The Beatles are perhaps the UK’s most beloved band, and John Lennon was always the Fab Four’s most iconic member, bringing an intelligence and wit to the group’s songs. When Lennon let out that feral scream on the Beatles’ 1963 version of ‘Twist & Shout’, a rock and roll star was born. And a wildly successful career lay ahead.
As the Beatles developed from mop-top poster boys into an experimental studio band, John Lennon’s songwriting moved with it. His best compositions drew on literary influences and pushed the sonic boundaries of pop music, but never at the sacrifice of a beautiful melody. Such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, which manages to be at once surreal and realistic by channeling the songwriter’s childhood memories of playing in the gardens of Strawberry Field in Liverpool.
Quickly disowning his Beatles persona after the band disintegrated in the late ‘60s, Lennon’s experimental approach continued with a series of avant-garde albums recorded with Yoko Ono, a Japanese multimedia artist and John’s second wife. These controversial albums were followed by a series of critically acclaimed solo efforts, starting with 1970’s highly personal Plastic Ono Band, which featured ‘Working Class Hero’ and the single ‘Mother’. All the while, John and Yoko were using their music to push an agenda of world peace, releasing ‘Give Peace A Chance’ after their ‘bed in’ protest in Amsterdam, and following this with two other standalone singles, ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’.
Contrasting the sparse arrangements of his first album, Lennon’s Imagine was a grand, lush record, featuring his classic vision of world peace - ‘Imagine’ - and another of his best-loved solo songs, ‘Jealous Guy’. This productivity and commercial success continued throughout the early 1970s, as he embraced new genres and worked with a slew of big artists and legendary session musicians, including Elton John, David Bowie, Harry Nilsson and guitarist Earl Slick.
Double Fantasy, which featured the UK number-ones ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’, signalled Lennon’s triumphant return to music, after taking five years out to raise his son Sean. However, in a tragically ironic turn, Double Fantasy also became the last album before his death on 8 December 1980, when he was shot outside his residence in New York City. Lennon’s senseless murder resonated across the globe, as people attempted to come to terms with a shocking tragedy, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the assassination of JFK decades earlier.
The 9th of October 2020 would’ve been the legendary songwriter’s 80th birthday. To celebrate his life and legacy, the BBC launched a programme of radio and TV shows, which ran throughout October. This included Radio 2’s Lennon at 80 podcast, hosted by Sean Lennon, who interviewed Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Sean’s brother Julian.
While many of us will be familiar with John Lennon’s music, especially his work with The Beatles, these programmes were packed with anecdotes, revelations and unique perspectives that you probably haven’t heard before.
Musician, writer, political activist, artist, father - there were many sides to John Lennon. Here are 10 things about him that you may not know...
1. Lennon was worried he wasn't a good enough musician for the Beatles
I know, it sounds like someone’s just being modest. But at the outset of his songwriting relationship with Paul McCartney, Lennon really did feel inferior. Speaking to Sean Lennon in the Lennon at 80 podcast, McCartney explained how, in the pre-internet days, growing your musical knowledge relied on learning new chords and techniques from other musicians, often discovering them by word of mouth. John was an ambitious and talented player (of guitar and harmonica) but McCartney had an advantage in musical theory owing to the fact that his father was a trumpet player, pianist and former jazz band leader.
2. He wrote books, first published in 1964
Not content with being one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, just a few years into the Beatles’ career, Lennon had his first book published. ‘In His Own Write’  showcased his love of language; a series of nonsensical, humorous stories packed with puns and wry observations, accompanied by line drawings. ‘A Spaniard in the Works’ followed in 1965, similar in style but with lengthier, more complete pieces. As his songwriting abilities continued to develop throughout the 60s, Lennon increasingly channeled his literary talent into his songs.
3. Lennon really did believe that music could bring about world peace
In 1969, acclaimed war correspondent and pro-peace activist, Gloria Emerson, carried out a contentious interview with John and Yoko, challenging their belief that their music and anti-war campaigns, such as the ‘Bed-Ins’, could bring about world peace, or at least end the war in Vietnam. The interview, part of which was caught on film, resulted in a heated exchange, with Emerson accusing Lennon of “living in Neverland” for stating that his songs save lives, and he calling her a snob for believing that a more serious, intellectual approach was needed. History has proven Lennon wrong, but there’s no doubting his sincerity; the interview showed that he believed passionately in the power of music to change the world for the better.
4. He brought son Julian into the studio for Walls and Bridges
John Lennon has been criticised for the treatment of his first son, Julian, following the split from his first wife, Cynthia. But their relationship had started to improve by the time Lennon recorded his 1974 album Walls and Bridges. The youngster was present in the studio during much of the album's recording. One day, he jumped at the chance to jam with his dad, performing drums on a cover of Lee Dorsey's 1961 track, 'Ya Ya'. Julian thought it was just a rough take, but Lennon ended up using that version on the album, giving Julian his first credit as a recording artist.
5. The first song Lennon ever learned to play was Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That a Shame’
Both Lennon and McCartney's love of Elvis Presley is well known. 'The King' changed the game and influenced just about every group in the British Invasion. But the first song a young John Lennon learnt to play was 'Ain't That a Shame' by rock 'n' roll pioneer, Fats Domino, who had in fact influenced Presley. It's easy to imagine Lennon's raspy voice in the place of Fats' in the song. But there's no need to. Lennon covered it on his 1975 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, which featured covers of songs that influenced him most. Complete with boogie-woogie rhythms and blaring saxophones, he does service to the original while bringing his own inimitable style to the track.
6. He saw positives in the break-up of the Beatles
The world was understandably devastated when The Beatles split up. An iconic band that put British rock 'n' roll on the musical map and influenced artists across the following decades and right up to now, for many, they were more than just a pop group. But Lennon himself knew that nothing lasts forever; he knew that it was better to go out on a high rather than continue the band under false pretences. Speaking on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Lennon explained: "a long time ago I said that I didn't want to be singing "She Loves You" when I'm 30 [...] I was 30 last October, and that's about when my life changed, really." Free of his Beatles shackles, John fully embraced his artistic freedom through a range of solo projects and collaborations with Yoko Ono, herself a multimedia artist and musician.
7. Yoko Ono sent a white gardenia backstage at Elton John’s Madison Square Garden show
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 105, Pages 40-43.