What critics got wrong about John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Double Fantasy"

Looking back at the album released weeks before Lennon's death, it's clear that "flaccid" isn't the word for it

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published December 12, 2020 11:00AM (EST)

Former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono outside of the Times Square recording studio 'The Hit Factory' before a recording session of his final album 'Double Fantasy' in August 1980 in New York City, New York. (Getty Images/Salon)
Former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono outside of the Times Square recording studio 'The Hit Factory' before a recording session of his final album 'Double Fantasy' in August 1980 in New York City, New York. (Getty Images/Salon)

Released on November 17, 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Double Fantasy" had scarcely been in stores for three weeks before the former Beatle's senseless murder on December 8. In spite of the incredible buzz surrounding their first new album release in more than five years, the early reviews were lukewarm, if not outright caustic.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Steve Pond panned the album, warning that "those expecting the return of the mythical Lennon – a man with an insightful, brilliant mind and a biting wit – will be sorely disillusioned by 'Double Fantasy.'" Pond concluded that "the worst thing about 'Double Fantasy' is that it simply makes John and Yoko look like a pair of aged, lost hippies."

The Washington Post's Richard Harrington mined a similar vein, writing that "$8.98 for a flaccid look at a family scrapbook is too much to ask," describing "(Just Like) Starting Over" as "an embarrassing pastiche of 50s and 60s influences." Harrington dismissed John's work as suffering from "a general lack of substance, lyrical directness, and undistinguished melodies."

By contrast, the UK press was downright merciless. In the intervening years since John's last solo album, the county had become swept up in the scrappy, often violent punk movement and its growing clash with the industry's privileged, seemingly less-relevant mainstays. Clearly working from this perspective, an unsigned reviewer in Melody Maker commented that "the whole thing positively reeks of an indulgent sterility. It's a godawful yawn!"

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Writing in the November 22 issue of NME, Charles Shaar Murray continued the excoriation: "Lennon and Ono appear on the cover clamped in a passionate embrace," Murray writes. "The album celebrates their mutual devotion to each other and their son Sean to the almost complete exclusion of all other concerns. Everything's peachy for the Lennons and nothing else matters, so everything's peachy QED. How wonderful, man. One is thrilled to hear of so much happiness."

Murray was complimentary of Yoko's tracks, observing that her "music sounds vastly more modern and considerably more interesting than Lennon's." In his summary, Murray admits that "I look forward to Yoko Ono's solo album," while wishing "that Lennon had kept his big happy trap shut until he has something to say that was even vaguely relevant to those of us not married to Yoko Ono."

In retrospect—as we reflect in sober backcast on the album's 40th anniversary—it is useful to recall that in 1980, no one believed that rock 'n' roll would be a middle-aged passion, that folks like John Lennon would still be plying their trades in their 40s and beyond. In this context, Lennon, once again, was on the vanguard, sharing his state of mind, as he had nearly always done, at a key point in his life as a father and husband.

What is far more perplexing is the manner in which the initial critical onslaught largely failed to account for Lennon's exquisitely crafted melodies in such tunes as "(Just Like) Starting Over," "I'm Losing You," "Watching the Wheels," and "Woman." These are class compositions in any era and by nearly any measure.

In the all-too brief period in which Lennon knew about the critical backlash, he seemed to take it in stride, even finding the humor in it all. Indeed, at 40, he seemed to have found a new centeredness, an understanding that the journey involved in making "Double Fantasy" was what truly mattered.

A few days before his death, Lennon and photographer Bob Gruen discussed the LP's early notices, with John assuring his friend that the mixed nature of the "Double Fantasy" record reviews had left him unscathed. As Gruen later recalled in Ken Sharp's 2010 book "Starting Over," Lennon "wasn't sorry that reviewers said Yoko's songs were more avant-garde, modern, and interesting than John's songs, which they described as being more MOR, middle-of-the-road. And he said, 'That's fine because we're going right down the middle-of-the-road to the bank.'" 

And later still, when Yoko commented on the sluggish sales of the "(Just Like) Starting Over" single, worried that he would be upset by reception of their new work, her husband didn't miss a beat. In olden days, he might have taken it personally, ranting and raving about the fickle nature of the chattering class, but not anymore. Looking up at his wife, as she later told Rolling Stone, he said, "It's all right. We have the family." 

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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