To celebrate John Lennon's 80th birthday, Liverpool born radio presenter and author, Spencer Leigh and former NME journalist and Head of UNESCO city of Music for Liverpool, Kevin McManus have each wrote a blog dedicated to Lennon. 

You can read both of the blogs below. For more information on how Liverpool is celebrating John Lennon's 80th birthday see our dedicated JL80 blog


By Spencer Leigh

Chronologically speaking, John Lennon’s dates of 1940 to 1980 and the Beatles’ of 1960 to 1970 seem excessively tidy, but John Lennon’s life was anything but that. He was reckless and independent, sometimes too self-indulgent for his own good, but it was always fascinating to see what he was doing and wonder where he would go next. I doubt that anyone would like (or dislike) everything that he did, but I love the fact that he kept challenging himself, often hitting the mark with great precision.

I have read many books on John Lennon and the authors place great significance on the fact that he had to choose between his parents when he was a toddler and then, when he was five, he was passed to George and Mimi Smith, his uncle and aunt. His harrowing ‘Mother’ (1970) shows how strongly he felt about it, certainly in 1970 when it was recorded, but it did come after sessions of Primal Therapy and maybe the affectionate ‘Julia’ (1968) was his more normal response.

You find inconsistencies like this in John’s work but it comes through the spontaneity of what he was doing. For example, John was brought up on Menlove Avenue in Woolton and anyone visiting the National Trust property today might wonder who on earth called him a working class hero – oh, he did, so that’s all right then. The truth is, John Lennon had a privileged upbringing, certainly for Liverpool in the aftermath of the war.

Even though Mimi was strict, John did poorly at Quarry Bank High School, but even Mimi was fighting a losing battle. Ironically, John’s second name was Winston and the war leader himself had been a terrible scholar.

A few years ago, I heard Paul McCartney addressing a graduation ceremony at LIPA, a performing arts school based in the Liverpool Institute building. He recognised that LIPA wasn’t for everyone and that there were creative talents who wouldn’t benefit from such structured courses. The example he cited was Bob Dylan, but he might also have said “John Lennon”.

In 1956 John found what he wanted in the rebellious rock and roll music of Little Richard and Elvis Presley and he took up Lonnie Donegan’s challenge to form your own skiffle group. As he called them the Quarry Men, he can’t have disliked the school too much.

In July 1957, the Quarry Men played the summer fête at St Peter’s Church in Woolton, riding around the village on the back of a coal lorry. The church and its field are largely as they were and there is even a sign directing you to Eleanor Rigby’s grave. Beatle aficionados seek out Uncle George’s grave and I have even met Beatle tourists on a graveyard tour, taking in Brian Epstein’s and Stuart Sutcliffe’s resting places. You could develop Beatle tours to suit everyone.

There is a plaque outside the church hall stating that John Lennon met Paul McCartney here, and Paul would soon be in the band. A few months later George Harrison auditioned successfully on the upper deck of a Corporation bus; it’s surprising how big a part buses play in the Beatles’ story, and there’s another possible tour for you: the Beatles’ bus stops. One of their haunts was the Jacaranda coffee bar in Slater Street, which was owned by Allan Williams and caters to students to this day. There’s a mural in the basement, which is sometimes attributed to Stuart Sutcliffe, although personally I’m not so confident. If it were, wouldn’t it be under tight security, although I suppose it would be quite difficult to steal a wall.

Through his lack of commitment, John Lennon failed O-level Art, but somehow he talked his way into the Liverpool College of Art - the building is now part of LIPA – and he had a flat in Gambier Terrace with Stu and Rod Murray. At the time it was featured in the News of the World as an example of squalor in Liverpool, but it looked no worse than your typical students’ flat. John, Stu, Rod and Bill Harry – soon to establish the Mersey Beat newspaper – used to drink in Ye Cracke and again, there’s a plaque. If you go there, check out the one for the actor John Gregson too.

The story of how the Beatles got to Hamburg is long and funny and involving Allan Williams and his friend, Lord Woodbine. Riding around on his bicycle, Lord Woodbine once stopped me and said, “Spencer, you’ve made a million pounds out of the Beatles and I want some of it.” I said, “Woody, if I’ve made a million pounds out of the Beatles, you could gladly have some of it.”

Hamburg is a wonderful city but the Beatles were confined to the St Pauli district, which has defeated efforts to put it on the tourist trail. The window displays featured strip shows and sex workers, so if you cleaned it up, it wouldn’t be true to the Beatles’ experience. Fortunately, Liverpool doesn’t have that problem. There was nothing like that in Liverpool when the Beatles first went there in August 1960 and imagine this: George Harrison was just 17 years old.

