Let’s begin with some music…
TWIST & SHOUT
Outside of Liverpool, not many people knew who The Beatles were when they recorded ‘Twist And Shout’, with John Lennon on lead vocals, at Abbey Road Studios in north London on February 11, 1963. It was a busy day for them. They recorded nine other songs that day which, together with four recorded earlier, made up their first album which was released in March.
Nowadays groups can take weeks, months, even years to record an album but The Beatles, who’d driven down from Liverpool the night before, were allowed just one day because the next day they were due to do two shows in one night, one in Sheffield, promoted by Peter Stringfellow as it happens, and another in Oldham.
It was 10.30 in the evening when John sang ‘Twist And Shout’ and having sung all day and nursing a heavy cold, his voice was wrecked. He knew he had only one shot at it before his voice went completely so he sucked on some throat pastilles, stripped to the waist, and went for it, and at the end, after he’d nailed it, the engineers in the control room broke out into a round of spontaneous applause.
By a wide margin, ‘Twist And Shout’ by The Beatles was the most frenzied piece of pop music ever recorded this side of the Atlantic. It was the sound of revolution, the old order toppling and making way for a new one. It marked the beginning of the end of the domination of popular music by ballad singers in their suits and ties, the dawning of a new age in British pop. John Lennon, who more than anyone else brought this about, was just 22.
So who was he, this man who for the next 18 years would make headlines everywhere, whose assassination caused worldwide grief, and who in 2002 was named by the BBC as eighth in their list of the 100 Greatest Britons ever, beaten by the likes of Churchill, Shakespeare and Princess Diana but one place above Admiral Nelson and two above Oliver Cromwell. Who was he?
Well, he was christened John Winston Lennon and born in Liverpool during the Second World War, on October 9, 1940, and his ancestors mainly came from Ireland, as did those of his future bandmate Paul McCartney.
His mother Julia was the youngest and flightiest of five sisters, and his father Alfred, a ships steward, was away at sea, where he would remain for much of John’s childhood. When Fred’s cheques to Julia stopped, the marriage more or less ended and Julia took up with another man. There was a bit of a tug of war over the infant John, with Alfred returning home at one point and threatening to take him to New Zealand – which would have put the kibosh on The Beatles – but Julia was having none of it, so Fred backed off and wouldn’t be heard from again until his son was famous.
In the end, Julia’s second husband was unwilling to raise another man’s child so John went to live with one of Julia’s older sisters, his Aunt Mimi, a very respectable lady with no children of her own, and Mimi’s husband, who was a milkman.
Young John, of course, was horrified by all this - the fact that neither of his parents seemed to want him. Although he would develop a relationship with his mother in his teens, it certainly left him feeling insecure and unloved, with a chip on his shoulder and a feeling of resentment towards the world. From an early age he knew that love was not something he could count on.
He did inherit some musical blood from his absent parents. Fred had a bit of a signing voice and with a few beers inside him would get up and sing in dockyard pubs, and Julia played the banjo and had a bit of singing voice too.
It probably comes as no surprise that John, although by no means a dunce, didn’t get on well at school. He was lippy with his teachers, a natural rebel and Mimi was called in many times over his bad behaviour. But he had a talent for writing and a talent for drawing and loved fantasy writing like Lewis Caroll’s Alice stories and the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. John combined all these into a series of comics he produced called The Daily Howl which he gave out to his friends. When a copy went up on sale at Sothebys in 1988 Yoko paid £12,000 for it.
John progressed from Dovedale Primary School, which was next to a piece of land called Strawberry Fields, the site of an orphanage, to Quarry Bank High School, and it was while he was there, around 1956, that he first heard the music that was to change his life.
ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC (brief snatch)
In 1957 Mimi bought John a cheap guitar and he formed his first group, a skiffle band he called the Quarrymen with four friends from Quarry Bank High School. In the days before rock and roll, skiffle was a sort of DIY music that could be played by anyone. The bass was a broom handle in a tea chest with one string on it, the percussion was an old fashioned washboard, and a guitar or banjo or two made up the front line. The songs they performed were speeded up versions of American folk songs, as perfected in the UK by a Scotsman called Lonnie Donegan.
Of course what John really wanted to play was rock and roll, the music he was hearing on the radio by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, so because he was the founder of the Quarrymen it was only a matter of time before he pushed the others in this direction. He was, after all, the leader, the singer and only member with any real talent or ambition. In time, by a process of attrition, the Quarrymen would become the Beatles as members left and others joined.
