Klaus Voorman, Earl Slick and MOJO’s writers on how John Lennon changed the world… with what he sang, played, said and did.
1. By the way he sang Twist & Shout
Tempered in the furnaces of The Cavern and the Star-Club, The Beatles’ vocal attack was the closest any British rock’n’roll singers had come to the fire, energy and expression of American originators such as Little Richard and Larry Williams, The Isley Brothers and Barrett Strong. And it was Lennon’s raw, open-throated singing that sold these influential interpretations. In the summer of ’63, Twist And Shout, a raucous set-closer, was the lead track on their UK Number 1 EP and made their earlier singles sound, well, British, while Lennon’s vocal – the last recorded in a 12-hour February 11 session for Please Please Me – had a bug-eyed desperation that made an unlikely virtue of his understandably failing pipes. The Beatles’ Twist And Shout is slightly slower than The Top Notes’ 1961 original, and closely followed the Isleys’ cover, right down to McCartney and Harrison’s scream-inducing “whooos!”, but in 2 minutes 33 seconds it made every previous milky British imitator of real rock’n’roll redundant.
2. With the cover of Two Virgins
After taping experimental sounds at his home studio on May 19, 1968, John and Yoko made love for the first time. They commemorated the collaboration by taking nude selfies. Six months later they released the tapes as an album called Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, using the intimate shots for the front and back covers. No superstar had ever voluntarily distributed a photograph of their genitals (now all the kids do it). The other Beatles rolled their eyes, while New Jersey authorities confiscated 30,000 albums. Beyond the dick-pic controversy, Lennon had initiated his post-Fabs life. He later created lithographs of his lovemaking with Yoko that Scotland Yard seized, wrote a sketch for Kenneth Tynan and Jacques Levy’s 1969 erotic musical Oh! Calcutta! and contributed a limerick titled Why Make It Sad To Be Gay? to 1973’s pioneering tome The Gay Liberation Book, all establishing him as a leader of sexual freedom.
3. With “rattle your jewellery”
In advance of The Beatles’ appearance at London’s Prince Of Wales Theatre for the Royal Variety Performance on November 4, 1963, the group had been interrogated on TV about whether they’d be scrubbing up their elocution and uncouth attire in deference to the attending Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. Lennon’s suggestion, on-stage and on ratings-topping national TV, about what his ‘betters’ – cheekily dismissed as “the rest of you” – could do with their baubles, could hardly have been more the opposite: a younger-generational chip away at the edifice of monarchy and a step on the road to the Sex Pistols’ all-cards-on-the-table anthem of dissent, God Save The Queen, 14 years later. Circa ’67, a phone conversation with budding director Tony Palmer saw Lennon’s vinegary radicalism prompt the explosive documentary All My Loving, which controversially revealed British beat pop’s inner life. As Palmer recalled, “He said to me, ‘Someone needs to make a movie about what this is all really about. We’re not lovable moptops – we want to change everything, top to bottom.’” Starting at the top, which took some bottle in 1963.
4. By embracing male vulnerability
While country music had long mined sadness and male insecurity, by the 1960s introspection and vulnerability in rock and roll were conspicuous in their absence. Inspired by Dylan’s folky honesty and the sensitivity of black pop writers like Smokey Robinson, Lennon was the first white rocker of the era to truly to vent his pain in the pop charts. Earlier Beatles songs had hinted at a sadness within, but by the middle of the decade Lennon was baring his soul with a raw, often desperate honesty. Help!, I’m A Loser and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away signposted both the primal scream blood-letting of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and laid the ground for all angst-rock to come.
