To mark the 40th anniversary of the death of John Lennon I am posting on Just Backdated today the obituary of John that appeared in the book The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries by Nick Talevski, published by Omnibus Press in 1999. I make no apology for this because, in reality, the entry was written by Johnny Rogan and myself. Johnny and I jointly edited this 490-page book and decided along the way that certain entries for rock’s most major figures, among them Lennon, needed a fresh approach. As a result, Elvis, Keith Moon and a handful of others were re-written from scratch by us without objection from the author.
This version has been slightly re-edited and/or corrected to take into account information that has come to light since the book was first published. Also, in accordance with current day thinking on the issue, the name of John’s killer is not mentioned.
No rock death has caused such worldwide grief as that of John Lennon, senselessly gunned down outside his New York home by a deranged Beatle fan. From that day forward, all around the world, the image, legend and devotion surrounding The Beatles was never quite the same.
As the pivotal member of The Beatles, Lennon was a towering figure in rock, universally respected for his achievements not just as a musician, singer and songwriter but as a spokesman for his generation, a peace campaigner and a romantic philosopher. At the time of his death he was re-emerging after a self-imposed five-year exile from music, feeling his way once again into the public consciousness.
John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool, England, a year after the start of World War II. His parents, Fred and Julia Lennon, split up when he was two. Julia Lennon gave up custody of young John to her sister Mary (Mimi) who raised him in a middle-class area of Liverpool. His seafaring father all but abandoned him, and his wayward mother, who lived close, visited her son on a regular basis until she was killed in a traffic accident when John was 17.
By this time Julia had given John an inexpensive guitar and taught home some banjo chords. An impressionable teenager, he was eager to be a part of the British skiffle craze and in 1957 formed The Quarrymen with his friend Peter Shotton on washboard. He met Paul McCartney the same year at a church fete where The Quarrymen were performing. Impressing Lennon with his ability to tune a guitar, McCartney was brought on board and with the addition of a young guitarist, George Harrison, the group evolved into Johnny & The Moondogs.
Heavily influenced by American musicians, they swapped skiffle for R&B and rockabilly hits, but at the same time Lennon and McCartney began writing their own material together and occasionally performing these original songs.
In 1959 Lennon attended Liverpool Art College where he befriended Stuart Sutcliffe, a talented painter, who the following year became the group’s bass player, and as The Silver Beatles they toured Scotland behind pop star Johnny Gentle. During this period Lennon was also mastering harmonica and tentatively learning piano.
In search of regular club work, in August of 1960 the group fled Liverpool with new recruit, drummer Pete Best, for the first of five spells performing in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. There, Lennon and the group would hone their musical skills in gruelling, several-hour-a-night performances. Returning to Liverpool much improved, The Beatles made the first of almost 300 appearances at the Cavern Club. Sutcliffe elected to stay in Hamburg and in October 1961, Brian Epstein first saw the group and became their manager.
After failing an audition with Decca Records in January 1962, The Beatles were signed by George Martin to EMI’s Parlophone subsidiary. In August, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr, another Liverpudlian who had befriended The Beatles in both Hamburg and their home city, and sat in with them when Best was unavailable. Lennon married his pregnant girlfriend Cynthia Powell in August, 1962. His first son Julian was born the following April.
The Beatles’ début British hit was the modest chart entry ‘Love Me Do’ (October 1962), followed by the chart-topping ‘Please Please Me’ (January 1963). Thereafter they could do no wrong in their home country, and the fan-driven chaos that followed in their wake was dubbed Beatlemania. They enjoyed a string of number one hits in Britain, all of them penned by Lennon & McCartney, and in so doing changed the face of pop music forever, establishing the self-contained ‘group’ as its dominant force, simultaneously wresting power from the music publishers and investing it in the artists and writers themselves.
In 1964 The Beatles conquered America, topping the US charts early in the year with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. On February 9, 1964, The Beatles captured the heart of America with the first of three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Rivalling only the early Elvis Presley in their domination of the charts, The Beatles transformed pop music during this period with hits like ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, the title track from their first film A Hard Day’s Night, and ‘I Feel Fine’. In April 1964, the group occupied the first five places in the Billboard Hot 100, a feat never repeated. By this time – a mere 18 months after ‘Love Me Do’ – The Beatles were the biggest pop group in the world, their fame on a par with anyone in the field of entertainment and even royalty.
