JOHN LENNON (By Dominic Turner)
Born John Winston Lennon, 9 October 1940, Liverpool, England
Died 8 December 1980, Manhattan New York City, New York
No fault of anyone in particular, but John Lennon was omitted from BTBWY last October. I for one was determined that it shouldn't happen again - although it could be argued that the world needs another Lennon/Beatles bio like a hole in the head! Forgive me then if I dwell mainly on the Beatles' early years (up to the end of the Merseybeat era), as this is arguably the period of greatest interest to SAO members. Apologies to any Shakers who were hoping for yet another appraisal of "Sergeant Pepper." et al, but I've all but skipped the Fab Four's recording years! However, there is a short summary of Lennon's own post-Beatles achievements, both musical and otherwise.
Born John Winston Lennon (and no prizes for guessing where the "Winston" came from, given the times), the youngster lived a troubled childhood in war-torn Liverpool. Lennon's father, Alfred, was a ship's steward and this led to him spending most of his time away from home, including a prolonged spell in New Zealand. Julia Lennon felt unable to bring up her son alone, and so John was raised in the suburb of Woolton by his legendary Aunt Mimi (who herself has probably generated as much copy as the vast majority of BTBWY artists!). It appears that the unruly side of Lennon's character was already much in evidence, and life at Liverpool's Quarry Bank Grammar School tested the boy's patience. Until he discovered the guitar, that is. It probably speaks volumes for Lennon's tenacity that he managed to break the spirit of the steely Aunt Mimi, as it was she who reluctantly gave the boy his first guitar! "But you won't get anywhere with it!" she admonished Lennon on numerous occasions .
Now let's fast forward a few years. The date is 6th July 1957, and Lennon's skiffle group, the Quarry Men are making their debut at the Woolton Parish Church Fete. But the historical significance of this date in rock is largely attributable to the backstage meeting between Lennon and fellow Liverpudlian teenager Paul McCartney, whose impromptu rendition of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" greatly impressed Lennon. An invitation to join the band followed immediately. Guitarist George Harrison, a friend of McCartney's, was added soon after.
Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all shared a common passion for the planet America, and in particular for rock & roll, as served up by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Coasters, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and countless others. Lennon himself had been introduced to Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" at Liverpool Art College, and never really looked back. The skiffle element in the band was soon cast aside and the Quarry Men developed into a bona fide rock & roll band, changing their name to the Beatles in August 1960 (via Johnny & the Moondogs, the Silver Beatles, and several other monikers). By now, Stuart Sutcliffe, a fellow-student of Lennon's at Art College was playing bass, and after a series of gigs throughout Northern England and Scotland the Beatles set off for Hamburg, following in the footsteps of Merseyside legends Kingsize Taylor & the Dominoes. The lineup was completed by new band member Pete Best on drums. Lennon and McCartney were already composing songs together, usually during long sessions at McCartney's home in Forthlin Road.
The two separate periods in Hamburg were exhausting and not particularly well-paid, with the band living in near-total squalor. Sutcliffe's heart was never really in it and he threw in the towel fairly early on, to be replaced by McCartney on bass. But round-the-clock gigging in the tough clubs on the Reeperbahn in the city's St. Pauli dock area, clubs such as the Kaiserkeller, the Indra Club, and the Star Club, was fundamental in honing the Beatles' sound and stage presence. They became, to quote Best, "a charismatic powerhouse". The rivalry with other bands in Hamburg, many of whom were also from the Liverpool area (the Big Three, the Undertakers, etc.), was also instrumental in beating them into shape (no pun intended!). This glorious era in Beatle history is choc-full of colourful anecdotes. The clientele in the clubs seemed to consist of prostitutes, pimps, drunken seamen, and shady criminals. The bands played for hours on end, so new songs were often rehearsed in the to ilet minutes before going on stage. George Harrison once told of a 90-minute version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" at the Top Ten Club, with individual band members going away for a wash-and-brushup before returning to the stage! Summing up these years, Lennon was to say: "I was born in Liverpool. but I grew up in Hamburg".
Under the pseudonym "The Beat Brothers", the Hamburg-based Beatles also backed UK rocker Tony Sheridan and recorded with him in June 1961. By the time of their return to Liverpool the following month, they were practically untouchable and teenagers flocked to see them at the glorious Cavern Club, focal point of the new Merseybeat phenomenon. One of their performances drew the attention of local entrepreneur Brian Epstein, who duly became the Beatles' manager. With the added support of Bill Harry's "Mersey Beat" newspaper, the local scene was really putting Liverpool on the world map.
Epstein immediately made his presence felt, procuring an audition with Decca on New Year's Day 1962. The date was a dismal failure, and the boys were soon back in Hamburg for 48 nights at the Star Club. However, Epstein kept busy and negotiated a recording contract with Parlophone. In June 1962, the Beatles signed for EMI and one of the most productive partnerships in the history of rock & roll was sealed. Best was unceremoniously pushed into the background in favour of Ringo Starr on drums, and producer George Martin was given the task of handling the raw but enthusiastic group in the studio. Lennon found time to marry Cynthia Powell in August 1962, but it was the music which dominated the lives of the four Beatles.
