John Winston Lennon, later John Ono Lennon, (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980), is best known as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Beatles. His creative career also included the roles of solo musician, political activist, artist, actor, and author. As half of the legendary Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, he heavily influenced the development of rock music, leading it towards more serious and political messages. He is recognized as one of the musical icons of the century, and his songs (such as "Imagine" and "Strawberry Fields Forever") are frequently ranked among the best songs of the 20th century. In 2002, the BBC conducted a vote to discover the 100 Greatest Britons of all time. The British public voted Lennon into 8th place.
John Winston Lennon was born on the evening of 9 October, 1940. Both of his parents had musical background and experience, though neither pursued it seriously. Lennon lived with his parents in Liverpool until his father Fred Lennon, a merchant seaman, walked out on the family. His mother, Julia, then decided that she was unable to care for John and so gave him to her sister Mimi. Lennon lived with Mimi at Mendips throughout his childhood and adolescence.
Around adolescence, Lennon developed severe myopia and was obliged to wear glasses in order to see clearly. During his early Beatle career, Lennon wore contacts or prescription sunglasses, but later donned his trademark, round "granny-glasses" in late 1966. Although John lived apart from his mother he still kept in contact with her through regular visits, and during this time Julia was responsible for introducing her son to a lifelong interest in music by teaching him how to play the banjo. On July 15th, 1958 - when John was 17 - his mother was killed after she was struck by a car driven by a drunken off-duty police officer. This event influenced many of his later songs, and was also one of the factors that cemented his friendship with Paul McCartney, who had lost his own mother to breast cancer at the age of 14 in 1956. Later, in 1968, Lennon wrote a song entitled "Julia" in honour of his mother.
His Aunt Mimi was able to get him accepted into the Liverpool College of Art by showing them some of his drawings, and it was there that he met his future wife, Cynthia Powell. However, John steadily grew to hate the conformity of art school and, like many young men of his age, became increasingly interested in Rock 'n' Roll music and American singers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Eventually, in the late 1950s, Lennon formed his own skiffle group called The Quarry Men, which later became The Silver Beetles (a tribute to Buddy Holly's Crickets) and soon afterwards was shortened to The Beatles.
He married Cynthia in 1962 after she became pregnant with his child, Julian.
Role in the Beatles
As a member of The Beatles, Lennon had a profound influence on rock and roll and in expanding the genre's boundaries during the 1960s. He is widely considered, along with fellow-writing partner Paul McCartney, as one of the most influential singer-songwriter-musicians of the 20th century. Of the two, Lennon is generally viewed as the better lyricist, while McCartney is seen as the more accomplished composer. Though overly simplistic, this view does have some truth as many of the songs credited to Lennon-McCartney, but actually inspired by Lennon himself are more developed, introspective pieces often in the first-person and dealing with more personal issues. Lennon's lyrics are also often the more lyrical, due to his love of word-play, double-meaning and strange words. His most surreal pieces of songwriting, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus" are fine example of his unique style. Lennon's partnership in songwriting with McCartney many times involved him in complementing and counterbalancing McCartney's upbeat, positive outlook with the other side of the coin, as one of their songs, "Getting Better" demonstrates:
- McCartney: I have to admit it's gettin' better, it's gettin' better all the time.
- Lennon: It couldn't get much worse!
John Lennon often spoke his mind freely. On March 4, 1966, in an interview for the London Evening Standard with Maureen Cleave , he made the following statement:
- "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
Though the article went unnoticed in the UK, there was a severe backlash by conservative religious groups in the U.S. Radio stations banned the group's recordings, and their albums and other products were burned and destroyed. Spain and the Vatican denounced Lennon's words, and South Africa banned Beatles music from the radio. Lennon later admitted that he didn't like having introduced more hate into the world, and on August 11, 1966, he held a press conference in Chicago in order to address the growing furor.
- "I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it. I'm sorry I opened my mouth. I'm not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this."
The Vatican accepted his apology. He was often misquoted as saying "bigger than Jesus", which led many to believe that he meant that the Beatles were better than Jesus.
