1940–1957: Early years
Lennon's home at 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, where he lived for most of his childhood
Lennon was born on 9 October 1940 at Liverpool Maternity Hospital, to Julia (née Stanley) (1914–1958) and Alfred Lennon (1912–1976). Alfred was a merchant seaman of Irish descent who was away at the time of his son's birth. His parents named him John Winston Lennon after his paternal grandfather, John "Jack" Lennon, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His father was often away from home but sent regular pay cheques to 9 Newcastle Road, Liverpool, where Lennon lived with his mother; the cheques stopped when he went absent without leave in February 1944. When he eventually came home six months later, he offered to look after the family, but Julia, by then pregnant with another man's child, rejected the idea. After her sister Mimi complained to Liverpool's Social Services twice, Julia gave her custody of Lennon. In July 1946, Lennon's father visited her and took his son to Blackpool, secretly intending to emigrate to New Zealand with him. Julia followed them—with her partner at the time, 'Bobby' Dykins—and after a heated argument his father forced the five-year-old to choose between them. Lennon twice chose his father, but as his mother walked away, he began to cry and followed her, although this has been disputed. According to author Mark Lewisohn, Lennon's parents agreed that Julia should take him and give him a home as Alf left again. A witness who was there that day, Billy Hall, has said the dramatic scene often portrayed with a young John Lennon having to make a decision between his parents never happened. It would be 20 years before he had contact with his father again.
Throughout the rest of his childhood and adolescence, Lennon lived at Menlove Avenue, Woolton with Mimi and her husband George Toogood Smith, who had no children of their own. His aunt purchased volumes of short stories for him, and his uncle, a dairyman at his family's farm, bought him a mouth organ and engaged him in solving crossword puzzles. Julia visited Mendips on a regular basis, and when John was 11 years old he often visited her at 1 Blomfield Road, Liverpool, where she played him Elvis Presley records, taught him the banjo, and showed him how to play Ain't That a Shame by Fats Domino. In September 1980, Lennon commented about his family and his rebellious nature:
Part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic poet/musician. But I cannot be what I am not ... I was the one who all the other boys' parents—including Paul's father—would say, 'Keep away from him' ... The parents instinctively recognised I was a troublemaker, meaning I did not conform and I would influence their children, which I did. I did my best to disrupt every friend's home ... Partly out of envy that I didn't have this so-called home ... but I did ... There were five women that were my family. Five strong, intelligent, beautiful women, five sisters. One happened to be my mother. [She] just couldn't deal with life. She was the youngest and she had a husband who ran away to sea and the war was on and she couldn't cope with me, and I ended up living with her elder sister. Now those women were fantastic ... And that was my first feminist education ... I would infiltrate the other boys' minds. I could say, "Parents are not gods because I don't live with mine and, therefore, I know."
He regularly visited his cousin, Stanley Parkes, who lived in Fleetwood and took him on trips to local cinemas. During the school holidays, Parkes often visited Lennon with Leila Harvey, another cousin, and the threesome often travelled to Blackpool two or three times a week to watch shows. They would visit the Blackpool Tower Circus and see artists such as Dickie Valentine, Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves and Joe Loss, with Parkes recalling that Lennon particularly liked George Formby. After Parkes's family moved to Scotland, the three cousins often spent their school holidays together there. Parkes recalled, "John, cousin Leila and I were very close. From Edinburgh we would drive up to the family croft at Durness, which was from about the time John was nine years old until he was about 16." He was 14 years old when his uncle George died of a liver haemorrhage on 5 June 1955, at age 52.
Lennon was raised as an Anglican and attended Dovedale Primary School. After passing his eleven-plus exam, he attended Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool from September 1952 to 1957, and was described by Harvey at the time as a "happy-go-lucky, good-humoured, easy going, lively lad". He often drew comical cartoons that appeared in his own self-made school magazine called The Daily Howl.