Playing five hours a night transformed the Beatles’ music. Their loud and aggressive sound transfixed the dancers at Litherland Town Hall on 27 December 1960, another looming anniversary, and they were soon rocking the Casbah (the basement of Pete Best’s family home and now a tourist attraction) and the Cavern, where they played nearly 300 times in three years.

The Beatles found the perfect manager in Brian Epstein, who ran NEMS record store in Whitechapel. How lucky the Beatles were to have a manager they could trust! He could have handled the sacking of Pete Best better but I’m sure he learnt from that experience.

In August 1962, the Beatles became John, Paul, George and Ringo. They all came from Liverpool which helped the marketing enormously and they talked up Liverpool quite naturally whenever they were interviewed.

Rock and roll came from America but the Beatles were performing the songs as well as, if not better than, the originals. After that, they were writing their own songs, agreeing to a Lennon and McCartney partnership, where they would mostly act as editors of each other’s work.

Their first Parlophone single, ‘Love Me Do’, made the Top 20 and that led to such chart-topping singles as ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. The most famous joke at a Royal Variety Performance came, not from a comedian but from John Lennon. He said, “Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you just rattle your jewellery?” Their press conferences were similarly witty, especially when they got to America.

The Fabs conquered America with barnstorming appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and many stadium appearances. In the UK, they hadn’t played anywhere bigger than the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, but they took it all in their stride. In 1964 they were given a civic reception at Liverpool Town Hall prior to the northern premiere of their film, A Hard Day’s Night. It was directed by Dick Lester and the script came from that Welsh scouser, Alun Owen.

The Cavern ran into financial difficulty shortly after they left and the Beatles were asked to help when they played the Liverpool Empire in December 1965 but their response was that the Cavern hadn’t made the Beatles and not the other way round. John Lennon said, “We owe nothing to the Cavern. We’ve done it a favour and made it famous.” That may be true, but where was his generosity? You see what I mean: on another day, John might have opened his cheque book.

The club continued under new management for some years and then was demolished in 1973, an act of corporate vandalism. After John’s death, it was rebuilt very accurately in the same location, but it should never have been destroyed in the first place.

People talk about Sgt Pepper being the first concept album but all the Beatles’ albums were concept albums. They didn’t just bung a few singles and leftovers together. With the help of their producer, George Martin, the tracks were perfectly balanced, complementing each other and showcasing, in particular, the pairing of Lennon and McCartney. I am sure that either of them would have succeeded in different groups, but together they were unstoppable.

Occasionally, they wrote directly about Liverpool. John’s original lyric for ‘In My Life’ (1965) mentioned several Liverpool landmarks but he recognised that the song would have a wider application in more general terms. It would be a good idea if some local musicians recorded John’s first lyric. It doesn’t scan too well but I’m sure Paul could tidy it up: after all, isn’t that what he used to do?

A contender for the best single of all-time came in 1966 with Paul’s ‘Penny Lane’ on one side and John’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ on the other. Amongst other things, the single depicts the upside and the downside of psychedelia and mind-expanding drugs. The Salvation Army home, Strawberry Field, backed onto John’s house and is very much on the tourist trail today. As for Penny Lane, even the barber’s shop is still there.

In 1967 Yoko One presented a Happening at the Bluecoat Chambers in Liverpool. I had never been to something so avant-garde before. I helped wrap Yoko in bandages (don’t ask me why) and when she was covered in bandages, John Gorman from Scaffold shouted, “You’re wanted on the telephone!” Scouse humour always wins the day and no doubt Yoko got used to this with John’s repartee.

The break-up of John’s marriage to Cynthia and his relationship with Yoko were hugely controversial, but I don’t accept that it led to the break-up of the Beatles as many other factors were involved. Primarily, John and Paul were creative people going off in different directions. Similarly, George was frustrated at only being allowed a song or two per album.

John and Yoko formed the Plastic Ono Band and ‘Give Peace A Chance’ is a classic anthem, a simple thought beautifully expressed. John recorded ‘Cold Turkey’ about coming off heroin, a record that still sounds scary and totally unique.

When Rolling Stone asked John if he might go back to being a Beatle, he replied, “You don’t get me twice.”  Instead we got the disturbing album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band followed by the more radio friendly Imagine, the title song being his anthem for world peace. When there was a tribute to their former choirboy, John Lennon at St Peter’s Church, I was intrigued to hear the choir sing, “Imagine no religion” in church.