On November 9, 1966, after their final tour ended and right after he had wrapped up filming a minor role in the film How I Won the War, Lennon visited an art exhibit of Yoko Ono's at the Indica art gallery in London. Lennon began his love affair with Ono in 1968 after returning from India and revealed the fact to his estranged wife Cynthia. Cynthia Lennon filed for divorce later that year, while Lennon and Ono from then on were inseparable in public and private, as well as during Beatles recording sessions. This new development led to obvious friction with the other members of the group, and heightened the tension during the 1968 White Album sessions.
Casual folklore has often placed blame on Ono as the major or sole cause of the group's fracture. In reality the four Beatles were already diverging shortly after the death of their manager Brian Epstein in 1967, due to their having increasingly incompatible personal and musical interests.
At the end of 1968, Lennon and Ono performed as Dirty Mac on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
During his last two years as member of The Beatles, Lennon spent much of his time with Yoko on public displays protesting the Vietnam War. He sent back the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) he received from Queen Elizabeth II "in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing and support of America in Vietnam", as well as "'Cold Turkey ' slipping down the charts". On March 20 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married in Gibraltar, and spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam in a "Bed-In" for peace. John and Yoko followed up their honeymoon with another "Bed-In" for peace this time held in Montreal. During the second "Bed-In" the couple recorded "Give Peace a Chance". They were mainly patronized as a couple of eccentrics by the media, but still were important figures in the anti-war movement. Shortly after, John changed his middle name from Winston to Ono to show his "oneness" with Yoko. Lennon wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko " about his marriage and the subsequent press it generated.
After both being injured in the summer of 1969 in a car accident in Scotland, Lennon arranged for Yoko to be constantly with him in the studio as he recorded his last album with The Beatles, Abbey Road. A full-sized bed was rolled into the studio so that Lennon would not be separated from Ono. Abbey Road was the last polished, united effort by the group, and after its release in the autumn of 1969, it seemed the four members had made a peaceful parting of ways. But the release of the rough, and over-orchestrated Let It Be album in May, 1970 had acrimonious results. Bridges were burnt as an enraged McCartney announced he was quitting the group stating that his approval was not obtained when Phil Spector, at the insistence of Lennon and George Harrison, added overly lush orchestration to several of McCartney's pieces. He was even quoted as saying that he was "sickened" by the "mutilation" of his music. Though the split would only become legally final some time later, Lennon and McCartney's partnership had come to a bitter end.
Of the four former Beatles, Lennon had perhaps the most varied recording career, often reflecting the vicissitudes of his personality. While he was still a Beatle, Lennon and Ono recorded three albums of experimental and difficult electronic music, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album. His first 'solo' album of popular music was Live Peace In Toronto, recorded in 1969 (prior to the breakup of the Beatles) at the Rock 'n' Roll Festival in Toronto with a Plastic Ono Band including Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann. He also recorded three singles in his initial solo phase, the anti-war anthem "Give Peace a Chance", "Cold Turkey" (about his struggles with heroin) and "Instant Karma!".
Following the Beatles' split in 1970, he released the Plastic Ono Band album, a raw, honest record, heavily influenced by Arthur Janov's Primal therapy, which Lennon had undergone previously. It remains to this day one of the most brutally personal musical works ever made by anybody. The centerpiece is "God", in which he lists all the things he does not believe in, ending with "Beatles". Lennon continued this effort to demythologise the Beatles with a long, confrontational interview published in Rolling Stone magazine.
This was followed in 1971 by Imagine, his most successful solo album, which alternates in tone between dreaminess and anger. The title track is a lovely song which has become an anthem for world harmony, and was matched in image by Lennon's "white period" (white clothes, white piano, white room ...).
Perhaps in reaction, his next album, Some Time In New York City, was loud, raucous, and explicitly political, with songs about prison riots, racial and sexual relations, the British role in the sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland, and his own problems in obtaining a United States Green Card. This record is generally seen as the nadir of Lennon's career, full of heavy-handed and simplistic messaging unredeemed by much artistic value. On 30 August 1972 Lennon and his backing Elephant's Memory Band staged two benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden in New York; it was to be his last full-length concert appearance. Lennon and Ono also did a week-long guest co-host stint on the Mike Douglas Show, in an appearance that showed Lennon's wit and humour still intact.
Lennon rebounded somewhat in 1973 with Mind Games, which featured a strong title tune and some vague mumblings about a concept called "Nutopia". His most striking song of that year was the wry "I'm the Greatest", which he wrote for Ringo Starr's very successful Ringo album.
