PROGRAMMING NOTE: Switching up the formula a little today as it is NOT John Lennon’s Birthday — that was October 9th — but I was away that day, so I thought I’d retroactively give John the birthday nod.
“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the Sixties, that’s his problem. Love and peace are eternal.”
— John Lennon
John Winston Lennon was born on October 9th, 1940 in Liverpool, England. He would be 72 years old this year.
John was born during World War II, indeed he was born during an air raid, to Julia and Alfred Lennon. His father worked as a merchant seaman and was often away from home. By the time John was four-years-old his parents were divorced and he went to live with his Aunt Mimi Smith. Although Alfred was largely out of the picture, Julia remained close, she visited John regularly.
She taught John how to play the banjo and the piano and purchased his first guitar. [biography.com]
Julia Lennon died when John was 18, she was stuck by a car.
He did not do well in school, and preferred to be the class clown rather than study. He did love art and music though. John drew unique (almost grotesque) line drawings that quickly and simply captured the image.
John started a ‘skiffle band’ (a band that used the instruments they had at hand) called the Quarry Men when he was 16. The Quarry Men take their name from John’s high school, Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool. The next year he asked Paul McCartney to join the group. George Harrison and Lennon’s art school mate Stu Sutcliffe also joined the band and they later added Pete Best on drums.
The group changed their name to the Beatles and played clubs in Hamburg, Germany and the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Brian Epstein came on board in 1961 as manager, and they got a recording contract with EMI records.
1962 saw huge changes for both Lennon and the group. In April of 1962 Sutcliffe died tragically of a brain aneurysm. In August John married Cynthia Powell, the couple had a son, Julian in April the next year. The band replaced drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr. The realigned group recorded at EMI with George Martin as their producer, and released Love Me Do in October. The single reached #17 on the British Charts. Please, Please Me the follow-up single, topped the charts. And the Beatles were off.
Beatlemania invaded the US in 1964. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and played sold out concerts.
Back in the UK they made the movie A Hard Day’s Night. The movie is a delightfully fun, pop romp of a mockumentary. It featured songs from the album of the same name, notably: A Hard Days Night, If I Fell, I’m Happy Just to Dance with You, Tell Me Why, Any Time At All and Can’t Buy Me Love. The popularity of the movie helped keep the album at #1 for 14 weeks on the Billboard chart. The budget was limited so it was shot in black and white, and everything was kept simple. Not so with their second film HELP! which still manages to be charming but not as charming as Hard Day’s Night. It is overproduced and over done. Lennon said that the Beatles felt like extras in their own movie with HELP! and it shows. Still the music was pretty awesome: Help!, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, You’re Going to Lose That Girl! Ticket to Ride, It’s Only Love, I’ve Just Seen a Face, and Yesterday. The Album held the top spot on Billboard for 9 weeks.
Musically the lads from Liverpool were in top form, releasing the breakthrough album, Rubber Soul in 1965. Their song writing had transformed from the harder R&B influenced Hold My Hand kind of song to lyrical, mature songs like Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, Michelle, Girl, In My Life, and If I Needed Someone. It was another #1 Billboard album (6 weeks). [I’m guessing that if you are still reading this blog you are a Beatles fan and already have most of their albums, but if you don’t… I’d put Rubber Soul at the top of the list. For my money Rubber Soul and Revolver are two of the best albums every made.]Yesterday…and Today came out in 1966. Stand out songs include: Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, Yesterday, If I Needed Someone, We Can Work It Out and Day Tripper. The album reached #1 for 5 weeks. Revolver also came out in 1966. Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, Here, There and Everywhere, Yellow Submarine, Good Day Sunshine, And Your Bird Can Sing, and Got to Get You Into My Life are some of the hits off the album, which spent 6 weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s chart. By 1966 the strain of constant touring, recording, and the hounding fans was weighing on the band. Lennon got in trouble for his “We’re more popular than Jesus now” remark. They played their last concert in Candlestick Park stadium, San Francisco in August.
