John Lennon, 1969
|Born||John Winston Lennon
9 October 1940
|Died||8 December 1980 (aged 40)
New York, New York, United States
Cause of death
|Murder by shooting|
|Occupation||Musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, artist, writer, actor, activist|
|Years active||1957–75, 1980|
|Genres||Rock, pop, experimental|
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, bass guitar|
|Labels||Parlophone, Capitol, Apple, Geffen, Polydor|
|Associated acts||The Quarrymen, the Beatles, Plastic Ono Band, the Dirty Mac, Yoko Ono, David Bowie, Elton John|
John Winston Ono Lennon, MBE (born John Winston Lennon; 9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980), was an English musician, singer and songwriter who rose to worldwide fame as a founder member of the rock band the Beatles, the most commercially successful band in the history of popular music. With Paul McCartney, he formed a songwriting partnership that is one of the most celebrated of the 20th century.
Born and raised in Liverpool, as a teenager Lennon became involved in the skiffle craze; his first band, the Quarrymen, evolved into the Beatles in 1960. When the group disbanded in 1970, Lennon embarked on a solo career that produced the critically acclaimed albums John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, and iconic songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Working Class Hero“. After his marriage to Yoko Ono in 1969, he changed his name to John Ono Lennon. Lennon disengaged himself from the music business in 1975 to raise his infant son Sean, but re-emerged with Ono in 1980 with the new album Double Fantasy. He was murdered three weeks after its release.
Lennon revealed a rebellious nature and acerbic wit in his music, writing, drawings, on film and in interviews. Controversial through his political and peace activism, he moved to Manhattan in 1971, where his criticism of the Vietnam War resulted in a lengthy attempt by Richard Nixon‘s administration to deport him, while some of his songs were adopted as anthems by the anti-war movement and the larger counterculture.
As of 2012, Lennon’s solo album sales in the United States exceeded 14 million and, as writer, co-writer or performer, he is responsible for 25 number-one singles on the US Hot 100 chart. In 2002, a BBC poll on the 100 Greatest Britons voted him eighth and, in 2008, Rolling Stone ranked him the fifth-greatest singer of all time. He was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
1940–57: Early years
Lennon was born in war-time England, on 9 October 1940 at Liverpool Maternity Hospital to Julia (née Stanley) and Alfred Lennon, a merchant seaman of Irish descent, who was away at the time of his son’s birth. His parents named him John Winston Lennon after his paternal grandfather, John “Jack” Lennon, and then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His father was often away from home but sent regular pay cheques to 9 Newcastle Road, Liverpool, where Lennon lived with his mother, but the cheques stopped when he went absent without leave in February 1944. When he eventually came home six months later, he offered to look after the family, but Julia—by then pregnant with another man’s child—rejected the idea. After her sister, Mimi Smith, twice complained to Liverpool’s Social Services, Julia handed the care of Lennon over to her. In July 1946 Lennon’s father visited Smith and took his son to Blackpool, secretly intending to emigrate to New Zealand with him. Julia followed them—with her partner at the time, ‘Bobby’ Dykins—and after a heated argument his father forced the five-year-old to choose between them. Lennon twice chose his father, but as his mother walked away, he began to cry and followed her. It would be 20 years before he had contact with his father again.
Throughout the rest of his childhood and adolescence he lived with his aunt and uncle, Mimi and George Smith, who had no children of their own, at Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton. His aunt purchased volumes of short stories for him, and his uncle, a dairyman at his family’s farm, bought him a mouth organ and engaged him in solving crossword puzzles. Julia visited Mendips on a regular basis, and when John was 11 years old he often visited her at 1 Blomfield Road, Liverpool, where she played him Elvis Presley records, taught him the banjo, and showed him how to play “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino. In September 1980, Lennon commented about his family and his rebellious nature:
Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not … I was the one who all the other boys’ parents—including Paul’s father—would say, ‘Keep away from him’… The parents instinctively recognised I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home … Partly out of envy that I didn’t have this so-called home … but I did… There were five women that were my family. Five strong, intelligent, beautiful women, five sisters. One happened to be my mother. [She] just couldn’t deal with life. She was the youngest and she had a husband who ran away to sea and the war was on and she couldn’t cope with me, and I ended up living with her elder sister. Now those women were fantastic … And that was my first feminist education … I would infiltrate the other boys minds. I could say, “Parents are not gods because I don’t live with mine and, therefore, I know.’
He regularly visited his cousin, Stanley Parkes, who lived in Fleetwood. Seven years Lennon’s senior, Parkes took him on trips and to local cinemas. During the school holidays, Parkes often visited Lennon with Leila Harvey, another cousin, often travelling to Blackpool two or three times a week to watch shows. They would visit the Blackpool Tower Circus and see artists such as Dickie Valentine, Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves and Joe Loss, with Parkes recalling that Lennon particularly liked George Formby. After Parkes’s family moved to Scotland, the three cousins often spent their school holidays together there. Parkes recalled, “John, cousin Leila and I were very close. From Edinburgh we would drive up to the family croft at Durness, which was from about the time John was nine years old until he was about 16.” He was 14 years old when his uncle George died of a liver haemorrhage on 5 June 1955 (aged 52).
