(N.B. I have often wanted to write a biography of John Lennon during his Beatles years, but living in China don’t have all the necessary books to hand. Nonetheless, I’ve written the introduction and first chapter of it, and thought I’d share the intro.)
The writer who ventures onto the trail of John Lennon, especially on his time as a Beatle, may be somewhat foolhardy. Lennon, as a Beatle and afterwards, has already been well covered, with numerous biographies, as well as memoirs by his first wife Cynthia, his second wife Yoko, his half-sister Julia, his PR man and even his driver. He has been analysed intensively – musicologically and psychologically, from the perspectives of feminism, Maoism, and “primally”. He is one of the most well known people of the twentieth century, with accolades varying from “Man of the Decade” [the 1960s, of course] according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, being voted eighth in a BBC “100 Greatest Britons” poll, to the naming of the airport in Liverpool after him, in 2002. A “John Lennon” Google search brings up almost 112 million pages. Beatles memorabilia remains highly sought after: a very rare copy of The Beatles (more commonly known, of course, as the White Album) sold for £20,000 on e-Bay in 2008, while the drum skin which featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper sold for $1.1m and the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace A Chance” for over $800,000. And of course there is always the music, with reputedly more than one billion albums and singles sold worldwide. (Take a moment to digest that: over a billion records, from only seven years worth of recordings. Elvis Presley took over twenty years to be the nearest numerical rival, and Frank Sinatra over forty. Lennon of course had ten more years as a solo artist in addition to that). As part of pop culture, Lennon has never left us; his life and work have been pored over, analysed and examined, exalted and decried for almost fifty years now.
So what is there still to say?
First, since 1994, a great deal of Beatles material previously heard only on bootlegs or live has been officially released . Starting with Live At The BBC, a double CD of live performances from 1962 to 1965, Apple Corps then released three Anthology double CD albums of out-takes, demos and alternate versions, the seven DVD Anthology TV series, the 1 album of No. 1 singles, Let It Be… Naked, a version of the last-released studio album without the overdubs added by Phil Spector, and even a mash-up of sorts called Love, as produced by long-time producer George Martin and his son Giles. They are now available on iTunes and in the Rock Band computer game. All of these have sold well, showing that The Beatles remain as “toppermost of the poppermost” as ever. If art always exists in the present tense (which is to say, in the mind of the person experiencing it), then John Lennon and The Beatles are as relevant, as now, as they ever were.
Second, with the advent of the internet and particularly peer-to-peer file-sharing, the ordinary fan has access to far more Beatles music and film than ever before. While Beatles bootlegs have always circulated for those interested, few people might have seen the canned Let It Be film, or the famous rooftop gig which ends it, or seen more than a snippet of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Performance of 1964, at Shea Stadium in 1965, or the Budokan in 1966. Considering that there is no official live album or film in the official catalogue and that they were great performers in that area (at least to begin with), this is a considerable gap. The Beatles were after all a band built on their live performances – first in the searing boiler room of Hamburg in 1961-1962 and later in Liverpool and then across the UK in 1962-1963. So to actually see and hear The Beatles perform live is a fascinating exercise. (And few who saw them after 1963 actually heard them). Lennon in particular is enthralling in Beatlemania-era footage: his raw charisma almost, but not quite, smothered by his suit, his feet spread apart and his knees bending to keep time, his crotch rising and falling in a vivid suggestion of sex. Finally, you can really feel the mania in the air as the four young men from Liverpool stride through a earth-shattering din to a small stage in a baseball field in New York, or observe how they interacted on stage – the end-of-show bows like something from another era, which to all intents and purposes they were – or with what sharp wit and pointed humour they conducted themselves in press conferences. Finally you can see them performing on the Apple rooftop in that cold blustery January of 1969, rusty, nostalgic and sentimental, like a couple near the end of their relationship having one last physical fling, aware that it makes no difference and that the end is not averted.
Third, several previous Lennon biographies have tended to portray him at either end of the human spectrum, with Albert Goldman seeing him as a weak, manipulated fool dominated by Yoko Ono and hopelessly addicted to drugs, and Ray Coleman’s near-hagiography seeing Lennon as a “poet and philosopher”. Both seem to focus on the extremes of Lennon’s personality – of which there is admittedly ample evidence – and miss out the middle ground. To take the first example: it’s difficult to believe that Lennon could be so subjugated by Yoko Ono, when he had an immensely forceful personality himself and a short-leash temper. (He might, of course, want to be to some extent dominated by a strong woman, and Coleman rightly observes that while Ono was Lennon’s intellectual superior, he was the superior artist). Similarly, while many of Lennon’s songs have philosophical implications, by no stretch could he be called a philosopher. He was a voracious but unsystematic reader, and his thoughts and ideas were similarly moment-to-moment; he was always capable of changing his truths to suit his current artistic endeavours. His 1970 Rolling Stone interviews are justly famous, but the reader must always be aware that Lennon was speaking with the acrid bitterness of the Beatles’ recent breakup still smoking, and his disillusion with the 1960s from this perspective must be tempered with an awareness of what he said and did at the time, rather than retrospective rationales.
