‘HAS FLUXUS HAD AN INFLUENCE ON YOU?’
12 May 2006
I took a sip from the cup of tea. Looked out the window at some students walking by all dressed up as doctors and nurses. Then took another sip from my cup and started. What I said went something like this:
‘Ten years ago I had never heard of Fluxus. All right, maybe 15 years ago but it would have been years before I had any idea what they were about. Added to that it was only four years ago that I bought a book about them and then got that big Codex Fluxus book. It was after I started doing the Penkiln Burn stuff and people started to ask me if I had been influenced by Fluxus that I thought I had better find out what this Fluxus was all about.
It was only after I started to read up about Fluxus that I began to realise how influenced by it I had been over the years. And as with Cornelius Cardew, I had no idea how influenced I had been by this bunch of New York-based artists and composers from the early 1960s.
When I was six years old, back in 1959, my sister had already been having piano lessons for a couple of years. In our house we had what was rather pretentiously called an upright grand. It had belonged to my paternal grandmother. But before that it had belonged to someone else in the family. It had a date of manufacture on it: 1874. It was a very ornate piano with candelabra to help the pianist read music in the evenings. I had no idea if it was any good. Other than a wind-up record player and some 1920s’ 78s that had belonged to my great uncle, this piano was the only access to music we had in the house. There was no television and my parents never listened to music on the radio, but on Sunday evenings my mother would occasionally try to get us around the piano to sing while either she or my big sister played. What these songs were I can’t remember, all I know is they must have been dull to leave no impression on me. What I do remember is that I wished I could play the piano and if I had been able to I’m sure the music I would have made would have been far better than the dull fare on offer on those far-off Sunday evenings.
I asked my mother if I could have piano lessons. She told me I couldn’t have any until I had learned to read properly. At the time, I was in the backward class at school. My reading was way behind. It never caught up, so I never got the piano lessons.
It must have been around that time when I was refused the opportunity to have piano lessons that my complicated relationship with this piano began. Left on my own I would spend hours tinkling on it making up random tunes. And other things like how high I had to drop a marble to hit one of its keys to make a sound. I don’t remember ever trying to work out proper tunes that other people knew. It was always just these odd random tunes. Some days I would take out my frustrations on this piano, I would bang the keys as hard as I could with open hands, all over the keyboard. Then I would do it as quietly as I could. Then build it up again louder and louder. As much as I may have been tempted, I never used my actual fists. At that stage I doubt I had ever heard a piano concerto or seen one of the great pianists like Rubinstein on TV so I don’t know what I might have been mimicking.
Then some time in the early 1960s I discovered that I could remove a board above the foot pedals and below the keyboard. Once this was removed I could stick my head inside the sound box of the piano. Once my head was in I would stay there for up to an hour at a time while I scratched, tapped, plucked or did anything else that would get sounds out of the piano wires. It always helped if I had one of my feet on the sustain pedal of the piano. This would enable the sounds that I was making while my head was stuck in the sound box to reverberate on and on and on.
I’m not saying I was doing this every day or even every week, and I would only ever do it if there were no family members about, but I carried on doing it for the next 25 or so years until I was 33 and a third.
There was nothing like it. It was an escape into this world where endless sound was all around. Sound as big as the universe. Sound not tied down to hummable tunes or corny rhythms.
Some time in the mid 1960s, by which time I’d been doing my head in the piano thing for a few years, I saw a feature on telly about people smashing up a piano with sledgehammers. It not only looked fantastic, it also sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. What I wanted to do was get a sledgehammer and smash up our piano just to hear those sounds at close quarters for myself.
At that time the country was full of old pianos that nobody could play anymore. They were all left over from a time before radios and record players, when people had to make their own music. To be able to play the piano was a social skill that many a young man aspired to. Every pub had one. But you know that, you’ve seen enough old films. There was another problem for these old pianos. Central heating. When it came in for the masses in the 1960s. central heating completely fucked these pianos. Buckled their frames, made them impossible to keep in tune.
After this one showing of a piano being smashed on telly, piano smashing swept the country. No village fete was complete without a piano smashing contest. Soon all the pianos available for smashing in the country had been smashed. So piano-smashing faded from the place it held for a few years in the public imagination and popular culture. Except I kept dreaming of smashing our piano. By the time I reached my teens neither my sister nor mum ever played it. I was the only one in the family who used it for anything other than stacking things on top.
Piano-smashing, and this piano in particular, will be brought back into this text at a later stage. But for the time being they are being sidelined in favour of Yoko Ono. There should be a chapter later in this book dealing with whatever the rock band has meant as a cultural phenomena and how the rock band is a completely spent force as a creative medium. That chapter will feature The Beatles heavily.
