The Day John Lennon Ended His Five-Year Hiatus
John Lennon and David Geffen both spent the late '70s on hiatus from the music business, but as the '80s dawned, the former Beatle and the record executive were ready to return to active duty — and Geffen was convinced his new label would make the perfect home for Lennon.
A former talent agent and artist manager, Geffen rose to prominence as the founder of Asylum Records, where his roster boasted '70s hitmakers such as the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, as well as prestige signings like Warren Zevon and Tom Waits — and big-money acts poached from other labels at great cost, like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. After selling the label and surviving a corporate merger, Geffen briefly dabbled in film production before an erroneous cancer diagnosis prompted a short retirement; later granted a clean bill of health, he re-entered the label fray with a new imprint, Geffen Records.
Even though he'd previously proven a ferociously astute judge of talent with acts like Browne and the Eagles, the '70s singer-songwriter boom that had helped fuel Asylum's rise was on the wane, and Geffen was eager to create a big splash for his latest venture; with that in mind, he quickly set about making a series of high-profile signings that started with wooing Donna Summer away from Casablanca Records and continued throughout the early '80s, eventually resulting in an impressive roster of veteran artists that grew to include Neil Young, Elton John, Peter Gabriel and Don Henley (not to mention Asia, the supergroup cobbled together from bits of Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer).
Lennon, meanwhile, was working his way back from a five-year period in which, after his infamous "Lost Weekend" of legendary rock-star debauchery, he'd temporarily turned away from the record business in favor of a quiet home life with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their young son, Sean. Having closed out his contract with the Beatles' Apple imprint with the release of the 1975 Shaved Fish compilation, Lennon was a man without a record contract — and as word got out that he was working on a new album, labels lined up for the privilege of putting their logo on the back of his next LP.
Geffen, as it turned out, had met Lennon only once — and it was during the "Lost Weekend," at a Playboy Mansion party that found the two sharing a hot tub with Cher. What he lacked in a personal connection, however, he more than made up in savvy: Quickly deducing that the way to Lennon's heart was through Ono, Geffen decided to focus his overtures on her instead of approaching Lennon directly.
Listen to John Lennon's '(Just Like) Starting Over'
As recounted in Thomas R. King's Geffen biography The Operator, focusing on Ono turned out to be the first in a series of smart moves made by Geffen during the negotiation process. "Mr. Lennon was upset that his wife had not won the respect of fans, critics and label chiefs, and he insisted she handle the phone calls from record labels," wrote King. "One by one, the executives dismissed her rudely and demanded to speak with Mr. Lennon. Each time, he directed her to hang up."
Geffen, in contrast, sent a telegram to Ono — and when she showed it to Lennon, he reportedly responded, "Well, he's it, isn't he? He's the one we'll go with."
But the contracts weren't signed quite that quickly. Geffen first had to meet with the pair, who were in the middle of wrapping up what turned out to be Double Fantasy — a record more or less evenly split between Lennon and Ono compositions. Quickly agreeing to their million-dollar demand for the LP, Geffen capped the negotiations by insisting he didn't need to hear the songs before they made it official; as Ono later told him, "If you wanted to hear the music before you made the deal, we wouldn't have gone with you."
Though Lennon at this point was more excited about Ono's new music (including her future hit "Walking on Thin Ice") than anything they'd recorded for Double Fantasy, it was his compositions that were undeniably the selling point for Geffen – a rush of new songs he'd started working on during a summer 1980 trip to Bermuda after years of eking out musical fragments in dribs and drabs.
"I was smashed in the face by waves for six solid hours," Lennon later said of one particularly powerful boat ride. "It won't go away. You can't change your mind. It's like being onstage; once you're on there's no gettin' off. A couple of the waves had me on my knees. I was just hanging on with my hands on the wheel — it's very powerful weather — and I was having the time of my life. I was screaming sea chanteys and shoutin' at the gods! I felt like the viking, you know, Jason and the Golden Fleece. I arrived in Bermuda. Once I got there, I was so centered after the experience at sea that I was tuned in, or whatever, to the cosmos. And all these songs came!"
Lennon's new songs were heavily suffused with the domestic bliss he'd indulged in during his hiatus, as reflected in titles like "Watching the Wheels" and "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)." And though some critics and fans were less than willing to embrace the "happy dad" side of Lennon's personality — evidenced by the relatively lukewarm reviews and sales that initially greeted Double Fantasy upon its Nov. 17, 1980, arrival — the easy tunefulness that ran through his compositions made them an easy pitch for Geffen when it came to radio airplay.
Geffen was fairly fortunate in that respect, because he had to marshal his label's forces fairly quickly. The ink on the Lennon/Ono contract dried Sept. 22, 1980; a little more than a month later, on Oct. 24, Geffen released Double Fantasy's first single, "(Just Like) Starting Over." Even though they could have gotten just about anything with Lennon's name on it into heavy rotation after five years of pent-up demand for new music, Geffen reps were immeasurably aided by the song's light tone and catchy chorus. It sounded like — and soon became — a worldwide No. 1 hit.
Sadly, as Lennon fans are all too aware, he had precious little time to enjoy life after Double Fantasy: On Dec. 8, 1980, mere weeks after the album's release, he was murdered, tragically ending an incredible life and career just as they both seemed to be entering a new, promising chapter.
As for Lennon's association with Geffen Records, in what would unfortunately become a recurring pattern throughout the '80s, Geffen — who rushed to Ono's side and remained there in the weeks following Lennon's death — saw their relationship quickly sour; when Ono elected to release leftover tracks from the Double Fantasy sessions as Milk and Honey in 1984, she did so under a new deal with Polydor, and Fantasy itself was ultimately absorbed into the library of Lennon recordings controlled by EMI. But while artist relations may have been occasionally lacking during Geffen's Geffen Records years, his remarkable acumen for talent remained — as evidenced early the following decade, when his next label, DGC, inked a deal with one of the biggest and most influential bands of the '90s.