5. With “bed peace”
When Lennon and Ono turned their honeymoon bed in the Amsterdam Hilton into political theatre in March 1969, they merged her avant-garde sensibility with his surreal humour to create a pacifist retort to the streetfighting men who had dominated 1968. In May, they restaged it at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. No pop star had ever exploited his celebrity to promote a political cause on such a scale, and with such chutzpah. Not only did the couple invite ridicule from left, right and centre but they confronted it head-on by granting interviews from dawn to dusk. “We’re Laurel And Hardy,” Lennon told Radio 1. “And we stand a better chance under that guise, because all the serious people like Martin Luther King and Kennedy and Gandhi got shot.” Ultimately, it was music that validated the whole enterprise. On their last day in Montreal, John and Yoko recorded Give Peace A Chance with an ad hoc choir including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Petula Clark and representatives of three religions. The song’s unpretentious humility (“All we are saying…”) was their answer to every hostile interviewer who had asked what the hell they were playing at.
6. By expanding his consciousness
Unlike McCartney, Lennon didn’t seek allies in the literary and art worlds, and wasn’t particularly well-read. But after being spiked by a cosmetic dentist at a dinner party, Lennon took mind-expansion very seriously, tripping daily for months and cataloguing the disorientation and euphoria in song while McCartney prevaricated. The results were Revolver peaks Tomorrow Never Knows and She Said She Said – and surrealist Sgt. Pepper-era escapades Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds and Strawberry Fields Forever. Tomorrow Never Knows was and remains key: the idea of radical change via altered states wasn’t only present in Lennon’s lyric but the hypnotic shape of his melody and the micro-tones of his insinuating voice – a psychedelic sketch subsequently filled in by McCartney-instigated tape loops. As a Beatle, Lennon was the most high-profile Pied Piper of his day, leading youth culture to “transcend, transform, or escape from straight society”, in the words of Beatles biographer Nicholas Schaffner. Lennon’s subsequent political engagement would grow from his attempt to free the mind and dissolve the ego.
7. With his guitar playing on Why
Drastically more experimental than the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP released the same day – December 11, 1970 – Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band opened with this fevered, chaotic duel between Yoko and John. Backed by Ringo Starr and bassist/Revolver cover artist Klaus Voormann, Lennon parried Ono’s ululations with swooping, lacerating streaks of overdriven noise, scraping and mauling the strings in violent conversation with Yoko’s caterwaul. The thrilling guitar abuse a clear influence on no wave’s atonal noise-outs and Sonic Youth’s avant-squall.
8. By writing Imagine
Lennon often found himself being congratulated for writing The Beatles’ Yesterday, which of course, he didn’t. “Yesterday drove him crazy,” veteran New York broadcaster and Lennon confidante Howard Smith told MOJO in 2013. “People would say, ‘Thank you for writing Yesterday, I got married to it, what a beautiful song…’ He was always civil. But it drove him nuts.” One morning in 1971 Lennon appeared at Smith’s loft in an excited state: “‘He said, ‘I think I finally wrote a song with as good a melody as Yesterday.’” That he had, and more. Recorded in Ascot and New York between May and June 1971, with lyrics owing a debt to Yoko Ono’s 1964 poem Cloud Piece and the pair’s growing belief in the potential of positive visualisations (cf. their slogan “WAR IS OVER… IF YOU WANT IT”), Imagine would grow into something unimaginable: an international anthem that carried challenging notions (“Imagine there’s no heaven…”) on music of elemental simplicity; a song subsequently knitted into the fabric of world culture; and ultimately, Lennon’s self-penned requiem. The best- known pop song? In your face, Yesterday.
9. With John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
By Klaus Voormann, POB bassist and Beatles Hamburg associate
“John had to write those songs. He had to record them onto tape as quickly as possible and keep them as raw as possible. People were supposed to listen to the words, listen to the song and get into the feeling. No big arrangements, no thousand guitars, just three instruments – John, Ringo and myself.
We played live in the studio and the atmosphere of us being together in the studio comes through on the record. You can feel it. This is John’s experience. Whether it was singing or screaming, it was all natural, all John and only John. It didn’t matter if there were a few wrong notes, they were the little things that brought it to life. And I was so happy to be in that circle. I already loved John and Ringo. I was starting to get to know Yoko and I really liked her a lot.
