Singer, songwriter, guitarist
John Lennon was born as German born bs fell on Liverpool during the Battle of Britain—a time many considered Britain’s “finest hour” until Lennon and the Beatles provided a finer one twenty-odd years later. He grew up in austere, depressed, postwar England. His father abandoned the family when John was a baby, and his mother never could bring herself to settle down to parenthood, leaving her son to be raised by his aunt, Mimi Smith, in a respectable, lower-middle class milieu in which he never really fit.
Lennon was a mediocre student, but his obvious intelligence and artistic talent enabled him to move through the rigidly stratified British school system in spite of poor grades. He went to high school and on to Liverpool Art College, but from the mid-fifties on, his attention was increasingly focused on music. In 1955, inspired by the popularity of skiffle—a sort of speeded up jug-band blues sound—Lennon persuaded his aunt to buy him a guitar. In the spring of 1957 he and some other students at Quarry Bank High School formed the Quarry Men; at one of their first performances, on July 6, he met Paul McCartney and invited him to join the group. George Harrison joined in February of 1958.
The Quarry Men’s style began to move from skiffle to rock and roll; they graduated from playing youth club dances and church halls to pubs, nightclubs, and dance halls. Along the way they acquired amplifiers, a bass player, and a series of drummers. By the time they were booked into the Kaiserkeller Club in Hamburg, Germany, they were experienced, if not quite seasoned, musicians. Their two stints in Hamburg, in 1960 and 1962, made them professionals, though the crude recordings made at the Star Club in 1962 give little hint of the impact they were to have in only a few months.
In 1964 Lennon and the Beatles “came out of the f—in’ sticks to take over the world,” as Lennon told Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner seven years later. They had taken over England the year before, exploding out of provincial, industrial Liverpool into a British pop music scene dominated by American rock and roll and jazz, and by feeble home-grown imitations. Almost overnight the Beatles’ energy and originality made them the biggest stars in the history of British popular music. Skeptical Americans who doubted that foreigners could play such a distinctly American music as rock were won over almost as quickly.
The Beatles went on to revolutionize rock music several times over. “The Beatles are a pivotal part of rock’s
For the Record…
Born John Winston Lennon, October 9, 1940, in Liverpool, England; died of gunshot wounds December 8, 1980, in New York City; son of Alfred (a merchant seaman) and Julia (Stanley) Lennon; married Cynthia Powell, August 23, 1962 (divorced, 1968); married Yoko Ono (an artist and singer), March 20, 1969; children: (first marriage) John Charles Julian, (second marriage) Sean Ono Taro. Education: Attended Liverpool College of Art, 1957-60.
Learned to play guitar, 1955; formed group the Quarry Men, 1957; group performed as Johnny and the Moondogs, the Moonshiners, the Rainbows, the Nurk Twins, and Long John and the Silver Beetles; group’s name changed to the Beatles, 1960; performed in Liverpool area, northern England, Scotland, and Hamburg, Germany, 1960-62; group signed with EMI/Parlophone records and recorded first single, “Love Me Do,” 1962; recorded more than a dozen albums and numerous singles and EPs, 1962-70; toured Europe, America, and Asia, 1963-66; appeared in films A Hard Day’s Night, 1964, Help, 1965, Yellow Submarine, 1968, and Let It Be, 1970; group disbanded, 1970.
With Yoko Ono, released Two Virgins, Apple, 1968; with Ono and others, recorded several albums, 1968-80, and made occasional concert appearances. Author of books including In His Own Write, 1964, and A Spaniard in the Works, 1965. Graphic artist, works exhibited in Great Britain and the U.S.
Selected awards: With the Beatles, numerous Grammy awards and platinum albums; gold album for Imagine, 1971.
story,” wrote Tim Riley in Tell Me Why, “not just because their music can still dazzle but because their arrival as rock ’n’ rollers with an endless stream of original material challenged what anyone had imagined pop could become.... They may not be responsible for everything, but nearly everything that comes after would be impossible without them.” As Griel Marcus wrote in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, “What you heard was a rock and roll group that combined elements of the music that you were used to hearing only in pieces.… The Beatles combined the harmonic range and implicit equality of the Fifties vocal group, … the flash of a rockabilly band, … the aggressive and unique personalities of the classic rock stars, … the homey this-could-be-you manner of later rock stars, [and] endlessly inventive songwriting.… The result was that elusive rock treasure, a new sound— and a new sound that could not be exhausted in the course of one brief flurry on the charts.”
