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Bowie and the Bermuda angle: John Lennon at 80

Celebrating John Lennon’s 80th birthday, with the help of drum legend Andy Newmark, has the complete story of David Bowie’s last Lennon cover, and their time on beautiful Bermuda, one of the world’s most notorious tax havens.

John Lennon would have turned eighty years young today. Oh boy.

But first things first: John’s special day wouldn’t be complete without George Harrison’s 30th birthday tribute to his former bandmate, a fruity “Apple jam” interlude from 1970’s All Things Must Pass that purloins Congratulations by Cliff Richard, who was born just five days after Lennon. And if your name is also John, lucky you for getting such a kooky b-day song.

The Beatles were a strange phenomenon: as a recording outfit, they spent a scant few years together—less than a quarter of the time a slightly less fabber four like U2 have been making records, for instance—but the Liverpool quartet churned out enough great music to fill a conservatory. And not one of those ghastly plastic ones that the tasteless Cilla Black had stuck on the side of her mansion either.

Fifty years since their parting of the ways, the shadow of The Beatles extends further and stronger than ever before. But as four self-contained individuals? Well, the truth be told, the solo Fabs catalogues are by and large underwhelming. Most disappointing is the catalogue of John Lennon himself, which consists of a few above-par tracks, almost nothing truly horrible, but plenty that are mediocre. And don’t get me started on Imagine.

Although John Lennon was undoubtedly a legendary figure (duh), and a profound and formidable thinker, I was too young to appreciate him in his lifetime, sadly. I was born in 1969, the very week his folksy “piece of journalism” The Ballad of John and Yoko was sitting atop the British charts, which although it has all the hallmarks of a typically self-referential solo record, it gave the Scouse quartet their final No.1 is single less than three months before its newly married author handed in his notice.

John Lennon was some kind of genius, and so he did what geniuses do: absorbed the world around him, took in what inspired him, and made it his own. He could be wildly turned on by anything, from Elvis to a Disney princess and everything in between. “I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner,” John confessed. “One was Paul McCartney and the other Yoko Ono.”

Say what you will about Yoko’s brand of art, or John’s output during the solo years, but John and Yoko were everything to each another — spouse, friend, parent, artistic partner, and inspiration. Her influence led John in new artistic directions, turned him on to social issues, and changed his opinion on women’s equality.

Having said that, not knowing of the fire and charisma the guy of the Plastic Ono Band had displayed a decade earlier, by the time he junked the bread-making househusband years and made his musical comeback with Woman and (Just Like) Starting Over John Lennon already sounded like someone from way back. And that’s beside the obvious “tongue in cheek” Presley pastiching of the latter rocker, which was in no small part inspired by a recent record he loved, by his new Geffen label mate Donna Summer. In the coruscating Corn Flakes With John Lennon, Los Angeles Times journalist Robert Hilburn takes up the story:

“John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono’s home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Summer’s new single, The Wanderer. He was maybe twenty-five pounds slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “It’s Mother’s macrobiotic diet,” he said later, and employing his nickname for Yoko. “Listen!” he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. “She’s doing Elvis!” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer’s usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.”

On the other hand, the first I heard from McCartney and Bowie was contemporary sounding music such as Goodnight Tonight and Ashes To Ashes. Cable TV hipped him to the contemporary sounds of Blondie and the Pretenders, but it was hearing Macca’s new wave-inspired single Coming Up that made him realise how out of touch he was. But we’ll never know if Lennon would have been able to shape shift his way through the eighties because some unmentionable shot him.

At Springfield school assembly on the morning of 9th December 1980 – a Tuesday – a fellow pupil, Adrian Dobson, sat crosslegged on my left and told me “A man from The Beatles has been shot dead in America. John Lemon or something.” 

“Jack Lemon, I think his name is.” Oooops! I may have got my fruits slightly mixed up, but I vaguely knew Some Like It Hot as a perennial of British telly back in the day. I was only ten but an old Hollywood black and white movie about men dressing up as women seemed to be more of a subliminal influence than the Fab Four, and that’s despite my father’s proudly displayed record collection pretty much beginning and ending with the Beatles and the Stones.

By my twenties, I had come to appreciate the Fabs. If you’re British with a curious sense of music history it’s pretty much impossible not to. I even grew to love (Just Like) Starting Over too. It occupies a unique place in his catalogue, being the last Lennon single released in his lifetime, the month he turned 40.

