John Lennon & Yoko Ono – [Album]

Friday, 29 October 2010

After thirty years of time between, some perspective is required in order to understand the circumstances around Double Fantasy's original release. When the album appeared in late 1980, it was Lennon's first full-length record of new material in six years. Six years, for those keeping score, was the longest period of time between albums (by far) for the singer since he first appeared in the public eye with The Beatles in 1963. During that hiatus, history books say that Lennon used the time to live the simple life of a family man; he raised his son Sean, lived a quiet, domestic life and baked bread. When he did return for Double Fantasy, it was with Yoko Ono in a show of solidarity and the strength of the couple's enduring union.

At the time, some fans were happy at the singer's return and some were nervous. It's easy to understand why; Lennon hadn't appeased many fans at all with his previous efforts that included Ono (Some Time In New York City got critically cut up at the time of its' release), and there was the worry about the length of time between releases; a lot of things had changed in both the world and pop music between 1974 and 1980, and there were legitimate concerns that the singer may emerge anachronistic and out-of-sync with the times by then. Those clouds hung heavy over the prospect of a new album from John Lennon when Double Fantasy was first announced, even as excitement built.

While it might not be the most popular thing to say, the five-year break that John Lennon took between albums really does show from the opening retro rave-up “(Just Like) Starting Over.” When Lennon released Rock 'N' Roll five years prior to Double Fantasy, he'd already missed the Happy Days/American Graffiti boat and only caught the tail end of the nostalgia for the 1950s which was so prevalent in 1975. By 1980, the same nostalgia trip was more “moldy” than “oldies” and, even with the chorus of sighing background vocals and Lennon's own inspired vocal take, the song falls pretty flat. It doesn't help that Ono puts the aged feel of “(Just Like) Starting Over” into relief with the orgiastic and new wave-y “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” The two poles that those two songs represent sit uneasily with each other (at best) and make for a confused thematic introduction to the record, to say the least.

Happily, Lennon does bury the Fifties forevermore thereafter on Double Fantasy in favor of some glitzy, glammy rock (there's more than a passing resemblance to the sound and style that Bowie would run with three years later on Let's Dance – not shocking, given that guitarist Earl Slick played on both recordings) which would have played pretty well in 1980, but Ono maintains her New Wave inspiration throughout, which still makes for an uneasy and uneven balance through the duration of Double Fantasy.

That isn't to say that there aren't some great moments on the album, it's just a matter of finding them and removing them from the Double Fantasy context. “Beautiful Boy,” for example, is a fantastic and affecting ballad for Sean Lennon even if it has a few too many instruments thrown into the mix, while “Watching The Wheels” offers up some fine, introspective lyrics that really illustrate where the singer's head was at the time. (the “People say I'm crazy/doing what I'm doing/Well they give me all kinds of warnings/to save my from ruin” lines seem both ironic and self-aware given that Lennon is playing against type in “Watching The Wheels,” but it's working anyway) even if the production is pretty overwrought and the song recycles a portion of the piano line from “Imagine.”

Lennon's songs may be a little rougher than fans might have been comfortable with, but Ono's contributions to Double Fantasy really don't help the album's cause. After “Kiss Kiss Kiss” gets Ono's ball rolling clunkily along, “Yes, I'm Your Angel” takes a shot at some Broadway musical-leaning fare which doesn't really do anything right other than proving Ono can sing well when the desire moves her (something “Beautiful Boys” tries desperately to disprove) and "Every Man Needs A Woman Who Loves Him” upholds the notion that she is capable of writing good lyrics and melodies, on occasion.

In The end, “Hard Times Are Over” gives hope that times are getting better on all imaginable fronts (except vocal – while Ono proved earlier in Double Fantasy that she can in fact sing and there has never been any question of Lennon's vocal faculties, the pair cannot sing together – and “Hard Times Are Over” stands as enduring proof) and that there may indeed be a new beginning on the horizon – but it wasn't fated to last. Less than a month after the release of Double Fantasy, John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman on his way home. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital, at which time the admiration society shifted into gear. It seems sick to say but, while Double Fantasy was scathingly reviewed initially, rhetoric began to shift after Lennon's murder, and the album was eventually won the Grammy award for Album Of The Year in 1981, and sold three million copies. As distasteful as some found that recognition, they could understand it; the death of John Lennon was (like the break-up of The Beatles) the end of an era; but it wasn't the end of the story.

Since the day of Double Fantasy's release in November 1980, more than a few fans and critics have complained about the overall feel and presentation of the songs on the album. Some wondered if Jack Douglas might have been the wrong choice to produce the album, while others complained that the echoey, sonorous treatment of songs like “Beautiful Boy,” “Cleanup Time” and “Watching The Wheels” was a little too “Bowie” for Lennon's more melodic sensibilities but, regardless, the album wasn't particularly well-received until Lennon was murdered a month after it came out. Even then, while ears began to open and reception for Double Fantasy began to improve, there was still a contingent of fans who grumbled about Double Fantasy in hushed tones.

Even those most enduring and dogged tones of disapproval will be silenced when they hear the Stripped Down re-imagining of Double Fantasy that appears alongside its' originally-released counterpart now, in 2010.

As it turns out, all those naysayers who complained about the original production of Double Fantasy were absolutely right; the reissue takes most of the effects that were appended to each of the album's fourteen songs as well as some of the extra instrumental trappings that really helped to date the record and discards them wholesale to let the true craft of the songs stand at the forefront. It's a re-design so simple that it borders on laughable but it really does make all the difference; suddenly, the craft and delicacy of the songs is allowed to shine through and the results prove to be revelatory because they illustrate some of the nuances that went unnoticed before. Suddenly, for example, the stripped version of “I'm Losing You” has a rawer, more ragged edge that actually foreshadows grunge in its' staggering self-analysis, while “Watching The Wheels”seems to echo the southern California singer-songwriter scene that was beginning to build steam at the time.

Needless to say, the Stripped Down treatment does a pretty phenomenal amount of good for Lennon's half of Double Fantasy, but it actually does even more for Ono's contributions to the record. Without all the added nonsense of the original record, Ono's songs immediately come off as much less muddled and kitschy, and really showcase her ability as both a songwriter and performer. The first, best example of how much improved Ono's songs are when they're stripped down lies in “Yes, I'm Your Angel.” The original version of the song was pretty good because it illustrated how strong Yoko Ono's voice could be when she chose but, stripped down, the song achieves new clarity, further exposes Ono's voice as the finely tuned instrument it is and even showcases a sort of catchy, neo-classical cabaret vibe that went completely unnoticed in the original mix. The same is true of “Beautiful Boys,” which rolls out a Spanish flamenco vibe so strong, so strong, listeners will wonder how they could possibly have missed it in the album's original mix. The differences through the Stripped Down edition of Double Fantasy are fairly subtle throughout but amount to a substantial change in the end – those differences won't necessarily polarize audiences into camps of fans of one and the other, but it will certainly have those listeners who had written the album off clamoring back for a second look; they'd be doing themselves a significant disservice if they simply called Stripped Down a canny exercise in attempting to make a silk purse of a sow's ear.


Double Fantasy – Stripped Down is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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