From Imagine to Happy Xmas - What John Lennon means to us
PUBLISHED: 08:00 08 December 2018
What does John Lennon mean to you? On the anniversary of his death, we're looking at his legacy and why his music is as relevant now as ever.
It’s hard to believe that it’s now 38 years since John Lennon died. If you are of a certain age, you will remember exactly where you were on December 8, 1980, when you heard the shattering news that he had been killed, gunned down outside his home in New York, aged just 40.
Following the tragedy, the general reaction was to put on Lennon’s albums and listen to that unmistakable voice, so often pouring out calls for love and peace, which had just become more poignant than ever.
Often controversial and cutting, he was always an artist who was prepared to put his own battles and problems into his music, stamping it with his edgy personality.
Ranging from angry political statements to surprising tenderness, at its best Lennon’s work has a fearless intimacy which is his defining quality. Today, his legacy lives on as vividly as ever, with new generations discovering his music, from the surreal humour of Beatles tracks like I Am the Walrus to the naked emotion of a song like Jealous Guy.
Here in East Anglia, his music is cherished not only by the fans who went along to Beatles concerts in Ipswich and Norwich in the early 1960s, but also by those who are far too young to remember the days of Beatlemania.
As the anniversary of his death arrives, people across the area have been sharing their memories, and revealing which songs mean the most to them.
Despite the amazing popularity of The Beatles, many of the recordings which Lennon made in the years after their break-up are just as well-known.
Imagine - Still so poignant
Above all, the song which springs to mind first is Imagine, with its heartfelt call for people to live in peace, overcoming the divisions of countries and religions, something which is more relevant than ever nearly four decades on.
Anyone who watched the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 will remember the moving sight of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and Liverpool Signing Choir joining in a performance of Imagine, accompanying Lennon’s original vocal.
And it was inevitable that this song was the one which went to number one in the charts following his death, as fans struggled to make sense of the tragedy and find some hope.
Twitter user Barney wrote: “I was never lucky enough to see him live. The night of his death, I saw Queen live. Freddie Mercury sang Imagine solo with no musical backing, one of the greatest moments of my life. The whole audience was silent during it, as they knew something special was happening!”
Jane Lomas, who lives near Chelmsford, wrote on Twitter: “ My favourite has to be Imagine. I never tire of the hope, love and peace in that song.”
And, on Facebook, June Radley said: “Give Peace a Chance and Imagine are favourite songs. I can remember him with Yoko Ono staying in bed for days, I believe.”
Another Facebook user, Faiz Med also chose Imagine as a favourite, adding: “He was a genius.”
But Lennon’s music is about far more than one song, however great. Another Facebook user, Lorna Goddard, said her favourite “has to be Imagine, or Jealous Guy, or Woman. Can’t choose, loved him and all his music, well 99.5%.”
Voice for the peace movement and devoted dad
Ross Bentley of Sudbury writes: “For anyone interested in popular music, Lennon is right up there in the pantheon – after all, he was the founder of and songwriter for the most successful and revered pop band of all time.
“While the Beatles were all cheeky chappies, Lennon’s comments tended to be more acerbic and cutting, a sign that later in life he would become a voice for the peace movement and post-hippie generation.
“In many ways Lennon’s hairy years supersede his career with the Beatles – his political stance against the Vietnam War and his infamous bed-in for peace ensuring he is remembered as being much more than a rock star.
“Favourite Lennon moments for me include the last time the Beatles performed live; on the rooftop of their Apple office in Savile Row in London in 1969 – check out Lennon singing Don’t Let Me Down (on YouTube).
“I also love his song Beautiful Boy - a truly moving song that reminds me of my sons.”
Nick Richards of Norwich also chose Beautiful Boy as his favourite. He writes: “My choice probably comes from having two of the little wonders myself, but I remember when my oldest son was a month or two old and this song used to go through my head when I was putting him to sleep.
“Plus, it has the sublime lyric “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” which is one of my favourites and one of John Lennon’s best. That line rings so true - if you can get the boring bit between making exciting plans in your life right, you know you’re gonna be alright.”
