First, let’s review what we do know:
Convinced by his mother, Julia Stanley Lennon, that he had “music in his bones” — music inherited from Julia’s instrumental acumen and his father, Fred’s, vocal gift— 16-year-old John Lennon founded a Liverpool skiffle group known as The Quarrymen. Hounded, indeed badgered, by young Lennon to practice regularly in a neighborhood air-raid shelter, the group developed. And as members proved unworthy or unwilling to work, John pitilessly culled them from his band.
In July 1957, Lennon made a most critical decision: despite a whispered voice warning that Paul McCartney was smart, charismatic, and unbelievably talented — indeed, a groundbreaker who posed a real threat to John’s leadership of The Quarrymen — John unselfishly decided to admit the newcomer to his group. Determined to hone a band that would someday be “bigger than Elvis,” John Lennon included McCartney, despite their strong individual bents toward self-preservation.
Almost immediately, McCartney began to assert his will, insisting that John audition one of McCartney’s mates from the Liverpool Institute, a 14-year-old lead guitarist named George Harrison. Extremely reluctant to admit “a kid” to his band, John nevertheless yielded to Paul’s insistence and not only auditioned Harrison but allowed the gifted youth to join his group.
In the years ahead, McCartney became a prime mover in The Quarrymen, The Silver Beatles, and The Beatles. He vigorously campaigned for Stu Sutcliffe’s removal from the band. And with Harrison as an ardent ally, McCartney pressed for Pete Best’s replacement by Ringo Starr. Almost from Day One, Lennon had to struggle to secure the reins of band leadership.
But lead John did. The first two Beatles hits were John’s, although Paul was recruited, at the last minute, to sing “Love Me Do” whilst John played the mouth organ. (“You can’t have a song known as, ‘Love me waaahh!” George Martin contended, forcing Paul to assume John’s lyrics, which were admittedly pitched too high for Macca.) As a swift follow-up, John wrote and sang The Beatles’ first #1, “Please Please Me.” And on the Please Please Me LP, John wrote 5 of the 14 songs, performed 3 of the cover songs, and co-authored/sang 2 songs with Paul.
This Lennon-dominated trend continued. John’s voice alone, without a note of accompaniment, opened The Beatles’ second LP, With the Beatles, on which John wrote and sang 4 of the 14 offerings and sang 3 of the cover songs. A Hard Day’s Night was almost a Lennon solo album, with 9 of the 13 songs on the soundtrack LP being John Lennon creations. Beatles for Sale also stayed true to that leaning. John wrote and sang 5 of the album’s country-and-western-themed offerings while belting out 2 of the cover songs and co-performing yet another cover with Paul.
But it wasn’t in musical creation alone that Lennon dominated The Beatles. In 1964, when Kansas City mogul, Charlie O. Finley, wanted The Beatles to play a concert in his town, Brian Epstein went directly to Lennon for a decision. And when, at last, John shrugged agreement to the performance, Finley approached John (and no one else) to beg The Beatles’ leader to add a few extra songs to the concert playlist. The decision rested solely on John.
Now…here’s what we might not know…
After John’s untimely death in 1980, the world subtly began to shade the narrative surrounding the colorful Scouser. In the 1980s, the practice of “lionizing Lennon” (as Bob Wooler used to say), transformed the hard-charging, leather-wearing, expletive-hurling rock ‘n roller into some odd variety of saint. For years, John was measured by “Imagine” instead of “Revolution.” And rarely was he pictured without his white suit, national health glasses, and an obligatory dove or two.
But saints, I fear, are hardly exciting in a world that craves the fast and furious; hence, the revised, milquetoast Lennon began to dwindle in popularity. And as the brash John Lennon of history became single-lined to a one-dimensional “Give Peace a Chance” caricature, he began to slip from public regard. One need only to listen to today’s various Beatles channels to assess the bleak aftermath.
Motoring to a Fest for Beatles fans, I tuned in to various stations supplying Beatles hits, and each hour was a replica of the last: there was one (rarely, two) Lennon-lead songs, one (or two) Harrison songs, several Ringo songs, and one oldies “song that inspired The Beatles.” The greater portion of the hour belonged squarely to Sir Paul McCartney. I was a bit taken aback. Because we were driving in the wee hours, my husband glibly suggested, “Maybe they save the John songs for prime time!” Yet on the daylight drive home, another four-hour listening session produced identical results. John was on the playlist…well…infrequently.
Over the next few months, I found that while I was out running each evening, the Beatles-streaming channels afforded a similar pattern. In a typical 5K jaunt, I could expect to hear from John exactly once.
But none of this was as eye-opening as what I discovered at the screening of the film, Yesterday. Being advised to see it on opening night, I was there in full Beatles regalia. I couldn’t wait to see John’s band “shine on.” The film was superb. But sadly, only three songs by John Lennon were played during the film: “Help!” “All You Need is Love,” and “In My Life.” “A Hard Days’ Night” was mentioned, but not performed. And a couple of songs that John co-wrote with Paul (such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) were offered up. But there was no “Norwegian Wood,” no “If I Fell,” no “This Boy,” no “Yes, It Is,” no “Julia,” no, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” no…well, you get the drift. Yet, lest you despair, Lennon fans…
The filmmakers compensated for this musical oversight by featuring “John himself” in the film. But wait…what? Was “Yesterday’s” John Lennon the caustic, witty, brilliant, suffer-no-fools man from Liverpool? No, indeed.
In fact, the Lennonesque character depicted in Yesterday was an exact opposite of John…an alter-ego existing in the alternative universe of the film. Part saint, part sailor, part crusty curmudgeon full of forgiveness and sage advice, the cleverly tweaked Lennon strolled about, dispensing politically correct advice to the lovelorn. And although it was great to “see him again,” the sanitized version of John bore very little resemblance to the razor-wit who lashed and spat and fought for what he believed.
I find this anti-John everywhere. He is someone borrowing John’s voice to spout opinions that John never endorsed. He is someone using John’s name to Tweet things John never said. To many today, he is a cardboard character, The Quintessential Peacemaker, quietly gobbling up the authentic Lennon, the real John who felt quite at home in the Garston Blood Baths, the brothels of Hamburg, and the stench and grit of The Cavern. Today’s John is artfully airbrushed into a “shite-r shade of pale.” And this changes truth — rewrites history. That is not only tragic…it is a genuine loss.
Fifty-plus years after the fact, I rejoice that Beatles music is still sung, celebrated, and beloved. I’m thrilled that Beatles fashion is still mimicked and Beatles wit, still admired! The Beatles are very much a part of our 2019 vernacular. But to keep The Beatles, The Beatles, we must keep remembering them all. And those memories must remain factual and accurate.
John Lennon (the actual John) had determination in his stride, a hunger for fame, and a burning desire to get to “the toppermost of the poppermost.” He admitted to “becoming a real bastard” to succeed as a Beatle. And he did almost anything to maintain leadership of his band. But most of all, John Lennon had a gift. He had music in his bones. And his music still deserves to be heard, today and tomorrow…always In My Life, and yes, just as if it were yesterday.
-Jude Southerland Kessler
Photo of John Lennon: Getty Images