The Rear View Mirror: Yoko Ono’s Genre-Bending Fly, 50 Years Later

This month, AnalogPlanet launches The Rear View Mirror, an ongoing series extensively reviewing notable albums from the past. Entries, which will be posted at least once a month, are limited to one album per artist per year. And what better way to launch it than with a 50th anniversary review of Yoko Ono’s Fly?

Few figures in pop culture are as simultaneously revered, reviled, and politely respected as Yoko Ono. Frequently unfairly scapegoated for breaking up The Beatles, many Beatlemaniacs continually deride Yoko’s art, particularly her signature avant-garde vocalizations. For brevity’s sake, we’ll only look at Yoko’s recorded output; her other art is best analyzed elsewhere. Her 1968-69 experimental records with husband John Lennon are more sound art than music—time hasn’t helped the Unfinished Music volumes (“dilettante garbage,” Lester Bangs said), and the Wedding Album’s call-and-response first side “John & Yoko” still tests listeners’ patience. Her vocals on Live Peace In Toronto 1969’s second side are skillful, yet severely underserved by the meandering instrumentation; as technically impressive as “John John (Let’s Hope For Peace)” might be, you’ll have absolutely no desire to revisit it.

As John prepared his monumental John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP with Phil Spector, Ringo Starr, and Klaus Voorman, Yoko recorded her own record, Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Backed by the Lennon/Starr/Voorman trio (and on “AOS,” the Ornette Coleman Quartet), Ono crafted a forward-thinking blend of proto-punk and free music. Lennon’s guitar performances are his most wonderfully chaotic, and Ono’s vocalizations are primal yet tightly controlled. Of course, the world wasn’t yet ready for Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band: as Lester Bangs wrote in his positive Rolling Stone review, “Anyone performing avant-garde music is laying themselves open to a certain amount of hostility and derision at the outset. Not only do most people have no taste for the kind of far-out warbling Yoko specializes in; they probably wouldn’t give her the time of day if she looked like Paula Prentiss and sang like Aretha.”

A couple of weeks after Imagine’s release, Yoko released her 95-minute double album Fly. While the couple recorded “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For A Hand In The Snow)” before Plastic Ono Band, their August 1971 move to New York City saw them finish Imagine and Fly. Transitioning between Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band’s daring experimentalism and Approximately Infinite Universe’s conventional pop rock, Fly is Yoko Ono’s musical peak, when the accessible and avant-garde collided in a sprawling yet focused vision. “Yoko’s album has the best kind of all kinds of music, from rock ‘n roll to ballad to avant-garde… even Indian music. It has the best of each kind of music on the album,” Lennon said in September 1971.

With the core backing group of Lennon, bassist Klaus Voorman, and drummer Jim Keltner plus contributions from Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Jim Gordon, and others, Yoko delivers some of her most engaging performances. Opening side one is the “Heartbreak Hotel”-inspired “Midsummer New York”’s panicked avant-blues freakout. Lennon’s searing guitar riffs and Keltner’s steady beat appropriately back Ono’s emotive singing, processed with slapback echo. “Mind Train,” a 17-minute jam, slowly builds with Yoko’s carefully restrained, likely partially improvised “screams” or “yelps:” “Dub dub train, passed through my mind/Thought of killing that man/33 windows shining like a….”

The brief but excellent “Mind Train” opens side two. With enveloping folky acoustic guitars and Yoko’s disembodied vocals, it sounds like a psychotic interpretation of Led Zeppelin III. “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” recorded with Clapton and Starr in 1969, is passionately addressed to Yoko’s then-lost daughter Kyoko Chan Cox. (In short, Ono’s estranged second husband Anthony Cox gained custody of Kyoko, and disappeared into a Christian cult. Yoko and Kyoko reunited in the late 1990s.) Lennon and Clapton’s interlocking guitars have a loose yet contained off-the-walls sound, appropriate for Yoko’s repeated “Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry” mantra. It’s sung to Kyoko, but it’s as if Yoko is trying to convince herself “don’t worry.” “Mrs. Lennon” is a spacious piano and organ ballad about Yoko’s public image at the time: “Husband John extended his hand/Extended his hand to his wife/And he finds/And suddenly he finds/That he has no hands/They’ve lost their bodies!” (Later on, Alex Chilton admitted to subconsciously plagiarizing “Mrs. Lennon” for Big Star’s “Holocaust.”) “Hirake (Open Your Box)” is Fly’s least interesting track; Ono’s hectic vocalizations are of course adept, but it feels unnecessary over this instrumentally straightforward blues jam. As advertised, “Toilet Piece/Unknown” clears the listener’s mind, leading into “O’Wind (Body Is The Scar Of Your Mind)”’s hypnotic tablas and soaring, reverberant vocals.

One of the inner sleeves contains this note: “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of making special instruments for special emotions—instruments that lead us to emotions arrived by their own motions rather than by our control [...] Joe Jones Tone Deaf Music Co. [has] been making such instruments for 10 years almost unnoticed. Joe built me eight new instruments specifically for this album which can play by themselves with minimum manipulation (turning switches only).” Like Ono, Joe Jones was involved in that era’s radical Fluxus community; his mechanical instruments, used on Fly’s third side, cling and clang in large, nightmarish soundscapes. “Airmale,” made for Lennon’s Erection film, uses these instruments plus tape manipulations and lots of reverb. “Don’t Count The Waves” has a certain eeriness akin to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” while “You” is another lengthy composition à la “Airmale.” The 23-minute title track, composed for Yoko’s Fly film, is incredibly sparse, spotlighting her heavily edited—and to some, challenging to listen to—vocals. “Hello? This is Yoko,” she simply states on the concluding “Telephone Piece.”

