Among my personal store of mnemonic devices is the December 8, 1980 murder of John Lennon, on the day I turned fifteen. Henceforth I’ve had many an occasion to answer the question When is your birthday? with the response “On the day everyone is talking about the death of John Lennon.”
John Winston Lennon was born seventy years ago this week, but he is among those — John F. Kennedy is another — for whom the preponderance of their remembrance concerns the character and circumstances of their death rather than either their birth or life. This is not to say that the latter are overlooked or under-regarded. I know that the mourning and mythologizing were well underway on December the ninth, and that both were founded upon the conviction that the world had lost a man of peace as well as of artistic genius. The reputation of peace-maker was already by 1980 an anachronism, fed in infancy on the gruel of sentiment and then sustained only by easy nostalgia and the familiar convention of celebrity worship. The usefulness of the Lennon myth would increase for many who carried on and who thereby experienced with distress the fierce repudiation of the 1960s, first ascendant in the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, and through which we are still living.
As for the verdict of artistic genius, the freshest evidence in 1980 was Double Fantasy, an album I had reluctantly bought at the dear price of $8.99 in a Buffalo record shop the mid-November week of its release. (On the topic of Buffalo: the night of Lennon’s shooting an obscure band named U2 was performing songs from Boy in an empty bar on Main Street. Rubber Soul had made me want to produce music, but it was Boy that made me want to play guitar in a rock band.) Lennon’s death put Double Fantasy at number one in the charts, and, for those who enjoy trivia, a copy signed hours before he died is considered the most valuable record in the world. However, the record itself is uneven, to put it in the most kind way possible, and far from genius.
I am not a Beatles expert, but I know a fair amount about the band, and what I know suggests to me that Lennon was a charming bore with a casual vicious streak. There were few close to him that he did not hurt in a deep and lasting way, a fact whose consideration will humanize Lennon much more than any stupid cult of the artist ever could. He also seems to have had within him a degree of self-loathing, and regarded with contempt much of his own work — sometimes justly, as in the cases of the song Run for Your Life and the album Let It Be. (Also, his highly regarded lyrics, which even he seems to have admired, are at times nothing more than drug-induced play, while his poems, it must be said, are best ignored.) Despite all of this, he was a musical genius, and he furthermore had the extraordinary and enviable good luck of meeting and collaborating with another musical genius. Such is the messy reality.
Concerning The Beatles I rather agree with the great Danny Finkleman, who regarded the pop group as two separate entities: the first obtaining until about 1965 and the release of Rubber Soul, or at the latest 1966 and Revolver, and the second firmly established by the June 1967 appearance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That is to say, the fun “fab-four” pre-66 Beatles and the later, tiresome, self-important, bickering artiste Beatles. It is a misfortune that the legacy of this band flows almost exclusively from the latter, especially the now-common idea that rock music is something precious, of ponderous social significance, made by Important People. Related to these is the sub-phenomenon of the socially conscious artist-activist, the pious wool-in-the-mouth advocate of “Love,” of which John Lennon is the archetype. The species has been a subject of ridicule and subversion in films like “A Mighty Wind” and “Bob Roberts,” suggesting the degree to which skepticism has soaked into the daft syllogism that people love music, and music is made by musicians, therefore musicians can cause people to love.
In my estimation, for the little it is worth, both the high and low point of the Beatles trajectory arrived on December 6, 1965, two days before my birth. On this day, the North American mono and stereo versions of Rubber Soul (known among collectors as the Capitol T-2442 and ST-2442 pressings) were released, with track listings diverging from the British Parlophone version to suit Capitol Records’ demand for America-friendly albums. This record, a copy of which was in my parents’ music collection, constituted my introduction to pop music and my early music education. In many respects the most compelling and accomplished Beatles record, and a rare instance of a product improved by label meddling, the folk-rock US version of the Dylan-inspired Rubber Soul did also represent The Beatles first published awareness of themselves as “artists,” and thus the onset of the rot. This is what I mean by “both the high and low point.” It is a glorious recording to which Brian Wilson responded by composing the brilliant Pet Sounds, as well as being the album that made me want to make records. Eventually I did just that, and I feel I must acknowledge John Lennon and the songs “Norwegian Wood,” “Girl” (very probably the first pop song featuring the much-repeated lyric “tit”), “In My Life,” and “The Word” as foremost sources of inspiration. On a less personal note I will also observe that to John Lennon goes the credit for instigating numerous and still-employed recording studio innovations. Chief among them is Artificial Double Tracking (or ADT), developed by engineer Ken Townsend and first employed on the album Revolver.
Today the facts of the case are readily available to those who will consider them, and it is therefore unnecessary or futile to labour the point that John Lennon is not a saint. Even opinion of his merit as a musician has been lately diminished, partly as a consequence of the backlash against seriousness in music, and partly as a result of past overexposure. There are also many people who simply have never liked The Beatles. I however am among those who do like the music of The Beatles, and having come this far I imagine I will continue to do so. In my view they are the most important innovators in studio production, having established among other things the very idea of relentless creative evolution which all bands today take for granted. John Lennon is not the only person to be credited, but he is one of them. No one can reasonably deny that he has had a part in shaping the music of our time.