Wed Dec 12, 2012 2:50 am
Interview with author Ken Sharp on the making of John Lennon’s last album, Double Fantasy
By Marshall Terrill
STARTING OVER: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (MTV/Gallery Books; October 2010; $26.99) provides an intimate collection of personal accounts and never-before-seen photographs behind the creation of the groundbreaking album which forever changed the face of music, and proved to be John Lennon’s final work.
Three decades since its release, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy is recognized as one of music’s most beloved albums and marked the creative rebirth of one of rock and roll’s most influential artists. For the first time ever, Starting Over offers the definitive text and visual account behind the creation of the historic record, which would ultimately serve as John’s last musical statement to the world. A number one record around the world, the GRAMMY award-winning Double Fantasy (1981’s “Album of the Year”) yielded the smash singles, “(Just Like) “Starting Over,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels.”
Constructed as an oral history by Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and author Ken Sharp, the story is told by the album’s key players including Yoko Ono, producer Jack Douglas, Geffen Records head David Geffen, the entire studio band, Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick who played on the sessions, engineers, arrangers, videographers, key record company personnel, media who interviewed John and Yoko during the promotion of the album (David Sheff/Playboy, Andy Peebles/BBC Radio, Dave Sholin/RKO Radio), photographers (Annie Leibovitz, Bob Gruen, Kishin Shinoyama, Paul Goresh), music journalists and Lennon himself via archival interviews. Starting Over weaves together the most comprehensive and extraordinary portrait of Lennon’s last days by one of rock’s premier writers.
What do you want Starting Over to convey to your readers?
In light of the horrible tragedy, the creative period prior to his murder signaled a creative rebirth for John Lennon. I wanted to covey that burst of creativity through the tapestry of people I interviewed for the book.
How old were you in 1980 and what affect did John Lennon’s death have on you?
I was 17 and living back east in Fort Washington, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa. I didn’t hear about his death until the next morning. My sister woke me up and told me. It just felt like a horrible, horrible nightmare. I feel very fortunate — through my mom, I grew up loving perhaps the two most important icons in popular music – Elvis and the Beatles. I specifically remember my mom buying Beatles VI for me at the grocery store. To this day that album is an important record to me. I remember looking at the back sleeve with John wearing that polka-dot shirt and thinking he was the ultimate rock star. I still think that to this day. While I was certainly too young to see the Beatles live, I can say I’m a first generation fan who got into them in the sixties. I’ve released a couple of CDs on my own (1301 Highland Avenue, Happy Accidents and Sonic Crayons) and I can say with certainty that the Beatles and specifically John, have been the greatest influences on me. His death felt as if I’d lost a family member. There’s still a huge void and I think we all feel that. Doing this book was my way of wanting to honor John’s legacy.
When did you conceive of the idea of the book and how did it come together?
I think it was a few years back when I listened to the album again and started thinking that a lot of his other albums have received pretty extensive coverage but the story of Double Fantasy has always been somewhat obscured by the horrible tragedy that occurred less than a month after the album was released. I thought I should investigate the idea of writing a book on the making of the album. I started with a series of interviews with producer Jack Douglas and then the story started to unfold.
I’m surprised this book wasn’t attempted on the 10th or 20th anniversary of his death; it seems more appropriate for some reason this book is coming out approximately the 30th anniversary of his death.
What I can say is that Andy Newmark, the drummer on the Double Fantasy sessions, recognized my passion and my sense of honoring the record. I think he sensed I wasn’t going to do a hatchet job and that my intention was to present a ‘fly on the wall’ perspective from as many people as possible about the creation of the album. He sensed the genuineness of my intentions and he helped open some doors with a few band members who were reluctant to speak. Obviously, that helped open the door for the book to happen. Since publication, the band has received copies and I’ve spoken to a few of them and they seem real pleased, Andy especially. It meant a lot to me to get his approval and that his faith in me was rewarded. I feel I delivered on my promise to assemble the most extensive chronicle of those times. Maybe their reluctance to talk over the years was due to the sadness and somber nature that surrounded this great event in which they participated and was perhaps tainted by John’s murder. If I can surmise, as the years have passed, they can embrace the positive, uplifting nature of those sessions. John was on such a high and he was creatively reborn. He was back to doing what he was meant to do, and that’s making music. There’s always that sadness of the promise of “what would come next” that was stolen from all of us on December 8, 1980.
Yoko Ono granted you an interview. What was your interaction with her and what role did she play in the shaping of this book?