First to join was Paul McCartney who was introduced to John on July 6 1957 at a village fete where the Quarrymen were playing. John was impressed by Paul’s ability on the guitar and that he knew the words to several popular rock and roll songs. Indeed Paul was better at it than John which meant he was faced with a dilemma. Should John risk his own position as leader by inviting a superior musician to join, or should he put the best interests of the group first. He chose the group. Good job too.
Over the next year John, who was 16, and Paul, who was 15, became inseparable, and began writing songs together. John was untutored, experimental, full of ideas that hadn’t been tried before. Paul was more traditional in his melodies. His mother had played the piano before she died from cancer when he was 14, and his dad played the trumpet. John and Paul got together every day after school at each other’s houses. It was the beginning of the most successful partnership in songwriting history.
Next to join the Quarrymen, at the beginning of 1958, was George Harrison who was two and a half years younger than John, a huge age difference by teenage standards. But George was terrific on the guitar, very determined to learn although perhaps not quite so naturally gifted as John and Paul. He was also quiet, diligent, willing to do as the others wanted, certainly not a threat to John’s leadership.
Throughout the rest of 1958 our Quarrymen made little progress beyond some earnest rehearsals but it was during this year, when John turned 18, that two crucial events occurred in his life. He’d become closer to his mother in the past year or two and she’d taught him some banjo chords and generally encouraged his wild ways. Then, tragically, in July, Julia was killed by a speeding car as she was crossing the road near her home. John was devastated and the fact that the driver was an off-duty policeman who got off scot free soured his attitude towards the police for the rest of his life. Julia’s death also brought him closer to Paul – they were now both motherless boys.
The second big event was meeting Cynthia Powell, who would become his first wife. By this time John had left school and was attending Liverpool Art College which was where, in 1958, he met her. Cynthia was by no means John’s first girlfriend and certainly not his last, but she would stick by him regardless of his infidelities until finally ousted by Yoko Ono in 1968.
The Quarrymen, meanwhile were struggling on with a succession of different drummers until they found one called Pete Best whose mother ran a teenage club where they sometimes played. But apart from a tour of Scotland and a handful of local shows, including the first of almost 300 at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, John, Paul, George and Pete still hadn’t got anywhere by 1960 – which was when John invited a fifth member, an art school pal called Stuart Sutcliffe, to join the group on bass guitar.
Any Beatle fan will tell you that Stuart was the missing Beatle. He wasn’t much cop as a musician but he was a brilliant painter, he loved rock and roll and he had ideas about style and presentation which would influence them all. Stuart was a radical, a bohemian, an artist, precociously literate, a free thinker, and for a while he became John’s best friend and biggest influence, even ousting Paul.
At the beginning of the 60s Liverpool was awash with beat groups. No one is quite sure why but the city was a melting pot for boys with guitars and drums who made a lot of noise performing American rock’n’roll. Some believe it was because it was a port and sailors brought back records from America which found their way into local record shops, but a scene was developing there that was quite different, and quite separate from the established music business in London.
The Quarrymen, who by now had changed their name to the Silver Beetles, were by no means leading lights in the Merseyside group boom. Indeed they were looked on as a bit of a joke by most other groups. They were too young, too inexperienced, used cheap equipment and, for some strange reason, they wrote some of their own songs instead of playing the American hits that audiences demanded.
There was another European port where groups were in demand and that was Hamburg in Germany. Hamburg club owners would come to Liverpool to book groups for two and three month periods and so it was that in the autumn of 1960 that The Beatles, the name they’d now settled on, went to Germany to learn their trade properly.
On this first visit they stayed for three months, playing for anything up to eight hours every night of the week, and this – and subsequent visits - turned them into the band they became. It was an apprenticeship that was almost guaranteed to turn them into a great band, and it opened John’s eyes to a world he never knew existed.
For months on end they played clubs in the Reeperbahn area of Hamburg, the red light district, and found themselves rubbing shoulders with hookers, drug dealers, transvestites, criminals and drunken sailors from all over the globe. They also encountered young artists and students interested in alternative lifestyles, clothes and haircuts - people like Stuart Sutcliffe who would soon leave the group and shack up with a beautiful German girl called Astrid who would take a series of moody photos of the young Beatles that became world famous a few years later.
