John Lennon was the most iconic Beatle. He was group’s most committed rock & roller, its social conscience, and its slyest verbal wit. With the Beatles, he wrote or co-wrote dozens of classics, from “She Loves You” to “Come Together”, and delivered many of them with a cutting, humane, and distinct voice that would make him one of the greatest singers rock has ever produced.
Lennon’s brutally confessional solo work and his political activism were a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. After the Beatles’ breakup, he and wife Yoko Ono recorded together and separately, striving to break taboos and to be ruthlessly, publicly honest in their music and public performances. When Lennon was murdered on December 8, 1980, he seemed on the verge of a new, more optimistic phase. In the years since, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used by rock fans and activists alike as a symbol of peace.
He was born John Winston Lennon on October 9 1940. Like the other three Beatles, Lennon grew up in a working-class family in Liverpool. His parents, Julia and Fred, separated before he was two (Lennon saw his father only twice in the next 20 years), and Lennon went to live with his mother’s sister Mimi Smith; when Lennon was 17 his mother was killed by a bus. He attended Liverpool’s Dovedale Primary School and later the Quarry Bank High School, which supplied the name for his first band, a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, which he started in 1955.
In the summer of 1956 he met Paul McCartney, and they began writing songs together and forming groups, the last of which was the Beatles. As half of the official songwriting team Lennon/McCartney, Lennon himself penned some of the Beatles’ most well-known songs over the next decade including “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” “Nowhere Man,” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Ticket To Ride,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Across the Universe,” “Revolution,” and “Come Together.” Lennon, who had wanted to quit the Beatles just before the band’s official breakup in 1970, began his career apart from the band in 1968 when he and Ono recorded ‘Two Virgins’. It was an album of avant-garde music most notable for its controversial cover featuring the couple fully nude; the album was shipped in plain brown wrapper. He would go on to record more than half of his solo albums with Ono.
Lennon and Ono had been corresponding since he met the artist at a 1966 showing of her work at the Indica art gallery in London. The following year Lennon sponsored Ono’s “Half Wind Show” at London’s Lisson Gallery. In May 1968 Ono visited Lennon at his home in Weybridge, and that night they recorded the tapes that would be released as ‘Two Virgins’. (The nude cover shots, taken by Lennon with an automatic camera, were photographed then as well.) Lennon soon separated from his wife, Cynthia (with whom he had one child, Julian, in 1964); they were divorced that November. Lennon and Ono became constant companions. Frustrated by his role with the Beatles, Lennon, with Ono, explored avant-garde performance art, music, and film. While he regarded his relationship with Ono as the most important thing in his life, the couple’s inseparability and Ono’s influence over Lennon would be a source of great tension among the Beatles, then in their last days.
On March 20 1969, Lennon and Ono were married in Gibraltar; for their honeymoon, they held their first “Bed-in for Peace,” in the presidential suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. The peace movement was the first of several political causes the couple would take up over the years, but it was the one that generated the most publicity. On April 22, Lennon changed his middle name from Winston to Ono. In May the couple attempted to continue their bed-in in the United States, but when U.S. authorities forbade them to enter the country because of an October 1968 arrest on drug charges, the bed-in resumed in Montreal. In their suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, they recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” with background chanters including Sixties luminaries such as Timothy Leary and comic folksinger Tommy Smothers, as well as numerous Hare Krishnas. Soon afterward, “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (Number Eight, 1969) came out under the Beatles’ name, though only Lennon and McCartney appear on the record.
In September 1969, Lennon, Ono, Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voormann performed live as the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto at a Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival show. The appearance, released as ‘Live Peace in Toronto’, 1969, was Lennon’s first performance before a concert audience in the three years since the Beatles had stopped performing live. Less than a month later he announced to the Beatles that he was quitting the group, but it was agreed among them that no public statement would be made until after pending lawsuits involving the band’s Apple record label and manager Allen Klein were resolved. In October the Plastic Ono Band released the searing song about heroin withdrawal, “Cold Turkey” (Number 30, 1969), which the Beatles had declined to record. The next month Lennon returned his M.B.E. medal to the Queen. In a letter to the Queen, Lennon cited as reasons for the return Britain’s involvement in Biafra and support of the U.S. in Vietnam, and, jokingly, the poor chart showing of “Cold Turkey.”
The Lennons continued their peace campaign with speeches to the press; “War Is Over! If You Want It” billboards erected on December 15 in 12 cities around the world, including Hollywood, New York, London, and Toronto; and plans for a peace festival in Toronto. When the festival plans deteriorated, Lennon turned his attention to recording “Instant Karma!” which was produced by Phil Spector, and also editing hours of tapes into the album that would be the Beatles’ last official release, ‘Let It Be’. In late February 1970 Lennon disavowed any connection with the peace festival, and the event was abandoned. In April, McCartney, in a move that Lennon saw as an act of betrayal, announced his departure from the Beatles and released a solo album. From that point on (if not earlier), Ono replaced McCartney as Lennon’s main collaborator. The Beatles were no more.
At the time, much attention was focused on Ono’s alleged role in the band’s end. An ‘Esquire’ magazine piece with the racist title “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie” was an extreme example of the decidedly antiwoman, anti-Asian backlash against Ono that she and Lennon endured for years to come. As Ono told Lennon biographer Jon Wiener in a late 1983 interview for his book ‘Come Together: John Lennon in His Time’, “When John and I were first together he got lots of threatening letters: ‘That Oriental will slit your throat while you’re sleeping.’ The Western hero had been seized by an Eastern demon.”