With its origins in unfinished demos compositions such as Don’t Be Crazy and My Life, Starting Over was one of the last songs to be completed for the Double Fantasy sessions in Manhattan. Though it had its roots in a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic Ocean, a group of 181 subtropical islands we call Bermuda.

According to The Telegraph, the Lennons often made decisions using Tarot cards, and one such reading in the spring of 1980 told them that John was to take a long journey southeast. At the time, John, Yoko and four year-old Sean were living in Long Island, New York, from which the islands lie 700 miles southeast. The family settled on Bermuda as their destination and home for what would be Lennon’s last summer — and most notably of all, John and Sean made the journey by sea, sailing from Rhode Island aboard the 43-foot sloop Megan Jaye. 

“They got in this big old storm,” Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas told CNN. “This old sailor got really sick. He told John to take the wheel. Torrential rains and waves pounded the boat. “Once I accepted the reality of the situation something greater than me took over and all of a sudden I lost my fear,” Lennon later told then-assistant Fred Seaman of his stormy sail to Bermuda. “I actually began to enjoy the experience and I began to sing and shout old sea shanties in the face of the storm, feeling total exhilaration. I had the time of my life.”

Lennon joked in the ship’s log that “there’s no place like nowhere,” alluding to Bermuda’s remote mid-Atlantic location. But, little did he know, the island was to steal his heart – putting the musician at the bottom of a long list of artists and songwriters whose creative juices were set flowing by the rum swizzles and clear waves of this Atlantic hideaway.

John and Sean Lennon at Spanish Point, Bermuda

Right after this transformative, emotional and physically exhilarating experience on the sailboat, he arrived with this quiet and this space and it all came through him. John Lennon started making music again. He stayed on the main island for several weeks, settling in a house in Fairylands—a small neighbourhood in Pembroke parish— writing songs that would appear on Double Fantasy, his final album named for a Bermuda freesia Sean spotted while at the Botanical Gardens, a short drive from the tiny capital city Hamilton.

To this day, Bermuda remains a startling example of British culture dropped into a tropical environment. Lennon, who hadn’t set foot in Britain for nine years by the time he made it to Bermuda, likely viewed the experience as something of a homecoming – a feeling that place names such as Warwick, Pembroke and St George’s could only compound.

But no doubt it was its beauty that enchanted the singer most, and he was sufficiently inspired to record some of them with Bermudian drummer Andy Newmark and Brooklyn guitarist Earl Slick, both veterans of David Bowie’s Young Americans, the excursion into Philly ‘plastic soul’ that produced the funky Fame, a Lennon aided co-write that helped to become the Thin White One’s first American No.1.

A white hot session player for everyone from Pink Floyd to Roxy Music, drummer Newmark was also present when Bowie became a resident of Bermuda in 1997.

Like his old mucker Lennon, Bowie certainly wasn’t averse to the picturesque pink sand beaches and gorgeous reefs that ring the islands. The two hour flight time from New York was certainly a draw, but there was also a financial implication, especially since his groundbreaking Bowie Bonds flotation earlier that year.

According to current correspondence between Newmark and this author, David “spent the minimum amount of time in Bermuda that was required for him to declare Bermuda as his legal permanent residence for tax purposes. That was probably 182 days a year. That’s the norm.”

David and Iman rented Seaview, a large colonial style estate from the 1780s owned by property developer F.W. Yearwood, and a property which later gained a mention in the Paradise Papers exposé of the offshore trusts and tax havens of the rich and famous.

The remote beach locate that afforded them privacy on a grand scale and a rich unique heritage, and Bowie was naturally effusive about his three and a half year tenancy:

“We loved it in Bermuda during our time there. Quiet, respectful, a dreamscape atmosphere out in the part of the island where we lived. Nobody ever bothered us. But, of course, I have the best protective camouflage in the world. I am married to Iman. Do you think when we were walking along the street together in Hamilton anybody ever gave me a second glance? Do you think anybody even noticed me? Honestly?”

In 1998, Bowie called on Newmark for an impromptu recording session at Steve Easton’s Platinum Sound Studios in Hamilton. The track was a mellow redo of Mother, Lennon’s harrowing primal scream that kicked off the Plastic Ono Band record, from where the class castigation of Working Class Hero also hails.

Tin Machine covered that one, not uncontroversially, in 1989.

