John Lennon & Yoko Ono - Cambridge 1969
By YOKO ONO
24 March 2014
I was asked to visit Cambridge University to perform my vocal work. Near the date, they called me, asking if I was still coming... since they knew that I was about to get married and didn't know if my plans had changed or not. "Tell him you're coming with a band," John whispered loud from the side. John and I thought it was a riot, but we didn't know they would take it at the other end of the phone. Was it alright to bring a rocker? But the guy held his ground well. It was Cambridge, so the greeting committee was cordial but cool. John took that in, of course. He joined me on the stage and played underneath my vocal. Maybe I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND? That would have been cute. But he went in for the kill and played an incredibly creative avant-garde guitar that nobody in the world had ever heard before and since. The audience didn't react to it. I was probably the only musician who was totally impressed by it. But did I express my appreciation? John loved CAMBRIDGE 1969. So for awhile, he always asked for it to be played when we were in the car. I just thought "Oh, not that one again!" "How about Yesterday?" (a joke). And when I tried to play something else he wouldn't hear of it.
Yoko Ono, 24 March 2014.
Recorded 2 March 1969, at Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge University, Cambridge
Yoko Ono: Vocals
John Lennon: Guitar
Saxophone: John Tchicai
Percussion: John Stevens
From the album Unfinished Music Vol. 2 - Life With The Lions
How John Lennon turned to Cambridge for life after The Beatles
On the eve of what would have been his 70th birthday weekend, Lizzy Dening investigates how Cambridge became the venue for John Lennon’s first concert without The Beatles, and helped cement his move away from the Fab Four to his new love, Yoko Ono.
It may seem an unlikely venue for an evening of improvised jazz, but a hallowed hall of Cambridge University was the setting for one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s most controversial works.
The 26-minute track, Cambridge 1969, which appeared on the Music No. 2: Life with the Lions album, was recorded live on February 3 of that year at a concert performed at Lady Mitchell Hall, featuring several modern jazz musicians.
John Tchicai, who played saxophone on the recording, says of John and Yoko: “We didn’t know each other before, although I think I might have already met Yoko. I wasn’t really a Beatles fan; I thought it was nice music but I hadn’t been to any concerts as I was more interested in jazz.
“The concert was in two halves – the first half consisting of John and Yoko, the second was various jazz improvisers. At the end of our set they said: ‘If you would like to join us for some improvisation, please do,’ and that is what appears on the record.
“It wasn’t composed, it was all improvised and I think people were mostly enthusiastic. I’m sure many people found it strange, it was different to the regular music of the time.
“Of course it wasn’t unusual for jazz musicians, we were used to experimenting, but I think for the audience it was not what they were expecting, particularly at that time and in England.
“John was very pleasant, quiet, calm; both of them were like this. I remember seeing them come in an old Rolls Royce with a chauffeur wearing funny clothes – it was some kind of military uniform, he wasn’t dressed at all like a chauffeur.
"I also recall John had a big alarm clock and when they started performing, he set it to ring at a certain time – that was the signal for the end of their part.”
The track and the concert itself caused great controversy partly because of the avant-garde nature of the music (which features Yoko’s high-pitched wailing and feedback from John’s guitar for much of it) but also as it was one of John’s first appearances without the Beatles.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, pictured in 1980
In an interview with Rolling Stone, John later recalled: “The first show we did together was at Cambridge University in 1968 or ’69, when she had been booked to do a concert with jazz musicians. That was the first time I had appeared un-Beatled.
“I just hung around and played feedback, and people got very upset because they recognised me: ’What’s he doing here?’ It’s always: ’Stay in your bag.’ So, when she tried to rock, they said, ‘What’s she doing here?’ And when I went with her and tried to be the instrument and not project – to just be her band, like a sort of Ike Turner to her Tina, only her Tina was a different, avant-garde Tina – well, even some of the jazz guys got upset.”
