If John Lennon wasn’t tragically murdered at the age of 40, then he would be celebrating his 70th birthday this week. Perhaps instead of focusing on this sad fact, we should turn our attention to the fascinating accomplished life that he lived.
On October 9th, 1940 John Lennon was born, according to some sources, during a WWII air raid. He grew to adore British skiffle and rock ‘n’ roll music and formed a group with some of his friends from school. In 1958, that group, the Quarrymen, recorded a cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”.
After a few member and name changes, the Quarrymen became the Beatles. They eventually got a job playing back up for singer Tony Sheridan. “Ain’t She Sweet”, listed under the name of the Tony Sheridan & The Beatles, featured Lennon on lead vocals.
The Beatles recorded what would be their debut album Please Please Me in 1963 while John was suffering from a cold. The recording of “Twist and Shout” particularly took its toil on his voice, with Lennon complaining of a “sandpaper” throat for years afterward.
The group performed at the Royal Variety Show that same year. The event featured the Queen and other members of British royalty in the audience, and John worried the band’s manager by saying, “I’d like to ask for your help. For the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands…, and the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
The Beatles skyrocketed to worldwide fame after appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. During the performance of “Till’ There Was You”, the screen superimposed a message over John’s footage, “Sorry girls, he’s married.”
Lennon didn’t have much time for his family life, though. Despite performing, recording, and the filming of A Hard Day’s Night, he wrote two book of comedic poetry: In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.
Despite all this, life was far from perfect for John. The 1965 single “Help!” was literally a cry for help from Lennon, who was starting to experience the side effects of fame. To add to all this, his controversial remarks about Christianity threatened the Beatles’ US popularity.
The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, with Paul coming up with the concept and the majority of its songs. Lennon still had a major role in the album, despite the fact that he was sure that it would be unsuccessful. Today, it is hailed as the group’s masterpiece.
Lennon had the surprising role of a WWII soldier in the dark British comedy How I Won the War. The most notable part of the movie was his chilling death scene, which was rumored to upset his then wife, Cynthia.
After the untimely death of the group’s manager, the Beatles were attacked by critics for their odd TV movie, Magical Mystery Tour. The film’s soundtrack was a hit though, producing many hit singles, one of which was the Lennon-composed “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
By 1968, the individual personalities of the group started to take center stage, and the individual Beatles showed interest in starting solo careers. In an example of this, Lennon joined together with the Rolling Stones for a one-off performance on their planned Rock and Roll Circus special.
John Lennon caught ire from some friends and fans when he left his wife for conceptual artist Yoko Ono. They were married in 1969, and the resulting events of their wedding and peace protest/honeymoon were described in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”.
When the Beatles broke up, he turned his attention to creating experimental music with Yoko Ono. The two recorded three albums, but soon turned their attention to forming the Plastic Ono Band, which resulted in John’s first concert performance in years, Live Peace in Toronto 1969.
Much of the group’s music reflected John’s life and political views. The single “Give Peace a Chance” is still widely used as an anti-war anthem.
John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, released in 1970, is considered as his debut solo album. It marked somewhat of a shift more towards a mainstream sound, but the lyrics often remained deeply personal.
Imagine came a year later, and is probably John Lennon’s most well known album. Ironically, the album named after his infamous peace anthem also contained what was perceived as an attack on former bandmate, Paul McCartney. Later on, John expressed that at least some of “How Do You Sleep?” was really about himself.
John and Yoko then recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with the Harlem Community Choir. Today it is considered a Christmas classic.
Mind Games was recorded during Lennon’s “lost weekend” period, which marked the trial separation of John and Yoko. The album was less political and more commercially successful.
Also at this time, Lennon started collaborating with other artists. He contributed to David Bowie’s “Fame”, worked with George Harrison and Ringo Starr on their solo albums, and expressed interest in doing something with Paul McCartney’s band, Wings. While those plans fell through, Lennon recorded “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”, a duet with Elton John. Much to John’s surprise, it reached No.1 on the charts, so he agreed to perform with Elton in concert. The resulting Madison Square Garden show was his last live performance.
After reuniting with Yoko Ono, he devoted himself to being a stay-at-home dad. A cover of “Stand By Me” was his last single release for five years.
In October 1980, John marked his return to his music with the single “(Just Like) Starting Over”. A month later, he and Yoko’s Double Fantasy album was released. Unfortunately, it would be the last of his albums that he would live to see.
On December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was shot by a mentally unstable person, who remains in prison. Lennon’s body was cremated, with the ashes spread in New York’s Central Park, where the Strawberry Fields memorial now stands. Since then, several albums have been released featuring material he was working on prior to his death.
In the years following, his former Beatles bandmates have recorded tribute songs to their fallen friend.
Paul “Here Today”
George “All Those Years Ago”
Ringo “Peace Dream”
In 1996, the remaining members of the Beatles built a new song around two of John’s home demos. The resulting songs, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” were included in the Beatles Anthology albums.
Though it has been nearly thirty years since his tragic death, John Lennon remains a part of pop culture. This year will see the release of Nowhere Boy, a movie loosely based on his childhood.
This month, eight of John’s albums was completely remastered and re-released along with an alternate version of Double Fantasy, two compilations, and a box set of his collected work.
// Notes from the Road
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