Perhaps more significant than the Beatles’ sound was the way in which they made the recording studio their instrument and the long-playing record their medium. Though some producers, notably Phil Spector, had expanded the concept of recording beyond merely the capturing of a live performance, the Beatles were the first artists to make records the focus of their work. “The Beatles are our first recording artists, and they remain our best,” Riley wrote. “The Beatles’ work came to be conceived with the studio in mind—all the production values a mixing board had to offer were used to serve the ideas conveyed in their music. A Beatles record is more than just a collection of songs: it’s a performance for tape…. As time went on, the Beatles weren’t so much songwriters as they were record writers; the studio became a lab where musical ideas were exchanged, reworked, and restructured for tape.”
The core of the Beatles’ brilliance was the musical relationship between Lennon and McCartney, a relationship that was as complex as the music it spawned. McCartney had begun writing songs before he met Lennon, and inspired Lennon to try his hand at it. They sometimes wrote songs together (Hunter Davies, in his biography of the Beatles, describes them sitting down at a piano to write “With a Little Help From My Friends”) but seem at least as often to have served as each other’s editors, helping to fix or finish a song that the other was having a problem with. McCartney wrote the verses of “We Can Work It Out,” and Lennon contributed the bridge; Lennon wrote most of “Ticket to Ride,” but McCartney came up with the off-center drum pattern that anchors the rhythm. After the Beatles broke up, Lennon played down the importance of their teamwork, but in his final interview with Playboy he acknowledged, “I said that, but I was lying…. We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball…. In those days we absolutely used to write like that—both playing into each other’s noses.”
That was particularly true in the early days, from the time they first went into Abbey Road studios in London in 1962—insisting to skeptical producer George Martin that they wanted to record their own songs—until the Beatles stopped touring in 1966. By that time, Lennon told Playboy “the creativity of songwriting had left Paul and me … well, by the mid-Sixties it had become a craft” Their personal relationship had become strained as well. According to Ray Coleman in Lennon, the tension began to build with the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, in 1967. Lennon was deeply into drugs, unhappy in his marriage, and bored with being a Beatle. McCartney took over the direction of the band, leading them into the ill-conceived and chaotically executed film project Magical Mystery Tour and taking the dominant role in most of their recordings.
Lennon reacted by withdrawing further from the Beatles and focusing on his relationship with artist Yoko Ono. He brought her to the 1968 sessions for The Beatles, the so-called White Album, breaking what Coleman called “a rigid, unwritten rule of the group: that their women would never be allowed in the studios.” The other band members resented her presence and treated her coolly, alienating Lennon further. The resulting album, with its fragmented sound, heralded the disintegration of the Beatles into four individualistic musicians rather than a band.
The release of The Beatles was followed a week later by the release of Two Virgins, an album of avant-garde music Lennon and Ono had recorded in his home studio. The cover photo, which showed the couple nude, was banned in some countries and sold in brown paper wrappers in the United States. The music, an aural collage of electronic sounds, attracted much less attention. The Lennon-Ono relationship had become public. Lennon’s divorce was in progress, and Ono suffered a miscarriage in November of 1968. They had also been arrested for possession of drugs, a hazard from which the Beatles had been considered exempt in spite of their public admission that they had used marijuana and LSD.
The Beatles’ musical estrangement deepened and was documented in the movie Let It Be, filmed in 1969 as they worked on what was to be their last album. Their financial affairs were also in disarray: their company, Apple Corps, Ltd., was losing money rapidly, and Lennon said in an interview with Coleman in January of 1969 that “if it carries on like this all of us will be broke in the next six months.” It was the business crisis that brought things to a head: Lennon invited Allen Klein, an American promoter, to take over as the Beatles’ manager, but McCartney refused to sign a contract with Klein. Late in 1969 Lennon informed the others that he no longer considered himself a Beatle, but was persuaded not to make a public announcement until the group’s financial position was stabilized. The breakup became public when McCartney released his first solo album in the spring of 1970.