Since he had met Yoko, everything was improving for John. He had definitely been very lost. I had several experiences with him where he had been very down, and didn’t want to live. He didn’t have much joy in his life and he didn’t know where he was going to, or what he was doing. He was famous and had everything you could want, but he was very unhappy. Yoko really was the start of him getting better and better.
I remember being with him one afternoon, a few years before. It must have been midday or two o’clock in the afternoon. I had gone to his house in Weybridge and he looked like he hadn’t slept for five days – really, really bad.
I don’t know if he was on an acid trip, but he was absent-minded and looked really helpless. We went outside in the garden and he was picking the leaves from a bush. There was already loads of leaves all over the ground and I said, “John, what are you doing this for? The bush can’t help it if you don’t feel good.” And then he laughed and said, “I would just like to not be here, you know?” He just wanted to be away.
Stuart Sutcliffe was John’s best friend at art college. He played bass for The Beatles in the early days. He tragically died in Hamburg and when John heard about it, it upset him so much that he had an inappropriate, uncontrollable fit – he couldn’t stop manically laughing and he couldn’t understand what was happening to him. Inside he was heart-broken, just devastated.
I had seen it happen several times before. In Hamburg he was often uptight and unhappy. He was always making jokes, like all the good clowns do, to cover up for their sadness. In the Star-Club he used to act up – doing the funniest things when the other bands were playing, like going on-stage like a stagehand, with a big long board or a cross and knocking everything over. Or he would dress up like an old cleaning lady and clean the microphones and wash people under the arms. Everyone was laughing – they were all having a great time, but John was so uptight, he needed to get something out of his system.
John was always the perfect rhythm guitar player. When we first became friends he showed me how he played, dampening the strings, only playing on two strings, very sparse. Like Ringo has an intuitive talent for the drums, John had the same for the guitar, and he played crazy solos too. He never liked complicated technical soloing, just simple, very down-to-earth rhythm and great sounds.
For the Plastic Ono Band album, John used a guitar which was a mixture of a National guitar and an acoustic guitar – half metal, like a banjo, with sound holes which were all chrome-looking, and the rest was wood. It had a nasal sound and the one pickup was so close to the strings that when he played, the strings sometimes stuck to the magnets in the pickup. I was there when he did Working Class Hero. It was two takes cut together, just him in the studio, playing by himself, beautiful.
Whatever John did, it was very important to him to put what he was writing into the way he was singing. That’s what makes a good singer. If you listen to Mother, he’s hoarse when he starts – he had been screaming so much already that he really wrecked his voice in no time. It was natural with John. The fact that he had to get this despair out of his system meant he had to scream.
John had the gift of being able to express complex ideas very simply, using exactly the right words. Especially when it was about how he felt. He knew he needed to be direct and honest and raw, and that was the exact moment to capture the song. He was going through his whole life and was coming back as a baby, and there he was, saying, “I’m talking about me. Everything else is not important, I don’t believe in it, the dream is over.” It’s a perfect statement – exactly the right words. The dream is over.
John loved The Beatles. They were all such close friends and they were all such strong individual personalities. That’s what had made them so big. But by 1970, their egos and lives were all pointing in different directions. They were not so much of a unit anymore and they all needed to break free. I think it must have been hard for Ringo to adjust. His old John had gone. Now he had a new John called ‘John&Yoko’. Although John was happier, at work he was behaving completely differently to the way he had been before. They were still playing and talking and laughing, but there wasn’t so much space for Ringo or the other Beatles in John’s life anymore.
Three years earlier, John had written All You Need Is Love for the world – about the gentle, universal love we should all have for one another. And The Beatles played it to 200 million viewers via a global television broadcast.
I believe he wrote [the POB track] Love for himself. At last, he had opened up his innermost places and was experiencing the overwhelming and profound love he had been so desperately looking and longing for, first shared with another person – Yoko – and then, most important of all, a love for himself. He had finally found his own self-worth.
