In late 1980, John Lennon released the album that should have been his comeback but instead ended up being his last living contribution to the world of music. Alternating between tracks by Lennon and wife Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy went on to win the 1981 Grammy for Album of the Year and spawn hits like “Watching the Wheels”. In his new book Starting Over, Ken Sharp gathers the major players surrounding the album and presents an engaging oral history of Double Fantasy.
A bulk of Double Fantasy‘s history is shared by those who made the album including producer Jack Douglas and session musicians Hugh McCraken, Earl Slick, and Andy Newmark. Their memories of Lennon are uniform: he was happy, a genius in the studio, as down-to-earth as can be, and very much in love with Ono. Dubbed as ‘a heart play’, DF was a dialogue between lovers, and Lennon insisted that Ono’s tracks be treated as equal to his own.
While the ins and outs of the album’s creation are interesting and detailed (the chapter “By the Numbers” gives a track-by-track breakdown of the album), it’s the anecdotal recollections and personal connections that hold a reader’s interest and transform Lennon from a mythic, canonized figure to mortal man. At heart, Lennon was just a man in love with craft. “I’ve been a house husband for the last five years and I want to get back to the music.”
Though Lennon often cracked jokes and couldn’t resist a mid-session jam-along to classic artists like Buddy Holly, he had a clear vision and a tendency toward perfectionism. Lennon encouraged his session musicians to be able to capture a final product in only a few takes. He specifically hired musicians that were around his age so that they’d understand his references (he often referred to himself as Elvis Orbison as he was trying to emulate their styles on the record), and tried to keep the writing and recording a secret because he didn’t want to be made a fool in the media.
Luckily, Lennon could lay his fears to rest. Lead single “(Just Like) Starting Over” hit number one in both the US and UK, and the album was generally well-received critically. Plans for a tour had started to form, as well as for a follow-up album. These plans never came to fruition, however. On December 8, 1980, just a few weeks after Double Fantasy‘s release, John Lennon was assissinated upon returning home from working on what he believed would be Ono’s first single to hit number one.
Lennon’s last day was jam-packed – a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, yielding the iconic Rolling Stone cover of him, naked, embracing Ono; an interview with RKO Radio; a mixing session at the Record Plant; and, eeriest of all, signing a copy of Double Fantasy for the man who would later shoot and kill him, Mark David Chapman. One of the most telling aspects of Starting Over comes with everyone’s recounting of that day – not a single person interviewed refers to Chapman by name. Though nearly thirty years have passed, the pain of losing Lennon is still fresh for those who knew him. While most of us focus on Chapman and the sensationalistic nature of the shooting, those surrounding Lennon frame it as the loss of a friend, a husband, an artist.
Sharp does an excellent job of compiling an intimate look at the creation and aftermath of Lennon and Ono’s Double Fantasy. Along with studio shots by photographers David M. Spindel and Roger Farrington, readers are given a unique view into both the Lennon the artist and Lennon the man. Whether a Lennon obsessive or casual music fan, Starting Over offers a compelling history of one of rock and roll’s most magnificent artists.
Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy drops 10.19.2010.
You can check out the book’s site here.