A rundown of the week’s cultural moments, books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
By Matt d’Ancona Above image: John Lennon (Getty) Friday 9 October, 2020 Long read
‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me/ When I’m sixty-four’. In 1967, when The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to reach what was then the grand old age of 64 must have seemed an inconceivably remote prospect to four Liverpudlian lads still only in their twenties. Hence the comic tone of the album’s ninth track.
Yet had he not been savagely gunned down outside the Dakota building in New York City in December 1980, John Lennon would be turning 80 on 9 October.
Although it’s 40 years since his assassination by the deranged Mark David Chapman, Lennon is still a vivid presence in contemporary culture and the popular imagination. The most affecting scene in Richard Curtis’s movie Yesterday (2019) – in which a global blackout has changed history so that The Beatles never existed – shows Jack (Himesh Patel), a singer-songwriter who is one of the few who can remember the Fab Four, visiting the 78-year-old Lennon in his cottage by the sea.
Lennon, brilliantly captured by Robert Carlyle, recounts his ordinary life in this alternative reality, sailing the seas, fighting for the woman he loves and the causes he believes in: ‘Very happy – that means successful.’ Jack is overwhelmed by the encounter: ‘Fantastic! You made it to 78!’ This version of Lennon responds as drily and laconically as the original would have – ‘You’re a very strange man’ – but lets Jack give him a hug.
And imagine a world without ‘Imagine’. Would the ending of Roland Joffé’s Oscar-winning account of Cambodia’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge, The Killing Fields (1984), have packed such an emotional punch without Lennon’s great anthem as its soundtrack?
In 2001, Liverpool John Lennon Airport became the first UK airport to be named after an individual. Every year there are new albums, remasterings or bootleg discoveries, documentaries (ranging from good to terrible), and books galore.
This, of course, is true of many long-dead pop icons. But we do not ask what Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix, or (sorry) Kurt Cobain would have made of 9/11, Iraq, globalisation, Brexit or the pandemic. Forty years on, there’s still a Lennon-shaped hole in our lives. Only David Bowie – almost five years gone – has left a comparable sense of sharp and enduring absence.
Here are some of the ways you can mark the 80th birthday of John Winston Ono Lennon.
Listen to BBC Radio 2’s mini-season of programmes, John Lennon At 80, including Sean Ono Lennon’s two-part documentary on his father (featuring interviews with his half-brother Julian Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Elton John), and Liza Tarbuck presenting John Lennon At The BBC.
‘Dear John’ YouTube concert (9 October, 8pm)
Curated by Blurred Vision’s frontman, Sepp Osley, this live-streamed event has on its bill Peter Gabriel, KT Tunstall, Larkin Poe, Richard Curtis, Maxi Jazz of Faithless, Lindsay Ell, PP Arnold, Andy Fairweather Low, John Illsley of Dire Straits, and others. Donations to War Child.
Celebrations in Lennon’s home city have naturally been restricted by COVID-19, but The Beatles Story museum is still open (book time slots). Strawberry Field is displaying the legendary piano at which he composed and recorded ‘Imagine’, and has launched its ‘People of Peace’ Awards in his honour. The Cavern Club is hosting a special Magical Mystery Tour exploring the sites associated with Lennon’s youth in Liverpool.
A pop-up TV channel in the UK and Ireland (Sky 371, Virgin 346, Freeview 83) until 15 October, coordinated by director Simon Sadler and Lennon/Ono archivist Simon Hilton. Includes Bed Peace (charting John and Yoko’s week-long Bed-In for Peace in Montreal in 1969); Parkinson: a 1971 BBC interview thought long-lost but now restored; a 1975 episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test with Bob Harris interviews, and both classic interviews (1971 and 1972) from The Dick Cavett Show.
Imagine: John Lennon (Amazon Prime)
Though it suffers from the absence of the three Beatles still alive at the time of its production (George Harrison died in 2001), Andrew Solt’s 1988 documentary is still the best cinematic introduction to Lennon and his creativity – mercurial, sentimental, funny, angry, difficult, and charming.
Michael Epstein’s Peabody Award-winning PBS documentary is hard to stream outside the US, but is still easy to pick up in DVD or Blu-ray format. It’s worth watching as a near-definitive account of Lennon’s post-Beatles life in New York.
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Sam Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of Lennon’s youth in late 1950s Liverpool, his relationships with his mother Julia and aunt Mimi, and the first steps towards the formation of The Beatles, is remarkable principally for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s terrific lead performance.
Gimme Some Truth: The Ultimate Mixes
Available as a boxed set and on music streaming platforms, this 36-track special release to mark Lennon’s birthday is a connoisseur’s delight, featuring remastered versions of classics. These include Instant Karma! (We All Shine On), Working Class Hero and Give Peace A Chance, and lesser-known songs such as Steel And Glass, Out The Blue, and I’m Stepping Out.
The Beatles – Live At The Hollywood Bowl (2016)
Everyone has their favourite studio album by The Beatles, but this reissued version of the band’s live recording of concerts in 1964 and 1965 best captures the astonishing energy of Beatlemania – and what it was that Lennon was trying to escape in his later career.
The John Lennon Letters, Ed. Hunter Davies
Curious as it may seem, this 2012 collection is probably the best short introduction to the life and mind of Lennon. As official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies observes, Lennon is an unambiguously analogue figure, who ‘lived and died in an era before computers, emails, twits, tweets, and twitters’. Yet reading these meandering jottings and musings, with their acerbic asides, puns and one-liners, often scribbled on scraps of paper, you just know that he would have flourished on Twitter and Instagram. It’s a reminder, too, that Lennon – like all The Beatles – owed as much to the Goons as to Elvis. Wit, irreverence and sheer nonsense were essential to the mix that made the four as fab as they were.
The Lives Of John Lennon by Albert Goldman
Scabrous, scandalous and still-controversial, this 1988 biography is undeniably a hatchet job, dismissed by McCartney as ‘trash’. But it is extremely readable and, more to the point, serves a corrective purpose of which Lennon himself might have grudgingly approved: it reminds us that all our heroes have feet of clay and that, for all his amazing talents, his memory is ill-served by the hagiography and worship that characterises some Lennon fandom.
John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (2009)
Massive and meticulous, this is still the best single-volume biography of Lennon. It will be hard to surpass, although Mark Lewisohn’s gigantic trilogy on The Beatles (volume one of which appeared in 2013) is the obvious candidate to do just that.
One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time by Craig Brown (2020)
As well as being one of the books of the year, Brown’s beautifully written celebration is full of insight and anecdote, and characterises Lennon as fire to Paul’s water, George’s air and Ringo’s earth. Essential reading.
And before we go…
If you care about the ethical impact made by business, you won’t want to miss Tortoise’s first Responsible Business Summit on Thursday 15 October from 8.15am to 3.30pm (BST). Want a carbon-neutral future? Businesses to take Black Lives Matter seriously? Put your view to politicians, world beaters and the Unilever CEO.
And here’s a playlist of musicians who have championed sustainability and social justice to get you in the mood.
Soho House members go free. Just use the code GUESTOFTORTOISE to book your place.
Stay safe – and imagine.
Editor and Partner