But in this chapter I will not mention The Beatles. Instead I will zoom into 1969 when I first became aware of Yoko Ono as the girlfriend of John Lennon and they started doing those things together. I had no idea who she was or where she came from. I also had no context to place what they were doing. I just took it for granted and thought … I was going to say brilliant, but I am aware that whenever I think something is pretty good I either use the word brilliant or the word fantastic. There was an article by a journalist, in The Guardian I think, who was telling us how the words brilliant and fantastic were banned by their reviews editor, as these words tell you nothing about what is being described and only inform the reader of how bland and unoriginal the journalist is. I agree with this reviews editor but find myself time and again drawn to using the words brilliant and fantastic. I will endeavour to get through the rest of this book without using either.
Well, back to John and Yoko. Not only did I love the ramshackle nature of The Plastic Ono Band singles they made, ‘Cold Turkey’, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and ‘The War Is Over’ one, but all the other stuff; spending a week in a bed as a protest against the Vietnam war; sending an acorn to all the world leaders; placing a bill board poster up in Time Square that read ‘War Is Over If You Want It’; releasing an album with a picture of yourselves naked in a completely A sexual way on the cover and calling the album Two Virgins. The fact that the album was completely unlistenable seemed to make it even better every soddin’ act in the world could make a listenable to album, it took something else to make one that nobody could ever listen to all the way through, one side let alone the whole thing.
Sometime around then I read about how this Yoko Ono had got a pair of step ladders and when you climbed to the top of them there was a small mirror facing you and on the mirror was the word YES. In all the acres of sneering press coverage that surrounded the antics of John and Yoko I must have read that Yoko Ono was an artist. I presumed that her being an artist meant she painted pictures or something, I had no idea at this time that all this stuff John and Yoko were doing together was art. Her art. Their art. Even great art. All I knew was that I thought it was both brilliant and fantastic.
Everything that John Lennon did after The Plastic Ono Band stuff I found immensely dull. As for the ‘Imagine’ song and even worse the promotional film that went with it, I could not believe how pompously trite a record could be. This was vanity writ large. It almost excuses Bono.
Between the years 1983 and 1986, when I was working as an A&R man for Warner Brothers, I was given an office in Soho, off Broadwick Street. In the office I had the roll-top desk that my father had used all his life and the family piano. There was no record or cassette player. I never listened to any cassettes that anybody sent in. If anybody came by and wanted me to listen to their stuff, I asked them to play it on the piano. By this time, after years of damage caused by central heating, this piano was beyond being tuned. My reckoning was that if a song was any good it would still sound great on an old, broken and out-of-tune piano. I don’t think any of them ever did. Jimmy Ruffin once came in looking for a deal. I told him I’d buy him lunch if he played ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’, he sat down at the piano and sang it for me while playing it. This seemed to prove my rule. It sounded like an eternally great pop tune should. Pete Townsend also came in one day. It was when he was a part-time editor at Faber & Faber, he was interested in me doing text for a book about Liverpool. I wanted to ask him to play ‘My Generation’on the piano, but I didn’t have the nerve.
During these three years of prostitution I would still find myself removing the panel under the keyboard, sticking my head inside the sound box and scratching, plucking and banging the wires. I would be there exploring a world of sound weirder and more exciting than anything I was supposed to be listening to with a view to signing and turning it into an international platinum-selling act.
On my last day at Warners I planned to go out and buy a sledgehammer and smash up the piano then and there in my office. It was to be my parting shot to music. Other things happened. I never bought the sledgehammer and I don’t know what happened to the piano.
It was not until some point in the 1990s that I got to hear about Fluxus; that they were an art movement of sorts, based in New York although the individuals involved were drawn from all around the world; that Yoko Ono, although Japanese, had been part of this movement. I also started to learn that what she had been doing in the late 1960s and very early 1970s with John Lennon was as much part of her practice as an artist as anything she might have done that got put into a gallery with white walls and a catalogue essay and everything.
