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Other Names: John Winston Ono Lennon
Born: October 9, 1940
Born Place: Liverpool, United Kingdom
Assassinated: December 8, 1980, The Dakota, New York, United States
Cause of Death: Gunshot wound
Spouse: Cynthia Powell (m. 1962; div. 1968), Yoko Ono (m. 1969)
John Winston Ono Lennon MBE (born John Winston Lennon, 9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980) was an English singer, songwriter and peace activist who gained worldwide fame as the founder, co-lead vocalist, and rhythm guitarist of the Beatles. His songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney remains the most successful in musical history. In 1969, he started the Plastic Ono Band with his second wife, Yoko Ono. After the Beatles disbanded in 1970, Lennon continued as a solo artist and as Ono’s collaborator.
Born in Liverpool, Lennon became involved in the skiffle craze as a teenager. In 1956, he formed his first band, the Quarrymen, which evolved into the Beatles in 1960. He was initially the group’s de facto leader, a role gradually ceded to McCartney. Lennon was characterised for the rebellious nature and acerbic wit in his music, writing, drawings, on film and in interviews. In the mid-1960s, he had two books published: In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, both collections of nonsensical writings and line drawings. Starting with 1967’s “All You Need Is Love”, his songs were adopted as anthems by the anti-war movement and the larger counterculture.
From 1968 to 1972, Lennon produced more than a dozen records with Ono, including a trilogy of avant-garde albums, his first solo LP John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and the international top 10 singles “Give Peace a Chance”, “Instant Karma!”, “Imagine” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. Controversial through his political and peace activism, after moving to New York City in 1971, his criticism of the Vietnam War resulted in a three-year attempt by the Nixon administration to deport him. In 1975, Lennon disengaged from the music business to raise his infant son Sean, and in 1980, returned with the Ono collaboration Double Fantasy. He was shot and killed in the archway of his Manhattan apartment building by a Beatles fan, Mark David Chapman, three weeks after the album’s release.
In 2002, Lennon was voted eighth in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, and in 2008, Rolling Stone ranked him the fifth-greatest singer of all time. In 1987, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Lennon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, as a member of the Beatles in 1988 and as a solo artist in 1994.
Lennon was born on 9 October 1940 at Liverpool Maternity Hospital to Julia (née Stanley) (1914–1958) and Alfred Lennon (1912–1976). Alfred was a merchant seaman of Irish descent who was away at the time of his son’s birth. His parents named him John Winston Lennon after his paternal grandfather, John “Jack” Lennon, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His father was often away from home but sent regular pay cheques to 9 Newcastle Road, Liverpool, where Lennon lived with his mother; the cheques stopped when he went absent without leave in February 1944. When he eventually came home six months later, he offered to look after the family, but Julia, by then pregnant with another man’s child, rejected the idea. After her sister Mimi complained to Liverpool’s Social Services twice, Julia gave her custody of Lennon. In July 1946, Lennon’s father visited her and took his son to Blackpool, secretly intending to emigrate to New Zealand with him. Julia followed them – with her partner at the time, Bobby Dykins – and after a heated argument, his father forced the five-year-old to choose between them. In one account of this incident, Lennon twice chose his father, but as his mother walked away, he began to cry and followed her. According to author Mark Lewisohn, however, Lennon’s parents agreed that Julia should take him and give him a home. A witness who was there that day, Billy Hall, has said that the dramatic portrayal of a young John Lennon being forced to make a decision between his parents is inaccurate. Lennon had no further contact with Alf for close to 20 years.
Throughout the rest of his childhood and adolescence, Lennon lived at Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton, with Mimi and her husband George Toogood Smith, who had no children of their own. His aunt purchased volumes of short stories for him, and his uncle, a dairyman at his family’s farm, bought him a mouth organ and engaged him in solving crossword puzzles. Julia visited Mendips on a regular basis, and when John was 11 years old, he often visited her at 1 Blomfield Road, Liverpool, where she played him Elvis Presley records, taught him the banjo, and showed him how to play “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino. In September 1980, Lennon commented about his family and his rebellious nature:
A part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not … I was the one who all the other boys’ parents – including Paul’s father – would say, “Keep away from him” … The parents instinctively recognised I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend’s home … Partly out of envy that I didn’t have this so-called home … but I did … There were five women that were my family. Five strong, intelligent, beautiful women, five sisters. One happened to be my mother. [She] just couldn’t deal with life. She was the youngest and she had a husband who ran away to sea and the war was on and she couldn’t cope with me, and I ended up living with her elder sister. Now those women were fantastic … And that was my first feminist education … I would infiltrate the other boys’ minds. I could say, “Parents are not gods because I don’t live with mine and, therefore, I know.”
