Graded on a Curve:
John Lennon and
Yoko Ono,
Double Fantasy

Beware of confusing the idol for his work. This is particularly true of John Lennon, ex-Beatle, whose murder outside The Dakota in December 1980 instantly transformed him into a martyr and secular saint. More importantly, it effectively obscured the fact that as an artist Lennon had reached a creative nadir with 1980’s Double Fantasy—in my opinion, one of the most overrated albums in the history of popular music.

There is no need to recount Beatle John’s brilliant contributions to music. They speak for themselves, as does his early post-Beatles output. But from those early heights Lennon fell into a precipitous artistic decline that culminated in 1974’s lackluster Walls and Bridges and 1975’s Rock’n’Roll—an oldies album, that last refuge of a musician who has run out of original ideas. It was at this point that Lennon retreated to The Dakota and “retired” from music.

Double Fantasy marked his return to music. Largely forgotten now is that initial sales of Lennon’s much-vaunted “comeback” were sluggish, and the record-buying public avoided it in droves. Also largely forgotten is the fact that most top-notch music mags—including Rolling Stone, The Times, and The Village Voice—panned Double Fantasy.

But all changed with Lennon’s murder. Afterwards, many of the negative reviews were withdrawn, sales of Double Fantasy skyrocketed—the predictable response of a public curious to hear Lennon’s farewell LP, and eager to honor the memory of a great man—and John and Yoko’s joint LP wound up winning a Grammy.

Listening to Double Fantasy now, some 34 years after Lennon’s death, it’s clear that the initial public and critical responses were on the money. Lennon’s songs in particular are enervated, bland, and embarrassingly uxorious. When all’s said and done, the one or two decent songs on Double Fantasy are by Ono, who unlike John actually got out some, and realized the musical landscape had changed completely since 1975—when time effectively stopped for Lennon—and that the clubs and discos and record stores were awash in radical new sounds and ideas.

One last thought before I get to the songs. Lennon’s unhealthy—one might even call it infantile—dependency on Yoko Ono is as evident on Double Fantasy as it is in the famous Anne Leibovitz photograph of a naked Lennon clinging desperately, like a child to its mother, to a clothed Ono. And it mars the album. Many of Lennon’s “love songs” on the LP sound fawning and abject, less adult treatments of romantic love than cases of arrested development.

LP opener “(Just Like) Starting Over” is marred chiefly by Lennon’s pedestrian lyrics—from “Our life together/Is so precious/Together” to “It’s time for us to spread our wings and fly”—its dubious doo-wop backing vocals, and its second-hand melody, this from the guy who gave us “A Day in The Life” and the great “Ballad of John and Yoko.” And where the hell is the wonderful Earl Slick, guitarist extraordinaire? Lennon, the Beatles’ pre-eminent rocker, doesn’t include a singer good rock tune on Double Fantasy, and none of his songs include so much as a decent guitar solo.

Ono’s follow-up, “Kiss Kiss Kiss” is a fast-paced New Wave dance number that I like due to its sheer weirdness. Yoko may not sing well, but she sure does know how to ululate, and I don’t know what to say about what sounds at first like a small child only to slowly morph into an orgasming woman. And hey, there’s Earl Slick! Kicking ass! As for “Kiss Kiss Kiss”’s lyrics they’re dumb dumb dumb, but they work in the dance context, where bad lyrics seem to be considered a sign of good taste.

Compared to the sheer vapidity of Lennon’s follow-up, the limp and forgettable “Cleanup Time,” Ono’s bizarre antics are a fresh breath of No Wave air. “Cleanup Time” boasts a hackneyed melody and one very clichéd horn arrangement, leaving you nothing to listen to but Slick’s guitar. And Lennon’s lyrics (“The queen is in the counting house/Counting out the money/The king is in the kitchen/Making bread and honey”) strike exactly the wrong note—they’re the braggadocio of a self-absorbed rich man, and don’t exactly speak to those of us who are not kings and queens and whose bank accounts make the idea of a “counting house” risible.

Ono’s “Give Me Something” is a propulsive dance number with a rather annoying set of lyrics, a backing vocal so atrocious that it’s actually kind of addictive, and some very formulaic thump thump thump by Newmark. Ono is no singer, which leaves the listener with Earl Slick’s guitar solo, which I’d listen to again if I could just figure out how to separate it from the rest of the song.

