John Lennon’s Incredible Vanishing Act

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Spoiler Alert: This article contains references to the film, “Yesterday,” with commentary about “surprise events” in the film.

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 Beatle 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.

Related: “The Cavern Club: Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1957”

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 the Fest for Beatles Fans last August, 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 long-awaited 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…

And this is a Spoiler Alert

…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.

Related: “‘Yesterday’: A World Without the Beatles?”

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

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Jude Southerland Kessler is the leading expert on the life of John Lennon and the author of The John Lennon Series, a projected 9-volume expanded biography taking readers chronologically through John’s life. The first four volumes are Shoulda Been There (from which this excerpt is taken), Shivering Inside, She Loves You and Should Have Known Better. With a personal Lennon library of over 300 books, Kessler undertook seven trips to Liverpool, England to interview John Lennon’s childhood friends, early band members, art college mates, and business associates before embarking on writing the series, which is told in a narrative format and heavily documented.

23 comments on “John Lennon’s Incredible Vanishing Act

  1. Avatar
    Oscar Suarez

    While some might prefer one Beatle over another, the true fan hears four voices that make up the Greatest group in history. John will NEVER fade, his talent is to immense. The mere fact that he recognized Paul to be his equal, at such an early time in their career, only magnifies his greatness.
    John, Paul, George and Ringo. Called in that order for a reason.
    John was first, he took Paul as his partner, then Paul brought George, who in turn, brought Ringo.
    The Masers.

  2. Avatar
    Tim from Baltimore

    Interesting. I just checked the ipod and the Beatle songs I listen to all the time have a very few McCartney-penned tunes included. And I’d be far more likely to listen to Harrison’s “Wonderwall” album than any of the Wings efforts. But that’s what made the Beatles’ albums such anticipated treasures at the time of release: beautifully crafted chaos that veered from ditties your Mom and Dad could enjoy to boundary-breaking adventures in sound and vision.

    That range may explain the vanishing act. As the fans age and become their Moms and Dads, those ditties written by Sir Paul become more pleasing to have around … and the strident voice of love, art, and revolution becomes a reminder that the listener really hasn’t accomplished very much at all.

  3. Avatar
    Stella Valadez

    John, Paul, George and Ringo…in that order! John was a very unique and amazingly talented individual. He will always be remembered as the person that started the Beatles! His voice stands alone with so much feeling and love. He will always be the ‘frontman’ of the group! His voice and music will always live forever, even after we are all gone his music will still be heard and will never die!! We love you John 🎸

    • Avatar
      Bill burch

      I always thought “instant karma ” was a great and sad song by john … and turned out he saw the future for himself .

  4. Avatar

    I agree that Lennon’s acerbic wit is being airbrushed into a peace-making bed in, his Beatles offerings aren’t overlooked, in the States, at least.

    McCartney does get more play on The Beatles channel on Sirius. But to be fair— he’s alive— and records custom messages to fans. He has an unfair advantage. I do not believe John is overlooked in the hearts and minds of Beatle fans.

  5. Avatar

    I haven’t done the measurements you have, and I suspect (like Michael said above) that the playlists are tilting more towards the living Beatles. Also bear in mind that Lennon’s post-Beatle output, quantity wise, was comparatively erratic compared to the other 3 ex-Beatles. Similar statements could be made about other bands of that era (who started what, who wrote the most, etc.). That aside, you made a brilliant, spot-on assessment about the lionization of Lennon–perfectly stated and I’m in total agreement with it. I much prefer the “Revolution” Lennon to the “Imagine” Lennon. Parodies can be harsh, but a parody of “Imagine” I once heard went like this: “Imagine you’re a rich hippie, telling people what to do…” I respect “Imagine,” but “Revolution” and such songs were the ones that kicked me in the pants and made me want to make music.

  6. Avatar
    HappyRon Hill

    I think the image of Lennon decried in this article IS the Lennon I know, partly. He’s the guy who wrote Image and so many other songs of compassion and wisdom. He was also the tough problematic guy as well. My hope is that if he had been allowed to live longer he would have become the “aged Lennon” that the article doesn’t like. I’m certain that would have been a side of him. Of course, his demons very well may have killed him as well but someone who dedicated so much of his thoughts to self-improvement may very well have made it.
    Most people mellow with age no reason to think John wouldn’t have as well. We know he had mellowed by the time he died to some extent.

