We’ve spent a lot of time with the amazing Jack Douglas over the past several weeks! He told us how he got Cheap Trick signed to their first record deal, what it was like working with Aerosmith throughout the ’70s, and how he engineered John Lennon’s Imagine!
Jack had the opportunity to work closely with John Lennon up until his untimely passing in 1980. This time we’re talking about his experience on Double Fantasy, which he produced alongside Lennon and Ono. The piece was their fifth studio album together and the final release in Lennon’s lifetime.
Jack Douglas has enjoyed a tremendous career.
His first professional gig was as a janitor at the Record Plant in New York. He worked his way up to the desk as an engineer and participated in projects by Miles Davis, The James Gang, Alice Cooper. Of course, we know he saw Cheap Trick perform live which convinced that they needed a record deal ASAP!
Jack also helped engineer The Who’s 1971 Record Plant sessions for the Lifehouse project which was eventually canned. He then had the opportunity to engineer John Lennon’s Imagine album in 1971. Jack and Lennon got along very well, working together for the rest of Lennon’s life.
Jack became a Record Plant staff engineer where he worked with artists like Patti Smith, Blue Öyster Cult, the New York Dolls, Starz, and perhaps most notably, Aerosmith.
Jack engineered and produced many of Aerosmith’s albums in the ’70s, including Get Your Wings (1974), Toys in the Attic (1975), Rocks (1976), and Draw the Line (1977). All of these incredible albums are multi-platinum!
Double Fantasy was Lennon’s first project in 5 years.
When their son Sean was born in 1975, Lennon and Ono put their musical careers on the back burner to focus on parenting. Apart from writing demos in his apartment, Lennon hadn’t committed himself to any project over the course of 5 years until Double Fantasy in 1980.
The extended period away from music gave him new energy to pursue the record. As the story goes, Lennon actually went through a traumatic but invigorating yacht trip in which he was forced to take the helm alone for hours at a time. He was absolutely terrified but made it through the ordeal with a new focus and energy to write—songs started flowing naturally.
The album was recorded at The Hit Factory in New York between August and October 1980.
Ono first reached out to Jack Douglas and had him listen to the demos Lennon had collected for the album. There was such an intimacy in what he heard that his initial reaction was that it was going to be difficult to capture that original intent in the studio.
Throughout the two months in the studio, they recorded enough material for Double Fantasy and a big chunk of what was a tentative second album, Milk and Honey.
Jack assembled different musicians to play on the album.
Lennon specifically wanted to work with musicians that he hadn’t before. It was up to Jack to assemble and rehearse the band without telling anyone who’d they be recording with.
Naturally, he recruited Cheap Trick‘s Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos (whom he was also producing at the time) to play on Lennon’s “I’m Losing You” and Ono’s “I’m Moving On.” Unfortunately these were re-recorded with studio musicians for the official release, though the Cheap Trick version of “I’m Losing You” came out on an anthology in 1998.
Initially, Lennon and Ono weren’t signed to a label and paid for the sessions themselves.
When they were confident that the album was a great body of work, their publicist Bruce Replogle broke the news that the couple were back in the studio for the first time in 5 years.
It’s no surprise major label offers started coming in immediately after word broke. Lennon and Ono signed with what was a newly formed Geffen Records. David Geffen signed the couple without hearing any of Double Fantasy.
Critical reception of Double Fantasy was negative at first. However, Lennon was tragically assassinated just three weeks after the album’s released, which rocketed the record up the charts. Double Fantasy went on to win a GRAMMY for Album of the Year.
Please find a complete transcription of the interview below:
Warren: Hello, everybody. We are going to talk with Jack about “Watching the Wheels” from Double Fantasy. I’m going to do my little one-minute spiel. So, in November, the end of November, I bought Double Fantasyfor my mum for Christmas. So I wrapped it all up. “Starting Over” had just come out. It was like either late November or very, very, very early, like first day or two of December. And so I wrapped it up and put it under the Christmas tree, and then John Lennon was killed. And I remember unwrapping it and saying, “Sorry, mum,” you know, “I’ve got to listen to this record.”
Warren: And for me it was when I was completely and utterly into the Beatles. I was so immersed in the Beatles’ music. It was all I was listening to at the time. You know, you remember those days we put on a record?
Jack: Oh sure.
Warren: You wouldn’t even turn over to side two for two weeks.
Warren: That’s how… you know, when you’re in that period of loving music.
Jack: Mm-hm (affirmative).
Warren: And so Double Fantasybecame that record for me. For weeks and weeks and weeks, it’s all I listened to. And so this is a very important record for me, because I was 13 at the time. You can figure out how old I am now.
Jack: I was 15 when I produced it.
Warren: I thought you were 14! And, yeah, it’s just a really, really important record for me.
Jack: I was 34.
Warren: 34, yeah.
Jack: I thought I was old.
