People once viewed their leaders as gods. Roman leaders, for example, were considered as gods placed on Earth. Around the end of the fourth century this idea was going out of fashion, and was eventually replaced by the idea of leaders appointed by God. In time this idea also passed away as it became clear that people with seemingly divine powers were actually just like everyone else. But strangely into the modern age, when we accepted that there were no people set aside by divine intervention, the cult of celebrity grew. In fact in a world in which John Lennon sang about heaven being replaced by sky, certain people were picked out for a level of adoration which easily equalled the cult of bygone divine leaders.
John Lennon did not start out in life with any apparent promise to do great things. He was born in Liverpool's Maternity Hospital, Oxford Street, on the evening of 9th October 1940 during an air raid. Early family life was turbulent. His father Freddie was a merchant seaman and would be away at sea for long periods. Meanwhile Freddie's vivacious wife Julia would often slip out during the evening to go dancing. During one of Freddie's long periods away Julia became pregnant by another man, a soldier named Taffy Williams, and the Lennon's marriage broke up. Julia then became involved with a new boyfriend, a Liverpool waiter named Dykins. During family rows young John would often run off to the house of Julia's no nonsense sister Mimi. Finally in 1946 there was a showdown during a holiday in Blackpool, with Freddie wanting to take John to New Zealand. An understandably distressed John ran to his mother, who took him back to Liverpool and her somewhat laid back parental style. Freddie returned to sea, got into trouble, lost his job and lived a wandering life working in hotel kitchens. Aunt Mimi then stepped in and took young John into her house, called Mendips in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool where he would spend the rest of his childhood. Sometimes this childhood is presented as being unusually difficult, in an attempt to explain unusual compensating ability in adult life. Albert Goldman takes this approach in his biography The Lives of John Lennon. But Philip Norman in John Lennon The Life argues for a much more ordinary picture inspite of the apparent hardship. Norman presents John as being in the pleasant position of having a number of secure homes to go to, Mimi's, Julia's and the home of Aunt Harrie who lived a short walk away from Mendips.
Mendips - John Lennon's childhood home
John had an unremarkable school career. Goldman tries to tell a Tennessee Williams tale of violence and bullying, but once again the reality was probably more mundane. Philip Norman does not portray the Lennon school days as particularly troubled. Comedian Jimmy Tarbuck who was at school with John remembers he used to get into fights, though not with Tarbuck, who at that time was a terrifying Teddy Boy. There were ordinary games of Cowboys and Indians with best friend Pete Shotten, John always wanting to play the Indian. Entry to Quarry Bank Grammar School followed a successful eleven plus exam. John started in the top stream but slipped to the bottom. With Pete Shotten in tow there was much mischief, playing truant, shop lifting, and the running of a dinner ticket scam after accidentally finding thousands of tickets in a school bin. In his room at Mendips John would read Just William books and listen to music. In the same way that people would one day idolise him, he came to idolise Elvis Presley, Mimi eventually getting tired of having "Elvis for breakfast, lunch and tea". But although Elvis seemed like a distant god, the music that the young idolised in the 1950s was unusually accessible, even to boys in the bottom stream at Liverpool grammar schools. By the mid 1950s skiffle had became a major youth craze. As George Harrison says in the Beatles Anthology: "Skiffle came out of the blues, but the way it was performed made it accessible to us white Liverpudlians. It was dead cheap - just a washboard, a tea chest, a bit of string, a broom handle and £3 10s guitar."
In January 1956 Chris Barber's skiffle group had a major hit with Rock Island Line, skiffle going on to become a sensation in 1956 - 57. While instruments were simple so were the musical structures used. Skiffle used the traditional twelve bar blues pattern of four chords, which in their simplest version could be played with only two fingers on a guitar. They could be learned very quickly. Julia provided £10, and a guitar was purchased by mail order. Julia who played banjo gave John his lessons. It didn't take long to learn a few chords, and in March 1957 John Lennon formed his first band, originally called the Black Jacks. Then as most band members went to Quarry Bank School this was changed to the Quarry Men.
In October 1957, after failing all his "O" Level exams, John managed, on his headmaster's recommendation, to get into Liverpool College of Art in Hope Street. Here he took a lackadaisical attitude to his studies, became good friends with the college's most promising student, Stuart Sutcliffe, chased after girls, drank "Black Velvets" at lunchtime in Ye Cracke in Rice Street, and kept playing with the Quarry Men. Earlier that summer, on 6th July 1957, an enthusiastic and promising young guitar player and singer named Paul McCartney had seen the Quarry Men playing at St Peter's Church garden fete in Woolton. Paul talked to John, played a few tunes, and proved that he was a good musician, better in fact than John. Paul was invited to join the band, an offer he nonchalantly accepted a few weeks later. Paul then started talking about his young friend George Harrison, who was initially judged as too young for the band, but was eventually grumpily allowed to join. Knowing what happened later, it might seem that this was the start of something big. But it wasn't. John's life was traumatically disrupted in July 1958 when, following a row with John Dykins, Julia was hit by a car on Menlove Avenue and killed. The Quarry Men broke up early in 1959 after a disastrous gig where the boys all got drunk. Only John, Paul and George were left from the original band, with John's art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe being invited to play bass, even though he had little musical talent. The future Beatles were four guitar players - one of which could hardly play - with no drummer and few prospects.
