Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins
‘It was midnight when we finished, and then we made love at dawn. It was very beautiful.’
– John Lennon, 1970
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Produced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Turns out the very sound of falling in love is just as abstract, subjective and loopy as the concept itself. Yoko Ono and John Lennon are two of history’s greatest lovers, and Two Virgins is the musique concrète fever dream document of the pair falling in love in real time. The album is a curious and amazing suite recorded over one weekend in Spring 1968 at Lennon’s Kenwood home: Distant conversations; comedic role playing and footsteps; laughter, birdcalls and plunking piano lines; silly songs and space; tape delay stretching shrieks, bass rumbles and moans to the moon and back again. It’s two young people attempting to weird one another out, attempting to make one another laugh, falling deeply into one another. John mucks around with delay and loops while Yoko exercises her expressionist vocalisations.
The smoke and wine is nearly audible. Two Virgins begins with a looping bird-like whistle that almost immediately threatens to clip as the magnetised tape erodes around it. But miraculously, not for a moment do these sounds ever register as foreboding or violent. It unspools into a sort of stretched and warbled piano waltz as Ono’s singular vocal explorations arch above it. In the last few minutes of Side A, we hear Ono and Lennon mock domestic life over a low, ringing drone. ‘Is that you? Is that you?’ Ono calls out. ‘It’s just me Hilda, I’m home for tea.’ Lennon responds in a shrugging lower register.
It’s a perfect, genius antidote to the preceding 13 or so minutes. After all the distorted samples and noisy disturbances, the humorous and commonplace exchange grounds us once again. Moments like this — moments that assure things never get too depersonalised — pepper Two Virgins.
John & Yoko, 1968 Photo by Keith Macmillan ©1968 Yoko Ono
John & Yoko, 1968 Photo by John Lennon ©1968 Yoko Ono
Upon its release in 1968, Two Virgins became instantly famous/controversial for its now-iconic cover, featuring Ono and Lennon standing nude together. For market, Apple Records interns had to bag the album up so that all but their heads were covered.
Please be reminded, however, that this avant-garde domestic field recording also charted on the US Billboard album charts. Of course, that speaks to the international fame of the nude people on the cover. But I’d like to think it also speaks to the raw, universal power of the wild, creative love shared by these two people. Nothing about Two Virgins is safe. It would be a risky move today for artists in the larger, pop-culture conversation just as it was a risky move in 1969. But this is an uncomfortably private, two-person dialogue about — and celebration of — experimentation, inspiration and play. And these two souls bravely let us look through the keyhole.