'Watching the Wheels', John Lennon's uncompromising return to music
(Credit: Album Cover)

The Story Behind The Song: ‘Watching the Wheels’, John Lennon’s uncompromising return to music

We’re taking a look back at John Lennon’s now-iconic track ‘Watching the Wheels’ as part of our ‘The Story Behind The Song’ feature.

The song, which was released on this day, 1981, arrived as the second single to be released posthumously after Lennon was murdered. With Yoko Ono effort ‘Yes, I’m Your Angel’ as the accompanying B-side, ‘Watching the Wheels’ was originally placed as the third and final single released from Lennon and Ono’s album Double Fantasy.

When Lennon’s son Sean was born in 1975, the former Beatle took it upon himself to retire from the music industry and begin what was to be a five-year hiatus from the celebrity life. Focusing predominantly on raising his only child with Ono and taking up the role of househusband, Lennon came in for a barrage of criticism from fans who were left disappointed by his decision to step away.

Lennon, devoting himself to Sean entirely, lived by a regimented routine which saw the musician rise at 6am to sufficiently plan and prepare his meals and to ensure he had as much time as physically possible spend time with his child. While fans began to grow more impatient, Lennon officially announced his ‘retirement’ in 1977 when he said: “We have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family.”

While Lennon spent the majority of his five years in musical exile with his child, the ever-present creative spirit he harboured continued to surface on an all but daily occurrence. Creating a series of drawings, drafting a book of autobiographical material and dreaming up what he called a mixture of “mad stuff”, Lennon continually drafted up new musical material and made his emphatic return October 1980 when he recorded new music which would become Double Fantasy.

Officially released on November 17th, Double Fantasy would be Lennon’s final release before he was murdered just a matter of weeks later. As the early months of 1981 continued to mourn his death, the estate of John Lennon released ‘Watching the Wheels’, a song that addressed those who doubted his decision to live as a househusband in no uncertain terms: “People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing,” Lennon sings in the opening line. “People asking questions lost in confusion, well I tell them there’s no problem,” he continues. “Only solutions.”

The song, which originally began life as ‘Emotional Wreck’, was built on a demo Lennon had originally created in 1977. With a piano bass and opening lyrics established, the former Beatle would continually work to revise the track in order to continually detail the negativity he has received in his years away, slapping down any criticism and insisting that his decision to spend time with his family is anything but crazy and, instead, resulted in an eternally fulfilling period of his life.

“I hadn’t stopped from ’62 till ’73—on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard,” Lennon later told  David Sheff. “What it seemed like to me was, this must be what guys go through at sixty-five when suddenly they’re not supposed to exist any more and they are sent out of the office. I thought, Well, oughtn’t I? Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I be, like, going to the office or something? Because I don’t exist if my name isn’t in the papers or if I don’t have a record out or in the charts, or whatever—if I’m not seen at the right clubs. It must be like the guys at sixty-five when somebody comes up and goes, ‘Your life is over. Time for golf.’”

With a new found vigour and desire to get his point across, Lennon headed to Hit Factory studio in New York City on August 18th, 1980, the lay down ‘Watching The Wheels’. Working with the likes of producer Jack Douglas and engineer Lee DeCarlo, Lennon teamed up with street musician Matthew Cunningham who played the piano on the track. “Jack heard this guy named Matthew Cunningham playing dulcimer on the street and he was good,” engineer Tony Davilio remembered when talking to Ken Sharp. “This guy was a real hippie with stringy long hair. He was a typical street musician. They brought him in to play dulcimer on ‘Watching The Wheels’. He came in looking pretty spaced out. When you play the dulcimer you sit in that Indian position on the floor. Jack told me, ‘Tony, go out there and make sure he’s in tune.’ So I went over to the piano and plucked out some notes and he kept shaking his head and said, ‘That sounds sour, that’s not in tune,’ but it was. So he’s sitting there playing along with the track and the tape stops. John was standing up in the control room and said something to him over the talkback. Matt squinted his eyes, looking at him, and said, ‘What’s your name?’ And John gets back on the talkback and says ‘My name’s John.’ This guy’s just staring at him and goes, ‘Hi, John.’ And then John says, ‘Hi, Matt’ and then I see them all laughing in there because this guy didn’t know who he was. Apparently, he was the only person in the country who wouldn’t know John Lennon.”

Alongside a spaced out Cunningham, Lennon and George Small also joined in on the piano recording process: “That’s the most keyboard-oriented song on the record,” Small said. “It’s not so guitar-driven as much of the other material. That’s me on piano and John played a Yamaha electric grand. I’m also playing organ and all those Prophet 5 synthesizer parts, the thing that sounds like a French horn. On the ending part—where John sings, ‘I just had to let it go…’—he really made a big point of making sure that I had played that romantic piano line on the tag exactly that way. He told me he was in a bar one night and was listening to a piano player and that riff just stuck in his head. So he had to have that riff on the end of it.”

Explaining the message of this song after Lennon’s death, Yoko said: “Let’s have that inner space to dream, the dream power.”

John Lennon – ‘Watching The Wheels‘ lyrics

People say I’m crazy doing what I’m doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I’m OK they look at me kind of strange
Surely you’re not happy now you no longer play the game

People say I’m lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don’t you miss the big time boy you’re no longer on the ball?

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

People asking questions lost in confusion
Well I tell them there’s no problem
Only solutions
Well they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry…
I’m just sitting here doing time

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

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