John Lennon died on 8 December 1980 and would have been 80 this year. He was shot dead outside his home at the Dakota Buildings in New York by Mark Chapman, an obsessive fan who had moments before obtained Lennon’s autograph. On the fortieth anniversary of his death it is worth remembering the talented, mischievous, Liverpudlian working class hero, who without a doubt was the best of the Fab Four. Lennon grew up in the Woolton area of Liverpool. His father was a seaman and his mother worked as an usherette at the city’s Trocadero cinema. Both were absent from his childhood for various reasons, a loss that left a lasting impact upon him as the 1970 song ‘Mother’ powerfully relates. Brought up by his maternal aunt, Mimi, Lennon discovered music like most of his generation in post-war Britain through the explosion of rock ’n’ roll and skiffle. In 1957, the teenage Lennon formed his first band, the Quarrymen, named after his secondary school. Later that year, Paul McCartney joined followed by George Harrison in early 1958.
After local gigs in working men’s clubs, they got their first break playing in Hamburg and when back at home, Liverpool’s Cavern Club. The band’s name changed to Silver Beatles and then simply the Beatles. In the summer of 1962 Ringo Starr joined as the drummer and the quartet was complete. By December 1962 as the single ‘Love Me Do’ entered the charts, followed in 1963-1964 by the smash hits, ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘She Loves You’ and many others the Beatles legend took shape. A new generation were breaking from the stifling conformity of their parents’ wartime austerity and found liberation in the new pop music that spoke directly to them. Under the watchful eye of John Epstein and the management of George Martin, Beatlemania swept the UK and went global, first with the US and European markets and by 1966 Australia, Japan and the Philippines.
June 1964 saw their first world tour and on their way to Hong Kong, the flight touched down at Karachi airport for a few hours. News had already circulated and the airport lounge was besieged with excited Pakistani teenagers desperate for a glimpse of their idols. They were not disappointed as against advice, McCartney wondered into the lounge only to be mauled by screaming girls chanting ‘We like Karachi, yeah yeah yeah!’ The Fab Four were renowned for their irreverence. Awarded the MBE under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1965, it is claimed they smoked marijuana in a Buckingham Palace bathroom and told the Queen they had been together for 40 years. But it was Lennon’s acerbic wit, mocking pomp and ceremony that demonstrates why he was the band leader. In a March 1966 interview
Lennon remarked, “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” The remark caused furore in the US, where Beatles records were burned and the Ku Klux Klan made threats against Lennon.
The experience shook the band and especially Lennon who by then was asking questions about the world. In 1969, he returned his MBE in protest at British involvement in the NigeriaBiafra war and British support for America’s war in Vietnam. Increasingly politicised by a counter culture and more profoundly, the burgeoning anti-war movement, Lennon accepted a part in the 1967 anti-war black comedy, ‘How I won the War’. The lyrics of later Beatles songs became more profound. Songs like ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ invoked Lennon’s childhood reminiscences of working class life in Liverpool. The band was developing musically, experimenting with production techniques and encountering new experiences. Indian influences in the form of Maharishi Mahesy Yogi’s spiritualism came to dominate Harrison but also influenced Lennon and the four embarked on an Indian tour. The 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a great success but also marked the beginning of an artistic and personal tensions leading to the break-up of the band by 1970.
Lennon met Yoko Ono in 1966 and embarked on an affair leading to divorce from Cynthia and a distance from his first son Julian. Ono and Lennon married in 1969 and spent their honeymoon in a much publicised Bed-In for Peace at the Hilton in Amsterdam. They draped sheets with slogans of ‘Hair Peace’ and ‘Bed Peace’, turning the bedroom into a public stage to address the world and demand an end to war. The media hype made them repeat the experiment in New York but the US authorities denied entry and so the Bed-In for Peace mark II was held in a hotel in Montreal with the world’s press attending along with celebrities Petula Clark, Alan Ginsberg, Ed Asner and others. To critics Lennon said, “We are willing to be the world’s clowns, if by doing so it will do some good”.
The song ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was recorded here. Two years later, he and Ono recorded ‘Happy Christmas War is Over’. Both have become global Peace anthems. Lennon’s political activism included campaigning for James Hanratty, an innocent man hanged in 1962. Lennon likened those responsible for Hanratty’s death to the “people who are running guns to South Africa and killing blacks in the streets.” He supported the upper Clydeside workers occupation in 1971 and donated £5000. After Bloody Sunday in 1972 he wrote two songs protesting Britain’s role in Ireland “The Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. In London Lennon and Ono attended anti-war demonstrations in Grosvenor Square.
Lennon and Ono moved to New York in 1971, where they became friends with two of the Chicago Seven, Yippie peace activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. They performed in the John Sinclair Freedom Rally for Hoffman, co-founder of the White Panther Party. This was enough to send the then President Nixon’s administration into a frenzy and they attempted to deport him. Worried about re-election, Nixon wanted Lennon out of the US and ordered his phones be tapped as the FBI kept checks on him. For four years Lennon fought the US immigration service, who would only issue 30 day visa extensions. He finally won in October 1975, obtaining a green card, the day his second son, Sean was born. Lennon spent the next five years being a house husband and producing his final album with Ono, Double Fantasy’ released in November 1980. The artistic collaboration between the two produced immortal numbers like ‘Imagine’, ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Mind’ Games’. At the time, Ono was held responsible for breaking up the Beatles.
But this overlooks deeper long-term musical, personal and political tensions within the group. The British press was guilty of outright racism towards Yoko Ono. Her Japanese ethnicity and the fact that she refused to conform to establishment norms and values allowed the media to construct her as an outsider. This infuriated Lennon who said it was through Ono that he came to have an understanding of women’s oppression. Lennon’s song ‘Woman’, written for Yoko, has become an anthem for all women Lennon made music that mattered, rooted in his own history and the social and political events he lived through and was part of. His songs inspired dreamers and lovers to imagine a better world. The best tribute to his life is to fight for it.