John and Yoko settled in New York and made the agitprop album, Sometime In New York City. John was capable of more nuanced and subtle work, but I accept that was not the point. It was soapbox songwriting and John was getting several political issues off his chest. It also illustrated hat timing is everything with political songs: he wanted to free John Sinclair, but Mr Sinclair had been released by the time the album was on the shelves. The internet would have been perfect for John Lennon: he could have recorded a song in the evening and put it out the next day.

Then came his so-called lost weekend in Los Angeles, away from Yoko and with May Pang and his drinking partner, Harry Nilsson. John’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album was a disappointment, ‘Stand by Me’ notwithstanding, but he did produce a good album with Nilsson called Pussy Cats.

John and Yoko settled their differences and he returned to New York. He became a househusband, looking after Sean in the Dakota and paying him far more attention than he ever gave Julian. Yoko was an exceptionally good businesswoman, looking after their business affairs while he baked bread.

John and Yoko returned to public life in November 1980 with a fine album, Double Fantasy, which included ‘Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’. He had the songs ready for a second album which included ‘Nobody Told Me’.

Because of an old drugs conviction, John had been trapped in America with issues over his Green Card but that had been resolved and he was planning a world tour for 1981 with dates in the UK. Without doubt, he would have returned to Liverpool and had a great homecoming. He had a chest marked “Liverpool” in the Dakota: we don’t know what it contained but John was seen wearing a Quarry Bank tie.

We all know what happened next.

The man has died but his spirit and his music live on. We see it all the time in Liverpool. Visitors fly into Liverpool John Lennon Airport and see the fine statue of John when they arrive. If they go to the Pier Head or Cavern Walks, they will see statues of the Beatles.

Yoko herself collaborated on the highly successful Double Fantasy, John & Yoko exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool and all the Beatles can be seen in Linda McCartney’s retrospective at the Walker Art Gallery.

Once the buskers return to our streets and the pubs are full again, you will hear John Lennon’s songs being sung. In folk clubs, people perform them next to traditional songs. Who knows? In the next century, they may be regarded as folk songs.

What’s more, youngsters are learning to play the guitar through Beatle tutorials and listening to their early records.

These are astonishing achievements but maybe for John, it would not have been enough. Wars are still raging; dictators still rule; and millions of people live in poverty. Maybe the world as a whole hasn’t given peace a chance but it would be even more unstable without John Lennon. He used his fame for the public good.

The other day I was in Liverpool Central Library. On the second floor, they have large bays of music biographies, but a lot of their collection is not there. They are on the ground floor in the Local section, so the librarians are claiming all these books as our own. Good for them, and how many other libraries can do that?

Spencer Leigh is the author of The Beatles in Hamburg (2011), The Beatles in Liverpool (2012), The Beatles in America (2013), Best of the Beatles: The Sacking of Pete Best (2015), The Cavern Club (2016) and Love Me Do to Love Me Don’t: The Beatles on Record (2017). Can you spot a theme here? His latest book, Bob Dylan; Outlaw Blues (2020) has plenty to say on Bob and the Beatles.

Lennon at 80

By Kevin McManus

Peter Hooton, Chair of the Beatles Legacy Group, asked me if I’d write something about John Lennon for what would have been the great man’s 80th birthday.

I have to be honest and my first thought was ‘Why me?’ Peter is incredibly well informed on music history generally and on everything Beatles related in particular so I wasn’t sure why I was being put in the frame.   I was aware he had asked Spencer Leigh, a world renowned Beatles expert, to write a piece, which I knew would be full of proper facts, dates, quotes and all that important stuff. In response then I decided that as a companion piece to Spencer’s well evidenced blog I could just submit some rambling thoughts on why Lennon is so important.

There’s a slight complication here in that John isn’t even my favourite Beatle! I was brought up as a good Catholic boy and my mum always told me to tell the truth. Therefore in the interests of total transparency I have to confess I’ve always had a soft spot for George, not least because some of the songs John and Paul allowed him to have on the albums are amongst my favourites of the entire Beatles cannon.  George was the quiet one, the best looking one, and from the outside he seemed the most well equipped to deal with life post-Beatles. He made some great records after the band split, organised The Concert for Bangladesh, and I’ll always be grateful that he set up Handmade Films without which we probably wouldn’t have had The Life of Brian and Withnail and I. I also think it typical that he persuaded some rock n roll loyalty to form a band with him because at heart he just wanted to play music with mates again.

