Wednesday, May 13, 2015
TMFW 88 - Yoko Ono Plays the Rat
[NOTE: Real life is getting in the way, so today's TMFW is a relatively short one.]
Jack Douglas is a record producer and engineer. Over his prolific career, he has recorded music for artists as far ranging as Miles Davis and Alice Cooper, with all sorts of groups in between. Douglas is probably most famous for his work with John Lennon (he engineered the Imagine album, produced John and Yoko's Grammy-winning Double Fantasy, and did several other John/Yoko related records) and for his work with Aerosmith (he engineered and produced most of their stuff in the 70s, including the 4x platinum Rocks and the 8x platinum Toys in the Attic.)
But today's TMFW is about a unique track that Douglas engineered that never got released. Douglas recorded Yoko Ono's double album Approximately Infinite Universe in 1972. I will confess that I have never heard a single moment of that record, but I am intrigued by song titles it includes like "I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window" (who hasn't?) and "What a Bastard the World Is" (this is the truth sometimes.) Douglas has told today's story several times over in interviews, so my retelling is an amalgam of various versions.
One of the songs Ono was working on for the album was called "Dead Rat." Douglas recalled "I had no idea what it was going to be. The music was like, ‘da da da da da da da da da da,’" and it was interspersed at various points with silence. Douglas wondered what was to become of the silence, until one day Ono (or maybe her assistant) came into the studio holding a shoebox. Inside the shoebox was "a freshly killed rat, size large," and Ono announced "'Okay, you know where the band stops playing? That's where the rat takes it.'"
Douglas, sitting with his assistant and no doubt understanding that working with John Lennon meant working with Yoko Ono too, set the rat's box on a stool and placed "an expensive mic" a few inches away. They recorded the rat's solo at the designated spot in the song, but the first take was unsatisfying. Douglas recalled "there's no noise, and I stop tape, and say to Yoko 'It's not quite right, is it?' and she says 'no, Jack, there's something wrong.'" So Douglas sent his assistant in to adjust the microphone ("about four inches up and a little to the left") and tried the recording again. The second take satisfied the artist: "I turn around and say, ‘What do you think, Yoko?’ She says, ‘It’s much better like that.’ And she’s dead serious.”
Alas, Yoko's track never saw the light of day. Though the album was four sides long, there was apparently no room the tune. Aw, rat(s).
BONUS FACT: Douglas got his start in music as a folk performer, and early jobs included writing political jingles for both Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It's a long way from that to mid-70s Aerosmith, for sure.
BONUS FACT 2: You can't write about Yoko Ono without linking to TMFW 30 subject Barenaked Ladies' classic track "Be My Yoko Ono."
BONUS FACT 2.5 The Barenaked Ladies video above features several charming clips of John and Yoko that were supplied by Ono herself; her son Sean Lennon was a fan of the song and shared it with his mom. She in turn shared the clips with the band.
BONUS FACT 2.75: In 1992, the Canadian MTV-ish channel MuchMusic made a one hour special about the Barenaked Ladies called "On Gordon Pond" which featured a clip of Yoko offering her approval of the song. You can watch the whole thing here (and I know that at least one of my readers will do that).