There is a story about John Lennon hearing the B-52s’ 1978 song Rock Lobster at a disco in the Bahamas. Struck by the vocal similarities to his wife Yoko Ono’s music, he was inspired to go back into the studio for the first time since 1974, and the duo recorded Double Fantasy just before Lennon’s death in 1980.
“The story goes that he calls up Yoko and says ‘Get the axe out – they’re ready for us again,” B-52s guitarist Keith Strickland told Q magazine in 1992.
Lennon may have been a little hasty, because for most of the past 30 years Ono’s visceral avant-garde rock has remained an object of ridicule for the ill-informed. Over the past decade, Ono has gradually begun to receive a modicum of respect for her musical discoveries. But even she is surprised at the speed with which 2009 became the year it was OK to like her.
“It’s really funny,” she says. “In June I got a lifetime achievement award in Venice, and then I got one from Mojo magazine in London. But also the dance version of I’m Not Getting Enough became No.1 too – all in the same month! I was thinking ‘What is going on here?’ And then I realised the song was called I’m Not Getting Enough, so maybe somebody upstairs thought ‘Well, she’s saying she’s not getting enough, maybe we should give it to her.’ ”
This recognition did not go unnoticed by her son, Sean Lennon, who coaxed his mother back into the studio to make her first album since Blueprint For A Sunrise in 2001.
The album Between My Head And The Sky, released on Sean Lennon’s Chimera label, is a personal affair, even down to the band name.
“Sean wanted me to call it Plastic Ono Band,” Ono says. “When John passed away, I felt like I didn’t want to use Plastic Ono Band again. There was a block there but when Sean asked me, I realised it’s a family name, like the name of a bakery or something.”
The album was even recorded in New York’s Sear Sound studios, the same premises as the old Hit Factory, where John and Yoko recorded Double Fantasy.
Ono tells a story of taking a catnap on a sofa during the recording sessions. “I suddenly noticed that somebody quietly covered me with a khaki army surplus coat. That was exactly what John did when we were going through a long recording session one night … I looked up and it was Sean.”
The album recalls the classic Plastic Ono Band records of old. It is full of the exploratory vocalising of 1971’s Fly and the more reflective moments heard on Approximately Infinite Universe in 1973. But with Japanese electronic pop genius Cornelius at the helm for tracks like The Sun Is Down, there’s a forward-facing feel to the album.
This is no mean feat for a 76-year-old, especially one so long misunderstood by the rock establishment. “If that affected me too much, I would have been dead by now,” Ono says impishly. “But I enjoyed the world of creativity so much, it didn’t really affect me. And now it seems like I’ve lived long enough, thank you very much, that people are starting to share my experience. And I love that.”
Between My Head And The Sky is out now on Chimera Music.