Gary James' Interview With John Lennon Photographer
Back in 1980, John and Yoko entered the recording studios to begin work on "Double Fantasy". Roger Farrington was the first authorized photographer to photograph the Lennons in five years. Many of his photos can be seen in his new book, Starting Over: The Making Of John Lennon And Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp. (Gallery Books)
Q - Roger, would it be safe to say that you were a John Lennon / Beatles fan before you got this assignment?
A - Oh, sure. I mean, I grew up with The Beatles as we all did in that generation. Both my sister and younger brother and all my friends were fans. The Beatles were really the beginning of that whole European / British Invasion. It all started with that. I don't think anybody had heard anything like The Beatles. We all saw The Ed Sullivan Show with our parents and they were all sort of quizzically amused by all of this. But that energy was positive. That's what it was. It was pretty exciting. (laughs)
Q - You were the first authorized photographer to photograph the Lennons in the studio in five years. How did the Lennons decide on you? Did they see your work?
A - They didn't call me directly. First of all, Yoko had retained a press person in Boston to start the process, is the best way to put it. I wasn't really aware of that. I received some small assignments from her to make some copies of photographs and other things. When I got the call to go down and meet them at The Dakota and go into the recording studio with them, the idea behind this assignment was to generate one photograph that they could release to the media and announce that they had just come out of this semi-retirement and were going into the recording studio for the first time in five years to begin work on a new album. But secrecy was really the number one issue involved and I think that's why Yoko had retained Boston's services. She was going outside of the New York scene to do what she could do elsewhere and Boston seemed pretty nearby I guess. But, I had qualifications. I was a publicity photographer. I had worked publicizing lots of shows in Boston and my images had appeared in a number of national publications, including Time Magazine. I was also independent. I wasn't affiliated with any news organization. So, I suppose there might have been some fear there that the images might be released inadvertently or something like that. I think there was the issue of security that was most important because as Ken pointed out in the book, if they had gone into the studio and started working on the project and didn't feel like it was coming together, they could kind of pull the plug on it and walk away. I think one other important issue is odd but true, is that my birthday was important to my selection I suppose as this photographer for this assignment because everybody involved in the project had their birthdays checked through the astrologer, through the numerology. (laughs)
Q - What was your birthday? I won't ask what year.
A - September 30th.
Q - So, in Yoko's mind, this was a good guy to have onboard.
A - Yeah. I mean, I think that's it. There was qualifications for a publicity photographer and my birthday and that I was from Boston. So that was sort of the three main reasons I think why I was chosen. The assignment was very specific. They just needed one photo that they could release to the world that they were going into the studio. They wanted to control that release. They wanted complete control, complete secrecy. Again, reading Ken's book, it makes a lot of sense. It's very clear that Yoko was really protecting John from anything that could have distracted him or made his creative world less secure and I have to respect that then and now.
Q - How many photos do you have? Do you have enough photos for a book?
A - It was very quick. I took pictures of them leaving The Dakota, getting into the limousine and I followed them over to The Hit Factory. I got out just ahead of them. I have a couple of shots of them on the sidewalk and then entering into The Hit Factory. Then we went up into the elevator and I have a few shots of them inside the recording studio. As I said in the book, John basically went right to work. They all did. They were putting the studio together for the first session. They were setting things up, moving amps around, putting wires down. It was a little confusing. I thought I was being a little intrusive. I just needed to get a couple of shots. I moved people around if I could and John was playing, so I got shots of him. I tried to position Yoko so she could be in the shot too. Obviously the assignment was for photographs of John and Yoko together. I wasn't sure if they were going to be making a record together like duets, like Sonny and Cher. Was this going to be John and Yoko? Nobody had any idea creatively what they were doing. It wasn't actually a situation where they were working on the record and I was documenting that. I was there before they officially started doing the recording process. Obviously I couldn't have been shooting in the studio if they had in fact been recording. But curiously, if you look at the photos, people are moving microphones around and there's actually a microphone put in front of John while I was taking some photographs. It struck me as being curious whey they were doing that. I found out form reading Ken's book that Jack Douglas, the producer, had instructions to turn on a tape recorder as soon as John and Yoko entered the studio and they had mics set up around the room to record everything that was going on. I thought that was kind of cool.