I’ve interviewed Yoko twice before and both times were at the Dakota, which was a very exciting thing for me to do. I interviewed her in 1986 for the Live in New York City album and again in 1992 for Onobox. She’s just fantastic and a very gracious lady. I remember waiting in Studio One, the famous all-white office that is head-to-toe with file cabinets. If you recall, there’s a few famous photos of John in that office: one signing the back of Double Fantasy and the other of him reading a newspaper with his feet up on the desk. We did the interviews in Yoko’s office, which is on the same floor. It’s an intimate, beautifully decorated office with plush couches. What really affected me was seeing in person the painting done of John and Sean Lennon in Bermuda, which hung in Yoko’s office. John’s piano was also in the office and I remember playing a few chords on it.
Regarding this book, I reached out to her fairly early in the process and we did one interview. Again, she was gracious as always. I have a feeling it was a little painful for her to speak about that period but she was a trooper and very forthcoming. I’ve never had anything but positive dealings with her. I like her songs on Double Fantasy and believe they pointed the way towards a very futuristic sound. Ironically, John was right about Walking on Thin Ice being her breakthrough record. The evening of December 8th, John told her as they finished that session, “Mother, I think you’ve just made your first No. 1 record.” Now, it wasn’t No. 1 immediately, but it was her first No. 1 record on the dance charts and she’s had a few since. My experience with her was completely positive. She didn’t have a role in shaping the book beyond being one of the few key people that I interviewed.
Why did you decide to make this an oral biography?
I like to utilize the format. In a sense when constructing an oral history, I approach it like a filmmaker, in that sense, sculpting the voices of the people I spoke to. It also helps to tell the story as seamless as possible, and doesn’t allow me, the writer, to pontificate or speculate. This is told by all the people who were there as it happened. By the way, the last interview I did was with renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz. As you can imagine, she’s a very busy lady and initially when I reached out to her, she was not available. It turned out to be a very busy period for her. I approached her again near the end of the book because I felt that for the “December 8th” chapter, I wanted to revisit the events of the day without getting into the tragedy that later unfolded and I felt she was a crucial voice. So I went to her again and through a good friend of mine, Bernie Hogya, who worked with her on the “Got Milk?” campaign, she said yes. It turned out to be a great interview. So great that she got so emotional in the middle of the interview that she started crying a little bit. It was sad but it also conveyed the deep well of love she had for both John and Yoko. She wasn’t just a photographer, she was a friend to both of them. For me, that being the final interview was a great way to close out the book.
I get the sense from reading your book that all the session players and engineers had a genuine affection for John Lennon.
It is apparent when you read this book that John was such a strong spirit and certainly was a three-dimensional character. He was a real person and that’s what we connect with. The people on those sessions were all new in working with John and Yoko, and brought an excitement to the project. In speaking to everyone, there was such a sense of joy and rebirth in the air for the sessions. Everyone I spoke conveyed a deep love and affection for John as well as Yoko. And I hope that Yoko will be proud of this book because it’s an honest but very uplifting chronicle of the time. For me it was a matter of historical record to get it down on paper while all of these folks are still with us. It was such a key and pivotal part of John’s and Yoko life, that I feel very fortunate and privileged to be the one who did it.
I know at the time a lot of fans and especially critics, thought that Double Fantasy was the ‘househusband’ John and didn’t really get the whole ‘joys of domesticity’ message. How, in your opinion, has that changed over time?
Well, it’s interesting that you say that because when the album did come out it did receive mixed reviews. There were some who loved Double Fantasy and some who were disappointed. Surprisingly, Yoko was the one being championed as the avant-garde artist and some critics were a little disappointed in John’s songs. I believe a lot of the critics wanted the angry John; the John who was filled with angst and rage; the Plastic Ono Band John. There were critics who wanted the cutting edge John and this was a different man. He was 10 years older; the guy who was a househusband for five years. He extolled the joys of domesticity, being a househusband, being a father. Of course, “I’m Losing You” carries some of the pain and angst of the old days. He painted his life in song so yes, there were some critics who didn’t like the album.
In the book I interviewed a slate of critics who reviewed the album when it was originally released and garnered their take on the record. One of those was British music writer, Charles Shaar Murray who originally reviewed the record for the New Musical Express in England. He slammed John’s songs and championed Yoko’s. His opinion has since changed and that’s because he’s now in the place that John was when he originally wrote Double Fantasy. He’s reevaluated the work and is much more objective about it today, which I felt was an interesting take and an important point to address.
How do you view producer Jack Douglas’ role in the shaping of Double Fantasy? He says in your book (and I think he’s just being humble) that he stayed in the background and let it happen because John was such a force of nature. There’s no doubt that his assembly of this studio team for Double Fantasy was brilliant. What credit should he rightfully get for this album?
