Producer Jack Douglas: Flashback to ‘Double Fantasy,’ John Lennon Murder

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Celebrating the 40th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” in November and December 2020, this is a slight update of a Dec. 3, 2010 feature titled “Lennon ‘Double Fantasy’: Producer Jack Douglas Flashback, Pt. 2.”

It was the second of four stories based on my in-depth September 2010 interview with Douglas about co-producing the album with the Lennons in late summer and fall 1980, and John’s murder after a session the night of Dec. 8.

The stories appeared in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal newspaper; at the time I was the paper’s Online Editor and an entertainment columnist. Now, they’re all dead 404 pages on the paper’s once-award-winning website.

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In Part 1 of this mini-series, “Planting a Seed,” record producer Jack Douglas, a veteran of several album projects with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, recounted how the couple contacted him in summer 1980 about working with them on a new album, Lennon’s first in five years, to be titled “Double Fantasy.”

Douglas hopped a seaplane for a short flight from Manhattan across Long Island Sound to the Lennons’ getaway mansion in Glen Cove. Ono met him there, swore him to secrecy, and handed him an envelope of song demos John had just recorded while on vacation with son Sean in Bermuda.

Lennon then called Douglas from Bermuda and outlined the proposed “Double Fantasy” project, told him to listen to his new material as well as some new demos by Yoko, and decide if he wanted to co-produce an album with the couple.

Douglas returned home to Manhattan – he lived four blocks from the Lennons – in shock. Telling no one, he cued up the tapes right away and started listening.

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Producer Jack Douglas at Swinghouse studios, Los Angeles, September 26, 2010. | Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Speaking with us recently at Swinghouse Studios in Hollywood during a break in producing sessions for an upcoming solo album by ex-Hanoi Rocks singer Michael Monroe, Douglas recalled his first impressions of Lennon’s Bermuda tapes.

“My reaction was that I can’t do better than these tapes and to just release them as they are,” Douglas said. “There’s like an incredible charm in them. John recorded right into a boom box with vocals, then played them out of one boom box and recorded them into another, at that point doubling his vocal, adding a harmony or guitar part, banging on a pot or whatever. He created an overdub as it went over.”

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Producer Jack Douglas and journalist Stephen K. Peeples at Swinghouse studios, Los Angeles, September 26, 2010. | Photo: David C. Kephart.

Charming or not, the material was hardly studio quality. “This was not a line (recording) – it was just through the speaker, so it had a sound that would be difficult to reproduce unless you did it like that,” Douglas said. “I thought it was really amazing.”

Many songs had introductions, he said. “He’d say something like, ‘Here’s another piece of crap.’ And he ended some takes by saying, ‘This is was another song for Ringo.’

“It was a lot of material, including songs that were never released, like the two later done by The Beatles, ‘Real Love’ and ‘Free as a Bird,’” Douglas said. “You’ve probably heard them, so you know what the scoop is. And I just thought, ‘I don’t know if I could beat it.’”

(As the original writer/producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, the author indeed heard the Bermuda tapes, as well as other song demos Lennon had recorded in the studio and at home between 1966-1980. Many were first heard in segments of the series, including demos of both “Real Love” – originally titled “Boys and Girls” – and “Free as a Bird” premiered on the series.)

Douglas was also impressed by Ono’s “Double Fantasy” demos. “I thought it was her best stuff – there were solid songs,” he said. “And she also played me stuff on the piano that I thought was really good. I had way too much to choose from. She had way more songs than John, and you know, he had two albums’-worth.”

Assembling the ‘Double Fantasy’ Players

Douglas told the Lennons he was on board, and in early August assembled and started rehearsing with a band of first-call studio musicians, among them drummer Andy Newmark, percussionist Arthur Jenkins Jr., bassist Tony Levin, keyboardist George Small, guitarists Hugh McCracken and Earl Slick, and baritone sax player Howard Johnson.

In secret.

Initially, the players were kept guessing whose music they were learning.

“The last day of rehearsal was the first time the band learned who they were working with,” Douglas said. “When I told them, ‘Everyone’s going to meet on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West,’ suspicions were confirmed right then. Well, it could have been a Mick Jagger record, too, because the studio across the street was the Majestic. But from the material, they pretty much knew it was going to be John.”

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Jack Douglas (to Ono’s left), surrounded by the ‘Double Fantasy’ musicians, New York City, late summer 1980.

Inside their apartment in the Dakota building, bandmembers joined the Lennons on August 5 for the third and final rehearsal, which had a surprise ending.

