Looking back on 40 years of John and Yoko’s immortal love letter to their life together
Unlike every other musical genre, we let our superstars age into the collective, zeitgeist-defining consciousness in rock and roll.
Thus, Double Fantasy — John Lennon’s collaborative final album with wife Yoko Ono — has remained an impacting release. A decade into his post-Beatles languor, this release is the first time we see Lennon emerge as a “legacy artist,” whose spirit is more significant than his stylings. Given that it’s also an album released before his untimely murder, it offers more questions than answers. At the end of Lennon’s darkest hours, the dawn provides a legacy of delivering the equivalent of multiple metaphorical audio semicolons offering unique space for reflection, criticism, inspiration, and appreciation.
It’s important to note that Double Fantasy is an album released after five incredible years for the album’s co-conspirators. Significantly, they survived a near divorce in a manner most absurd. For 18 months between 1973-1975 — after a tumultuous year in their marriage — John Lennon was encouraged by Yoko Ono to have “The Lost Weekend,” a bi-coastal extramarital affair with their assistant, May Pang. Jet-setting between New York and Los Angeles, Lennon spent considerable time either drunk or stoned during this era.
Ono noted in a 1980 Playboy interview that the affair ended because she realized that Lennon’s behavior was as much his own issue as it was exacerbated by an ever wilding environment that surrounded him. Refocusing energies on home and family, they reunited by early 1975.
Double Fantasy is the first album of original material imbued with this new calmed, plaintive spirit informing Lennon and Ono’s lives and careers. One hundred three days spanned between its first official day of recording and the day Geffen Records released it. Exactly 30 days elapsed between the day the album’s final masters were sent to the label and its market date. In any era, that turnaround for artists likely working off “studio rust” is absurdly quick.
These facts are important because it connotes a possible sense that Geffen — a then brand new imprint bearing the name of 70s pop impresario David Geffen — was on the lookout for an interest-grabbing smash album following disco diva Donna Summer’s underwhelming release of The Wanderer. Disco’s sudden popularity decline blended with Summer’s born-again Christianity caused her once platinum-selling market appeal to dip. Thus, the pressure on the ex-Beatle who’d sold seven million albums since leaving the Fab Five feels logical. Geffen’s newly opened label signed Double Fantasy, unheard. Back against the ropes, a flyer was taken on the unsigned Lennon’s speculative new sound.
Extending the boxing analogy began previously, there are no knockout blows on Double Fantasy. Instead, it’s a study in a sort of spatial tai chi martial arts as restorative health “battle” between Lennon and Ono and the collective musical universe. Creating a Venn diagram of Buddhism, rock and roll, new wave and adult contemporary pop, it presents an aural style that is initially dense but resonates deeper and more positively over multiple listens.
Rare is the album that grows in confidence as a representation of the listener’s spirit as the listener ages and matures. However, these two superstars endured the most ribald of insanity that the iconically debauched 1970s had to offer. Double Fantasy finds them sitting with their beautiful children and as a married couple, discovering what it feels like to be granted the personal and emotional empathy to feel like it’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
The single was the album’s initial release. It opens with Tibetan bells signaling prayerful luck, then falls into a Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity”-style, melancholic rockabilly that was the eventual evolution of much of Lennon’s early rock and roll-influenced 70s creativity. There’s a lineage between “Instant Karma” and “Power to the People” to “Cold Turkey,” his appropriately titled rock covers album Rock and Roll in 1975, through to “(Just Like) Starting Over.”
The reverberating yet razor-sharp snap-crackle drums have disappeared, though. Phil Spector infusing Lennon’s musicality with his Wall of Sound is no longer present. Instead, there’s a slow, countrified swing that informs the track with less of the previous hits’ Kansas City jump-blues influence. Its suave cosmopolitanism feels like the happy place between a Sun Records ballad and a polished Brill Building-to-American Bandstand smash.
VIDEO: John Lennon and Yoko Ono “(Just Like) Starting Over” (Ultimate Mix)
In 1980, Lennon noted the following about the influences that drove his redemptive proto-rock ballad: “You know, there’s a country and western hit [by Tammy Wynette] called ‘Starting Over’, so I added ‘Just Like’ at the last minute. And to me, it was like going back to 15 and singing à la Presley. All the time, I was referring to John [Smith], the engineer, here in the room I was referring to Elvis Orbison. It’s kinda like… ‘Only The Lonely,’ you know… a kind of parody but not really parody.”
The rest of the album offers just as much exploratory intrigue. In a 1981 Village Voice review, Robert Christgau notes that Double Fantasy’s “command of readymades from New Orleans R&B to James Brown funk, magical mystery dynamics, and detonating synthesizers…put the anonymous usages of studio rock to striking artistic purpose.”
Before 1980, so much of the music Lennon made was a unique commingling that hit radio speakers as a distinctive, yet pastiched homage to rockabilly, Black soul, Indian religion, or electrified heavy grooves. Lennon or Yoko’s voice on top of these previous tracks was a sociopolitical clarion call.
However, moving from 1980 onward, it appeared as if John and Yoko’s voices were blending into a studio mix that on songs like “Cleanup Time” sounds like jazzy B-52s new wave outtakes dripping with ersatz sex vibes wrapped in mom jeans and dad hats. For single “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” the effervescent joy of parenthood washes over the usual driving Lennon/Ono desire to party-down or stoke revolutionary fires. The line “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans” has stood the test of time as one of Lennon’s greatest. In the context of what this album might represent as Lennon attempting to rediscover having love and creating art as goals that are not mutually exclusive.
VIDEO: John Lennon “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” (Ultimate Mix)
Couple with music that, on “Beautiful Boy,” feels like every bit of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac’s breeziest hits, there’s again a countrypolitan feeling that influences a sense of anonymity to Lennon’s output. Lennon’s at peace with his success, and thus the songs themselves lose his trademark guiding angst and excitement. Instead, a new, reserved sense emerges. Because it’s mostly foreign to his creative output, it initially falls flat. But, with a deeper, studied listen, it connects as dogma that has a more calmly humane — and less pop and political — drive behind it.
Forty years later, an album released three weeks before the death of John Lennon still bears a haunting resonance that celebrates both he and his wife’s twin desires for personal peace as a creative renaissance. A couple celebrating rekindled love while searching for an album’s worth of great songs in the twilight afterglow of the biggest, brightest, and most debauched of rock stages are indeed the benefactors of a Double Fantasy. Unfortunately, what began as a tentative celebration of starting over stands the test of time as a perpetual questioning of what sadly never came.