoids). Nevertheless, I can see the sense of shouting/screaming to relieve tension.
Yoko Ono is commonly believed to have broken up The Beatles and cashed in on John Lennon’s musical brilliance to start her own musical career. I don’t believe in either of these. There’s no space here to discuss why The Beatles broke up but let’s consider Yoko Ono’s musical career. She learned the piano from the age of 4. From the age of 14 she studied “lieder” singing. This involves setting poetry to music, creating two simultaneous lines of melody. This lead her to explore avant-garde music, especially Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. Before she met John Lennon, she performed radical musical performances at The Carnegie Hall in New York and The Bluecoat Society of Arts in Liverpool. This was in addition to her other experimental art projects. The point is that before she met The Beatles, she was producing avant-garde music. Another performance, relevant to this album, took place on 25th February 1968 in which she appeared on stage with Ornette Coleman at The Royal Albert Hall. One song from this concert, “AOS”, appears on “Yoko Ono / Plastic Ono Band”. This had nothing to do with John Lennon or The Beatles. (On 25th February 1968, John and Cynthia Lennon were in Rishikesh, studying transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). At times, it’s quite hard to distinguish between Ornette Coleman’s saxophone playing and Yoko Ono’s voice.
The first Beatle that Yoko Ono met was Paul McCartney whom she approached, asking if he could provide her with a Beatle artefact to present to John Cage for his birthday in 1966. He declined but suggested she contact John Lennon who gave her the original handwritten lyrics for “The Word”.
Having undergone primal scream therapy, John Lennon decided to record an album with Phil Spector as producer. However, when recording started on September 25th, Phil Spector was nowhere to be seen. Over the next few days, unable to contact them, John Lennon took out full page adverts in USA trade papers, telling Phil Spector that they were waiting for him. In the meantime, Yoko Ono took over as producer. Again, the point is that Yoko Ono was not a musical novice – she had highly advanced (and unconventional) musical sensibilities.
Phil Spector finally arrived on October 8th, which was John Lennon’s 30th birthday. Before the evening celebration with Klaus Voorman, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and others (but not Paul McCartney), John Lennon had invited his estranged father, Freddie, to come to his home along with his new wife and son. Possibly as a result of primal scream therapy opening up wounds about his very traumatic childhood, John Lennon ended up threatening to kill his father.
Two days later, during recording sessions for John Lennon’s album, with Phil Spector in the producer’s chair, Yoko Ono decided to join Klaus Voorman, Ringo Starr and John Lennon on the floor of the recording studio for what she called a “jamprovisation”. The excitement of the other musicians is clearly shown in the dynamic performances that they gave. In particular, Ringo Starr’s drumming, which was always brilliant, possibly reached its most creative and impressive peak on the opening track “Why”. Recording engineers were in the habit of turning off the tape machines when Yoko Ono started singing but Phil McDonald had learned not to do this and was gratified to be able to respond affirmatively when, at the end of the song, John Lennon asks “Are you getting this?” John Lennon’s guitar playing is wild and thrilling and the overall impact of this track is electrifying.
As if it wasn’t enough to play with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City” also includes George Harrison. It’s worth remembering that Yoko Ono had undergone primal scream therapy herself, she had been there while John Lennon raged at his father and she had also suffered her second miscarriage on August 1st 1970 – this informs some of the feelings expressed in this song. Although George Harrison wasn’t present during the recording, the sitar playing on the track is from a tape that he sent to the Lennons.
There are six tracks on this album and five of them were recorded in one evening on October 10th 1970. The exception is “AOS” from her 1968 concert with Ornette Coleman. The album was released on the same day as “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” with a very similar cover – Yoko Ono is leaning on John Lennon on her album and the positions are reversed on John Lennon’s album.
Expressing or listening to raw emotion can be simultaneously unsettling and cathartic.