Back in 1971, with The Beatles now well and truly over. With the open road of solo stardom beckoning, John Lennon was looking to break free from the shackles of boyband stardom and establish himself as an evocative and provocative artist in his own right. His main outlet for the experimental and eccentric music he craved to create, the passionate pursuit of artistic liberation, was, invariably, Yoko Ono.
However, on one night in 1971, at New York’s Fillmore East, Yoko Ono was matched by another peculiar musician who demanded the same values of creative innovation; Frank Zappa. One of the madmen of rock and roll, Zappa made a name for himself living on the cutting edge of experimental rock.
Sadly, many fans of The Beatles will still recoil when they hear the name Yoko Ono, such is the vehemence over her apparent part in the dissolution of the Fab Four. The truth is that without her, we wouldn’t have got anywhere near the kind of wondrous music that Lennon produced after The Beatles and in the band’s final years. If you think Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles, then you’re sadly mistaken.
Ono’s contribution to Lennon’s output can truly never be underestimated, her recent and rightfully gained co-writer credit on ‘Imagine’ is testament enough to that. Many people would often say that John’s work after The Beatles was merely her work channelled through the Liverpudlian. Whether you believe that or not is up for debate but, to put it very, very simply, no Yoko means no ‘Imagine’ and we dread to think of a world without that song in it.
With that said, you can also understand why people may have found her style a little hard to take, despite its obvious artistic merit. Frank Zappa had also found himself in the unenviable position of ‘polarising artist’ from time to time in his long career. It is remarkable then that the two people joining Lennon on stage would provide such an excellent and potent performance. Maybe performance is too strong a word — a jam session is what it was.
It all came about in very strange circumstances. “A journalist in New York City woke me up – knocked on the door and is standing there with a tape recorder and goes, ‘Frank, I’d like to introduce you to John Lennon,’ you know, waiting for me to gasp and fall on the floor,” Zappa recalled on his 1984 Interview Picture Disc. “And I said, ‘Well, okay. Come on in.'”
Adding: “And we sat around and talked, and I think the first thing he said to me was, ‘You’re not as ugly as I thought you would be.’ So anyway, I thought he had a pretty good sense of humour, so I invited him to come down and jam with us at the Fillmore East. We had already booked in a recording truck because we were making the Live at the Fillmore album at the time.” It would end up being one of the most notable moments in rock history as the Beatle and the beast would duel on the stage.
The footage below sees Zappa and The Mothers of Invention welcome the rock and roll royalty Ono and Lennon on stage at Fillmore East, New York, to an open-mouthed audience. A gaggle of musicians worthy of paying very close attention to. The pulsating group would not disappoint.
The ensemble, as large as they are, get set to perform Walter Ward’s ‘Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)’, with Zappa leading the charge, shouting the key of the track above the crowd, reiterating, “Not standard blues changes,” Lennon steps up to the mic. He eyes the room with his mischievous grin and introduces the song, saying: “A song I used to sing while I was in the Cavern in Liverpool. I haven’t done it since.”
What follows is a complex concoction of Zappa wailing with his axe like the true guitar hero he is, and Yoko Ono doing her own kind of wailing. Screeching across this track like a wounded animal doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings short of people saying “why is that girl screeching?” – but it does get better for Ono.
The follow-up jams of ‘Jamrag’, ‘King Kong,’ and ‘Scumbag’, all allow Ono’s experimental side to come to the fore with aplomb. It offers up a perfect argument for all those willing to wholly discredit the artist. Below, all of the pieces of the puzzle come together as the group deliver an astounding performance.
Lennon later told the BBC of the show: “It was a 12-bar kind of thing I used to do at the Cavern. It was pretty good with Zappa because he’s pretty far out, as they say – so we blended quite well.”
Watch below as Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention are joined on stage by John Lennon and Yoko Ono for a very special performance from back in 1971.