In 2005, the National Postal Museum in the US acquired a stamp collection that Lennon had assembled when he was a boy.
In 1956, Julia bought John his first guitar. The instrument was an inexpensive Gallotone Champion acoustic for which she lent her son five pounds and ten shillings on the condition that the guitar be delivered to her own house and not Mimi's, knowing well that her sister was not supportive of her son's musical aspirations. Mimi was sceptical of his claim that he would be famous one day, and she hoped that he would grow bored with music, often telling him, "The guitar's all very well, John, but you'll never make a living out of it". On 15 July 1958 (when Lennon was 17 years old) his mother was struck and killed by a car while she was walking home after visiting the Smiths' house.
Lennon failed his O-level examinations and was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art after his aunt and headmaster intervened. Once at the college, he started wearing Teddy Boy clothes and was threatened with expulsion for his behaviour. He was "thrown out of the college before his final year".
1957–1970: The Quarrymen to the Beatles
1957–1966: Formation, commercial break-out and touring years
At age 15, Lennon formed the skiffle group, the Quarrymen. Named after Quarry Bank High School, the group was established by Lennon in September 1956. By the summer of 1957, the Quarrymen played a "spirited set of songs" made up of half skiffle and half rock and roll. Lennon first met Paul McCartney at the Quarrymen's second performance, which was held in Woolton on 6 July at the St. Peter's Church garden fête. Lennon then asked McCartney to join the band.
McCartney said that Aunt Mimi "was very aware that John's friends were lower class", and would often patronise him when he arrived to visit Lennon. According to Paul's brother Mike, McCartney's father was also disapproving, declaring that Lennon would get his son "into trouble", although he later allowed the fledgling band to rehearse in the McCartneys' front room at Forthlin Road. During this time, 18-year-old Lennon wrote his first song, "Hello Little Girl", a UK top 10 hit for The Fourmost nearly five years later.
McCartney recommended his friend George Harrison to be the lead guitarist. Lennon thought that Harrison, then 14 years old, was too young. McCartney engineered an audition on the upper deck of a Liverpool bus, where Harrison played Raunchy for Lennon and was asked to join. Stuart Sutcliffe, Lennon's friend from art school, later joined as bassist. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe became "The Beatles" in early 1960. In August that year, the Beatles engaged for a 48-night residency in Hamburg, Germany and were desperately in need of a drummer. They asked Pete Best to join them. Lennon was now 19, and his aunt, horrified when he told her about the trip, pleaded with him to continue his art studies instead. After the first Hamburg residency, the band accepted another in April 1961, and a third in April 1962. As with the other band members, Lennon was introduced to Preludin while in Hamburg, and regularly took the drug as a stimulant during their long, overnight performances.
Brian Epstein managed the Beatles from 1962 until his untimely death in 1967. He had no prior experience managing artists, but he had a strong influence on the group's dress code and attitude on stage. Lennon initially resisted his attempts to encourage the band to present a professional appearance, but eventually complied, saying, "I'll wear a bloody balloon if somebody's going to pay me". McCartney took over on bass after Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg, and Pete Best was replaced with drummer Ringo Starr; this completed the four-piece line-up that would remain until the group's break-up in 1970. The band's first single, "Love Me Do", was released in October 1962 and reached No. 17 on the British charts. They recorded their debut album, Please Please Me, in under 10 hours on 11 February 1963, a day when Lennon was suffering the effects of a cold, which is evident in the vocal on the last song to be recorded that day, "Twist and Shout". The Lennon–McCartney songwriting partnership yielded eight of its fourteen tracks. With a few exceptions, one being the album title itself, Lennon had yet to bring his love of wordplay to bear on his song lyrics, saying: "We were just writing songs ... pop songs with no more thought of them than that—to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant". In a 1987 interview, McCartney said that the other Beatles idolised John: "He was like our own little Elvis ... We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest."