This view that the concert was not a resounding success is echoed by its creator, musician, publisher and writer Anthony Barnett. He explains how the event came about: “I was living in Cambridge, and knew John Tchicai – I had produced a concert by his Cadentia Nova Danica the year before at Wigmore Hall – and I wanted to put on a concert of new, improvised music.
The Beatles pictured in 1965
“He was the first person I invited – I don’t know if he will remember this, but he half-jokingly suggested I invite Yoko Ono. I’d edited a magazine, Nothing Doing in London, to which both he and Yoko had contributed, so he was aware that I knew her.
“Musically, a reason for asking her was she had appeared at the Royal Albert Hall with (alto saxophonist) Ornette Coleman and I’d been there and heard her ‘screaming’ thing. So I thought, why not, let’s invite her.
“I received a phone call from her saying ‘yes’, but she wanted to bring her own band. I suppose alarm bells should have started ringing at that.
“The concert was a month or two before they married, and she turned up with John and an entourage. The idea behind the concert was that everyone should play together, but they rather took over half way through for their own purposes.
“Eventually other musicians grew tired of that and started to reappear on stage. I think that it might well have been the first large-scale totally improvised, lengthy concert ever held.
“As is the nature of improvisation, huge parts were monotonous and long, others were highly creative. “I was glad for the experience, however difficult, but it also taught me not to try to stage a large concert again. Shortly afterwards, I went off to Denmark for a few years to play percussion with John Tchicai.”
He added: “The audience at Cambridge were mostly students and we encouraged them to bring their own small instruments to play. Yoko appeared on the event posters, but nobody knew she was bringing John, so I think it turned into a big occasion for the audience.
“The track (Cambridge 1969) was in no way a reflection of the concert as a whole. Tapes of the complete concert do exist and extracts were at one time planned for release. In my view, Lennon was trying to show off and be more avant-garde than anyone in avant-garde music.
“Interesting that both Tchicai’s and my names were spelt incorrectly on the inner sleeve of the LP. In fact, Lennon and Ono’s attitude in the aftermath of the concert was deeply troubling in many respects, but that is another story for another occasion.”
Whatever your opinion of the track itself, there’s no doubt that John’s first live performance with Yoko was significant to his career.
It symbolised his pull away from the band with which he’d found fame, and his commitment to the woman many people hold responsible for the break-up of the Beatles. Musically it represented his shift from catchy tunes for entertainment, to music as a form of modern art.
The rest of 1969 would see John – who would have turned 70 on Saturday – and Yoko staging their famous ‘bed in’, as well as the creation of their ‘War is Over’ campaign – ironic, perhaps, considering all the controversy and behind-the-scenes angst caused by a jazz concert in Cambridge.
For more on John Tchicai, visit www.dcn.davis.ca.us/go/jomnamo/index.html
:: The influence of John and Yoko's 'Cambridge 1969'
Cambridge 1969 is either viewed as a giant step for modern music, or a somewhat bewildering piece of music. But whatever you decide, you will probably agree you’ve not heard anything like it before.
The experimental, 26-minute opening track to John and Yoko’s second album - Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions - begins with Yoko screeching, screaming, cackling and howling, while John plays atonal feedback on his electric guitar behind her.
Most of the piece follows this style, until the final six minutes of the track when they are joined by John Stevens on percussion and John Tchicai on saxophone. After the couple finish their section, Stephens and Tchicai continue improvising as the piece fades out.
More recently, the Flaming Lips collaborated with Yoko to produce Cambridge 1969/2007, which appeared on an album of 17 different bands’ covers of her music, Yes, I’m a Witch.
The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne is reported to have told NME: “To be able to play with a track as uncompromising and confrontational as John and Yoko’s Cambridge 1969 is, for any curious artist, a rare treat.
“We took Yoko’s primal screams and John’s moaning feedback and turned them into a kind of Ornette Coleman-esque melody ... I fear we may have de-fanged rocks’ most disturbing performance-art-jam.”