Unless you’re a die-hard John Lennon fan, you likely don’t know about the sailing trip he took in the summer of 1980. Whilst Bermuda-bound from Newport, Rhode Island, the 43-foot-long sloop carrying a crew of three was lashed by 25-foot waves and gale-force winds, forcing Lennon to navigate the course alone. Landing safely on the island, Lennon encountered another perfect storm, this one comprised of the dissonant chords struck by emerging alternative music by the likes of Lene Lovich, Madness, and the B-52s.
The result was a wash of inspiration ultimately resulting in Double Fantasy, Lennon’s collaborative effort with wife Yoko Ono. The album debuted in November to mixed reviews, some openly mocking Lennon for slipping into sentimental territory surrounding his familial bliss.
The album might have gone down in the annals of forgettable efforts had Lennon not been murdered three weeks later. The comeback effort became a musical farewell to fans, its genesis overshadowed by the tragedy. Until now.
Thirty-three years later, John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes offers music lovers the chance to experience the musical journey in a thoroughly digital way with a new app.
"I would say that is a default name for what we built," says Emmy Award-winning filmmaker/director Michael Epstein, who also did the documentary LENNONYC. "An app evokes Angry Birds or Instagram," Epstein contends, "This is genuinely immersive storytelling."
It took about 18 months, a "couple hundred-thousand dollars," and the donation of time and talent from a team of designers at interactive media studio Design I/O and design agency eyeball, creatives including veteran digital artist Mark Thompson and creative director and producer Theo Watson to bring the app to market.
They’re not the first to attempt it. Jay Z and Bjork have each produced interactive music apps, albeit with mixed results.
Epstein remains convinced that while the Bermuda Tapes app might be ahead of the curve, there is certainly a need to experience music in this way. "I think this is the logical evolution of the digital platform for music," Epstein tells us. "This doesn’t preclude Spotify or iTunes," even though he finds those platforms offering a "cold, distant experience." Instead, he sees the app as "a great medium to reinvent the album. It’s the last leg of the table in the music industry." (Though in this case, with all revenue from the project going to support the charity WhyHunger and its "Imagine There's No Hunger" campaign, it isn’t quite the answer to helping musicians earn a living.)
Watson and Thompson both agree. Thanks to Yoko Ono’s input and the access she offered to all the demo tapes, all three men describe the app experience as intimate. Says Thompson: "You have the iPad on your lap when you hear John telling you this story." Thompson also points out the fact that through the app's paths, users can experience his entire creative process from the time he spent in Forty Thieves Disco listening to the B-52’s "Rock Lobster"—the song that convinced him that audiences were ready to hear a collaboration between him and his artistically experimental wife.
"What we tried to avoid was the ‘made for TV biopic’" that only highlights big tentpole events," Thompson says. "Inspiration doesn’t come in one big moment." For instance, users will be able to hear Lennon work out the verse in "Watching the Wheels," where he sings it over and over until he goes up an octave. "I heard that a million times, but when you hear him trying to work that out, you feel the process at that moment of conception," he explains.
For Watson’s part, he oversaw the creation of close to 150 prototype demo apps that he called "continuous little experiments" to find the interaction that wouldn’t cheapen the experience by making it too gamey, especially since Ono had the right to reject anything she felt didn’t stay true to her vision of what Lennon might have wanted.
"It’s somewhere between game and a series of interactive poems," Watson explains. Indeed, there is one section of the app that lets users guide the boat through the mid-Atlantic storm while John, Captain Hank Halsted, and Tyler Coneys narrate their dramatic story. Ono was pleased when Watson wanted to use smile detection to let the storm open up and the boat sail through—perhaps because of her own smile project.
The biggest challenge, says Watson, was to find a way to appeal to a broad range of users from Boomers, who just wanted to listen to their favorite Beatle, to kids like Epstein’s only interested in the game. "It took the last two months to get balance right for people of all ages," he asserts.
Epstein is optimistic the app will draw a host of fans. "Double Fantasy has always been unfairly clouded by John’s death," he says, "But it is an album of hope and contentment. It’s our hope [fans] will rediscover John not as a sad story, but as he finds peace with himself.