Another John might have put it best; poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “Maud Muller,” “”For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” That notion certainly applies to the life of John Lennon. After a five-year hiatus from making music so that he and Yoko Ono could spend time raising their son, Sean, the pair released the aptly titled Double Fantasy, a double-album of new music. The record hit stores forty years ago this week, but any celebration that the couple might have had was cut diabolically short when Lennon was murdered three weeks later. The album stands as a reminder of John’s rare talent, and an occasionally painful tease that he might have had more great work to come.
Even before the official dissolution of The Beatles in 1970, John Lennon worked on a number of musical projects with his second wife, Yoko Ono. They formed the Plastic Ono Band in 1969 and ran many of their ventures through it for the next five years. Collaborating at times with the likes of Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Keith Moon, and former bandmates Ringo Starr and George Harrison, Lennon and Ono started amassing a new body of work that built upon the adventurousness that The Beatles had entertained in the last years. Between 1968 and 1975, Lennon and Ono (sometimes credited to the band, sometimes credited to them as a duo, and sometimes credited to just John) released nine albums. The Imagine album is considered an outright classic, and all of the albums credited to Lennon himself sold well and produced several hits. The albums credited to Lennon and Ono as a pair tended not to perform as well on the charts, but still did generally respectable numbers.
After 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll (which went Top Ten in the states and yielded a Top Twenty single with Lennon’s cover of “Stand by Me”), Lennon and Ono stepped away from the spotlight and put their focus on raising their son, Sean. Lennon had spoken in interviews of his regrets that he had missed the early years of his first son (with first wife Cynthia), Julian, because he was touring the world. While he was, at the time, rebuilding a relationship with the teen Julian, he took the opportunity to spend more time with the younger Sean, and Yoko handled many of their business concerns.
Lennon and Ono returned to the studio in secret in the summer of 1980. Double Fantasy was a truly collaborative double album, featuring songs by both artists, and they had no record deal at the time. Producer Jack Douglas (who had worked with the couple before and engineered Imagine) put together a group of backing musicians without revealing whom they’d be backing at first. Lennon and Ono were incredibly productive in the studio, putting together songs for the double album while having enough left over for a later project. When they finally let it be known that they were making a new record, they were besieged with offers from labels; they signed with the freshly minted Geffen Records in September of 1980, in part because David Geffen approached Ono first and treated her like Lennon’s equal instead of “the wife.”
The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” dropped on October 20, 1980, with the 14-track album following on November 17. “(Just Like) Starting Over” would be the last single released while Lennon was alive. Prior to his death, it had already hit #6; it would take the #1 spot after he was gone. Subsequent singles “Woman” (#2) and “Watching the Wheels” (#10) would also be major hits in America. Though the album got mixed reviews on its release, its reputation has only grown over time. “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” has become a much-loved song and was an Adult Contemporary chart hit; it’s also been covered by artists like Celine Dion and appeared in a significant capacity in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus. At the 1982 Grammy Awards, Double Fantasy won the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1981. A final Lennon and Ono album, Milk and Honey, would arrive in 1984. Compiled by Ono from the material recorded during the Double Fantasy sessions, the disc went gold in the States and yielded a #5 single in “Nobody Told Me.”
Listening to Double Fantasy now, what you really get is a portrait of a marriage. The two discs present an older, maybe wiser, couple that actually realizes that they’re older. Lennon wasn’t trying to be a rock star or even the political firebrand of his younger days; he was projecting the image of a guy who loved his wife and son, but also happened to be one of the most famous and beloved musicians of all time. By turns wistful and winking, it’s a rather mature and complex album beneath some of the seemingly simple songs. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic.com noted, “these are really nice tunes and what’s special about them is their niceness — it’s a sweet acceptance of middle age, which, of course, makes [Lennon’s] assassination all the sadder.”
It’s that depth that continues to conjure the great “What If?” Many fans (and Paul McCartney himself) believed that, had Lennon lived, The Beatles would have eventually had some kind of reunion, possibly even at 1985’s Live Aid. Even if that prospect hadn’t come to pass, the material on both Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey demonstrated that Lennon still had many, many creative miles to go. His death remains one of the great tragedies in popular music; the bittersweet truth, of course, is that music itself never dies.
Featured image: emka74 / Shutterstock
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