The 75th fifth anniversary of musician John Lennon’s birth causes J BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate Lennon’s life and the place of his output in the contemporary world.
The other day, the writer and his wife were talking about the way musicians succeed in influencing a generation, or even in creating a new genre of music that echoes down through the generations. Mozart’s music and his sublime gift as a composer, to name just one example, embraced and touched virtually every genre of classical music, revolutionising many of them, and perfecting others. The human shell that contained the genius died at the age of 35.
In our own age, within the various genres of popular music, it seems that dying before one’s time can clearly help generate a cult following. Yes, Elvis Presley helped revolutionise pop music – weaving elements of black gospel and country and western together to remake the anodyne pop music of the early 1950s into the full-bodied rock ‘n roll. But although he lived for many years beyond his greatest influence, he had a kind of creative death, becoming a caricature of himself and a fixture of Las Vegas dinner shows, rather than a continuing force musically.
The influences – or legends – of performer-composers like Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (the Big Bopper) continue to grow in part because they were cut down in their youth, and certainly long before their respective creative arcs had reached any conclusions. We remain in awe of the versatility of James Dean’s acting precisely because he died so young and completed so few films before that fatal car crash. It probably doesn’t matter all that much how such creative figures die – what we recognise is the unfinished story and our sense of things left undone, the final reel unshown.
And for many still, the most influential, the most storied, the most astonishing premature loss of all was John Lennon, born 9 October 1940 and killed by a crazed fan, Mark David Chapman, on 8 December 1980. Lennon, together with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (Starr had replaced the group’s original drummer, Pete Best, early on) was music’s greatest band, The Beatles. The Beatles became the earliest, pre-eminent expression of the British invasion that, reaching America, almost literally engulfed rock music in the mid-1960s. Their place of honour was confirmed with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, America’s leading televised variety show, a one-hour programme that owned the airwaves on Sunday evenings. At a time when there were only three television channels, the Sullivan Show’s variety hour was the premier entertainment spot on American television.
Watch: The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, 9th February 1964, performing “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
Dozens of hit songs, LPs, feature films, and other efforts eventually sealed the global impact, popularity and supremacy of The Beatles and their music – well into the decades after The Beatles broke up as a group and the four men went their own ways creatively. Along the way, their production house, Apple Records, revised the way musical artists managed their own creative careers. And some of their best-known hits – in lush symphonic arrangements – have become stalwarts of proms-style concerts, performed by fancy highbrow orchestras.
Key elements of The Beatles’ and Lennon’s musical output became the embodiment of a “relatively” safe expression of counter-cultural ideas, values and behaviour (although there were those drug experiments about to keep the doomsayers and naysayers clucking their tongues busily). In addition, they imported “world music” – such as Indian classical music great Ravi Shankar on the sitar – directly into the then fairly predictable universe of pop music.
About the only thing The Beatles didn’t do too much of was bridge the widening gap between pop music on the one hand, and black soul, R&B, and gospel on the other. That task was left to Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones, another major – and often seen as the more “dangerous” side of the British invasion. One thing lead singer Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards did is survive. The Stones’ unique genius has been to keep showing up with their classics as well as new music, seemingly ageless into their fifth decade of performing.
Lennon was born in 1940, right in the middle of the Blitz, the air campaign waged against Britain in the beginning stages of World War II. He studied art at the Liverpool College of Art but began a shift towards music while he was still there, and by the late 1950s, he was already performing (and recording) with a precursor band that eventually led into The Beatles. Initially drawing inspiration from Presley’s fierce impact on popular music, at just 16, Lennon formed his first band, the Quarry Men. Then, in 1957, he asked a new acquaintance, McCartney, to join the group. That friendship/rivalry evolved into one of the most successful song-writing partnerships in musical history. McCartney then brought Harrison into the mix, and an art school friend of Lennon’s, Stuart Sutcliffe, joined as well, and in 1960 they then recruited their first drummer, Pete Best. Sutcliffe later left the group to pursue his own art career.
Even before The Beatles became Lennon’s musical vehicle, his earlier group’s first recording was a 1958 cover of Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the Day. The story goes that the name of Holly’s group, the Crickets, eventually gave The Beatles their name. Lennon told the story that at the age of 12 he had had a vision of a man appearing on a flaming pie who had told him, “From this day on, you are Beatles with an ‘A.'” (Probably better than telling him that in the future, his band would be the Lepidoptera.)
