On January 27th, 1970, at seven o’clock in the evening, John Lennon arrived at EMI Studios in London to record a song he had written that very day, “Instant Karma!” Phil Spector was in the producer’s chair. Lennon, nominally still a Beatle, led a Plastic Ono Band that, for this occasion, included drummer Alan White, bassist Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston on electric piano, and, on guitar, another Beatle, George Harrison. Yoko Ono – Lennon’s soul mate of the past two years and, since the previous March, his wife – contributed hand claps and backing vocals along with original Beatles road manager Mal Evans and a pack of revelers pulled at the last minute from Hatchet’s, a local nightclub.
“It was great,” Lennon said later, with undiminished joy, in his historic Rolling Stone interview with editor and founder Jann S. Wenner, published in early ’71. “I wrote [the song] in the morning on piano. I went to the [Apple Records] office and sang it many times. So I said, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio, and Phil came in and said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, 1950s.’ He said, ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in three takes or something like that.” In fact, it took Lennon and the band ten takes to nail the basic tracks. Overdubs and mixing ran until four in the morning.
But “Instant Karma!,” released as a single within weeks and an immediate Top Five hit in Britain and the U.S., was truly instant rock, a magnetic blast of Lennon’s impulsive personality and thumping proof of his basic artistic credo: You don’t wait for the right moment to express yourself; you make that moment. Subtitled “We All Shine On,” after its hallelujah chorus, the song was also a compact sermon on freedom and accountability, Lennon’s flat, biting tenor bouncing off Spector’s Wall of Echo with righteous jubilation: “Instant karma’s gonna get you/Gonna knock you right in the head/You’d better get yourself together/Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead/What in the world you thinking of/Laughin’ in the face of love/What on earth you tryin’ to do?/It’s up to you, yeah, you.”
Thirty years after that recording session, and twenty years after his death, John Lennon remains the living conscience of rock & roll, our reigning measure of creative ambition and aggressive honesty. Much of what we now take for granted in popular music and celebrity culture – brutally autobiographical song-writing, the art of the warts-and-all interview, the use of superstardom as a weapon for social and political change – he did first or best or both. In the recording studio, first with the Beatles in the 1960s, then on his own and in concert with Ono. Lennon constantly and fearlessly redrew the margins of personal expression.
In the 1965 Beatles hit “Help!,” Lennon gilded his naked desperation with jingle-bell guitars and that raw-falsetto vocal lick; just four years later, he was broadcasting the torture of his late-Sixties heroin addiction with vicious guitars and a deathbed rasp in the Plastic Ono Band single “Cold Turkey.” On his half of Double Fantasy, the album he made with Ono in the last months of his life, Lennon detailed his successes and failures as a husband and father with warm candor and supreme pop elegance. He also put the word fuck into the Billboard Top Ten album chart three decades before Eminem (“You’re all fuckin’ peasants as far as I can see”: “Working Class Hero,” 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band).
Lennon was willing literally to go naked before his public to make a point. He advertised his emotional and artistic commitment to Ono, whom he first met in 1966, by posing with her in the nude – full disclosure, front and rear – on the cover of their maiden collaboration, the 1968 audio collage Unfinished Music,No. 1: Two Virgins. A quote from fellow Beatle Paul McCartney ran across the bottom of the front-cover photo: “When two great Saints meet, it is a humbling experience . . . .”
Lennon was also a master of subterfuge. His 1971 peace hymn “Imagine,” inspired by Ono’s word-art pieces in her 1970 book. Grapefruit, may actually be Lennon’s most radical song. The first line – “Imagine there’s no heaven” – was an outrageous dare, a far more direct challenge to organized religion than his firestorm crack, in 1966, that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” “Imagine” was Lennon’s declaration, wrapped in sweetness and strings, that there were no such things as fate and holy intervention, that we lived on a planet solely of our own making. The song was an invitation to responsibility, to imagine the impossible – total spiritual unity, complete social and economic equality – and shoot for it.
Besides, Lennon already had his own religion. Rock & roll was his bully pulpit and the central engine of his faith in humanity, because he felt that the music, at its finest, never lied. “The thing about rock & roll, good rock & roll,” he said in that Rolling Stone interview, “is that it’s real, and realism gets through to you. . . . You recognize something in it which is true. . . . If it’s real, it’s simple, usually; and if it’s simple, it’s true.
“The best stuff,” he insisted, “has no bullshit.”
John Winston Lennon was born into a world at war with itself – a perfect metaphor for the internal contradictions that defined his life and music – in Liverpool, England, on October 9th, 1940; German bombers were pounding the port city at the very moment of his arrival. John’s father, Freddie, was a ship’s steward who soon abandoned his wife, Julia, and baby son. When Julia entered into a new relationship, she left John in the care of her sister, Mimi, and Mimi’s husband, George. The couple raised their nephew in the middle-class comfort of their semidetached villa on Menlove Avenue.
But the fracturing of his family left deep marks on Lennon. His image as the intellectual Beatle – the shy, brainy seeker inside a headstrong smart mouth – was rooted in his Liverpool days as an aspiring art student and teenage tearaway, a ravenous intellect who found substitute father figures in American rock & rollers like Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. Lennon also maintained a powerful, long-distance attachment to his mother long after she died in 1958; his ballad “Julia,” on the 1968 double album The Beatles (the White Album), was an exquisite memoir of unrequited yearning.When he and McCartney first met on July 6th, 1957 – at a Liverpool church picnic where Lennon’s skiffle combo, the Quarrymen, was a star attraction – Lennon was maturing into a charismatic mix of rocker bravado, keen wit and disarming vulnerability. The Beatles gave him the room to bloom.