When the Beatles returned to Liverpool after that first visit to Hamburg they were a different band. If one live performance throughout their entire career could be said to be the one that changed everything for them it was the one at Litherland, a suburb of Liverpool, on December 27 1960. The posters outside said ‘The Beatles - direct from Hamburg’ and most of those inside thought they were German. When the curtains opened they launched their set with ‘Long Tall Sally’ sung by Paul.
LONG TALL SALLY (brief snatch)
And before the end of the song the crowd, which had been milling around at the back were all pressed against the stage at the front. No-one in England had heard anything like it before. Three years before it took over the country at large, Beatlemania erupted that night in Liverpool.
Whatever happened that night, and boy do I wish I was there, it would be wrong to say it was smooth sailing from then on. In the two years before they signed a record deal with EMI, the Beatles would return to Hamburg four more times for four more gruelling seasons of playing for hours and hours on end. Stuart, who remained in Hamburg would die from a brain haemorrhage – another tragedy for John to deal with – and they would find themselves a manager in Brian Epstein, an upper class record shop owner whose family owned Liverpool’s biggest furniture store, and who happened to be gay at a time when being gay was a criminal offense.
John, meanwhile, had became a leather jacketed thug, wild and out of control, drinking himself silly every night on the Reeperbahn, kept awake by pep pills and becoming the most explosive but still unknown rock and roll singer in the UK. On stage in Hamburg night after night he sang his heart out, effing and blinding between numbers, and insulting the audience in a dialect they couldn’t understand. No-one could control him, not Paul, certainly not Cynthia who was by turns entranced and repelled by his behaviour, and certainly not Mimi who wasn’t around anyway. Many who knew him in those days are amazed he survived…
Back in Liverpool, between stints in Germany, he’d dropped out of college, taken a flat in a run down part of town, occasionally sharing it with Cynthia, and become notorious throughout the Liverpool beat scene for his loutish behaviour. Brian Epstein, meanwhile, was infatuated by him – though John wasn’t to know – and vowed to do anything he could to help him and the Beatles succeed. The more Brian failed, the more John taunted him, and the more Brian loved him. Then, finally, after being turned down by every record company in London, in the summer of 1962, thanks only to his status as a record store owner, he got them a second audition with producer George Martin at EMI and things looked promising at last. The only snag was that Martin didn’t like Pete Best as a drummer, so on the eve of the biggest success story in pop history he was sacked in favour of a drummer called Ringo Starr who played with another Liverpool group, Rory Storm & the Hurricanes and who had befriended the Beatles in Hamburg.
By this time Brian Epstein had tidied them up a bit. Paul went along with the image change but John hated it. Epstein made sure they dressed in suits, with collars and ties, and refrained from drinking before going on stage and not swearing at the audience. They also adopted the Beatle-fringe, with their hair covering their foreheads, a style they’d picked up from their student friends in Hamburg.
By now the Beatles were on a roll, playing shows throughout the north every night of the week. In September they recorded their first single Love Me Do. The only snag on the horizon for John was that he’d made Cynthia pregnant, so he did the honourable thing and on August 23 1962 married her at a Liverpool Registry office. That night the Beatles did a show in Chester. John didn’t tell Mimi about the wedding until the day before. She just groaned.
Love Me Do was released in October and made number 17 in the charts. Their second single, Please Please Me came out in January of 1963 and went to number one. There was no looking back now.
It’s impossible to separate John from the Beatles at this point, so I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about the Beatles, the group John formed and led, and the enormous impact they made.
The Beatles changed the entire British music industry, almost overnight. Where previously the main currency was solo singers, it was now groups. Where previously the singers had relied on professional songwriters to supply songs to sing, the Beatles wrote their own. Where previously the singers had required a team of session musicians to record with them in the studio, the Beatles were self-sufficient, accompanying themselves on electric guitars and drums. Where previously entertainers had been deferential, the Beatles were unpredictable and cheeky but somehow always loveable. And almost everyone else followed suit.
I was a teenager in 1963, and it’s difficult now to convey the excitement that gripped the UK during that first year of Beatlemania. It goes without saying that every time the Beatles released a single it went to the top of the chart and that every time they released an album it went to the top, and stayed there until they released another which replaced it. Their domination was absolute. There were riots throughout the country wherever the Beatles performed and Heathrow airport was brought to a standstill whenever it became known that the Beatles were flying in or out. Thousands of fans would descend on Heathrow and bring chaos to air services. Newspapers carried stories about the Beatles every day of the week, often on the front page. It was the first ever great celebrity culture binge, a bit like Jordan and Peter Andre today – expect 100 times bigger and, of course, the Beatles did actually produce something of merit.
