In the studio
In July 1980, John Lennon called Yoko Ono from Bermuda, asking that she arrange sessions at New York’s Hit Factory studio, with Jack Douglas producing. Work began the following month, with a group of seasoned session musicians assembled by Douglas.
Rehearsals with some of the session players took place at Apartment 71 in the Dakota on 2 and 4 August, where most of the arrangements were worked out. Recording began on 6 August, with Lennon immediately setting out an efficient working mode.
The group recorded 22 songs in around 10 days, including a roughly equal number written by Ono. Fourteen of these songs were included on Double Fantasy, while the majority of the remainder were issued on the posthumous collection Milk And Honey in 1984.
Initially unbeknown to Lennon, Jack Douglas created what was known as an MCRT – Master Control Running Tape – which continually recorded the sound in Lennon’s vocal booth. By the end of the Double Fantasy sessions there were around 230 tapes, each lasting 30 minutes.
Douglas was aware of the historic importance of the sessions, and while these recordings haven’t been widely circulated, sections were broadcast during the Lost Lennon Tapes radio series, on the Westwood One Radio Network from 1988-1992.
During the second week of sessions, Jack Douglas brought two members of Cheap Trick into the studio. Guitarist Rick Nielsen and drummer Bun E Carlos recorded versions of I’m Losing You and Ono’s I’m Moving On. Although Lennon loved the heavy guitar work of the recordings, disagreements with the group’s management meant they were reworked by the normal studio band.
Although the Double Fantasy album presented Lennon’s song interspersed with Ono’s, they swiftly adopted a recording routine whereby she worked during the day and he arrived in the evening. According to Jack Douglas, the pair found it difficult to work together in the studio, and he arranged the sessions so they were effectively two solo projects.
Those two could not work at the same time. If she were there, it would have been impossible. I had to treat that album as two separate albums. I know that they’re both artists on the record, but I had to treat it as a John album and as a Yoko album. My routine was like this: 9am, breakfast with John. Yoko from 11am, and then John would go home. Yoko from 11 o’clock until about 6.30pm. And then she would go home. John would come in at 7pm and would work until about one or two in the morning. I never worked with both of them at the same time. It was impossible. Because she drove John crazy.
The sessions for the basic tracks ended on 19 August 1980. Six days later an initial running order was assembled, which listed Ono’s unfinished song Walking On Thin Ice instead of Kiss Kiss Kiss. The song was later moved aside for a standalone Ono EP, to be titled Yoko Only, but that idea too was later scrapped.
More overdub sessions were booked for September, and the album was mixed towards the end of that month and into October. Work on Double Fantasy finished on 13 October, and the final master tape was made six days later.
Lennon’s compositions for Double Fantasy covered three broad themes: his relationship with Yoko Ono, his love for their son Sean, and his domesticated lifestyle of the previous five years.
The album presented a more mature Lennon than had previously been seen by the public, and was a far cry from the anguished figure he revealed on his first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band 10 years previously.
The key track was the lead single, the 1950s-style (Just Like) Starting Over, which was formed from three unfinished song fragments. Although written about his life with Ono, it served as an optimistic look forward to this new phase in his recording career.
Perhaps the greatest emotional punch, however, comes with Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), a song written for his second son, the lyrics of which were given added poignancy after Lennon’s death just weeks after the album’s release.
Ono’s seven songs were perhaps more innovative than Lennon’s. Whereas he looked back to his roots, she looked towards the new wave music of Talking Heads, Blondie and the B-52s. Kiss Kiss Kiss, in particular, took its cue from the post-punk sounds of CBGBs.
Not all her songs were of the time, however. I’m Your Angel – later retitled Yes, I’m Your Angel – was a pastiche of 1930s show tunes. She was later sued by the publishers of Gus Kahn’s Makin’ Whoopee.
Another song, Hard Times Are Over, was written in 1973 following a cross-American car journey Lennon and Ono took while attempting to kick a drug addiction. Ono later revealed that the song referred to withdrawal symptoms.
We were going to withdraw. And we were withdrawing while we were going cross-country. Can you imagine that? It was a station-wagon Peter Bentley, our assistant, was driving, and we were trying to get off drugs. And it was really frightening! So we’re standing on a corner looking at each other and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to get off drugs’.
One song by Ono, Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him, featured a harmony vocal by Lennon. The recording was remixed in 1984 and presented as a single with Lennon’s vocal to the fore.