It’s a song version of the love letter from John and Yoko. It’s an answer to ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Well, I’ve been doing this – watchin’ the wheels.’
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The song began life as ‘Emotional Wreck’, of which Lennon recorded a demo in late 1977. He had the central piano motif and the opening lines, but it took many revisions before ‘Watching The Wheels’ eventually emerged.
By 1978 ‘Emotional Wreck’ had become a work-in-progress titled ‘People’. Although the chorus was yet to be written, the verses and piano chords were in place.
The following year it had been retitled ‘I’m Crazy’, which was recorded at Lennon’s home in the Dakota on a piano. ‘I’m Crazy’ contained some lyrics which were left out of ‘Watching The Wheels’: “People say I’m stupid/Giving my money away/They give me all kinds of names and addresses/Designed to save me financially.”
By early 1980 the song had become ‘Watching The Wheels’. Lennon taped a demo with an electric guitar, giving the song a boogie rhythm which was later dropped. He then recorded a final demo in June 1980, prior to entering the studio to record Double Fantasy. This was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology and the 2004 collection Acoustic.
‘Watching The Wheels’ was an answer to the critics who questioned why Lennon had retreated from the music industry. In the 1970s it was common for artists to release an album each year, and extended spells away from the public eye were considered unusual. Lennon had grown tired of the routine and, burnt by the excesses of the Lost Weekend and committed to raising his young son Sean, he had retreated to a life of domesticity.
I hadn’t stopped from ’62 till ’73 – on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard. What it seemed like to me was, This must be what guys go through at sixty-five when suddenly they’re not supposed to exist any more and they are sent out of the office. I thought, Well, oughtn’t I? Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I be, like, going to the office or something? Because I don’t exist if my name isn’t in the papers or if I don’t have a record out or in the charts, or whatever – if I’m not seen at the right clubs. It must be like the guys at sixty-five when somebody comes up and goes, ‘Your life is over. Time for golf.’
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The wheels in question were partly literal – the vehicles that Lennon could see from his sixth-floor vantage point at the Dakota – and partly figurative. The idea of passively observing cogs turning in a machine was a theme in Lennon’s songs going right back to ‘Nowhere Man’ on The Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul.
Watching the wheels? The whole universe is a wheel, right? Wheels go round and round. They’re my own wheels, mainly. But, you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child, too.
In the studio
‘Watching The Wheels’ was recorded at the Hit Factory studio in New York City on 18 August 1980. Lennon recorded his vocals on 20 September, and it was mixed nine days later.
A hammer dulcimer was also overdubbed as an accompaniment to the piano part. This was played by Matthew Cunningham, a street musician from New York’s Greenwich Village who was invited to the sessions by producer Jack Douglas and engineer Lee DeCarlo.
Jack heard this guy named Matthew Cunningham playing dulcimer on the street and he was good. This guy was a real hippie with stringy long hair. He was a typical street musician. They brought him in to play dulcimer on ‘Watching The Wheels’. He came in looking pretty spaced out. When you play the dulcimer you sit in that Indian position on the floor. Jack told me, ‘Tony, go out there and make sure he’s in tune.’ So I went over to the piano and plucked out some notes and he kept shaking his head and said, ‘That sounds sour, that’s not in tune,’ but it was. So he’s sitting there playing along with the track and the tape stops. John was standing up in the control room and said something to him over the talkback. Matt squinted his eyes, looking at him, and said, ‘What’s your name?’ And John gets back on the talkback and says ‘My name’s John.’ This guy’s just staring at him and goes, ‘Hi, John.’ And then John says, ‘Hi, Matt’ and then I see them all laughing in there because this guy didn’t know who he was. Apparently, he was the only person in the country who wouldn’t know John Lennon.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
The recording also featured Lennon and George Small each playing pianos.
That’s the most keyboard-oriented song on the record. It’s not so guitar-driven as much of the other material. That’s me on piano and John played a Yamaha electric grand. I’m also playing organ and all those Prophet 5 synthesizer parts, the thing that sounds like a French horn. On the ending part – where John sings, ‘I just had to let it go…’ – he really made a big point of making sure that I had played that romantic piano line on the tag exactly that way. He told me he was in a bar one night and was listening to a piano player and that riff just stuck in his head. So he had to have that riff on the end of it.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
The b-side was Yoko Ono’s song ‘I’m Your Angel’, later retitled ‘Yes, I’m Your Angel’.
In the US it peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, number six on the Adult Contemporary chart, and seven on the Cash Box Top 100.
In the UK it reached number 30. It was a top 10 hit in Canada and Switzerland.
The single was issued with a cover photograph featuring Lennon and Ono walking away from the Dakota building. It was taken by Paul Goresh, an amateur photographer who had become friendly with Lennon. Goresh took a number of photographs of Lennon in 1980, including an infamous one of him signing a copy of Double Fantasy for Mark David Chapman just hours before he died.