‘Woman’ came about because, one sunny afternoon in Bermuda, it suddenly hit me. I saw what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms. Any truth is universal. If we’d made our album in the third person and called it Freda and Ada or Tommy and had dressed up in clown suits with lipstick and created characters other than us, maybe a Ziggy Stardust, would it be more acceptable? It’s not our style of art; our life is our art… Anyway, in Bermuda, what suddenly dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. And it just sort of hit me like a flood, and it came out like that. The song reminds me of a Beatles track, but I wasn’t trying to make it sound like that. I did it as I did ‘Girl’ many years ago. So this is the grown-up version of ‘Girl’.
‘Woman’ was written in Bermuda in June 1980. Lennon’s demo of the song, recorded with double-tracked guitar, drum machine and vocals, shows how the song seems to have been written swiftly, in contrast to the protracted genesis of many of his songs for Double Fantasy. The demo was included on the 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology.
That’s a very ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ kind of a song. It’s great. As soon as I heard it, the first thing I thought was ‘Beatles’.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
Lennon had written many love songs for Ono previously, including requests for forgiveness on ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)’; lamenting their troubled marriage on ‘Bless You’; and detailing his almost obsessive need for her on ‘Oh Yoko!’ from the Imagine album.
‘Woman’, meanwhile, saw Lennon moving away from specific lyrics about Ono. He gave the song an almost universal appeal, and during the recording sessions told the musicians: “It’s for your mother, or your sister, anyone of the female race.”
The song was also one of Lennon’s feminist statements. From the late 1960s to 1980 his attitudes to women had shifted considerably, mainly through the influence of Ono. Largely gone was the bluster and bravado of The Beatles’ ‘You Can’t Do That’ or ‘Run For Your Life’, and in their place were equality anthems such as ‘Woman Is The N––––r Of The World’ or ‘Well Well Well’.
It suddenly sort of hit me about what women represent to us, not as the sex object or the mother, but just their contribution. That’s why you hear the muttering at the beginning ‘For the other half of the sky,’ which is Chairman Mao’s famous statement. And it is the other half. All this thing about man, woman, man, woman is a joke. Without each other there ain’t nothin’.
In the studio
I thought that was gonna be a pop classic because it said everything about how a man feels about his wife or girlfriend. He wanted the song to have a pre-Beatles, early sixties feel, which is why I went with the background singers and then added the modulation at the end. I said, ‘This will give you that Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” feel,’ which he really liked.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
In the studio Lennon referred to ‘Woman’ as an “early Motown/Beatles circa ’64 ballad”. While he recorded his vocals he declared: “I feel like I’m still in the fucking Beatles with this track”. However, the studio recording was far slicker than anything The Beatles ever recorded; from the polished production to the key change, this was Lennon at his most commercial.
The basic track for ‘Woman’ was recorded at New York’s Hit Factory studio on 8 August. Lennon then re-recorded his acoustic guitar part and double tracked his lead vocals. The song was completed on 15 September with the addition of backing vocals.
‘Woman’ had a Beatles feel and I think that’s why Jack chose to have me work on the song. I did have a sort of McCartney-ish voice, a little rougher and higher. I sat in the studio with John and he played this old beat-up Gibson guitar and we just went through the song. He just kept playing it and singing the lead vocals very patiently while we worked out the background parts. And that was astonishing. It was me and John, the arranger, Jack, and the girl singers. The initial background part was a little too ambitious, so John made a suggestion to simplify it. We changed things on the spot. John worked out the parts with us. The girls couldn’t stay in tune, so what happened was they started eliminating girls (laughs). We ended up singing, two girls and me, or maybe one girl and me. Then we layered some tracks that way. Then he dismissed the girls and I actually redid some of the girls’ parts and then I did a couple of tracks where I was sort of shadowing some of John’s leads. Jack always tells me, ‘I can hear you all over that track.’ I never heard the finished track until after he was killed. It’s just a staggering song, it’s so beautiful.
Starting Over, Ken Sharp
‘Woman’ was the first single released after Lennon’s death, and the second to be taken from Double Fantasy. It was issued on 12 January 1981 in the United States, and four days later in the United Kingdom, with Yoko Ono’s song ‘Beautiful Boys’ as its b-side.
In the US it peaked at number two, remaining there for three weeks. It fared better in New Zealand, where it topped the singles chart for five weeks.