This album was the beginning of John starting to find his way. I remember much later, in the late ’70s, being with him at the Dakota and he was teaching me how to cook rice. If you are a person in the limelight, you don’t have much time to think about how to cook rice, you just eat it. And there he was, teaching me
how to cook rice. He was really happy. He said, “Klaus, now I don’t have any more contractual obligations. I don’t have to do a record. I don’t want to do a record. I just want to be here and be with my son and be with Yoko and feel good.” He could pick up a guitar and play for fun if he wanted, but he didn’t have the pressure of continuously composing new songs for deadlines. And every day he was getting better and better."
Extracted from JOHN & YOKO/PLASTIC ONO BAND by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, published by Thames & Hudson and available to buy HERE.
10. With his green card battle
In 1972, John and Yoko were living in New York and performing at rallies urging demonstrators to vote against President Nixon, and included a doctored photo of Tricky Dick dancing naked in the artwork for their Some Time In New York City LP. Nixon’s administration retaliated, referencing a 1968 cannabis bust to order Lennon’s deportation. The couple fought back, spending years and lawyers’ fees in a draining legal battle, prompting letters of support from Bob Dylan and Leonard Bernstein among others. The US government refused to relent, even after a scandal-ridden Nixon resigned in 1974. In October 1975, a panel of judges finally ruled in Lennon’s favour – the icing on the cake was son Sean’s birth that same month. Lennon had taken on the most powerful institution in the world – and won.
11. By changing the meaning of ‘recording’
The Recording Studio As Instrument has many fathers (don’t forget Les Paul) but the challenges Lennon set The Beatles’ Abbey Road recording team in the latter ’60s, met ever more ingeniously with bravura tape editing, ADT and the like, make Lennon a prime mover. Each innovation drew recording further from capture-the-performance and closer to the creation of something that wasn’t, or could never be, ‘played’. Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, with its combination of two separate recordings in different tempos and keys, was the daring and hypnotic apogee – the result, an alternate sonic universe with its own geography and physics. For Lennon, eventually, it became All Too Much. A return to rock’n’roll basics was his penance – but not before the recording studio as adventure playground and modern art workshop was declared open.
12. With the Mike Douglas Show takeover
In February 1972, Mike Douglas’s daytime TV talk show offered its millions of viewers an extraordinary experiment: a week of shows curated and co-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The combination was subversive from the off. Douglas, a former big band singer, was the housewife’s favourite; Lennon and Ono were fresh from playing benefit gigs for White Panther John Sinclair and the victims of the Attica prison uprising. On day one, Lennon promised to spotlight “love, peace, women’s lib, racism, war, prisons.” Among the viewers was an FBI agent who classified Lennon as SM-NL: Security Matter-New Left. Alongside Chuck Berry and The Chambers Brothers, the couple booked consumer activist Ralph Nader, comedian George Carlin, a macrobiotic chef and two defendants from the trial of the Chicago Eight: Yippie Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale were still two of the most hated men in the land. “The whole week was strange,” Douglas said years later. “It was truly a happening.”
13. With ‘bigger than Jesus’
Like much of what The Beatles did, or happened to them, the scale and newness of it can be underestimated at a distance. Lennon’s observation to Maureen Cleave in the London Evening Standard in March 1966 that “We’re more popular than Jesus now” was barely an overstatement – certainly when applied to Britain – and also a serious rumination on the decline of Western spirituality. Neither did it judge The Beatles, or rock’n’roll (also doomed, said Lennon) in any way superior. Given the Stateside death threats and record-burning that followed, you’d have forgiven Lennon for repudiating his position (these days, his PR would claim his words had been ‘taken out of context’). But instead, in Chicago that August, he merely clarified his position (“I was not saying we are greater or better”). Future form indicated that, somehow, he hadn’t been deterred from speaking his mind. The idea that a representative of youth culture might dare to say something valid to society was born.
