It was 32 years ago Saturday (November 17th, 1980), that John Lennon and Yoko Ono released their comeback album Double Fantasy. The album 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.
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recording music: "Y'know, seeing him, he really had dedicated himself to raising his child, he really had kind of withdrawn from the business.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."
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 -- Lennon's first local recording away from his longtime New York City musical headquarters Record Plant East.
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 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.
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?"
Ono says 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."
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."
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."
Lennon's first wife Cynthia Lennon told us that she was thrilled when she heard he 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.'"
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.
Double Fantasy went on to receive the 1981 Grammy Award for "Album Of The Year." The ceremony marked five-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.