Things changed dramatically for Lennon and The Beatles when a young promoter, Brian Epstein, discovered them performing in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, where they had been holding down a semi-regular gig. Epstein became their manager, he secured a record contract for them with EMI, added a new drummer in Starr (Richard Starkey), and brought on George Martin as their producer. The first result of this new ensemble was the 1962 song, Love Me Do, a tune that reached 17th place on the British pop charts.
Watch: Love Me Do – The Beatles
Lennon wrote the follow-up single, Please Please Me, inspired by Roy Orbison’s music, but also by Lennon’s own infatuation with the play on words in some Bing Crosby lyrics, “Oh, please, lend your little ears to my pleas”, from the song Please. This new song made it to the top of the pop chart. Thereafter, they released such mega-hits as She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand. Within just two years, The Beatles had become the first UK pop band to make it really, really big in the US, starting with that appearance on the Ed Sulllivan Show (an appearance that helped trigger the trend for longer hair styles that became ubiquitous with students and the counterculture).
After the Ed Sullivan Show, they filmed A Hard Day’s Night and prepared for their first world tour. Their second film, Help, followed a year later, and in that same year, the crown announced that the four men would receive OBE honours from the Queen. Then, in August of that same year, they performed in an open-air concert at Shea Stadium in New York City before over 55,000 wildly screaming fans, setting the record at that point for the largest concert audience in musical history. When they again returned to the UK, their next album, Rubber Soul, demonstrated they had moved well beyond the anodyne love songs and pop formulas they had become well known for issuing.
But by then ‘Beatlemania’ was beginning to fade a bit. They received serious threats after being accused of snubbing the Philippines’ presidential family, and they raised the ire of religious Christians after Lennon told the media their group was “more popular than Jesus now”. That latter comment provoked bonfires of Beatles records in the American South. In these latitudes, The Beatles were banned by the SABC.
The group then retreated to the studio to try some more experimental sounds, now flavoured by some drug-influenced, exotic instrumentation and lyrics and electronic sounds. The first sample of that shift was Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, followed by an entire album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – a collection frequently praised as the single greatest rock project in musical history.
Photo: The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
When the group was deeply shaken by the death of Epstein at the age of 33 on 27 August 1967, they retreated to film Magical Mystery Tour. Although it was not a great critical success, the soundtrack album included Lennon’s haunting, mysterious, rather cryptic song I Am The Walrus. Afterwards, the four entered the spiritual discipline of Transcendental Meditation and the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a shift that took them on a two-month stint in India in 1968. Their last major efforts as a group came with the launch of their film Yellow Submarine, and their double set, The White Album – even as the latter work helped make it clear that the four men were beginning to move individually in some different musical directions.
Watch: Across the Universe – Laibach
By this time, Lennon had moved on to his second marriage, to avant-garde Japanese performance artist Yoko Ono (a woman who had previously been married to Japanese concert violinist Toshi Ichiyanagi). Ono was already very much a part of a different cultural milieu than that The Beatles had inhabited as a group. Once married, the Lennon-Ono artistic partnership included being filmed and interviewed while they were in bed as a novel form of protest. The single record they produced together in 1969, Give Peace a Chance, coming at the height of the Vietnam War and in the midst of wide-scale student protest over that conflict became an informal anthem for war protestors and pacifists across the US and beyond. In retrospect, Lennon had once said about that time: “If someone thinks that peace and love are just a cliché that should have been left behind in the ’60s, that’s a problem. Peace and love are eternal.” By September 1969, Lennon had effectively left The Beatles, just after the group had finished recording Abbey Road and the single Let It Be. Thereafter, as a group, The Beatles were no more.
Watch: Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon & Plastic Ono Band
After the break-up, Lennon released his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, with some raw, minimalist sound that came after a course of “primal-scream” therapy. That album was followed by 1971’s Imagine, the most critically applauded of all of Lennon’s post-Beatles work. The title track on that album was later named number three on the Rolling Stone All-Time Best Songs list. But all was not peace and love in Lennon’s world, however. Imagine also happened to include the cut, How Do You Sleep? – meant as a riposte to some of McCartney’s own solo material that appeared to contain less than favourable references to Lennon. The resulting bad blood kept them from working together again formally.