Lennon was raised as an Anglican and attended Dovedale Primary School. From September 1952 to 1957, after passing his Eleven-Plus exam, he attended Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool, and was described by Harvey at the time as, “A happy-go-lucky, good-humoured, easy going, lively lad.” He often drew comical cartoons which appeared in his own self-made school magazine called The Daily Howl, but despite his artistic talent, his school reports were damning: “Certainly on the road to failure … hopeless … rather a clown in class … wasting other pupils’ time.”
His mother bought him his first guitar in 1956, an inexpensive Gallotone Champion acoustic for which she “lent” her son five pounds and ten shillings on the condition that the guitar be delivered to her own house, and not Mimi’s, knowing well that her sister was not supportive of her son’s musical aspirations. As Mimi was sceptical of his claim that he would be famous one day, she hoped he would grow bored with music, often telling him, “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”. On 15 July 1958, when Lennon was 17 years old, his mother, walking home after visiting the Smiths’ house, was struck by a car and killed.
Lennon failed all his GCE O-level examinations, and was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art only after his aunt and headmaster intervened. Once at the college, he started wearing Teddy Boy clothes and acquired a reputation for disrupting classes and ridiculing teachers. As a result, he was excluded from the painting class, then the graphic arts course, and was threatened with expulsion for his behaviour, which included sitting on a nude model’s lap during a life drawing class. He failed an annual exam, despite help from fellow student and future wife Cynthia Powell, and was “thrown out of the college before his final year.”
1957–70: The Quarrymen to the Beatles
1957–66: Formation, commercial break-out and touring years
At age 15, Lennon formed the skiffle group, the Quarrymen. Named after Quarry Bank High School, the group was established by him in September 1956. By the summer of 1957, the Quarrymen played a “spirited set of songs” made up of half skiffle and half rock and roll. Lennon first met Paul McCartney at the Quarrymen’s second performance, held in Woolton on 6 July at the St. Peter’s Church garden fête, after which he asked McCartney to join the band.
McCartney says that Aunt Mimi “was very aware that John’s friends were lower class”, and would often patronise him when he arrived to visit Lennon. According to Paul’s brother Mike, McCartney’s father was also disapproving, declaring Lennon would get his son “into trouble”, although he later allowed the fledgling band to rehearse in the McCartneys’ front room at 20 Forthlin Road. During this time, the 18-year-old Lennon wrote his first song, “Hello Little Girl“, a UK top 10 hit for The Fourmost nearly five years later.
George Harrison joined the band as lead guitarist. Lennon thought Harrison (at 14 years old) was too young, so McCartney engineered a second audition on the upper deck of a Liverpool bus, where Harrison played “Raunchy” for Lennon. Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon’s friend from art school, later joined as bassist. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe became “The Beatles” in early 1960. In August that year, the Beatles engaged for a 48-night residency in Hamburg, Germany, and desperately in need of a drummer, asked Pete Best to join them. Lennon was now 19, and his aunt, horrified when he told her about the trip, pleaded with him to continue his art studies instead. After the first Hamburg residency, the band accepted another in April 1961, and a third in April 1962. Like the other band members, Lennon was introduced to Preludin while in Hamburg, and regularly took the drug, as well as amphetamines, as a stimulant during their long, overnight performances.
Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager from 1962, had no prior experience of artist management, but had a strong influence on their early dress code and attitude on stage. Lennon initially resisted his attempts to encourage the band to present a professional appearance, but eventually complied, saying, “I’ll wear a bloody balloon if somebody’s going to pay me”. McCartney took over on bass after Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg, and drummer Ringo Starr replaced Best, completing the four-piece line-up that would endure until the group’s break-up in 1970. The band’s first single, “Love Me Do“, was released in October 1962 and reached No. 17 on the British charts. They recorded their debut album, Please Please Me, in under 10 hours on 11 February 1963, a day when Lennon was suffering the effects of a cold, which is evident in the vocal on the last song to be recorded that day, “Twist and Shout“. The Lennon–McCartney songwriting partnership yielded eight of its fourteen tracks. With few exceptions—one being the album title itself—Lennon had yet to bring his love of wordplay to bear on his song lyrics, saying: “We were just writing songs … pop songs with no more thought of them than that—to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant”. In a 1987 interview, McCartney said that the other Beatles idolised John: “He was like our own little Elvis … We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest”.
