John Lennon, one of the most influential songwriters and musicians of all time, was born October 9, 1940 in Liverpool.
John’s early childhood was a disruptive one. He spent the first few years of his life under the care of his mother, Julia, who supported her young son with cheques sent from abroad by her Merchant Seaman husband, Alf. However, when Alf’s income was halted after he went AWOL, Julia eventually handed the care of John over to her sister, Mimi. Then, in 1946 when John was 6, his father intended to emigrate with his son to New Zealand, but after being confronted by Julia in Blackpool, John eventually chose to stay in England.
He remained with his Aunt Mimi for the rest of his childhood, although he would often visit his mother, who first introduced John to the then burgeoning US rock n roll scene by playing him Elvis records and teaching him banjo. She would eventually buy him his first guitar in 1957, when John was at the relatively advanced age of 17.
John’s world was shattered a year later in 1958, when his mother was killed by a car driven by an off-duty police officer, not far from where he was living with his Aunt Mimi. Despite living apart, John and his mother had grown very close as he had grown up, brought together by their mutual love of music, which Julia would encourage John to pursue, as opposed to Mimi who tried to discourage him from following a career in music. Almost certainly as a result of the death of his mother, John failed his O-Levels, and after being shoe-horned into Liverpool Art College by his headmaster and Mimi, he would often be disruptive in his classes, and dropped out before he completed his course.
Before he joined the Liverpool Art College, John had formed his first band, The Blackjacks, with school friends Eric Griffiths and Pete Shotton. Before the group of friends played their first gig, they had changed their name to The Quarrymen and after a few inevitable line-up changes, the young band began playing in local skiffle contests, parties and fetes around Liverpool. It was while playing at a local fete with The Quarrymen that John first met his future songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, on 6th July 1957. After a short meeting with the band before an evening performance, McCartney was asked to join the group – an invitation he took up after a family holiday to Yorkshire. After several successful rehearsals, John and Paul played their first gig together in October 1957. Soon after, at the insistence of Paul, John allowed Paul’s 15 year old school friend George Harrison into the band as lead guitarist.
Not long after Paul had joined, he and John began writing songs together and after several name changes, the group settled on The Beatles in 1960 and became a regular on Liverpool’s live circuit. After two stints in Hamburg in the early 60s, The Beatles signed to Parlophone in May 1962. Despite leaving their producer George Martin unimpressed after early recording sessions, John and Paul’s songwriting was improving every day, and after releasing their debut single ‘Love Me Do‘ in October ’62, the pair penned their first UK no.1 single, ‘From Me To You‘, which was recorded in March ’63, shortly after.
With John and Paul’s songwriting blossoming all the time, the pair began to write more independently after their earlier collaborative efforts. By 1965, with the release of ‘Rubber Soul’, John was displaying the prestigious songwriting talent which would become legendary. Songs such as ‘In My Life‘, ‘Nowhere Man‘ and the single ‘Help‘ displayed some of the first examples of Lennon’s very personal lyrics, while others including ‘Norwegian Wood’ were the first hints of his desire to move his songwriting into new, uncharted territory. His evolution continued in 1966, as tracks such as ‘Rain‘, the b-side to the single ‘Paperback Writer’, as well as his contributions to ‘Revolver‘ such as ‘I’m Only Sleeping‘ and especially ‘Tomorrow Never Knows‘ displayed the innovation and creativity in the studio which John was forging.
It was also in 1966 when John caused controversy in America. After an interview with the Evening Standard, which contained his now infamous quote ‘…we’re more popular than Jesus now’, was published in the US, John and The Beatles became hate figures in the South and Mid-west areas of the country, where residents were urged to bring their Beatles collections along to public burnings, and radio stations boycotted any Beatles music. On their next tour of the US in August 1966, John faced the media in Chicago to defend his comments in what is now one of the most famous exchanges in music:
Lennon: “I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the words Beatles as a remote thing, not as what I think – as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said they are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way.”
Reporter: “Some teenagers have repeated your statements – ‘I like the Beatles more than Jesus Christ.’ What do you think about that?”
Lennon: “Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. 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.”
Reporter: “But are you prepared to apologise?”
