You’re probably going to hear the expression ‘I can’t believe it’s forty years since…’ a lot today, though only from those who were actually around forty years ago; for those who weren’t, forty years ago occupies the same time-stream as D-Day or Waterloo; events before our time exist outside of time, whereas events of which we have a memory are firmly rooted in our own personal tree of life. I myself rarely say that any pivotal event to have occurred within my lifetime feels like yesterday; it never does. Sure, I can remember exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing when I heard the planes had flown into the twin towers or when I was told Princess Di had died in a car crash; but they all feel like a very long time ago – and felt like a very long time ago almost straight away. Often, it seems any major news story of magnitude serves as a full-stop on how life was lived the second before it happened, acting as an instant dividing line between two different worlds. I could apply the same principle to personal events in my life; they always feel like decades ago once they’re gone.
No, eating my Ricicles at the breakfast table on 9 December 1980, maybe half-an-hour before having to set off for school, certainly doesn’t feel like forty years ago; it feels more like 400. I had no notion that John Lennon had been murdered in New York around four hours earlier (which was still the 8th Stateside on account of the UK/US time difference); I was going through the usual weekday motions that morning. I wondered why ‘Love Me Do’ was playing on the radio instead of a contemporary hit, but it was only when a news update followed the track that I was made aware of what had happened; and I don’t think I thought about anything else for the rest of the day. Once reluctantly shoved in the direction of school, I rightly guessed the subject would be on the lips of friends, for they all knew I was a Beatles fan. It was even referenced in the school assembly; I couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening before. Yes, Elvis’s death three years earlier had been a big story, but I think it was the brutal manner of Lennon’s death that seemed so shocking – even to a generation raised on the routine violence of US TV cop shows. They no longer seemed so far-fetched.
I came home for dinner and recorded Radio 1’s extended ‘Newsbeat’ onto an audio cassette (featuring an early outing for Paul Gambaccini as the unofficial executor of every pop icon’s last will and testament), and as soon as I was back home for good there was no shortage of further coverage on TV, which was abundant in ‘programme changes’ that evening. ‘Help!’ was shown, as was the Bob Harris ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ interview with Lennon from five years earlier. As by this stage the obligatory B&W portable set had made household viewing choices a tad more democratic, I had free rein to change channels and seek out as much on the subject as I could catch. That night was the first time in my life I actively sought out news programmes to watch instead of greeting them with the archetypal childish cry of ‘boring!’; in fact, childish things suddenly seemed very childish indeed. If ever a day could be singled out as the day my childhood was officially given notice, it was 9 December 1980.
Although I’d had a ‘Yellow Submarine’ colouring book as an infant and was familiar with the sleeves of the Beatles LPs my parents owned, I hadn’t properly ‘discovered’ the Fab Four for myself until the previous Christmas, when BBC2 screened all their movies. A few months later I acquired the famous ‘blue’ compilation – ‘1967-’70’ – which is as good an introduction as it’s possible for a novice to receive. Music now mattered more than what had traditionally captured my attention. I was fortunate the music scene in 1980 was pretty bloody good as well; with 99p singles at Woolies beginning to edge out comics when it came to the spending of pocket money, I was spoilt for choice, with the likes of Blondie, The Police, The Jam and others. But the advantage of The Beatles was that their entire career from start to finish was ready and waiting to be devoured, a task I spent a good deal of 1980 engaged in. Paul McCartney was the most visible ex-Beatle to anyone growing up in the 70s, for Wings were always in the charts and on TOTP; Ringo would surface periodically, whilst George was relatively anonymous. Instinctively drawn to Lennon from the moment I fell in love with the back catalogue, I couldn’t understand why he was absent and acting all ‘Howard Hughes’ when he was the one I wanted to hear from out of all four; then, in the autumn of 1980, it was announced he was back.
