John Lennon: The Last Session

A look inside the final 'Double Fantasy' session

Album cover for John Lennon and Yoko Ono's record 'Double Fantasy' which was released on November 17th, 1980. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrived at the Hit Factory around 4:30 on the afternoon of Monday, December 8th, for what was to be their last recording session together. They were working on one of Yoko's compositions, a New Wave-ish disco number called "Walking on Thin Ice," which they planned to release as a single. The basic track had been recorded during the Double Fantasy sessions in August, and Yoko had done a master vocal — including a short poem that appears midway through the song — the previous Wednesday. On Thursday, John had added guitars and keyboards, with producer Jack Douglas pitching in on percussion. Douglas mixed the track with them Friday night, and only the finishing touches remained to be put on.

As usual, the Lennons were in high spirits. "We were really celebrating, the three of us," says Douglas. "We were celebrating the Soho News article about Yoko [an interview wittily headlined "Yoko Only"], and the new tune, and the press that Yoko had been receiving — we were really happy about that. Everything was going right at that point. On Monday evening, it seemed like everything was in gear and just perfect."

As had become evident in recent interviews, Lennon had exorcised the mental anguish of his past, and Douglas — who first met John in 1971, while working as a remix engineer on his Imagine album — was happy for him. "Having been with John in L.A. during that time when he was just unbelievably depressed, the one thing that makes me feel not so bad now is that when he died he was real happy, maybe happier than he's ever been. I mean, he was feeling terrific, constantly talking and joking.

"He had just agreed to write some material for Ringo, and during the Double Fantasy sessions he was always full of chitchat about how the Beatles' old records were made," Douglas says fondly. "I remember a story he told me about the day they did 'Rain': there were no cassettes then, so you had to make reel-to-reel-tape copies. Well, he got his tape of the song, only they gave it to him backward. So he goes home and puts this new song on, and he hears ja-joog, ba-bloop. He goes, 'What the hell. . . ?' Smokes a joint, and then: 'Ah!' He goes running back to the studio: 'Listen to this! It's backward! It sounds great!' And so that was their first song to have backward vocals."

Lennon's fondness for such studio sleight of hand is still evident on Double Fantasy. At the fade-out on "I'm Losing You," he had Douglas mix in a secret message to his wife in synthesized Morse code: "I love you, Yoko." And some of John's innate talent seems to have been inherited by Julian Lennon, his seventeen-year-old son by his first wife, Cynthia. "Julian is quite a good artist," says Douglas. "He's got his dad's touch. And he's got a band — John was telling me that he was playing Beatles songs. It's funny, he used to call up John and he'd say, 'Dad, in "Strawberry Fields," uh, what chord is that?' And John would have to run to a Beatles songbook and go, 'Well, let me see, let me see if I can remember that.' And he'd go through the book and then say, 'Oh, yes, it was F-major seventh.'"

So the future looked luminous by ten o'clock on Monday night, when Douglas and the Lennons finally wrapped up "Walking on Thin Ice." David Geffen, president of Lennon's record company, had dropped in earlier to inform the group that Double Fantasy had just gone gold after two weeks in release. John and Yoko planned to put out a second album — containing the eight remaining tracks they had recorded in August — sometime in the spring, and perhaps even tour behind it. And now there was this great new single.

"We just listened to it over and over, we were so happy with it," Douglas recalls. "By 10:30, we'd finished listening back to it. They wanted to get something to eat. John was going to head over to the Stage Deli and get some sandwiches, and then go home. We were going to master 'Thin Ice' as a single the next day. Normally, I rode home with them, but I had another project to do. I just said 'so long' at the elevator. The last thing John said to me was, 'See you tomorrow morning, bright and early.'"