The Beatles achieved mainstream success in the UK during the beginning of 1963. Lennon was on tour when his first son, Julian, was born in April. During their Royal Variety Show performance, attended by the Queen Mother and other British royalty, Lennon poked fun at his audience: “For our next song, I’d like to ask for your help. For the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands … and the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.” After a year of Beatlemania in the UK, the group’s historic February 1964 US debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show marked their breakthrough to international stardom. A two-year period of constant touring, moviemaking, and songwriting followed, during which Lennon wrote two books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. The Beatles received recognition from the British Establishment when they were appointed Members of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 1965.
Lennon grew concerned that fans attending Beatles concerts were unable to hear the music above the screaming of fans, and that the band’s musicianship was beginning to suffer as a result. Lennon’s “Help!” expressed his own feelings in 1965: “I meant it … It was me singing ‘help'”. He had put on weight (he would later refer to this as his “Fat Elvis” period), and felt he was subconsciously seeking change. The following January he was unknowingly introduced to LSD when a dentist, hosting a dinner party attended by Lennon, Harrison and their wives, spiked the guests’ coffee with the drug. When they wanted to leave, their host revealed what they had taken, and strongly advised them not to leave the house because of the likely effects. Later, in an elevator at a nightclub, they all believed it was on fire: “We were all screaming … hot and hysterical.” A few months later in March, during an interview with Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave, Lennon remarked, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now—I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity.” The comment went virtually unnoticed in England but caused great offence in the US when quoted by a magazine there five months later. The furore that followed—burning of Beatles records, Ku Klux Klan activity and threats against Lennon—contributed to the band’s decision to stop touring.
1967–70: Studio years, break-up and solo work
Deprived of the routine of live performances after their final commercial concert on 29 August 1966, Lennon felt lost and considered leaving the band. Since his involuntary introduction to LSD in January, he had made increasing use of the drug, and was almost constantly under its influence for much of the year. According to biographer Ian MacDonald, Lennon’s continuous experience with LSD during the year brought him “close to erasing his identity“. 1967 saw the release of “Strawberry Fields Forever“, hailed by Time magazine for its “astonishing inventiveness”, and the group’s landmark album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which revealed Lennon’s lyrics contrasting strongly with the simple love songs of the Lennon–McCartney’s early years.
In August, after having been introduced to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the group attended a weekend of personal instruction at his Transcendental Meditation seminar in Bangor, Wales, and were informed of Epstein’s death during the seminar. “I knew we were in trouble then”, Lennon said later. “I didn’t have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared”. They later travelled to Maharishi’s ashram in India for further guidance, where they composed most of the songs for The Beatles and Abbey Road.
The anti-war, black comedy How I Won the War, featuring Lennon’s only appearance in a non–Beatles full-length film, was shown in cinemas in October 1967. McCartney organised the group’s first post-Epstein project, the self-written, -produced and -directed television film Magical Mystery Tour, released in December that year. While the film itself proved to be their first critical flop, its soundtrack release, featuring Lennon’s acclaimed, Lewis Carroll-inspired “I Am the Walrus“, was a success. With Epstein gone, the band members became increasingly involved in business activities, and in February 1968 they formed Apple Corps, a multimedia corporation composed of Apple Records and several other subsidiary companies. Lennon described the venture as an attempt to achieve, “artistic freedom within a business structure”, but his increased drug experimentation and growing preoccupation with Yoko Ono, and McCartney’s own marriage plans, left Apple in need of professional management. Lennon asked Lord Beeching to take on the role, but he declined, advising Lennon to go back to making records. Lennon approached Allen Klein, who had managed The Rolling Stones and other bands during the British Invasion. Klein was appointed as Apple’s chief executive by Lennon, Harrison and Starr, but McCartney never signed the management contract.
Sample of “Give Peace a Chance“, recorded in 1969 during Lennon and Ono’s second Bed-In for Peace. As described by biographer Bill Harry, Lennon wanted to “write a peace anthem that would take over from the song ‘We Shall Overcome‘—and he succeeded … it became the main anti-Vietnam protest song.”
|Problems playing this file? See media help.|
At the end of 1968, Lennon featured in the film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (not released until 1996) in the role of a Dirty Mac band member. The supergroup, composed of Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell, also backed a vocal performance by Ono in the film. Lennon and Ono were married on 20 March 1969, and soon released a series of 14 lithographs called “Bag One” depicting scenes from their honeymoon, eight of which were deemed indecent and most of which were banned and confiscated. Lennon’s creative focus continued to move beyond the Beatles and between 1968 and 1969 he and Ono recorded three albums of experimental music together: Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (known more for its cover than for its music), Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album. In 1969, they formed the Plastic Ono Band, releasing Live Peace in Toronto 1969. Between 1969 and 1970, Lennon released the singles “Give Peace a Chance” (widely adopted as an anti-Vietnam-War anthem in 1969), “Cold Turkey” (documenting his withdrawal symptoms after he became addicted to heroin) and “Instant Karma!“. In protest at Britain’s involvement in the Nigerian Civil War, its support of America in the Vietnam war and (perhaps jokingly) against “Cold Turkey” slipping down the charts, Lennon returned his MBE medal to the Queen, though this had no effect on his MBE status, which could not be renounced.
Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, and agreed not to inform the media while the group renegotiated their recording contract, but he was outraged that McCartney publicised his own departure on releasing his debut solo album in April 1970. Lennon’s reaction was, “Jesus Christ! He gets all the credit for it!” He later wrote, “I started the band. I disbanded it. It’s as simple as that.” In later interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, he revealed his bitterness towards McCartney, saying, “I was a fool not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record.” He spoke too of the hostility he perceived the other members had towards Ono, and of how he, Harrison, and Starr “got fed up with being sidemen for Paul … After Brian Epstein died we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us when we went round in circles?”
1970–80: Solo career
1970–72: Initial solo success and activism
In 1970, Lennon and Ono went through primal therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov in Los Angeles, California. Designed to release emotional pain from early childhood, the therapy entailed two half-days a week with Janov for four months; he had wanted to treat the couple for longer, but they felt no need to continue and returned to London. Lennon’s emotional debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), was received with high praise. Critic Greil Marcus remarked, “John’s singing in the last verse of ‘God’ may be the finest in all of rock.” The album featured the songs “Mother“, in which Lennon confronted his feelings of childhood rejection, and the Dylanesque “Working Class Hero“, a bitter attack against the bourgeois social system which, due to the lyric “you’re still fucking peasants”, fell foul of broadcasters. The same year, Tariq Ali‘s revolutionary political views, expressed when he interviewed Lennon, inspired the singer to write “Power to the People“. Lennon also became involved with Ali during a protest against Oz magazine’s prosecution for alleged obscenity. Lennon denounced the proceedings as “disgusting fascism”, and he and Ono (as Elastic Oz Band) released the single “God Save Us/Do the Oz” and joined marches in support of the magazine.
Sample of “Imagine“, Lennon’s “most famous post-Beatles track.” Like “Give Peace a Chance”, the song became an anti-war anthem, but its lyrics offended religious groups. Lennon’s explanation was, “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion, but without this ‘my god is bigger than your god’ thing—then it can be true.”
|Problems playing this file? See media help.|
With Lennon’s next album, Imagine (1971), critical response was more guarded. Rolling Stone reported that “it contains a substantial portion of good music” but warned of the possibility that “his posturings will soon seem not merely dull but irrelevant”. The album’s title track would become an anthem for anti-war movements, while another, “How Do You Sleep?“, was a musical attack on McCartney in response to lyrics from Ram that Lennon felt, and McCartney later confirmed, were directed at him and Ono. However, Lennon softened his stance in the mid-1970s and said he had written “How Do You Sleep?” about himself. He said in 1980: “I used my resentment against Paul … to create a song … not a terrible vicious horrible vendetta […] I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and the Beatles, and the relationship with Paul, to write ‘How Do You Sleep’. I don’t really go ’round with those thoughts in my head all the time.”
Lennon and Ono moved to New York in August 1971, and in December released “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)“. The new year saw the Nixon administration take what it called a “strategic counter-measure” against Lennon’s anti-war and anti-Nixon propaganda, embarking on what would be a four-year attempt to deport him. In 1972, Lennon and Ono attended a post-election wake held in the New York home of activist Jerry Rubin after McGovern lost to Nixon. Embroiled in a continuing legal battle with the immigration authorities, Lennon was denied permanent residency in the US (which wouldn’t be resolved until 1976). Depressed, Lennon got intoxicated and had sex with a female guest, leaving Ono embarrassed. Her song “Death of Samantha” was inspired by the incident.
Recorded as a collaboration with Ono and with backing from the New York band Elephant’s Memory, Some Time in New York City was released in 1972. Containing songs about women’s rights, race relations, Britain’s role in Northern Ireland and Lennon’s problems obtaining a green card, the album was poorly received—unlistenable, according to one critic. “Woman Is the Nigger of the World“, released as a US single from the album the same year, was televised on 11 May, on The Dick Cavett Show. Many radio stations refused to broadcast the song because of the word “nigger“. Lennon and Ono gave two benefit concerts with Elephant’s Memory and guests in New York in aid of patients at the Willowbrook State School mental facility. Staged at Madison Square Garden on 30 August 1972, they were his last full-length concert appearances.
1973–75: “Lost weekend”
While Lennon was recording Mind Games (1973), he and Ono decided to separate. The ensuing 18-month period apart, which he later called his “lost weekend“, was spent in Los Angeles and New York in the company of May Pang. Mind Games, credited to the “Plastic U.F.Ono Band”, was released in November 1973. Lennon also contributed “I’m the Greatest” to Starr’s album Ringo (1973), released the same month (an alternate take, from the same 1973 Ringo sessions, with Lennon providing a guide vocal, appears on John Lennon Anthology).