Today, Beatlemania seems like a distant marvel, an ancient explosion of universal teenage joy. Surviving footage and historical accounts only hint at the viral magic of the two years, 1963 and ’64, in which the Beatles brought Britain, then America happily to their knees. Fresh and smart – their playing and songwriting skills honed by long runs at Liverpool’s Cavern Club and roughhouse bars in Hamburg, Germany – Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Ringo Star were primed to kill. “We knew we would wipe you out,” Lennon said in Rolling Stone. “When we got here, you were all walking around in fucking Bermuda shorts with Boston crew cuts.”
In a few narrowly defined ways, the current boy-band phenomenon is simply Beatlemania with a hip-hop lining: gold-rush record and merchandise sales; adoring young women melting on the side walks under MTV’s Times Square Studio. With his sharp, handsome features and an irresistible warmth under-coating his acerbic turn of phrase, Lennon – by 1964, already married to his first wife, Cynthia, with a young son, Julian – was as much an object of rabid female desire as any member of ‘N Sync, if not all five put together. But the Backstreet Boys and their spawn are actually a regression to a pre-Beatles era – the late Fifties and early Sixties – when young faux-Presleys sang and danced to an impresario’s tune. The Beatles wore suits and bantered cheerily with reporters in that first couple of years. They also moved quickly to seize control – of their music, their career and their individual destinies.
For Lennon, in particular, Beatle stardom and the freedom implicit in rock & roll meant never having to say, “I can’t.” He failed English studies at school. Yet at the height of Beatlemania, Lennon published two slim but well-received volumes of his pun-drenched prose and verse, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. His first appearance in Rolling Stone, on the front page of the first issue (November 9th, 1967), was a photo of him in his non-Beatle film debut, as Pvt. Gripweed in the dark satire How I Won the War. And the initial years of Lennon’s relationship with Ono were a whirl of controversial movie and art projects, many of which left the straight media in stitches and Beatles fans puzzled, if not aghast.
In 1968, for example, Lennon starred in two Ono-directed reels, Two Virgins and Film Number 5, the first a melange of superimposed images of the couple, the second an hour-and-a-half-long examination of Lennon’s face. In October 1969, the pair celebrated their marriage with the release of the lavishly packaged Wedding Album, one side of which consisted of Lennon and Ono just whispering their names to each other. The following January, an exhibition of erotic lithographs by Lennon – explicit renderings of his sex life with Ono – opened at a London gallery. (Eight of Lennon’s works were declared indecent by London police and confiscated in a raid on the second day of the show.)
Lennon and Ono adroitly turned the disbelief and mocking curiosity that often greeted their escapades to promotional advantage in their peace campaigns: agitating in their pajamas for disarmament and an end to the Vietnam War in their notorious series of Bed-Ins in the spring of’69; paying for huge War Is Over! billboards in twelve cities around the world the following Christmas. The couple planted acorns for peace at Coventry Cathedral in England and, in early 1970, cut their hair for peace. In openly courting ridicule, Lennon and Ono engineered a vital public debate about peace and love as real, attainable goals, not just quaint hippie nonsense.
There was also a potent seriousness surging through the apparent whimsy. “In my secret heart, I wanted to write something that would take over ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” Lennon said of his jaunty march “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded in Room 1742 of the Hotel Reine-Elizabeth during the Montreal Bed-In. “I thought, ‘Why doesn’t somebody write something for the people now – that’s what my job is.’ ” The punch line in those War Is Over! advertisements was in the small type near the bottom: If You Want It.
Lennon and Ono flirted with radical chic in the early Seventies, but Lennon knew that you won more battles with sugar than with gasoline. There is no greater proof of his success as an agent Provocateur than the surveillance campaign mounted against Lennon in the 1970s by the FBI, and the U.S. government’s fight to deny him resident-alien status. Lennon finally got his green card in July 1976, after a four-year court battle. He was to have been eligible for full U.S. citizenship in 1981; he did not live long enough to apply.
A peculiar irony of Lennon’s legacy is the way we tend to lionize the Man and the Beatle at the expense of the solo artist. To be frank, Lennon was inconsistent on his own. He never bettered the confessional intensity and luminous howl of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (recorded after he and Ono underwent a summer of primal-scream therapy) or the one-two punch of lush romanticism and crunchy rock on 1971’s Imagine. The protest boogie of 1972’s Some Time in New York City was an example of how easily Lennon’s love of argument could become mere pedantry.
But there is much in Lennon’s post-Beatle canon to be reconsidered. Recorded during his so-called lost weekend – an alcoholic period of separation from Ono – the 1974 album Walls and Bridges is a striking document of desperation and contrition. I also have a soft spot for Lennon’s raggedy live recordings, like the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto 1969 and the bonus disc of concert jams that came with Some Time in New York City. They comprise the limited official evidence that, long after the Beatles had played their last official concert in 1966, Lennon still loved to raise a good ruckus on stage. It is appropriate, too, that the last solo album he released before he went into temporary seclusion, in 1976 – to devote himself to his home life at the Dakota in New York, with Ono and their son, Sean – was a spunky collection of oldies covers simply titled Rock ‘N’ Roll. Lennon walked away from the limelight the same way he roared in: with music that was simple, real and true.
On the final day of his life, December 8th, 1980, Lennon gave an interview to the RKO Radio Network to promote Double Fantasy. When asked a question about his 1971 single “Power to the People,” Lennon said he now believed that people do have the power. “I don’t mean the power of the gun.” he explained. “They have the power to make and create the society they want. . . . The thing that the Sixties did was show us the possibility and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”
When John Lennon died, he left us with an incomparable body of work and the most valuable lesson rock & roll has to offer: Anything is possible – if you want it.