Yoko Ono Hits #1, But Probably Not How Lennon Imagined It

Avant-garde vocalist shoots to top of dance chart with remixes of 'Walking on Thin Ice.'

John Lennon predicted that “Walking on Thin Ice” would be Yoko Ono’s first #1 record.

What the late Beatle could not have known was that it would take his wife more than 20 years to reach the top — and that when she did, it would be the dance chart that she conquered.

“I think that [the song] was originally played in a lot of discos because people were shocked and frightened by John’s sudden death and they were trying to ritualize their fear and make it less frightening,” Lennon’s 70-year-old widow said of the track, which was originally recorded during the sessions for 1980′s Double Fantasy, the couple’s final album together.

It became an underground hit when DJ Larry Levan of New York’s famed Paradise Garage began spinning it in the early 1980s, but with the help of recent remixes by the Pet Shop Boys, Danny Tenaglia, Felix Da Housecat, Peter Rauhofer and Rui Da Silva, an EP of 10 “Walking on Thin Ice” remixes topped the Billboard Dance Club Play chart last week, more than 20 years after the song was released.

The remixes feature pounding beats underneath Ono’s urgently whispered, almost robotic vocals: “I may cry some day/ But the tears will dry whichever way/ And when our hearts return to ashes/ It’ll be just a story.”

“Music is an important thing … but when you start to dance, the feelings carry this incredibly powerful energy,” said Ono. “I’m kind of surprised that it was #1, but when I wrote the music I was thinking about dance. One thing I didn’t have in mind at all was that it might be a big hit all these years later. I think that now[, like after John's death,] there’s a feeling in the air that is rather tense and we’re not sure about the future.”

Though Ono has been a fixture in the art, performance and avant-garde music world for nearly 40 years, acceptance in the dance community is somewhat surprising, especially given that until recently she spent hardly any time in clubs. But late last year she performed an impromptu set at New York’s Roxy, adding some of her signature wordless vocalizations over Rauhofer’s mixes of her music, setting in motion the “Walking on Thin Ice” remix project.

Ono had already agreed to have several of her songs remixed a year earlier, including the controversial 1971 single “Open Your Box,” which had been banned from U.K. radio due to such provocative lyrics as “Open your mouth … open your legs.” Remixes of Ono’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss” and “Yang Yang” followed, suddenly making the septuagenarian a staple of club mixes alongside the Felixes and Madonnas of the world.

It was the crowd’s enthusiastic response at the Roxy that energized Ono and pushed her to delve further into the club world. Ono said she and Lennon purposely avoided such 1970s New York celebrity hot spots as Studio 54, though she went dancing “once or twice” with son Sean Lennon in the ’90s. “It’s nice. I feel very close to people who are dancing because I’m dancing in my heart,” she said.

For Tenaglia, remixing “Walking on Thin Ice” was like opening a window into his youth. “I remember hearing it in my 20s at Paradise Garage and being really inspired,” said Tenaglia, 42. “When I got the chance to remix it, I felt like it was a classic. I was worried because I’d been so touched by the record that I thought the only thing little old me could possibly do was destroy it. There’s such a history to the song, some of which I didn’t even know. I just learned that those were the masters that [Lennon] was holding when he was shot.”

Tenaglia said he also agreed to participate because he was excited about bringing the song to a new generation of club kids who might have only a vague idea who Ono is. “When I first played it, it was an immediate hands-in-the-air reaction, whether they knew it was her or not,” said Tenaglia, an infrequent remixer whose last remix was a 2002 Grammy-nominated stab at Depeche Mode’s “I Feel Love.”

When asked if she was surprised to best Madonna and Justin Timberlake on the dance chart, Ono said age ain’t nothing but a number when it comes to music. “I never counted their ages,” she said of Madonna and Timberlake. “Each person has their own age, and experience counts. Maybe I’m not very experienced in this area, so I’m the youngest. In style maybe I’m more contemporary than some people.”

As to whether she ever imagined that she’d be shaking it in clubs at 70, Ono said quietly, “No, but it is a nice surprise. A nice gift.”

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