So you can just imagine how excited I was when I actually saw them on stage at the Bradford Gaumont in December 1963. I can still remember the curtains parting. There they were, John, Paul, George & Ringo, the new royal family in their shiny suits and Cuban-heeled boots, squinting beneath their fringes, jiggling their guitars and trying to sing above the incredible din. It was absolute pandemonium! They were only on for about 25 minutes and they were completely drowned out by relentless screaming which didn’t let up for a second. I don’t think I heard a word they sang or a note they played, even though I was quite near the front, to the left of the stage, on Paul's side, but it remains one of the most exciting things I've ever seen in my life, an unbelievable experience. John was pretty much motionless, strumming his guitar worn high up on his chest, but Paul and George moved around a bit which simply added to the chaos. All hell broke loose when Ringo sang, and stewards had to hold back girls who rushed out of their seats. I stood for the whole show, I didn’t know it then, of course, but John was very short sighted and couldn’t see a thing.
For me Beatlemania is best evoked in two of the singles they released that year, both sung by John. The first was She Loves You, with its “Yeah Yeah Yeah” chorus, and the second I was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”… and whenever I hear either of them now I always think of the screaming crowd I was a part of that December night…
I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (live version with screams)
Beatlemania was highly infectious and two months after that show, in February 1964 America fell to them, opening up the US market to British artists for the first time. Australia fell the same year in even more spectacular fashion. Thousands met the Beatles in pouring rain when they arrived in Sydney in June, and when they went to Adelaide it’s estimated 300,000 people lined the route from the airport to their hotel. In both Adelaide and Melbourne almost 200,000 people blocked traffic on the streets outside their hotels, and the Beatles had to make balcony appearances, waving down to the crowds like the pope or the queen.
Beatlemania lasted about three years, during which the group, with John at the helm, accomplished more work than today’s groups do in a decade or more. Between 1963 and 1966, when they stopped touring, they wrote, recorded and released seven albums and a slew of non-album singles, made two full-length feature films, scores of live radio and TV appearances and gave more media interviews in a day than today's superstars are inclined to give in a year. John and Paul even wrote hits for other artists. The quality of their records, all these songs dashed off amid the chaos of Beatlemania, is now the most valuable music publishing catalogue in the world.
They turned touring upside down too. Before The Beatles there were no stadium concerts: after they filled New York’s Shea Stadium to its 55,000 capacity – the biggest audience ever assembled at that time for one show – the American stadium tour became the norm for world-class acts. The Beatles toured the world with two roadies and a press officer. Modern acts like U2 or Bruce Springsteen tour with a crew of 150 or more.
Somehow, amidst all this, they also coped with being the most famous and sought after people on the planet. John, especially, felt trapped by fame… fame on a scale no one had ever experienced before. This might have been what he wanted when the Beatles started out but when he got it, it wasn’t what he wanted at all, so he wrote a song about it called ‘Help!’, and although no-one realised it at the time, if you listen carefully to the words you can tell that it really is a cry for help…
By the time Beatlemania exploded the group had moved from Liverpool to London. John & Cynthia and their son Julian had a flat in Kensington, off Cromwell Road, George & Ringo shared a flat in Knightsbridge and Paul lodged with the family of his girlfriend Jane Asher in Wimpole Street where Jane’s father, a doctor, had a practice. When fans discovered where he lived John moved Cynthia and Julian out to Weybridge, to a large detached house called Kenwood. George and Ringo moved in nearby but Paul stayed in London, eventually buying the house that he stills owns in Cavendish Avenue in St John’s Wood which is just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios. John’s Aunt Mimi was obliged to move too, so John bought her a bungalow at Sandbanks, on the edge of Pool Harbour, where she would live until her death in 1992, aged 89.
Although all the songs they wrote are credited to Lennon & McCartney, increasingly after 1964 they wrote individually, bringing their songs to each other when they were complete as a sort of quality control exercise. John might prevent Paul from becoming too sweet, while Paul might prevent John from becoming too sharp. It worked well too, though generally speaking it is easy to tell who wrote what by who sang lead. Also, John tended to write more personal, confessional songs, often in the first person, while Paul’s were vaguer, and in the third person. As ever, John took more risks, moving the group forward, and in 1965 he wrote about an affair he’d had.