14. With that Rolling Stone interview
Post-primal scream therapy, Lennon vented his seething, bottled-up rage across two issues –
January 21 and February 4 – of the counter-culture bullhorn. In a venomous diatribe reeled off for founder/publisher Jann Wenner, he maintained he was a “genius” and the “artist” in the band and characterised McCartney as a saccharine hack who’d become a control freak. He criticised Dylan, Jagger, George Martin and Beatles’ fans (“fucking idiots”), but called Yoko his “creative equal” and embraced the left-wing politics he’d equivocated over in Revolution. The interview’s astonishing honesty was a first for a star of his stature, and, along with Manson and Altamont, it revealed more complicated layers to the ’60s love message he’d once sung about. Of a piece with John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s candour foretold punk’s cathartic anger.
15. By switching off his mind
A champion of idling’s harmlessness (“…and after all I’m only sleeping”), Lennon knew the worth of wool-gathering. To dream the likes of Tomorrow Never Knows, Strawberry Fields Forever and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, first you have to dream, while “Switch off your mind…”; “Let me take you down…”; “Picture yourself…” invite the listener to dream, too. Even protest, John and Yoko’s bed-in suggested, might work best horizontally, while Watching The Wheels, all doodling piano and back-off-I’m-happy-baking-bread sentiments, reads like I’m Only Sleeping Part 2 (“People say I’m lazy…”). Lennon understood that to see the world anew you sometimes have to escape it.
16. By handing back his MBE
Lennon’s motivation for accepting an MBE in 1965 was surely fuelled by delight at the outrage he knew it would cause – several previous recipients returned their medals in protest. Four years later, John sent his gong back to the Queen – it possibly took him that long to find it – citing events in Biafra, Britain’s support of the US in Vietnam “and Cold Turkey slipping down the charts”. He signed it “John Lennon of Bag”. You can almost hear him scoffing at Sir Paul and Sir Ringo’s knighthoods.
17. With Cold Turkey/Don’t Worry Kyoko
The second Plastic Ono Band single underlined Lennon’s new MO – to deliver unfiltered newsflashes from his life (and psyche) and waste no time getting them on the shelves. In October 1969 that meant a remarkably transparent advertisement that the Lennons had recently kicked heroin, with searing guitar slashes, an awesome Klaus Voormann bass line and spooked references to Lennon’s “goose-pimple bone”, plus a B-side that backed Yoko’s blood-curdling wail with a Clapton-Lennon zombie-blues lock-groove, two fingers to his new wife’s axis of detractors among racists, misogynists and dismayed Beatle loyalists. This, just a month after the release of Abbey Road.
18. By rejecting mythology…including his own
If Ringo was the biggest Beatles fan in The Beatles, then John was the chief sceptic, undermining the mythology from within. Once he’d caught the iconoclasm bug by mocking Mao (Revolution) and the Maharishi (Sexy Sadie), he couldn’t allow himself to spare his own band. Glass Onion was the first sign that he had had enough: a psychedelic in-joke which spoofed the desire of fans and critics to over-interpret lyrics with a blizzard of allusions and red herrings. Soon there was so much that Lennon wanted to reject that only list songs could contain them all. In God from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band he repudiated every leader and ideology he could think of, saving his most outrageous heresy ’til last: “I don’t believe in Beatles.” It was the sound of the final coffin nail being banged in. The Beatles had to die so that John could live.
