Wednesday 20 February 2013

John LENNON and Yoko ONO: Double Fantasy

(#243: 7 February 1981, 2 weeks)

Track listing: (Just Like) Starting Over/Kiss Kiss Kiss/Cleanup Time/Give Me Something/I’m Losing You/I’m Moving On/Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)/Watching The Wheels/Yes I’m Your Angel/Woman/Beautiful Boys/Dear Yoko/Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him/Hard Times Are Over

It’s the image that does it.

There they are, on the front cover, a middle-aged couple in an embrace who look at least reasonably happy. One is maybe happier than the other, for only the man is kissing and has a visible arm around her neck. She is waiting to receive his kiss without giving any clear sign that it will be returned. But he appears glad, and the monochrome shot, which meant something different when the record came out to what it meant now, helped strike what I feel might have been the wrong chord. It’s him, isn’t it – but look how he looks now! Where’s the long hair, the glasses, the beard? Where are the seventies? His hair, if not exactly short, is – moptopped. He looks exactly like he did in 1965, that time when life was supposed to be better.

You see, John couldn’t even poke his nose above the trench without his history being brandished in his face.

Double Fantasy is one of the hardest of all number one albums to write about because it is now nearly impossible to imagine – did you catch that word, on the other side of the sky? – what it would have sounded like or how to write about it without the knowledge of what happened after it came out. It is virtually impossible to write about as an independent record of music.

But there is also the knowledge that without Mark David Chapman I almost certainly wouldn’t have been writing about this record at all. When it came out, in the mid-autumn of 1980, it did only respectable commercial business – in Britain it only peaked at #14, in the States #11 – and met with a frosty critical reception. It was late 1980, and the world was in trouble; who, the critical mean asked, wanted to listen to 45 or so minutes of a rich couple blandly declaring their love for each other, like a slightly hipper Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, in a record packaged to resemble – the cover of A Star Is Born? Or incomplete memories of Rubber Soul?

In essence, John and Yoko (though mostly John) were decried for not being Paul Weller, whose group had at the same time released a scarily relevant record of angry and discursive songs (Sound Affects). The meagre pleasure available to the mourning reader after 8 December was to observe music journalists turning acrobatic cartwheels with their typewriters to change their opinions around completely (in the case of Melody Maker, the same writer). Oh John, boring us to tears again with your homespun homilies, converted rapidly to Oh John, why couldn’t he have been left alone to get on with his homespun homilies; here you can see a glimpse, perhaps, of why Chapman did what he did.

You can turn over the newest of leaves, the residual lesson was after the shooting, but no one will ever let you be; you will forever be encapsulated, or entombed, in that monochrome image, resuscitating memories of what and who once was. If you’re someone like Chapman, the image and the person get so hopelessly mixed up in your mind that you think you can snuff out an image and not hurt the person.

Yes, he probably should have headed back to Britain when punk happened, got his feet dirty, brought up Sean in Ladbroke Grove – or, at the very least, Chelsea – and yes he was beyond naïve to think that he, John fucking Lennon of all people, could happily stroll around the very dangerous place that was late seventies/early eighties New York without any threat, least of all from a psychotic Salinger misreader allowed by the Second Amendment to wander freely around the USA with a gun. But there is a brief comment from John and Yoko on the back cover of Double Fantasy which says: “With special thanks to all the people, known and unknown, who helped us stay in America, without whom this album would not have been made.” So staying in America was an active choice, and bringing up young Sean may have been the deciding factor.

In the 2000 CD edition of the record there are many photographs of the pair hanging out in and around New York; they could from a distance be any fortysomething holidaymakers. But what cannot – and clearly could not – be erased from people’s mindsets was that one of these people was once a Beatle, and everything that had once promised. Think of the all-night camps and sing-alongs outside the Dakota after it had happened, the grief-stricken pages of Rolling Stone and other such publications, the feeling on the part of many that something in their lives – and perhaps even their lives – had come to a full stop, and wonder what the Lennon who only a few months before recorded a cheerful, punky send-up of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” would have made of it. Even in death, they could not let him rest in peace.