NORWEGIAN WOOD (first two verses)
The girl in question was the wife of the photographer who’d taken the pictures for several of the Beatles album covers. They lived upstairs from the Lennons in the flat in South Kensington, so he was taking a bit of a risk. No one can be quite sure how many affairs John had before he met Yoko, but it’s a safe bet to assume that hundreds of women passed through his bed, most of them very briefly. This only served to reinforce the male chauvinist mindset that had been ingrained in him since Liverpool. He expected Cynthia to stay and home and raise Julian while he brought home the bacon, and lots of it.
In August 1964, in New York, John, and the rest of the Beatles, were introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan. They loved it. The following year, John and George were introduced to LSD by, of all people, their dentist. They loved that too – and many of John’s songs from this period were influenced by his experiences with drugs, not that anyone knew at the time – least of all the Queen who bestowed MBEs on all four Beatles at Buckingham Palace in October 1965.
The following year John created an uproar when he was quoted in a British magazine proclaiming that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, which at the time was probably true. The quote was misconstrued in America and as a result the Beatle’s subsequent tour there was beset with problems. In the south, there were public burnings of Beatle records – though George, pragmatic as ever, pointed out they had to buy them first - and even death threats. John was coerced into making a humiliating public apology on US TV but it was probably this, and an ugly incident in Manila where they failed to show up at a party thrown by Imelda Marcos, that convinced them to retire from public performances. The Beatles gave their last show in San Francisco on August 29 1966 and when the final screams died down all bar Paul breathed a sigh of relief.
By now EMI had realised how much the Beatles contributed to their profits – they were on a notoriously mean royalty deal – and more or less allowed them unlimited access to Abbey Road Studios. So for much of the next three years they spent almost all their waking hours in the large windowless room that is Studio 2 at Abbey Road. This was where they conceived Rubber Soul, which contained another famous song of John’s ‘In My Life’.
IN MY LIFE (excert)
The following year the group were even more adventurous with Revolver, which is my actually my favourite Beatles album. This featured some of John’s most adventurous work, the world-weary ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ and two LSD-inspired compositions ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
As far as creativity goes John was on a roll. Next came ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, perhaps his best ever Beatles composition, which was named after the parcel of land adjoining his primary school.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ turned out to be a taster for one of rock music’s most famous albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With its iconic sleeve of the Beatles surrounded by all their heroes, it revolutionised rock music with its complex array of electronic recording techniques and powerful, elusive lyrics. John’s influence was notable on several of the tracks, including the psychedelic-tinged ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ which most people assumed was inspired by the LSD acronym of the title but actually came from a drawing by his son Julian, and the mind-expanding ‘A Day In The Life’, which many critics cite as the Beatles greatest sonic achievement.
In many ways Sgt. Pepper was the high point of the Beatles’ career. Thereafter they began to drift apart, not least because shortly after it was released their manager Brian Epstein died from what is generally assumed to have been an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. The Beatles were in Wales when Epstein’s death was discovered, sitting at the feet of the bearded Maharishi, seeking a greater enlightenment through his Indian spiritual teachings. Though George would go on to become the most spiritual Beatle, at the time John was equally keen on this diversion for the group. He’d already demonstrated his independence, cutting his hair short for the role of Private Gripweed in a satirical movie called How I Won The War. This was the first indication of the political activism that would occupy so much of his energy for the next few years.
Without Epstein to guide them the Beatles simply went back to recording. Next on the agenda was Magical Mystery Tour, mostly Paul’s concept, although it did include one of John’s greatest surreal songs, ‘I Am The Walrus’.
I AM THE WALRUS (brief snatch)
Needless to say it was banned by the BBC for the line about naughty girls letting their knickers down.
The next Beatles album, the sprawling double ‘White Album’, offered a portrait of a group in disarray, one that was rapidly disintegrating. Though outwardly a group project, it was clear now that the Beatles merely acted as backing musicians on each others’ songs. If nothing else the album gave lie to the assumption that Paul wrote ballads and John wrote rock songs. In fact John was just as capable of writing a tender ballad as his more tuneful colleague, as shown by this song to his mother, Julia.
No-one knew it at the time but the words Ocean Child are a translation of the name of a woman John first met at her exhibition at a London art gallery in late 1966. He went before the exhibition opened to the public and the artist was there, putting up the exhibits. She didn’t know who he was and watched as he climbed a ladder to read a message on a small piece of paper on the ceiling. The message consisted of just one word: YES.