When I was learning about the history of art in the early 1970s there was no mention of Fluxus. New York in the 1960s was Pop Art and colour field painting. As I said, it was only after numerous people had asked me about Fluxus that I got around to reading a book about them. This must have been 1998 or 1999. Up until then I had never heard of George Maciunas. I had no idea they were as much about music as visual arts. Their thinking about music had nothing to do with what had evolved in the US over the previous hundred years. A big part of me had been thinking for over a decade that if ever there was to be a music to engage me again, it would had to have evolved from some source other than the American tradition. As for what was now being called World Music, it so often came over as Easy Listening for the hip and liberal. It was never listened to by us Western whites in the same way or for the same reasons as those that it was being made for originally. [yes but that’s as true of blues etcetc]
But I digress, back to Fluxus. What I discovered, and you probably already guessed was that this piano-smashing thing that I saw on telly in the 1960s was a Fluxus concert. I have no idea which of the composers or artists associated with Fluxus came up with the score that required the performer to smash up a piano but I am sure, whoever it was had no idea that it would have such an influence on grass-roots popular culture in Britain. And on me in particular.
Yet again, I didn’t say all this to Neil Cooper from MAP magazine. After I took that last sip of tea a few pages back I rounded it off by saying something about how the actions of Yoko Ono with John Lennon in tow had a huge influence in the whole way that I approach many of the things that I’ve attempted to do: the power of the symbolic act has had a great hold on my imagination ever since. Whether those symbolic acts have had any influence, positive or otherwise, on the world at large, I have no idea.
With out Fluxus I don’t think Yoko Ono would have developed as an artist in the way she did. Without the inspiration of Yoko Ono I don’t think my mind would have developed in the way that it did. And then there is the destruction thing. The need to destroy what has gone before to enable one to move on has been a reccuring theme in what I do, even if I wish it wasn’t. So, yes, Fluxus has had a powerful influence on me. Even if it has been roundabout and unseen from where I was standing.
Before I get on with responding in full to Neil Cooper’s next question I have one last thing I want to say about Yoko Ono.
Some years ago I was asked by a BBC Radio producer to write and front a radio series about the influence of art on pop and pop on art. It was obviously a rich seam to be mined. I was not only flattered to be asked, I was up for the challenge. The trouble was, I had a ton of work things of my own to be getting on with so I put the BBC off for a year. When the year was up they contacted me again. I told them I was still busy but went in for meetings with them. They were people I got on well with. The remit seemed pretty broad but the last thing I was interested in doing was interviewing ex-members of all those British bands that had started their lives in British art schools. I no longer had any interest in the music they had produced, and I couldn’t fake it.
By the end of the meeting I had agreed that if some once-in-a-decade chance of an interview came up then I would make myself available. Two months later I got the call. Yoko Ono was going to be in the country promoting some remix of one of her 1970s records. Obviously I had no interest in whatever this music record was, but duly came into the BBC to interview her.
Now I want you to know that I had never thought of Yoko Ono as a physically attractive woman. I liked the fact that she had never felt the need to try and present herself in an obviously sexualised way. Mind you, I hated the way she presented herself in that subservient role of opening the shutters on the promotional film for Imagine while John Lennon sat at the piano playing the genius.
The men from the BBC wanted to know if I had done my homework on Yoko Ono. I felt I didn’t need to as I knew more than enough already. And what I really wanted to achieve was an interview with her that didn’t mention John Lennon.
And so to Broadcasting House. I turned up and so did Yoko. We were put in a studio together, a small table between us. Behind her was the studio window, behind which I could see the engineer, and the two producers and Yoko Ono’s PR people all staring back at me.
I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. I know the mistakes that interviewers make. I have learnt how to help them out when they seem to lose their way. I also know that if there is something particular I want to say, I will be able to shoehorn it into the interview whatever the questions that are being asked.
Yoko Ono was not what I was expecting at all. She was a woman who had just turned 70. I had done that much research. And as I have already stated, she had never figured as a sexual being in my imagination. An interesting and, at times, great artist but not ‘Yeah, Yoko Ono, I’d give her one’. But sitting in front of me was this diminutive 70-year-old woman who oozed sexuality. And then there was the cleavage. What is a poor man supposed to do?
The green light goes on and I make the classic journalistic mistake. I ask long convoluted questions, that she is then able to answer in one word, ‘yes’. Then another long convoluted question, another one word answer, ‘no’. There I was wanting to show her that I knew and respected a lot about her work but instead of just asking something simple like ‘What do you consider in your long career as an artist is your most important work?’ Corny I know but at least it might have got her going. When she did move off the one word answer it was to try and bring John Lennon into it. We spoke for about 30 minutes. At no time did it feel like a conversation. And that was that.
So maybe this last bit about me and Yoko Ono has got nothing to do with the question ‘Has Fluxus had an influence on you?’ but there again no Fluxus, no Yoko (well, in the way that we know her and her work); no Yoko, no me interviewing her; no me interviewing her; no me coming to the realisation I should never have thought I could front a radio programme.
I take the last sip of tea from my cup, order another one and ready myself for the next question.