We were getting ready to go to school one cold Tuesday morning. We had the radio on, which was on most mornings. Beatle songs were playing. I think it was my Mum who said it first, “John Lennon’s been shot”. It was 9th December 1980. I was nearly 10. I listened in for details. Was he going to be ok? What had happened? John had been in the news recently anyway as he’d just released a new LP and single after being hidden away for five years.
Then it was made clear. He was gone. My eyes welled up. I’d been a bit choked when Elvis had died three years earlier, but that was more of just picking up on the cultural feel that was around and watching the news. This was personal. I didn’t want to go to school. It didn’t seem right. Especially as they were playing non-stop Beatles and John’s tunes all day on the radio.
So I went to school on that cold and damp day, depressed and sad, with the tune of Woman playing in my head, thinking about Sean Lennon who was five years younger than me and wondered what he must be thinking.
In 1979 Beatlemania gripped me and my mates as the BBC broadcasted all the Beatles films: A Hard Days Night, footage of the Washington gig in 1964, the 1965 Shea Stadium concert, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and Let it Be. (This was the last showing to date for Shea Stadium and Let it Be.) It was amazing. My friend Sean and I formed a band, calling it the Bronze Beatles. I had got a guitar the previous Christmas but couldn’t play yet and we made a drum kit from chocolate boxes, drew guitars and sang songs from Help! (Sean’s Dad had the LP). I wanted nothing more than to be a Beatle and live in Help!
That Christmas my brother and I got a tape recorder for Christmas. We had two blank tapes. I filled them up by recording my dad’s Beatle LPs and singles by placing the take recorder as close to the record player’s speaker as possible and telling my brother to be quiet.
In January 1980 my Mum and Dad hosted a Burns night super. My Dad had got some Highland music records and he wanted them on cassette tape to play in the stereo system they’d borrowed. He had to tape over my copy of Help! It would be five years later later before I’d saved up enough money to buy my own vinyl copy. But my Dad got me a tape of the Beatles Rock ‘n’ Roll Music volume two to make up for it which gave me some new songs I’d never heard before such as I’m Down, Any Time at All and the brilliant Hey Bulldog.
Up until then I’d only had access to a few Beatles tunes. My Dad had three Beatle LPs and I inherited (or rather, I sneaked out of his collection and into mine). There was Beatles for Sale (their 4th LP from late 1964), With the Beatles, their 2nd LP, from 1963 and Revolver, their 7th, from 1966. He also had the EP Twist and Shout which contained four songs stripped away from their first LP, Please Please Me and the singles She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out.
My Dad had a Bush single speaker mono record player. It played 45s, 33&1/3s and 78 rpm records. You could stack up a few singles on the spindle and it would play one and then another would drop into place.
I discovered the record player at a very early age and rifled through my Dad’s collection of records. He had a handful of singles, most from the early sixties. Quite a few LPs, mostly Johnny Mathis, Herb Albert, the odd Sinatra and Dylan plus a bit of classical. I ignored all these. I was drawn to those four faces that stared out at me from the gatefold cover of Beatles for Sale. I knew that they were the same faces as those on With the Beatles. I found out they were called John, Paul, George and Ringo, but there was nothing on the sleeve to say which was which so I had to guess. My mind worked out that since they looked younger on With the Beatles and that it was in black and white, it must be the first album, perhaps preceded by Twist and Shout – also in black and white, but smaller. Then must come Beatles for Sale because that was in colour and a gatefold. But what about Revolver? That was in black and white but looked quite odd. The music was slightly different too. It was 1973. I was nearly 3. I surmised that With the Beatles was the past, Beatles for Sale was the present and Revolver was from the future.
An earlier thought I had about the Beatles was that my Dad was John Lennon. The evidence was the photo on Twist and Shout looked just like him and the message of We Can Work it Out I felt expressed he ethos of my Dad. That was obviously a short lived theory.
It wasn’t until around 1976 that I found out that the Beatles weren’t still together. The re-issue singles were in the chart, as was Lennon’s solo Stand By Me and Imagine singles. From that point, like every other Beatle fan in the world, I’d been hoping and longing for that reunion.
Years later we learnt that John had planned to visit the UK in early 1981 and the four Beatles had agreed upon a reunion recording, perhaps a performance too, that year and had sworn secrecy on the details. All hope was dashed with the news on that December day.
I’ve read loads of accounts of the Beatles and their lives in the hundreds of books published on the topic. There is a strange feeling reading the details of that fateful day, about John’s sessions at the Record Plant studio, of the killer’s meeting with Lennon earlier in the day where he signed a copy of Double Fantasy (there’s a photo of the two of them together). As I read the details and it all becomes more and more real I start to feel as though I can change the outcome somehow, as if the history of has not been decided. I meet John outside the recording studio and urge him not to go home straight away that night, then I wait near the Dakota building as dusk falls and spot the killer, tackle him, call the police, anything.
But history doesn’t work like that. It felt as though there was so much more of the Beatles story to tell, so much more songs to come. As it must be the same as with anyone who loses someone, anyone, it feels as though we’re cheated by being given an alternative, grimmer history that the one we were promised. People older than me have said that the Sixties finally ended that day and the dreams of their youth were over. You can mourn a man you never met if what he stood for was an important personal idea. It was that idea that died that night.
Some people say the Beatles, and Lennon, aren’t important. They’re wrong. Derek Taylor described them as ‘the 20th Century’s greatest romance’ and he’s right. We still don’t know why or how it all happened, but it did, and for a short while, many, many people in the world shared something. It represented probably the last great collective memory, a potent beam of optimism, hope and fun, that touched so many lives in so many ways.
On 8th December 1980 the world was reminded that we are all mortal, ugly, vicious, spiteful and powerless. But there is still hope. We can still put on a Beatle record and find that the magic is still there, divorced from time and space, separated from the mortal men that created it.
There IS joy to be sought and cherished in life no matter what undesired twists and turns we face.
This is adapted from my forthcoming book, Creativity and the Beatles.
Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.
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