Q - What happened to all of those tapes? Jack Douglas has them in his possession?
A - Well, in the book it sort of explains that every single word, every activity, every note of music that was played for the whole duration of all the sessions was recorded. I think Jack edited them down and presented John with an edited cassette for his 40th birthday, mid-October sometime. But I understand some of that was released as "The John Lennon Lost Tapes". So some of this information is around that probably hasn't been released either.
Q - Page 37 of Ken's book: John really looks thin there. Did that come to your mind when you took the photo?
A - When I met him it was just amazing. I was sitting in the Studio One offices at The Dakota and I heard him singing coming down the stairs before he entered the room and as you could imagine, it really made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It was like, wow! That's really John Lennon. That's a Beatle. He's coming into this room. And so I was very excited when he came in, walked over and introduced himself to me and shook my hand. The first thing I thought was, wow! He's so thin. But he looked very tan. I don't think he looked emaciated. He just looked like he was in good shape, but perhaps a little thin. When I looked at the photos I thought yeah, he looks a little thin. His face was perhaps a little thin.
Q - John started these "Double Fantasy" recording sessions on August 7th, 1980. And you were there when?
A - I was the first photographer. August 7th, 1980. I was the first one. That was the key and that was all I was doing. He had been down in Bermuda and that's where he was inspired to write some of these songs. He contacted Yoko. He actually was in a nightclub and he heard The B-52s and he head them doing Yoko. It doubly inspired him. He called Yoko. He said "Have you heard The B-52s? They're doing your stuff. It's time we both recorded." It's so well presented in the book. Yoko was told to contact Jack Douglas, and Jack tells a great story about flying out on the seaplane to the house, and Yoko presented him with the tapes. John was suggesting that the tapes were not very good, the demo tapes. When John heard them he basically said "They can't be improved. They're perfect." It's a great, great story. They went into the studio with all this energy.
Q - Going to another photo, we said how thin John was...
A - I heard he was on a macro-biotic diet. When I came back to Boston, I said he looked thin. I made the comment or we heard that he was thin. Then we heard that they were all eating sushi in the recording studio and John and Yoko were on a micro-biotic diet at the time, which was not uncommon in the '80s actually. He seemed extremely energized, positive. He looked good. He was tan. He was thin. He was eager to get going. He was smiling and very funny. He said to me, "So, you're a photographer are you? I thought you were one of the accountants." (laughs) I wish I would've had a quip for him to reply to.
Q - Again, going back to the way John looked, that photo of yours of John on the back of Ken Sharp's dust jacket, John's the oldest looking 40 year old guy I've ever seen. He looks like a man in his early 60s.
A - You really think so? Maybe it's just me, I thought he looked good. I really did. I did then. I do now. It was really six years ago that I was invited for the first time to have an exhibit of these photographs. They'd never been exhibited before in New York with
Alan Tannebaum and David Spindel with the other photographers at this exact time. All three of us had the same exact experiences. We had the same impression of John and Yoko. But you have to understand, my time with them was extremely limited. I did not spend enough time to get more than a surface take on who they were. David (Mr. Spindel) spent a little more time than I did and Alan of course spent an awful lot of time. Then
Bob Gruen spent more time than all of us put together with John and Yoko. I think we all have the same sort of impression. Looking at this photo, I just remember it really well. He was just totally energized. The sounds he was making were really surprising because they were not Beatles sounds. They were very electronic and they were very experimental, sort of beyond "The White Album" sounds I would say.
Q - You spent how long then in the studio with John, or I should say photographing John and Yoko?
A - I don't know, probably ten o'clock to three o'clock.
Q - On page 244, you took this photo of the Lennons outside The Dakota. The gate is in the background. Did you see any fans hanging around waiting for John?
