“December 8th” is indisputably the darkest date for Beatle fans. Forty-two years ago (1980), John Lennon was murdered in front of his home in Manhattan in a senseless act. We still shake our collective heads and wonder, “What would life have been like if that moment had not transpired?”
It’s the big question for a generation. Likewise, on that very same date, 20 years earlier (December 8, 1960), John sat in his home in Liverpool and pondered some big questions. He asked himself: “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” That date of Dec. 8 is when John began pondering his career choice, one that would not only impact him but ultimately, the rest of the world.
After being away from home for over 5 months playing with the Beatles (at that point, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best), John Lennon returned from his stay in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles had evolved from amateur musicians to a fully-primed band. They did this by playing seedy clubs for a total of 415 hours in 14 weeks (that’s 276 ninety-minute shows in 98 days).
John was 19 years old when the group traveled to the ultimate European “sin city” of the era. The band often played fueled by a combo of alcohol and speed (diet pills known as “Prellies”) among the gangsters and prostitutes who frequented the sketchier clubs, and whose owners expected nightly violence. This atmosphere super-charged the Beatles to grow closer, improve their skills, and become men. But all this was to be interrupted. On December 7, 1960, John found himself alone in Hamburg. The band had been disbursed after a serious brush with the law.
George was already on his way home under deportation. In a dispute over wages and living conditions, the club’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, took revenge on the Beatles when he found out they were negotiating to appear at a rival club. He began his campaign by calling the authorities on Harrison, who — at 17 –was too young to be working in a foreign country. Next, the other band members were rounded up on a charge of arson, again filed by Koschmider.
The complaint stated that someone in the band had started a fire in Koschmider’s cinema building where the Beatles were living in squalor. The report made an allegation that someone had nailed condoms to the wall of the backroom sleeping quarters of the cinema and set them on fire. Turned out, it was Paul and Pete giving a big F-YOU to Koschmider. Soon, those two Beatles were swiftly exited by authorities onto a plane bound for London.
For his part, Stu was committed to staying the holidays in the Hamburg suburbs with Astrid Kirchherr. The two had fallen deeply in love and the band already questioned if they would ever play with Stu again in England. That left John as the odd man out.
So he began his lonely 24-hour trek on the train to Holland, then onto a ferry bound for the English port of Harwich, to a taxi to London’s Euston station, and finally, another taxi from Lime Street Station in Liverpool to his home on Menlove Avenue. All this while wearing his stage clothes (and newly-bought cowboy boots) with little money in his pocket and his few possessions (extra clothes, Rickenbacker guitar, amplifier) strapped to his back. “It was terrible, setting off home on my own. I had my amp on my back, scared stiff I was going to get pinched (robbed).” John would reflect years later to biographer Hunter Davies, “I was convinced I’d never find England.”
For John, not only was it a lonely return trip but a humiliating one. That past August, he’d argued with his Aunt Mimi whom he’d lived with before his departure for Hamburg. She deplored his choices, told him he was throwing his young “life away for that guitar,” and bet on him coming home regretting this whole music dream. In turn, John bragged that he would come back home with hundreds of pounds in his pocket once Hamburg got a look at him and his mates on stage!
Now, he arrived home on December 8, 1960. Unable to pay the taxi driver, he threw rocks at the window to get her attention. A classic child-parent interplay followed when Mimi opened her front door, and it went something like this:
Mimi: “Well, I have never seen anything like this in all my born days!”
John: “Oh, just pay the taxi, Mimi!”
Mimi: (now razzing him) “Where’s your £100 a week now John?”
John: “Just like you, Mimi, to go on about £100 a week when you know I’m tired”
Mimi: “And you can get rid of those boots! You’re not going out of this house in boots like that!”
John would spend December 8 mostly at home. After some rest and a decent meal, he began pondering the future sitting in his childhood bedroom where he’d written his first songs and dreamed of a bigger world. Only now, that room was the place to make bigger decisions. “I had to think it over. It had been quite a shattering experience to be in a foreign country.” John would later reflect in 1976. “We were pretty young. I’d come home on my own, with no money and just carrying my amplifiers and guitars. I was thinking, ‘Is this what I want to do?'”
Beginning on December 8, he tossed and turned for over a week. Although they’d reached great heights in Hamburg, he decided to not reach out to his bandmates. Paul, George, and Pete had no idea if he was home, or if he’d decided to stay in Germany with Stu and Astrid, or had he taken gigs with another band. Had the Beatles broken-up by default?
But John did reach out to his girlfriend Cynthia Powell (who, over a mere 20 months, would become pregnant and then his wife). He talked about his experiences in Hamburg, rhetorically asking: “Is this it? Night-clubs? Seedy scenes? Being deported? Weird people in the clubs?” Lennon, now 20 years old, was thinking hard about his future. “Should I continue doing this?”
In subsequent years, Cynthia said that John was also considering the way the band had built a following in Germany. Would it translate to Liverpool? Were they only good in the context of Hamburg’s rambunctious environment, or could their talents capture any audience?
John decided to go see the booking agent/manager, Allan Williams, who had got the band their work in Germany. Besides, Williams owned the Jacaranda Coffee Bar Club and maybe he could get a freebie.
That same afternoon, George happened to stop into the “Jac” and was happily surprised to see John. George was a bit miffed but excited because it meant the prospect of the band getting together again. But would John be joining them? Paul was worried too: “(I) was wondering whether it was going to carry on or if that was the last of it.”
With some prodding from the others, John could see that his bandmates still had the enthusiasm. “When George and Paul found out (I was home) they were mad at me because they thought we could have been working!” The others didn’t know that since December 8, he had bigger things on his mind – not just the next gig, but his entire future.
Almost on cue, the band gathered and went to Pete’s mother, Mona, to ask for a booking in the Casbah Club, the coffee bar she ran in the basement of her home in the Heyman’s Green section of Liverpool. A few nights later on December 17, any concern John Lennon had in the Beatles’ ability to translate their Hamburg experience to a Liverpool venue evaporated.
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Pete Best recalled years later, “We belted out exactly what we were doing in Hamburg, and you could physically feel the crowd gasp! It just silenced them. When we finished the first number, the place went into a rapture, it just exploded.” Neal Aspinall, their soon-to-be road manager (and future head of Apple Records), was upstairs in the living room of the Best residence when Pete’s brother, Rory, came running up the stairs in excitement. He said, “Hey, come and see them! And wow, they are so F-ing good!”
The Beatles never looked back. In the next 10 months, they would invent their famous haircut. In the next 12 months, they would sign a contract with a “real” business manager (Brian Epstein). In the next 18 months, they would land a recording deal. In the next 21 months, they would record their first single. And soon after that, they would experience their decade of super-stardom.
Interestingly, John would conduct the now-famous “the dream is over” interviews with Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone on December 8, 1970. This is where John proclaimed to the world his views leading to the end of the Beatles.
But looking back on Dec. 8 in 1960, John could only be satisfied with the results that manifested from his decision to play on. The world would firmly agree.
Photo: John Lennon (Getty Images)