Colin Carter, a Twitter user who grew up in Alderton near Woodbridge, chose some of Lennon’s most deeply personal songs as his favourites, Oh Yoko, God, Mother and Working Class Hero, commenting that these are “some sadly overlooked songs of John Lennon”.
He also added a Beatles reminiscence, saying: “My mother-in-law was friends with Pete Best when The Beatles first went to Hamburg. He wrote to her weekly, giving her updates on how they were getting on. Trouble is, her sister burnt all the letters when she moved out!”
Another Twitter user, Ruskel, chose a lesser-known Beatles track, Dear Prudence, as a favourite.
From rock’n’roll to Christmas classic
Judy Rimmer of Ipswich writes: “Choosing a favourite Lennon song is almost impossible. I’m very fond of his rock’n’roll performances, like the way he belts out his cover of Twist and Shout on the first Beatles album, Please Please Me - apparently he had flu, and that was why his voice sounds so raw. He also returned to this type of number years later for his solo album entitled simply Rock’n’Roll.
“But the songs he wrote himself, whether alone or with McCartney, are the ones I return to most often. Free as a Bird is one great one, which is extra-special because the other Beatles added their contributions to it after his death, and it was released as a single, giving the fans a glimpse of the reunion which was never to be.
“And, at this time of year, we shouldn’t forget Happy Xmas (War Is Over), performed by John and Yoko with the Plastic Ono Band and the Harlem Community Choir. Like Imagine, this is another song which is still so relevant today, in a world full of conflict. It is full of Christmas joy and tenderness without being too sweet.”
How Lennon inspired Chesney Hawkes and Nik Kershaw
Younger generations of musicians have been inspired by Lennon’s music, including chart-topping singers Chesney Hawkes and Nik Kershaw.
Chesney is best-known for his classic hit The One and Only, which was written by Nik Kershaw, who grew up in Ipswich.
More recently, the two friends joined forces to write a moving tribute song entitled John Lennon Lived Here, which was included on Hawkes’s album Real Life Love. They have also performed it together live.
Chesney said: “I was and still am a huge John Lennon fan, as any young songwriter should be.
“I wanted to visit everywhere that John was famous for visiting - Central Park, the Empire State Building and of course culminating in a visit to the Dakota buildings, where his life eventually ended. He has always been a huge influence on my life and music.”
The inspiration started when he was a child. He revealed: “I actually learned to play the piano on a piano that John Lennon used to own. It was a fixture in my parents front room since I was a child, then when they moved to a smaller house I inherited it.”
Chesney’s dad, Len “Chip” Hawkes, a member of another classic 60s band, The Tremeloes, acquired the piano from Ringo Starr after Ringo bought Lennon’s house, Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, in the 1970s.
Chesney added: “When I moved to Los Angeles six years ago, I gave it to Nik. It still resides in Nik’s front room to this day. This song was actually written on that piano!”
The day my dad drove The Beatles to a concert
Mark Langford writes: “I live in Stowmarket now but I was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Birmingham when Lennon died and I remember it well. My dad gave me a lift to school that morning and the car radio was playing nothing but Beatles and Lennon songs. When I got to school I distinctly remember how some of the teachers (who I guess would have been students in the 60s and 70s) were visibly shaken. There was a real sense of sadness in the air, and his death dominated the news for days.
Strangely, I wasn’t into The Beatles that much at that time. Of course, I knew who they were - they were still a relatively contemporary band, having only split up a few years previously, but there was still a sense of them being a bit old hat in those days of New Wave.
However all the bands of the day that I was into, such as The Jam, cited them as being a major influence. I subsequently began to explore their catalogue and became – and remain – a huge fan.
Pick a favourite Lennon track? A near-impossible task. From his solo work it would have to be God, Imagine, Jealous Guy or Gimme Some Truth from the Plastic Ono Band/Imagine period of the early 70s. Gimme Some Truth probably, just because it is so edgy and acerbic and has a sentiment that still applies today. Later work would include #9 Dream, Woman, or Watching The Wheels.
A bit of a cheat, I know but his solo work covers such a broad spectrum, reflecting as it does on what was happening in his life at the time.
As an aside, my dad was a police constable in Birmingham in the 1960s and actually drove The Beatles to a concert at the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre in 1963.