“We just went through things with acoustic guitars and little amps,” Douglas said. “In their apartment on the seventh floor, right at the door, John has a Fender Rhodes (keyboard). And as we were walking out – I think it was just Hughie, Tony and myself – John said, ‘Oh, wait, I’ve just finished this one other song. I’ve had it for a while but it’s really now completed.’ And he sat down at the piano and played ‘(Just Like) Starting Over.’”

Indeed, the song had been a work in progress for some time. As detailed in “The Lost Lennon Tapes” (#21, 88-25, broadcast the week of June 13, 1988), it started out as “My Life,” a demo John recorded accompanying himself on piano at the Dakota sometime in the late 1970s. A second version of “My Life” became “Don’t Be Crazy,” which evolved into “The Worst is Over,” and eventually “(Just Like) Starting Over.”

Lennon nearly completed the song in Bermuda; he recorded guitar demos there, but it wasn’t among the load of tunes he had sent to Douglas at first. Lennon probably did just finish it back in New York, as he said. But one could easily imagine him cleverly sandbagging his best tune, then whipping it out for Douglas with a nudge and a wink at the tail end of the last rehearsal for maximum effect.

Either way, the new song got Douglas even more excited about rolling tape.

“I said, ‘It’s great, it’s a hit, it’s what this record is all about – so what we should do is, we’ll go in and rehearse it and record it first,” he said. “This way you’ll get into the flow with the band, because you’ll be rehearsing with them in the studio, and we’ll record it right away.”

Two days later, Aug. 7, Douglas, his team of engineers, the players and the Lennons (the couple accompanied by photographer Roger Farrington) discreetly converged on the Hit Factory studios. They figured they could keep the sessions a secret longer by working there than at the more public Record Plant.

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the Hit Factory in New York City on the first day of sessions for their “Double Fantasy” album, Aug. 7, 1980. Photo (C) Roger Farrington. Used with permission.

On that first day of sessions, they recorded the basic tracks for “(Just Like) Starting Over” and one of Ono’s songs, and the sessions were on. By the end of October, they’d recorded nearly all the tracks for “Double Fantasy” and what would become its followup, “Milk and Honey.”

The MCRTs

During the first session, Douglas recalls, John remarked that they should be recording everything.

“He says to me, ‘You know, we should have microphones hidden all over the place so we get more than what’s going on in the studio, so we actually have an audio history of how this thing was made,’” Douglas said. “You know how John wanted everything to be documented.

“So the second day, I came in early and did it. And he forgot about it – he never asked me if I did it,” Douglas said.

For the rest of the sessions, a couple of Studer reel-to-reel tape machines, hidden in a closet, and running very slowly, in mono, captured what the hidden mics picked up – mainly studio chatter between Lennon, Douglas and the musicians. John’s vocal booth was also wired, and because he sang on almost every take, the secret tapes had many alternate vocals from the ones ultimately released.

“Then I transferred all those tapes to cassette – it took a long time – and gave them to him as a birthday present,” Douglas said of the more than 200 MCRT reels. “He seemed really surprised. He was like, ‘You did this?’ and I said, ‘Yes, happy birthday! Here they are.’ We had a whole tray full of cassettes, and that was Oct. 9, so there were still quite a few (from sessions) after that. I’ve always been curious about all of the bootleg stuff I hear online, and it must’ve been because they recorded it off your show.”

Lennon had the cassettes and reels sent to Studio One, the Lennons’ archive at the Dakota, and the tapes were indeed among those Yoko provided to this writer at Westwood One in 1988 for production of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series.

There were a few dozen reels in what was labeled the MCRT series (which we took to be short for “master control running tape” or “master control reference tape”), and they filled in many important gaps in how “Double Fantasy” and “Milk and Honey” came to be, allowing us to illustrate Lennon’s creative process in a way that had never been done before.

Because of the MCRT dialogue, the series was able to follow the progress of a song all the way from its earliest demos to its final mix, hitting all the essential points along the way, as with the “(Just Like) Starting Over” segments mentioned earlier.

First, listeners would hear a demo, and maybe a later demo. Then, thanks to the MCRTs, the listener could be like a fly on the wall in the studio as Lennon gave directions to the band, chatted with Douglas, cracked jokes or just kicked out the jams.

There would be instrumental and vocal overdub sessions, and an early take of the song, with John’s raw vocal. Then would come a rough mix, and finally, the released version everyone knew and loved.

