It was 41 years ago today (November 17th, 1980), that John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their comeback album Double Fantasy. The collection marked Lennon's first release since his self-imposed five-year retirement from the music business in 1975, during which time he had become a self-described “house husband” in Manhattan raising the couple's son Sean, while Yoko managed the couple's finances.
At the time of the album's release, Lennon did an interview with Playboy magazine in which he said that his songs on Double Fantasy came rushing out of him all at once. Contrary to what Lennon told the magazine, most of the music on Double Fantasy actually dated back several years, and it was not the only music he composed during his “retirement.” Lennon had begun recording demos in 1976 for a pair of projects that never saw the light of day — an unrealized seventh studio album called Between The Lines, and a musical based on his life with Yoko, called The Ballad Of John And Yoko, named after the 1969 Beatles song. Music and lyrics from both unfinished projects found their way into Lennon's 1980 songs.
Legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen took many of the most iconic shots of Lennon during the 1970's. He shed some light on Lennon's reclusive househusband years when the entire world was wondering why he had abandoned recording music: “Y'know, seeing him, he really had dedicated himself to raising his child, he really had kind of withdrawn from the business. He had a very, very, very intense involvement with — y'know, from the Beatles on — being managed by Allen Klein, one of the most powerful managers in the world. I think when that was finally settled in '77, when they signed off on that, and after that, he was kind of free and I think kind of enjoying not having any commitments to business and to companies. And wanted to learn what it was like to have a life.”
With artists now taking prolonged absences from the music business for a multitude of reasons, in the mid-'70s, for someone of John Lennon's stature to put his recording career on pause to become a stay-at-home dad for half a decade was simply unprecedented. In 1980, Lennon admitted that it took a while to ease into his new life: “The first half-a-year or year, I had this feeling in the back of my mind that ‘I ought to, I ought to’ –– and I’d go through periods of panic because I was not in the NME or the Billboard or being seen at Studio 54 with Mick and Bianca (Jagger). Y’know, I just didn’t exist anymore. I got a little fear of that would come, like a paranoia. And then it would go away, because I’d be involved with the baby, or I’d be involved with whatever other business that I’d be involved with. But that only lasted about nine months and then it was suddenly, like a . . . ‘oh.’ It just went away, and then I realized there was a life (laughs) after death. I mean, there was a life without it.”
When Lennon sailed to Bermuda in June of 1980, he brought along an acoustic guitar and dozens of cassette tapes, which contained fragments of songs, which eventually became “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” among many others. It was also while he was in Bermuda that he composed “Woman,” a song he jokingly referred to as “the Beatle track” because of its intricate and soothing harmonies. These songs, along with the already-completed “Watching The Wheels,” became the foundation for the rest of Double Fantasy.
Following several days of pre-production with the musicians at the couple's Upper West Side apartment the Dakota, and at S.I.R. Studios, John and Yoko officially began recording Double Fantasy on August 7th 1980 at the Hit Factory on West 54th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues.
During those sessions, they actually recorded enough material for two albums, one to be released in the autumn, and another called Milk And Honey — which according to legend was to be released in the spring of 1981. To ensure their artistic freedom, the Lennon's decided to finance the album themselves and afterwards sign with the record company with the highest offer. They eventually signed with David Geffen's new label, the Warner Brothers-distributed Geffen Records, for millions less than the major labels were offering — solely because his was the only label that didn't demand to hear the completed tapes first and Geffen reached out to Yoko personally.
Fred Seaman, who was Lennon's assistant throughout 1979 and 1980 watched him demo his final songs in New York and Bermuda, and had a unique view of the Double Fantasy sessions: “In 1980, he started thinking about recording. And then the question was 'what kind of record would this be?' And initially, John was gonna to do a solo record. That was his idea, and thought about it, I think, for a long time. He didn't think of it in terms of a comeback, but in terms of an 'update' on what he had been doing, and he had been writing songs throughout the '70s.”
When Double Fantasy was finally released on November 17th, 1980, the reviews were mixed. Some critics blasted Lennon because they believed the songs on Double Fantasy showed he had lost his “edge” because many of the songs found Lennon singing about the joys of fatherhood and domestic bliss. And, in a strange reversal, Yoko's tracks — which were actually arranged by Lennon — received many favorable reviews for what some critics called their innovative use of funk-oriented dance grooves.
Elvis Costello recalled some fans being put off by Lennon emerging from his “Househusband years” both happy and mellower: “It wasn't exactly a secret that Lennon could write very emotional songs about love. He'd written very naked songs about childhood and about his love for his wife — even before the Beatles broke up. And he wrote more on Imagine, and then after a period away, wrote these very dedicated songs that you hear on that, to his son and everything. And I suppose some people felt ill at ease with the . . Some people wanting him to be somehow not singing music that had a sense of contentment, by why wouldn't he? Y'know, why wouldn't he want those kind of qualities?”
Yoko told us that Lennon's final work came quickly and often at unexpected times: “I knew it was good music. Look, the point is that was a very creative time for us. And he would be on the piano, just doing it. And, like, 'Starting Over' was incredibly fast. He was just doing it before we went to the studio. And he said, 'This is a single — hear this.' And he just played it to me in the bedroom kind of thing. John was very, very caring about going to the studio at the right time, instead of y'know, sort of making them wait.”
