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John Lennon, b. 9 Oct 1940

John Lennon was born 80 years ago today. I interviewed him a few times for the Melody Maker at the Apple HQ in Savile Row, on the first occasion in the autumn of 1969. As many others did, I found him a thoroughly engaged and engaging interviewee — and, by the standards of the time, remarkably open.

One afternoon, when we’d been talking for a couple of hours, he took me with him in his car to the Thames TV studios on Euston Road, where he was being interviewed for the early-evening news show, so that we could carry on our conversation. These were the days when the names of John and Yoko regularly featured on evening-paper billboards. You knew they were around. At Thames that day he was due to talk about his decision to return his MBE in protest — as he had announced in a press release — “against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

During that journey to the studios, I remember him expressing his enthusiasm for a recent Lee Dorsey 45, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” — he liked songs with brackets in the titles — and telling me a story about the early days.

“In the beginning,” he said, “it was a constant fight between Brian (Epstein) and Paul on one side, and me and George on the other. Brian put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I used to try and get George to rebel with me. I’d say to him: ‘Look, we don’t need these suits. Let’s chuck them out of the window.’ My little rebellion was to have my tie loose, with the top button of my shirt undone, but Paul’d always come up to me and put it straight.

“I saw a film the other night, the first television film we ever did. The Granada people came down to film us, and there we were in suits and everything – it just wasn’t us, and watching that film I knew that that was where we started to sell out. We had to do a lot of selling out then. Taking the MBE was a sell-out for me.

“You know, before you get an MBE the Palace writes to you to ask if you’re going to accept it, because you’re not supposed to reject it publicly and they sound you out first. I chucked the letter in with all the fan-mail, until Brian asked me if I had it. He and a few other people persuaded me that it was in our interests to take it, and it was hypocritical of me to accept it. But I’m glad, really, that I did accept it – because it meant that four years later I could use it to make a gesture.”

When he moved to New York in 1971, he liked to keep in touch with the UK, often through the music papers. The postcard above is typical of those he’d send from time to time. In October of that year, when I sent him a note to ask for an interview for a book I was writing a book about Phil Spector, he replied immediately. He could do better than that, he said. He was about to go into the studio with Spector. Within a day or two he’d arranged a return air ticket and a room at the St Regis Hotel, where he and Yoko were living. So I spent three days with them, watching John sort through Elvis 45s for his jukebox, attending the sessions for “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” — those brackets — at the Record Plant, and going with them to look at a town house on Bank Street in the West Village, which they ended up renting from Joe Butler, the drummer with the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Lennon had a way of including people in whatever was going on, which is how come Spector’s chauffeur and I ended up in the group photo on the picture bag of “Happy Xmas”. When I read a piece in The Times this week blaming him — and particularly the song “Imagine” — for all the ills of the 21st century, I thought back to the man I knew briefly, to his warmth and enthusiasm and courageous refusal to be confined by the entertainer’s role. We know now, of course, that he was complicated and difficult and sometimes cruel, and there are aspects of his life that will always be difficult to explain and excuse. That’s true of most of us. In his case, I can only speak as I found — while wishing, of course, that he could have been here to celebrate his 80th, and to give us his thoughts on the state of things.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tom Hayes #

    Nice piece Richard.Scott Millaney has a just released videa on Vimeo on Lennon,s last year.He was basically a good guy not afraid to speak up

    October 9, 2020
  2. Paul Tickell #

    Great piece, Richard – and as usual laced with nuggets of info I did not know about…

    October 9, 2020
  3. Brent Cunliffe #

    That’s exactly it. The media loves to concentrate on the negative aspects of a personality but clearly there was another generous side to John and it’s nice to see it stated.As I get older I’m trying to see the positives in life and there’s now wrong with “ Imagine “ except over familiarity.
    Thank you

    October 9, 2020
  4. Tony Paley #

    Lovely piece, Richard. Going to have a look at BBC Four programmes tonight and see what worth catching

    Hope all well

    Tony

    October 9, 2020
  5. Pamela Esterson #

    Lovely piece, Richard! and so glad to see that John’s jukebox figures as a detail – and a song written by the great, much-missed Allen Toussaint. I’m pretty sure you previewed the South Bank Show I produced a few years ago about his other (smaller, portable) jukebox, but I’ll send you a Vimeo link if you want to see it again…hope all’s well in your world. pam e.