A - When we were getting ready to leave The Dakota, I said "Let me just get out ahead. I'll go out first and get shots of you guys leaving." I was just ahead of John and Yoko and they came out into the alcove area, which opens onto the street sidewalk. I was stepping backwards, taking pictures as they were walking towards me, towards the limo. I was kind of afraid that I was going to trip on something and then I heard people talking. I did hear voices. I heard someone say "Oh, there's John Lennon. Hey, it's John!" And then I heard someone across the street call out to him. It wasn't a lot of people, but it was noticeable that people were really there. It was very interesting. There were some people behind me I remember, somebody very close to me with a camera. I didn't turn around 'cause I was focusing on my shots, but I was afraid that maybe he was gonna push me out of the way, jump in front of me. He was right behind me and he said "Hey John!" or something and John turned to him and looked at him. I took a picture. He said something to this guy and got in the limo and I took a picture of the limo going away and John waving through the window. I was afraid that this person with the camera, who assumed was a photographer, was going to jump in front of me. I remember he was bigger than me. I never knew who he was and oddly enough when I was doing the book with Ken and Ken said "I really need to talk to Paul Goresh." Sure enough that was Paul. I finally talked to him after thirty years a couple of months ago for the first time. He said "Yes, that was me." John Lennon had come up to him the day before and said "We've hired a photographer for tomorrow. I want you to leave him alone and stay out of his way." (laughs) I thought that was so great. Paul was really nice to say that to me. Paul has photographs of me taking pictures of John.
Q - We've never seen those pictures.
A - No.
Q - I'm rather surprised that Dakota security didn't chase away some of these fans. I believe Rex Reed, the film critic, also lived at The Dakota as well as some other celebrities.
A - Sure. Lauren Bacall. I don't think there were many (fans) at any one given time. You're right. It is a public sidewalk. The impression I got from what you're getting at is there wasn't a lot of people hanging out in front. But there were a lot of people living there besides the Lennons who were very well-known.
Q - Would it be distracting to an artist to have a photographer in the studio clicking away, taking pictures? I don't even know, does the camera make a clicking noise/
A - Well yeah, for any artist recording, I don't think photographers are generally in the room with them when they're actually recording. It's not a matter of presence in the room that wouldn't be appropriate for the process of recording. That's not to say that it hasn't happened. (laughs) The photos I've seen in recording studios are mostly taken through the glass, glass partitions between the booth where the engineers sit and actually record the music and the actual space where the musicians are set up. The Hit Factory has a big board, had a big board and had a big plate glass window that photographers could shoot through. However, like all glass, the lights can reflect off the glass and it can be very difficult to focus through the glass. It can present all kinds of technical obstacles. But when I was there, they weren't actually making tracks.
Q - Did you see John singing "(Just Like) Starting Over"?
A - No, but I just found out actually that that was the song they recorded that day. I wish I had stayed.
Q - That song beautifully describes what he was doing... starting over!
A - Absolutely. That's the message from everything, Ken's book and the pictures. He was starting over. There was no Beatles. Jack Douglas (album producer) assembled a group of musicians, mostly professional studio musicians who for the most part didn't know who they were going to be recording with. They knew it was very important. Then on August 5th (1980) they found out who it was. They were ecstatic. They had no idea they were going to be working with John. And that's the whole point of the book. Jack was able to put together, not just musicians, but musicians with the right kind of chemistry that immediately connected. That was the song they recorded that day and the chemistry clicked. People don't really know that. I didn't really know that until Ken wrote the book. It was really a treat to meet Jack Douglas. Another thing the book points out is the energy was increasing. The energy was propelling the band to tour. The band was going to tour and the book pretty much confirms that. When you have the musicians and the people like Jack Douglas who are really there, the real eyewitnesses who are saying this was going to happen, it takes on a new dimension and certainly a lot was lost when John was killed. At lot was lost. And that's the sad truth. We'll never know.