Lennon had already moved on, forming the Plastic Ono Band with Yoko in 1969, releasing three singles, “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Instant Karma,” and performing at the Toronto Peace Festival in September of 1969. He released his first real solo album, Plastic Ono Band, in 1970. The record, made in the wake of his primal scream therapy with psychiatrist Arthur Janov, was as much a therapeutic as a musical exercise. Riley, in Tell Me Why, wrote: “These confessional songs seek out the idealized state of childhood, the pain of individuation, the fragility of fantasies and the very real power of illusions…. The soul-baring leanness of the sound embodies the crux of what rock ’n’ roll is all about: a restlessness with the status quo, a hopeful dissatisfaction, and a gnawing sense of encumbrance that finds release as it expresses itself.”
Lennon’s next album, Imagine, was much more successful commercially, and the title song became the most popular song of Lennon’s solo career. Ben Gerson of Rolling Stone, who considered Plastic Ono Band “a masterpiece,” found Imagine a disappointing follow-up, faulting it for it’s “sloppiness and self-absorption.” He wrote that Plastic Ono Band, “in its singing and instrumental work, was as much a triumph of artifice as of art. It managed to sound both spontaneous and careful, while Imagine is less of each. Even though it contains a substantial portion of good music, on the heels of [Plastic Ono Band] it only serves to reinforce the questioning of what John’s relationship to rock really is.”
Lennon was questioning that relationship, too. Freed from the confines of the Beatles’ wholesome image—something he had resented and struggled against ever since Brian Epstein took the band out of black leather and put them in suits—he began branching out into other activities. Inspired by Ono’s conceptual art, he made several avant-garde films and exhibited a series of erotic lithographs entitled “Bag One.” He also began to speak out about politics, which had been another Beatle taboo. He had started to cross that line earlier with the song “Give Peace a Chance” and by returning the medal he had received when the Beatles were made members of the Order of the British Empire, partly as a protest against British support of America’s war in Vietnam. He became especially outspoken after moving to New York City in 1971 and falling in with a group of prominent American radicals.
The radicals wanted Lennon to join the protests at the 1972 Republican Convention in San Diego. Lennon, who suspected they were trying to provoke a riot similar to the one at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, never intended to go. Nevertheless, rumors began to spread, and they were believed by some officials of the Nixon administration, who began a campaign to have Lennon deported as a convicted drug user. The FBI shadowed him, tapped his phone, and filled thousands of pages of files with notes on his musical and other activities. The case was finally settled in 1975 when a court declared that Lennon’s British marijuana conviction was not grounds for deportation under U.S. law.
While Lennon was still under the influence of, as he wrote in Skywriting by Word of Mouth, “male-macho ‘serious revolutionaries’ and their insane ideas about killing people to save them from capitalism,” he recorded a politically didactic single, “Power to the People”—which he recalled as “rather embarrassing”—and another album with Ono, Some Time in New York City. Rolling Stone’s Stephen Holden called the record “incipient artistic suicide,” while acknowledging that “John sings better than ever.” Holden observed: “Some Time in New York City is … entirely devoted to propaganda. But as propaganda it is so embarrassingly puerile as to constitute an advertisement against itself…. The tunes are shallow and derivative and the words little more than sloppy nursery rhymes that patronize the issues and individuals they seek to exalt.”
In 1973 Lennon and Ono separated, she staying in New York and he going to Los Angeles on what he later described to Playboy as a “lost weekend that lasted eighteen months.” Drinking heavily, Lennon was thrown out of nightclubs and was a staple of gossip columns for much of that time. He also released three albums. The first two, Mind Games and Walls and Bridges, turned away from politics, back toward the musical territory of Imagine. While neither was particularly well received by critics, Walls and Bridges did bring Lennon his first American Number One hit, the single “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”
For his next record—which was to be his last for five years—he turned to legendary producer Phil Spector to make an album of old rock and roll songs. This was in part a legal obligation, part of an out-of-court settlement with Chuck Berry’s publisher who claimed that Lennon had lifted the line “Here come old flattop” in “Come Together” from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” To avoid a lawsuit, Lennon had agreed to record several Berry tunes, and he decided to fill out the album with other fifties classics. The sessions did not go well: Spector’s eccentric, paranoid behavior, combined with Lennon’s drinking, made the sessions prolonged, expensive, and unproductive. Finally Spector took the tapes and withdrew to his walled house with its armed guards and attack dogs and refused to give the recordings to Lennon. It took months to recover the tapes, and when Spector finally did relinquish them they turned out to be all but unusable. Eventually Lennon went into a New York studio to record ten songs in a week to complete the album. Rock ’n’Rollwas released early in 1975 to lukewarm reviews and unimpressive sales, though a few critics, including Steve Simeis of Stereo Review, considered it among his best work.