Although the band's first single "Love Me Do" stalled at # 17 in the UK charts, success soon arrived at an astonishing speed. Suffice to say that a total of 13 consecutive singles from "Please Please Me" (January 1963) to "Eleanor Rigby" (August 1966) hit the number one spot (the following single, "Strawberry Fields Forever" peaked at # 2). The Beatles became a household word and their sell-out concert appearances caused pandemonium in practically every corner of the globe. They played at the Royal Variety Performance and broke all TV audience figures on America's prestigious "Ed Sullivan Show". The quartet went on to receive MBEs in 1965, though the ever-abrasive Lennon later rejected his award in protest at Britain's support of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. However, this part of the Fab Four story is probably the most well-documented phenomenon in popular music history, so I shall politely refer you to the "Recommended reading" list below!
On a more personal note, Lennon's first book "In His Own Write" was published in March 1964, and predictably became a best-seller. A second book entitled "A Spaniard In the Works" followed in 1965. Lennon sparked controversy during an interview in the U.S. by claiming that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, a remark for which he later apologised. But there were definite signs that superstardom was taking its toll, and the Beatles played their final live concert in August 1966 in San Francisco. Lennon in particular was adamant that the band's live performances had become a travesty, buried under the hysterical screams of teenage girls.
A chance meeting with a Japanese artist named Yoko Ono at a gallery in London led to a long-term relationship between the two. John and Cynthia soon divorced, and Lennon went to live with Yoko. The Eastern connection was further reinforced by the Beatles acquaintance with the Marharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a visit to India to discover transcendental meditation.
The Beatles continued to make million-selling records and even started their own company "Apple Corps", managed by Allen Klein, in 1969. Lennon, who had starred in his first solo feature film role ("How I Won The War") in October 1967, made various films with Yoko. The couple also recorded several albums together, but I'll refrain from comment on the musical talents of Ms. Ono. let's just say that love must be deaf as well as blind! Lennon and Yoko were every bit as active on the pacifist/humanitarian front, taking part in pro-peace "bed-ins" in Canada, and protesting against the conviction of notorious A6 murderer James Hanratty.
By the time the Beatles had broken up in April 1970, Lennon's solo recording career was already well under way. He would record numerous successful albums throughout the 70s (see "Recommended listening" below), either under his own name or in collaboration with his Plastic Ono Band. As a result of various drug offences and an anti-American political stance, Lennon's attempts to take up residence in the U.S. proved unsuccessful until 1976, when he finally managed to obtain a green card. At about this time, Lennon decided to abandon the public spotlight and concentrate on bringing up his young son, Sean.
His recording career was rekindled in August 1980 with the release of "Double Fantasy", credited to Lennon and Yoko. Following a late-night recording session with Yoko Ono in NY in December, the couple returned to their apartment. Lennon was confronted outside by one David Mark Chapman, who called his name and fired four shots. Despite being rushed to hospital, John Lennon was pronounced dead at 11.15pm on December 8, 1980.
The magnitude of the Beatles' achievement and their importance to popular music is beyond discussion. While they were preceded by excellent rockers such as Cliff Richard and Billy Fury in the UK, the latter lacked the charisma, drive and all-round musical flair that Lennon and McCartney possessed in spades. The Lennon/McCartney songbook is unlikely to ever to be equalled, and the duo must rate as the most versatile songwriting team of all time. Folk-oriented ballads ("Norwegian Wood"), pounding rockers ("Back In The USSR"), C&W pastiches ("I'll Cry Instead"), epic quasi-symphonies "A Day In The Life", Lennon and McCartney could do it all. And while McCartney was (and remains to this day) a musician's musician, Lennon was the perfect counterfoil: enigmatic, cynical, provocative and daring to the last. Who could resist a trip back in time to a packed Cavern Club to experience first-hand Lennon bawling out Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music"?
Recommended listening: (I can't believe I'm doing this!)
The entire Beatles output on Parlophone in the UK, from "Please Please Me" (1963) to "Let It Be" (1970), must be regarded as essential. Indeed, from a historical viewpoint, the same is also true of the following:
a.. The Hamburg recordings with Tony Sheridan - why not go the whole hog and pick up the "Beatles Bop: Hamburg Days" box (Bear Family, 2001)?! b.. Live At The BBC (EMI/Apple, 1994) c.. Anthology 1 (EMI/Apple, 1995) d.. Anthology 2 (EMI/Apple, 1996) e.. Anthology 3 (EMI/Apple, 1996) Lennon's solo work is a little patchier, in keeping with artist's moody disposition. Strongly recommended are:
a.. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple, 1970) b.. Imagine (Apple, 1971) c.. Mind Games (Apple, 1973) d.. Rock N' Roll (Apple, 1975) e.. Shaved Fish (Apple, 1975 [compilation]) Recommended reading:
This is so far from being complete as to be almost pointless. but you've got to start somewhere!
a.. John Winston Lennon Vol. 1: 1940-66 - Ray Coleman (Sidgwick & Jackson) b.. John Winston Lennon Vol. 1: 1967-80 - Ray Coleman (Sidgwick & Jackson) c.. John Lennon: the Beatles and Beyond - David K Wright (Enslow Publ.) d.. The Immortal John Lennon, 1940-1980 - Michael Heatley (Longmeadow Press) e.. The Complete Beatles Chronicle - Mark Lewisohn (Pyramid) f.. Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: the Official Story of the Abbey Road Years - Mark Lewisohn (Hamlyn/EMI) g.. Revolution in the Head: the Beatles' Records and the Sixties - Ian MacDonald (Fourth Estate)
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