Lennon (right) performing in 1964 at the height of Beatlemania
The Beatles achieved mainstream success in the UK early in 1963. Lennon was on tour when his first son, Julian, was born in April. During their Royal Variety Show performance, which was attended by the Queen Mother and other British royalty, Lennon poked fun at the audience: "For our next song, I'd like to ask for your help. For the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands ... and the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewellery." After a year of Beatlemania in the UK, the group's historic February 1964 US debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show marked their breakthrough to international stardom. A two-year period of constant touring, filmmaking, and songwriting followed, during which Lennon wrote two books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. The Beatles received recognition from the British Establishment when they were appointed Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1965 Queen's Birthday Honours.
Lennon grew concerned that fans who attended Beatles concerts were unable to hear the music above the screaming of fans, and that the band's musicianship was beginning to suffer as a result. Lennon's "Help!" expressed his own feelings in 1965: "I meant it ... It was me singing 'help'". He had put on weight (he would later refer to this as his "Fat Elvis" period), and felt he was subconsciously seeking change. In March that year he was unknowingly introduced to LSD when a dentist, hosting a dinner party attended by Lennon, Harrison and their wives, spiked the guests' coffee with the drug. When they wanted to leave, their host revealed what they had taken, and strongly advised them not to leave the house because of the likely effects. Later, in a lift at a nightclub, they all believed it was on fire: "We were all screaming ... hot and hysterical."
In March 1966, during an interview with Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave, Lennon remarked, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink ... We're more popular than Jesus now—I don't know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity." The comment went virtually unnoticed in England but caused great offence in the US when quoted by a magazine there five months later. The furore that followed, which included the burning of Beatles records, Ku Klux Klan activity and threats against Lennon, contributed to the band's decision to stop touring.
1967–1970: Studio years, break-up and solo work
After the Beatles' final concert on 29 August 1966, Lennon was deprived of the routine of live performances; he felt lost and considered leaving the band. Since his involuntary introduction to LSD, he had increased his use of the drug and was almost constantly under its influence for much of 1967. According to biographer Ian MacDonald, Lennon's continuous experimentation with LSD during the year brought him "close to erasing his identity". The year 1967 saw the release of "Strawberry Fields Forever", hailed by Time magazine for its "astonishing inventiveness", and the group's landmark album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which revealed lyrics by Lennon that contrasted strongly with the simple love songs of the 'Lennon–McCartney' early years.
After the Beatles were introduced to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the group attended an August weekend of personal instruction at his Transcendental Meditation seminar in Bangor, Wales. During the seminar, they were informed of Epstein's death. "I knew we were in trouble then", Lennon said later. "I didn't have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. I was scared - I thought, 'We've fucking had it now.'". Led primarily by Harrison and Lennon's interest in Eastern religion, the Beatles later travelled to Maharishi's ashram in India for further guidance. While there, they composed most of the songs for The Beatles and Abbey Road.
The anti-war, black comedy How I Won the War, featuring Lennon's only appearance in a non–Beatles full-length film, was shown in cinemas in October 1967. McCartney organised the group's first post-Epstein project, the self-written, produced and directed television film Magical Mystery Tour, which was released in December that year. While the film itself proved to be their first critical flop, its soundtrack release, featuring Lennon's acclaimed, Lewis Carroll-inspired "I Am the Walrus", was a success. With Epstein gone, the band members became increasingly involved in business activities, and in February 1968 they formed Apple Corps, a multimedia corporation composed of Apple Records and several other subsidiary companies. Lennon described the venture as an attempt to achieve "artistic freedom within a business structure", but his increased drug experimentation and growing preoccupation with Yoko Ono, combined with the Beatles' inability to agree on how the company should be run, left Apple in need of professional management. Lennon asked Lord Beeching to take on the role, but he declined, advising Lennon to go back to making records. Lennon was approached by Allen Klein, who had managed the Rolling Stones and other bands during the British Invasion. In early 1969, Klein was appointed as Apple's chief executive by Lennon, Harrison and Starr, but McCartney never signed the management contract.