The following year the Beatles put out their eighth LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An eclectic mix of pop, rock n roll, and Indian influenced tracks. It won Album of the Year and was #1 on the Billboard charts for a whopping 15 weeks. Hits from the album include: With a Little Help from My Friends, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Getting Better, –the amazing — A Day in the Life, and of course, Lovely Rita. But as good as Pepper was, and it was very good, it was also over produced. All those horns and whistles and animal sounds didn’t quite get in the way enough to ruin the songs, but were they really necessary? Listening back on them now… well, I prefer a simpler production. [It worked somehow in A Day in the Life; not so much in Lovely Rita, but still, the later has such a great title.]
Speaking of over produced…there’s Magical Mystery Tour — a movie that makes absolutely no sense. The LP had some lovely songs though. And even if it was becoming painfully clear that Lennon was writing the “Lennon” songs– which were leaning toward sarcasm — and McCartney was writing the “McCarntney” songs — which were tending to get more nostalgic and saccharine — both came up with some good ones here, like: The Fool on the Hill, Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, and All You Need Is Love.
1968 brought the animated (and equally bizarre) film Yellow Submarine. In November they release a new album called The Beatles aka The White Album. It was at the top of the charts for 9 weeks. This double album seems almost schizophrenic with some great songs like the hard rock and roll Back in the USSR, Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? Helter Skelter, and Revolution; others that are lovely and lyrical; While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Blackbird, Julia, Long, Long, Long, Good Night; And others that I’m not going to waste my time talking about.
On the personal side John divorced Cynthia Lennon in November of 1968. He and Yoko Ono, who he had been seeing since 1966, and living with since the summer of ’68, put out a collaborative album Two Virgins. The album showed the couple nude on the cover and was banned in most record stores. On March 20, 1969 John and Yoko married in Gibraltar.
The following week, the two master media manipulators used their celebrity for good, hosting a honeymoon “bed-in” for peace in room 902, the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The… pajama-clad newlyweds spoke out about world peace. It was the honeymoon as performance art, interlaced with a protest against the Vietnam War. [About.com]
They repeated the “performance” in Montreal the following week and with a bedroom full of musicians, artist, writers and other 1960’s counter-culture dignitaries, they recorded Give Peace a Chance.
Abbey Road was released in 1969. It is actually the last album the Beatles recorded, but it was released before Let It Be.
Notable songs include: Come Together, Something, Here Comes the Sun, and I Want You. Abbey Road stayed at #1 for 11 weeks.
Recorded largely in January in 1969, Let it Be wasn’t released until 1970 and was #1 for 4 weeks. Lennon had already left the group (September of 1969.) A film of the same name came out the same year. The film was supposed to be a documentary that went behind the scenes to show the world’s most famous rock band making an album. Instead it showed the world’s most famous rock band dissolving. The film culminated in a rooftop concert on January 30th. Songs from the album include: Don’t Let Me Down, Get Back, Two of Us, Let It Be, and The Long and Winding Road.
After the Beatles John released Plastic Ono Band.
The raw, confessional nature of Plastic Ono Band reflected the primal-scream therapy that Lennon and Ono had been undergoing with psychologist Arthur Janov. He dealt with such fundamental issues as “God” and “Mother” and the class system (“Working Class Hero”) on an album as full of naked candor as any in rock has ever been. [Rock & Roll Hall of Fame]
1971 brought Imagine. Rolling Stone Magazine called the title track the third all-time best song ever written.
John and Yoko followed Imagine with an anti-war release Happy Xmas (War is Over). The Nixon administration was not amused. It decided to begin deportation proceeding against Lennon. The stress took its toll on Lennon’s marriage with Ono and the two separated. For 18 months he lived in Los Angeles with another woman, May Pang. It is a period he calls his “Lost weekend” of drinking a partying. He fished Mind Games, and recorded Walls and Bridges. Whatever Gets You Thru the Night, a single off the later album became a number one hit. He co-wrote Fame with David Bowie.
He and Ono were reunited in 1975 shortly before the release of Rock n Roll. The couple celebrated the birth of their son Sean in October of 1975. And, after releasing Shaved Fish, John became a stay at home dad for five years.
In 1980 he came out of retirement and released Double Fantasy with the single Just Like Starting Over.
On December 8, 1980 the music died. As Lennon and Ono were returning home from recording tracks for the following up album, Milk and Honey he was assassinated in front of his New York apartment building, the Dakota.