December 8, 1980 – John Winston Lennon was born on October 9, 1940 at Liverpool’s Oxford Hospital. His father Alfred abandoned him and his mother Julia when John was three years old. Shortly thereafter, Julia gave up custody of John to her sister Mimi and her husband George, who then would raise him. As he entered his teens it became clear that John had a higher intellect than others his age. He hated school but was part of the school’s newspaper staff and he would contribute to it with his own illustrated short stories. Those short stories showed off just some of his emerging talent.
He also had a love for music. As a child he had learned how to play the harmonica from his Uncle George. In the early ’50s, the new sound of rock ‘n roll was taking over and he decided he wanted to be a part of it. After talking his Aunt Mimi into buying him a guitar, John taught himself how to play it after applying the banjo chords his mother had previously showed him. His interest in the guitar took over everything else in his life. In 1955, at the age of 15, he formed his own band and called them The Quarryman, named after the school he attended. It was in this band that he would meet Paul McCartney and George Harrison and the Beatles would form from it.
At the age of 17, John’s mother was killed when hit by a car, he had witnessed the accident and was devastated by it. This in turn made him get into his music even more as he found it an escape. It also help build a strong bond with his friend Paul who also had just lost his mother to cancer. The Quarrymen would change their name a couple of times until they settled on the name “The Beatles”. John and Paul shared the lead vocals in the band and by the early sixties they were already making a name for themselves. In 1962 John married his long time girlfriend Cynthia Powell and the next year they had a son, Julian.
The Beatles would not only become rock’s most famous group but also a phenomena. John was a big reason for that. He was always rebellious as a child and as a young adult hadn’t changed much. He would say what was on his mind at press conferences unlike others back then would. He seemed to have an answer for just about anything that the press would toss at him. When he made a statement that the Beatles were more popular then Jesus Christ amongst young people in the UK, he was probably correct, for that time frame, but as to be expected, it was taken wrong and he would have that hang over him for a time after.
John met Yoko Ono, an avant-garde artist in late 1966. He had attended a show of her work and was impressed. He decided to finance her art exhibit. In 1968 he fell in love with Yoko and decided to leave his wife for her. Yoko had a strong influence on his music as he got into experimental sounds and progressive music. This was all to the dismay of his fellow Beatles. Tension grew as John would bring Yoko into the studio for Beatle sessions. It became clear that John was more interested in working with Yoko than his bandmates and the end of the Beatles was near. This had actually nothing to do with sexuality, but everything with the fact that John’s intellect pushed him, far beyond the commercial entity that the Beatles had become. John married Yoko in March of ’69. By this time the two of them were into protests against the war in VietNam. Amongst other things, they would stage Bed-Ins against the war and write some great anti war songs
John started his solo career while still in the Beatles. He had already written two well received books, In His Own Write (’64), and A Spaniard in the Works (’65) and in 1966, he acted in Dick Lester’s comedy How I Won the War. Musically he and Yoko had released the experimental album Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins in ’68. They would release two more similar albums in early ’69 and also the live single “Give Peace a Chance,” which was recorded during a Bed-In in Montreal, Canada. In December of 1968 he made his first non-Beatles appearance with the supergroup The Dirty Mac,(with Clapton on guitar and Keith Richards on bass) which was formed for the TV special, The Rock ‘n Roll Circus. In September of 1969, he returned to live performances with a concert at a Toronto rock & roll festival. He was supported by the Plastic Ono Band, which featured Ono, guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Klaus Voormann and drummer Alan White. The next month he would release the single “Cold Turkey”, a song about his addiction to heroin.
Around the time of the release of “Cold Turkey”, John told his fellow band members that he was planning to split from the group. But he agreed not to publicly announce his intentions until after negotiations with EMI, with whom the Beatles were in talks with through Allen Klein, were resolved. In February of 1970 he released the single “Instant Karma” which was a big hit. That April, Paul announced that he was leaving the Beatles which angered John, who had stayed in the band temporary for the band’s sake.
