Five years in the making, Double Fantasy is such an uplifting album, even on the less upbeat songs. Ultimately, following John’s murder three weeks after it was released, it has become something of a requiem for his forty years on earth, during which time he become more famous than just about anyone on the planet.
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.
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 when you’re busy making other plans.” Well 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. John 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
That sense of self-confidence further manifested itself in the fact that John was not signed to a record label at this point and so he was free to negotiate with anyone interested in releasing his record. It jelled 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.
As a result of her new role it meant 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 had not done since Some Time In New York City with Yoko’s songs answering or mirroring some of John’s compositions.
Recording got under way in early August with Jack Douglas co-producing along with John and Yoko, and whereas the relationship with 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.
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, as well as brand new songs that there was more than enough for an album.
Ahead of the album’s release Geffen released 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 10 and following John’s murder it went on to top the Billboard Hot 100.
The album’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.
Throughout the record it is easy to hear that Yoko’s songs were what 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 gardens, he saw the name of a freesia on a small plaque, Double Fantasy sums up this record perfectly. In the UK it made No.2 on the album charts, and stayed there for seven weeks, before topping the charts for 2 weeks from 7 February 1981. In the US, following John’s death, the album topped the charts for 8 weeks from 27 December 1980.
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, when some critics feeling it to be their duty to find fault, to being under investigation by the FBI, to their life being always under public scrutiny, John and Yoko had come through it all.
John Lennon - one of the greatest songwriters of his and just about any other generation… and a loving husband and father, as this album, so beautifully, lets us hear.
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© Allan Tannenbaum
Photo © Bob Gruen
Photo © Bob Gruen
Photo © Bob Gruen
Photo © Bob Gruen