For me, I see Lennon as an artist, above and beyond everything else. His activism, his experimentation with drugs, even his relationships were all secondary to or even motivated by his constant need to express himself in some new way. Few musical artists can have striven so continuously to find new means of expression as Lennon whilst a Beatle. What’s astonishing is that for all the success The Beatles achieved, it never satisfied them just for its own sake: their pace of their musical development was incredible, unprecedented and never since equalled. Starting with the inspirations of early rock and roll, Lennon moved on through Dylan, cannabis, LSD and the Chelsea/bohemian set, transcendental meditation, conceptual art, Yoko, the Fluxus art group, and radical 60s figures like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman amongst others, all of which percolated their way in some shape or form into his music. It’s in this sense that Lennon was, as he later remarked to May Pang (his partner during his 1974-5 estrangement from Ono), “a chameleon”. A recurring characteristic of Lennon was that he would discover some new thing, become obsessed by it, have it colour or shape his art and his life, discover its limitations, and then move on to something fresh. This more than anything explains the multiplicity and heterogeneousness of the portraits of Lennon. Few people can have changed their appearance so consistently in such a short period of time, every change signifying his ongoing musical, artistic and personal development. Rocker John, in leathers and a quiff, was replaced by the suited, Epstein-influenced, professional Lennon. 1965 saw Lennon in his self-indulgent “Fat Elvis” period, hair and chin growing rapidly. Psychedelia brought great changes, face greatly thinned, a walrus moustache, the famous Lennon granny glasses, and colourful archaic clothing. India begat a beard, long hair (and a messiah complex). The beginning of his solo career, when he consciously turned his back on the dreams of the 1960s, was intimated by a no-nonsense crew-cut and proletarian dungarees.
Lennon was, as critic Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to a documentary on the making of Imagine, a “man of infinite contradictions”. Time and further revelations only bring these contradictions into sharper relief. He always professed to have disliked his school days , and his school record gives no reason to doubt this, for he was no success and left with no qualifications at all. Yet he named his first band after his secondary school and even corresponded with a pupil during the peak of Beatlemania, when his time must have been at its most circumscribed. This suggests a certain nostalgia, if nothing else. He was capable of the most extreme misogyny (as seen on 1965’s “Run For Your Life”, filled with murderous jealousy), and the most devastating introspection (the solo “Jealous Guy” being Lennon’s archetypal song in this vein, though it was written in India in 1968 with a lyric of even greater self-negation titled “Child Of Nature”). He was terse and did not suffer fools gladly, yet he was occasionally suckered through his generosity of spirit and finances. A wealthy man who in his early twenties voted Conservative “because they look after your money better”, he had “no desire to join the fucking aristocracy”. A kind and loving father who rarely saw his first son, he was also a man’s man who always needed a strong woman in his life.
His contradictions ran as deep within his music as in his personal life. He was a remarkable vocalist who hated the sound of his own singing, insisting that George Martin “do something with my voice”. He was a traditionalist, insisting that no song ever bettered “Whole Lotta Shakin”, who, with the other Beatles, instigated more developments in studio techniques than any other artist before or since. He knew and could play scores upon scores of songs, as a result of playing endless sets in Hamburg, yet he couldn’t tell apart on-beats and off-beats. He produced some of the most colourful pop music ever created, yet his chord choices were extremely frugal. He stopped composing on guitar when he had become too proficient upon it. His imagination and invention were astonishing, even though he later professed to always prefer first-person songs, “cos I know me”. The emotional range of his songs runs from exhilarating and joyous to painful melancholia to desperate, agonising need to sinister shadowiness to caustic mockery to gentle lullaby. He wrote a magnificently articulate song about being the difficulties in communication and a starkly affecting song about concealing emotion.
For all these paradoxes and incongruities, however, Lennon was not one of rock’s madmen. He was not like Keith Moon, destroying hotel rooms and adopting poses and acts so often and convincingly that it was hard to tell who the ‘real’ Keith was, or if there was one. He was not like Syd Barret, fragmenting under a tide of psychedelic drugs (although he came perilously close to it in 1967). He was not like Axl Rose or Michael Jackson, megalomaniacal egos paranoically alienating fans, friends and musicians. Nor was he like Kurt Cobain or Radiohead, responding to massive success with deliberate obscurity and sour contempt. Lennon, of all the Beatles, always gave the impression of being both thoroughly unimpressed by the tawdry trappings of fame and determined to prove his talent to the most important judge of all – himself. A bedrock of cool, dispassionate scepticism about Lennon prevented him from letting fame go to his head under Beatlemania (though having the rest of The Beatles there would have helped greatly), or from floating away in a psychedelic bubble later on. But when possessed by an idea, he would go all the way with it. Timidity, artistic or personal, was never one of his problems.