The Night of Dec. 8, 1980

One of Ono’s tracks recorded during the sessions, “Walking on Thin Ice,” didn’t make “Double Fantasy,” but she, John and Douglas were working at Record Plant on a six-minute version they planned to release as a single for rock clubs and discos when Lennon was murdered Dec. 8.

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Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Jack Douglas, New York City, 1980.

“It took me by surprise that we were going to do this (single) – we were supposed to go back to Bermuda,” Douglas said. “And he said, ‘No, no, let’s go back in, we have so much work to do. Just you, me and Yoko. No muss, no fuss.’

“But I’d already booked another session, not knowing that he was going to be coming in when he wasn’t supposed to, for those two weeks that it took to do ‘Walking on Thin Ice,’” he said. “So I had to move my other session to a 9 p.m. start time and work with him from 11 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. or whatever he’d want to do.”

For the Lennons, Dec. 8 had started at the Dakota with a photo session with Annie Leibovitz for Rolling Stone, and included an extensive interview there with RKO Radio’s Dave Sholin, Laurie Kaye and Ron Hummel.

About 10:30 p.m., John, Yoko and Douglas wrapped up work on the last track and called it a night.

“We were supposed to master ‘Walking on Thin Ice’ the next morning,” Douglas said. “We were going to meet at 9 a.m. at La Fortuna, our usual meeting spot, and then go down to Sterling Sound (studios) and master it.

jack douglas“Normally, I would ride home with him, but since I had the other session to start, I walked into the elevator, and left him at the door,” he said. “He was smiling, and said, ‘Well, see ya in the morning.’ I just said goodnight and went on the elevator to my next session.”

The Lennons hopped into a limo for the ride back to the Dakota, where a so-called fan waiting outside the building shot John four times in the garage entryway.

“About half an hour later, my girlfriend Christine came in and gave me the news,” Douglas said. “I was in shock. ‘Somebody shot him?’ Just unbelievable. Shock. All I could do was jump in a cab and pray that it was a flesh wound as I headed up to (St. Luke’s) Roosevelt Hospital (Center). The rest is what it is. Waited around – he had already passed. After the doctors came out and made the announcement, I just went home.”

For the next several days, a large crowd of fans kept a vigil outside the Dakota as radio stations programmed wall-to-wall Lennon, and fans around the world joined Ono in mourning.

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“Yoko and I had our own ceremony some four or five days later at Record Plant, just she and I,” Douglas said. “We just took out all of his tapes and dialog and anything we could find in the vault, and sat all night listening to everything we could just listen to. Cry.”

Lennon’s Legacy

Douglas reflected on what Lennon’s loss meant to his original fans, and why the artist is still relevant today.

“I think we lost a leader, and our generation went rudderless for some time,” he said. “And then there really hasn’t been – aside from Bono – someone who’s really been speaking with his music to the people.

“Parents are always telling me that they had people who spoke for them, and that they felt part of something – and today, we have nothing,” he said. “We’re all just running around loose. We’re not unified in any way. We have these individual voices and it’s all dictated by fashion and popularity and record label heads. We don’t have a voice. So, I think this generation, the kids now, are curious about John – ‘What was that voice, who was that person?’ And when they hear him, I think he becomes relevant to them.”

A CNN documentary, “Losing Lennon: Countdown to Murder,” hosted by anchor John Roberts, premiered Dec. 5, 2010, and goes into painstaking detail about Lennon’s final hours, his murder and its aftermath.

And in case you missed its Nov. 22, 2010, premiere, the “LennoNYC” documentary about the Lennons’ life and times in New York is available for on-demand viewing on the PBS website (and on YouTube).

You’ll also find lots of extras there, like more interview footage with friends and associates including drummer Jim Keltner, photographer Bob Gruen, Elephant’s Memory keyboardist Adam Ippolito and Elton John, as well as Slick and Douglas.

As Douglas said after viewing “LennoNYC” three times, “I keep hoping the ending will change, but it doesn’t.”

Millions of fans worldwide are still feeling the same way today.

Special thanks to Ken Sharp, author of “Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s ‘Double Fantasy'” and to Roger Farrington for permission to use his photos from the first “Double Fantasy” session. Find out more about the session here.

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The “Imagine” mosaic in Central Park’s “Strawberry Fields,” summer 1989. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. • He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992). • Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving online, he was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist is now a News Editor at SCVTV’s SCVNews.com, SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and developing a biography of notorious Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. • For more info and original stories, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.


Article: Producer Jack Douglas: Flashback to ‘Double Fantasy,’ John Lennon Murder
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com