He regularly visited his cousin, Stanley Parkes, who lived in Fleetwood and took him on trips to local cinemas. During the school holidays Parkes often visited Lennon with Leila Harvey, another cousin, and the threesome often travelled to Blackpool two or three times a week to watch shows. They would visit the Blackpool Tower Circus and see artists such as Dickie Valentine, Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves and Joe Loss, with Parkes recalling that Lennon particularly liked George Formby. After Parkes’s family moved to Scotland, the three cousins often spent their school holidays together there. Parkes recalled, “John, cousin Leila and I were very close. From Edinburgh we would drive up to the family croft at Durness, which was from about the time John was nine years old until he was about 16.” Lennon’s uncle George died of a liver haemorrhage on 5 June 1955, aged 52.
Lennon was raised as an Anglican and attended Dovedale Primary School. After passing his eleven-plus exam, he attended Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool from September 1952 to 1957, and was described by Harvey at the time as a “happy-go-lucky, good-humoured, easy going, lively lad”. He often drew comical cartoons that appeared in his own, self-made school magazine called the Daily Howl.
In 1956, Julia bought John his first guitar. The instrument was an inexpensive Gallotone Champion acoustic for which she lent her son five pounds and ten shillings on the condition that the guitar be delivered to her own house and not Mimi’s, knowing well that her sister was not supportive of her son’s musical aspirations. Mimi was sceptical of his claim that he would be famous one day, and she hoped that he would grow bored with music, often telling him, “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.” On 15 July 1958, Lennon’s mother was struck and killed by a car while she was walking home after visiting the Smiths’ house.
Lennon’s senior school years were marked by a shift in his behaviour. Teachers at Quarry Bank High School described him thus: “He has too many wrong ambitions and his energy is often misplaced”, and “His work always lacks effort. He is content to “drift” instead of using his abilities.” Lennon’s misbehaviour created a rift in his relationship with his aunt.
Lennon failed his O-level examinations, and was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art after his aunt and headmaster intervened. At the college he began wearing Teddy Boy clothes and was threatened with expulsion for his behaviour. In the description of Cynthia Powell, Lennon’s fellow student and subsequently his wife, he was “thrown out of the college before his final year”.
Beatles biographer Bill Harry wrote that Lennon began drawing and writing creatively at an early age with the encouragement of his uncle. He collected his stories, poetry, cartoons and caricatures in a Quarry Bank High School exercise book that he called the Daily Howl. The drawings were often of crippled people, and the writings satirical, and throughout the book was an abundance of wordplay. According to classmate Bill Turner, Lennon created the Daily Howl to amuse his best friend and later Quarrymen bandmate Pete Shotton, to whom he would show his work before he let anyone else see it. Turner said that Lennon “had an obsession for Wigan Pier. It kept cropping up”, and in Lennon’s story A Carrot in a Potato Mine, “the mine was at the end of Wigan Pier.” Turner described how one of Lennon’s cartoons depicted a bus stop sign annotated with the question, “Why?” Above was a flying pancake, and below, “a blind man wearing glasses leading along a blind dog – also wearing glasses”.
Lennon’s love of wordplay and nonsense with a twist found a wider audience when he was 24. Harry writes that In His Own Write (1964) was published after “Some journalist who was hanging around the Beatles came to me and I ended up showing him the stuff. They said, ‘Write a book’ and that’s how the first one came about”. Like the Daily Howl it contained a mix of formats including short stories, poetry, plays and drawings. One story, “Good Dog Nigel”, tells the tale of “a happy dog, urinating on a lamp post, barking, wagging his tail – until he suddenly hears a message that he will be killed at three o’clock”. The Times Literary Supplement considered the poems and stories “remarkable … also very funny … the nonsense runs on, words and images prompting one another in a chain of pure fantasy”. Book Week reported, “This is nonsense writing, but one has only to review the literature of nonsense to see how well Lennon has brought it off. While some of his homonyms are gratuitous word play, many others have not only double meaning but a double edge.” Lennon was not only surprised by the positive reception, but that the book was reviewed at all, and suggested that readers “took the book more seriously than I did myself. It just began as a laugh for me”.
