x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lennon's legacy, 30 years after his death

The real impact of John Lennon's talent ahead of the 30th anniversary of his murder.

I have no idea where I was when I heard the news that John Lennon had died, but I'll never forget the first time I heard the song I Am the Walrus and that, I guess, is the way it should be.

In the same way that in his life he mocked his own talent and anyone who tried to find hidden meanings in the words he wrote, Lennon would have scoffed at his deification in the wake of his murder, 30 years ago tomorrow.

"I suppose I'm so indifferent about our music because other people take it so seriously," he once told Hunter Davies, the author of The Beatles, the only authorised biography of the band, first published in 1968.

"People think The Beatles know what's going on. We don't. We're just doing it. People want to know what the inner meaning of Mr Kite was. There wasn't any. I just did it. I shoved a lot of words together, then shoved some noise on."

Lennon, the school bully, the joker, the working-class hero waiting to be found out, was forever playing the clown, terrified to take himself too seriously in case nobody else did, and determined to beat them to the punch. "My so-called outgoing character is all false," he once said. "I kept it up for years, but I'm not a loudmouth. It was a part I put on, as a defence."

Wait. Thirty years ago? Really? Had he lived, Lennon would have been 70 this October. No wonder The Beatles have no conscious resonance for anyone under 30. Trying to tell a 20-year-old today that the 43-year-old album Sergeant Pepper was a significant cultural event would be comparable to attempting to enthuse my 20-year-old self about a recording made in 1932.

Today, in a world of iPods, downloads and omnipresent music of every kind, it is hard to explain the impact of The Beatles and their songs to someone who wasn't there to experience them firsthand, hunched over a tinny transistor radio or a crackling, mono record player.

For a start, to set the scene you would first have to force them to sit through three or four years of The Monkees, Engelbert Humperdink and Herman's Hermits, but that would be a cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

Alternatively, you could take just four minutes and 36 seconds of their time and have them listen to I Am the Walrus.

This was one of the tracks on The Beatles' double EP Magical Mystery Tour, released before Christmas 1967. I was 12 at the time and I remember waiting for what seemed like months before hurrying on the appointed day to the record counter at Jones & Higgins, the department store in Peckham, south London, where my grandmother worked as a cleaner.

In those days, the release of a new record by The Beatles was a major event, news of which spread like wildfire - and, in retrospect, mysteriously, in a world devoid of mobile phones, e-mail or internet.

I don't know where I got the cash, but the 19 shillings and six pence I handed over (a little under £1 in pre-decimal days) was money well spent. I ran home, yanked open the lid of the Garrard record player, put the first record on the turntable and lowered the stylus arm. That satisfying crackle and hiss on contact, then the opening brass chords and drums and ... "Roll up, roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour, step right this way ...".

And then, on side B of the first disc, the eerie, disturbing and exciting Walrus. This was Lennon at his finest, absurdly ahead of his time, lyrically and musically.

Up until then, my world had been in black and white. Undoubtedly the psychedelic cover of Magical Mystery Tour and its contrast with the monotone Peckham High Street had something to do with it, but this was the day the colour was switched on and that's pretty much all you need to know about The Beatles.

When I went back to school the following term I almost fell out of my chair in an English class while we were listening to a recording of Shakespeare's King Lear and I suddenly recognised lines from the recording - "If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body..." and "Sit you down, father; rest you" - which had been stitched into the fabric of the tumultuous fadeout at the end of I Am the Walrus.

It hadn't been Lennon's intention, I am certain, but this was my first lesson in understanding that art wasn't a series of sealed containers, marked "Music", "Literature", "Painting" and so on, but a great big riotously disorganised play-box in which everything was gloriously entwined.

And how Lennon would have laughed at that. There wasn't, in fact, much you could say about Lennon that he wouldn't have thrown back in your face if he'd been given the chance. He was, as McCartney told Davies after Lennon's death, "the great debunker. He'd be debunking all his death thing now."

McCartney, stung by reported criticism of himself by Yoko Ono in the coverage after Lennon's death, did a spot of debunking of his own. Lennon, he fumed, "could be a manoeuvring swine, which no one ever realised. Now, since his death, he's become Martin Luther Lennon."

