Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn noted recently that John Lennon’s image is no longer viewed with the reverence of old in some quarters. Putting aside the fact that the lionisation which occurred after his death was (perhaps inevitably) largely rose-tinted and unbalanced, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that his character is being re-evaluated in this more sensitive, delicate and easily offended age. At a time when there is a rush to judge events of the past by the virtue-laden standards and moral absolutes of today, some people are going to struggle with John’s drawings and impersonations of the disabled, the attitude he showed towards women during his youth, or the fact that he suggested Brian Epstein’s autobiography should have been titled “Queer Jew”. Indeed, many people would recoil in horror at such things, which is all a bit ironic considering Lennon was also a torch-bearer for many of the causes – civil rights, sexual equality, anti-war protests, vegetarianism and so on – which are viewed as sacred now.
But you know what? While it’s impossible to predict (as many people regrettably do) what a modern-day John Lennon would have thought or felt about anything – not least because he changed his mind so frequently – I think I’m on fairly safe ground by claiming that if he were still around, whatever was said about him on Twitter, web forums, 24-hour news stations or elsewhere, he just wouldn’t give a fuck. It’s one of the things I like most about him. Yes, criticism often riled him, spurring him to dash off a vituperative letter, caustic song or scathing interview soundbite. But it rarely changed his behaviour one jot. He was who he was, and sod what anyone else thought.
The contradictions and complexities of his life, personality and work were explored in a special edition of UK magazine Uncut, published to mark the 25th anniversary of John’s death in 2005 (my, how time flies). In the early 2000s, long before it launched its now regular ‘Ultimate Music Guide’ series, the makers of the magazine produced a number of spin-offs themed around “rock’s ultimate icons”, entitled Uncut Legends. Unlike the Ultimate Music Guides, which rely heavily on archive interview material, these were filled with brand new articles from a number of different contributors, and so it was with the Lennon issue. The 148 pages offer a rich smorgasbord of content – a chronology of his life, a run-down of his 30 greatest songs (as chosen by famous fans, writers and contemporaries), interviews with his partners (Cynthia, Yoko and mid-70s beau May Pang), a batch of photo spreads with commentaries from the people who took them, reviews of his solo albums and short profiles looking at different (often contradictory) aspects of his character. The core of the magazine, however, is made up of in-depth essays looking at the key phases of his life: the young rocker period, Beatlemania, the early days with Yoko, the ‘primal scream’ episode, his fight against deportation from the US, the ‘lost weekend’ separation from Yoko in 1973/74, and his re-emergence from househusband duties to record Double Fantasy in 1980.
The first thing to say is that the magazine is beautifully put together and laid out. A lot of care and attention to detail clearly went into it. It touches most of the important bases in his story and career, with a host of well-chosen photographs to illustrate them. Indeed, the three sections given over completely to photography are especially strong. There are the classic Astrid Kirchherr images from Hamburg (plus some great shots when she visited the band on the set of A Hard Day’s Night), along with selections from British showbiz snapper Tommy Hanley (including famous shots from Tittenhurst Park during the 1971 Imagine recording sessions) and Bob Gruen, who took some of the defining photos of John and Yoko after they moved to New York in the 1970s. Gruen’s close friendship with the couple is reflected in the relaxed, candid nature of his pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Particularly striking is one of a hung-over, remorseful Lennon prostrating himself before Yoko on an icy Manhattan morning after an episode of public infidelity the night before.
The ‘Loves of Lennon’ interviews make for an interesting contrast. Cynthia, in keeping with her excellent book John published the same year (2005), pulls no punches about her relations with Yoko and Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, nor about her former husband – though her criticisms of him are mixed in with warm reminiscences, too. May Pang is more wholly positive, coming over as being little removed from the starry-eyed, smitten young woman who lived with John for more than a year during his hiatus from Yoko. Curiously, her favourite memory of their time together was when they spotted a UFO from their New York apartment in 1974; though John also liked to tell this story, so it must’ve been quite the experience. The Yoko Q&A seems altogether more guarded and bland, though in fairness the questions focus more on her role as custodian of his legacy (she’s even asked about meeting Liam Gallagher at one point, for heaven’s sake) than about her role as wife and lover.