In late 1970 Lennon and Ono released their twin ‘Plastic Ono Band’ solo LPs. Generally, Ono’s 70’s LPs were regarded as highly adventurous works and were thus never as popular as Lennon’s. Lennon’s contained some of his most personal and, some felt, disturbing work – the direct result of his and Ono’s primal scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. In March 1971 the non-album single “Power to the People” hit Number 11, and that September, Lennon’s solo album ‘Imagine’ came out and went to Number One a month later. By late 1971 Lennon and Ono had resumed their political activities, drawn to leftist political figures including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Their involvement was reflected on ‘Some Time in New York City’ (recorded with New York band Elephant’s Memory), which included Lennon’s most overtly political writing (his and Ono’s “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” and his “John Sinclair,” an ode to the political activist and leader of the anti-racist White Panther Party). The album sold poorly, only reaching Number 48.
Over the next two years Lennon released ‘Mind Games’ (Number Nine) and ‘Walls and Bridges’ (Number One), which yielded his only solo Number One hit, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” recorded with Elton John. On November 28, 1974, Lennon made his last public appearance, at Elton John’s Madison Square Garden concert. The two performed three songs, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” released on an EP after Lennon’s death. Next came ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’, a collection of Lennon’s versions of Fifties and early-Sixties classics like “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” The release was preceded by a bootleg copy, produced by Morris Levy, over which Lennon successfully sued Levy. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (Number Six, 1975) would be Lennon’s last solo release except for ‘Shaved Fish’, a greatest-hits compilation.
Meanwhile, Lennon’s energies were increasingly directed toward his legal battle with the U.S. Immigration Department, which sought his deportation on the grounds of his previous drug arrest and involvement with the American radical left. On October 7, 1975, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the deportation order; in 1976 Lennon received permanent resident status. On October 9, 1975, Lennon’s 35th birthday, Ono gave birth to Sean Ono Lennon. Beginning in 1975, Lennon devoted his full attention to his new son and his marriage, which had survived an 18-month separation from October 1973 to March 1975. For the next five years, he lived at home in nearly total seclusion, taking care of Sean while Ono ran the couple’s financial affairs. Not until the publication of a full-page newspaper ad in May 1979 explaining his and Ono’s activities did Lennon even hint at a possible return to recording.
In September 1980 Lennon and Ono signed a contract with the newly formed Geffen Records, and on November 15 they released ‘Double Fantasy’ (Number One, 1980). A series of revealing interviews were published, “(Just Like) Starting Over” hit Number One, and there was talk of a possible world tour.
But on December 8, 1980, Lennon, returning with Ono to their Dakota apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, was shot seven times by Mark David Chapman, a 25-year-old drifter and Beatles fan to whom Lennon had given an autograph a few hours earlier. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. On December 14, at Ono’s request, a 10-minute silent vigil was held at 2 p.m. EST in which millions around the world participated. Lennon’s remains were cremated in Hartsdale, New York. At the time of his death, he was holding in his hand a tape of Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice.”
Two other singles from ‘Double Fantasy’ were hits: “Woman” (Number Two, 1981) and “Watching the Wheels” (Number 10, 1981). Double Fantasy won the 1981 Grammy for Album of the Year. Three months after Lennon’s murder, Ono released ‘Season of Glass’, an album that dealt with Lennon’s death (his cracked and bloodstained glasses are shown on the front jacket), although many of the songs were written before his shooting. ‘Season of Glass’ is the best known of Ono’s solo albums; it was the first to receive attention outside avant-garde or critical circles.
In addition to pursuing her own projects, Ono has maintained careful watch over the Lennon legacy. In the mid-Eighties she opened the Lennon archives to Andrew Solt and David Wolper for their 1988 film biography ‘Imagine’ (Ono and Solt’s documentary on the making of ‘Imagine’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’, was released in 2000). Coming as it did just a few months after the publication of Albert Goldman’s scurrilous ‘The Lives of John Lennon’, some observers saw ‘Imagine’ as a piece of spin control. In fact, it had been in the works for more than five years by then. Ono’s decision not to sue Goldman (she stated that her lawyers warned that legal action would only bring more attention to the discredited tome) was itself controversial. Paul McCartney urged a public boycott of Goldman’s book, which was almost universally reviled. On September 30, 1988, a week before ‘Imagine’ release, Lennon received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It is located near the Capitol Records building.
On March 21, 1994, Ono, Sean Lennon, and Julian Lennon were present as New York City Mayor Ed Koch officially opened Strawberry Fields, a triangular section of Central Park dedicated to Lennon’s memory and filled with plants, rocks, and other objects that Ono had solicited from heads of state around the world. That same year, an early tape of John and the Quarrymen performing two songs, made on July 6, 1957, the day he met McCartney, came to light. it was auctioned at Sotheby’s in September 1994, fetching $122,900 from EMI. On the tape, Lennon sings British skiffle king Lonnie Donegan’s “Puttin’ on the Style” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” the Arthur Gunter song made famous by Elvis Presley that included a line (“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man”) that Lennon later used in the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life.”
Lennon’s music has been anthologized heavily since his death, most notably on the four-CD ‘Lennon’, in 1990, and ‘Anthology’, a 1998 box set of his home recordings, demos and radio appearances. (In 2007 Lennon’s solo catalog was the first Beatles-related music to be sold digitally on iTunes.) In 2000 a number of events commemorated Lennon’s 60th birthday and the 20th anniversary of his death, including a major exhibition on Lennon and his work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. In 2002, Lennon’s hometown renamed its airport Liverpool John Lennon Airport. Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, several countries erected monuments honoring Lennon including a sculpture in the John Lennon Park in Havana, Cuba, and the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavík, Iceland.
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968)
Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (1969)
Wedding Album (1969)
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Some Time in New York City (1972)
Mind Games (1973)
Walls and Bridges (1974)
Rock ‘n’ Roll (1975)
Double Fantasy (1980)
Milk and Honey (1984)