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John Lennon’s swan song: Behind the last single of his lifetime

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“It’s like we both are falling in love again/It’ll be just like starting over, starting over.”

So go the lyrics to “(Just Like) Starting Over,” the last single John Lennon put out before he was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman outside of the Dakota, his Central Park West apartment building, on Dec. 8, 1980.

The song — which, following its release on Oct. 24, 1980, would go No. 1 after Lennon’s death — was supposed to be exactly that: a fresh start for a 40-year-old family man who had already become the stuff of music legend. Taking a five-year hiatus after his 1975 covers album “Rock ’N’ Roll,” Lennon had basically retired from rock-star life — and this upbeat track, full of hope and promise, was a new beginning.

“It’s important because it was the song that reintroduced us to him after six years since he had put out an album of original material [1974’s ‘Walls and Bridges’],” said Tim English, author of “John Lennon: 1980 Playlist,” who notes that the Beatle was creatively reinvigorated by a sailing trip from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda in June 1980: “He’d gotten the old spark back.” 

Indeed, this was a season of rebirth and renewal for Lennon. He was embracing fatherhood and domestic bliss with wife Yoko Ono on their collaborative “Double Fantasy” album, which came out just three weeks before his murder.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono circa 1968.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono circa 1968.
Getty Images

As that LP’s first single, there was a lot riding on “(Just Like) Starting Over.” But the sunny tune — a composite of three previous Lennon song demos — came in toward the end of the “Double Fantasy” rehearsal sessions with producer Jack Douglas.

“It wasn’t among the [demos] that were being arranged for the ‘Double Fantasy’ album, and John just whipped over and started playing the version with all the parts intact for Jack Douglas,” said Kenneth Womack, author of “John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life” and host of the “Everything Fab Four” podcast. “And that’s when Jack said, ‘Where’s that been? Not only is that a great song, this is the first single!’ It was clear to Jack that it had this pop hook to it.”

And make no mistake, Lennon was aiming for the top of the pop charts. “I think he was writing for a hit single,” said Bill Flanagan, co-host of “The Fab Forum” on SiriusXM’s The Beatles Channel.  “I always thought ‘Starting Over’ was kind of probably designed … to say, ‘Hey, remember me?’ He had taken shots at [Paul] McCartney for writing his happy marriage and fatherhood songs, but at the end of the day, John was saying, ‘That actually is what counts.’ ” 

No doubt, the lyrics reflect wanting to reconnect romantically with Ono five years after they had become parents to son Sean. Not only does Lennon croon, “Let’s take a chance and fly away somewhere alone,” but, English said, “at the end of the song, you hear an airport flight announcement included in there.”

Musically, the song is an homage to the ’50s heroes who inspired Lennon before he became a Beatle, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. “During the sessions for the [‘Double Fantasy’] album, he called himself Elvis Orbison,” said English. “He wasn’t shy about including all those influences.”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono circa 1979.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono circa 1979.
Michael Ochs Archives

And although the song was originally named simply “Starting Over,” Lennon added the parenthetical because Dolly Parton had a country hit earlier in 1980 with the similarly titled “Starting Over Again.” “He was actually a Dolly Parton fan,” said English. “He had a copy of Dolly’s 1979 cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’ on his jukebox at home.”

Looking back on the single’s legacy and place among Lennon’s solo work 40 years later, Womack said, “To my ears, it is the gateway song for the new phase of John Lennon that we’re getting at that point. Sadly, it barely gets to have that life.”

Instead, “(Just Like) Starting Over” would come to be forever associated with the harrowing ending of Lennon’s life.  

“That’s the cruel irony,” said Flanagan. “John Lennon’s death would have been terrible at any time, in any circumstance, but for him to die so brutally just at the moment when he re-entered the spotlight after five years away was just especially brutal.”

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