The Top 30 Lennon Songs – with contributors ranging from Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Lemmy from Motorhead to Paul Weller and Garbage singer Shirley Manson – is a fun read. You won’t be surprised to learn ‘Imagine’ comes in first spot, while ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘Across The Universe’ and ‘Mother’ make up the rest of the top five. It’s always interesting to see other people’s takes and interpretations on the music you love, and learn why they like it so much too. For my money, though, any Lennon ‘best of’ list that doesn’t include ‘Girl’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘Love’ is seriously lacking credibility.
The articles which make up the bulk of the magazine are a real mixed bag. Most of the one page examinations of his different traits (rock ‘n’roller, wit, fighter, romantic, radical) are fairly dismissable. They are either too short or fail to provide any fresh insights into his character; for example, one rightly cites him as changing the idea of romance in pop, but then offers no real explanation or analysis of how he did it, barely even touching on any of his songs after 1964. Even worse, the ‘fighter’ profile reports as fact a rumour that John brutally attacked Stuart Sutcliffe and ended up kicking his friend in the head, when there is zero evidence this ever happened (Lewisohn, in his exhaustively researched biography Tune In, doesn’t even mention it). A couple of the longer articles take an awful long time to say not a great deal. ‘How John and Yoko Quit The Beatles’ is actually more a run-down of the pair’s avant garde art activities at the end of the ‘60s, while the piece about their famed primal scream therapy in 1970 and the impact on the music they produced immediately afterwards offers little that is new (to his credit, Dr Arthur Janov respected John’s patient confidentiality throughout his life).
While the need to put down McCartney while praising Lennon has happily abated somewhat among writers since the 1980s, there are still traces of it here. The article on John’s youth basically implies John and Paul were more work colleagues than real friends, which is utter nonsense; even at the height of the bitter fall-out following The Beatles’ break-up in 1971, John still referred to Paul as his best friend, and elsewhere in this very magazine Bob Gruen recounts a joyous evening in the mid-1970s when Paul and Linda visited the Lennons at their Dakota Building apartment in New York. Then there’s a sly dig which points out that at the very time John embarked on soul-searching psychological therapy to help tackle deep-rooted neuroses, Paul was buying the rights to Rupert Bear, thus setting in train the differing paths of their solo careers (Lennon being the deep artist, and Macca the facile entertainer). Apart from the absurdity of pigeonholing McCartney’s entire career around one project (for children) released 14 years later, the author conveniently overlooks that, at the same time John was seeking professional help, Paul was experiencing a breakdown of his own, isolating himself at his Scottish farm and drinking heavily as he struggled to come to terms with The Beatles’ split. It’s all a bit lazy, and completely unnecessary
There is some fine writing elsewhere in the magazine, however. Chris Ingham, Beatles author and regular contributor to magazines such as MOJO, pens an excellent article looking at John’s remarkable growth as an artist from 1962-67. He also contributes the best of the album reviews, cogently championing 1973’s woefully underrated Mind Games. Other stand-outs include an engrossing piece on John’s self-proclaimed ‘Lost Weekend’ when separated from Yoko in the mid-70s, charting that period’s strange mixture of self-destructiveness, fruitful creativity and mending of broken bridges before he inexorably drifted back to this wife. And I really enjoyed the detailed story of his 1980 comeback, in particular the fateful trip to Bermuda which helped to kick-start a return to concentrated music-making. Both articles have lots of fascinating recollections from people around him at the time.
As for the album reviews, well, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Ultimately, as always, it comes down to personal opinion, though some of the critics here argue their cases better than others. I guess I’m in the minority of people who don’t consider Plastic Ono Band a masterpiece (as the review here claims), though I do understand why some find flaws in Imagine – even though I love it to bits. When someone describes a wonderful song like 1974’s ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’, as “utterly cloying”, though, I am left scratching my head. Still, I always enjoy music reviews, and they’re all interesting in their own way. In particular, it was nice to read a positive reappraisal of Double Fantasy.
As I write this, there’s lots of stuff going on in the media and online to celebrate what would have been John’s 80th birthday. Even though he’s now been gone for as long as he was alive, you can’t argue it wasn’t a life well lived. That extraordinary journey is, for the most part, well documented in Uncut Legends. If you can find a copy on eBay or somewhere, it’s well worth picking up.