In early 1974, Lennon was drinking heavily and his alcohol-fuelled antics with Harry Nilsson made headlines. Two widely publicised incidents occurred at The Troubadour club in March, the first when Lennon placed a menstruation “towel” on his forehead and scuffled with a waitress, and the second, two weeks later, when Lennon and Nilsson were ejected from the same club after heckling the Smothers Brothers. Lennon decided to produce Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats and Pang rented a Los Angeles beach house for all the musicians but after a month of further debauchery, with the recording sessions in chaos, Lennon moved to New York with Pang to finish work on the album. In April, Lennon had produced the Mick Jagger song “Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup)” which was, for contractual reasons, to remain unreleased for more than 30 years. Pang supplied the recording for its eventual inclusion on The Very Best of Mick Jagger (2007).
Settled back in New York, Lennon recorded the album Walls and Bridges. Released in October 1974, it yielded his only number-one non-Beatles single in his lifetime, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night“, featuring Elton John on backing vocals and piano. A second single from the album, “#9 Dream“, followed before the end of the year. Starr’s Goodnight Vienna (1974) again saw assistance from Lennon, who wrote the title track and played piano. On 28 November, Lennon made a surprise guest appearance at Elton John’s Thanksgiving concert at Madison Square Garden, in fulfilment of his promise to join the singer in a live show if “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”—a song whose commercial potential Lennon had doubted—reached number one. Lennon performed the song along with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There“, which he introduced as “a song by an old estranged fiancée of mine called Paul”.
Lennon co-wrote “Fame“, David Bowie‘s first US number one, and provided guitar and backing vocals for the January 1975 recording. The same month, Elton John topped the charts with his cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, featuring Lennon on guitar and back-up vocals (Lennon is credited on the single under the moniker of “Dr. Winston O’Boogie”). He and Ono were reunited shortly afterwards. Lennon released Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975), an album of cover songs, in February. “Stand by Me“, taken from the album and a US and UK hit, became his last single for five years. He made what would be his final stage appearance in the ATV special A Salute to Lew Grade, recorded on 18 April and televised in June. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by an eight-piece band, Lennon performed two songs from Rock ‘n’ Roll (“Stand by Me”, which was not broadcast, and “Slippin’ and Slidin'”) followed by “Imagine”. The band, known as Etc., wore masks behind their heads, a dig by Lennon who thought Grade was two-faced.
1975–80: Retirement and return
With the birth of his second son Sean on 9 October 1975, Lennon took on the role of househusband, beginning what would be a five-year hiatus from the music industry during which he gave all his attention to his family. Within the month, he fulfilled his contractual obligation to EMI/Capitol for one more album by releasing Shaved Fish, a compilation album of previously recorded tracks. He devoted himself to Sean, rising at 6 am daily to plan and prepare his meals and to spend time with him. He wrote “Cookin’ (In the Kitchen of Love)” for Starr’s Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976), performing on the track in June in what would be his last recording session until 1980. He formally announced his break from music in Tokyo in 1977, saying, “we have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family.” During his career break he created several series of drawings, and drafted a book containing a mix of autobiographical material and what he termed “mad stuff”, all of which would be published posthumously.
Lennon emerged from retirement in October 1980 with the single “(Just Like) Starting Over“, followed the next month by the album Double Fantasy, which contained songs written during a journey to Bermuda on a 43-foot sailing boat the previous June, that reflected his fulfilment in his new-found stable family life. Sufficient additional material was recorded for a planned follow-up album Milk and Honey (released posthumously in 1984). Released jointly by Lennon and Ono, Double Fantasy was not well received, drawing comments such as Melody Maker‘s “indulgent sterility … a godawful yawn”.
8 December 1980: Death
At around 10:50 pm on 8 December 1980, as Lennon and Ono returned to their New York apartment in the Dakota, Mark David Chapman shot Lennon in the back four times at the entrance to the building. Lennon was taken to the emergency room of nearby Roosevelt Hospital and was pronounced dead on arrival at 11:07 pm. Earlier that evening, Lennon had autographed a copy of Double Fantasy for Chapman.
Ono issued a statement the next day, saying “There is no funeral for John”, ending it with the words, “John loved and prayed for the human race. Please pray the same for him.” His body was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Ono scattered his ashes in New York’s Central Park, where the Strawberry Fields memorial was later created. Chapman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years to life. As of 2014, he remains in prison, having been denied parole seven times.
