John Lennon – Double Fantasy Stripped Down (CD review)

John Lennon / Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy Stripped Down (Capitol) – CD review –

In 1998, on the John Lennon rarities collection Anthology, we got a glimpse of what might have been: an alternate version of “I’m Losing You” from the Double Fantasy sessions featuring Cheap Trick.  It’s a blistering rendition; the hardest rock he’d done since “Cold Turkey” in 1969.  But, Yoko Ono was worried:  Lennon had taken five years off from the music business to be a stay at home dad.  Was his audience still there?

She wanted him to make a more “adult oriented” record.  So, that version was shelved, and in turn, we ended up with the rather slick, middle-of-the-road released version of Double Fantasy.  Now, 30 years later, perhaps the guys in Cheap Trick had it right all along.  Capitol records has just put out a series of John Lennon reissues to celebrate what would’ve been his 70th birthday; the centerpiece of this campaign being  “Double Fantasy – Stripped Down.”   The idea here is to remove some of the overdubbed instruments and vocals and let John, himself, shine a little more on his own.

Apparently, during these original recording sessions, Lennon was really unsure of himself; he hated the sound of his own voice and insisted on double-tracking the vocals.  Essentially, this means that he sang the song once, rewound the tape and sang over it again.  You can certainly hide imperfections that way.  That is the first thing you notice here: only one Lennon vocal is used for each song.  At times, there are cracks in his voice, but it’s real and much more personal.  However, in order to make his voice more prominent, sometimes key elements of the songs were removed.  Take, for example, the first track “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which takes out the doo wop background singing, which certainly adds more focus to Lennon’s voice.  But, the whole point of that song was a Fifties revival type thing, and without the additional oldies-style vocals, it doesn’t make any sense.

“I’m Losing You” is not the Cheap Trick version, and is missing a key lead guitar element, while “Watching the Wheels” lacks the lead piano line.  The result is that many of these “stripped” versions simply sound unfinished.    But, there are some treats here, especially in the banter either at the beginning or end of takes.  He dedicates “Starting Over” to ‘Gene and Eddie and Elvis…and Buddy,’ while at the end of “Cleanup Time” he adlibs ‘it’s Christmas time again.’ ”I’m Losing You” is notable for John going into hysterics at the end, screaming ‘Baby please don’t go,’ while “Beautiful Boy” features a prominent calliope ending that was obscured by ocean sound effects on the original.

“Dear Yoko” has the added bonus of different random banter from Lennon at the end, which is reminiscent of the goofy Beatles Christmas records.  Finally, the song that most benefits from the process is “Woman,” which removes all the instruments save for an acoustic guitar, Lennon’s vocal, bass and drums.  It is a startling revelation; stark and beautiful.

The main problem with Double Fantasy – Stripped Down is the same issue that plagued the original album:  it’s impossible to listen to all the way through, because every other track is a Yoko Ono song (apparently it was her idea).  I’m not going to revert to Yoko bashing, except to say that the lady flat out can’t sing.  I’m sure she influenced a ton of people yadda yadda yadda, but the avant-garde nature of her songs just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.  All of Lennon’s songs (save for the caustic “I’m Losing You”) are full of warmth and deal with the contentment of family, while Ono’s tracks are downright icy in nature.  The one positive here is that several of her songs now have Lennon’s voice turned way up, so these have become duets, especially on the bittersweet final track “Hard Times Are Over,” where Lennon clowns around on the instrumental passages and can be heard uttering a line from “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on the coda.

Is this interesting?  Sure, it’s worth it for any fan of the original record to check out.  However, because it’s missing crucial parts from several songs, it does not replace the original album.  Furthermore, just like other archival releases from the Beatles, such as the Anthology series and Let it Be…Naked, Double Fantasy – Stripped Down is good for a couple of listens and then you’ll probably tuck it away.  But, it does show Lennon in a little more of a human light.  And, it’s about as close as we’ll ever get.