  7. Avatar
    Van Sabena

    Paul was NOT the prime mover of the Quarrymen, The Silver Beatles or even the Beatles before 1966 when John met Yoko. Furthermore, Stu wasn’t removed from the band by Paul, but rather he decided to stay in Hamburg to study art and be with his German girlfriend. Likewise, it wasn’t Paul with Harrison pressing for Pete Best’s replacement, it was George Martin who asked Brian Epstein to return for recording of “Love Me Do” with a different drummer.
    Speaking of “Love Me Do:” John and Paul sing it together, with John singing the lower part and Macca the higher harmony. (The song is not “pitched too high for Macca” since his voice was naturally higher than John’s.) Paul was not “forced to assume John’s lyrics;” Martin simply suggested Paul sings the melody by himself when John plays the harmonica, rather than John singing the song’s title and switching to harmonica before he could sing the word “do,” as they originally performed it.

    • Avatar
      Sanjay Diasehmai

      Thank you for these corrections. They were bugging me.

    • Avatar
      Giorgio Prager

      Thank you for these corrections. I, too, was surprised to read about a part being “pitched too high for Macca” Wha’?

    • Avatar

      Pete couldn’t find his butt with his hands. He did choose to stay, but undoubtedly was way out of his depth music speaking.

  8. Avatar
    Sanjay Diasehmai

    The relationship and dynamic between the four Fabs remains the most fascinating element for me. I don’t think either John or Paul could have become particularly successful without each other. The same goes for George and Ringo as the members who kept them all grounded. They all agreed they were greater than the sum of their parts. Yes, Paul was by far the most musically talented, but he was also the most competitive and without John’s edge, energy and songs he would never have risen to the height of his powers. Paul influenced John’s softer, more emotional side to emerge in certain songs. The Teddy Boy with a heart. People who knew them said that if three of them were in a room, they’d be charming and amusing, but when all four were present, there was an ineffable energy and presence that created a disarming buzz. Their chemistry was complex personally and musically, which is why they sounded like one unified instrument when they performed.

  9. Avatar
    Andrew McAlpine

    As talented as he is, I listen to Paul least of all.

  10. Avatar
    David Thomas

    I think McCartney is brilliant, but John was the heart and soul of The Beatles. Sanitizing John takes away from his sarcastic wit, and immense talent as a writer and performer. In New York, at least, he gets short shrift, especially, and sadly, on the radio (I’m looking at you, Ken Dashou)

  11. Avatar

    Great article Jude! Maybe I’m a bit obtuse, but I did not notice the lack of John songs in the movie, nor on the XM Beatles channel that I listen to daily. Great observation. I do agree with the sanitizing of John and thought Tim’s comment was well-taken. Though it is hard to know how John would have aged (I think we all haveour thoughts and preferences), it is fun to speculate. I did not feel that his portrayal in the movie was particularly “sanitized” – though as a fantasy, I thought that ending and the entire movie was enjoyable. Looking forward to seeing you this weekend at the Fest!

  12. Avatar

    The opinion of this writer with all due respect, are faulty.

    A few hours on a radio broadcast on any given day or couple of days or nights in some specific area and timezone on a given format and broadcast do not quantify the immense presence or apparent lack thereof of an artist such as JOHN WINSTON LENNON.

    Nor, can they define any artist nor art.
    It is unquantifiable.
    (Take note that the extraordinary artist VICENT WILLEM VAN GOGH never sold a single painting in his lifetime!)

    Yet, for decades, now, Van Gogh has been a milestone of talent rarely reached by any painters of todays standards.

    Nor, does one, arguably, somewhat weak film in pop culture on a given year reflect any such ultimate litmus test.

    If you want to get a more real perspective watch, A HARD DAYS NIGHT.

    Besides, how does one measure how many countless millions of The Beatle’s fans are listening at home, in their cars and earbuds and the like on their own mix tapes?

    It is also worth mentioning that many of The Beatles songs were sung in unison with Paul & John doing the lead vocals simultaneously.
    The were mixed so close that one could not discern either’s voice or personality. Then George Harrison would chime in as well with a harmony a third above or below Paul and John.

    There are now millions of music outlets out there now in 2019. This is a weak assumption that simply cannot hold water.

    Perspective is everything.

    One cannot make such judgement based on a road trip radio experience and a small film called Yesterday.

    This is an extremely myopic judgement.

    Moreover, time WILL have its way with us and all of our heroes and masters of all the arts.