At the end of 1968, Lennon was featured in the film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in the role of a Dirty Mac band member. The film was not released until 1996. The supergroup, composed of Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell, also backed a vocal performance by Ono in the film. Lennon and Ono were married on 20 March 1969, and soon released a series of 14 lithographs called "Bag One" depicting scenes from their honeymoon, eight of which were deemed indecent and most of which were banned and confiscated. Lennon's creative focus continued to move beyond the Beatles and between 1968 and 1969 he and Ono recorded three albums of experimental music together: Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins (known more for its cover than for its music), Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions and Wedding Album. In 1969, they formed the Plastic Ono Band, releasing Live Peace in Toronto 1969. Between 1969 and 1970, Lennon released the singles "Give Peace a Chance", which was widely adopted as an anti-Vietnam-War anthem in 1969, "Cold Turkey", which documented his withdrawal symptoms after he became addicted to heroin, and "Instant Karma!"
In protest at Britain's involvement in "the Nigeria-Biafra thing", (the Nigerian Civil War), its support of America in the Vietnam war and (perhaps jokingly) against "Cold Turkey" slipping down the charts, Lennon returned his MBE medal to the Queen, though this had no effect on his MBE status, which could not be renounced.
Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, and agreed not to inform the media while the group renegotiated their recording contract, but he was outraged that McCartney publicised his own departure on releasing his debut solo album in April 1970. Lennon's reaction was, "Jesus Christ! He gets all the credit for it!" He later wrote, "I started the band. I disbanded it. It's as simple as that." In later interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, he revealed his bitterness towards McCartney, saying, "I was a fool not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record." Lennon also spoke of the hostility he perceived the other members had towards Ono, and of how he, Harrison, and Starr "got fed up with being sidemen for Paul ... After Brian Epstein died we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us when we went round in circles?"
1970–1980: Solo career
1970–1972: Initial solo success and activism
Advertisement for "Imagine
" from Billboard
, 18 September 1971
In 1970, Lennon and Ono went through primal therapy with Arthur Janov in Los Angeles, California. Designed to release emotional pain from early childhood, the therapy entailed two half-days a week with Janov for four months; he had wanted to treat the couple for longer, but they felt no need to continue and returned to London. Lennon's debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), was received with praise by many music critics, but its highly personal lyrics and stark sound limited its commercial performance. Critic Greil Marcus remarked, "John's singing in the last verse of 'God' may be the finest in all of rock." The album featured the song "Mother", in which Lennon confronted his feelings of childhood rejection, and the Dylanesque "Working Class Hero", a bitter attack against the bourgeois social system which, due to the lyric "you're still fucking peasants", fell foul of broadcasters. The same year, Tariq Ali expressed his revolutionary political views when he interviewed Lennon. This inspired the singer to write "Power to the People". Lennon also became involved with Ali during a protest against the prosecution of Oz magazine for alleged obscenity. Lennon denounced the proceedings as "disgusting fascism", and he and Ono (as Elastic Oz Band) released the single "God Save Us/Do the Oz" and joined marches in support of the magazine.
Sample of "Imagine
", Lennon's most widely known post-Beatles song. Like "Give Peace a Chance", the song became an anti-war anthem, but its lyrics offended religious groups. Lennon's explanation was: "If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion, but without this 'my god is bigger than your god' thing—then it can be true."
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Eager for a major commercial success, Lennon adopted a more accessible sound for his next album, Imagine (1971). Rolling Stone reported that "it contains a substantial portion of good music" but warned of the possibility that "his posturings will soon seem not merely dull but irrelevant". The album's title track later became an anthem for anti-war movements, while the song "How Do You Sleep?" was a musical attack on McCartney in response to lyrics on Ram that Lennon felt, and McCartney later confirmed, were directed at him and Ono. Lennon softened his stance in the mid-1970s, however, and said he had written "How Do You Sleep?" about himself. He said in 1980: "I used my resentment against Paul ... to create a song ... not a terrible vicious horrible vendetta ... I used my resentment and withdrawing from Paul and the Beatles, and the relationship with Paul, to write 'How Do You Sleep'. I don't really go 'round with those thoughts in my head all the time."
