Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins

John Lennon

Apple, 1968


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


There are a few moments in the life of a music reviewer where, while the album is playing, one thinks to themselves, “Maybe I made an error in my life choices. Maybe it’s not too late to clean septic tanks.”

At around the 4:30 mark of the first side of Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins, the avant-garde collaboration between John Lennon and Yoko Ono, that thought crossed my mind when Ono started with her caterwauling. What had simply become difficult to listen to now crossed the line to painful… and I wasn’t even halfway through the goddamn disc.

Yes, I listened to the whole album. Everyfuckingsecondofit. I’m gonna need some serious therapy as a result… but, hey, better me than you. Hell, most people probably needed some primal scream therapy after seeing the uncensored cover of the pair au naturel – but I’ll write that off to the album coming out in the days of hippie culture.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: reviewing this album is not simply an opportunity to shit on Ono. Yes, musically she has been – shall we say, difficult – to listen to, let alone get into or appreciate. But she has had her moments (and, as you’ll read, would have on the expanded version of this disc), and in 1968, her work was already known to be well off the beaten path. Lennon himself had experimented with the avant-garde, even if it never saw the form of anything the Beatles ever released – and he was an aficionado of dark humor. So, listening to some of the aural pastiches my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 they came up with on this disc – essentially a collection of tape loops with improvised vocals and screeches from both artists – should not have been any huge surprise.

And, any Beatles fan worth their weight in salt had an inkling as to what this disc would contain, had they paid attention to “Revolution # 9” off what is conventionally known as the White Album. This was a looser collective of snippets, stretched out to just under a half hour – and a helluva lot less pleasant to listen to. (This is coming from someone who is not a fan of the White Album, especially “Revolution # 9”.)

All of this said, it’s impossible to classify Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins, as music per se. It barely qualifies as noise. It is, to put it in the nicest terms, an experiment in sound editing gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Recorded allegedly overnight as Lennon played various tape loops and instruments with vocal ad-libs between Lennon and Ono, the album has the overall sound of pure studio experimentation, seeing how mashing one instrument or tape loop with another would sound. I don’t doubt that similar processes occur to this day in some way, shape or form. The difference is that bands usually don’t release that shit to the fans, except maybe in the guise of an overpriced box set of “studio leftovers”. Lennon and Ono, however, made the fatal mistake of releasing this in the dying days of the Beatles, when fans more than likely expected something – anything – other than what this disc has to offer. And I’m gonna say it (like other critics haven’t over the course of over 55 years): this one should never have seen the light of day.

Ironically, it is the inclusion of a bonus track - “Remember Love,” the b-side of the “Give Peace A Chance” single – that gives this disc any redeeming quality. Simply a ballad featuring Lennon’s guitar work and Ono’s vocals, there is something about the track that is strangely relaxing. I’m not going to say that Ono was the greatest singer ever to step up to a microphone, but her gentle rendition of this song’s lyrics just seems to fit the track. After being hit over the head for a half hour with the cacophony of sounds that is the album proper, this song is the cool compress to ease one’s head.

That said, I have zero desire to ever listen to Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins ever again in my lifetime. There are a handful of discs I’ve heard in over 30 years of reviewing music that I can hold up and say are the worst things I’ve ever had the displeasure of listening to. If this one isn’t at the top of the list, it’s damned close. It sucks. Avoid it.

Rating: F

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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