“Watching The Wheels” was John Lennon’s answer to the critics of his taking more than five years off from being a rock star. The song has also been invoked by some famous people who have been asked about a transitional or rest period in their careers. Former heavyweight champion boxing contender Gerry Cooney is the most famous example of a celebrity who has publicly identified with the song.
In the spring of 1981, most people were sure that the song “Watching The Wheels” would be John Lennon’s last entry into the Top 40 section of The Billboard Hot 100. It was the la st single released from the Double Fantasy album. However, three years later the song “Nobody Told Me” spent eleven weeks in the Top 40 in early 1984. “Nobody Told Me” appeared on the 1984 album Milk and Honey, which was made up of songs not used for Double Fantasy and songs immediately recorded after the songs for the 1980 album were recorded. The posthumous hit “Nobody Told Me” trumped 1981’s “Watching The Wheels” for the distinction of being the last John Lennon song on the U.S. charts.
“Watching The Wheels” was released on April 11, 1981, reaching number ten in the U.S. and staying in the Top 40 for ten weeks. It only reached number 30 on the UK charts. It was the third and final single released off of the 1980 album Double Fantasty; the first single from the album was “(Just Like) Starting Over” and the second was “Woman”. The album was released on November 1, 1980, exactly five weeks before Lennon’s murder on December 8. On December 27, “(Just Like) Starting Over” topped the charts and stayed in the number one position for five consecutive weeks. It was only the second number one hit for the ex-Beatle. Believe it or not, John Lennon only had one number one hit in his lifetime with “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night”, which hit number one for one week on November 16, 1974. The famous Lennon song “Imagine” only hit number three on The Billboard Hot 100 despite being by far the biggest selling single of Lennon’s solo career.
“Watching The Wheels” addressed the criticism from critics and questions from friends and people in the music industry about Lennon taking a break of over five years from the music business to help raise his son Sean. Before 1980’s Double Fantasy, Lennon’s last album was the Walls and Bridges LP released in 1974. Lennon’s self-proclaimed “househusband” years were from 1975-1980 during which for all intents and purposes he retired from the music industry. The song successfully conveyed that Lennon did not care what other people thought and he was totally happy outside of the music world in the domestic life.
The song “Watching The Wheels” has been invoked by countless people in the last 35 years as a means to explain their periods of personal or professional rest. John Lennon wrote the song to diss critics and people who had questioned the fact that a period of six years had elapsed between the releases of his albums. The opening lines of “People think I’m crazy/Doing what I’m doing/Well they give me all kinds of warning to save me from ruin/When I say that I’m okay, they look at me kinda strange/Surely you’re not happy now you no longer play the game” speak for themselves.
One celebrity who routinely invoked the song “Watching The Wheels” in interviews with major newspapers and magazines was boxer Gerry Cooney. In 1981, Cooney defeated former world heavyweight champion Ken Norton by knockout 54 seconds into the first round. In 1982, Cooney fought heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and lost in 13 rounds. Prior to the fight for the title against Holmes, Gerry Cooney was seen by many as an underdog in the mold of “Rocky Balboa” from Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies. Unfortunately, too many people recklessly added a racial component to the Holmes vs. Cooney fight, and Cooney was not at all pleased to be unfairly labeled “The Great White Hope”.
Four months after the title fight against Holmes, a November 1, 1982 article in the New York Times entitled “The Sting Eased, The Ring Pulls Cooney Back” invoked how the boxer was identifying with the song from the previous year by the late John Lennon. Published a week after Cooney resumed training after a four month layoff, the article quotes Conney’s manager Dennis Rappaport as saying, “There were periods of time when I didn’t know what he would eventually do. I told him he had to do what he felt was best for him. He told me about the John Lennon song ‘Watching The Wheels Go Round’. He said that was what he was doing, watching the wheels.”
The September 24, 1982 New York Times article “Cooney Is Planning to Train Again” has Cooney himself invoking his favorite John Lennon song.
Five months later, “Starting Up the Long Road Back” by William Nack, an article in the March 28, 1983 issue of Sports Illustrated, also detailed how Gerry Cooney was identifying with the song. After naming some movies that the boxer was watching over and over while identifying with characters, it stated:
“And he was John Lennon singing. Ever since WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in the 13th round of their title fight in Las Vegas last June 11, Cooney had listened endlessly to Watching the Wheels, Lennon’s song about his dropout from the entertainment world. It sustained Cooney through his dropout from boxing. “Listen to this,” he said one day, springing to his feet. “This was just like me the last nine months right down to the end.” He sang along:
“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”
Another New York Times article, “Sports of the Times; Wheels Go Round”, was published on August 14, 1985. The article clearly states where Cooney was at that stage in his life and career, and how “Watching The Wheels” continued to be a part of the equation. The aforementioned articles are only a sampling of the articles on Gerry Cooney from that time period in which the 1981 Top Ten Lennon hit was invoked.
While “Watching The Wheels” is obviously not as famous or as big a hit other John Lennon songs, it has resonated with so many people over the years. When the song was in the top ten of the Top 40 in the spring of 1981, John Lennon unfortunately was not around to explain the song in interviews. A year and a half later, though, heavyweight boxing contender Gerry Cooney did a great job of explaining to people through media interviews what the song was all about. Cooney did an excellent job expounding on John Lennon’s sentiments that sometimes people have to step back and do what they want for a bit ……. and not pay any attention to the comments or criticisms of other people.
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