The canon of books on The Beatles is ever-growing. The latest one in the pipeline tightens the lens on our favorite “working-class hero.” John Lennon: 1980 Playlist, written by music scholar Tim English, examines the last year of John’s life through the vantage point of all the music that shaped it. Even though it’s filled with fresh details and revelations, many can take sentimental joy in how we were impacted by our own playlists of 40 years ago. The book is about Lennon for sure, but this conversant and well-researched tome is really about all of us.
English puts the last years of Lennon’s life in context and perspective – that of an enormous cultural icon who stepped away from the spotlight to be a more attentive husband to Yoko, hands-on dad to his son Sean and who immersed himself in his adopted city of New York.
But a creative genius like Lennon was not likely to remain silent forever, and he never stopped being an aficionado of all genres of music. Tim English parses out the last year before his tragic murder into four seasons. He clues the reader in to specific requests Lennon made to his assistant for new releases, both for his own edification and for inclusion in his home jukebox. Unsurprisingly, he showed eclectic tastes, not just for the old-time rock ‘n roll that was in his DNA, but for even older classics like Bing Crosby. Turns out John was a reggae, gospel, and punk enthusiast, but he also embraced disco and was a huge fan of Donna Summer.
Some of these influences joined forces on his final album Double Fantasy. The rockabilly vibe and heavy Elvis-influenced vocals on “[Just Like] Starting Over” are very evident. In a piece of delightful psychological consistency, Lennon got the mojo to begin working on his final album in earnest right after former bandmate Paul McCartney’s hit single “Coming Up” hit the airwaves. Their creative rivalry, dormant almost a decade, was kicked up anew.
John Lennon: 1980 Playlist is chock full of great musical anecdotes and a few oddball surprises. For instance, along with the rest of the world, Lennon got a huge kick out of The B-52s, with their retro sound and Kate Pierson’s warblings. It may have seemed absurd that he was convinced that Pierson was paying homage to Yoko’s quirky vocals – until he got confirmation that Pierson was doing just that. Subsequently, Yoko’s goony track “Kiss Kiss Kiss” became a staple in discos of the era.
Lennon loved the musical maestros of the time – Springsteen, Bowie, The Stones, The Clash, and Queen, among others. It seems a likely bet that he was enamored of The Doobie Brothers’ hit “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels,” which in turn informed his own beloved “Watching the Wheels.”
Lennon had an affinity for Randy Newman’s sharp acerbic wit and musicianship, even though their narrative approaches were very different. Newman always hides behind an idiosyncratic character, while Lennon generally spoke from his own experience.
One amusing speculation is that Lennon might have been a fan of (wait for it) Morris Albert. He’s the Brazilian singer-songwriter whose 1974 hit “Feelings” has become reviled over the years as one of the more cheeseball tunes in history. While Lennon does not seem to have addressed it directly, he is on record whistling it energetically and un-ironically while working in the studio on Double Fantasy.
There are many such carefully-researched anecdotes and accounts in John Lennon: 1980 Playlist, and it’s an excellent addition to anyone’s Beatles bookshelf. It is written with a breezy informality and filled with information that will titillate the reader and get us recalling our own musical memories. It’s a unique and clever approach to the man and his music.
There is no spoiler alert here, of course, because we all know how the music died on that particular day. Author Tim English takes us on an entertaining and often witty journey but ends the book with a few heart-wrenching lines that bring us up short and remind us yet again of all we lost on that terrible night in December 1980.
Photo: John Lennon/Getty Images