Thirty years on, all the dust has settled, all the court cases over who owned what have ended and all that's left is the music - triumphantly, finally, finding its place only last month on iTunes, where hopefully another generation will find it.

The Beatles developed rapidly and dragged recording techniques with them, despite the limitations of contemporary technology. Their first two albums were recorded virtually live on two-track tape machines. By the end of their career they had the luxury of eight tracks to play with but Sergeant Pepper was recorded on only four, in contrast to the virtually limitless digital possibilities open to today's Garage Band generation.

The initial look - the suits and haircuts - may have been manufactured by their manager, Brian Epstein, but this was no boy band, forged under TV lights for a Saturday night "reality" show. Before they put a note on tape The Beatles had been playing gigs together for six years, honing their craft in Hamburg and Liverpool.

Of course, at first they had been pretty unexceptional, echoing what they heard around them - the first single they wrote themselves, the simple Love Me Do, released in October 1962, had a strong whiff of the Everly Brothers about it - but they quickly emerged from the primordial pop soup, finding their musical legs and evolving into an entirely new species.

There were just two and a half years between their debut album, Please Please Me, released in March 1963, and Rubber Soul in 1965, and in that time The Beatles refined themselves and reinvented popular music; it was as simple as that.

It was on Rubber Soul that Lennon nudged the band away from love songs for the first time, with the self-reflective Nowhere Man. On Revolver the following year he struck out further into uncharted territory with And Your Bird Can Sing (a landmark masterpiece of tight harmonies, poetry and chiming guitars which, characteristically, Lennon later dismissed as a "throwaway ... fancy paper around an empty box").

But it was on Sergeant Pepper (1967) that Lennon reached his apotheosis. Take away the steel frame of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, Good Morning, Good Morning and, of course, A Day in the Life, and all that's left of Sergeant Pepper is a wobbly jelly of sickly-sweet singalong pub songs.

While McCartney was the professional tunesmith of the two, knocking out the hits and forcing the others to clock in to the studio long after they'd lost the urge, it was, according to The Beatles' producer George Martin, Lennon's flair for lyrical poetry that drove Paul to "try for deeper lyrics". "But for meeting John," he said, "I doubt if Paul could have written Eleanor Rigby."

With the benefit of rose-tinted hindsight there is, of course, the danger of imposing the magical on the mundane. Lennon himself, who took his inspiration from newspapers, posters, personal experiences - anything, in fact, that flashed across his consciousness, such as the police siren that triggered I Am the Walrus - appeared to despise the very idea that such creative acts of collage might owe anything to talent.

For example, some of the words to Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite were lifted from a 19th-century poster advertising a performance by Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal in Rochdale in the north of England. With its haunting fairground organs and eerie lyrics it may have struck the world as magical, but "I wasn't very proud of that", Lennon later told Hunter Davies. Some part of the working-class lad was uncomfortable with getting so much for doing so little.

"There was no real work," he said. "I was just going through the motions because we needed a new song for Sergeant Pepper at that moment."

There was, of course, life after The Beatles for all of them - especially McCartney, who made more money from his band Wings than he did as one of the Fab Four - but in terms of history it was only ever going to be a shadow of what had gone before.

Like many Beatles fans, I've liked the odd post-Beatles McCartney track, and the occasional Lennon number - and loathed a few, too, especially Imagine, a lame rethink of All You Need Is Love - but I have never bought a single one.

Lennon recorded 10 albums after the split, before taking five years out to raise his son, Sean. It was shortly after he had returned to the studio to record his comeback album, Double Fantasy, that he was killed outside his New York home by Mark Chapman, a deranged fan. "We'll either go in a plane crash or we'll be popped off by some loony," Lennon had remarked in 1965, when he was just 25.

Fame left Lennon cold, but retreating from the spotlight ceased to be an option after 1962. "What I'd like is to be completely left alone," he once said. "It would be so nice to be completely forgotten."

Fat chance. That's what happens when you shove a lot of words together, then shove some noise on.