Imagine how life might be different with John Lennon alive today

Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” songs struck some as being atypically mellow; indeed, “New Musical Express” reviewer Charles Shaar Murray wrote: “Let’s waste no more time on John Lennon. On this showing he can get back to the kitchen and mind the kid and the cows, because all the most interesting material on ‘Double Fantasy’ is Yoko’s … her music sounds vastly more modern and considerably more interesting than Lennon’s.” But Lennon was not unaware of punk and new wave. Bob Gruen, a photographer and friend of the couple, regularly informed Lennon about what was happening in New York clubs, and an assistant to the couple made him cassettes with songs by groups like the B-52’s, Lene Lovich, the Pretenders, and Madness (Lennon told Andy Peebles he was particularly fond of their hit “One Step Beyond”).

He also credited the B-52’s in particular with inspiring his return to music. On hearing “Rock Lobster” at a club in Bermuda, “I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and the wife up!’” he told journalist Jonathan Cott. And he still regarded the early records he’d done with Ono as being just as progressive as what the new bands were now turning out, telling Peebles, “So for anybody who thinks we ain’t hip, you know, when you catch up, then we can talk about it … We could have come back and tried to be freakier than the freaks.”

And “Double Fantasy” was merely the first step in what sounded like a major return to making music on a more regular basis. Lennon and Ono planned to start working on a new album after the 1980 Christmas holidays; instead, the demos for the proposed album because the posthumously-released “Milk and Honey.” While Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” songs had been seen as paeans to domesticity, a careful reading of the lyrics reveals an underlying tension nearly all of them, chiefly a fear of separation or isolation (even the upbeat musical spirits of “[Just Like] Starting Over” are at odds with the lyrical wish for a togetherness that obviously hasn’t happened yet). The songs on “Milk and Honey” were in a similar vein; “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” “Nobody Told Me,” and “(Forgive Me) My Little Flower Princess” all contain a measure of anxiety. Though by the time Lennon and Ono had returned to the studio, they might have written new songs, and “Milk and Honey” could have turned out to be quite a different album.

And if Lennon had followed up the album with a world a tour, he would have continued to be exposed to new musical influences, inspiring his work to go in new and exciting directions. With Ono’s music being positively received in rock/dance clubs, the couple might have recorded more tracks along the lines of the last track the two worked on together, “Walking On Thin Ice,” and perhaps remixing Ono’s earlier Plastic Ono Band-era tracks into extended mixes — as later happened with her work, eventually leading to her regularly occupying the upper reaches of the Dance/Club charts.

During the ’70s, Lennon professed some ambivalence about live performance, but in his last interviews, he stressed how he was looking forward to touring again. If the experience had been a good one, touring might have become a regular part of his career, as it became for McCartney and Ringo Starr. In his lengthy interview with “Playboy” magazine, Lennon spoke of both the pride he had in his songs, and his desire to rework his Beatles hits, meaning he’d have been a very likely candidate for an “Unplugged” or “VH1 Storytellers” type of program; instead of faithfully recreating the songs as they sounded on record, as McCartney does, he might have revamped his material, as Bob Dylan has done in concert.

There would also have been new collaborations with other artists. “When I first got away from the Beatles, the feeling was: to be able to have the whole album to myself,” he told “Newsweek” journalist Barbara Graustark. “But then it became a chore. It became boring and you start padding it out … with instrumentals and stupid ditties … that have to fill up the space.” He was already planning to work on Starr’s new album in early 1981 (then titled “Can’t Fight Lightning,” it was eventually re-named “Stop And Smell The Roses”), and perhaps would have collaborated again with Elton John and David Bowie, both of whom he worked with briefly in the ’70s.

And there was a new generation of musicians he might have worked with as well. In the early ’80s, New York noise bands formed a “No Wave” movement, and Lennon’s guitar work on “Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band” and “Walking On Thin Ice” would’ve fit right in with the sounds Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore was drawing from his guitars (indeed, Moore, who included a track called “Ono Soul” on his 1995 “Psychic Hearts” album, re-mixed a track from Ono’s “Rising” album, released the same year, for a special promo EP).

Not to mention the budding musicians in Lennon’s own family. Both Julian and Sean later became musicians, and Julian had already made a brief appearance on “Ya Ya” on Lennon’s 1974 “Walls and Bridges” album. In his final interviews, Lennon spoke about wanting to further develop his relationship with his oldest son, and as Sean grew older and learned to play instruments himself, family jam sessions may well have led to something more.

About Patrick Prince

Patrick Prince is the Editor of Goldmine

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