Because of the massive police operation that was needed to get them anywhere, the band and their entourage were taken to Ladywood police station on the outskirts of the city centre and put in the back of blacked- out police vans to be driven to the theatre. My dad drove one of the vans.
He remembers them beforehand as being very sure of themselves and laughing about a lot at being in a police station in Brum – “mouthy Scousers”, as he described them. But he said he noticed a marked difference in them after the concert – even though they only played a relatively short set they were absolutely drained. (I can only suppose it was from the experience of playing to thousands of screaming fans).
It was a concert that spawned a very famous picture of The Beatles in policemen’s helmets. He says he remembers the picture being taken and was standing just off to the side and he thinks either John Lennon or George Harrison is wearing his helmet.
In fairness, at that time The Beatles were just seen as a flash in the pan for teenagers, and, not being a massive pop music fan anyway, he wasn’t that bothered about it all. It was just another shift, albeit a bit different – although apparently, when my then-teenage aunt heard about it, she absolutely killed him for not getting any souvenirs or autographs!
However some of his colleagues got all four Beatles to sign the leather headbands of their helmets. Genuine signatures of the band are few and far between, and when one of the helmets came up for auction many years later it went for thousands. My dad did seem to go a funny colour when I told him about this a few months ago!
Memories of Lennon and The Beatles in East Anglia
Did you know that John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono once arrived in Suffolk together with a giant hot-air balloon?
The couple, who had married nine months earlier, visited the historic village of Lavenham in December 1969, to shoot their short film Apotheosis. During their visit, they stayed at The Bull hotel in Long Melford.
A giant hot-air balloon was inflated with 22,000 cubic metres of gas in a snowy Market Place. The result was an 18-minute short film, completely consisting of footage from a camera fixed to the side of the balloon.
Alan Cocksedge, who was then Sudbury and district reporter, recalled a few years ago how he had a tip-off from the fire brigade and covered the event as an exclusive.
He said: “It was thrilling and intriguing for the people of Lavenham. John Lennon was on a different cloud to most people in those days and Yoko was very much a mystic figure. To most people, she was a mysterious lady from a long way away who had stolen a Beatle,”
Lennon had already made several earlier visits to the area with The Beatles. The group performed twice at the Ipswich Gaumont (now the Regent) in the early 1960s. Their first visit was on May 22, 1963, on a star-studded bill also including Roy Orbison and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
The Fab Four took to the stage at The Gaumont and played two sets of seven songs in front of more than 1,500 fans. Tickets were priced at between 5s 6d and 10s 6d.
Christine Robinson, daughter of David Lowe, who managed the theatre for many years, said: “I went to lots of shows at The Gaumont when my Dad was there. I was only about 10 when I saw the Beatles, but I remember it vividly, as things like that stay with you always!
“Nobody heard much, as there was so much screaming going on, and the crush. The hall was strewn with girls that had fainted. Thank God for the St John Ambulance, who were at all the shows.”
Members of the Facebook group Ipswich Remembers have been reminiscing about the concert. Diane Banthorpe said: “I was there, sleeping on the pavement overnight. I was right at the front of the queue, so got second row tickets. Awesome.”
Jacqui Moye also camped out all night for a ticket. She said: “I got one five rows from the front, never heard a word as we were all screaming so much. Absolutely fantastic, will never forget that night.”
Peter Boswell recalled: “Went to ‘see’ The Beatles. Couldn’t hear them due to all the screaming from the girls.”
And Dawn Davis said: “I was there, three rows from the front. Someone kept passing smelling salts due to the girls fainting!”
They returned a second time on October 31, 1964, this time performing on a bill including Mary Wells and Sounds Incorporated.
The Beatles’ only performance in Norwich was on May 17, 1963, at the Grosvenor Rooms, supported by local band Ricky Lee and the Hucklebucks, a few days before their first Ipswich gig.
There is a blue plaque there to mark the occasion, put up by the EDP and Norwich School of Art & Design, with the wording, “The Beatles performed at the Grosvenor Rooms on May 17th 1963, before queuing with fans for chips at Valori’s on Rose Lane.”