Released on John Lennon’s final solo album Double Fantasy, ‘Cleanup Time’ was written in Bermuda in June 1980.
‘Starting Over’ and ‘Cleanup Time’ were sorta written on the run after I’d finished all the other work of writing the other ones. They just sort of came. They were like the fun after the work is finished. I was still in Bermuda.
Upon his return to New York he recorded several home demos of the song on a piano.
The lyrics of ‘Cleanup Time’ referenced the home life that Lennon had embraced after the excesses of his Lost Weekend. He had devoted five years to bringing up his son Sean, and several of the songs on Double Fantasy spoke of this domestic contentment.
The song came from a talk with Jack Douglas on the phone before I’d met him, before the session. I was in Bermuda and we were talking about the Seventies and that. We were talkin’ about cleanin’ up and gettin’ out of drugs and alcohol and those kinds of things – not me personally, but people in general. He said, ‘Well, it’s cleanup time right?’ I said, ‘It sure is,’ and that was the end of the conversation. I went straight to the piano and started boogyin’, and ‘Cleanup Time’ came out.
‘Cleanup Time’ also makes mention of the business dealings that the couple had devoted themselves to during the late 1970s. Yoko Ono, in particular, had proved an astute investor, and Lennon referred to it while also recalling The Beatles’ 1968 song ‘Cry Baby Cry’: “The queen is in the counting home/Counting out the money/The king is in the kitchen/Making bread and honey.” Lennon later described those lines as “a description of John and Yoko and their little palace, the Palace of Versailles – the Dakota.”
I always ignored it. So now Yoko looks after the business, parlaying money into things like cows and real estate. Between us we had to face the reality that the money was there, and I always avoided that. I am too artistic to deal with money in any way, basically. I am a socialist who just happens to be getting this money. Ignoring it always caused me problems.
The song was also an admission that Lennon’s excesses with alcohol and drug abuse during the 1970s were a thing of the past. The studio production, meanwhile, was built around a bass riff played by Tony Levin, and featured a memorable horn part.
Harmonically, it’s very adventurous. I forgot how tricky it was. It’s a fantastic track. I love the horn parts on it. It has a sort of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ ending, that slice of life mélange, snippets of musique concrète.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
The basic track for ‘Cleanup Time’ was recorded on 13 August 1980. The horns were overdubbed on 5 September, and Lennon recorded his lead vocals on 17 September.
In that song you hear background vocal, ‘Got to clean up, clean up.’ I used the horns to trigger a vocoder. I think I sang ‘Got to clean up’ so it made the horns sound like vocals. They did the same thing on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen; the sound of all those background vocals is being done by a vocoder. You play a synthesizer, you sing into a microphone, and it picks up the characteristics of the chords and turns it into vocals. The background vocals in there are actually the horn players being turned into voices.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
What is that annoying growling sound near the end of the song??? Is it just a muddy fill to thicken the song? I’d like to hear it clean.