    Eventually, no one will be playing any Beatle songs to any great degree anywhere!
    That will never alter the immense value of their their work and what it brought
    to the world at a point in eternity.

    I adore CLAUDE DEBUSSY but I virtually never hear Clair de lune.

    But, when I do it stops me in my tracks anywhere and everywhere.

    The beauty and depth of art, much like “LoVe”, simply cannot be measured.

    This same perspective holds true for the beauty and depth of the artist/songwriter, JOHN LENNON.

    ~Richard Orange* (Published singer/songwriter and immense fan of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon.
    Ringo Starr as well and a host of other artist/singer/songwriters.

  13. Avatar

    I was born right around when John Lennon was killed, and was raised on Beatles music. In the ’90s and early ’00s, I distinctly remember thinking how Lennon had the “good fortune,” from purely a fame perspective, of dying young. He didn’t suffer middle age, trying and failing, as McCartney (and many others) did, to stay relevant as the pop culture zeitgeist sailed by him. Lennon’s legacy was forever cemented, while it seemed McCartney spent a good two decades embarrassing himself. In my experience, nobody seemed to like Paul, and EVERYBODY loved John. I remember people even arguing that not only was McCartney’s solo output terrible, but his Beatles output was terrible as well… :/

    Now, McCartney has moved from middle aged to elderly, and the pendulum has swung yet again. People look to him as the old master, still packing venues and releasing music (generally to good reviews). As the age of rock is ending, McCartney is to be revered. Meanwhile, I know people born the generation after me that won’t even listen to a Lennon song because of his history of domestic violence… :/

    Eventually, things will even out. Both Lennon and McCartney will be looked at as the musical geniuses they are, on par with Mozart, Beethoven, and the other all-time greats.

    Oh, and fun fact! The most listened to Beatles song on Spotify (and it’s not even remotely close) is “Here Comes the Sun” by Harrison.

  14. Avatar

    John Lennon indeed was the driving force of The Fab Four and if not for him there wouldn’t have been any Beatles. Like Jude said, the 3rd UK album A Hard Day’s Night was almost a Lennon solo album in itself and it was through that album that I became a fan of The Beatles and of John Lennon in particular, with him as my favorite Beatle. My favorite songs are from that album (plus a cover song from Larry Williams not on that album but on a British released Extended Play as well as on a US Capitol album [which by itself was almost another Lennon solo album in spite of The Beatle name] released around that same time). I grew up wanting to be a Beatle like the John Lennon of 1962 to 1966 thanks in no small part to these early Beatle albums which were more than half “owned” by Booker Table, another of Lennon’s pseudonyms!

  15. Avatar

    I have been a Beatles fan since the beginning and John was my favorite. I loved his wit and his cheekiness. I also loved the vulnerability he expressed in his lyrics, which increasingly expressed emotions and situations below the surface of things. And the way he played with language (“Tight A$$”).His early solo albums were soul searing and very personal to me. I never took his political forays too seriously. Unfortunately, because John left us so soon, and was mostly out of the media for the last few years before his death, we are left with the “Martin Luther Lennon” phenomenon as described by Paul McCartney. Younger people only see that image and hear “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” as his definitive work. I think part of the problem is that Paul is still around and still sings Beatles songs, but mostly limited to the ones he wrote. I listen to Pandora and notice that they play way too many Paul McCartney live songs from his many concerts. So this excludes most of Lennon’s Songs. Frankly, I prefer the original recordings to the live concert versions. Recently Pandora has loosened up and they are playing a wider range of Beatles songs, including “Not a Second Time.” “I’m a Loser”, etc. I saw Yesterday and while I found the surprise Lennon appearance heartstopping, the depiction was twee. Many times over the last nearly 40 years, I have wished JOL was here to grow old with us. I’m sure he’d have lots to say.

  16. Avatar
    Tim Wallace

    As Billy Joel wrote: “Give a moment or two to the angry young man, his fist in the air and his head in the sand.” ~ John Lennon has been deified by pop laity. And like any pop deity who has moved beyond this life, the laity will fight over the “true” interpretation of said life. John was a guy who wrote songs. I saw/heard him play in Madison Square Garden with Elton John in the early 70’s. Nice. The movie “Yesterday” merely offers a version of Lennon which may / may not have ever been, but which was only meant to provide a plot foil. Nothing more. You know, kinda like when “Socrates” shows up in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Nothing more, nothing less. Next….

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