The history of bands featuring a mother and son in the line-up is brief. There was Lieutenant Pigeon, who had a number-one hit in 1972 with Mouldy Old Dough (on honky-tonk piano, Mrs Hilda Woodward); four decades on, there’s the revived Plastic Ono Band, with octogenarian Yoko Ono on lead vocals and her son, Sean Lennon, among the (relatively) youthful bunch of rockers filling the stage behind her.
It must have been a challenge growing up in the shadow of a departed pop legend (John Lennon was murdered when Sean was five) while being looked after by such a famously, epically eccentric character as Yoko.
She got up to some pretty weird stuff – plenty of which was revisited in a lengthy montage of film clips that heralded the opening gig in this year’s Meltdown festival at the Southbank, which Ono is curating. Everything from her film of dozens of people’s bare bottoms to footage of Cut Piece, a 1964 conceptual work in which gallery-goers snip away at her clothes until she’s naked.
When the music started, it was clear that the quirks, strangeness and charm remain intact. Ono doesn’t so much sing as issue a variety of bizarre utterances. She bawls and bellows, wails and whinnies, moans and groans, and repeatedly does something that sounds rather like the chattery distress call of an anxious chimpanzee.
Meanwhile, as Sean leapt about swapping bass for guitar then switching to piano, the band churned out some sure-footed funk and blasts of riff-laden, rock-and-roll thunder. Particularly impressive was Yuko Araki’s jackhammer drumming. (Sean introduced her as the female John Bonham, there being no higher compliment.)
Songs were plucked from the band’s 2009 album, Between My Head and the Sky, and the forthcoming Take Me to the Land of Hell, which is due in September. Best of all though were three songs dating back decades.
Walking on Thin Ice (“You have to play it, Mum, it’s your hit,” said Sean) had an irresistible poignancy, being the last song John Lennon worked on, on the day he died; Mind Train from 1972 was, apparently, Sean’s favourite when he was a child (“because it had train sounds on it”) and, reworked here, it proved powerfully propulsive; while the rollicking first encore, Don’t Worry Kyoko – written for Ono’s daughter from an earlier marriage and once described by Malcolm McLaren as the first punk song – brought the wildly enthusiastic audience to its feet.
It’s inescapable that, had Ono not married one of the most famous men on the planet, she probably would not be one of the best-known conceptual artists of the past 50 years, she would not be the celebrity she is today, and she would not be “singing” in a packed major venue. But there was a good vibe in the air at the Festival Hall. She told us again and again how much she loved us, and that love was readily reflected back.
Yoko Ono is more than a rock-and-roll curiosity. She’s a caterwauling queen of the art of noise.
The Meltdown Festival, curated by Yoko Ono, continues to June 23. Visit the Southbank Centre website for more information.
Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns/Getty Images.