Five years in the making, Double Fantasy is such an uplifting album, even on its less upbeat songs. Ultimately, following John Lennon’s death three weeks after it was released on 17 November 1980, it has become something of a requiem for his 40 years on earth, during which time he became more famous than just about anyone on the planet.
Listen to Double Fantasy right now.
Any artist that has created a body of work as rich and varied and revered as John Lennon constantly feels the weight of critical anticipation upon them, especially when they are about to launch a new work. But for John, who had retired from the public gaze following the birth of his and Yoko’s son, Sean, in 1975, that sense was intensely magnified.
Retreating from the public eye
Having spent 35 years being John Lennon, John decided what he most wanted in the world was to be simply a father, a dad, content to retreat into domesticity at the family’s apartment at the Dakota in New York City. As John sings in his love song to Sean, ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Indeed, he proved that life was what happens when you take control, instead of allowing those outside of the family to dictate your existence, as John goes on to explain in the autobiographical ‘Watching The Wheels.’
Early in the summer of 1980, John sailed from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda on board a 43-foot sloop, the Megan Jaye, and during this trip, they were buffeted by a huge storm that left everyone suffering the effects of acute seasickness. Everyone, that is, except John and the ship’s captain, who between them had to take the wheel of the yacht and in sailing the boat. Lennon, who had never sailed a boat like this, felt real fear, but in facing the challenge he found a renewed sense of self-confidence.
“I was smashed in the face by waves for six solid hours. It won’t go away. You can’t change your mind. It’s like being on stage; once you’re on there’s no gettin’ off. A couple of the waves had me on my knees…I was so centred after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos — and all these songs came!” – John
A renewed sense of self-confidence
That sense of self-confidence further manifested itself in the fact that John was not signed to a record label at this point, so he was free to negotiate with anyone interested in releasing his record. It gelled with another aspect of John and Yoko’s shared lives, in that he had asked his wife to take over his business affairs following Sean’s birth. Yoko was understandably somewhat hesitant, as it meant she had to put her own career as an artist on hold; no easy decision.
The result of her new role was that the head of any major label wanting to release the new album had to deal with Yoko, and not with John. This was not a concept that most of them could grasp, coming from the male-dominated record business of the late 1970s. In the end, David Geffen, whose own label had been a considerable success throughout the decade, impressed both Yoko and John with his willingness to treat Yoko with respect, and so he secured the album.
The sense of togetherness between John and Yoko extended to them working on this record in the way that they hadn’t done since Some Time In New York City, with Yoko’s songs answering or mirroring some of John’s compositions.
Recording of Double Fantasy got underway in early August, Jack Douglas co-producing along with John and Yoko, and whereas Lennon’s earlier working relationship with Phil Spector had become fraught, this was a far happier experience. Douglas set about recruiting musicians for the project, rehearsing them, but not initially telling them who it was that they would be recording with.
A wealth of material
John and Yoko had initially thought they might record just an EP, but it quickly became clear that there was such a wealth of material, both from old demos that they revisited and brand new songs, that there was more than enough for an album.
Ahead of Double Fantasy’s release, Geffen unveiled the opening track ‘(Just Like) Starting Over,’ backed by Yoko’s ‘Kiss, Kiss, Kiss’, the erotic second song on the record, as a single. John’s song is redolent of his Rock ‘n’ Roll album in that it pays homage to the vibe of the music that helped shape him. The single reached the top ten and, following John’s murder, it went on to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Double Fantasy’s songs are sequenced throughout as a dialogue between John and Yoko, and it’s a cool concept. The juxtaposition between, ‘I’m Losing You’ and ‘I’m Moving On’ in particular works extremely well, as does John’s beautiful ‘Woman,’ one of his most gorgeous melodies, topped off with one of his most openly romantic lyrics; It became the second single from the album and it too topped the Hot 100. Yoko’s ‘Beautiful Boys’ is equally sensuous, and highlights the innovative musical oeuvre that she had made her own.
Inspiring the new wave scene
Throughout Double Fantasy, it is easy to hear how Yoko’s songs had become so inspiring to New York’s new wave scene. John himself recognised this when he heard the B-52’s’ ‘Rock Lobster,’ which he particularly felt was inspired by Yoko’s records.
The album got its title after John had reached Bermuda on his sailing adventure, where, at a botanical garden, he saw the name of a freesia on a small plaque. Double Fantasy sums up this record perfectly. In the UK the record made No.2 on the album charts, and stayed there for seven weeks, before topping the charts for two weeks from 7 February 1981. In the US, following John’s death, the album topped the bestsellers for eight weeks from 27 December and went platinum on 10 January.
In 1982, Double Fantasy won Album of the Year at the 24th Annual Grammy Awards. Seven years later it was ranked at No.29 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s.
Double Fantasy focuses on three central themes — the couple’s love for one another, love for Sean and domestic life together. It is, therefore, both poignant and ironic that the record ends with Yoko’s ‘Hard Times Are Over.’ Written as far back as 1973, and about John and Yoko’s fight to kick a drug habit, the song finishes with the words “And I’m smiling inside, you and I walking together ’round the street corner, hard times are over.”
Of course, the album was not written in the knowledge of what was to happen on 8 December 1980 and that is what makes Double Fantasy such an emotional requiem. From the intensity of “being a Beatle” for a decade to the challenges of pursuing a solo career (with some critics feeling it their duty to find fault), to being under investigation by the FBI, to their life being under constant public scrutiny, John and Yoko had come through it all.
John Lennon was and remains one of the greatest songwriters of his or any generation…and a loving husband and father, as this album so beautifully lets us hear.
Double Fantasy can be bought here.