John Lennon and Yoko Ono had recorded 22 songs in the studio during the sessions for Double Fantasy. A little over three years after his death, Ono issued the remainder as Milk And Honey, the first posthumous release of previously-unreleased material by Lennon.
Following Lennon’s death, Ono turned to the creation of her own music and art as a way of coping with her grief. In the liner notes to Milk And Honey she described her sorrow at the way former friends cashed in on their connection with Lennon, and revealed the sense of isolation she and her son felt.
From ’81 to ’83, it was as though Sean and I were standing in a snowfield surrounded by human wolves, who claimed themselves “close friends” and meanwhile raped and desecrated John’s body in front of our eyes. We saw beautiful rainbows behind the black forest and people calling us with love from the distance, but there was no way to let them know what was happening. And Sean and I decided to call the rainbow to us by sharing our song with you.
Subtitled ‘A Heart Play’, Milk And Honey followed the format of Double Fantasy, presenting Lennon’s songs alongside Ono’s. Although the basic tracks had been recorded before Lennon’s death, he intended to return to them in early 1981. Instead, the task fell to Ono.
We’re talking and talking and talking and all sorts of plans and ideas we have in our heads, it’s just a matter of getting it done, you know? We already got half the next album, and we’ll probably go in just after Christmas and do that. And we’re already talking about what the ideas for the third album is, already laid out and I can’t wait, you know. So it’s a matter of just getting it done, and I’m sorry about you people that get fed up of hearing about us, but you know, we like to do it, so it’s too bad.
Ono found the prospect of completing Lennon’s recordings too distressing, and instead worked on her solo album Season Of Glass. She was doubtless wary too of rush-releasing half finished works after his death, and the allegations of cashing in which would inevitably have followed.
Lennon’s six songs were released as a work in progress, without the layers of overdubs which would doubtless have followed had he lived. They did, however, require a minor degree of editing to make them presentable, and echo was added to the vocals.
‘Grow Old With Me’ was the only song not recorded in the studio. Although the couple had anticipated a big production, they decided to leave it until the new year. Subsequently, Milk And Honey contained a simple piano and vocals demo performance with a drum machine backing, recorded on a cassette.
The songs written by Ono, meanwhile, were new compositions written in 1983. Inevitably the core focus of the lyrics was the sense of loss she felt after her husband’s passing. The quality of the songs surprised many critics, and the songs had a freshness which Double Fantasy often lacked.
Jack Douglas had produced the studio recordings of Lennon’s songs, but had fallen out with Ono over an unpaid royalty dispute, later settled out of court. He was not involved in the mixing or sequencing of the record, and was not mentioned in the sleeve notes. Instead, the album’s production was credited to Lennon and Ono.
The title Milk And Honey had been decided prior to Lennon’s death. The expression derives from the book of Exodus in the Bible, during Moses’ vision of the burning bush, and describes a land of plenty. It was, however, also a New York phrase for a couple of white and Asian origin.
Milk And Honey was released with a cover photograph almost identical to that of Double Fantasy, although this time in colour. The original concept was to have 200 heart-shaped photographs of the couple, but the idea was abandoned. By instead using an outtake from the Double Fantasy shoot, the effect was to present it as a sequel or companion piece, although the sound of the two albums is often starkly different.
The album was issued on Polydor, as Ono had fallen out with David Geffen, whose Geffen label had released Double Fantasy. However, EMI later acquired the rights to Milk And Honey, who issued subsequent pressings of Milk And Honey.
Milk And Honey sold less well than Double Fantasy had, but performed respectably. In the United Kingdom it peaked at number three, and in the United States reached 11.
In the UK it was also issued as a vinyl picture disc. The first pressing of 2,000 copies quickly sold out, and a further 1,000 were made. Some unauthorised coloured vinyl editions were also issued.
Upon its release in January 1984, Milk And Honey was the first album by any of The Beatles to be issued on compact disc. A remastered version in 2001 also added four bonus tracks, including an interview recorded on the day of Lennon’s death.