Remembering the day John Lennon died – by John Robb
John Robb was a teenage punk rocker who was about to make his first record with his band the membranes the day that John Lennon died. It was a moment in time that stayed with him all his life…
The day John Lennon got shot is freeze frozen in time.
I was at Stafford Poly a bored, restless, black clad rebel punk rocker on the helter skelter of fierce creativity and mindless chemical stupidity. I had been gluing sleeves for my first DIY release for the Membranes and killing time in the middle of nowhere.
In those days they still had ”Polys’ or Polytechnics which were like reserve universities, where the lazy, useless and bored went to instead of ”Uni’.
We trolled about in a concrete dump, took drugs and formed bands. I was immersed in punk and post punk but also never lost my love of the Beatles.
We had been waiting for John Lennon to come and join us in punk and post punk, pick up his guitar and join the revolution; surely he had the imagination and the righteous anger and angst to connect with what was going on?
But there had been a five-year silence.
He had been retired into real estate and New York City. He was not listening to John Peel! No-one can blame him. He had done his bit. The Beatles had been an amazingly intense burst of creativity and genius that would burn anyone out. After that there had been a sporadic solo career that had some great moments mixed with ok moments.
John Lennon still towered over the seventies but he was like a ghost. It felt like he was missing in action. He owned the sixties and seemed lost in the following decade. His music was still emotional, searing and souls searching bit it felt of sync. I love ”Sometimes In New York City’, I love parts of ”ËImagine’- I mean ”Gimme Some Truth’- what a great song, classic Lennon getting to the heart of the matter and telling the truth in song. But there was gaps. It seemed like he was floundering and you sensed that he felt that as well.
And then silence.
Despite that even deep into punk we had waited for some kind of word.
Early in 1980 there had been rumours of a new Lennon album. There was some sort of hope that he could make the connection, bridge the gap. Which John Lennon would come back we wondered? The peacenik? The long hair? The acerbic, nasty Lennon?ÃÂ Or a new Lennon imbued with the spirit of the times. A Lennon like the one on the sixties who just seemed to know where it was at, to be hip, to be the lightening rod for everything that was going on from great rock n roll, to peace to LSD to mysticism to long hair to ground breaking music. The Lennon who effortlessly managed to be the heartbeat of his generation.
”Starting Over’ came out in November 1980 and there was this feeling of being under whelmed. Where was the rock n roll? We clutched at straws. It was an ok doo wop flavoured, melodic pop record and there was that WEIRD BIT at the end when the voices went backwards. The weird bit had has momentarily intrigued. Maybe John had not lost his mojo and there was more of this to follow.
Then the ”Double Fantasy’ album came out and it was not for us. It seemed to do quite well. People were curious but no-one was thrilled. But at least it was John Lennon.
I don’t know why we were expecting this connection. Of course we were naive teenagers. What did we know? Why would Lennon connect with an alien generation? He was breaking rules again. He was expected to be rock n roll and had made a middle aged contented record. That was where he was at. He was being as honest as ever. He was no longer the iconoclastic rebel. Punk meant nothing to him in his big houses and estates. He had made an album about love and we had never felt love yet. We were more interested in freak music and jumping off roofs and smashing things up than stuff like love.
The album sounds ok these days, the songs still show that Lennon was still a great songwriter but had moved on to another space.
I listened to the record a couple of times and felt nothing and returned to my 1980 diet of Cramps, Stranglers, The Fall, Adam Ant, Southern Death Cult, Gang Of Four, Fire Engines, the Clash, Crass, John Peel and a million others.
I still loved the Beatles and I still respected Lennon.
We were just in different places.
A lot of us grew up in the shadow of the Beatles. They were invigorating and frustrating. Invigorating because they offered hope and frustrating because they didn’t really belong to us. We were the generation that came after and all we were left with was the patchy solo careers that lurched from the genius of George’s ”All Things Must Pass’ the proto punk rawness and honesty of John’s ”Plastic Ono Band’ and parts of Paul’s ”Band On the Run’ as well as those great heart warming Ringo singles like ”Photograph’.
There was also a lot of stuff that was disappointing. Just ok.
Lacking that electric shock of excitement that the sixties Beatles had then and still have now when you play their music. Music made by the right band at the right time dominating and changing the world.
It seemed amazing how the Beatles fitted so perfectly into their decade. If you want to know about the sixties know about the Beatles. The band’s career is a history lesson in a tumultuous decade. They are all you need to know. Time magazine called Lennon the man of the sixties and they were right. He captured the confusion, idealism and the sheer thrill of the new more than anyone else. He was also contradictory- a peacenik with a violent soul- there are a thousand different John Lennons fractured over a whole decade of genius song writing.
In the seventies Lennon still made emotive music, ”ËInstant Karma’ is one of his best songs, and the ”Plastic Ono Band’ album is about as searing and honest as you are going to get as he announced that the dream is over in stripped down, naked music.
By the seventies, Glam rock was where it was at and we had out own pop stars- Bowie and Bolan ruled the roost and the Beatles were already nostalgia five years after they split. They still sold millions of records but didn’t seem relevant. Most people of my age had no interest in them but I loved their records. They seemed so fresh vibrant and up- pure rock n roll with all its attached options of hope and raw power. Their early songs thrill with their speed of creativity- capturing those moments when everyone felt a powerful urge to, well, grow their hair!
They were the sound of freedom as my friends in Russia now tell me. Pointing out that the Beatles were the point where Russia started to change.
Their later records show an amazing ability to move styles around, the ”White Album’ remains my favourite Beatles record with is breath-taking diversity and ”Abbey Road’ was a great place to end. They didn’t carry on into the seventies as a band- a lank haired be-denimed shadow of their former selves ruining their perfect record. Their greatest decision was to stop in 1970- a perfect end- leaving a perfect looking corpse. The Beatles always had great timing.
But we still hoped.
The night John Lennon got shot we had been running around town. Trying to find something to do in the middle of nowhere. Dreaming of escape.
There was no Internet, no mobile phones at the time. Communication was slow. So it was very early the next morning that someone heard the news on the radio and the story raced around the mini campus. Lennon has been shot they said.
It was a shock but we knew he would get better. Maybe it was a mugging that had gone wrong. Maybe it was only a flesh wound.
The next half an hour the story solidified and I remember how numb I felt in that weird way that celebrity impinges on your life. But this was more than celebrity. This was someone who had actually touched lives. This was not modern celebrity where hanging around in front of a camera is all that is required. This was someone who had written genius songs and also had run headlong into all the possibilities of life and turned people onto stuff.
This was not X factor.
This was someone who had opened up that space of possibility that we had all stepped into.
All day we talked of Lennon and the Beatles and felt sad that some pointless weirdo had murdered a defenceless man who didn’t even have a bodyguard. I couldn’t listen to the Beatles for a long time after that. They had always sounded so life affirming and now they were tinged with death. It was like trying to listen to the Clash after Joe Strummer was stolen from us. It takes time for the music to get its original meaning back.
But it does.
Lennon’s death is still shocking. Shocking in its wretched pointlessness and shocking selfishness of the murderer. His new album was not for us but his interviews had been great and there still a hint of something to come. Even the contented middle aged Lennon still spoke a great truth and when you listen to tapes of interviews in the last weeks of his life his voice sounds as emotive as ever. And maybe it’s there that the Lennon that we loved still can be heard.
I still feel numb when I think of his pointless death.
Something was stolen from everyone in rock n roll that day and it still sounds naive but it was hope.