Modern writers about Lennon face the charge of never having met him. To this I would say that having met someone does not necessarily make for a good book about them – there are too many bad memoirs and biographies to suggest otherwise – though their information and insights may be valuable, or not. Similarly, given Lennon’s extreme fame, almost everyone connected with him has written, or had something written, on their time with him, which gives the biographer particularly rich sources. The Beatles recording sessions have been magnificently dissected by Mark Lewisohn, their music analysed in hundreds of different ways, their lives documented to the day and often to the hour. But what Lennon oddly lacks, to my mind, is a synthesis of all these sources, a biography of his time as a Beatle which encompasses his daily activities as well as his musical accomplishments within the context of the 1960s and broader western culture. This is what this book aims to do.
Rock music is often a mythic activity, where tales grow with every re-telling and the main actors are encouraged to live “larger than life”, perhaps to please those who would live vicariously , perhaps to embody characteristic which others fear to or cannot. “Legendary” acts such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are often only mythic in this shallower sense. The Beatles however are truly mythic in the sense that their lives and work form enormous archetypes which are part of the “myth-pool”, as Carl Jung would say, of popular culture. The LP as a coherent symphonic statement, the recording studio as instrument, the beard as symbol of maturity , the secret song at the end of the LP, the “outside projects” as harbinger of splitting up, problems with wives, the desire to “get back”, the sprawling double LP , the spiritual impulse (usually meaning India or Buddhism) – all originated from The Beatles, in one shape or another. A program as contemporary as The Simpsons could do a Beatles spoof without mentioning the band and have everyone understand who they were talking about. They made the transition from disposable teen idols, the likes of which the world had seen before, to founding blocks of western culture alongside Mark Twain and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kraftwerk, with remarkable aplomb. Timothy Leary, that avatar of the 1960s, called them “[p]rototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” Which might seem silly now, but it is easy to forget that the 1960s were a time when popular culture pointed the way to a brilliant new world, and that The Beatles were at the forefront of this.
But of course they lived in the here-and-now and the day-to-day like everyone else. There are signs that they occasionally forgot this, especially during the high psychedelic summer of 1967, but such moments are surprisingly few for a band long surrounded by chronic hysteria and pandemonium. (Lennon often oscillated between acknowledging that The Beatles were the greatest and dismissively insisting that anyone could do what they did, if they put in the hours). Lennon in particular was an abrasive, often caustic, observer of what was going on around him. He was to later comment bitterly on what indignities The Beatles suffered in their quest to get to the top, and what absurdities and lunacies the Beatlemania period had engendered (though at the time he acquiesced in them willingly; their collective drive to get to the top and consequent work ethic were astonishing). He was also to fulminate at the failures of the 1960s generation in 1970, though he was and still is one of those most identified with the decade. Throughout his life Lennon was a fascinating interviewee, provided he was treated with respect and offered questions which valued and provoked his intelligence. (But woe betide the interviewer who asked a stupid question. When asked if he wrote “those kicky words” in In His Own Write “like an author?”, he sneeringly replied, “Just like an author”.) Lennon’s acerbic and compulsive truth-telling was another remarkable trait for a man who was a young pop-star. (And of course stands in desperate opposition to the docile sterility of today’s pop starlets). Rather than be content with his lot, with achieving his ambition of being “rich and famous”, there was always something greater, something further (not merely more, as with Queen: he was never one for excess for its own sake – in both his art and his personal life he could be somewhat ascetic). Lennon was the epitome of the restless soul.
Lennon formed The Quarrymen as a skiffle band with school friends in March 1957, inspired by Lonnie Donegan and his “Rock Island Line”. He was joined by Paul McCartney in July and (against Lennon’s resistance) a fourteen year-old George Harrison the following February. Performing at odd occasions and later mostly at the Casbah Coffee Club owned by Mona Best, mother of future drummer Pete, the Quarrymen cut their performing teeth slowly and painfully during the remainder of the 1950s. Come 1960, their name changing from the Beatals to the Silver Beetles to the Silver Beatles to The Beatles, the group would acquire the charismatic, artistically talented but incapable bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, though no regular drummer. In this guise Lennon led the group through the first incarnation of The Beatles, and it is to this we turn now.