In combination with A Spaniard in the Works (1965), In His Own Write formed the basis of the stage play The John Lennon Play: In His Own Write, co-adapted by Victor Spinetti and Adrienne Kennedy. After negotiations between Lennon, Spinetti and the artistic director of the National Theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, the play opened at The Old Vic in 1968. Lennon and Ono attended the opening night performance, their second public appearance together. In 1969, Lennon wrote “Four in Hand”, a skit based on his teenage experiences of group masturbation, for Kenneth Tynan’s play Oh! Calcutta! After Lennon’s death, further works were published, including Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986), Ai: Japan Through John Lennon’s Eyes: A Personal Sketchbook (1992), with Lennon’s illustrations of the definitions of Japanese words, and Real Love: The Drawings for Sean (1999). The Beatles Anthology (2000) also presented examples of his writings and drawings.
Music historians Schinder and Schwartz wrote of the transformation in popular music styles that took place between the 1950s and the 1960s. They said that the Beatles’ influence cannot be overstated: having “revolutionised the sound, style, and attitude of popular music and opened rock and roll’s doors to a tidal wave of British rock acts”, the group then “spent the rest of the 1960s expanding rock’s stylistic frontiers”. Liam Gallagher and his group Oasis were among the many who acknowledged the band’s influence; he identified Lennon as a hero. In 1999, he named his first son Lennon Gallagher in tribute. On National Poetry Day in 1999, the BBC conducted a poll to identify the UK’s favourite song lyric and announced “Imagine” as the winner.
In 1997, Yoko Ono and the BMI Foundation established an annual music competition programme for songwriters of contemporary musical genres to honour John Lennon’s memory and his large creative legacy. Over $400,000 have been given through BMI Foundation’s John Lennon Scholarships to talented young musicians in the United States.
In a 2006 Guardian article, Jon Wiener wrote: “For young people in 1972, it was thrilling to see Lennon’s courage in standing up to [US President] Nixon. That willingness to take risks with his career, and his life, is one reason why people still admire him today.” For music historians Urish and Bielen, Lennon’s most significant effort was “the self-portraits … in his songs [which] spoke to, for, and about, the human condition.”
In 2013, Downtown Music Publishing signed a publishing administration agreement for the US with Lenono Music and Ono Music, home to the song catalogues of John Lennon and Yoko Ono respectively. Under the terms of the agreement, Downtown represents Lennon’s solo works, including “Imagine”, “Instant Karma (We All Shine On)”, “Power to the People”, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, “Jealous Guy”, “(Just Like) Starting Over” and others.
Lennon continues to be mourned throughout the world and has been the subject of numerous memorials and tributes. In 2002, the airport in Lennon’s home town was renamed the Liverpool John Lennon Airport. On what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday in 2010, Cynthia and Julian Lennon unveiled the John Lennon Peace Monument in Chavasse Park, Liverpool. The sculpture, entitled Peace & Harmony, exhibits peace symbols and carries the inscription “Peace on Earth for the Conservation of Life · In Honour of John Lennon 1940–1980”. In December 2013, the International Astronomical Union named one of the craters on Mercury after Lennon.
The Lennon–McCartney songwriting partnership is regarded as one of the most influential and successful of the 20th century. As performer, writer or co-writer, Lennon had 25 number one singles in the US Hot 100 chart. His album sales in the US stand at 14 million units. Double Fantasy was his best-selling solo album, at three million shipments in the US. Released shortly before his death, it won the 1981 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The following year, the BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music was given to Lennon.
Participants in a 2002 BBC poll voted him eighth of “100 Greatest Britons”. Between 2003 and 2008, Rolling Stone recognised Lennon in several reviews of artists and music, ranking him fifth of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and 38th of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, and his albums John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, 22nd and 76th respectively of “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) with the other Beatles in 1965 (returned in 1969). Lennon was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
- Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (with Yoko Ono) (Apple, 1968)
- Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (with Yoko Ono) (Zapple, 1969)
- Wedding Album (with Yoko Ono) (Apple, 1969)
- John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (Apple, 1970)
- Imagine (Apple, 1971)
- Some Time in New York City (with Yoko Ono) (Apple, 1972)
- Mind Games (Apple, 1973)
- Walls and Bridges (Apple, 1974)
- Rock ‘n’ Roll (Apple, 1975)
- Double Fantasy (with Yoko Ono) (Geffen, 1980)
- Milk and Honey (with Yoko Ono) (Geffen, 1984)