Lennon and Ono used their honeymoon as what they termed a “Bed-In for Peace” at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel; the March 1969 event attracted worldwide media ridicule. At a second Bed-In three months later at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal Lennon wrote and recorded “Give Peace a Chance”. Released as a single, it was quickly taken up as an anti-war anthem and sung by a quarter of a million demonstrators against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, on 15 November, the second Vietnam Moratorium Day. In December, they paid for billboards in 10 cities around the world which declared, in the national language, “War Is Over! If You Want It”.
Later that year, Lennon and Ono supported efforts by the family of James Hanratty, hanged for murder in 1962, to prove his innocence. Those who had condemned Hanratty were, according to Lennon, “the same people who are running guns to South Africa and killing blacks in the streets. … The same bastards are in control, the same people are running everything, it’s the whole bullshit bourgeois scene.” In London, Lennon and Ono staged a “Britain Murdered Hanratty” banner march and a “Silent Protest For James Hanratty”, and produced a 40-minute documentary on the case. At an appeal hearing years later, Hanratty’s conviction was upheld after DNA evidence matched. His family continued to appeal in 2010.
Lennon and Ono showed their solidarity with the Clydeside UCS workers’ work-in of 1971 by sending a bouquet of red roses and a cheque for £5,000. On moving to New York City in August that year, they befriended two of the Chicago Seven, Yippie peace activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Another political activist, John Sinclair, poet and co-founder of the White Panther Party, was serving ten years in prison for selling two joints of marijuana after previous convictions for possession of the drug. In December 1971 at Ann Arbor, Michigan, 15,000 people attended the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally“, a protest and benefit concert with contributions from Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party, and others. Lennon and Ono, backed by David Peel and Rubin, performed an acoustic set of four songs from their forthcoming Some Time in New York City album including “John Sinclair”, whose lyrics called for his release. The day before the rally, the Michigan Senate passed a bill that significantly reduced the penalties for possession of marijuana and four days later Sinclair was released on an appeal bond. The performance was recorded and two of the tracks later appeared on John Lennon Anthology (1998).
Following the Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland in 1972, in which 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were shot dead by the British Army, Lennon said that given the choice between the army and the IRA (who were not involved in the incident) he would side with the latter. Lennon and Ono wrote two songs protesting British presence and actions in Ireland for their Some Time in New York City album: “Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. In 2000, David Shayler, a former member of Britain’s domestic security service MI5, suggested that Lennon had given money to the IRA, though this was swiftly denied by Ono. Biographer Bill Harry records that following Bloody Sunday, Lennon and Ono financially supported the production of the film The Irish Tapes, a political documentary with a Republican slant.
According to FBI surveillance reports (and confirmed by Tariq Ali in 2006) Lennon was sympathetic to the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist group formed in Britain in 1968. However, the FBI considered Lennon to have limited effectiveness as a revolutionary since he was “constantly under the influence of narcotics”.
In 1973, Lennon contributed a limerick called “Why Make It Sad To Be Gay?” to Len Richmond’s The Gay Liberation Book.
Lennon’s last act of political activism was a statement in support of the striking minority sanitation workers in San Francisco on 5 December 1980. He and Ono planned to join the workers’ protest on 14 December. By this time, however, Lennon had also quietly renounced the counterculture views which he had helped promote during the 1960s and 1970s and became more aligned with conservatism, though whether he had actually aligned to a more conservative world view is disputed
Following the impact of “Give Peace a Chance” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)“, both strongly associated with the anti–Vietnam War movement, the Nixon administration, hearing rumours of Lennon’s involvement in a concert to be held in San Diego at the same time as the Republican National Convention, tried to have him deported. Nixon believed that Lennon’s anti-war activities could cost him his re-election; Republican Senator Strom Thurmond suggested in a February 1972 memo that “deportation would be a strategic counter-measure” against Lennon. The next month the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began deportation proceedings, arguing that his 1968 misdemeanor conviction for cannabis possession in London had made him ineligible for admission to the United States. Lennon spent the next three and a half years in and out of deportation hearings until 8 October 1975, when a court of appeals barred the deportation attempt, stating “… the courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.” While the legal battle continued, Lennon attended rallies and made television appearances. Lennon and Ono co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show for a week in February 1972, introducing guests such as Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale to mid-America. In 1972, Bob Dylan wrote a letter to the INS defending Lennon, stating:
John and Yoko add a great voice and drive to the country’s so-called art institution. They inspire and transcend and stimulate and by doing so, only help others to see pure light and in doing that, put an end to this dull taste of petty commercialism which is being passed off as Artist Art by the overpowering mass media. Hurray for John and Yoko. Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay!
On 23 March 1973, Lennon was ordered to leave the US within 60 days. Ono, meanwhile, was granted permanent residence. In response, Lennon and Ono held a press conference on 1 April 1973 at the New York City Bar Association, where they announced the formation of the state of Nutopia; a place with “no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people”. Waving the white flag of Nutopia (two handkerchiefs), they asked for political asylum in the US. The press conference was filmed, and would later appear in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon. Lennon’s Mind Games (1973) included the track “Nutopian International Anthem”, which comprised three seconds of silence. Soon after the press conference, Nixon’s involvement in a political scandal came to light, and in June the Watergate hearings began in Washington, DC. They led to the president’s resignation 14 months later. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, showed little interest in continuing the battle against Lennon, and the deportation order was overturned in 1975. The following year, his US immigration status finally resolved, Lennon received his “green card” certifying his permanent residency, and when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as president in January 1977, Lennon and Ono attended the Inaugural Ball.
FBI surveillance and declassified documents
After Lennon’s death, historian Jon Wiener filed a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI files documenting the Bureau’s role in the deportation attempt. The FBI admitted it had 281 pages of files on Lennon, but refused to release most of them on the grounds that they contained national security information. In 1983, Wiener sued the FBI with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. It took 14 years of litigation to force the FBI to release the withheld pages. The ACLU, representing Wiener, won a favourable decision in their suit against the FBI in the Ninth Circuit in 1991. The Justice Department appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in April 1992, but the court declined to review the case. In 1997, respecting President Bill Clinton‘s newly instigated rule that documents should be withheld only if releasing them would involve “foreseeable harm”, the Justice Department settled most of the outstanding issues outside court by releasing all but 10 of the contested documents.
Wiener published the results of his 14-year campaign in January 2000. Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files contained facsimiles of the documents, including “lengthy reports by confidential informants detailing the daily lives of anti-war activists, memos to the White House, transcripts of TV shows on which Lennon appeared, and a proposal that Lennon be arrested by local police on drug charges”. The story is told in the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The final 10 documents in Lennon’s FBI file, which reported on his ties with London anti-war activists in 1971 and had been withheld as containing “national security information provided by a foreign government under an explicit promise of confidentiality”, were released in December 2006. They contained no indication that the British government had regarded Lennon as a serious threat; one example of the released material was a report that two prominent British leftists had hoped Lennon would finance a left-wing bookshop and reading room.
Writing and art
Beatles biographer Bill Harry writes that Lennon began drawing and writing creatively at an early age with the encouragement of his uncle. He collected his stories, poetry, cartoons and caricatures in a Quarry Bank High School exercise book that he called the Daily Howl. The drawings were often of crippled people, and the writings satirical, and throughout the book was an abundance of wordplay. According to classmate Bill Turner, Lennon created the Daily Howl to amuse his best friend and later Quarrymen bandmate Pete Shotton, to whom he would show his work before he let anyone else see it. Turner said that Lennon “had an obsession for Wigan Pier. It kept cropping up”, and in Lennon’s story A Carrot in a Potato Mine, “the mine was at the end of Wigan Pier.” Turner described how one of Lennon’s cartoons depicted a bus stop sign annotated with the question, “Why?”. Above was a flying pancake, and below, “a blind man wearing glasses leading along a blind dog—also wearing glasses”.
Lennon’s love of wordplay and nonsense with a twist found a wider audience when he was 24. Harry writes that In His Own Write (1964) was published after “Some journalist who was hanging around the Beatles came to me and I ended up showing him the stuff. They said, ‘Write a book’ and that’s how the first one came about”. Like the Daily Howl it contained a mix of formats including short stories, poetry, plays and drawings. One story, “Good Dog Nigel”, tells the tale of “a happy dog, urinating on a lamp post, barking, wagging his tail—until he suddenly hears a message that he will be killed at three o’clock”. The Times Literary Supplement considered the poems and stories “remarkable … also very funny … the nonsense runs on, words and images prompting one another in a chain of pure fantasy”. Book Week reported, “This is nonsense writing, but one has only to review the literature of nonsense to see how well Lennon has brought it off. While some of his homonyms are gratuitous word play, many others have not only double meaning but a double edge.” Lennon was not only surprised by the positive reception, but that the book was reviewed at all, and suggested that readers “took the book more seriously than I did myself. It just began as a laugh for me”.
In combination with A Spaniard in the Works (1965), In His Own Write formed the basis of the stage play The John Lennon Play: In His Own Write, co-adapted by Victor Spinetti and Adrienne Kennedy. After negotiations between Lennon, Spinetti and the artistic director of the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, the play opened at The Old Vic in 1968. Lennon and Ono attended the opening night performance, their second public appearance together. After Lennon’s death, further works were published, including Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986); Ai: Japan Through John Lennon’s Eyes: A Personal Sketchbook (1992), with Lennon’s illustrations of the definitions of Japanese words; and Real Love: The Drawings for Sean (1999). The Beatles Anthology (2000) also presented examples of his writings and drawings.
