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

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


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Jack Douglas (right): “I was like a race car driver. I just wanted to go fast and rock. John would always pull me back, saying, ‘Not too much, not too edgy.’”

Jack Douglas (right): “I was like a race car driver. I just wanted to go fast and rock. John would always pull me back, saying, ‘Not too much, not too edgy.’”

After a number of telephone conversations in which Lennon gave Douglas specific production ideas, Douglas and arranger Tony DaVillo created parts for the players and final charts, and scheduled two weeks of rehearsals at S.I.R. New York for late July/early August. “It was still a secret who the artist was, so I sang,” Douglas says. “They, of course, cracked up laughing, and saying, ‘C’mon, when are we gonna see the real singer?’”

After each day’s work, Douglas would meet up with Lennon at the Dakota apartments, Lennon and Ono’s famous New York City address, to listen to cassette recordings of the band and fine-tune the arrangements. “It was a blast because John liked to work in bed,” Douglas recalls. “He had a giant bed, which was surrounded with toys: pianos, organs, synths. And above his headboard there was an acoustic guitar, a Hummingbird, and an electric guitar, a Flying V copy called The Sardonicus. He could just reach behind himself and grab one of the guitars without looking.” Douglas would record whatever part Lennon would add, and then incorporate that into the next day’s rehearsals.

Eventually, based on the style of the music they were playing, the band began to guess the artist was a Beatle, especially once they were given the address where the final rehearsal day would take place: The Dakota. “It was mainly just getting together and talking through the music, playing a little bit [in another part of the building],” Douglas says. “Then we went into the residence and just sat and talked for a few minutes.”

The following day, Douglas and the musicians met up at The Hit Factory—a curious choice for Douglas given his longtime association with The Record Plant and his engineering guru there, Roy Cicala. “I chose it because I had to find a place that was off the beaten path, where the fans wouldn’t be looking for us.”

However, Douglas had to be cautious, given the politics of studio alliances. “Ed Germano, who ran The Hit Factory, had left Record Plant with some clients, and he and Roy became enemies,” Douglas says. “I had to explain to Roy, ‘I have to do this because he wants to be working in Midtown. I have to be there now, and you just have to be okay with it.’ It was difficult.”

The studio was booked under the name Rich DePalma—an employee of the Lennons, according to Ken Sharp’s comprehensive new oral history of the sessions, Starting Over (Gallery Books/VH1). The sixth-floor studio was only accessible by a secure elevator.

The band arrived on the morning of August 7, 1980, along with engineer Lee DeCarlo. Once the tracking got started, “I was like a race car driver,” Douglas recalls. “I just wanted to go fast and rock. John would always pull me back, saying, ‘Not too much, not too edgy.’ And Lee was able to make that happen for us, keeping the sounds very fat, very high-fidelity, which I really appreciated.”

The room was set up with the two guitarists—McCracken and, now, Slick—facing Lennon, who was in the opposite corner of the room, in an isolation booth, allowing him to both sing live and play guitar, as well as have a direct sightline to McCracken, Slick and Levin. If Lennon was playing an electric guitar, his amp was situated in a smaller, adjacent booth. If he was playing acoustic, he was miked within his vocal booth.

Lennon had a tremendous guitar collection, and he brought all of them to the studio, including his famous ¾-scale black Rickenbacker. “You could see where the headstock had been repaired a number of times,” Douglas says. “And he still had the Shea Stadium set list taped to the back!” Ultimately, Lennon ended up using his two old friends from above his bed—the Hummingbird and the odd-shaped Sardonicus—for everything. “He would always go, ‘Okay, which guitar should I use on this one?’ He’d walk out to his guitars, open a few cases, and then go, ‘Naw, I’ll just use the Sardonicus,’” Douglas says with a laugh.

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