‘It should read something like: ‘Double Fantasy: A Heart Play starring John and Yoko.’ Written out like a play with a program inside, the musicians as the actors, as it were. Whatever it looks like on a program, it’ll look like that inside where the credits are written.’
– John Lennon, 1980
A Heart Play by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Produced by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Jack Douglas
In the five years since 1975, John Lennon’s life had seen some unaccustomed tranquillity. For the first time since The Beatles’ rapid ascent, he was free of all recording obligations. His longstanding struggles with US immigration were successfully concluded. Reunited with Yoko, the couple were at last blessed with the child they had longed for.
Since Sean’s birth, John had devoted himself to fatherhood and domesticity, two pursuits he had never conspicuously shone at. He made occasional home recordings, but the music industry must learn to get along without him. He took some trips abroad, including Hong Kong and Egypt, but in the guise of private citizen, not rock star. Yoko, also, had put her artistic career on hold: John had asked her to supervise their business affairs.
John, Sperone Gallery, NYC, 26 November 1980 Photo by Allan Tannenbaum ©1980 Allan Tannenbaum
Yoko & John, original photograph used for the front cover Photo by Kishin Shinoyama ©1980 Yoko Ono
Yoko & John, original photograph used for the rear cover Photo by Kishin Shinoyama ©1980 Yoko Ono
‘It was very difficult’, she admits today. ‘and people didn’t understand that. They would say, “How lucky you are, that he’s letting you do the business.” I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of it as going one step down, for an artist. But I thought, “I should not be so proud, I should not be so elitist about it.” So I said “Well, OK.” And I was scared because I thought, “Am I gonna do it right?” The responsibility was heavy.’
The wider world could not comprehend the Lennons’ silence. John’s withdrawal, in particular, was unprecedented. Did Yoko even know if they would record again?
‘No I didn’t,’ she says, simply. ‘and John didn’t either.’ Slowly, though, their restless creativity reawakened. In 1980, as John vacationed in Bermuda the process picked up speed.
‘We were both jotting down ideas of songs… John came up with two great songs. So I said “Why don’t we put out an EP?” He said “You, mean we’re gonna record again?” “Yeah, yeah, why not?” The minute I suggested that idea, he started to create so many songs, so we realised that it was not an EP anymore. It was an LP. John was so happy. When it was going to be a man and woman dialogue, he called me from where he was – Bermuda – and said he saw a sign saying “Double Fantasy” in the town’s flower garden. It was the name of a flower. We couldn’t believe how that title came to us, just like that.’
From its inception, then, Double Fantasy was a John and Yoko collaboration, just as their early avant-garde albums had been. And in its “Heart Play” of alternating viewpoints, it formalised a pattern they’d instinctively adopted on Sometime In New York City.
John & Yoko leaving the Dakota, first day of recording, 4 August 1980 Photo by Paul Goresh ©1980 Paul Goresh
John & Yoko on 44th Street last day of recording, 6 December 1980 Photo by Bob Gruen ©1980 Bob Gruen
‘John suddenly got scared that another singer/songwriter couple might do it before us. So it was rush, rush time. But nobody did it, and nobody has done it since then. We could have been more relaxed about that.’
Initial sessions took place at the Dakota in August, moving to New York’s Hit Factory with co-producer Jack Douglas. Yet, in the light of experience, Yoko was not convinced their “Heart Play” would be symmetrical. ‘In the old days,’ says Yoko ‘We would be making John’s songs and he would say, at two o’clock in the morning, or something, “Oh, there’s one that Yoko came up with this morning, so we’ll try that.” And of course, I was just treated like the, you know? And I thought, In Double Fantasy it’s gonna be like that too. I was prepared for it. It was fine. But no! John was so caring about my songs. I was very impressed.’
‘After the five-year hiatus, for John to come out and do his album, the whole of the music industry was totally, totally excited and they all wanted John’s music and was not very happy that I was there. So, in the recording, John really protected me. He had to. But I was surprised, remembering the old days.’
Double Fantasy was a brave album on John’s part, and not only for his loyalty to Yoko. Here was a man whose image was frozen in rock’n’roll, with all its connotations of youth, rebellion and extremity. Yet his goal this time was to address middle age, and the generation who had grown up with him, and to consider questions – of parenthood, of marriage, of mature relations between the sexes – that pop music scarcely touches.
The silvery tinkle of bells that introduces ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ was a deliberate contrast to the ominous tolling that opened John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band ten years earlier. Double Fantasy was to embrace the future with hope, and treat the past with affection. Two heroes of his youth, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, are playfully mimicked in John’s first track, a life-affirming celebration of the new decade just dawning. Yoko responds with ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’, flagrantly sensuous; in the Lennons’ mind, “double fantasy” had definite erotic aspects.
Yet this was not a one-dimensional depiction of bliss. ‘Cleanup Time’ tells of John’s resolve to face the future in better shape, but Yoko’s ‘Give Me Something’ is a stinging challenge to show emotional engagement. ‘I’m Losing You’ and ‘I’m Moving On’ plunge still deeper into discord, the former like an echo of John’s “Lost Weekend” record Walls And Bridges”, the latter a second instance of Yoko as the impatient realist.
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album cover Photo by Dan Richter ©1970 Yoko Ono
Walls And Bridges album cover Childhood illustrations by John Lennon
‘It’s not happy go lucky,’ she affirms. ‘John’s song ‘I’m Losing You’, even now when I hear that, I get chills and choke up. And ‘I’m Moving On’… Well, that is how we were.’
Tensions melt with wonderful suddenness in ‘Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)’, John’s tender song for Sean. Within the narrative flow of this album, it’s as if the arrival of a child has wrought a transformational magic. ‘Watching The Wheels’ is the contented father’s defiance of a world so silly it thinks he could possibly have any role more important. And in ‘Yes, I’m Your Angel’, the parents enjoy a little recuperative time together. We reach the album’s pivotal point, perhaps, in John’s outstanding ‘Woman’ – a song that is often compared with his ‘Girl’ of 15 years earlier, as a measure of the man’s personal development. In Yoko’s ‘Beautiful Boys’ we hear a stirring message of encouragement for any man on such a path.
The remaining songs serve to consolidate this hard-won harmony. John’s ‘Dear Yoko’, propelled by exuberant Buddy Holly gurgles, shines with the same pure joy as Imagine’s ‘Oh Yoko!’. Her own ‘Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him’ is similarly sweet. And her wistful ‘Hard Times Are Over’ draws the story to its graceful conclusion – though its message is subtly qualified, we note, by the cautious addition of ‘for awhile’…
John was now in the interesting position of owning his own album, and inviting the record companies to negotiate – preferably through the medium of his wife.
In the event it was David Geffen’s eponymous label that won the prize. ‘Well,’ smiles Yoko, ‘I think David was extremely wise! Can you imagine, all the other presidents of record companies could not stand that they had to talk to me. So they would be, “Let me talk to John, please,” on the phone, you know? And John was saying “Forget them. They all know that you’re doing the business. And if they cannot understand that, and they can’t even talk to you, we’re not gonna go with them.” And then one day David Geffen sent me a telegram. I reported to John. And John said “he’s the one, then.”’
There would, of course, be no further recordings issued in John Lennon’s lifetime. It’s true there were still some unheard songs, most notably on Double Fantasy’s intended sequel Milk And Honey – but they were for another day. On December 9th, 1980, the world awoke to ponder what it had lost.