Jack: So we’re going to play “Watching the Wheels.” John, he sent me a cassette from Bermuda, which Yoko gave to me. It was in an envelope that said “For Jack’s ears only.” It had a lot of songs on it, some still not heard. And I took it home, and he said to me, “I’m going to call you tomorrow, and tell me what you think of these songs,” because he didn’t think much of them. He was very insecure about whether he could still write a song. And he had been down in Bermuda. I listened to them. They’re very primitive. He was singing into a Panasonic beatbox just… Yeah. Singing into that, and then playing off of that into another beatbox and double tracking his vocal.
Warren: Two cassette players.
Jack: Yeah, you know, and no wire, just the playing and the mic. That was it. And then doubling his vocal or singing.
Warren: I was doing that in ’82, so I was… I was a bit behind him.
Jack: And then he would be, you know… and he would add some other guitar part or something else to it as it went over. So it was that primitive.
Jack: And he called me up and he said, “Well, what do you think of these songs?” And I told him, “Just put out this cassette. You don’t need me. I can’t beat it.” You know, and there’s just… it’s an incredible statement. The songs are beautiful.
Warren: Does that cassette still exist?
Jack: Yes. Two cassettes actually, and they were all narrated. He would say something before the song and something after it that was usually pretty funny. And his insecurity was obvious by what he would say. He’d call it another piece of shit or, “This proves that can’t write a note, or, “This one’s for Ringo,” which he had. There were a few songs that he wrote that were for Ringo.
Jack: And I told him that. So he says, “I’m taking that to mean that you think the songs are good.” And I said, “Take it to mean that you should just release this cassette.” And he said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” He said, “Okay, so we’re going to make a record. Here’s the thing: no one can know we’re making this record, because I’m not sure this is going to go so well, and the last thing I want is the press to know that I attempted a comeback and couldn’t do it.” I said, “By ‘no one’ you mean no one? No one?” He said, “Absolutely no one.” He said, “I’ll meet you at the Dakota, and we’ll go over all the parameters.”
Jack: So he came back, and I met him at the Dakota, and he said, “Look, put together a band. I want to know that the band is my contemporaries. So if I want to jam on an Everly Brothers song, I want them to know it. Whatever I jam on, I want them to know.” And so I put together that band, which is Tony Levin and Andy Newmark and Hugh McCracken and George Small in New York. He also said he wanted a New York rhythm section. He wanted that real New York sound, because he considered himself a New Yorker.
Jack: He also said to me… And this was like a real warning to me. He said, “Look, I know how hard you like to rock. This isn’t about that. Back it up, back it up.” He said, “This is a song… This album is a guy that’s about to turn 40. You know, I’m not making believe that I’m a rocker. I want it to be a contemporary statement of where I am right now, so throttle back on the rock.”
Warren: No Aerosmith on this one.
Jack: No, no Aerosmith. I mean, he was well aware of everything that I did. He knew, you know. He followed my career. I understood what he meant. He also said, “Just do the arrangements,” which now I had a band that I couldn’t tell whose album I was making. So I charted all of the songs. If I wasn’t sure about what chord it was, I would ask him, and he would tell me. All the songs were charted with the lyrics under them. At the rehearsals, I sang two weeks of rehearsals, me singing the songs terribly but in pitch and them not knowing whose record it was.
Jack: Now, after the… I would record each rehearsal, and then go back to the Dakota, after the rehearsal-
Warren: How did you do “Oh, Yoko, oh Yoko,” without them knowing whose record it was?
Jack: No, no, I did… Yeah, I didn’t do that.
Warren: Oh, okay. Yeah.
Jack: Just the track.
Warren: Just the track.
Jack: So I would go back to the Dakota with the… I don’t think even some of these had little lyrics on them, though when I look at… in my house, I have the original copies of a bunch of the songs framed, and the lyrics, the lyrics are under them. My favorite is “Beautiful Boys.”
Warren: “Beautiful Boys” is so beautiful. Amazing song.
Jack: And I have that… I have all the, you know, my handwritten charts framed. It’s great. People come in, and they go…
Warren: Any father that has a son, it’s…
Jack: Yeah, right. I know, and…
Jack: I’ve got two. So I would go back to the Dakota with my cassette and jump in bed with him, where he liked to work. And, yeah, he was surrounded by… He had this huge bed, and it was surrounded by gadgets and monitors and tape machines, and his guitars were behind him so he could just reach back and grab one. And I would play him what I was doing with the band, and “Watching the Wheels” was (singing). So I kind of…
Jack: Yeah, and I did it. Yeah, that’s what it was. And so that’s kind of the way I was going. And he said, “That’s not… You know, I wrote it that way, but that’s not what I’m thinking.” He said, “Let me just put this thought in your head: I want it to be circular. Whatever you can do to make it feel more circular.” And so I, you know, I cut it in half. It is. It’s half the time of the… his original demo, and arranged it the way… He let me arrange everything, and he would just make suggestions about what to change here and there.