During 1974 Lennon's personal life fell into disrepair — a temporary move to Los Angeles, some drunken public escapades, and a fourteen-month split from Ono during which he had an extramarital affair with Ono's former secretary May Pang. It was also during his time in New York that Lennon purportedly engaged in sexual relationships with men, according to biographers Albert Goldman (The Lives of John Lennon) and Geoffrey Giuliano (Lennon in New York). Lennon's estate, however, has denied charges that he was bisexual. It should be noted that both Goldman and Giuliano have been heavily criticized for their work.
Despite the chaos, Lennon managed to put together a reasonably well-received album, Walls And Bridges, which featured a collaboration with Elton John on the up-tempo number one hit "Whatever Gets You Through the Night". Another top ten hit from the album was the Beatlesque reverie "#9 Dream". Lennon capped the year by making a surprise guest appearance at an Elton John concert in Madison Square Garden where they performed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", "Whatever Gets You Through the Night", and "I Saw Her Standing There" together. It was to be his last ever concert appearance.
The following year Lennon released the Rock 'n' Roll album of cover versions of old rock and roll songs of his youth. This project was complicated by Phil Spector's involvement as producer and several legal battles; the result received generally negative reviews, though it yielded a lauded cover of "Stand By Me". At this point Lennon retired to concentrate on his family life. This was made easier in 1976 when his U.S. immigration status was finally resolved favourably, after a years-long battle started by the Nixon administration that included a politically-motivated FBI investigation.
Lennon's retirement lasted until 1980, when he and Ono produced Double Fantasy, a concept album dealing with their relationship. "(Just Like) Starting Over" began climbing the singles charts.... He also commenced work on Milk and Honey which he left unfinished. It was some time before Ono could bring herself to complete it.
Lennon's son with Cynthia, Julian Lennon, enjoys a notable recording career of his own, as does his son with Yoko, Sean Lennon.
Throughout his solo career, Lennon appeared on his own albums (as well as those of other artists like Elton John) under such pseudonyms as Dr. Winston O'Boogie, Mel Torrment, and The Reverend Fred Gherkin.
On the morning of December 8, 1980, in New York City, deranged fan Mark David Chapman met Lennon as he left for the recording studio and got his copy of Double Fantasy autographed. Chapman remained in the vicinity of The Dakota for most of the day as a fireworks demonstration in nearby Central Park distracted the doorman and passers-by.
Later that evening, Lennon and Ono returned to the apartment from recording Ono's single "Walking On Thin Ice" for their next album. Chapman was hiding in the carriage vestibule as Lennon and Ono approached the building. As Lennon walked past him, Chapman called out to him and assumed what witnesses called a "combat stance", firing five shots as Lennon turned around.
Unable to wait for an ambulance, two officers transported Lennon to the hospital in the back of their squad car. When asked if he knew who he was, Lennon's last words have been reported to be, "Yeah," or "I'm John Lennon of the Beatles", or a nod. Despite extensive resuscitative efforts in the hospital, Lennon had lost over 80% of his blood volume and expired as a result of his wounds. Millions would receive the news that night from Howard Cosell, commentator for ABC's Monday Night Football.
A crowd gathered outside the Dakota the night of Lennon's death. Ono sent word that their singing kept her awake and asked that they re-convene in Central Park the following Sunday, for ten minutes of silent prayer (see also the 1980 Central Park Vigil - Tribute to John Lennon). Her request for a silent gathering was honoured all over the world.
A special commemorative issue of Rolling Stone magazine released shortly after the murder featured as its cover a photo taken the morning of the shooting by Annie Leibovitz showing a nude Lennon in an embryonic pose kissing a fully clothed Ono.
The Strawberry Fields Memorial was constructed in Central Park across the street from the Dakota, in memory of Lennon. When George Harrison died in 2001, people congregated on the "Imagine" mosaic circle in Strawberry Fields.