Remaining true to John’s original, David’s husky vocals brings an added theatricality to the song. It’s often reported that the Mother cover was demoed in Nassau with either right-hand man of the moment Reeves Gabrels, or the person that essentially took over that role, Tony Visconti — with whom Bowie reunited with soon after — but that’s not quite right. Andy Newmark takes up the story:

“Mother was recorded in Bermuda, at Yoko Ono’s request. It wasn’t the Bahamas, which are 900 miles south. David was producing and 100% in charge. The players were London guys who were coincidentally in Bermuda doing a gig with me for two weeks at a night club. Neil Hubbard / guitar – John MacKenzie / Bass – Andy Wallace / keyboards and myself on drums. That was everyone on the session. It was recorded within two or three hours with David singing live. I think that’s the way it was in the final version as well. Just the four players and DB singing live with us. I don’t believe anyone anywhere played or sang on this except the people I just mentioned. It was a very bare bones recording but complete in every way. 

“Reeves was not present. Don’t know if he played on the recording at a later date in the USA or not. Visconti was not present at the session in Bermuda either and I don’t believe he had anything to do with that recording at any point.”

In fact, further work on Mother was done at what became Right Track Studios in Lennon and Bowie’s adopted hometown, New York City. It was the same Visconti-produced session that saw them lay down an original song intended for The Rugrats movie, with Blondie drummer Clem Burke. Tony takes up the tale: 

“David recorded it as a demo in Nassau (oh no he didn’t!). The personnel was Andy Newmark on drums, a local keyboard player who played organ and Reeves Gabrels on acoustic guitar.

“David’s vocal was live and the drum leakage was terrible, but his vocal was ever so soulful and he wanted to keep it. During the recording of Safe (In This Sky Life) David punched in a few lines of vocal onto Mother. I remember asking David what microphone he used in Nassau because we had to find the same type in New York for the punch-ins. He thought it was the type that Elvis used. The person who loaned us the microphone did so on the condition that David pose with it and David cheerfully complied.

Tony Visconti: “I took the one of David (the guy who loaned us his “Elvis” mic wanted a piccie of David holding it) and May Pang took the other.”

“We added piano by Jordan Rudess (who played on Heathen) and Reeves added some incredible guitar. I played bass and sang backups with my songwriting buddy Richard Barone (formerly of the Bongos). I’m the first to admit that it is not the most polished production of our careers. The recording was made on that now defunct digital system ADAT and it was one of my first attempts at manipulating music in a computer, but we felt that the overall vibe was good enough to submit it to Yoko for that tribute album. I never found out why the album never materialised.”

Indeed, in my research for a Record Collector article in 1999, I got word that Mother was to be included on an EMI tribute album to the late Beatle, set for release in October 2000, the 60th anniversary of his birth.

On the occasion of Lennons 80th and with preparations for the track to finally be released in 2021, Richard Barone has kindly sent me this recollection:

“It was a fantastic experience. Tony and I worked on a very cool backing vocal harmony at his home first. We were writing songs together there, and he had a very cool studio set up. We had recently watched the film Comedian Harmonists and were intent on singing unique and perfect harmony parts. The part we sang, to me, was very soul/R&B-inspired, almost reminiscent of a doo-wop vocal part. Our vocals contrast sharply with the rock edginess of the rhythm track. That type of juxtaposition is an example of Tony’s brilliance, and why David worked with him for so many years over so many albums.” 

The tribute set was mysteriously shelved, but it’s tempting to assume the project was reconstituted as Lennon Bermuda, two discs of covers inspired by John’s 1980 visit from various artists aid to have a connection to the island, such as Bryan Ferry and Low pianist Roy Young.

Though Andy, who played on many of the featured recordings, maintains that there is “no connection between the two at all. Coincidentally, today 09 October 2020 would have been Lennon’s 80th birthday.”

That it is/was. Happy birthday Johnny. Nobody told him there‘d be days like this.

Steve Pafford

My gratitude to Andy Newmark, Paul Kinder, Jonah Jones and Richard Barone for their help. The full line up on the finished version of Mother is as follows:

Produced by David Bowie, Tony Visconti and Reeves Gabrels
Engineered by Dave Amlen and Zach Wind (NYC) and Reeves Gabrels (Bermuda)
Recorded in Bermuda in 1997 and Sound On Sound Studios, New York, 1998
David Bowie – vocals
Reeves Gabrels, Neil Hubbard – guitars
John MacKenzie, Tony Visconti – bass, harmony vocals
Andy Newmark – drums
Andy Wallace, Jordan Ruddess – piano and keyboards
Richard Barone – harmony vocals
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