Classic Tracks: John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Watching the Wheels"

Dec 8, 2010 4:20 PM, By Matt Hurwitz

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From left: Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Jack Douglas during one of the secret “Watching the Wheels” sessions

From left: Yoko Ono, John Lennon and Jack Douglas during one of the secret “Watching the Wheels” sessions

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Grammy-winning album Double Fantasy was released in November 1980, just weeks before Lennon’s tragic murder. The disc spawned three Top 10 singles, including “Watching the Wheels,” this month’s “Classic Track,” which producer Jack Douglas counts among his favorite songs on the album.

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"Watching the Wheels" MP3

From the beginning, the Double Fantasy sessions were kept secret. “If word got out, the project was over,” Douglas says. Though it’s hard to imagine today, Douglas says that Lennon was insecure about his singing voice and songwriting abilities after a five-year absence from the studio, and he wanted to keep the project under wraps until he was certain it was viable for release.

Douglas was flown by seaplane to meet secretly with Ono, who handed him a bag of cassette tape demo recordings from Lennon, as well as some 5-inch reels of her own songs. “John’s demos were really primitive,” Douglas explains. “He would record himself playing and singing onto one Panasonic cassette boom box while [assistant] Fred Seaman was banging on a pot or something. Then he’d place that machine next to another Panasonic, and sing or play a harmony while the second machine was recording the first plus his vocal, allowing him to double-track himself.” Most songs included brief spoken introductions.

Douglas’ first task was to assemble a group of musicians to play on the sessions. “He didn’t want to go with his old Plastic Ono Band guys,” such as drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Klaus Voormann and others, Douglas says. “He wanted the New York sound—the sound of New York session guys.”

The approach, as a whole, was to be a new one for Lennon. “He said, ‘This is a play. It’s between a man and his woman,’” recalls Douglas. “It was not going to be a rock album. It was going to be the sound of a mature 40-year-old man who was happy with his life, not a 20-year-old. It was to be a soft sound. He said, ‘You know, we’re going to get all kinds of grief about this, that I’ve lost my edge, et cetera, but the more we get, the more we’ll have succeeded.’”

In keeping with the new approach, Douglas explains, “[Lennon] didn’t want rockers. He wanted guys who were his contemporaries. His music reflected the music of the ’50s, and he wanted guys who could understand that.”

Douglas’ first choices included bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Steve Gadd and legendary keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, who first played with Lennon in 1968, performing the piano solo on The Beatles’ “Revolution” single. “Willie and Steve were not available, and Yoko didn’t want to go with Nicky because she said he and John were trouble together.” Any potential player, in fact, had to pass Ono’s litmus test: numerology.

While Lennon trusted Douglas’ player choices, he wanted at least one musician whom he knew personally, so the producer suggested veteran session guitarist Hugh McCracken, who had played on Lennon and Yoko’s 1971 “Happy Xmas” single, as well as on McCartney’s Ram album that same year. For bass, Douglas suggested Tony Levin, who had worked closely with both Douglas and McCracken from their earliest days recording jingles together in New York. Another veteran session player, Andy Newmark, would handle drums, with percussion by Allen Jenkins Jr., who had worked on several previous albums by Lennon and Ono. Keyboards were played by both Lennon and George Small, a suggestion of Douglas’ business partner, Stan Vincent.

A second guitarist would also play, though he would not appear until the first day of recording. “Earl Slick had played with Bowie—on ‘Fame,’ in fact, which John wrote,” Douglas explains. “But Earl was my wild card. I knew I wanted to bring in one guy that, when he got there, wouldn’t know anything about the recording whatsoever. And he’s very creative and would come up with stuff that was a little off, so it wasn’t just a straight New York session group.”






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