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

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


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Lennon always sang live, miked with a Neumann U67. “His singing drove that band,” Douglas says. Often on Double Fantasy, Lennon’s live vocal—with occasional fixes—is heard on the master, double-tracked in the way Lennon had preferred in the ’60s at Abbey Road. The typical process included three or four live takes with the band, after which, as Douglas notes, “[Lennon] would get bored and want to move on,” returning to an unfinished song another time.

“After we had a master take, he’d maybe do three more performances if there were any fixes needed,” Douglas says. “Then he’d leave me alone to comp it: ‘Okay, I’ll come back when you have a vocal and then I’ll double it.’” The studio had a side room in which Lennon would meditate, do yoga or get a massage. “He was one of the easiest artists I ever produced,” recalls Douglas. “He did his job, and then he’d go relax. If we had comps to do, he didn’t sit there: ‘That word’s better. This word’s better.’ He went away, came back—‘That’s what I sound like.’”

Lennon was a master at the microphone, never failing to fascinate Douglas with his technique. “He’d work off to the side of the 67 on certain words to get a different sound. He’d work the side a little bit, then come back out. He’d do rhythms. Best technique I ever saw.”

Lennon also didn’t require a pop filter. “He showed me a trick that I’ve yet to see any other artist do: When he was doing his overdubs, he’d ‘catch’ his ‘p’s. His hand would go by his mouth, and he’d catch the ‘p’ and throw it away.”

Once the double-tracked vocal was recorded, DeCarlo would compress the primary and doubled track together, using a Universal Audio LA-2A, and then run it through a Pultec EQ at about 100 Hz. “It put back a little of the bottom the LA-2A would tend to take out,” Douglas says. The track then received a slap tape echo and some chamber reverb.

The Hit Factory’s array of outboard gear, such as the Pultecs and Fairchild limiters, as well as the studio’s collection of top-notch mics, were part of its draw. “We were able to use 67s as overheads on the drums,” Douglas notes. “You could put a tube 47 in front of the bass drum and an old D12 inside, and an old Beyer on the snare.”

Guitar amps were always miked with three mics: a Sony D30 (set to “M” for music, which added warmth), a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser 421. “The Sony hung in the middle, and then the other two were arranged to point in, in a ‘V’ formation,” Douglas says. “Then we’d work the phase until it was right.”

McCracken and Slick played hollow-body and solid-body guitars, respectively, which gave them complementary sounds. Douglas recalls a joke the experienced McCracken played on “wild card” Slick on the first day of work: “Earl showed up on the first day and, of course, was really excited when he saw John,” Douglas says. “The other guys had had the benefit of rehearsals and the formal sheet music, so I told Earl, ‘You’re fast—you’ll catch up.’”

According to Douglas, McCracken asked Slick, “You read, right?” referring to the sheet music before him. Not wanting to appear unprofessional, Slick responded, “Of course!” But while Slick was momentarily distracted, McCracken reached over and turned his sheet music upside down, which, of course, Slick didn’t notice. “We started running the song down, and Earl was actually making believe he was reading it. Eventually he started struggling, so Hughie, who was laughing, told him, ‘Ask Jack for a chord chart. It’s just the chords.’”

“Watching the Wheels” features mainly Lennon on grand piano; George Small, who added the song’s distinctive accented piano riff, on a Rhodes; and Levin on a fretless bass.

During the bridge, just prior to the song’s “I just have to let it go” lines, Lennon wanted a “circular” sound, which Douglas immediately associated with a hammer dulcimer. “It always sounded like wheels turning to me,” he says. The two quickly pulled out the Musician’s Union book, but, alas, found no dulcimer players listed.

Two days later, while walking up Columbus Avenue, Douglas happened upon a young man named Matthew Cunningham playing a hammer dulcimer for dimes and nickels. “I said, ‘You want to do a session? You’ll get paid $100. It’ll be very fast,” says Douglas. Cunningham agreed and soon found himself on the floor of the studio working the part out with Douglas. “I like this song,” he told the producer. “I really like this singer,” he added, completely unaware of who the singer was.

Lennon and Ono arrived shortly thereafter, and Cunningham asked, “Is that the artist?” Douglas answered, “Yes, that’s the artist and his wife.” “Oh.” Excited about the dulcimer sound, Lennon came out into the studio and began working with Cunningham, who still didn’t recognize him. Ono then invited him to join them for lunch, and the four sat together and ate sushi.

Cunningham was paid and sent on his way, but the next day he called Douglas, and said, “I just had a weird feeling. Did I just do a session with John Lennon?” Wanting to keep his sessions a secret, Lennon had Cunningham return to the studio. “He gave him two tickets to Puerto Rico and a paid vacation,” Douglas recalls. “He said, ‘Do me a favor—go take a vacation.’ Gave him some money and sent him away.”

After adding a few more overdubs—including Prophet 5 synth parts played by multi-instrumentalist and singer Eric Troyer—the song was mixed, as were most of the tracks, at Hit Factory. (Two were mixed at Record Plant.)

Upon hearing the final result of “Watching the Wheels,” Lennon gave his thumbs up, satisfied that Double Fantasy was now a reality and that the press could be told. “He turned to Yoko,” Douglas says, “and said, ‘Mother, tell them we have a record.’”

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