John Lennon Biography

By Dave DiMartino
As one-half of the most famous pop songwriting team of all time, John Lennon (b. Oct. 9, 1940, Liverpool, England) will go down in history not only for noting with irony that his band the Beatles was "more popular than Jesus," but for having more than one member of the clergy sadly, if quietly, agree with him. Lennon's songwriting relationship with Paul McCartney may be the most thoroughly examined, well-documented collaboration in musical history. In the course of their momentous career--beginning with the Oct. 5, 1962 U.K. release of debut single "Love Me Do" through the year of McCartney's Apr. 10, 1970 announcement that the group had dissolved--the Beatles released 46 top 40
singles and 26 charting albums, many of which were reissues of earlier material or contained only interview snippets. Because of the massive press attention the Beatles received through the course of their career, and because the eyes of the world were focused on John Lennon's every move until his tragic death in 1980, his music away from the group has taken on that much more importance in retrospect.

The John Lennon who co-wrote "She Loves You" and "Love Me Do" with Paul McCartney was a young and ambitious singer-songwriter who merely wanted to become part of "the Goffin & King of England"; the John Lennon who would pose nude on the cover of Two Virgins with his bride-to-be Yoko Ono was instead one of the world's most famous individuals. His very existence was a statement, his every recording was examined thoroughly, held up against his past work as a Beatle, and dissected: What was its motivation? Is this the music he wanted to do, but the other Beatles wouldn't let him? Did he hate his past work? Did he think listeners wanted to hear him and Yoko Ono grunting, groaning, laughing and screaming? More to the point, did he think fans wanted to pay money for the privilege of hearing it?

In fact, most of those questions died down following the release of 1970's Plastic Ono Band, which in many ways marked Lennon's resumption of his Beatles-styled songwriting ways. But the four albums that preceded it, all released within a year, were a far cry from the polished work of Plastic Ono Band or even Let It Be: Between February and December of 1969, Lennon and Ono released Unfinished Music #1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music #2: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album--three albums of "experimental music," avant-garde ramblings that tried the patience of most Beatle fans. And when Lennon "returned" to rock in January 1970 with Live Peace In Toronto, 1969, one half of a potentially great live album, featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar and versions of "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," "Yer Blues," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Cold Turkey," was marred by the unsettling, screeching yawps of Ono.

Still, when Lennon released the comparatively accessible John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, he came back with a stark rawness he'd never displayed while in the Beatles. His greatest solo work, the album was an intense but rewarding listening experience that contained many of his best-known songs--including "Mother," "Working Class Hero," and "God," the latter two of which include some of his most oft-quoted lyrical passages. The brutal, inward-looking nature of such tunes as the album closer "My Mummy's Dead"--on which Lennon sang "My Mummy's dead/It's hard to explain/So much pain/I could never show it/My Mummy's dead"--offered a revealingly close (some said too close) look at Lennon's inner turmoil; the album is still cited by many as one of rock's finest.

Lennon's best-known solo work Imagine followed in 1971; perhaps surprisingly, the title track, now very much a pop standard, peaked at only No. 3 on the pop charts. Still in the introverted mode, Lennon turned his gaze outward long enough to craft what may be one of the meanest songs in pop, directed at former partner McCartney. "How Do You Sleep" took the famous bassist to task for, among other things, his composing skills: "A pretty face may last a year or two," sang Lennon, "But pretty soon they'll see what you can do/The sound you make is muzak to my ears/You must have learned something in all those years." But balancing out that vitriol, and the seeming self-effacement of "Crippled Inside," were such beautiful tracks as "Oh My Love," a simple and elegant love song for which even the era's Yoko-haters could be grateful.

Yoko's presence was felt on Lennon's most disposable effort, 1972's Sometime In New York City, which was jointly credited to John & Yoko/ Plastic Ono Band and came wrapped in a mock New York Times cover. The album, which peaked at No. 48 and was Lennon's lowest-charting release since his 1969 "experimental" phase, was a mostly strident diatribe that was, appropriately, very newspaperish in tone. Though it contains the infamous Lennon/Ono composition "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World"--which was actually released as a single, and peaked at No. 57--the album's songs about Angela Davis, the prison riots at Attica, and the imprisoned John Sinclair now inevitably seem dated and slight.

When Lennon returned to his more normal pop mode with 1973's Mind Games, it seemed a strangely empty gesture. Though he had a hit with the title track--a minor one, it peaked at No. 18--many of the songs had little focus and even less melody; for the first time it became acutely evident Lennon would have derived great benefit from a helping of McCartney's skill at making so-called "muzak." The album's ascent to the top 10 now seems much more a function of Lennon's ex-Beatle status than its inherent worth; with the exception of its title track, Mind Games may be the least-heard in Lennon's entire pop canon.

Even more disturbingly, while the singer's 1974 set Walls And Bridges seemed something of a return to form--it did, after all, reach No. 1--its popularity generally stemmed from two singles, one of which ("Whatever Gets You Through The Night") featured conspicuous backing vocals from the '70s hottest superstar, Elton John, and the other ("#9 Dream") which was a self-consciously Beatle-esque track that almost seemed an artistic retreat of sorts. Where was the intensity of Plastic Ono Band or Imagine? Following the even further artistic retreat of 1975's Rock 'N' Roll, Lennon's interesting but minor retreading of rock classics such as "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Stand By Me," and "Peggy Sue," and greatest hits compilation Shaved Fish, the singer dropped out of the business for five years to raise his young son Sean.

Lennon returned with what would win a Grammy as 1981's album of the year, Double Fantasy, his long-awaited comeback and one very much worth waiting for. Divided into two parts--one half Lennon songs, one half Ono songs--the album was an inspired work that was rapturously received by fans. Featuring three top 10 hits--including the No. 1 "(Just Like) Starting Over," "Woman," and "Watching The Wheels," the album was in some ways as introverted as ever; this time, however, Lennon seemed a much happier man, filled with love for Ono and, as documented wonderfully on "Beautiful Boy," his young son Sean. But as "(Just Like) Starting Over" made its way to the top of the charts, Lennon's triumphant return horrendously ended on Dec. 8, 1980, when he was shot in front of the Dakota apartment building in New York's Upper West Side; he died en route to Roosevelt Hospital.

Lennon's tragic death was eventually followed by the inevitable release of several albums of unfinished songs, outtakes, and live performances on such albums as 1984's Milk And Honey and 1986's Live In New York City and Menlove Avenue; his last charting album was the soundtrack to Andrew Solt's 1988 film Imagine: John Lennon. Though the albums may continue to come, there will never, obviously, be any new music from John Lennon ever again. The finality of his death remains a gruesome reminder for an entire generation that the brightest lights in pop music and elsewhere can be unexpectedly extinguished at any time.