The courtship of John Lennon and Yoko Ono has gone down as one of the great romances of the 20th century. It didn’t get off to a great start. Yoko – unlike almost every other woman John encountered – did not submit to his advances within seconds of meeting him, which made John very nervous. Indeed, it wasn’t until May 1968, almost 18 months after they first met, that they spent a night together at John’s Weybridge home while Cynthia was away. When Cynthia returned the following afternoon, she found John and Yoko sitting calmly in dressing-gowns in the kitchen and fled in panic. By November 1968, she and John were divorced and four months later, on March 20, 1969, John married Yoko in Gibraltar.
Yoko Ono changed John Lennon in every way possible. If John’s life can be seen as two acts, then act II started when she came into his life. A Japanese avant-garde artist from a wealthy banking family, she was very different from the mild mannered Cynthia and, for that matter, every other women John had ever encountered. For starters she demanded equal rights in everything. Her artistic endeavours, though not nearly so well known as those of her new husband, were of equal significance and John, surprisingly, agreed.
John even brought Yoko to the studio when the Beatles were recording, which was unheard of in their boys club. While the other wives stayed at home and concerned themselves with domestic matters, Yoko not only sat alongside John while he was recording but criticised his and their efforts. Paul, George and Ringo were shaken to the core, especially when John sided with Yoko.
With Epstein gone, the Beatles were trying to manage themselves, not always successfully. They had formed their own business organisation called Apple and though it was certainly successful as regards records, other aspects of the business were fast draining their bank account. Sycophants and down right fraudsters were robbing the Beatles blind and there was no-one to stop them until John brought in a hard-nosed American businessmen called Allen Klein. He was supported by George and Ringo, but Paul, recently married to Linda, favoured his new father-in-law John Eastman, a New York lawyer. This, more than anything else, brought about the break up of the Beatles.
John, meanwhile, had embarked on a parallel life with Yoko. With hair down to his shoulders and a long straggly beard he looked a bit like Rasputin as they celebrated their marriage in a peace crusade across Europe and invited the world’s media to their honeymoon suites in Amsterdam and Vienna. The press duly obliged, probably because they thought John and Yoko might, er, well you know, in front of the cameras. Instead, at time when it was neither safe nor fashionable, they simply promoted the strange concept that world peace, an end to war, might be a good idea.
In general they were portrayed as clowns, nutcases. But I believe John was far cleverer than the media would have you believe. He knew how much media power the Beatles wielded and he was determined to use it in what he thought was promoting an idea beneficial to mankind. If he had to look like a fool doing so, then so be it.
Their travels inspired the only Beatle single to feature just John and Paul, though no one knew it at the time. George and Ringo were both unavailable when they recorded it, so Paul played drums.
THE BALLAD OF JOHN & YOKO
Of course the concept of world peace would wreak havoc with any economies in which defence and arms manufacture played a large role, so the establishment wasn’t too keen on the idea. This and the fact that John returned his MBE in protest at Britain’s involvement in various conflicts probably explains why the police planted cannabis in the London flat that John and Yoko were occupying in 1968. John knew it wasn’t his. He knew perfectly well where he kept his dope and it wasn’t where the police found it, but he pleaded guilty to save a lot of fuss, and because Yoko was pregnant and might be deported. In the event they lost the child, but that guilty plea would come back to haunt John a few years down the line. They left the flat and bought a big house at Ascot called Tittenhurst Park where John built his own recording studio. They eventually sold the house to Ringo and when Ringo decided to move to Cranleigh he sold it to the Sultan of Brunei who still owns it and spends only a few days a year there during Ascot racing week.
With the Beatles disintegrating John embarked on a series of avant-garde projects with Yoko, appearing on stage in large sacks and making a fearful electronic din, planting acorns for peace and releasing strange sound effect albums. He also formed a group called the Plastic Ono Band that recorded the definitive version of a song which has become the world anthem for peace campaigners everywhere.
GIVE PEACE A CHANCE
The strain of being John Lennon, the vilification of Yoko, the loss of their child and a bad car crash in Scotland, was getting too much for the pair and as the 60s ended they began using heroin. Fortunately John was strong, and sensible, enough to realise the dangers and they both managed to drop the habit. The period inspired the harrowing ‘Cold Turkey’, John’s brittle account of his withdrawal from the drug.