Mathew Street , Liverpool - the Beatles played hundreds of shows at the Cavern Club here
John lasted two years at art college before music became his livelihood. Always struggling to find drummers, his band played on the Liverpool dance hall circuit, and famously at the Cavern Club in Mathew Street. Although John was moving on now from skiffle, the Liverpool dance hall scene continued the feeling of a rough and ready music for all. The Liverpool circuit had a particularly local flavour. In other parts of the country Mecca and Rank ran dance halls on authoritarian lines, displaying signs with messages such as "No Jiving". In Liverpool people couldn't afford these places, and local events were organised instead. These ranged from the family fun of village fetes, such as the one at Woolton where John met Paul, to altogether tougher gigs. During one particularly riotous gig Stuart Sutcliffe was attacked, and inspite of John's desperate efforts to defend him, he sustained a head injury which may later have led to a fatal hemorrhage. Attacks on his friend aside, it seemed that most of the time John enjoyed the turbulent crowds he performed for. Drummer Tommy Moore eventually left the group now calling itself Beatles, disenchanted with John's obvious relish for crowd trouble. Pete Best took over on drums, just in time for an engagement in Hamburg in August 1960. Bruno Koschmider, fairground showman cum rock n' roll impresario, hired a number of Liverpool bands, including the Beatles, to play in Hamburg. Playing for a tough crowd the Beatles adapted accordingly. At times things got out of hand, particularly during an embarrassing attempt to mug a drunk sailor. Although Paul and George lost their nerve, John and Pete Best carried on with the attack, only to get beaten off by their intended victim. This might not have been the only trouble John got into. Even the most sympathetic biographers admit that John could be violent and aggressive when drunk. More seriously, Stuart Sutcliffe's younger sister Pauline, in her 1984 memoir, The Beatles Shadow, even suggested that the head injury which was later to kill her brother was actually sustained in Hamburg during a fight with John, though no one else corroborates this. Whatever the truth of this period, it seems clear the Beatles became a willing part of their harsh environment. It would be wrong, however, to see - as Albert Goldman does - the wild Hamburg Beatles as the real thing, who decided later to compromise themselves to find more middle of the road success. They always had their eye on a more general appeal. In 1961 the Beatles took part in a talent show, Carroll Levis' "Nationwide Search For A Star". The Beatles got to the finals in Manchester, but failed to take up their invitation to play, not because they thought such a competition below them, but because they couldn't afford the necessary overnight accommodation in Manchester. They also auditioned for the Simon Cowell of the day, Larry Parnes who packaged young British singers as American rock star copies. Tommy Steele and Billy Fury were managed by Parnes. He gave the Beatles a job touring Scotland with an act of his named Johnny Gentle, for £18 each. John himself was to moan about success being a form of "selling out," but this was nonsense. The Beatles before their big break were a band making a precarious living playing rock n' roll covers. After their big break they became a band creating their own music. How this constitutes selling out I cannot fathom.
Paul McCartney's House at 20 Forthlin Road
During 1962 record producer George Martin of EMI was looking for an act to package as his own Cliff Richard and the Shadows. The Beatles got the call during a stint in Hamburg, offering a recording session at EMI. This session went fairly well, Martin thinking that he might be able to do something with the Beatles. Pete Best, for some reason, wasn't considered right for the emerging band. He was sacked and the job of drummer was given to Richard Starkey, or Ringo Starr, who had played with Liverpool band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The Beatles in their final line up were now on the the threshold of success. Fittingly for a band which had started out with skiffle in which anyone could take part, the Beatles quickly won a very wide audience. At the elitist end there was The Times classical music critic William Mann, who was to write that Lennon and McCartney "were the outstanding English composers of 1963". Mann talked of "major tonic sevenths and ninths, flat submedial key switches, and the concluding Aeolian cadence in Not A Second Time which had the same chord progression as Mahler's Song of the Earth" (see Philip Norman P320). On the other hand there was a huge middle and working class audience for the Beatles. In fact their appeal was classless. Fittingly for a band with such a wide appeal Lennon and McCartney were typically finding poetry in ordinary things. First it was boy girl relationships, with Love Me Do in October 1962, and Please Please Me in February 1963. Then in a massive rush of creativity anything from trips to the Isle of Wight (Ticket to Ride 1965), memories of friends and places in Liverpool (In My Life, 1965), pine cladding (Norwegian Wood 1965), sleeping (I'm Only Sleeping 1966) and visits to the doctor (Doctor Robert 1966) became the source of classic songs. Ironically all of this creativity based on ordinary things set John apart as a global superstar. Unsurprisingly John was to find that everything he had dreamt of as being special about being a star was not so special after all. Once the initial thrill had worn off, life was spent trapped in hotel rooms, or recovering from tours in his suburban house in Weybridge, Surrey. Normal family life was very difficult. John's young wife Cynthia who he had met at art school was kept hidden away because she, as a wife, was considered bad for the Beatle pin up image. Not that John minded this much. He was no family man during the 1960s. Money also gave easy access to drugs which became a growing problem. Then fame turned out to be positively dangerous when in March 1966 John gave an interview with Maureen Cleave, during which he carelessly remarked that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This interview was initially little noticed, until in July 1966 it was published in the American teen magazine Date Book. In the more fundamentalist environment of America there was a huge uproar, which coincided with an American tour. The Beatles could no longer sell out their stadium venues, and death threats were received. The sound of fire crackers at a show in Memphis had all the Beatles turning to John expecting to see him drop dead. This tour ended at Candlestick Stadium in San Francisco on 29th August 1966, marking the end of the Beatles as a live act.