Rock stars reaching the age of 40 was uncharted territory at the time; 30 had been seen as the ultimate cut-off point when Lennon’s generation was in its prime, yet when they all got to 30 they didn’t abruptly slip into slippers; they kept going – and this despite the peasants’ revolt of Punk and all its numerous offshoots that were making waves at the dawn of the decade. Therefore, John Lennon re-entering the arena with a new album was still big news and he played the PR game, giving several major interviews; one of them was with Radio 1’s Andy Peebles, segments of which had been aired in the hours before Lennon’s murder; I remember my dad informing me of this, which I’d naturally missed, what with bloody school and all that. Lennon’s new music disappointingly didn’t appear to be along the lines of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘Working Class Hero’; but I was too green to realise that wasn’t going to happen. I wished the kids at school who ribbed me for being a fan were more familiar with that stuff than ‘Woman’.
At least I knew I wasn’t alone when the charts over the Christmas period were swamped in Lennon material. By the second chart of 1981, Lennon had three singles in the top five, holding both the No.1 and No.2 spot as well as No.5. He’d even managed to swap places with himself at No.1 by the beginning of February. It was a strange couple of months, but the renewed interest in his music, along with the deluge of tribute magazines and books that flowed off the presses in the wake of the events of 8 December, suggested death was something of an inspired career move. Not that this was entirely new, of course; everyone from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis and Sid Vicious had experienced an upsurge of sales following their demises, and Bob Marley would shortly receive a similar boost. But the way in which a media that had regularly ridiculed and mocked Lennon suddenly venerated his memory did stick in the throat a little. George Harrison picked up on this when he emerged from his own hibernation with a Lennon tribute in the spring of 1981: ‘You were the one that they said was so weird/all those years ago.’
Mind you, Lennon’s posthumous life was only just beginning. Yoko Ono honed in on one element of her late husband’s oeuvre and repackaged him as Gandhi with a guitar; a fascinatingly complex individual was reduced to the official, somewhat trite slogan of the Lennon brand, AKA ‘All he was saying/was give peace a chance’. He also said ‘Boy, you been a naughty girl/you let your knickers down’ and ‘Curse Sir Walter Raleigh/he was such a stupid get’; but they rarely make the merchandise. Perhaps the grotesque drama of being shot dead by a twisted stalker – a possibility every star was made aware of thereafter – inevitably triggered the path to faux-sainthood that followed; but at the same time, an unconventional character like Lennon was probably never going to quietly conk-out at 80, the age he would now be had Mark Chapman been committed to the institution he evidently belonged in far earlier than he was. So, to echo the previous post on the subject of endings, something definitely ended forty years ago today. For my parents’ generation, it was their youth; for me, it was my childhood. And that does feel like 400 years ago.
© The Editor
4 thoughts on “A DAY IN THE (AFTER) LIFE”
Although I was sad to hear the news of John Lennon’s death, I have always thought that his post-Beatles output was over-rated, with ‘Imagine’ being the ultimate in hypocritical drivel and ‘Woman’ running it a close second.
A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of expressing these thoughts out loud whilst standing next to the Lennon shrine in Central Park, opposite the Dakota Building.
There was, as usual, a crowd of Lennon fans milling around, and the mood turned ugly as they heard my heretical comments – my wife and I beat a swift tactical retreat…
I was once taken to ‘Beatle City’, the long-gone museum in Liverpool back in the early 80s and happened to be wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt at the time, which seemed a little out of place. To be fair, though, I had no idea I was going there beforehand, as it was something of a surprise.
Being of an earlier cohort (I remember where I was when JFK was shot), Lennon and The Beatles were the soundtrack of my youth, so his violent demise, albeit later, finally secured me in the harsh reality adulthood. An odd character no doubt, but a creative one nevertheless, those two attributes frequently coinciding.
A computer programmer pal, a Beatles obsessive (his two sons were named John & Paul), whenever he produced a new program thereafter would always use “081280” as the test data in the Date field – for him, it signifed his ongoing grief, for the rest of us at least we knew who to blame for that dodgy program. Every cloud, as they say.
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It seems each generation has its inaugural ‘where were you when…?’ moment, with JFK being the one I grew up hearing stories of before I experienced my own via Lennon. Maybe today’s kids will be referencing Boris’s Doomsday broadcast forty years hence.
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