Rick Nielsen, Earl Slick and Jack Douglas Discuss the Recording of John Lennon's Final Album, 'Double Fantasy'
The transfer process itself was painstakingly meticulous. Douglas originally recorded the album on two 16-track analog multitrack machines, synchronized via SMPTE time code.
These analog masters needed to be transferred to the Pro Tools digital platform at the highest possible sampling frequency, using the best A-to-D converters available. First, however, the original analog tapes had to be taken from their secure storage area and baked at a carefully controlled temperature in order to re-adhere the oxide to the magnetic tape stock, a standard restoration process when working with older analog tapes.
“The tapes are held under lock and key at Studio One [Ono’s production company],” Douglas explains.
“They were taken from there to another facility, where they were baked, and then brought to us at the Sony transfer room. The masters would come in to us with an armed guard. We’d get four to six reels at a time to work on. The whole process took about two weeks. We took files of everything—outtakes, the works. And we brought it all to [engineer] Jay Messina’s facility, West End Studios. We started to analyze everything we had. At that point, John stopped being a ghost and became an active participant in this thing. He started to give us little clues of where we could find little gems—funny count-offs and pieces of comic business and one point where there was going to be a saxophone solo and John hummed the whole solo. So we took out the sax and put in the humming.”
Indeed, Lennon’s little snippets of banter between takes are one small treasure of Double Fantasy’s stripped remix. At the outset of the album’s opening track, Lennon dedicates the song to his rock and roll heroes, “This one’s for Gene [Vincent], Eddie [Cochran], Elvis [Presley] and Buddy [Holly],” establishing the mood of nostalgia and romance that wafts throughout all of Lennon’s contributions to this musical dialog that he shared with Ono.
“Those fun bits of business totally reflect what the album was about,” Douglas says. “The original idea was that the album was a play that you were watching onstage, or onscreen as a film—a dialog between a man and a woman. And it occurred to me at this point that you could take that, bring it off the stage and involve the audience in this dialog by making it very intimate, bringing John and Yoko into the room with you.”
Neat chronological decimals mark Lennon’s life trajectory with eerie regularity. In 1960, at age 20, he first left his native Liverpool and landed in Hamburg to play the rough clubs of that city’s Reeperbahn red-light district with an embryonic incarnation of the Beatles. It was the start of a chapter in his life that would climax in the worldwide hysteria of Beatlemania.
Ten years later, Lennon celebrated his 30th birthday while recording his first solo album, The Plastic Ono Band, in 1970. He was glad the Beatles were now behind him and eager to commence another new chapter of his life. And in 1980, embarking on his 40th year of life, he completed Double Fantasy. It was meant to herald the start of a triumphant third act for Lennon. His troubled youth behind him, reunited with Yoko after a mid-Seventies separation and drunken, desperate Lost Weekend, Lennon was now a contented father and family man. He saw this as a new beginning, although fate would soon transform it into a bittersweet denouement.
After a long silence, during a vacation in the Bahamas, Lennon suddenly came up with a batch of new songs that reflected where he was at that point in his life, his love for his wife and son, the rough times he’d been through and the new equilibrium he had found. These songs would form the backbone of Double Fantasy. “John wanted the album to be the sound of a 40-year-old man with a kid,” Douglas says. “He said, ‘We’re going to get blasted for this: John Lennon is not rocking anymore. But that’s what this record is. It’s about me now. And it’s made for my people. I want my contemporaries in the room to record it with me.’ ”
To co-produce the album, Lennon and Ono chose Douglas, who had helped engineer some overdubs on Lennon’s landmark Imagine album in 1971 and had since gone on to distinguish himself with outstanding rock albums by Cheap Trick and Aerosmith.
In keeping with Lennon’s wishes, Douglas recruited a top-drawer coterie of session musicians who were more or less in Lennon’s age group, including bassist Tony Levin, drummer Andy Newmark and keyboardist George Small, along with a few players who’d worked with Lennon in the past. Percussionist Arthur Jenkins had played on the 1974 Lennon album, Walls and Bridges album, while guitarist Hugh McCracken was a veteran of the Lennon’s 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
McCracken has the added distinction of having played guitar with all four former Beatles. He’d previously played on Paul McCartney’s Ram album, in 1971. “John said to Huey, ‘Love your work with Wings. Very good.’ Huey said, ‘Oh thank you, John.’ And John said, ‘You know, of course, that was just an audition to play with me.’ ”
Working from cassette demos Lennon had made in the Bahamas, Douglas put together some orchestrations with arranger Tony Davilio and began to rehearse the band without Lennon. In fact, Lennon was so uncertain about the whole project initially that Douglas wasn’t even allowed to tell the musicians the name of the artist on whose album they were working—although a few of the players soon guessed. The cat was fully out of the bag when the location for the final rehearsal was announced—Lennon and Ono’s apartment at the Dakota building at 72nd Street and Central Park West in Manhattan.