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.