Lennon: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
Also in 1966, The Beatles stopped touring and John’s songwriting continued to develop as the band devoted their time to the studio. He and his fellow band members continued to push the boundaries and explore new areas during a period which saw them release amongst others ‘Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘, ‘The White Album‘ and ‘Abbey Road‘, as well as singles such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘All You Need Is Love‘, as the band, driven on by John, cemented a period of creativity and songwriting which is arguably un-rivalled in the history of popular music.
In many ways, 1966 was a landmark year for John: The Beatles released ‘Revolver‘ and also decided to stop touring, and as well as his brush with the American Bible Belt he also met his future wife, an eccentric artist named Yoko Ono, who would dominate the remainder of his life. There are a few conflicting accounts on how John first met Yoko, but the most widely accepted version is that John first met her at a London art exhibition, where Ono was displaying, amongst other things, a ‘Hammer In a Nail’ piece, which intrigued John. The pair remained in touch, and began a relationship after The Beatles returned from India in 1968. John was still married to his first wife Cynthia at the time, and soon after she filed for divorce on the grounds of John’s adultery. John and Yoko became inseparable; Yoko would attend recording sessions for the remainder of The Beatles’ career, an act which is seen by some to have if not instigated, certainly quickened the break up of the band. They married in Gibraltar in 1969, and moved to New York in 1971.
In 1970, The Beatles ended months of speculation by announcing their decision to split. It wasn’t long before John had released his first solo studio record, ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’, which was issued in the December of that year. The album was a critical and commercial success, and quickly established John as a viable solo artist.
During this period John and Yoko immersed themselves in the political issues of the day, most prominently in the anti-Vietnam movement. In 1969 they engaged in their famous ‘Bed-In‘ protest against the Vietnam War during their honeymoon, and later released tracks with politically charged lyrics such as ‘Power To The People‘, ‘Give Peace a Chance‘ and the 1971/2 Christmas hit ‘Merry Xmas (War Is Over)‘. Perhaps John’s most enduring hit, ‘Imagine’ was also born out of this period. Again containing the humanitarian theme that dominated this period of John’s life, it established his legacy beyond The Beatles. Released in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1975, it is now one of the most recognisable hits ever, and is a regular in most ‘Greatest Songs Of All Time’ lists.
Four further studio albums followed 1971′s ‘Imagine’, along with various collaborations with the likes of David Bowie, Mich Jagger and his former Beatles band mate Ringo Starr, before John’s self-imposed exile after a performance on ‘A Salute To Lew Grade‘ in April 1975. The rest of the seventies were a quiet time for John. He became a devoted father, and public appearances became rare as he concentrated his time on his family life after the birth of his son Sean. During this period of his life, in 1977, John said: “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.”
Eventually, in November 1980, John returned with the album ‘Double Fantasy‘. The album was a hit with fans and critics alike, and John had re-emerged possibly at the most contented and settled period of his life. With his passion for music re-ignited, he was back recording and mixing new tracks in New York less than a month after the album’s release…
And so it was that on the night of 8th December 1980, John was with Yoko and producer Jack Douglas to record the track ‘Walking On Thin Ice‘. John’s contentment and happiness during this final period of his life was recalled later by Douglas, who said: “The last time I saw John he had this incredible smile on his face. It was the evening we finished ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. He was just thrilled, and so was Yoko, because we all knew we had accomplished what John set out to do with that track. I walked him to the elevator and said goodnight. About 40 minutes later my girlfriend came to the studio, all white. ‘It’s just been on the radio,’ she said. ‘John was shot’.”
After leaving the studio, John decided against eating out so he could see his young son before he went to sleep, and arrived back at the Dakota building shortly before 11pm. Upon following Yoko into the Dakota’s reception area, he was approached by Mark David Chapman, who fired five shots, hitting John in the back and the shoulder. John staggered into the reception area and declared “I’m shot”, before collapsing. After arriving at Roosevelt Hospital twenty minutes later, John was pronounced dead due to massive blood loss from his gunshot wounds. John’s life was cruelly brought to an abrupt and premature end, but his legend has only grown stronger over the years as new generations discover the music of one of the most enduring cultural icons of the 20th century.
John Lennon in his own words. Interviews from 1980 with John Lennon and Yoko Ono: “Testimony – The Life And Times Of John Lennon “Just Published: