The English musician, poet, and songwriter John Winston Lennon (born 1940) was a founder of The Beatles, the single most important and influential group in the history of rock 'n' roll music. He was murdered in 1980.
Childhood with Aunt Mimi
John Winston Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, during a German air-raid over Liverpool. His father, Alf Lennon, was a seaman, who deserted his wife Julia and their infant child. Over twenty years later when Alf Lennon tried to reenter his famous son's life, Lennon did not welcome him. Unable to raise Lennon alone, Julia asked her sister and brother-in-law, Mimi and George Smith, to care for her son. Tragically, an off-duty police officer knocked down and killed Lennon's mother in 1958.
Lennon attended Dovedale Primary in Woolton, and then Quarry Bank High School. He continued his education at Liverpool's College of Art, where he met his future wife Cynthia Powell. Lennon told Rolling Stone reporter Jann Wenner that his school teachers did not recognize his precocious artistic talent: "People like me are aware of their so-called genius at ten, eight, nine … I always wondered, "Why has nobody discovered me?" … I got … lost in being at high school."
Inspired by Rock 'n' Roll Greats
Inspired by the rock 'n' roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in the mid 1950s, Lennon started learning the guitar. His mother had introduced the banjo to him, and he initially played the guitar like a banjo with the sixth string slack. Lennon never considered himself a technically gifted guitarist, but told Wenner that he could make it "howl and move." His early passion for rock 'n' roll never left him and he would continue to prefer it above all other forms of music.
Lennon formed his first group, the Quarrymen, in 1956. That year he met Paul McCartney, with whom he eventually collaborated in writing more than 150 songs. In its range and quality, this production far surpassed the achievement of other writers in the rock idiom. Lennon explained his complimentary song writing experience to a Playboy interviewer, "[McCartney] provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes." Although many of their famous hits were written individually, they always credited them jointly. Lennon and McCartney made some early appearances as The Nurk Twins.
Genesis of The Beatles
By 1959 George Harrison had joined the new group, which by then had been renamed Johnny and the Moondogs. The group unsuccessfully auditioned for Carrol Levis at the Manchester Hippodrome. Still waiting for their first beak, they became the Silver Beatles in 1960. For the next two years they played local engagements in Liverpool, most frequently at the Cavern Club, where numerous English groups gained their initial success. The Beatles first appeared in Germany in 1960 and made their debut professional recording with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in Hamburg. While playing at the Cavern, they came to the attention of Brian Epstein who heard them and asked if they needed a manager. In 1962 Ringo Starr joined the group. They signed with Parlophone Records and released their first record, "Love Me Do." Lennon married Cynthia Powell in August of 1962, and they had a son, John Charles Julian, the following year.
During 1963 the Beatles' popularity spread throughout England, and they reached #1 in the Melody Maker chart with "Please Please Me." In 1964 their records, including "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret," were released in the United States. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" reached #1 in the United States. Their revolutionary artistic and commercial leadership in the world of rock music thereafter was unchallenged.
James Rorondi and Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player asserted that "John was unquestionably the band's preeminent word-smith." He extended his writing skill beyond The Beatles. In 1964 he published a book of poems and fictitious anecdotes, In His Own Write; a second volume, called A Spaniard in the Works, followed a year later. Both works are remarkable in terms of their wit, inventive use of language, and prankish, sometimes diabolical sense of humor. The same verbal sensitivity also informs the Lennon-McCartney songs, which as a group marked new levels of sophistication, maturity, and intelligence in the development of rock lyrics. In 1967 Lennon appeared in How I Won the War, a film by Richard Lester, who had directed the Beatles' first two films, A Hard Day's Night and Help!
The Beatles' Continued Success
The success of The Beatles was unsurpassed. However, in March of 1966, Lennon infamously declared that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, resulting in their temporary ban on American airwaves. The Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in May of 1967, which Lennon believed to be their most creative album. Although he had been taking LSD and other narcotics, Lennon claimed that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was not inspired by drugs, but by a painting by his son, Julian. The girl with "kaleidoscope eyes" was the woman of his dreams, whom he found to be Yoko Ono.
Disillusionment and the End of The Beatles
Lennon, like the other Beatles, was interested in the teachings of the Maharishi, and he attended a two month instructor's course in transcendental meditation in early 1968. The band wholeheartedly embraced the Maharishi's teachings, but soon became disillusioned with him and transcendental meditation. However, this experience did not dull Lennon's interest in the counterculture. In October of 1968, Lennon was arrested with Ono, for the possession of hashish, and Lennon pled guilty and received a fine. Divorced from his first wife in November of 1968 on the grounds of adultery with Ono, Lennon married Ono, a Japanese environmental artist with whom he collaborated in both music and the visual arts. Ono and Lennon released "Unfinished Music Number One: Two Virgins" in November of 1968, featuring the couple naked on the cover. The couple spent their honeymoon protesting against the war in Vietnam. In the same year, and as a form of protest, Lennon returned to the British government the Member of the Order of the British Empire Medal, which Queen Elizabeth had awarded the Beatles in 1965. Meanwhile, the Beatles recorded their final album, "Abbey Road" in 1969 as the group began to disintegrate. Many fans blamed Ono for breakup, only strengthening Lennon's commitment to her. The Beatles made their last live public performance, an impromptu show on the rooftop of Apple Studios in January of 1969. In 1970 the group officially disbanded.
Lennon and Ono
Lennon and Ono moved to the United States in September of 1971. However, Lennon continued to be a high profile figure after the immigration service declared him ineligible for residency and served him with a deportation notice because of his 1968 drug conviction. The New York Supreme Court eventually reversed the order in 1975. In New York, Lennon recorded "Imagine." Lennon and Ono split for a year and a half, during which time Lennon moved to Los Angeles and lived with another woman. The couple reconciled in January of 1975 and Sean Ono Taro Lennon was born later that year on father John's birthday. In 1976 Lennon announced that he was going to be a househusband, and he did not record anything until 1980. After the hiatus, Lennon worked with Ono to produce "Double Fantasy," which many critics considered among Lennon's best work. Other songs recorded during the sessions for "Double Fantasy" were posthumously collected into an album called "Milk and Honey."
On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan, murdered Lennon outside the Dakota in Manhattan. Lennon's death returned his music to worldwide prominence and propelled the song "Starting Over" to #1 in the United States and other countries. For a man who had lived an extraordinary life, his hopes for the future were modest. He told Wenner, "I hope we're a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that—looking at our scrapbook of madness."
Further Reading on John Winston Lennon
The most thorough biography of Lennon and the other Beatles is Hunter Davies, The Beatles: The Authorized Biography (1968). For the evolution of the Beatles' music and its relation to the history of rock 'n' roll see Carl Belz, The Story of Rock (1969). Other biographical sources include: Les Ledbetter, New York Times (December 9, 1980); Julia Baird with Geoffrey Giuliano, John Lennon, My Brother, Henry Holt and Company (1988); Jann S. Wenner, Rolling Stone, no. 641 (October 15, 1992); James Rotondi and Jas Obrecht, Guitar Player 28, no. 9 (September 1994); People Weekly 45, no. 6 (February 12, 1996).