    October 9, 2020
  6. Lovely piece, as ever, Richard.

    October 9, 2020
  7. John Atkins #

    John was always the Beatle that stood out for me right from the moment I heard the groundbreaking, “Love me do” on Radio Luxembourg late one Sunday night. They say everyone remembers where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot but for me the vivid memory is when I heard the other John had been killed. He was I think the real “Working Class Hero”.

    October 9, 2020
  8. Caroline #

    Fascinating piece. I always had a good time with him, especially if Tony King was around

    October 9, 2020
  9. Brilliant, Richard, you wise and deeply experienced man! A pleasure to read you.

    October 9, 2020
  10. Jamie Woolley #

    Wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing.

    October 9, 2020
  11. Dennis Muirhead #

    John Lennon’s actions unwittingly led to the establishment of the Death Penalty Project in London in 1992. He wasn’t frightened to do what he believed in despite what others thought. He opposed the death penalty and yet he was murdered in New York City in 1980. His killer wasn’t executed as the death penalty hadn’t been used in New York since 1963.

    In 1975, John asked me to represent to his friend Michael de Freitas (Michael X). Michael was on death row in Trinidad’s Royal Jail. Just meeting Michael was an unnerving experience. When I walked in, I saw many prisoners facing the death penalty and all clinging to their cell bars as desperately as they were clinging to life – even if it meant life in prison.

    After my work representing Michael, the London law firm that I co-founded in 1972, Simons Muirhead & Burton, continued to act pro bono in numerous death penalty appeals from the Caribbean. Over time, this led to the establishment of the Death Penalty Project in 1992 by two young lawyers in the firm, Saul Lehrfreund and Parvais Jabbar.

    The Death Penalty Project provides free legal representation worldwide, with a particular focus on the Commonwealth. As a direct result of its endeavours, the Death Penalty Project has not only saved hundreds of prisoners from execution but has also created contemporary jurisprudence shaping constitutional and international human rights law worldwide. Their success has included the abolition of the mandatory death penalty in 13 countries, and in a single case in Uganda, everyone facing the death penalty – some 900 prisoners – were removed from death row. More recently, the Courts have declared the mandatory death penalty unconstitutional in both Kenya (2017) and Barbados (2018); those decisions affect over 3,000 prisoners who are now entitled to be re-sentenced – a direct result of the Death Penalty Project’s work.

    John’s music has always been very special to me. It has an edge and emotional bite to it that affects me like 1950’s rock’n’roll did when I first heard it in the ‘50’s in Adelaide. It has been my music ever since. John and Paul McCartney can sing rock’n’roll like the stars of the period that not many others have managed to do. I love jazz and Billy Swan and Jack Bruce and Bill Evans. But I always come back to rock’n’roll and John Lennon to send my blood rushing, tears rolling and for the thrill of the music.

    October 9, 2020
  12. Phil Shaw #

    A warm, timely piece, Richard. The writer of that Times piece (I won’t dignify her by naming her) has form — indeed she seems obsessed with Imagine. She previously wrote in the Jerusalem Post that the “imagined utopia espoused by John Lennon leads straight to the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot”. She has since said she once liked the song but then “grew up”. All of which nonsense made me listen again to Imagine, which I haven’t done in years, nay decades. In the age of Trump, Netanyahu, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Assad and the rest, is a song asking us to conjure a world with no countries and no religion worth all this rage? Yours resolutely disinclined to grow up, Phil

    October 9, 2020
    • She’s not alone in disparaging Imagine. That it’s some trite little ditty seems to be a typically held view these days. Yet the song’s message is firmly existentialist – no heaven, no hell, no countries, no possessions. These are constructs, part of invented belief systems, often bizarre, often corrupt. Lennon wasn’t making the case for a lion and lamb utopia. He thought that if our constructs were imagined entities they could be re-imagined, or simply abandoned. He thought that humanity could come to live in harmony. Imagine there’s no bullshit was what he was saying, or in more prosaic terms, adopt better beliefs and try to be peaceful, it’s not so hard to do.