Jack: You know, Bob Lefsetz, I did his podcast recently, and he asked me, “Who was the hardest person you ever produced, and who was the easiest?” And I had to say that the easiest was John, which is an unexpected answer, because you’d think, “Here’s a guy, he was the, you know… He was the Beatles, you know? How do you just produce him? Doesn’t he demand this and that?” He was so easy. He drew such a professional line between what the producer does and what the artist does, and the decisions were left to you. You had to make these choices.
Jack: Now, I had seen him when he worked with Phil. He beat Phil up mentally, maybe because Phil deserved it. I mean, because Phil was already in bad shape. You know, he was one of my heroes, but to work with him and see him, you know, wake up from a stupor and just say, “More echo,” and then go back into a stupor… Although, I saw Phil be Phil, the spectacular Spector, when we did “Happy Christmas.” When he did that, he was so in his element. You know, four acoustic guitars around one mic on an omni and all playing the same thing. The orchestra did the children’s choir. All very Phil, and he was in his element, and I was impressed. Before that, I hadn’t been. But by the time they got to “Rock and Roll,” he had lost his mind, and it’s just degenerated.
Jack: So, this song… And the reason I mention this, “Watching the Wheels,” is we were doing the record for some time, and no one knew that we were doing this record. The press, obviously. The studio knew, and the musicians knew. They were all sworn to secrecy. If the word gets out, the record stops. Now, you don’t want the record to stop if you’re doing this record. So everyone kept their mouth shut. No one knew, and John would make the decision when it was time to tell the world. And it was after I compiled this vocal on “Watching the Wheels.” Part of it is the live vocal, because she did live vocals on everything, and they were wonderful. So part of it is the live vocal, and then four other takes. He would just go out there and tell them just to go through it four times. Don’t think about it. Hold your guitar if you want while you’re doing it. That sometimes made him uncomfortable, sometimes it didn’t. You’d do four, and he’d go, “Okay, let me know when it’s done.” He’d sit there next to me and nitpick over this… this “s” is better than that “s.” You know what I mean? It’s like, I mean, that’s where we are now.
Warren: You and I know a couple of singers that are like that.
Jack: And I didn’t have to really delve into word-by-word all about how it felt. And for the most part, the live vocal was always great. Sometimes he would sing the wrong lyrics or just bugger off and not sing at all, and it was just a matter of sometimes replacing those or finding something that was just so much better from his new ones. So it was very easy. And he’d come back, and he’d listen, and he’d say to me, “Is that the best?” And I’d say, “Yes,” and he’d go, “Okay, I’ll double it.” He’d go out and double it. He could just… he would listen to a whole verse and then go out and double that verse. Obviously experienced.
Jack: Yes. His mic technique was like nobody else’s. He could catch a pop or an “s” in his hand. Just, he would anticipate the “p,” catch it. His hand would go by, and then he would throw it away. And he worked the side of the mic. For different sounds, he’d get… he could hear it in his headphones. So it was very easy.
Jack: And at the end, after this vocal was done, he listened back to it, and he yelled out, “Mother, tell him we have a record!” And that was when we let the world know we were making a record, and every record president in the world was lining up.
Warren: Incredible. In my naive assumption, this song sort of exemplifies the whole record.
Warren: Because the lyric is, “I’m just sitting here watching.” It’s like he’s telling the world… and you can tell me I’m wrong, but he’s telling the world where he’s been for the last three or four years.
Jack: That’s exactly right.
Warren: Which seemed, obviously, at the time, like an eternity.
Warren: Nowadays, bands put out records once every three or four years.
Jack: Yeah, but the whole record was nothing but the truth, which is pretty much what John has always been.
Warren: You told me something in a car nine years ago when we were driving, and I said to you one of those kind of fan questions, so you have to excuse me. I said, “What’s the most important thing that John Lennon ever told you?” And you said, “Tell the truth, and make it rhyme.”
Jack: “Tell the truth, and make it rhyme.” That’s what he told me. His other words of wisdom were like, “If I make a mistake, make it louder. They’ll think I did it on purpose.”
Warren: That’s great.
Jack: And also, you know, the whole thing of his tuning the D string flat. Oh, I never told you that.
Warren: You never told me that one.
Jack: He would tune up his guitar, and then he would tune the D string slightly flat. Just a little.
Jack: And finally I said to him, “Why do you do that?” And he said, “Well, back in the day, we would make these records, and we’d all be playing, and I could tell my Aunt Mimi, ‘That’s me. Hear that guitar?'”
Warren: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Jack: Yeah. All right. On and on we go.
Warren: Beautiful. We don’t have the Multi-Tracks for this song, so that’s the reason why we’re not playing them, but fantastic. Thank you ever so much.
Jack: You’re welcome.
Warren: Please leave a bunch of comments and questions below. Thank you for watching.