Lennon was already acclaimed as a powerhouse vocalist, most notably on the Beatles’ cover of the Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist And Shout’, which appeared on their début LP. He was also known for his word-play and clever song titles. His engaging Liverpool wit and love of puns were evident in two self-illustrated books of prose published during this period, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard In The Works (1965).
The Beatles’ success story continued throughout 1965, a year when they received MBE awards from the Queen and enjoyed chart-topping hits with ‘Ticket To Ride’ and the film theme ‘Help’, one of the first Beatles songs to expose Lennon’s insecurity at the height of his fame. In America McCartney enjoyed additional success with ‘Yesterday’, effectively a solo performance. The year ended with the double-sided number one ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’ and the highly influential album, Rubber Soul, which featured several Lennon classics, among them the sarcastic, punning, Dylan-inspired ‘Norwegian Wood’, the titillating ‘Girl’ and the starkly autobiographical ‘In My Life’.
In March 1966 Lennon created a furore by telling a British journalist that The Beatles “are bigger than Jesus”, a quote widely circulated but taken out of context by US teen magazines. The Beatles’ subsequent American tour was beset with problems, including public burnings of Beatles merchandise and death threats. It proved sufficient to convince the group to retire from public performance following their final concert at San Francisco on August 29.
Meanwhile, in the studio, their work continued in groundbreaking fashion. Revolver (1966) featured some of Lennon’s most adventurous work, most notably the world-weary ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, and two LSD-inspired compositions ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.
After a long break in singles releases, the group returned in early 1967 with the brilliant double A-side ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’. The latter was one of Lennon’s most striking and original works. This was followed by the summer release of one of rock music’s most famous albums, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the great studio albums of the era, it revolutionised rock music with its complex array of electronic recording techniques, original ideas and strong lyricism. Lennon’s influence was notable on several of the tracks, including the psychedelic-tinged ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ (inspired from a drawing by his son Julian), ‘Good Moring, Good Morning’, ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ and the awe-inspiring ‘A Day In The Life’.
Thereafter the group members slowly drifted apart. Lennon became the first Beatle to pursue a film role outside of the group, cutting his long hair for the role of Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s black comedy How I Won The War. In August 1967, while The Beatles were studying transcendental meditation in Wales with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their manager Brian Epstein died from a drugs overdose. Lennon was stunned by the news of his mentor’s death and later admitted it signalled the demise of The Beatles.
McCartney took the helm for their next venture Magical Mystery Tour, which included Lennon’s Edward Lear-influenced ‘I Am The Walrus’. Lennon continued to provide the group with startling compositions during this period, including ‘Revolution’, the B-side of ‘Hey Jude’, the first Beatles single to appear on Apple, their own record label. Over the next couple of years the group would record three more major albums, The Beatles (a double LP, aka The White Album), Abbey Road and Let It Be.
During this period Lennon became romantically involved with Japanese artist Yoko Ono, whom he had first met in 1966 at a London art gallery. By November 1968 he had divorced his wife Cynthia, and four months later, on March 20, he married Yoko in Gibraltar. The nuptials were immortalised in the autobiographical ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, a Beatles single recorded without George and Ringo, and the group’s last UK number one single.
By this point Lennon had effectively begun the second stage of his career, working with Ono on the avant-garde Unfinished Music No 1 – Two Virgins, distributed by Track Records after EMI objected to its full-frontal nude shot of the two artists. The audio-verite LP consisted of 30 minutes of voices, distorted instruments and various sound effects. This was rapidly followed by two further avant-garde experiments, Unfinished Music No 2 – Life With The Lions and The Wedding Album. Both offered snapshots of the pair’s eventful lives, including Yoko’s miscarriage and John’s protective pleading of guilty to a marijuana possession charge against the couple.
Lennon and Ono created more headlines when they embarked on a series of ‘Bed-In’ peace missions, inviting television crews to their room at the Amsterdam Hilton where they stayed in bed for a week “to register our protest against all the suffering and violence in the world”.
One month later, Lennon launched his next project, The Plastic Ono Band, whose single ‘Give Peace A Chance’, recorded at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel with the world’s media present, became a summer hit and remains a universal peace anthem to this day. It was followed by the harrowing ‘Cold Turkey’, Lennon’s brittle account of his withdrawal from heroin. Its release coincided with the return of his MBE to the Queen as a protest against Britain’s involvement in Biafra and against “’Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”.