The Steinway piano that Lennon used to compose the song "Imagine" on exhibit in the Artist Gallery of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix
Lennon and Ono moved to New York in August 1971 and released "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" in December. During the new year, the Nixon administration took what it called a "strategic counter-measure" against Lennon's anti-war and anti-Nixon propaganda. The administration embarked on what would be a four-year attempt to deport him. After George McGovern lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon in 1972, Lennon and Ono attended a post-election wake held in the New York home of activist Jerry Rubin. Lennon was embroiled in a continuing legal battle with the immigration authorities, and he was denied permanent residency in the US; the issue would not be resolved until 1976. Lennon was depressed and got intoxicated; he left Ono embarrassed after he had sex with a female guest. Her song "Death of Samantha" was inspired by the incident.
Some Time in New York City was recorded as a collaboration with Ono and was released in 1972 with backing from the New York band Elephant's Memory. A double LP, it contained songs about women's rights, race relations, Britain's role in Northern Ireland and Lennon's difficulties in obtaining a green card. The album was a commercial failure and was maligned by critics, who found its political sloganeering heavy-handed and relentless. The NME's review took the form of an open letter in which Tony Tyler derided Lennon as a "pathetic, ageing revolutionary". In the US, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" was released as a single from the album and was televised on 11 May, on The Dick Cavett Show. Many radio stations refused to broadcast the song because of the word "nigger". Lennon and Ono gave two benefit concerts with Elephant's Memory and guests in New York in aid of patients at the Willowbrook State School mental facility. Staged at Madison Square Garden on 30 August 1972, they were his last full-length concert appearances.
1973–1975: "Lost weekend"
Publicity photo of Lennon and host Tom Snyder
from the television programme Tomorrow
. Aired in 1975, this was the last television interview Lennon gave before his death in 1980.
While Lennon was recording Mind Games in 1973, he and Ono decided to separate. The ensuing 18-month period apart, which he later called his "lost weekend", was spent in Los Angeles and New York City in the company of May Pang. Mind Games, credited to the "Plastic U.F.Ono Band", was released in November 1973. Lennon also contributed "I'm the Greatest" to Starr's album Ringo (1973), released the same month. An alternate take, from the same 1973 Ringo sessions, with Lennon providing a guide vocal, appears on John Lennon Anthology.
In early 1974, Lennon was drinking heavily and his alcohol-fuelled antics with Harry Nilsson made headlines. In March, two widely publicised incidents occurred at The Troubadour club. In the first incident, Lennon stuck an unused menstrual pad on his forehead and scuffled with a waitress. The second incident occurred two weeks later, when Lennon and Nilsson were ejected from the same club after heckling the Smothers Brothers. Lennon decided to produce Nilsson's album Pussy Cats, and Pang rented a Los Angeles beach house for all the musicians. After a month of further debauchery, the recording sessions were in chaos, and Lennon returned to New York with Pang to finish work on the album. In April, Lennon had produced the Mick Jagger song "Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup)" which was, for contractual reasons, to remain unreleased for more than 30 years. Pang supplied the recording for its eventual inclusion on The Very Best of Mick Jagger (2007).