By late 1971, Lennon and Ono had officially moved their residence to the US, but they were threatened with deportation by the Nixon administration – ostensibly because of a 1968 conviction in the UK over marijuana possession – but rather more likely in response to their increasingly visible anti-Vietnam War activism. Two years after Nixon had resigned in disgrace, Lennon’s petition for permanent US residence was finally granted. Around that time, the Lennon-Ono marriage came under strain and Lennon moved separately to Los Angeles, collaborated with fellow British musicians David Bowie and Elton John and released three albums – Mind Games, Walls and Bridges, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. In 1974, however, the couple was reconciled and Ono gave birth to their only child, Sean, born on the same date as his father, 9 October 1975. (Lennon had an older son, Julian, from his first marriage.)
Then, after five years away from the recording scene, Lennon returned with the album Double Fantasy, featuring (Just Like) Starting Over, Woman, and I’m losing you. Just a few weeks after that album was released, he was shot to death by a deranged fan, Mark David Chapman, right in front of the Lennons’ apartment building in New York City on 8 December 1980.
He was only 40 years old.
Watch: John Lennon’s death – 8 December 1980.
This week, in preparation to celebrate his 75th birthday, a large crowd gathered in New York City’s Central Park’s East Meadow in tribute to Lennon, forming a giant peace sign with their bodies. As ABC News reported it: “The crowd included everyone from ageing hippies to schoolchildren not yet born when Lennon died. They gathered to remember him in a way John Lennon would have appreciated, forming the giant peace sign. And his widow, Yoko Ono, told me [the television reporter] her ‘late husband would have been very proud. Because he really worked hard on trying to make things better for people, you know, and so this is a very, very positive thing that’s happened’. Ono is helping to fund a mobile studio called ‘The Lennon Bus’. The bus named after the former Beatle has been touring public schools in each of the 5 boroughs to help student musicians and songwriters develop their gifts. Professional engineers are on board with all of the necessary equipment to help inspire the next generation of artists.”
Lennon’s assassination had, and continues to have, a profound impact on pop culture. Following his death, even as millions mourned, record sales of his works soared. Lennon was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Still, not everyone was a fan, besides Nixon, that is. On the anniversary of his birth, Dominic Sandbrook, writing in the UK’s Daily Mail, said that Lennon was a narcissus of a man who contributed significantly to the growing cult of self. Moreover, Lennon had paradoxically liked to see himself as a working-class hero, even as he envisioned his origins as a cut above the class circumstances of his three Beatles partners. And this was despite the fact he had been brought up by his uncle and aunt in a house that had one of those cute names affixed to it and it was located on the edge of a golf course.
Still, even Sandbrook had to acknowledge: “A BBC poll in 1999 declared its [Imagine’s] lyrics the nation’s favourite. It has been picked 28 times on Desert Island Discs, championed by guests from Labour politicians Neil Kinnock and Dennis Skinner to actors Bob Hoskins, Alison Steadman and Maureen Lipman. The US rock bible Rolling Stone described it as ‘an enduring hymn of solace and promise that has carried us through extreme grief, from the shock of Lennon’s own death in 1980 to the unspeakable horror of 9/11. It is now impossible to imagine a world without Imagine.’”
Watch: Imagine – John Lennon
Despite all criticism, Sandbrook had to admit Lennon’s enduring popularity and impact. As he wrote: “A poll of some 400,000 people for the BBC’s Great Britons programme placed Lennon seventh in the all-time list, ahead of Nelson, Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Wellington and Alfred the Great. His reputation as a champion of rebelliousness and idealism remains undiminished.” And of course Mozart and Beethoven both had bad table manners but nobody thinks less of them for that flaw either, given what they produced as composers. And so, we are left with the fact that John Lennon, both as the key figure in The Beatles and in his work as a solo creator, became a central figure in the world’s contemporary music scene as a personality – and as a creative master. One can only imagine what he would have created had he been able to live till now like Mick Jagger, instead of dying on the steps of The Dakota in Manhattan, nearly 35 years ago. DM
For more, just listen to his music again or read:
John Lennon biography at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
John Lennon biography at Rolling Stone
John Lennon biography at The Beatles The Beatles Bible website
John Lennon biography at John Lennon
A Cruel, Greedy, Selfish Monster Peace-Loving Visionary at the Daily Mail
Thousands form human peace sign in Central Park to honour John Lennon at WABC’s news site
John Lennon (I) 1940–1980 (a complete list of all recordings and soundtracks, as well as films and television shows using music written by John Lennon)