I think he deserves major credit, especially for allowing John to lead but providing the solid expertise when he needed to intercede. He had major success with artists like Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Miles Davis and it’s ironic that while he was working with John on Double Fantasy, his major act, Cheap Trick, was working with George Martin on the All Shook Up album. I think Jack was someone who not only valued John but Yoko, and someone who knew his place and knew when to intervene on a creative level. I also think he was able to create a real positive environment in the studio as well, which is crucial. By creating that environment, as a performer it inspires you to even greater heights. Jack was able to connect with the right players and surround John with a team that made him feel comfortable and inspired.
Your book also revives the theme once again that Lennon liked to work fast in the studio. Can you comment on the speed in which Lennon worked and perhaps why?
I think it goes back to the days of the Beatles when they knocked out three songs in a session. That’s the way he grew accustomed to recording, but there was also another aspect and that he wanted to capture the moment, the freshness of the song. He was impatient and had the mindset of, “Let’s just do it. Let’s capture it and move on.” There’s an authenticity to his songs because of it.
The Cheap Trick saga in this book was absolutely fascinating. How did you hook up with Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos, and what were their memories of those sessions?
I co-wrote a book on Cheap Trick with Mike Hayes called Reputation is a Fragile Thing: The Story of Cheap Trick. That came out over 10 years ago, and they’ve always been one of my favorite groups. In many ways, the Cheap Trick chapter is one of my favorites in the book. I recently received a really nice compliment from the band’s drummer, Bun E. Carlos, who said of all of the accounts he’s read, mine is the best and most accurate one. That made me feel really good. I was always fascinated by those sessions. I remember hanging out after a Cheap Trick show in 1985 in Philadelphia where they were sharing a bill with R.E.O. Speedwagon. On a little walkman, Bun E. Carlos played “I’m Losing You” and “I’m Moving On.” You don’t forget hearing something like that – it was a mind-blower. I loved their raw and primal Plastic Ono Band approach to those songs. So because of that history, I’ve always been fascinated with those sessions.
Cheap Trick was obviously heavily influenced by the Beatles and John Lennon, and when I told them I was working on the book and who I had spoken to for this project, both Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos consented to speak to me and they both supplied a great interview. I wanted to create a chapter that would be the final word on those sessions. The story is that they came in for one day and Rick was on guitar, Bun E. on drums, Tony Levin on bass, George Small on keyboards and John was playing guitar and singing. They knocked out two songs and John seemed to be really happy with them. Rick presented John with a white Hamer guitar, and I tracked down an image of it in the book. To see a photo of John playing that guitar in the studio was pretty mind-blowing for me. The other interesting thing was the day they did the session, Rick’s son Daxx was born. He remembers smoking cigars with John and John showed Rick his Rickenbacker guitar. There’s also a great little story in the book about how the band found all of these guitar picks leftover from the session where Rick had flicked them just like he does in concert. And for our Cheap Trick book, Bun E. Carlos kindly allowed us to reproduce a piece of sheet music for “I’m Losing You” that John signed. He wrote, “To Bunny, enjoyed the hop. Love, John Lennon.” John didn’t know his name was spelled Bun E. and Bun E. certainly wasn’t going to correct him. I also found the pun quite funny as well. Could there be a cooler possession in the world?
Why were those tracks not used on Double Fantasy?
There’s a story in the book about John being upset that the session was mentioned in Rolling Stone but I’m not convinced that’s the real reason. I believe it’s simply due to the fact that the versions they did were so raw and so different than the lush and polished nature of the other tracks. It didn’t mesh with the rest of the album and would have stuck out like a sore thumb. I think that’s the real reason why they were not used the first time around, but I’m glad “I’m Losing You” was officially released on [John Lennon] Anthology. I’d also like to see “I’m Moving On” get officially released as part of a Yoko project.
Another great story in the book is the tale of Matthew Cunningham, a street musician who played hammer dulcimer and was recruited by Jack Douglas to play “Watching the Wheels.” Can you recall for the readers the hilarious exchange Lennon and Cunningham had in the studio?