In September, an ad hoc version of The Plastic Ono Band, including Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman and Alan White, made a surprise appearance at The Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival Concert. An album, Live Peace In Toronto 1969 was issued at the end of the year. A third POB single, ‘Instant Karma’, produced by Phil Spector, once more displayed Lennon’s talents to the fore and rewarded him with another Top 10 hit in early 1970.
Following the dissolution of The Beatles in April 1970, John and Yoko enrolled in Arthur Janov’s primal therapy programme, which inspired Lennon’s first solo album proper – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – one of the most lacerating and self-analytical records ever released by a popular performer. It remains the most accomplished work of Lennon’s post-Beatles period. The follow up, Imagine, was more successful commercially and its title track became one of Lennon’s most well-known and best-loved songs.
In September 1971, the Lennons settled in New York and John would never return to the UK. His involvement with politics was evident on the sloganeering ‘Power To The People’ while his quest for peace reached an unexpected apogee on the festive standard ‘Happy Xmas (War is Over)’, another Spector production. Embraced by New York radicals such as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, John & Yoko teamed up with the bar band Elephant’s Memory in 1972 for the overtly politicised Some Time In New York City, which offered Lennon’s views on such topics as women’s liberation, the IRA and US prison riots.
By this time the Lennons had scaled down their public appearances, although they headlined at Madison Square Garden for the charitable One To One concerts. The following year Lennon released the accessible Mind Games whose standout title track proved a highlight.
In the late autumn of 1973 Lennon temporarily separated from Yoko Ono in what he later called his “lost weekend”. Living in Los Angeles with May Pang and hanging out with drinking/drug buddies Harry Nilsson (whose Pussycats LP he produced), Ringo, Keith Moon and Jesse Ed Davis, Lennon’s occasionally foolhardy behaviour was well reported in the US press.
Despite his recklessness he managed to complete the melodic and accomplished Walls And Bridges, which included two major hits, a chart-topping duet with Elton John – ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ – and the ethereal ‘#9 Dream’. Lennon’s final concert appearance occurred when he guested with Elton John at Madison Square Garden on November 28, 1974. Soon afterwards he reunited with Yoko.
In 1975 he co-wrote and guested on ‘Fame’, David Bowie’s first US number one single, and resolved a long-standing legal dispute with music publisher Morris Levy by releasing Rock’N’Roll, a back to the roots album of covers that included songs to which Levy owned the rights and a modest US hit courtesy of Ben E. King’s ‘Stand By Me’.
On October 9, 1975, Lennon and Ono’s son Sean Tara Ono Lennon was born. This triggered what was effectively Lennon’s retirement from professional music making for the next five years to become what he termed a “house husband”. Regularly targeted by the US government for his political views, it wasn’t until 1976 that he finally earned permanent residency status after a long legal battle that cast further doubt on the integrity of the now disgraced Nixon administration. Now assured that he could safely return to the US, Lennon visited Japan, the Bahamas and, curiously, South Africa during this period.
In late 1980 Lennon 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 before Lennon’s death, the first single, a retro-sounding pop-rocker ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ was zooming up the charts.
John Lennon was shot dead outside his apartment building, the Dakota on Central Park West in New York City, shortly before 11 pm US Eastern Standard Time by an unstable 25-year-old man. The gunman, who did did not flee, was sentenced to 20-years-to-life at the Attica Correctional Facility where he remains to this day.
With Lennon’s death mourned on a worldwide scale Yoko Ono vowed to continue releasing Lennon material to keep his memory alive, and there have been several posthumous releases including boxed sets, books, some of doubtful authority, and videos. A reissue of ‘Imagine’ topped the charts in the month following the atrocity.
The passing years have done nothing to diminish John Lennon’s status as a giant of contemporary music. While at times he was inclined to disparage some of his Beatle music, he seemed towards the end to have come around to agreeing with the world that the group’s legacy is triple-locked, and that no matter how many pretenders may come and go, the crown The Beatles wear as pop’s greatest ever pop group is simply unassailable. Once viewed with some suspicion as a questionable influence on her husband, Yoko Ono has now emerged as a heroic figure in her own right, not just as a pioneering avant-garde artist and musician, but as an indefatigable peace campaigner and, like Olivia Harrison, a dignified Beatle widow.
In 100 Greatest Britons, a television series broadcast by the BBC in 2002, John Lennon came seventh, one place below Elizabeth I and one place above admiral Admiral Nelson. Paul McCartney, the only other pop musician in the Top 20, came 19th.