Abbey Road zebra crossing
John now went through a difficult period in his personal life, which coincided with a highpoint in creatively. Since 1965 he had been taking LSD after being introduced to the drug, not by some guru, or dramatic low life dealer, but by George Harrison's dentist! The mundane seemed to follow John in even the most seemingly wild of his days. After spending a few months in the autumn of 1966 acting in an unremarkable film called How I Won The War, he met a young Japanese artist named Yoko Ono at the Indica gallery in Mason's Yard, St James's, London. This was the start of an affair which was to end his marriage to Cynthia. While all this was going on, the Beatles were busy making 1967's Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band at Abbey Road studios. At times it seemed like a fantastical journey, but in the track Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, a fantastical journey is actually very ordinary. Inspite of marmalade skies and flowers that grow incredibly high, the journey we are taking in the song consists of a bit of a boat ride, a drive in a taxi, and a walk through a garden with a fountain. The journey ends on a train in a station seeing someone we know at a turnstile. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds suggests the twilight world of drug taking, along with a cosy domesticity, inspired as it was by a picture drawn by John's young son Julian. The song seems to imply that ordinary life would be as fantastical as the Lucy world if it wasn't for familiarity. It also suggests that fantastical worlds soon become rather ordinary once you've lived in them for a while. John's journey reached a kind of culmination in 1969 not on world tours, or at the mountain retreats of Indian gurus, but on a zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios. On the Abbey Road album's famous sleeve picture, the Beatles are crossing to the other side. The group which John Lennon had created, and which had taken him to global stardom was coming to the end of the road. Abbey Road was to be their last album. There are of course allusions in the Abbey Road cover picture to crossing over, such as Ringo's undertaker's outfit, Paul's bare feet, John's angelic white suit, with George perhaps as the grave digger in his jeans. These are all references to the kind of unfathomable, final, irrevocable journey to the other side that occurs at the end of life: but in this case the journey is happening on a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood, London. Perhaps the picture is suggesting that all crossings over, no matter how major they might appear to be, are in fact like walking over a zebra crossing. You could see this as worrying, since in seeming to cross over to something better, it turns out that one side of the road is much like the other. You could of course take the reassuring point of view that none of life's crossings are as major and final as they seem, and no matter what happens we will always be able to come back home. As John said in 1968's Across The Universe: "Nothing's going to change my world." These words are frustrating and reassuring in equal measure. Crossing at the Abbey Road zebra crossing was the best kind of ordinary everyday trip to the other side.
John married Yoko in March 1969 just before the Beatles finally broke up in 1970. Initially the couple lived at Tittenhurst Park in Berkshire. This grand manor house may have looked like a big step up from Lennon's life in Liverpool, when in fact it was a continuing echo of that life. The property reminded John of Liverpool's Calderstones Park, a public park where he had played as a boy. In moving on he only seemed to remain in the world he knew. John became known as a peace campaigner, but in his song Imagine from 1970 he clearly understood the contradictions of peace. He imagined no heaven, which in effect is a negation of all we hope for. John realised that imagination is essentially restless. You cannot imagine a more peaceful world because imagination itself is not peaceful. The way to get to a better place is not to imagine it, but to accept the world as it is. In June 1973 the Lennons took up residence across the Atlantic in the Dakota Building, New York. Most of 1974 was spent away from Yoko on the far side of the United States living in Los Angeles with Yoko's secretary May Pang, whilst trying to make an album with Phil Spector. This chaotic time of drinking, partying and drug taking is often referred to as the Lost Weekend. Following the Lost Weekend John lived quietly at the Dakota with Yoko and their son Sean. He emerged in 1980 and went on a five month sailing trip to Bermuda. This adventurous holiday, during which John single-handedly steered a yacht full of exhausted men through a storm, seemed to re ignite a desire for song writing. Returning to New York he made the Double Fantasy album with Yoko, which was released on 17th November 1980. The following month, on the evening of 8th December, Mark Chapman shot John at the entrance to the Dakota building as he was returning from a day of recording in the studio. His death was greeted with worldwide grief, confirming an iconic status. John himself, however, would not have wanted to be remembered as a god, but as someone who walked across Abbey Road.