Jack Douglas brought in Matthew Cunningham, who was a hippie long-haired street musician and he seemed like he was in the dark about who he was doing the session for. He was playing a little out of tune and John was in the control room and speaking to him on the talkback button. Cunningham squinted his eyes, looking at the control room window, but couldn’t see who it was. He asked, “What’s your name?” John replied, “My name’s John,” but never let on to Cunningham he was John Lennon. Cunningham said, “Hi, John.” And then John says, “Hi, Matt.” Everyone in the control room was laughing because this poor guy Cunningham didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. But two days later he finally figured it out and called Jack Douglas on the phone to ask, “Did I just play for John Lennon?” Douglas said, “Yeah, you did.” He was paid something like $200. I tried to find Cunningham, too, but I was unsuccessful (laughs). But that is a wonderful story and shows the openness of John and Jack to bring someone in off the street to add a little sparkle to the sessions. It’s one of Double Fantasy’s great surprises.
I’m still a little confused on the sessions for Milk and Honey. Were those songs semi-recorded during the Double Fantasy sessions and put on the shelf and then finished after Lennon died?
Essentially, yes. They would lay down tracks, but then later there were additional overdubs on Milk and Honey. I think the songs that grabbed them at the sessions that they felt they could flesh out and felt were more immediate at the time, were the ones that ultimately comprised Double Fantasy. Ironically, the first track that was recorded for all of those sessions was “I’m Stepping Out.” It’s a great track and one of the best on Milk and Honey and certainly would not have been out of place on Double Fantasy. Perhaps it was Jack Douglas who honed in on the songs that were connecting a little quicker and could sculpt and get in the can for an album. These two albums are truly brother and sister, Yin and Yang and equal in terms of content. A great sadness for me was that “Grow Old With Me” was never done the way John had envisioned. In the new Box of Vision set, there are some handwritten lyrics for the songs on both of those sessions and he had listed he wanted to use bagpipes on that song. The haunting demo certainly has its own magic but I would have loved to have seen “Grow Old With Me” really fleshed out.
Your book also shows, through the words of those who were there at the time, that John and Yoko were in love with each other and he was very happy at the end of his life. I’ve heard so many different things over the years. What are your thoughts on this particular subject?
If he wasn’t happy, he really put on a good front for all of those musicians and I just don’t think that was the case. The music really shows his joy at the time; the joy of being back in the studio and Lennon never could fake it. That wasn’t in his character. I spoke to all of the studio musicians and Jack Douglas and the only thing that was ever conveyed to me was how much in love they were and how they connected as husband and wife and as creative partners. The record was subtitled “A Heart Play” and it was a dialogue between husband and wife. It was an intense relationship, and seemingly they were in a really good space. I just don’t think you can fake that.
Starting Over has the most detail I’ve ever read regarding John’s plans to tour again.
According to the people I spoke to in the book, a tour was going to happen in the spring of 1981 following the release of another record, which I guess would have been Milk and Honey. There was a dinner commemorating the end of the sessions where there was specific talk of players’ availability and confirmation that John was going to hire them to go out on the road. Yoko mentioned that John was going to perform Beatles songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Wow, can you imagine John singing those songs? I would have loved to have seen John sing “Help.” Ideas regarding the production of the show were bandied about, talk of a futuristic spaceship with a mechanical Octopus arm. Earl Slick, who was very much an in-demand session player at the time, said John spoke to him of setting aside some time to tour. For me, that was a very exciting part of the book to explore and uncover. Ultimately, we’re talking about a mythical tour but just to even imagine it is exciting. John was in that mind space and so free and open to new ideas and opportunities, he was going to face the world again in a very spectacular fashion and on his own terms.
The saddest part for me was that Double Fantasy was not only John’s big comeback, but that Act III of his personal and professional life was wiped out by a madman. How hard was it for you to compile this book, knowing that doom was right around the corner for Lennon?
I spent very little time on the tragedy. I feel that’s for other books to examine. My focus was on the sessions, the idea to reconstruct that entire period leading up to the release of the album. During the whole process of recording the album and in the months afterward, John was really enjoying himself and was on a professional upswing. It was a time of creative birth and renewal. I made a very conscious decision not to cover his murder in any depth. However, I do think the chapter “December 8, 1980” is a pretty powerful one because it does provide a “fly on the wall” perspective as to what he was doing that day on a creative level, starting with the Annie Leibowitz photo session through the RKO interview through the final “Walking on Thin Ice” session.
Why does Double Fantasy still touch people 30 years after its release?
I think the album still resonates because everything John Lennon did resonates. He was real, he was authentic. He was just like us. I also think the fact that he was espousing the joys of domesticity and family, a subject certainly everyone relates to, especially as we grow older. You can also sense a great joy in the record. And as we grow older, the songs mean more to us.
Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy is available on www.amazon.com.
Marshall Terrill is the author of more than a dozen books. His latest, Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon (Triumph Books, 2010) is available at www.amazon.com.
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