So Double Fantasy - the title comes from a type of freesia that Lennon had seen in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens; he had journeyed by boat from Newport (the Rhode Island/High Society one) to Bermuda earlier in 1980, ran into difficulties and was lucky not to drown – with its subtitle “A Heart Play,” pertains to an image of John and Yoko – the one on its cover - far more readily than any underlying reality. I am not sure whether anybody who bought the record and wept over it, or who lazily listened to the record and issued a stern putdown, sensed the differential. Everybody saw a star, or stars, and not a human being, or human beings.

Interestingly, after Lennon’s death, Double Fantasy sprinted back up the UK album chart from 46 to 2, but then stayed in second place for seven weeks, behind Abba and then Adam and the Ants, before the success of “Woman” as a single finally pushed it to the top. Despite all the mourning, were people still suspicious of the record – or did they see Yoko’s co-credit and warn themselves off?

The record itself is nothing like what people thought it was, even the parts people think they know well. It begins with the lead single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” its three tinkly bells bookending the three sonorous chimes of “Mother” a decade earlier, and the song soon reveals itself as an old-school midtempo fifties rocker – did Lennon ever escape the fifties, or want to? – sung by Lennon in his best echoey Elvis/Big O voice, wanting the old love, and maybe the old times, back (though the song could be said to be sung to the eighties, urging it not to repeat the mistakes of previous decades). It’s sentimental and wonderfully sung – Lennon’s voice is pretty much unchanged and still terrific – but is it quite the New Beginning it professes to be? As the song slowly fades, over airport Tannoy announcements, Lennon lingers on the phrase “starting over,” and just before the song disappears, embarks on a series of whimpering yelps reminiscent of the White Album version of “Revolution.”

But this does not even begin to prepare the unwary listener for the shock of the new that is Yoko’s “Kiss Kiss Kiss.” Saying much the same thing as “Starting Over” but with much more anxiety and desperation (“Why death?/Why life?/Warm hearts/Cold darts” – it is like Bowie doing the Plastic Ono Band), the singer’s register and delivery immediately summon up the first “It’s No Game,” while she herself seems intent on conjuring up everything that has happened since 1969 and saying “look, I invented this!” – the Slits, the Banshees, Lydia Lunch, the B-52s, even Eno’s “Driving Me Backwards,” all present and culminating in an outrageous sequence of carnal cries and orgasmic grunts as if to say: “See? I was right ALL ALONG.”

After an explosion like that, one almost feels sorry for contented househusband John as he settles into “Cleanup Time,” another amiable mainstream rocker which references the same nursery rhyme as “Cry Baby Cry.” Only briefly, however, because it’s clear that Old Grampa Rock actually fits Lennon like a comfy pair of carpet slippers; he sounds contented, undisturbed, wholly at ease – it is as if “rock” has finally come around full circle to meet and blend with his forty-year-old viewpoint (even if the musicians include the likes of Tony Levin, Earl Slick and stalwart Andy Newmark, all involved in other, more dangerous musical adventures; the horn section includes useful people like Howard Johnson, Seldon Powell and JD Parran) and he is perfectly happy paddling in the mainstream.

More so than Yoko, anyway, who with “Give Me Something” threatens to take over the album completely, or at the very least relegate John to the role of guest on his own record. Here her extended screeching reminds us that she helped invent Patti Smith, but her worldview is miles away from John’s rosy outlook; she sings, as elsewhere, as though knowing, and dreading, the fact that some sort of “end” is coming (“Give me something that’s not hard,” she asks, plaintively; something, perhaps, that is not cock rock but possibly female rock).

