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Inside John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Boundary-Smashing ‘Two Virgins’

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When John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins was released on Nov. 11, 1968, it threw more than a few Beatles fans for a loop. From the cover image of a stark-naked Lennon and Ono to the other-worldly and improvised sounds contained within, Two Virgins was both a singular statement for the time and a line in the sand – not only between Lennon and his fans, but among his band members as well.

The album consists of a spur-of-the-moment home-recording session conducted between Lennon and Ono in May, when Lennon’s wife Cynthia was away on vacation. The improvisations form a collage of fluctuating tape loops, real-time sound effects, field recordings, instruments played in a random fashion and Ono’s patented wailing. When Lennon strolled into the Apple Records offices with tapes of these avant-garde soundscapes and tried to pencil them in for a release date on the label, most of the other Beatles bristled.

As Paul McCartney stalled the record’s release, Lennon left his wife, and his relationship with Ono began to consume him. In October, the couple took a series of nude photos using a time-delay camera in Ringo Starr’s basement with intentions of releasing them as LP’s cover art. McCartney and the rest of the band were even less thrilled about the prospects of releasing Two Virgins on their Apple label. But six months after it was recorded, the album hit shelves.

Even though Apple tried to avert a crisis by placing the record in a plain brown wrapper that showed just Lennon and Ono’s faces and the title of the album, controversy quickly arose anyway. EMI pressed the vinyl, but they refused to print the cover. The label scrambled to find another facility willing to print it, while employees sat in Apple’s offices for hours on end placing the record into the sleeve and its plain brown wrapper. In the U.S., 30,000 copies were even seized by police at Newark Airport under the grounds that it was pornographic.

Once the album finally reached fans, most of them either scratched their heads in confusion at its contents or simply dismissed it as self-indulgent noise. Still, in years to come, Two Virgins – one of the most challenging and personal recordings ever made – would prove to be a lasting influence on experimental rock bands like Sonic Youth.

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