Then my thoughts turned to John. Whereas George seemed to have an admirably calm, spiritual and steady life, John always seemed to be at the eye of one storm or another.  I think that is what makes him so fascinating to all music fans even now. He was a complex character, often controversial and in many ways embodies the real legacy of The Beatles. Of course collectively and individually they have endowed us with some of the greatest music ever made but we should also celebrate their amazing creativity, inventiveness and constant pushing of boundaries that ran through all their work.  These are the qualities that still live on in much of the city’s music and culture and of the four Beatles I’d argue that John best embodied these qualities. He continued to surprise and challenge while being effortlessly creative right up to his untimely death.

The impact John continues to have is shown by the outpouring of love and the reflections on his legacy that are making up his 80th birthday celebrations as Liverpool pays tribute to one of its genuine greats.  A further testament to his incredible legacy are the tributes that will held elsewhere in the world because Lennon was a truly global figure. I think sometimes we take him for granted and I remember that  one of the first times I really became aware of his huge influence was when I was in New York and came across the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon in Central Park.  It is a beautiful place and visitors from all over the world beat a constant path to the site to pay their own silent tribute to John, to have their photo taken in the Imagine circle, or to join in with the musicians who are always there. I could have just sat there all day in such a peaceful space.  It is a safe haven in a mad, chaotic city and fittingly was used for candlelight vigils in the days following the September 11th attacks. On his birthday this year I’m sure despite Covid there will be a sizeable gathering of fans keen to feel closer to John on a special day.

I’m lucky enough to have spent a fair bit of time with Freda Kelly, Brian Epstein’s secretary/President of the Beatles Fan Club and officially The Nicest Woman in the Whole Wide World Ever.  Freda, God love her, is very tolerant of idiots like me asking questions about ‘the boys’, and remains remarkably discrete even after all these years. She is one of the few people outside of the band themselves that was there for the whole ride from the early days in Liverpool, to conquering the world, right through to the split. Looking back probably most of my questions were about John because he seemed to be the hardest to really get a grip on. By her own admission Freda was a naïve 17 year old when she took the job with Epstein against her Father’s advice. One of my favourite stories of hers is when she recounts how John very gently let her know that she would always be quite safe with her boss who would never be sexually attracted to her, even if they were the only two people left on a desert island.

Freda also introduced me to May Pang, John and Yoko’s assistant who went on to have an 18 month relationship with John during the ‘lost weekend’ when he and Yoko were separated. May is a wonderful woman and I could have listened to her tales about her and John’s life in New York all day. They weren’t stories about a glamorous rock ‘n roll lifestyle but rather stories about a very caring relationship and being as normal as you can be in  a major city when one of you is amongst the most famous people on the planet. The John she described didn’t seem that different from the John of the early days which is a remarkable achievement in itself given all he had been through.

So what make John so special and why does his life and work still resonate so loudly? Well obviously it starts with the music. We can take it as read that with McCartney he wrote some of the best songs ever, songs  that will still be sung and  revered in a 100 years.  (And the lyrics he wrote for In My Life make it my favourite Beatles song of all). But outside The Beatles he still managed more works of genius than we had any right to expect. Give Peace A Chance, Instant Karma, Jealous Guy, Happy Xmas war Is Over, Gimme Some Truth, Woman, Mind Games, #9 Dream, and of course Imagine. These encapsulate all that makes John’s music so special: beautiful sentimental melodies equally as prominent   as the visceral, political pop of someone who was still angry and railing against the wrongs of the world. If he was alive today  I would expect that even at 80 he would have written something   mischievous and compelling about the US under Trump and a world dealing with Covid.

One of the things I most admire about Lennon was his outspoken politicism which wasn’t just evident in his songs but in his anti-war stance and protests such as his Bed In For Peace with Yoko. His opposition to President Nixon made him the target of FBI surveillance and ultimately attracted a deportation order which was only overturned because of Nixon’s own fall from grace. 

In the final interview that John did shortly before  his death it was touching to hear Yoko say how emotional John still got whenever he talked about Liverpool. To my mind John always proudly retained a strong element of his scouse accent and essentially I think John at both his best and his worst personified many aspects of this mercurial city – radical, political, contrary, sentimental and above all endlessly creative.

We rightly celebrate John and his legacy through the naming of our airport but more significantly  his spirit lives on in a more meaningful way every single day  in the city through the creative, chaotic brilliance of the musicians, visual artists and writers who make Liverpool what it is. That’s the real legacy of Dr Winston O’Boogie. 

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