In 1969, John was actually the first Beatle to tell the others that he wanted to leave but he was persuaded to keep the news to himself for commercial reasons. There were two more Beatles albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, and by everyone’s standards bar their own they were great records. Whatever the personal and ideological differences between John and Paul, the Beatles always took pride in their work.
Though increasingly estranged from each other, The Beatles limped on until April 1970 when Paul announced he was leaving and took the other three to court to formally dissolve their partnership. In John’s own words, the dream was over.
In March 1970, John and Yoko enrolled in psychiatrist Arthur Janov’s primal therapy programme in which they were encouraged to express supposedly long-repressed childhood pain. The experience inspired John’s first solo album proper – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – one of the most lacerating and self-analytical albums ever issued by a popular performer. It remains the most accomplished work of John’s post-Beatles period, and among its tracks was ‘Working Class Hero’ containing a well known four letter word which was certainly the first time it was heard on a record which would automatically sell over a million copies.
WORKING CLASS HERO
The follow-up album, Imagine was recorded at Tittenhurst Park and was more successful commercially. Its title track became one of John’s most well-known and loved songs. Another song ‘Jealous Guy’ was later a big hit for Bryan Ferry.
When John and Yoko flew from Heathrow to New York on August 31, 1971, they probably had every intention of returning to England fairly soon. In the event John never came back to the country of his birth. It was in New York that winter that he recorded his famous Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.
When they first arrived in New York John & Yoko were befriended by political radicals like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffmann, and they teamed up with a bar band called Elephant’s Memory in 1972 to make the overtly political album Some Time In New York City. This offered John’s views on women’s liberation, the IRA and US prison riots. These sorts of activities would not sit well with the US Government and sowed the seeds for the immigration problems that John would face in the near future. By this time, the Lennons had scaled down their public appearances, though they did top the bill at Madison Square Garden for a charity show for mentally handicapped children.
Then, in 1973, the unexpected happened. John split from Yoko and moved to Los Angeles with their personal assistant, a beautiful Chinese girl called May Pang. They rented a house with a pool on the Bel Air estate and one night in October went out for a drink at a bar called the Rainbow on Sunset Strip. I was in that bar that night too, now working as US editor for a London-based music magazine called Melody Maker, and I was introduced to John by a mutual friend. He seemed quite pleased to meet me and knowing that I’d interviewed Paul earlier in the year, asked me how he was. In truth John seemed a hit homesick, and asked me all sorts of questions about the UK. The following week we sat down together by his pool to do a full scale interview for Melody Maker.
It was the start of a friendship that lasted for about three years. In that time I did two more long interviews with John and we met socially a few times too. I was a bit cheeky once and asked him for his phone number but he told me he didn’t know it, Yoko dealt with the phone, so we made an arrangement that if I wanted to get in touch with him I’d send him a telegram with my phone number on it, and he’d call me back. He kept to his word. “Hello Chris, it’s Johnny Beatle here” was how he would introduce himself.
Meanwhile John and May Pang had moved back to New York and into a suite at the Paul Getty-owned Pierre Hotel. I went round to see him there one night in June 1974 and found myself acting as his wine-taster. It seems former Beatles manager Allen Klein had sent him a very expensive bottle of vintage red wine but because the Beatles and Klein were involved in a law-suit John thought the wine might be poisoned. So he asked me to try it first, and he and May sat staring at me for two or three minutes before they took a chance on the wine themselves. I suppose if I’d died I’d have saved his life and been a hero.
John’s next album Walls And Bridges contained a song on which his friend Elton John played piano and sang back-up vocals. It was called ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night’.
WHATEVER GETS YOU THOUGH THE NIGHT
Though it wasn’t a big hit in England the song had plenty of significance for John. Instead of asking for payment Elton made John promise that if the song reached number one in the US he would come on stage and do a guest spot during Elton’s next concert at Madison Square Garden. Much to John’s surprise, it did reach number one and, shaking with nerves, John kept his promise and performed three songs with Elton there in November 1974. I wasn’t there, unfortunately, I was back in England, but I was told that the ovation that greeted John lasted almost ten minutes. It was to be his last ever public appearance.
In the audience that night was Yoko, and afterwards she went backstage. After this reunion John moved back into their New York flat in the Dakota building and stayed there. Soon he would make her pregnant with their son Sean. Not long before they got back together John had looked back on their relationship with a song that has always been one of my favourites.