Next comes the big breakup centrepiece, John’s “I’m Losing You” and Yoko’s “I’m Moving On,” which segue into each other and boast the same riff, tempo and chord structure; slow, procedural, hammering. Casting their minds back to the “lost weekend” of the mid-seventies, Lennon growls and pleads in his best “Cold Turkey” tones – and I note that this is the second consecutive number one album to make a sardonic allegorical reference to a bandaid (“The wound’s deep but they’re giving us a bandaid,” Ice-T will rap on “New Jack Hustler” a decade hence) – and his shrieked, “Well, well, WELL!” tells us that we are back in 1970 primally screaming territory; it’s all a façade, the old demons haven’t been vanquished, but merely put to the back of the airing cupboard. Earl Slick’s guitar rises to meet bleeping electronic noises, and Yoko comes back with her solemn, stoical but hissily accusatory response, in which she, amid many vocal hiccups, calls John a “phony.” Just like Holden Caulfield did, and Mark Chapman would; it is beyond scary.

But the first side concludes with Lennon trying to convince young Sean that it’s all been a nightmare – those three bells ring again – and “Beautiful Boy,” with its deliberate Japanese constructs, is a lullaby of sorts, an opportunity for John to do “Good Night” – written as a lullaby for Julian, in 1968 the same age as Sean in 1980, and, as performed by Ringo and the Mike Sammes Singers at the end of the White Album, enough to give anybody nightmares – but this time get it right. Structurally the song is also slightly reminiscent of “I’ll Follow The Sun,” but note how at the end we get a segue of children’s voices, open-air sounds and distant electronica, replicating the infant memories of “Revolution 9,” all of which dissolve and atomise, as though none of it really existed.

Side two begins with “Watching The Wheels,” a “God” for a new decade, with a piano riff that cheerily inverts that of “Imagine,” in which John declares his principles; look, he’s happy off the merry-go-round, out of the business, baking bread, doing what he does, just let him be. Not the Walrus, still, but just plain John the expat Scouser. It was maybe too late for all of that, however; Chapman quoted the line “People say I’m crazy” when questioned by the police, and much too late for Lennon to be considered as anyone other than “John Lennon”™, The One With The Answer For Everything. “I just had TO let it GO!” he sings, angrily, toward song’s end, but nobody will let the image, Lennon’s “star” self, go anywhere; stuck in the Dakota, he knows he is in the prison built for him by people who claimed they loved him.

How dare you be just plain John Lennon, you phony, and not “John Lennon.”

John Lennon, shot by a madman who thought he was John Lennon.

Chapman’s shooting might have been the ultimate act of rock criticism; you come back with THIS? Have you not heard “That’s Entertainment” or “Music For The Last Couple” you think you’re John LENNON you Perry Como motherfucker BANG BANG

Taking it all too far, because “Beautiful Boy” is the one that has that line about life being what happens while you’re busy making plans.

In “Watching The Wheels,” he sings “I tell them there’s no hurry, I-HI,” and suddenly the ghost of Buddy Holly is in the room. As well as tinges of “Walrus.”

Yoko’s “Yes I’m Your Angel” is a charming twenties flapper romp; yes, a bit Nilsson, but Yoko’s carefree, almost random “Tra la la la la”s remind me that Clare Grogan will become a huge star before this year is out.

Altered Images, with their first single about dead pop stars. “You did love me, didn’t you? Don’t leave me dying here!”

“We believe in pumpkins that turn into PRINCESS,” she sings halfway through the song, “and frogs that turn into PRINCE.” Remember that for later on in the year.

Lennon whistles cheerfully, and atonally, in the background as Yoko shakes her head smilingly as if to say: “Oh, John, you’re such a damn fool sometimes – but that’s my John!”

“Woman,” much more earnest, with its whispered Chinese proverb intro, not so much a grown-up sequel to “Girl” (see, on the NME/Rough Trade C81 tape from the same month Double Fantasy went to number one, Scritti Politti’s “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” for that) but a resigned envoi to “Jealous Guy” and the spiritual partner of “Cleanup Time”; look, the song says (all this looking, like fans look at images of stars and think they’re human), I know I fucked up in the past, but hey, I’m sorry, let’s begin again, and a lot of the reason why this went to number one as a single – in Britain, the fourth Lennon single to top the chart in under two months (four? “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was top of the unpublished 3 January 1981 list) – was that, somehow, this was a resurrection of the old, cuddly John, the one eighties people could still remember from the sixties, when the Beatles made nice, reassuring ballads that everyone could slow-dance to; this is a QUIET SCREAM FOR OUR GOLDEN AGE TO COME BACK, and it’s only listenable in that context, rather than that of knowing that it was not going to be the start of a new paragraph, or even an erasure of the seventies with all its fuss and bother, but the deadliest and coldest of full stops. Like “Because,” its beauty lies in the foreknowledge that it has been curtailed.

Then comes Yoko’s “Beautiful Boys” in which she addresses, in turn, verse by verse, the four-year-old Sean, the forty-year-old John, and men in general, the ones who could wipe the planet out with their stupid bombs. She acknowledges, as Lennon himself does in “Woman,” that he is still a child in an adult’s body, but as the song progresses her voice slowly becomes more accusatory and the musical background moves from dreamlike electronic swirls to more menacing and prominent electronic noises; the song itself becomes steadily more violent and disjointed.

John has his last full word with “Dear Yoko,” an ebullient fifties rocker – see what I mean – with a “ah-well, ah- well” purloined from the intro to “Rave On,” a Bo Diddley backbeat (just like the Ants), an uncredited fiddle (if fiddle it be and not George Small’s string synthesiser), all the time saying how much he loves Yoko and can’t bear to be without her, even for an hour.

Then he disappears from the record – for the most part – leaving the final two songs to Yoko. “Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him” has a pretty straightforward sentiment, but Yoko sings it in such an icy, neutralised tone that it becomes oppressive. The music is early eighties Talking Heads, squelchy electronics and bouncy beats, while Lennon’s backing vocal threatens to take over the song altogether at more than one point. Finally, the much-mocked (at the time) “Hard Times Are Over,” a blustery gospel waltz workout (and Lennon is still clearly audible within the gospel choir, but intangibly so, as though he is already a ghost) which isn’t really the let-them-eat-bagels panacea that critics thought at the time; on the contrary, Yoko is painfully aware that this renewal may not last, hence “hard times are over, over for awhile,” or “hard times are over, over for some time.” The implication being that more shit will happen – and so it turned out.

The problem in appreciating this record independently of its circumstances is not helped by the 2000 CD edition, which includes the numbing “Walking On Thin Ice” – the song John was working on the night of 8 December – and therefore turns the album into its own commentary, along with the Lennon piano demo “Help Me To Help Myself” (“But the angel of destruction keeps on/Houndin’ me all around”) which may well be his “Black-Eyed Dog.” So the album, as it was then known (though the current edition offers a stripped-down CD of demos and alternate takes of the songs, with the original album on a second CD), became its own chief mourner.

But listening to Double Fantasy does bring home the second lesson from 1980. It is like the two pathways towards the afterlife, one shining and golden (which, however, leads to Hell) and the other dark and indistinct (but leads to Heaven). Adam Ant’s songs are clarion calls, aware of the doom of their time but insistent on the need to move forward and start over, if necessary, no matter how challenging and pessimistic they may originally sound. Whereas John and Yoko’s songs, despite severe reservations, point to what looks like an optimistic future but then turned out (literally) to be a dead-end. Both records will colour much of what comes after them in 1981; and the two rivers will meet towards the end of the year, when an album will feature a song about, at least in part, Lennon’s shooting, but it’s an album which, in February 1981, is really still unimaginable. We will be going a lot further than you think. Whether we are wise enough not to confuse stardom with humanity may, however, be a different matter.

The image, on the cover, number one for Valentine’s Day; do not do as we have done. Even if we were the first to do it; how could we have known?