His first full-fledged solo album, John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band was released in December of 1970 and was a shocker to some Beatles fans. It was inspired by his primal scream therapy that he went through and was both brilliant and disturbing. One song, the haunting “Mother”, was written about his parents and their abandoning him. “God” was another song where he dismissed the worshipping that so many believed in including not only God, but the Beatles too. Everybody should just believe in themselves, was the song’s message.
1971 would be a very creative year for John. Early in the year he released the protest single “Power To The People”, which was yet another hit. He would move to New York City that year and work on his next album. Imagine was released in October and went to number one internationally. The title cut, a paean for peace in a world with no Gods or personal possessions, where everyone is equal, would become his most loved song by his fans, and his most remembered. But the album also contained a few portent protest songs, including “How Do You Sleep?” which was a direct attack on Paul McCartney. In December he released the Christmas anti-war single “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”.
More political songs would show up on his next release in 1972, Sometime In New York City, a double album. By this time he also was in a legal battle with the US government. He wanted to stay in the country but US Immigration refused to give him a green card due to a conviction for marijuana possession in 1968. In 1973, he was ordered to leave America, and he launched a full-scale battle against the department. At the end of that year, he released the album Mind Games, an album that highlighted problems between him and Yoko. In early ’74 he and Yoko split up and John moved to Los Angeles where his “Lost Weekend” would take place for the next year and a half. He spend most of it in a haze of drugs and alcohol, partying hard with several different rockers including Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. During this time not all was lost, as he produced Nilsson’s album Pussycats. He also recorded and released in November a new studio album, Walls And Bridges. The album contained the single ‘Whatever Gets You Through The Night”, a powerful rocker written with Elton John, which went to number 1 in the US. That month, he made his last ever concert appearance when he appeared onstage at Madison Square Garden with Elton John. That night John was reunited with Yoko and they would get back together for good.
In 1975, his cover album of 50s and early 60s hits was released. Rock ‘N’ Roll went to number six on both the US and British charts. But even better news awaited him. That October, after the birth of his and Yoko’s son Sean, the US court of appeals overturned his deportation order. In the summer of 1976, he was finally granted his green card. Also around that time, he co-wrote and appeared on David Bowie’s hit single “Fame”. He then decided to retire from music, choosing to become a house husband, while Yoko looked after their business interests.
The peace-crusading and controversial Beatle was however shot and killed by crazed fan, Mark David Chapman, outside of his New York City apartment on December 8, 1980. He was 40 years old.
Footnote: John Lennon famously retired from the shackles of fame and the music business in 1975, walking away from his myth and legend to take care of his baby son. Five years later, he returned to the studio to lay down a whole bunch of songs that would result in the ‘Double Fantasy’ album.
Lennon was so prolific during this period that many of the songs were left unfinished. Following his tragic murder on Dec. 8, 1980, the leftover material eventually found its way on posthumous albums. ‘Borrowed Time,’ inspired by a harrowing sailing trip, includes the line ”Living on borrowed time without a thought for tomorrow” and was reportedly the first song recorded after Lennon resumed his career. It ended up on 1984′s ‘Milk and Honey‘ LP, where its lyrics seemed eerily, and sadly, prescient.
In 1980, John returned to recording, signing a new contract with Geffen Records. He released with Yoko, the album Double Fantasy that November, which went to number 1 worldwide. The album’s first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was also a big hit.
Then on December 8, 1980, while returning from the recording studio, he was brutally shot five times by 25 year old Mark Chapman outside the Dakota building, New York City, where John and his wife Yoko lived.
His death drew grief from the entire world; as everyone reacted in unprecedented mourning, with scenes usually reserved for world leaders. On December 14, millions of fans around the world participated in a ten-minute silent vigil for him at 2 p.m. EST. The dream that Lennon had sang about years earlier was now truly and sadly over.
Several albums of his unreleased recordings would show up in the years after his death. But his song writing with Paul McCartney would go down as rock’s best writing team ever; the Beatles rock’s most loved group, and his life both in and out of the Beatles perhaps rock’s most interesting. There will never be another like John Lennon.