Even the biggest Yoko fans will admit: her music isn’t for everyone. Some might appreciate Approximately Infinite Universe (which, despite its coke-era studio bloat, has stellar moments) and songs like “Mrs. Lennon,” but find the “Yoko screaming” pieces intolerable. Disliking aspects of Yoko Ono the human being is perfectly valid, even encouraged (blindly agreeing with public figures is never a good idea). However, unrelentingly disparaging her art, whether or not you like it, is an outdated stance. Fly is one of the few lengthy 70s albums that 50 years later still holds up; while Lennon’s statement about it having “the best of each kind of music” is clear hyperbole, he’s partially correct. It’s an album that has aspects that appeal to contrasting audiences, but even the “normal” material has an unusual bent. While many critics recently came around to Yoko’s early musical output, the general public still follows the “Yoko Ono, the screaming woman who broke up the Beatles” mentality. It’s time to change that.

The original US, UK, and Japanese editions of Fly have region-specific versions of “Telephone Piece;” the UK and Japanese pressings are expensive, though in mint condition the Bell Sound-mastered US Apple pressings are only about $60-70. I have the 2017 Secretly Canadian/Chimera Music white vinyl reissue (black vinyl also available), done by Greg Calbi, Ryan Smith, and Sean Ono Lennon at Sterling Sound. (The former two are credited for the CD/digital mastering while Calbi and Ono Lennon are credited for vinyl mastering, although Smith cut the vinyl.) There’s a tiny bit of digital glare, but the tonal balance is fine and much of the analog “magic” is still preserved (though there is some noticeable lacquer pre-echo). While an original Apple pressing is probably better, for $25 the Secretly Canadian pressing satisfies. The standard weight RTI white (with black marbling) vinyl pressing is decent; both discs have slight dish warps and light surface noise (a typical trend for white vinyl), but play well. (Side 4’s quiet material highlights the surface noise, though if you don’t like that, buy the CD!) The packaging is excellent: included is a tip-on gatefold jacket, a 22x22” poster, a new 16-page booklet with photos of Yoko and John, plus a replica of the original “A Hole To See The Sky Through” card. New “Grapefruit” disc labels replace the original Apple ones, and the Yoko-designed inner sleeves are on era-correct thin paper stock. While the Secretly pressing probably isn’t the best sonically, for its low price the packaging is above and beyond, and it goes beyond a mere collection placeholder.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter: @MalachiLui and Instagram: @malachi__lui)

Mark Evans's picture

and look forward to many more. I starting listening and appreciating her music at the same time as I began listening to other creative improvised music.

dial's picture


SloppyJoeBuck's picture

This was a good read! While Yoko's music can certainly be a challenge for me, I am all about her PoB and Fly albums. Funny enough, "Mind Train" from this album is the song where Yoko first clicked for me.

Also, on an unrelated note, are there any plans for anyone at AP to review the Beach Boys' Feel Flows set? I've seen all kinds of opinions about the sound quality/mastering, but waiting for your voices to chime in before deciding whether or not to fork over the cash for it.

Michael Fremer's picture
I downloaded the files from UMG and it sounded ridiculously compressed so I passed. What have you heard?
SloppyJoeBuck's picture

Thanks Michael! That's really all I'd need to know. I haven't heard a non-streaming version myself, but the opinions I've seen tend to fall into one of the following camps:

*Mids are scooped, bass is jacked waaaay up.

*"Nah, it's fine, you're just being crotchety."

I use Spotify for the car/work, and although I've given some of it a listen there, Spotify absolutely isn't going to give an accurate representation of what to expect from a lossless, cd, or vinyl version.

patony407's picture

How can someone so young have hearing that is so bad. This stuff is pure crap.

MalachiLui's picture

i could say the same about you with more validity, but i don't. my opinion on what makes this music more than "pure crap" is well-articulated... i don't see why you have such a big problem.

dial's picture

Yoko was funny and feminist but she didn't produce anything before she met John. Read The Lives of John Lennon, Lennon in My Life, The Love You Make, The Playboy interview, Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon & see The Mike Douglas show.
Sonic Youth or perhaps only Kim Gordon likes her.

Tom L's picture

you are correct, but to say "she didn't produce anything" before that is not really right. Yoko was primarily a visual and conceptual artist prior to meeting John in 1966. She did some music-associated work, such as lying on a piano that was being played by her mentor John Cage, and used sound in some of her art. She was married to composer Toshi Ichiyanagy and later jazz musician Anthony Cox, and she was exposed to a wide range of music. Her conceptual art during her pre-Lennon life was widely praised and influential in the avant-garde New York and London artistic communities.

MalachiLui's picture

anthony cox is a film producer and art promoter, not a musician.

aside from that minor clarification, i agree with your point.

dial's picture

Modern art is not really my thing but I realize that here you love everything that comes from the land of the rising sun. That's OK for me, she makes me laugh, really. Have you read the books i mentioned?

Tom L's picture

One of the articles I read apparently confused Yoko's Anthony Cox with the younger jazz bassist of the same name.