No 9 DREAM
The only cloud on the horizon for John’s life in the US now was that the American government wanted to deport him. Evidently Richard Nixon and his gang of warmongers thought John might mount an effective peace campaign and spoil his plans for obliterating Vietnam. The excuse they used was the drug conviction in London from back in 1968. A long legal battle ensued which John eventually won and in 1976 he was finally awarded permanent residency. Nixon had, of course, left the White House in disgrace in 1974.
I was there at the hearing in New York when John finally got his green card and it was the last time I ever saw him in person. I watched in amazement as the judge asked John’s lawyer if he was likely to become a ‘state charge’, i.e. claim welfare payments. “No your honour,” he said. “My client is a man of considerable means. He has written at least 300 songs which generate an annual income of well over five million dollars.”
Outside on the pavement John was surrounded by photographers but I managed to push my way through, shake his hand and congratulate him. A few weeks later I sent him another of my telegrams, asking for another interview, but for the first and last time he declined. In fact John sent me a postcard on which he wrote “I am invisible”. I still have it, of course.
For the next four years, most of the remainder of his life, John Lennon really was invisible. Yoko had given birth to his second son Sean, and John effectively retired. All his contracts, his musical obligations, had expired and he saw no reason to renew them. So he became a house husband, as he put it, baking bread and raising Sean, and handed all his business affairs to the financially astute Yoko. He did travel a bit, to the Caribbean, where he became an accomplished yachtsman, and to Japan to meet his in-laws. None of these trips were publicised. John travelled incognito.
There’s a lovely story about that visit to Japan that I can’t resist telling. John & Yoko had taken a large penthouse suite in a Tokyo hotel that had its own private lift. One day an elderly Japanese couple got into that lift by mistake and found themselves whisked up to the penthouse. The lift opened out on to a sitting room with a bar and a piano and John happened to be sat at the piano, tinkling away, when they walked in. They went over to the bar expecting service, and John saw them and continued playing. I’m not sure what. The couple listened for a few minutes, assuming no doubt that John was the entertainment, then, when no barman appeared, they turned on their heels and went back to the lift. They had no idea who the pianist was.
In late 1980 John re-emerged into the public eye with a series of interviews promoting the comeback album Double Fantasy on which he and Yoko had recorded alternate tracks. Released just three weeks before his death, the first single, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ zoomed up the charts.
JUST LIKE STARTING OVER
One of the reasons why John and Yoko moved to New York was that John felt he could live a more normal life there, that although he was one of the most famous men in the world he could walk its streets and avenues without being molested by fans. To a certain extent this was true. New Yorkers are far too cool to make a fuss of celebrities. Unfortunately there’s always an exception to the rule.
On the morning of December 9, 1980, like most people in the UK I was in bed when I heard that John had been killed by a gun toting lunatic. My then girlfriend Jenny had got up before me and she’d heard it on the news on the radio, and she rushed into the bedroom to wake me. I couldn’t quite believe it, not until I bought the newspapers. His assassin was an obsessive Beatles fan who pumped seven bullets into John as he emerged from a taxi late the previous evening and walked with Yoko to the gates of the Dakota building. He died from his wounds in the back of a police car on the way to hospital.
Earlier in the day, John had signed his killer’s copy of Double Fantasy; and the record was left on a window ledge of the building. Pleading guilty to first-degree murder the following year, he was sentenced to 20-years-to-life in prison. Because the authorities believe he might be targeted if he was released, he is still there.
The following Sunday, at 2.00pm American Eastern Standard Time - 7.00pm in Britain - a worldwide 10-minute vigil of silence was observed in John’s memory. It was marked by commemorations in New York’s Central Park and in Liverpool, both of which were broadcast live around the globe. A big crowd also gathered at Abbey Road studios in London where the staff stopped work and played John’s music from speakers in the car park. Hundreds of radio stations around the world maintained a ten minute broadcast silence as their contribution to the tribute.
I have read a great deal of rubbish about John Lennon in the years since his death, much of it written by people who might have reason to envy his achievements and ongoing influence, but none of it in any way alters my firm conviction that the John Lennon I knew was a good-natured man of integrity and talent who tried to use his exalted position to right a few wrongs and spread what he thought were ideas that would benefit us all. He was no saint, it’s true, but he never pretended to be either.
Whenever rock stars die their record sales shoot up. John was no exception. Two weeks after his death ‘Imagine’ was number one, so I’ll finish by playing this – probably his best loved song.