John Winston Lennon, later John Ono Lennon, (October 9, 1940 – December 8, 1980), was 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 recognised as one of the musical icons of the 20th century, and his songs (such as "Imagine" and "Strawberry Fields Forever") are frequently ranked among the best songs of that century. In 2002, the BBC conducted a vote to discover the 100 Greatest Britons of all time, and the British public voted Lennon into 8th place.
He was born on the evening of October 9, 1940; during a period of much turmoil since Great Britain was fully engaged in World War II. Both of his parents had musical backgrounds 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 her son, and so gave him to her sister Mimi. Lennon lived with Mimi at Mendips throughout his childhood and adolescence. Like much of the population of Liverpool, Lennon had some Irish heritage, his grandfather, James Lennon, having been born in Dublin in 1858.
Lennon developed severe myopia as he grew up, and was obliged to wear glasses in order to see clearly. During his early Beatle career, Lennon wore contacts or prescription sunglasses (or simply "toughed it out" without them), 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 15, 1958 - when Lennon was 17 - his mother was killed after she was struck by a car driven by a drunken off-duty police officer, and he had to go to the morgue to identify her body. Julia's death was one of the factors that cemented his friendship with Paul McCartney, who had lost his own mother to breast cancer in 1956, when Paul was 14. Years later, Lennon wrote the songs "Julia", "My Mummy's Dead" and "Mother" in honour of his mother, as well as naming his firstborn son, Julian, after her.
Though failing in grammar school, Lennon was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art with help from his school's headmaster and Aunt Mimi, and it was there that he met his future wife, Cynthia Powell. However, Lennon steadily grew to hate the conformity of art school, which proved to be little different from his earlier school experience, and ultimately dropped out. He instead devoted himself to music, inspired by American Rock 'n' Roll and singers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. He'd started a skiffle band in grammar school called the Quarry Men (after his alma mater, Quarry Bank). With the addition of Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the band changed to playing rock 'n' roll, taking the name "Johnny and the Moondogs", followed by "The Silver Beetles" (a tribute to Buddy Holly's Crickets), which was later shortened to The Beatles. He married Powell in 1962, after she became pregnant with Julian.
Role in 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 songwriting partner Paul McCartney, as one of the most influential singer-songwriter-musicians of the 20th century. Many of the songs written by Lennon, however, are more introspective — often in the first person — and personal than McCartney's. His most surreal pieces of songwriting, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus", are fine examples 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 getting better, a little better all the time.
Lennon: It can't get much worse!
Lennon often spoke his mind freely and the press was used to querying him on a wide range of subjects. On March 4, 1966 in an interview for the London Evening Standard with Maureen Cleave, who was a friend of his, Lennon made an off the cuff remark regarding religion. The article was printed and nothing came of it, until five months later when a Teen magazine reprinted the words "I don't know what will go first—Rock and Roll or Christianity. We're more popular than Jesus now," right on the front cover.
A firestorm of protest swelled from the southern Bible Belt area, as conservative groups publicly burned Beatles records and memorabilia. Radio stations banned Beatles music and concert venues cancelled performances. Even The Vatican got involved with a public denouncement of Lennon's comments. On August 11, 1966, the Beatles held a press conference in Chicago, Illinois, in order to address the growing furor.
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."
The governing members of the Vatican accepted his apology and the furor eventually died down, but constant Beatlemania, mobs, crazed teenagers, and now a press ready to tear them to pieces over any quote was too much to handle. The Beatles soon decided to stop touring, and indeed, never performed a scheduled concert again. From this point onward the Beatles were a studio band (perhaps the first ever). Freed from the problem of having to compose music they could recreate live on stage, they could explore the technological limits of music and create unique and original sounds.
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 leaving his estranged wife Cynthia, who filed for divorce later that year. Lennon and Ono were from then on inseparable in public and private, as well as during Beatles recording sessions. The press was extremely unkind to Ono, posting a series of unflattering articles about her, one even going so far as to call her "ugly." This infuriated Lennon, who rallied around his new partner and said publicly that there was no John and Yoko, but that they were one person, JohnAndYoko. These developments led to friction with the other members of the group, and heightened the tension during the 1968 White Album sessions.