Lennon’s playing of a mouth organ during a bus journey to visit his cousin in Scotland caught the driver’s ear. Impressed, the driver told Lennon of a harmonica he could have if he came to Edinburgh the following day, where one had been stored in the bus depot since a passenger left it on a bus. The professional instrument quickly replaced Lennon’s toy. He would continue to play harmonica, often using the instrument during the Beatles’ Hamburg years, and it became a signature sound in the group’s early recordings. His mother taught him how to play the banjo, later buying him an acoustic guitar. At 16, he played rhythm guitar with the Quarrymen.
As his career progressed, he played a variety of electric guitars, predominantly the Rickenbacker 325, Epiphone Casino and Gibson J-160E, and, from the start of his solo career, the Gibson Les Paul Junior. Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas claimed that since his Beatle days Lennon habitually tuned his D-string slightly flat, so his Aunt Mimi could tell which guitar was his on recordings. Occasionally he played a six-string bass guitar, the Fender Bass VI, providing bass on some Beatles numbers (“Back in the U.S.S.R.“, “The Long and Winding Road“, “Helter Skelter”) that occupied McCartney with another instrument. His other instrument of choice was the piano, on which he composed many songs, including “Imagine”, described as his best-known solo work. His jamming on a piano with McCartney in 1963 led to the creation of the Beatles’ first US number one, “I Want to Hold Your Hand“. In 1964, he became one of the first British musicians to acquire a Mellotron keyboard, though it was not heard on a Beatles recording until “Strawberry Fields Forever” in 1967.
When the Beatles recorded “Twist and Shout“, the final track during the mammoth one-day session that produced the band’s 1963 debut album, Please Please Me, Lennon’s voice, already compromised by a cold, came close to giving out. Lennon said, “I couldn’t sing the damn thing, I was just screaming.” In the words of biographer Barry Miles, “Lennon simply shredded his vocal cords in the interests of rock ‘n’ roll.” The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, tells how Lennon “had an inborn dislike of his own voice which I could never understand. He was always saying to me: ‘DO something with my voice! … put something on it … Make it different.'” Martin obliged, often using double-tracking and other techniques. Music critic Robert Christgau says that Lennon’s “greatest vocal performance … from scream to whine, is modulated electronically … echoed, filtered, and double tracked.”
As his Beatles era segued into his solo career, his singing voice found a widening range of expression. Biographer Chris Gregory writes of Lennon “tentatively beginning to expose his insecurities in a number of acoustic-led ‘confessional’ ballads, so beginning the process of ‘public therapy’ that will eventually culminate in the primal screams of “Cold Turkey” and the cathartic John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.” David Stuart Ryan notes Lennon’s vocal delivery to range from “extreme vulnerability, sensitivity and even naivety” to a hard “rasping” style. Wiener too describes contrasts, saying the singer’s voice can be “at first subdued; soon it almost cracks with despair”. Music historian Ben Urish recalls hearing the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show performance of “This Boy” played on the radio a few days after Lennon’s murder: “As Lennon’s vocals reached their peak … it hurt too much to hear him scream with such anguish and emotion. But it was my emotions I heard in his voice. Just like I always had.”
Music historians Schinder and Schwartz, writing of the transformation in popular music styles that took place between the 1950s and the 1960s, say that the Beatles’ influence cannot be overstated: having “revolutionised the sound, style, and attitude of popular music and opened rock and roll’s doors to a tidal wave of British rock acts”, the group then “spent the rest of the 1960s expanding rock’s stylistic frontiers”. Liam Gallagher, his group Oasis among the many who acknowledge the band’s influence, identifies Lennon as a hero; in 1999 he named his first child Lennon Gallagher in tribute. On National Poetry Day in 1999, after conducting a poll to identify the UK’s favourite song lyric, the BBC announced “Imagine” the winner.
In a 2006 Guardian article, Jon Wiener wrote: “For young people in 1972, it was thrilling to see Lennon’s courage in standing up to [US President] Nixon. That willingness to take risks with his career, and his life, is one reason why people still admire him today.” For music historians Urish and Bielen, Lennon’s most significant effort was “the self-portraits … in his songs [which] spoke to, for, and about, the human condition.”
Lennon continues to be mourned throughout the world and has been the subject of numerous memorials and tributes. In 2002, the airport in Lennon’s home town was renamed the Liverpool John Lennon Airport. In 2010, on what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday, the John Lennon Peace Monument was unveiled in Chavasse Park, Liverpool, by Cynthia and Julian Lennon. The sculpture entitled ‘Peace & Harmony’ exhibits peace symbols and carries the inscription “Peace on Earth for the Conservation of Life · In Honour of John Lennon 1940–1980”.
- Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (1968)
- Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
- Wedding Album (with Yoko Ono) (1969)
- John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
- Imagine (1971)
- Some Time in New York City (with Yoko Ono) (1972)
- Mind Games (1973)
- Walls and Bridges (1974)
- Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)
- Double Fantasy (with Yoko Ono) (1980)
- Milk and Honey (with Yoko Ono) (1984)