At nearly 80 years old, Yoko Ono continues to be inspiringly lively. There could hardly be a starker way of flaunting that vibrancy than through OnoMix, her pulsing, club-ready remix album. Yoko spent her pre-teenage post-war life begging street-side at a Japanese mountain holiday resort, whilst her father found himself locked in a Vietnamese prison camp. When Yoko was a young adult, her family moved to New York, the city she still calls home.
Those tough times helped forge her, channelled into a bohemian lifestyle her family despised. Yoko evolved into an iconic feminist, an avant-garde artist, a committed political activist and an imaginative musician. She met John Lennon, the love of her life, through art, yet there’s no doubt the Beatle also saw huge power in her quirky take on music. He once joked “she forced me to become avant-garde and take my clothes off, when all I wanted was to become Tom Jones”.
Given the gritty nature of parts of her upbringing, perhaps Yoko’s peace-loving approach and work protecting the underdog aren’t all that surprising. Continuing to use music as a tool to spread those messages also seems a logical progression. Nevertheless, for an 80 year old, the launch of something as current and cutting as OnoMix is no less than remarkable.
It’s typical of Yoko that in choosing to write a form of retrospective, she does so in a less than conventional way. OnoMix is a 30-track, beat-heavy remix album featuring the likes of Basement Jaxx, Danny Tenaglia and Bimbo Jones. They work with Yoko on recreating some of her finest output, including ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ and ‘Talking To The Universe’. Yoko’s been working on the dance remix series since 2001, and sees it as a reinvention of her previous art-rock-leaning style.
What’s highlighted is the adaptability of her writing. “It’s nice to know that the artistic sensibility of the song is quite resilient”, Yoko says of the album. “It’s like the song is made of rubber, and it could stretch in many ways and still create excitement.” Some of the older tracks, highs like ‘Give Peace A Chance’, date back to the late ’60s anti-war movement and the very first days of the Plastic Ono Band, yet Yoko has found the process of returning to them more exhilarating than anything. The technical side was particularly pressing: “I had no knowledge of what you do for dance mix in the dance chart. It’s very different from what we used to do in rock to make a dance track.”
“With the dance music, I learned things I didn’t know”, Yoko continues. “At 80 years old? That’s great! I didn’t think that I would learn a whole new form of music. It is as exciting as the time I listened to music concrete or twelve-tone music. High art was always born that way…not being elitist, and not thinking about it except loving it.”
The intensely poignant backdrop of this album’s throwback nature gives it a particular flavour. ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ – the Ono-penned track that John Lennon was clutching when he was infamously murdered outside their Dakota Building apartment – also features. This is adapted into two different styles. The first is a thumping, lightly-sampling Danny Tenaglia remix that stretches to the best part of eight minutes; the second an enchantingly slow-building Eric Kupper and Francois Kevorkian dub remix. Challenge wise, “I think the obvious one is ‘Walking On Thin Ice’”, Ono confirmed. “In many ways, it was difficult, emotionally and technically”.
‘I’m Moving On’, meanwhile, was originally intended as a therapeutic way of dealing with the falseness that Yoko often felt surrounded her. The Ralphi Rosario radio remix twists the star’s vocals into a track fit for the Chicago house scene he helped create. “Sadly, the feeling of falseness is still there”, Yoko argues, “but we’ve learnt to survive through it all. That’s the difference.”
The beat-driven style Yoko’s dived into might be some distance from her more typical approach to music, but it doesn’t daunt her. Asked about whether she’s a fan of dance in general, she exclaims “Yes, Yes, Yes! For a songwriter, it is totally challenging and exciting. Dance music is now a new musical form, like opera, musical, pop and rock.”
Typically of Yoko, OnoMix comes with a political angle. The album is available as a download only, an idea born of a green philosophy. As Yoko sees it, “Being green is being human. It’s there naturally. We will become more real, and greener as we step into the future.” The concept extends generally, too. “This is an early day of the century of activism. Yoko argues “These days, it’s hard to find musicians and singer-songwriters who are not activists.”
As for her own ever-changing musical directions, Yoko tends to ignore her fame and simply get on with things. “I like to give something new to the world of creativity, hoping that it will give new excitement to people,” she explains. She’s certainly got form. Yoko’s previous work includes the experimental film ‘No. 4’, which features little but the naked buttocks of people using treadmills. Then there’s a number of dream-catching ‘wish trees’ planted globally, and the thought-provoking instructional quotes of her book ‘Grapefruit’. One part of the latter reads: “Give death announcements each time you move instead of giving announcements of the change of address. Send the same when you die.” There’s plenty of that diverse creativity here.
The album has been preceded by a huge array of singles, and the full project has topped a decade in the making. The criteria are simple: Yoko chose the artists she likes as songwriters. As for the unlikely change of direction, it comes down to nothing more than the same things that have always driven Yoko: “I just do what I am inspired to do at the time. Listen and you’ll hear the heartbeat of New York.”
As published on State.ie, December 2012