It was 50 Years Ago this Month: John Lennon and Yoko Ono Record Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
In November 1968, John Lennon did the most un-Beatle-ly thing imaginable. He transformed a sleep over with new gal pal Yoko Ono into the first of three experimental albums featuring all kinds of weird effects, posed nude with his new lady friend for the front and back covers, and after getting tentative approval from his Beatles buddies, unleashed it to an unsuspecting world.
Suffice it to say, the reaction was one of immediate outrage. The nude cover so repulsed the Beatles’ American record label, Capitol Records, that they refused to release it, leaving it to Track Records in the U.K. and the obscure indie label Tetragrammaton in the U.S. to do the distribution in their two home countries, respectively. Initially, the albums were sold in a removable brown bag that only allowed a view of only the couple’s faces. Eventually, the bag was, umm, shed, giving way to a brown cover that simulates the sack in its design. Paul McCartney, who was said to be appalled by the nudity, still managed to come up with a quote for the cover: “When two Saints meet, it is a humbling experience, The long battles to prove he was a Saint.”
If that seemed like an obtuse recommendation, the noises the album offered were even more so. Loops and electronic effects dominated most of the proceedings, with random bits of conversation and a few instrumental additives (piano, guitar) added by Lennon. Yoko’s screeching added further distraction, but the record was so weird to begin with that it hardly mattered.
Needless to say, Two Virgins was a commercial failure, a far cry from the immediate success every other Beatles related record had claimed until that time. It reached only as high as 124 in the U.S. and failed to chart at all in the U.K.
Nevertheless, the album marked the beginning of what would evolve into an eccentric and provocative relationship first hinted at when Lennon met Ono at an art exhibit organized around her work at London’s Indica Gallery two years prior. Lennon hadn’t acted on his attraction to the avant-garde artist until his wife Cynthia’s weekend sojourn in the Greek isles gave him obvious opportunity. When she returned unexpectedly the next morning and found them clad in white robes and staring serenely into each other’s eyes, it was clear that the Lennons’ marriage had quickly came to a crashing conclusion.
A half century later, Two Virgins is as impenetrable now as it was back then. Never mind the fact that it was Lennon’s first solo entry without any participation from the other Beatles. Or that it marked the first abject commercial failure from the band’s camp since their beginning. Or that it effectively marked the start of Lennon’s alienation from his band mates, a fracture that would eventually end not only in the Beatles‘ break-up but a bitter feud with his friend and cowriter Paul McCartney years later. Indeed, the album signalled the start of what was to be an ongoing period of outrage and absurdity, one that included bed-ins, a lost weekend in L.A., bizarre publicity stunts and other examples of musical mischief that would mark the couple’s relationship until the day Lennon died.
A curiosity in the truest sense, Two Virgins is not only weird relic of a distant age, but a captivating curiosity that remains every bit as odd as the evening it was recorded.