Lennon had settled back in New York when he recorded the album Walls and Bridges. Released in October 1974, it included "Whatever Gets You thru the Night", which featured Elton John on backing vocals and piano, and became Lennon's only single as a solo artist to top the US Billboard Hot 100 chart during his lifetime.b A second single from the album, "#9 Dream", followed before the end of the year. Starr's Goodnight Vienna (1974) again saw assistance from Lennon, who wrote the title track and played piano. On 28 November, Lennon made a surprise guest appearance at Elton John's Thanksgiving concert at Madison Square Garden, in fulfilment of his promise to join the singer in a live show if "Whatever Gets You thru the Night", a song whose commercial potential Lennon had doubted, reached number one. Lennon performed the song along with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There", which he introduced as "a song by an old estranged fiancé of mine called Paul".
Lennon co-wrote "Fame", David Bowie's first US number one, and provided guitar and backing vocals for the January 1975 recording. In the same month, Elton John topped the charts with his cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", featuring Lennon on guitar and back-up vocals; Lennon is credited on the single under the moniker of "Dr. Winston O'Boogie". He and Ono were reunited shortly afterwards. Lennon released Rock 'n' Roll (1975), an album of cover songs, in February. "Stand by Me", taken from the album and a US and UK hit, became his last single for five years. He made what would be his final stage appearance in the ATV special A Salute to Lew Grade, recorded on 18 April and televised in June. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by an eight-piece band, Lennon performed two songs from Rock 'n' Roll ("Stand by Me", which was not broadcast, and "Slippin' and Slidin'") followed by "Imagine". The band, known as Etc., wore masks behind their heads, a dig by Lennon, who thought Grade was two-faced.
1975–1980: Hiatus and return
Lennon's Green Card allowing him to live and work in the United States, awarded in 1976
Sean was Lennon's only child with Ono. Sean was born on 9 October 1975 (Lennon's thirty-fifth birthday), and John took on the role of househusband. Lennon began what would be a five-year hiatus from the music industry, during which time he gave all his attention to his family. Within the month, he fulfilled his contractual obligation to EMI/Capitol for one more album by releasing Shaved Fish, a compilation album of previously recorded tracks. He devoted himself to Sean, rising at 6 am daily to plan and prepare his meals and to spend time with him. He wrote "Cookin' (In the Kitchen of Love)" for Starr's Ringo's Rotogravure (1976), performing on the track in June in what would be his last recording session until 1980. He formally announced his break from music in Tokyo in 1977, saying, "we have basically decided, without any great decision, to be with our baby as much as we can until we feel we can take time off to indulge ourselves in creating things outside of the family." During his career break he created several series of drawings, and drafted a book containing a mix of autobiographical material and what he termed "mad stuff", all of which would be published posthumously.
Lennon emerged from his five-year interruption in music recording in October 1980, when he released the single "(Just Like) Starting Over". The following month saw the release of Double Fantasy, which contained songs written during a June 1980 journey to Bermuda on a 43-foot sailing boat. The music reflected Lennon's fulfilment in his new-found stable family life. Sufficient additional material was recorded for a planned follow-up album Milk and Honey, which was released posthumously, in 1984. Double Fantasy was jointly released by Lennon and Ono very shortly before his death; the album was not well received and drew comments such as Melody Maker's "indulgent sterility ... a godawful yawn".
8 December 1980: Shooting and death
Strawberry Fields in Central Park
with the Dakota in the background
After an evening at the Record Plant on 8 December 1980, Lennon and Ono returned to their Manhattan apartment in a limousine at around 10:50 p.m. (EST). They exited the vehicle and walked through the archway of The Dakota, when lone gunman Mark David Chapman shot Lennon four times in the back at close range. Lennon was rushed in a police cruiser to the emergency room of nearby Roosevelt Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 11:00 p.m. (EST). Earlier that evening, Lennon had autographed a copy of Double Fantasy for Chapman.
Ono issued a statement the next day, saying "There is no funeral for John", ending it with the words, "John loved and prayed for the human race. Please do the same for him." His remains were cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Ono scattered his ashes in New York's Central Park, where the Strawberry Fields memorial was later created. Chapman avoided going to trial when he ignored his attorney's advice and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20-years-to-life. In August 2018, he was denied parole for a 10th time.