Some Beatles fans blame Ono for the Beatles' breakup, but the band had been growing apart almost immediately after the death of their manager Brian Epstein in 1967. Lennon in particular cited Epstein as the glue which had held them all together; in his absence (together with the influence of drugs, a desire to do more work independently, outside friends, alternate collaborating partners, and marriages/relationships), the Beatles' interpersonal relationships simply disintegrated.
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 a member of The Beatles, Lennon spent much of his time with Ono 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 during the height of Beatlemania "in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing and support of America in Vietnam," adding as a joke, "as well as "Cold Turkey" slipping down the charts." On March 20, 1969, Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar, and spent their honeymoon in Amsterdam in a "Bed-In" for peace. They 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" which would go on to become an international anthem for the peace movement. They were mainly patronised as a couple of eccentrics by the media, yet they did a great deal for the peace movement, as well as for other pet causes, such as women's liberation and racial harmony. As with the "Bed-In" campaign, Lennon and Ono usually advocated their causes with whimsical demonstrations, such as Bagism, first introduced during a Vienna press conference. Shortly after, Lennon changed his middle name from Winston to Ono to show his "oneness" with his new wife. Lennon wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko" about his marriage and the subsequent press it generated.
The failed Get Back/Let It Be recording/filming sessions did nothing to improve relations within the band. After both Lennon and Ono were injured in the summer of 1969 in a car accident in Scotland, Lennon arranged for Ono to be constantly with him in the studio (including having a full-sized bed rolled in) as he worked on The Beatles' last album, Abbey Road. While the group managed to hang together to produce one last superior musical work, soon thereafter business issues related to Apple Corps came between them.
Lennon decided to quit the Beatles but was talked out of saying anything publicly. Phil Spector's involvement in trying to revive the Let It Be material then drove a further wedge between Lennon (who supported Spector) and McCartney (who opposed him). Though the split would only become legal some time later, Lennon and McCartney's partnership had come to a bitter end. McCartney soon made a press announcement, declaring he had quit the Beatles, and promoting his new solo record.
Of the four former Beatles, Lennon had perhaps the most varied recording career. 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 1969, recorded in 1969 (prior to the breakup of the Beatles) at the Rock 'n' Roll Festival in Toronto with The Plastic Ono Band, which included 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 addiction) and "Instant Karma!".
Following the Beatles' split in 1970, he released the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, a raw, brutally personal record, heavily influenced by Arthur Janov's Primal Scream therapy, which Lennon had undergone previously. The influence of the therapy, which consists literally of screaming out one's emotional pain, is most obvious on the songs "Mother" ("Mama don't go!/Daddy come home!") and "Well Well Well." The centrepiece is "God," in which he lists all the things he does not believe in, ending with "Beatles." Many consider "Plastic Ono Band" to be a major influence on later hard rock and punk music. Lennon continued this effort to demythologise his old band 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 has become an anthem for anti-war movements, 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 band Elephant's Memory 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.
In 1972, Lennon released an anti-sexist song, "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World", implying that as black people were discriminated against in some countries so were women globally. Radio refused to broadcast the song, and it was banned nearly everywhere.
Lennon rebounded in 1973 with Mind Games, which featured a strong title tune and some vague mumblings about a "conceptual country" called "Nutopia", which satirized his ongoing immigration case. 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.
In 1973, Lennon's personal life fell into disrepair when Yoko kicked John out of the house. Yoko approached May Pang, the attractive Asian woman who was their personal assistant, at the time with a unique proposal. Yoko, who thought May Pang to be a "ideal companion" for John, asked her to "be with John and to help him out and see to it that he gets whatever he wanted". John and May soon moved to Los Angeles which had been dubbed the "lost weekend" though it lasted until the beginning of 1975. During their time together, May encouraged John to spend time with his son, Julian Lennon and became friends with Cynthia Lennon. Though John's public drunkenness had been the subject of gossip during 1974, Pang wrote that John was usually sober in his private life and created a large body of work.
Despite well reported episodes of drunkenness, Lennon put together the well-received album, Walls And Bridges, which featured a collaboration with Elton John on the up-tempo number one hit "Whatever Gets You Thru 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 Thru the Night" and "I Saw Her Standing There" together. It was to be his last-ever concert appearance.
In 1975, 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 by several legal battles; the result received generally negative reviews, though it yielded a powerful, lauded cover of "Stand By Me."
