Lennon/Ono's 'Double Fantasy Stripped Down,' getting real and getting results

Revolutionary musician John Lennon was killed on December 8, 1980 by a deranged fan at the age of 40.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010

If not for the murder of John Lennon three weeks after its release, "Double Fantasy" would not have been remembered as a great album, or even a particularly good one. Famously made up of tag-team Lennon/Yoko Ono tracks, "Double Fantasy" detailed Lennon's midlife transformation from self-absorbed loner to ostentatiously contented stay-at-home dad. Gooey and adoring, heartbreaking and awkward, "Double Fantasy" was, absent the tragedy that followed its birth, about as musically relevant as a Pointer Sisters LP.

As part of a marketing blitz commemorating what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday on Saturday, "Double Fantasy" will be reissued alongside newly remastered versions of Lennon's solo catalogue (previously remastered, but not very well, earlier in the '00s), several books, a greatest hits package, two box sets (one an 11-disc behemoth) and a PBS special.

Now a two-disc set, "Double Fantasy Stripped Down," is, against all odds, the jewel of the bunch. One disc is a basic but serviceable remaster; the other is a remix disc paring the original studio tracks down to their sonic essentials, with an emphasis on voice, guitar and beats. Most of the dated studio effects have been removed; most every breath, every between-song aside, has been enhanced, with often astonishing results.

"Double Fantasy" was always more interesting as a portrait of a marriage than as a work of art. Lennon's lyrics focused on Ono with a laserlike intensity; so did hers. He coos. She shouts. Devoted and drippy, his contributions benefit from their stripped-down settings: While already-solid tracks "Cleanup Time" ("The queen is in the counting house/Counting out the money/The king is in the kitchen/Making bread and honey") and "Watching the Wheels" aren't much changed, the new incarnation of "Woman" scrapes off layers of treacle to reveal the solid, simple acoustic ballad underneath, and the jaunty "Dear Yoko" sounds positively reborn.

Of course, it's impossible to strip down Lennon's tracks without exposing Ono's, too, and her half of the disc is tougher sledding. Unlike Lennon's standard-fare pop tracks, Ono's relied on beats that now sound positively prehistoric. Her previous work tended toward the impenetrably performance art-y, but her "Double Fantasy" contributions toggle between frosty pop and Grace Jones-like Euro disco. The enhanced sonic clarity does no favors to tracks like the notoriously orgasm-simulating "Kiss Kiss Kiss" and "Give Me Something," a scrambled mess of jungle noises, frenzied vocals and ZZ Top-like guitars.

The disc's pin-drop mixes cast into harsh relief the gulf between Lennon's tracks and Ono's, between his amiable minivan rock and her stern but adventurous club pop. "Stripped Down" makes the case that "Double Fantasy" should have been divided into his-and-hers discs all along, though the advent of downloading means that these days, listeners can do it for themselves.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

Recommended tracks:

"(Just Like) Starting Over" (2010 Remix), "Dear Yoko" (2010 Remix)

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