Lennon’s “I’m Losing You” is as close as Lennon comes to a rocker. Unfortunately the melody is nothing to write home about, and it hardly rocks like a hurricane. That said, John manages to express an emotion besides fawning gratitude towards Ono. Why, he even seems to be… attacking her. If nothing else, the song is interesting psychologically, as it reveals Lennon’s deep resentment of Yoko, while simultaneously acknowledging that said resentment is futile, as he’s still desperately in thrall to her. But “I’m Losing You” isn’t a complete write-off: Slick’s brief few seconds of miraculous guitar-shredding at song’s end are a thing of wonder, and the best thing by far on Double Fantasy.

I don’t have much to say about Ono’s “I’m Moving On” besides it sounds suspiciously like “I’m Losing You,” Ono’s vocals are stilted and wooden, and her lyrics are execrable (sample line: “Don’t stick your finger in my pie/You know, I’ll see through your jive.”) But don’t despair; at song’s end she chatters like a monkey! Forget Earl Slick’s shredding—this is the best moment on Double Fantasy! Nor do I have much to say about Lennon’s redundantly titled “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” Sure, it’s pretty in its way, but I suspect you either have to be a mush-head or a parent to enjoy its unabashed mawkishness. People tend to remember it for the line, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” which is the only profound thing Lennon has to say on Double Fantasy. Or would be if he’d actually coined the saying, which appeared first in a 1957 copy of Reader’s Digest.

“Watching the Wheels” is the closest thing to a listenable Lennon song on Double Fantasy. It’s not a big thrill, mind you, but at least it moves and has a decent melody. And Lennon’s in a feisty mood, even if his lyrics are irksome as hell. If he’s really given up the game, where the hell did Double Fantasy come from? And that “People asking questions/Lost in confusion/Well I tell them there’s no problem/Only solutions” is almost as arrogant and hypocritical a slice of hoo-ha as “Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can.” Why the unmitigated gall! Wondering if we poor proles can imagine no possessions? Of course we can, we have none. And this from a from a guy who died with $150,000,000 in personal wealth, owned matching black and white baby grand pianos, an entire floor of The Dakota, more cows than Old MacDonald, a yacht, one very expensive jukebox, and God knows what else.

Yoko’s “Yes, I’m Your Angel” is a bad song from an awful musical that I would sooner stick a fork in my eye than go see. And I will say no more about that. Meanwhile, Lennon’s “Woman” has a nice (if rather flabby) melody but is a primo case of the argument I made previously, what with its “Woman, I hope you understand/The little child inside the man/Please remember/My life is in your hands.” This isn’t a love song; it’s the desperate cry of an infant who understands its very life depends on its mother. As for Ono’s “Beautiful Boys,” it’s a slow dirge and a love song to both son Sean and husband John featuring some really bad Yoko vocals, a set of very maudlin lyrics, and one very annoying flute. That said, it does include the perceptive line, “And now you’re 40 years old/You got all you can carry/And still feel somehow empty.” Lennon may have professed perfect joy on Double Fantasy, but as usual, the wife knew better.

Lennon’s “Dear Yoko” is so much perky swill, played in double time, I assume, out of mercy—it’s as if the musicians knew the sooner this one was over, the better. Once again Lennon lyrically prostrates himself before Ono, whom he can’t bear to be away from for a day, a night, or even one hour! Could he manage a minute, one wonders? Meanwhile the horn arrangement is total crapola, the melody consists of a rather humdrum riff played over and over, and Earl Slick, poor us, is nowhere to be found.

As for Ono’s “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him,” I actually like it, despite Ono’s awkward vocals, because it has a funky, sinuous beat that sounds downright “High Art” compared to Lennon’s slapdash bunch of hackneyed melodies. Slick does some neat little things on the guitar, Newmark actually earns his sessions pay on drums, and the synthesizer work is nifty. Best cut on the album! In fact, the only good cut on the album! Which brings us to Ono’s “Hard Times Are Over,” which has a gospel feel, what with its organ and choir that claps its hands and sings. Unfortunately the melody is jerky and stilted, and it would have been nice had Yoko deferred to John on this one, because her voice is wrong for the song, not to mention most songs. The chorus is almost bearable, but unfortunately it’s Yoko’s voice that dominates, and as for the sax that throws in here and there it’s high school jazz band fodder.

In his perceptive NME review of Double Fantasy, Charles Shaar Murray wrote, “It sounds like a great life, but it makes for a lousy record,” and “I wish Lennon had kept his big happy trap shut until he had something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko.” Murray is right about Double Fantasy being a lousy LP, but wrong about both the couple’s great life and Lennon’s happiness. As for Double Fantasy, a fantasy it is indeed—of a perfect marriage that was as screwed up as most marriages everywhere. But great records have no obligation to the truth. The real problem with Double Fantasy is that it’s one truly bad LP, and that’s not fantasy, but fact.


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