Imagine you are an artist. Not some starry-eyed unknown, but a rich, world-famous, and influential one. At the absolute pinnacle of your celebrity, you unveil an indisputable masterpiece. And the public responds with astonishing indifference.
It happens. It happened to Yoko Ono in February 1981, when "Walking on Thin Ice" was released. The single was the first music she had issued since the assassination of her husband, John Lennon, two months prior. But even though Ono was responsible for writing and producing half of the chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning Double Fantasy, "Walking on Thin Ice" didn't even crack the Top 40.
Lennon had believed the song was a hit. The couple had been remixing it the night he was shot. "The past weekend we had listened to the song all day and night," wrote Ono on the sleeve notes. "He said I had to put it out right away as a single." So she didwith the dedication "For John" beneath the title.
Musically, "Walking on Thin Ice" was Ono's most accessible offering yet, fusing percussive disco rhythms with edgy new-wave guitar and keyboards. But even in an era when Blondie scored two No. 1 hits just weeks apart, the songpunctuated by Yoko's staccato yelps, sobbing, and dry heavessounded too outr頦or mainstream listeners. At six minutes long, even daring radio programmers were unlikely to play it.
And yet, in an alternate world, "Walking on Thin Ice" did become a smash, and in a manner much closer in keeping with its creator's aesthetic.
Long before she met Lennon in 1966, Ono had established her own reputation as a conceptual artist. Many of her pieces involved audience participation, either through the use of their imagination, following simple directions, or interaction with the artistfor "Cut Piece," staged at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965, she asked patrons to snip off her clothing.
And so it was with "Walking on Thin Ice." Only this time, the piece was "completed" via the involvement of DJs and dancers at nightclubs. The song was a staple of Larry Levan's Paradise Garage sets, and his colleagues and disciples continue to spin it. According to an item in the May 14, 1981, Rolling Stone, patrons at the Ritz would "stare openmouthed at the club's vast projection screen" when the accompanying video came on. Eventually, it climbed to No. 13 on Billboard's Club Play chart.
Fellow musicians took note, too. Both Elvis Costello and U.K. all-female quartet Fuzzbox covered it. In the liner notes to a 1992 Ono retrospective CD, Nile Rogers of Chic pees himself with excitement. "When 'Walking on Thin Ice' came out, I played it nonstop," he writes. "Whenever anyone would get in my car, I would blast the song and say, 'This shit is incredible.'"
Now "Walking on Thin Ice" is back. And, once again, DJs and dancers are making the song the hit it deserves to be.
Starting last year, a string of authorized house remixes of old Ono tracks began garnering attention and play. The first, "Open Your Box," proved especially popular, leading to Yoko making a late-night appearance at the Roxy in New York City and, at the age of 69, wowing thousands of shirtless muscle boys. It was inevitable that "Walking on Thin Ice" would eventually come up for a similar overhaul. The shocking part is how superlative most of these new versions (released as part of a six-song remix CD on Twisted/Mind Train Records) are.
Ono's breathy soprano and guttural body noises aren't buried beneath the beats, but are pushed up front in pumping new renditions by the Pet Shop Boys, Danny Tenaglia, and the team of Fran篩s K and Eric Kupper (a.k.a. K-Scope). Peter Rauhofer of Club 69 unexpectedly makes her spoken monologue ("I knew a girl who tried to walk across the lake . . . ") the anchor for his ambient "Chill Mix." Strangely, only Felix Da Housecat, who helped spearhead the current electro-pop revival, seems at a loss as to how to reinterpret the source material, turning in a disappointing, almost note-for-note rehash of the original, albeit with muffled vocals.
Once again, "Walking on Thin Ice" is climbing the Billboard Club Play charts. At this writing, it is at No. 15just ahead of Missy Elliottand rising. In England, the Pet Shop Boys' version is being released as a radio single. Hopefully, some open-minded U.S. label exec will follow suit, and "Walking on Thin Ice" will finally be the crossover smash Lennon believed it could be.
And if not, it will still be Ono's masterpiece. Because, like all her best work, "Walking on Thin Ice" not only invites its audience to participateby hitting the dance floorit requires using the imagination. I'm not just referring to the creative choices made by the DJ-producers involved in retooling the track, but fans, too. Because today, the notion of a 70-year-old Asian woman as a pop star is still a fantasy. But, hopefully, not for much longer.