“Thank you, NME, for this great honour. I accept this as your encouragement for me to keep making my ‘Sound of Music’.” That’s what Yoko Ono – icon, artist, activist and musician – said of the ‘Lifetime Inspiration Award’ she will pick up the NME Awards with Austin, Texas on February 17. The ceremony will be held the at O2 Academy in Brixton and will see Ono, who turns 83 the day after the event, thanked for the massive impact she’s had on pop culture in the last 50 years, from pioneering contemporary art to inspiring John Lennon, whom she married in 1969. Here are eleven times Yoko Ono helped to shape the face of popular culture forever.
Ono’s 1964 art-book Grapefruit is full of instructions and aphorisms such as: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is a reality.” The messages within the book seem simple, but her real talent lies in the clarity required to achieve that simplicity. When you consider the 140-character nature of Twitter (which Ono’s pretty excellent at), you can see how ahead of her time she was.
In 1969, Ono and Lennon staged two identical protests at the Vietnam War, one at the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam and one in Montreal, riffing on the idea of a ‘sit-in’. They take it one step further and stayed in bed for a week after their marriage, beneath signs that read “Hair Peace” and “Bed Peace”. At the time, the stunt provoked sniggers at its apparently suggestive nature, though its critical reputation has improved, which Ono acknowledged last year: “It’s coming back around, have you noticed?”
Plastic Ono Band
Formed by Lennon and Ono in 1969, The Plastic Ono Band is a flexible, amorphous group with a revolving lineup – in recent years Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson and Scissor Sisters have performed with Ono under the name – and was responsible for the classic ‘Merry Xmas (War Is Over)’.
Originally performed at Yamaichi Concert Hall in Kyoto, Japan in 1964, this performance art piece saw Ono kneel on the floor and invite visitors to cut off her clothing with a pair of scissors, provoking a discussion about femininity and passiveness. It’s become one of her most infamous and well-respected pieces, and was repeated in Paris in 2003, of which art critic Michael Bracewell said: “The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills… and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors.”
Ono started this art project in 1981 and it’s still going today. Visitors are invited to tie wishes to trees, which have appeared all over America and in London, Tokyo, Venice and Dublin, among other locations.
Freeing John Lennon’s mind
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Lennon met Ono in 1966, while viewing her one-woman show at the Indica Gallery in London. Despite coming from disparate backgrounds – he grew up skint, she was privileged – they bonded over an appreciation for conceptual art and she is widely credited with inspiring him to take more creative risks and strip-down his approach to songwriting. In 1980, the year of his death, Lennon said: “I learned everything from her. That’s what people don’t understand. She’s the teacher and I’m the pupil.” Indeed, by the time they met, Ono had 10 years as a renowned artist behind her – a fact a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York sought to re-establish last year.
Imagine Peace Tower
Yoko has said this installation in Iceland is one of her proudest achievements. Created in 2008, it’s a vertical beam of light that’s visible for miles and symbolises the vision she and Lennon shared for world peace.
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Taking on Ageism
In 2013, Ono released the video for her (so amazing) song ‘Bad Dancer’, which sees her shimmy about in short shorts. This provoked derision from certain corners of the internet, as viewers criticised her wearing short shorts while also – gasp! – being quite elderly. Ono hit back with class: “I was amazed. I thought I had conquered racism, I conquered sexism, and there was ageism. I couldn’t believe it. I ignore it, stepping on all those prejudices and working as if there’s no problem.”
After five years away from the spotlight and a period of intense personal difficulty, Lennon returned to the studio with Ono to record Double Fantasy, released just before his death. The album has an innovative structure – one song by him, followed by one from her, and so on – that makes it seem like a conversation. Its this emotional directness that has given the album its longevity.
Taking on Fracking
Along with son Sean, she led the campaign Artists Against Fracking, which opposes natural gas drilling in North America. Mark Ruffalo, Robert de Niro, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and Susan Sarandon are all members, raising the profile of the cause and making life difficult for the Independent Oil & Gas Association.
Courage Award For Arts
Created in 2009, this awards ceremony recognises “artists who demonstrated courage in their work, despite pressure to succumb to commercial and political constraints.” Recipients have included violinist Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Now, of course, it’s time for Ono to receive her own award, which we’re honoured to present her with at the NME Awards 2016 With Austin, Texas on February 17.