MOJO Time Machine: John Lennon’s 50th Birthday Party

On 5 May, 1990 Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, Ringo, Lou Reed and more celebrated what would have been John Lennon’s 50th birthday.


by Fred Dellar |
Posted on

5 May, 1990

It was a bit weird, all told. 30,0000 fans at Liverpool’s Pier Head all celebrating what would have been John Lennon’s 50th birthday - but doing so in early May instead of October, the actual month of Lennon’s birth.

No matter, the intensions were solid enough. Though UK viewers got to watch it later that day, the event was aimed at world-wide TV, and the filmed shindig was to be broadcast in much adjusted guise on October 9, the date when John squalled his first note at Liverpool’s Maternity Hospital.

Yoko Ono had sponsored the proceedings. Paul McCartney had raised his digits in traditional fashion and made an appearance - albeit only on film shot at an earlier concert. Ringo, who exchanged video greetings with Macca, donated a pre-recorded version of I Call Your Name in the company of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. But that was all there was Beatlewise. George Harrison failed to make any contribution at all. Yoko Ono explained that when she tried to contact him, George simply “wasn’t in.” Still, Kylie was there to strut her stuff and yell, “come on boys” amid a pop-dance makeover of Help (complete with rap). So all was alright in Pepperland. Or was it?

“This isn’t for Liverpool, it’s pure Hollywood.”

Peter Naylor, a local reporter, had his doubts at the onset. “Not many people in Merseyside have a spare £25,“ he reflected on learning the entrance fee, before adding his assessment of the advertised line-up - “Kylie, Lou Reed, Deacon Blue and B.B.King are all crowd pullers in their own right but they are an odd mix”. One local bystander added; “This isn’t for Liverpool, it’s pure Hollywood.” Council spokesman Steve McGriskin was more upbeat. “For the first time since the Beatles split, Ringo and Paul will appear on the same show.”

So, there were good signs. Dave Edmunds had been named musical director of the event. A solid choice, Lennon had been an Edmunds admirer since first hearing I Hear You Knockin’ Which is why, at eight o’clock on that Saturday evening, Dave Edmunds led the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra onstage to a chorus of cheers. He played it safe, performing A Day In The Life, The Ballad Of John and Yoko and Strawberry Fields Forever in faithful manner. What ensued tallied with pundit Naylor’s prognosis: a black-clad Cyndi Lauper rocked heavily and gyrated though Working Class Hero, and Randy Travis added a touch of Nashville to Nowhere Man. Natalie Cole donated a somewhat lack-lustre Lucy In The Sky and Ticket To Ride, and Hall and Oates harmonized and went acoustic on Don’t Let Me Down and Julia. Lou Reed delivered Jealous Guy and Mother in faltering fashion, generating both laughs and applause from different elements of the crowd.

Al Green, Terence Trent D'Arby, Wet Wet Wet, Joe Cocker and Lenny Kravitz...

And so it proceeded, as Al Green, Terence Trent D’Arby, Wet Wet Wet, Deacon Blue, Lou Gramm, The Moody Blues, Roberta Flack, Dave Stewart, The Christians, Joe Cocker and Lenny Kravitz performed their interpretations of Lennon-connected material, while DJ Mike Read and Superman actor Christopher Reeve provided the linking chat, with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon also making appearances and introductions. The latter two led the mass singalong of Give Peace A Chance that closed the event.

But there was one genuine Beatle playing in Liverpool that night. The Pete Best Band was appearing in tandem with The Fourmost at the Philharmonic Hall. As for one-time Beatles manager Alan Williams, he was to be found organising an all-night Merseybeat Ball at the Grafton Rooms, informing The Guardian that: “This is for my pension fund. This is the sort of thing that happens every 50 years and I won’t be around next time!”

As for the main event, with various adjustments it was eventually screened in 88-minute form in the U.S. on December 7, hosted by Michael Douglas and boosted by further archive performances of Lennon compositions from the likes of Elton John, U2 and Michael Jackson.

The Lennon’s Spirit Foundation in whose name the event was held emerged with its reputation intact, though. Despite the fact that the original show was never going to make any money - the artists involved appeared for expenses only, but production costs alone were estimated at £1.5 million - some time later, it was announced that the University Of Liverpool had received more than half a million pounds from the Lennon Estate. The money was invested in a trust to fund scholarships for UK and European Economic Community children. Job done, then.

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