In 1988, Warner Bros. produced a documentary film, (sanctioned in part by Yoko Ono). The movie was a biography of the former Beatle, featuring interviews, rarely seen musical material, and narration by Lennon himself (formed from interviews and tapes recorded by Lennon). It also introduced "Real Love", one of the last songs composed by Lennon, in an early demo (a later demo would form the basis for the version rehashed by The Beatles for The Beatles Anthology). The following year, at an auction of Beatles memorabilia, Lennon's jukebox was sold at Christie's for 2,500 pounds. The Mellotron that Lennon used to record, amongst other songs, Strawberry Fields Forever, is currently owned by Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails.
Specially selected radio stations aired a syndicated series called The Lost Lennon Tapes in 1990. Hosted by Lennon publicist Elliot Mintz , the show spotlighted raw sessions from throughout Lennon's career with and without The Beatles, including rare material never released to the public. During the America: A Tribute to Heroes concert on September 21, 2001, Neil Young sang "Imagine". An avowed devotee of Lennon, Young's performance is considered one of the highlights of his lengthy career.
In October 2000 John Lennon Museum was opened in Ono's hometown Saitama, Japan to preserve knowledge of his works and career.
In March, 2002, his native city, Liverpool, honored his memory by renaming their airport "Liverpool John Lennon Airport", and adopting as its motto a line from his song "Imagine", "Above us only sky". In the same year, Lennon was voted 8th by the British public in the "100 Greatest Britons" poll run by the BBC. BBC History Magazine commented that his "generational influence is immense."
In 2004 Madonna paid tribute to Lennon by singing a cover of the song "Imagine" during her anti-war themed "Re-Invention World Tour."
Biographies and books
Numerous biographies of John Lennon have been published. Notable among these are The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman and Lennon: The Definitive Biography by Ray Coleman.
John Lennon wrote three books himself: A Spaniard in the Works, John Lennon: In his own write, and Skywriting by Word of Mouth. A personal sketchbook with Lennon's familiar cartoons illustrating definitions of Japanese words, Ai, was published posthumously.
- IFPI - 'Conflict of interest' section for comments by John Lennon about "pirate radio".
Well known songs
Some of John's most well known solo songs include:
- "Give Peace A Chance" — single, 1969
- "Instant Karma!" — single, 1970
- "Love " — Plastic Ono Band, 1970
- "Imagine" — Imagine, 1971
- "Jealous Guy" — Imagine, 1971
- "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World " — Sometime In New York City, 1972
- "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" — single, 1972
- "Mind Games" — Mind Games, 1973
- "Woman " — Double Fantasy, 1980
- "(Just Like) Starting Over" — Double Fantasy, 1980
- 1969 "Give Peace a Chance" (with The Plastic Ono Band) #2 UK, #14 US
- 1969 "Cold Turkey" (with The Plastic Ono Band) #14 UK, #30 US
- 1970 "Instant Karma (We All Shine On)" (with Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band) #3 US, #5 UK
- 1971 "Mother" #43 US
- 1971 "Power to the People" (with The Plastic Ono Band) #7 UK, #11 US
- 1971 "Imagine" #3 US
- 1972 "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) #4 UK
- 1972 "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" #57 US
- 1973 "Mind Games" #18 US, #26 UK
- 1974 "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" (with The Plastic Ono Nuclear Band) #1 US, #36 UK
- 1975 "Number 9 Dream" #9 US, #23 UK
- 1975 "Stand by Me" #20 US, #30 UK
- 1975 "Imagine" #6 UK
- 1980 "(Just Like) Starting Over" #1 US, #1 UK
- 1980 "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-entry) #2 UK
- 1980 "Give Peace a Chance" (with The Plastic Ono Band) (re-entry) #33 UK
- 1980 "Imagine" (re-entry) #1 UK
- 1981 "Woman" #1 UK, #2 US
- 1981 "I Saw Her Standing There" (Elton John Band feat. John Lennon & The Muscle Shoals Horns) #40 UK
- 1981 "Watching the Wheels" #10 US, #30 UK
- 1981 "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-entry) #28 UK
- 1982 "Love" #41 UK
- 1984 "Nobody Told Me" #5 US, #6 UK
- 1984 "I'm Stepping Out" #55 US
- 1984 "Borrowed Time" #32 UK
- 1985 "Jealous Guy" #65 UK
- 1988 "Jealous Guy" #80 US
- 1999 "Imagine" (re-issue) #3 UK
- 2003 "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (with Yoko Ono, The Plastic Ono Band and The Harlem Community Choir) (re-issue) #32 UK