At about the same time Lennon and Ono were reconciled, and the Beatles were finally dissolved as a legal entity. Chet Flippo recalled in The Ballad of John and Yoko that Lennon later remarked to him that it was “the first time in thirteen years that he had not been under written contract to at least someone …. It was his desire now to exert that freedom by quitting rock & roll.” Quit he did, resisting calls for a Beatles reunion from fans and promoters; he always insisted that he had no regrets about the breakup of the band and no desire to look back, and he believed that his solo work was as good as, if not better than, anything the Beatles had done. He retired to his apartment in the Dakota building on Central Park West to raise his new son, Sean, and dabble in house-husbandry. “I’m a housewife who also has a nanny and an assistant and a cook and a cleaner,” he told Playboy. “I wasn’t a poor strugglin’ housewife who had to cook three meals a day…. [But] it wasn’t a lark. The serious intent was to orchestrate what went into the baby’s mind and body for at least five years.”
Lennon’s sabbatical came to an end in 1980 when, on a trip to Bermuda, he heard the music of the B-52s. “It sounds just like Yoko’s music,” he told Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone, “so I said to meself, ’It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!” Lennon and Ono wrote 25 songs in the next few weeks, and were soon in the studio recording. The resulting album, Double Fantasy, was different from their previous collaborations: it was their first album of pop songs on which they received equal billing, alternating writing credits and lead vocals throughout. Subtitled “A Heart Play,” it presented, as Rolling Stone’s Holden wrote, “the Lennon’s marriage as an exemplary pop fairy tale.”
Double Fantasy received mixed reviews, with some critics expressing disappointment that the pop music trends of the late seventies seemed to have passed Lennon by. As Steve Simeis of Stereo Review noted, much of the music on Lennon’s comeback album was nearer to “what the industry calls Adult Contemporary” than to the cutting edge of rock. Nevertheless, the single “Starting Over” went quickly to number one, and Lennon and Ono continued to spend many hours in the studio working on their next record.
Upon returning home from a recording session on December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot five times by a self-described fan, Mark Chapman, for whom he had signed an autograph earlier that day. He was dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. Crowds gathered outside the Dakota as soon as the news broke, and many remained there for days, singing “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine,” and other Lennon songs.
Ken Tucker wrote in Rock of Ages: “Lennon’s death was a crucial event in rock culture…. [It] was the ultimate example of the era’s fragmentation. All the media pundits repeated the same phrase—‘the dream is over’—and it was: Rock fans were forever separated from the myth of the Beatles. There was nothing left but to face the future.” Lester Bangs, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted that much of the grief was at odds with Lennon’s own attitude toward the past: “John Lennon at his best despised cheap sentiment and had to learn the hard way that once you’ve made your mark on history those who can’t will be so grateful they’ll turn it into a cage for you.... The Beatles were most of all a moment.... It is for that moment—not for John Lennon the man—that you are mourning.”
Stereo Review’s Simels summed up that moment: “John Lennon was the coolest guy in the universe. Cooler than Elvis (dumb greaser!), cooler than Brando or James Dean or Lord Byron or Willie Sutton or Muhammad Ali or Cary Grant or Robert de Niro or Bruce Springsteen. Cooler than Elvis Costello even…. He had wit, style, and songwriting genius. He invented the world’s most exclusive men’s club and made millions of dollars thumbing his nose at the Establishment. He gave countless people joy and in the process changed the world a couple of times…. His finest work … constitutes an achievement as personal and innovative and moving as can be found in the history of the music he helped shape.”