Fred Seaman recalls that the Lennon's picking former Aerosmith and Cheap Trick producer Jack Douglas was a perfect match to help realize the couple's new music: “Jack Douglas was recruited because he was somebody that both John and Yoko were comfortable with. He had been involved, I believe as an engineer — or assistant engineer — on (the) Imagine (album) back in the early '70s. And then later, he had also worked with Yoko (on her album) Feeling The Space. I liked Jack right away, y'know he was a really cool guy. Very funny, very smart, very interesting.”
The 1980 Double Fantasy sessions marked Lennon's first away from his main base of operations in New York City — midtown's Record Plant East. We asked producer Jack Douglas — who first met and worked with the Lennon's at the Record Plant in 1971 — why they chose to record the album at rival studio, the Hit Factory: “He couldn't go to Record Plant anymore because he had to go through a front door. You know that that record was a secret and no one was supposed to know. He didn't want to be photographed walking in and out of Record Plant, so he just asked me to pick any other studio that was at least in midtown, but he could get in.”
Douglas explained the framework of his relationship with John and Yoko: “Y'know, we were friends, but it was a professional relationship — it was a friendship, too. I didn't presume anything and I had no agenda with them. That's why we even got along. Absolutely no agenda. None. 'Whatever you wanna do, its cool.”
Fred Seaman says that despite the Lennon's comments in the press at the time, Double Fantasy didn't start out as a joint project between John and Yoko, and only became a “double bill” at Yoko's insistence: “The record that eventually became Double Fantasy took shape. And initially was going to be John's solo record, then it was going to be John and Yoko doing tandem records like the (1970) Plastic Ono Band records — where John did his Plastic Ono Band LP and Yoko did hers. And then it became what it ultimately was — a 'Heart Play'; the two of them on one record with the tracks interspersed.”
Seaman recalls that although fully confident during the initial tracking sessions, Lennon's insecurities at being absent from the rock marketplace for half-a-decade kicked in and prolonged the overdubbing process throughout the fall of 1980: “What happened then, was that they started tweaking. Y'know, both John and Yoko started second-guessing themselves, and that's when it started to get bogged down. And then there were endless overdubs. Y'know, the horn players were brought in, and that was all overdubbed. But then in the end, John — because he was so insecure — he just started tinkering with the songs, and I'm sure he was driving Jack crazy. And he just drew this out, y'know, because, he was never satisfied; he's a perfectionist.”
Shortly before her 2015 death, Lennon's first wife Cynthia Lennon told us that she was thrilled when she heard John was coming out of retirement in 1980 to begin making music again: “He was writing. He started to write again which was fantastic, y'know, Double Fantasy. I thought 'Thank God, he's coming back into the real world.'”
Stephen Bard, co-host of the groundbreaking Beatles podcast, 'Fabcast,' recalled his first impression of buying Double Fantasy on the day it was released: “I loved the cover. He looked great and it was romantic, and they’re kissing on the cover and it’s very hopeful; looking forward, bliss. All of John’s songs resonated with me: 'Cleanup Time,' 'I’m Losing You' — funky, dirty. And then he brings out the heavy-hitters. I defy anybody to not be emotionally moved by ‘Beautiful Boy,' or 'Woman' or 'Watching The Wheels.' Three of his best songs, and thus, three of the best songs ever written.”
Bard went on to say that the importance of Lennon's “final “State of The Union” — “Watching The Wheels” — may just be his most important work: “It sums up living on this planet and what it’s really about. And when a human being comes to, what apparently appears to be, a moment of epiphany, of a self-realization, where you know who you are — you really know who you are, and you’re okay with it — that’s 'Watching The Wheels.'”
By December 8th, 1980 — the day Lennon was murdered — the album's first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” had reached Number Six on the singles chart and Double Fantasy had just cracked the album charts.
Less than three weeks following the tragedy, on December 27th, 1980, “(Just Like) Starting Over” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first of five weeks, while Double Fantasy went on to top the album charts for eight weeks.
After Lennon's death, two other singles were released from Double Fantasy — “Woman,” which went to Number Two, and “Watching The Wheels,” which peaked at Number Ten.
On February 24th, 1982, Double Fantasy went on to receive the 1981 Grammy Award for Album Of The Year. The ceremony marked six-year-old Sean Lennon's first public appearance, when he accompanied his mother to the podium to collect the award.
In 1984, Ono released Milk And Honey, which included the additional songs she and Lennon had recorded during the 1980 sessions. The album peaked at Number 11 on the charts, with the single “Nobody Told Me” hitting Number Five and becoming Lennon's final Top Ten solo hit.
In celebration of Lennon's 70th birthday in October 2010, Double Fantasy was reissued with Double Fantasy Stripped Down — a new remix by Jack Douglas, which peels away layers of overdubs and vocal tracks to showcase the true essence of Lennon's final work. Still, there are multiple solo demo versions of nearly all of Lennon's tracks that ended up on Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey that have remained unreleased.
On June 23rd, 2013 Yoko Ono performed Double Fantasy, with son Sean Lennon, Patti Smith, Boy George, Siouxsie Sioux, and Double Fantasy lead guitarist Earl Slick, among others at London's Royal Festival Hall to close out her nine-day UK Meltdown Festival.
Finally out as an eBook is rock writer Ken Sharp's groundbreaking and definitive 2010 book, Starting Over: The Making Of John Lennon & Yoko Ono's 'Double Fantasy.' The book, which interviews nearly every person involved in the creation of John Lennon's final music, sheds new and important light on every facet of the album's writing, recording, and promotion.