      October 9, 2020
  13. Keith Wood #

    Great piece and great sentiment although I think his head would’ve exploded by now dealing with the monster in the white house or the clown in 10 Downing st.

    October 9, 2020
  14. Gordon Hastie #

    Mad Melanie Phillips, apparently, blaming Lennon for all our ills and woes. If we’re into blaming, I blame the likes of Mad Mel.

    October 9, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Agreed 100% . Yeah … blame Lennon . For what ? The attempt to bring peace ? The willingness to speak out . For decades of great music ?

      October 9, 2020
  15. GuitarSlinger #

    God knows I miss John . God knows I miss George as well . But to stay on subject … John …. we really could use his voice in these insanely troubled times … sigh ……………….

    October 9, 2020
  16. Wot a lovely tribute. Funny, interesting, nuanced.

    October 9, 2020
  17. Thanks for the warm personal memories, Richard. It’s reassuring that John’s words and music continue to shine on and inspire.

    October 9, 2020
  18. Patrick Hinely #

    Certain quartets have a vigorously kinetic balance that yields irresistible creative magic of a unique sort which is lost as soon as any one of its four members is subtracted from the ensemble. The Beatles, the original Oregon and the Firesign Theatre are the three I miss the most. Thank you for further humanizing John Lennon in such an eloquent and engaging way.

    October 9, 2020
  19. Diana #

    All Those Years Ago……

    October 9, 2020
  20. Tim Adkin #

    Richard, I hate to bring this up but perhaps now is the time for you to set the record straight on your ‘notorious’ review in MM (I think) of the test pressing of ‘The Wedding Album’?
    Love the post by the way – it goes without saying.

    October 9, 2020
  21. Stephen Brenkley #

    A warm and fascinating piece Richard. Brenks

    October 9, 2020
  22. Ray Connolly #

    That captures John Lennon perfectly. I ‘d been with him and Yoko just before you and when he said he’d lost all his Elvis records I’d called RCA in NY and asked for s few Elvis singles. Apparently thry sent Elvis’s whole cataliogue.

    October 9, 2020
    • They did indeed, Ray. He sat on his bed in the St Regis sorting out great piles of 45s into “yes” and “no”. Great to hear from you.

      October 9, 2020
  23. Laurie Atterbury #

    Really enjoyed that Richard; do miss John so much. we need him back like a modern day Jesus (he’d hate me for saying that but I have used brackets).

    October 10, 2020
  24. s donovan #

    At 10 years old in 1962, John Lennon is one of the reasons I was glad to have lived when I did

    October 10, 2020
  25. Lovely piece Richard. LP Winner, as JL would say!

    October 10, 2020
  26. Intriguing, a human being behind the image.

    October 10, 2020
  27. GuitarSlinger #

    As an addendum …. after watching three Lennon docs on Public Television this weekend … I’ve amended my opinion … that ;

    Though I miss John and his music terribly … thank god in heaven he did not live to see what we in the US have become today . Because as bad as Nixon et al was then … this administration et al makes Nixon etc .. etc .. et al .. ad nauseam … look like a fairy tale in comparison ..

    So …. RIP Lennon … because unlike us .. you can … sigh

    Now pardon me while I slip Bill Frisell’s ” All We Are Saying … ” in the CD player

    October 11, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      PS; The wife says to tell you she loves the quilting squares you use to identify us … her being an avid quilter

      October 11, 2020
  28. Norman Keane #

    aged 15, his death was the first that really affected me. Someone whose work I knew and influence I understood unlike, say, Elvis or Louis Armstrong whose deaths were just ‘news’.

    October 13, 2020
  29. Stephen Holland #

    Another beautiful vignette Richard, as always your humanity and insight shines through. I never fail to learn some useful nugget of information from your posts and it’s boosted my record collection no end. Greatly appreciated.

    October 24, 2020

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