Following the birth of his son Sean in 1975, Lennon had put his career on hold to help raise him. After five years of little musical activity aside from recording the occasional demo in his apartment in New York, Lennon felt ready to resume work.
In the summer of 1980, Lennon made a sailing trip through treacherous waters from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda. During the journey, Lennon's yacht encountered a prolonged severe storm, most of the crew eventually succumbed to profound fatigue and seasickness. Lennon (free of seasickness) was eventually forced to take the yacht's wheel alone for many hours. Lennon found this terrifying but invigorating. It had the effect of both renewing his confidence and making him contemplate the fragility of life. As a result, he began to write new songs and reworked earlier demos. He commented later, 'I was so centered after the experience at sea that I was tuned in to the cosmos – and all these songs came!' Ono also wrote many songs, inspired with new confidence after Lennon had stated that he believed that contemporary popular music such as The B-52's "Rock Lobster" bore similarities to Ono's earlier work.
The couple decided to release their work on the same album, the first time they had done so since 1972's politically charged Some Time in New York City. In stark contrast to that album, Double Fantasy (subtitled A Heart Play) was a collection of songs wherein husband and wife would conduct a musical dialogue. The album took its title from a species of freesia, seen in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens, whose name Lennon regarded as a perfect description of his marriage to Ono.
Ono approached producer Jack Douglas, with whom the couple had previously worked, and gave him Lennon's demos to listen to. "My immediate impressions were that I was going to have a hard time making it better than the demos because there was such intimacy in the demos," Douglas told Uncut's Chris Hunt in 2005.
They produced dozens of songs, enough to fill Double Fantasy and a large part of a projected second album, Milk and Honey.
Lennon wanted to work with different musicians than he had previously, and had Douglas assemble and rehearse the band without telling them who they would be recording with. While the sessions were underway, Douglas brought Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos of the band Cheap Trick (whom he was also producing) to play on Lennon's "I'm Losing You" and Ono's "I'm Moving On", but these were eventually re-recorded with the studio musicians. (The Cheap Trick version of "I'm Losing You" was included on the John Lennon Anthology collection released in 1998.)
The sessions remained top secret. Lennon and Ono still were not signed to a record label and paid for the initial sessions themselves. After they were satisfied that the album was strong, their publicist Bruce Replogle leaked the news that the couple were back in the studio again.
Immediately, Lennon was inundated with offers from all the major labels. The recording industry was shocked when the couple signed with the newly formed Geffen Records on 22 September 1980 because David Geffen shrewdly insisted on speaking with Ono first, and regarded her contributions as equal to Lennon's. He signed them before hearing any of the tracks.
The album was preceded by the single "(Just Like) Starting Over", which was backed with Ono's "Kiss Kiss Kiss". It was released as a single on 20 October 1980 in the United States, and four days later in the United Kingdom.[nb 1] Originally peaking at number 7 and 9 in the US and UK charts respectively, after Lennon's death the single reached number one in both countries. Apart from the standard editions, the album was also released by various labels in different forms on vinyl in the US: a correct back cover track list by Columbia House, an RCA Music Award edition,[nb 2] and a half-speed master by Nautilus Recordings released in November 1982.[nb 3] The album was released on Warner Bros. Records on green vinyl in Mexico.[nb 4]
The album was released on 17 November 1980 in both the UK and US on vinyl;[nb 5] it was also released on 8-track in the US.[nb 6] Geffen had planned an elaborate cover for Lennon's comeback, but Ono could not decide on a photo. Not wanting to miss the Christmas release deadline, Geffen used the single sleeve as the front cover, while choosing an outtake from the same photo session for the back. The tracks were sequenced as a dialogue between Lennon and Ono; one of his followed by one of hers. On the initial pressings, the track listing was out of sequence. Initial sales were sluggish. In the UK album charts, the album had peaked at number 14 then slipped to number 46, whilst in the US, the album had slowly risen to number 11. Upon Lennon's murder, the album jumped to number 1 in the US chart, where it stayed for eight weeks and in the UK, it jumped to number 2, where it remained for seven weeks before finally spending two weeks at number 1. "Woman", chosen by Lennon, was released as a posthumous single, backed with Ono's "Beautiful Boys". It was released on 12 January 1981 in the US and 16 January in the UK,[nb 7] peaking at number 1 in both countries. It was also released as a cassette single in the UK.[nb 8] Released as the final single from the album, "Watching the Wheels", backed with Ono's "Yes, I'm Your Angel", peaked at number 10 and 30 in the US and UK charts respectively. The single was released in the US on 13 March 1981, and on 27 March 1981 in the UK.[nb 9] Similar to "Woman", "Watching the Wheels" also had a cassette single release in the UK.[nb 10]
Initial critical reaction to the album was largely negative. However, three weeks after the album's release, Lennon was murdered and many of the poor reviews were withheld from publication, including those by Stephen Holden of The New York Times, Tom Carson of Rolling Stone, and Geoffrey Stokes of The Village Voice. The negative reviews focused on the album's idealisation of Lennon and Ono's marriage. Stokes found the concept and theme to be "basically misogynist", and Kit Rachlis of the Boston Phoenix admitted to being "annoyed" by Lennon and Ono's assumption "that lots of people care deeply" about them.
Double Fantasy finished 37th in The Village Voice's 1980 Pazz & Jop, an annual poll of prominent music critics.Robert Christgau, the poll's creator, ranked it 7th on his own list of the year's best albums. Although he was put off by its simplistic lyrics and music upon first listen, Christgau said that the music works a "minor miracle" with "rich, precise" song form and a "command of readymades" to put "the anonymous usages of studio rock to striking artistic purpose." He felt that the use of alternating Ono's improved vocals with Lennon's "makes the union come alive" better than his outspoken, straightforward lyrics, and concluded that the album is not great, but "memorable and gratifying" as rare, "connubial rock and roll".
On 5 June 1981, Geffen re-released "Woman" as a single as part of their "Back to Back Hits" series, with the B-side "(Just Like) Starting Over".[nb 11] "Watching the Wheels" was re-released as part of the same series, with "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" on the B-side.[nb 12] "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" was re-released this time as the B-side to a reissue of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" by Geffen, in a brand-new picture sleeve, to promote The John Lennon Collection in November 1982.[nb 13] It was first released on CD on 13 October 1986 in the UK,[nb 14] and a nearly a year later on 15 September 1987 in the US. The CD was issued again in the US, this time by the Columbia Record Club.[nb 15] The album was re-released on cassette, CD[nb 16] and vinyl in 1989, after EMI had obtained the rights to the album. The album was reissued again on vinyl this time by Capitol/Columbia House in both the US and UK in 1989.[nb 17] In 1994, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab issued the album on CD.[nb 18] On 9 October 2000, EMI/Capitol released a remastered version of the album, containing three bonus tracks.[nb 19] In 2010, a two-CD set called Double Fantasy Stripped Down was released. It included a newly remastered copy of the original album along with an alternative version of the album featuring simpler arrangements, with cover artwork by Sean Lennon.