At this point Yoko was pregnant with what would be their first child, and Lennon — saddened by the fact that due to Beatlemania he had never gotten to experience fatherhood with his first son Julian — retired from music and dedicated himself to family life. This was made easier in 1976 when his U.S. immigration status was finally resolved favourably, after a years-long battle with the Nixon administration that included a FBI investigation involving surveillance, wiretaps, and agents literally following Lennon around as he travelled. Lennon claimed the investigation was politically motivated.
Also in 1975, David Bowie achieved his first US number one hit with "Fame", co-written by Bowie, Lennon (who also contributed backing vocals) and Alomar.
Lennon's retirement, which he began following the birth of his second son, Sean in 1975, lasted until 1980 when Lennon, for the first time in five years, picked up his guitar again. At first only curious to see if he could still write music, he felt refreshed and full of ideas, completely reinvigorated by the experiences of fatherhood and the long break from the business. He wrote an impressive amount of material during a Caribbean vacation and began thinking about a new album. For this comeback, he and Ono produced Double Fantasy, a concept album dealing with their relationship. The name came from a flower Lennon saw at an exposition; he liked the name, and thought it was a perfect description of his marriage to Yoko. "(Just Like) Starting Over" began climbing the singles charts, and Lennon started thinking about a brand new world tour. Lennon also commenced work on Milk And Honey which he would, unfortunately, leave unfinished. It was some time before Ono could bring herself to complete it.
In the late afternoon 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; it was the last autograph Lennon ever gave. 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 their apartment from recording Ono's single "Walking On Thin Ice" for their next album. At 10.50pm, their limousine pulled up to the entrance of the Dakota. Ono got out of the car first, followed by Lennon. Beyond the main entrance was a door which would be opened and a small set of stairs leading into the apartment complex. As Ono went in, Lennon got out of the car and glanced at Chapman, proceeding on through the entrance to the Dakota.
As Lennon walked past him, Chapman called out "Mr. Lennon." As Lennon turned, Chapman crouched into what witnesses called a "combat" stance and fired five hollowpoint bullets into John's back and shoulder. One of the bullets fatally pierced his aorta. Still, Lennon managed to stagger up six steps into the concierge booth where he collapsed, gasping "I'm shot, I'm shot."
Chapman dropped his .38 Charter Arms revolver, which was kicked away by Jose Perdomo who then asked "Do you know what you have done?", to which Chapman replied "I just shot John Lennon." Chapman then calmly took his coat off placed it at his feet, took out a book and started reading.
Police arrived within minutes, to find Chapman still waiting quietly outside, reading a copy of J.D. Salinger's novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
The two officers transported Lennon to the hospital in the back of their squad car as they thought John was too badly hurt to take the risk of waiting for an ambulance. One of the officers asked Lennon if he knew who he was. Lennon's reply is reported to have been "Yeah" or simply a nod of the head before he passed out. Despite extensive resuscitative efforts in the hospital, Lennon had lost over 80% of his blood volume and died of shock at the age of 40. 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, Imagine: John Lennon (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 (an avowed devotee of Lennon) sang "Imagine."
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, honoured 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."
On October 31, 1994, Phish, a jam band, paid tribute to John Lennon and The Beatles by covering the The White Album.
In 2004 Madonna paid tribute to Lennon by singing a cover of "Imagine" during her anti-war themed "Re-Invention World Tour."
In 2005, a musical titled "Lennon" was shown for the first time in San Francisco. It received a very lacklustre response from theatre critics and Beatles fans alike.
In 2005, Cowboy Junkies covered "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier" on their anti-war album, "Early 21st Century Blues".
John Lennon Park was built in Cuba as a memorial to the musician.
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.
A biographical Broadway musical titled Lennon will premiere at New York City’s Broadhurst Theater on August 14, 2005. Written and directed by Don Scardino from Lennon's own words in interviews and songs, Lennon features nine diverse actors and actresses portraying the singer-songwriter at various stages in his life backed by an onstage 10-piece band. The play was produced with the endorsement of Yoko Ono, who gave permission for the production to use two unpublished Lennon songs, India, India and I Don't Want to Lose You, and who attended preview performances of the show at New York City's Broadhurst Theater on August 5 & 6, 2005.