Rick Nielsen, Earl Slick and Jack Douglas Discuss the Recording of John Lennon's Final Album, 'Double Fantasy'
From the GW archive: This feature originally appeared in the Holiday 2010 issue of Guitar World:
In this Guitar World exclusive, session guitarists Rick Nielsen and Earl Slick and producer Jack Douglas discuss the stories and sounds behind John Lennon’s final album.
I thought long and hard about this,” says producer Jack Douglas. “I asked myself, ‘Am I selling John out?’ ” Douglas is talking about his 2010 stripped-down remix of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1980 album, Double Fantasy.
The disc is part of the massive rollout of reissued Lennon solo material that EMI recently prepared to commemorate what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday on October 9, 2010, and the 30th anniversary of his death on December 8, 1980.
Double Fantasy was the last album Lennon released in his lifetime. It hit the streets about a month before his murder, a grim chronological juxtaposition that has always lent greater poignancy to the album’s songs. Double Fantasy was meant to be Lennon’s “comeback” album, his return to the music business and public life after five years of retirement during which he had focused on the simple joys of domesticity and raising his son, Sean.
Instead, the album became Lennon’s farewell to a vast and adoring fan base, many of whom had admired him since the earliest days of Beatlemania.
It was Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who asked Douglas to revisit Double Fantasy on the occasion of last year’s anniversaries. “I got a call from her office asking if I’d be interested in doing something with Double Fantasy, not really knowing what,” says the producer. “I said yes. It shouldn’t be anybody else. I produced it. I pretty much knew where everything was on the master tapes.”
This left Douglas to decide what could or should be done with Lennon’s original masters. “I realized it couldn’t be an ‘unplugged’ album,” he says. “If you unplugged all the electric instruments, there wouldn’t be anything left. And John’s original rough demos for the album were already in circulation, either illegally as bootlegs or legally in a box set [1998’s John Lennon Anthology]. So I thought the best thing to do was break it down to the original rhythm section that we recorded live in the studio, and just discard a lot of the overdubs and production.
"While the album holds up well, I thought it sounded like an Eighties production. And John was insecure about his vocals throughout his career, but particularly in this case, where he was coming back after a long time out of circulation. So we had buried his vocals in the mix, double-tracked them, and I put a bunch of slap echo and reverb on them. But I realized that it would be really compelling to bring his vocals really up front—and Yoko’s too, although to a slightly lesser extent—so you really hear the emotion in John’s voice and feel what he was singing about. So far, people who have heard the mixes are stunned by how much you feel like you’re right in the room with him.”
But is this what Lennon would have wanted? That was the question Douglas struggled with. Was he indeed selling John out? In the end, the producer decided he wasn’t. “I went back to John’s early solo work, when he first left the Beatles, the Plastic Ono Band stuff. And he didn’t mind pulling down his pants and being right up front at that point. That was because he was confident then, whereas he was just a little insecure when he did Double Fantasy, because he’d been away for a while. But in fact his voice was fantastic on that album, although I couldn’t convince him of that at the time. And now you get to hear it.”
So Douglas found himself returning to tracks he’d recorded 30 years ago. But by an eerie coincidence, he found himself transferring the original analog multitrack masters into the digital domain in the very same room where he’d last worked with Lennon, on the very last night of his life, completing a recording of Yoko’s song “Walking on Thin Ice.” In 1980, that 10th-floor room at 321 W. 44th St. in Manhattan had been part of the Record Plant. Today, it’s a Sony transfer facility.
“They called me, and said, ‘We want to tell you something, Mr. Douglas. This is really strange. The very room where we do the transfers is rumored to be the last room you and John worked in the night he was assassinated.’ So in fact I was going to start this project in the very same room where I left it 30 years ago. The room was the same, and it was completely by accident.”
But, as a longtime believer in karma, astrology and numerology, Yoko Ono might contend that such occurrences are no accidents. “I didn’t even invite Yoko to these transfers,” Douglas says. “I thought that would be too upsetting for her. That was John’s last elevator ride that he took downstairs. It was all just way too much. And in fact, in the two weeks that we spent doing the transfers, it felt like John was a ghost in the room with me. It was very disturbing.”