In His Own Write, Simon & Schuster, 1964.
A Spaniard in the Works, Simon & Schuster, 1965.
John Lennon’s Erotic Lithographs, edited by Ralph Ginzburg, Avant-Garde Media, 1970.
The Writings of John Lennon, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
Skywriting by Word of Mouth, Harper & Row, 1986.
With the Beatles
Please Please Me, Parlophone, 1963.
With the Beatles, Parlophone, 1963.
A Hard Day’s Night, Parlophone, 1964.
Beatles for Sale, Parlophone, 1964.
Help!, Parlophone, 1965.
Rubber Soul, Parlophone, 1965.
Yesterday … and Today, Capitol, 1966.
Revolver, Parlophone, 1966.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Parlophone, 1967.
Magical Mystery Tour, Capitol, 1967.
The Beatles, Apple, 1968.
Yellow Submarine, Apple, 1969.
Abbey Road, Apple, 1969.
Let It Be, Apple, 1970.
Hey Jude, Apple, 1970.
The Beatles—Circa 1960—In the Beginning, Polydor, 1970.
The Beatles 1962-1966, Apple, 1973.
The Beatles 1967-1970, Apple, 1973.
Rock ’n’ Roll Music, Capitol, 1976.
The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, Capitol, 1977.
The Beatles Live! At the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany: 1962, Lingasong, 1977.
Love Songs, Capitol, 1977.
Rarities, Capitol, 1979.
Dawn of the Silver Beatles, PAC, 1981.
Reel Music, Capitol, 1982.
Twenty Greatest Hits, Capitol, 1982.
Past Masters Volume One, Parlophone, 1988.
Past Masters Volume Two, Parlophone, 1988.
With Yoko Ono
Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Apple, 1968.
Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, Apple, 1969.
Wedding Album, Apple, 1969.
Some Time in New York City, Apple, 1972.
Double Fantasy, Geffen, 1980.
Milk and Honey, Polydor, 1984.
With the Plastic Ono Band
The Plastic Ono Band—Live Peace in Toronto, Apple, 1969.
Plastic Ono Band, Apple, 1970.
Imagine, Apple, 1971.
Mind Games, Apple, 1973.
Walls and Bridges, Apple, 1974.
Rock ’n’Roll, Apple, 1975.
Shaved Fish, Apple, 1975.
The John Lennon Collection, Geffen, 1982.
Reflections and Poetry, Silhouette, 1984.
Menlove Avenue, Capitol, 1986.
John Lennon: Live in New York City, Capitol, 1986.
Imagine John Lennon: Music From the Original Motion Picture, Capitol, 1988.
Lennon, Capitol, 1990.
The Ballad of John and Yoko, edited by Jonathan Cott and Christine Doudna, Rolling Stone Press, 1982.
Bangs, Lester, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Vintage Books, 1988.
Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik, All Together Now: The First Complete Beatles Discography, Ballantine, 1975.
Coleman, Ray, Lennon: The Definitive Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1984, revised, Harperperennial, 1993.
Davies, Hunter, The Beatles: The Authorized Biography, McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Goldman, Albert, The Lives of John Lennon, Morrow, 1988.
Lennon, John, Skywriting by Word of Mouth, Harper & Row, 1986.
Lewisohn, Mark, The Beatles: Recording Sessions, Harmony Books, 1988.
Martin, George, All You Need Is Ears, St. Martin’s, 1979.
Reinhart, Charles, You Can’t Do That: Beatles Bootlegs and Novelty Records, Contemporary Books, 1981.
Riley, Tim, Tell Me Why, Knopf, 1989.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ’n’Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Sheff, David, and G. Barry Golson, The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Berkley Books, 1981.
Wenner, Jann, Lennon Remembers, Popular Library, 1982.
Wiener, Allen J., The Beatles: A Recording History, McFarland, 1986.
Wiener, Jon, Come Together: John Lennon and His Time, Random House, 1984.
Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1986.
Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1980.
Rolling Stone, October 28, 1971 ; July 20, 1972.
Stereo Review, March 1981.
"Lennon, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lennon-john
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