19. With All You Need Is Love
When The Beatles were asked at short notice to provide a new song for the first-ever global satellite TV broadcast, Our World, scheduled for June 25, 1967, it was Lennon’s All You Need Is Love that prevailed. The brief had demanded a lyric in “basic English” for an international audience, and Lennon, long fascinated with Pop Art, advertising and slogans, replied with a bramah: “All you need is love” not only nailed the hippy Zeitgeist, but also, according to Fabs manager Brian Epstein, had the advantage, in the Bigger Than Jesus aftermath, that “it cannot be misinterpreted”. Yet writing a song so super-simplistic invited jeopardy: mostly, that it could have been absolute rot (cf. The Rolling Stones’ retort, We Love You). The reason it wasn’t lay in the sheer conviction Lennon brought to his vocal, plus an array of clever booby-traps – shifting time signatures, ‘missing’ beats – and some very neatly camouflaged cynicism. Are “learning how to play the game” and “finding yourself in time” really ideas relating to love as a panacea? Powerful ‘slogans as songs’ were to follow: Give Peace A Chance, Power To The People, Imagine, Happy Xmas (War Is Over), but this was the prototype.
20. By ending on a high
By Double Fantasy guitarist Earl Slick.
“Somewhere around the spring of 1980, my manager had a phone call from Jack Douglas who said he had a record for me to do. I had just signed a record contract with Columbia Records. He said, “I can’t tell you who it is.” I said to my manager, “Next time Jack calls up, just throw John Lennon’s name into the conversation, and see how he reacts.” And that’s how I knew it was John.
John had put together a great band [for Double Fantasy], the best session guys on the planet. My guitar partner on the album was Hugh McCracken, and then there was Tony Levin playing bass, and Andy Newmark – who had played with Bowie – was on drums. I was referred to by Jack as the wild card – someone who is more a street rock’n’roll player than a session guy, and John had remembered me from when we did the Young Americans songs for Bowie: Fame and Across The Universe. Which was funny because I was so fucked up I don’t remember recording those. I don’t remember meeting John! But we got on great, and Yoko as well. John also paid well. Very well.
One of the first songs that we recorded was (Just Like) Starting Over, so you’re right back in the ’50s, and it had that flavour of rock’n’roll. And even between songs when he’d jam on stuff, he was always doing Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry. The attitude was pre-Beatles but you’ve also got songs on there like I’m Losing You, which was more the dark side of John. And I love Nobody Told Me – that’s a great song.
But there were lots more. The songs that we hadn’t finished, we planned to go back in the studio in January of ’81, have those in the can, and then go on tour. He was of the mind, now he had decided to get back in the game again, that if you were writing, that you should record, and you should release. I also played the rhythm bits on Yoko’s Walking On Thin Ice – the solo is John.
I spoke to him the night before his murder. I called the studio to speak to John Smith, who was the assistant, and somehow I ended up getting John on the phone. The conversation we had was, “How are they liking the record on the West Coast? Are they playing it on the radio?” And the conversation ended with plans for 1981: “Are you all ready to go for January?” To which I replied, “Absolutely.”
I was on the West Coast, and I was gearing up to come to New York for the holidays. I was at home with my wife and we were putting together gifts for my family in New York and I got a call saying, “Have you seen the news? Something’s happened to Lennon. He’s hurt.” There was a barrage of news on television and it didn’t seem real. It was like watching 9/11.
The way I viewed John was… I saw The Beatles on TV and I knew John’s solo albums but then meeting him was something else. To see someone like that who had such a major impact not only in the music business but in society, standing up against the Vietnam War, and protesting on the streets and people listened to him – to see that amount of power coming from what should have been some sort of Joe Blow human amazes me. He was unique. He was a fucking anomaly.
In 2010, when they were mixing Double Fantasy Stripped Down, Jack Douglas invited me to the studio at Yoko’s request to listen to some of it. I was sitting at the control desk and on some tracks, when they took the echo and stuff off his voice, I caught myself glancing at the iso-booth. I swear, it sounded like he was in the room.”
As told to David Buckley
BECOME A MOJO MEMBER today and receive every new issue of MOJO on your smart phone or tablet to listen to or read. Enjoy access to an archive of previous issues, exclusive MOJO Filter emails with the key tracks you need to hear each week, plus a host of member-only rewards and discounts