Introduction to ‘Glass Onion: Conversations On John Lennon’ (first draft)

Being born in England in 1975, (don’t worry, you’re not getting the full life story!), it was impossible not to know who The Beatles were as I was growing up, even if my knowledge of them didn’t extend much past the song ‘Yellow Submarine’ at that point. Just before my world changed in around 1988, I did a project about them at school, which piqued my interest without yet hooking me in. Around that time, I also remember going to the Guinness World of Records exhibition at the Trocadero, Leicester Square, London. Aside from being rather unnerved by standing next to a life-size model of Robert Pershing Wadlow, the tallest man in history at just under 9 feet (over 2.7 metres), the memory that sticks out was entering the ‘music records’ part of the exhibition and seeing a jukebox displaying the biggest selling-singles of all time (a line of 4 from memory) with large buttons to press to hear the songs. Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was one of said singles, and my sisters and I were already well familiar with both the song and the groundbreaking video that we’d all watched the premiere of with awe and wonder a few years earlier while on holiday at a small but charming seaside resort (that memory is extremely sharp). After listening to Jacko’s song, I pressed the button for ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ by that famous British pop institution ‘The Beatles’. The sound that leapt out did make me jump back just a fraction as the famous intro started, though my early-teenage self was probably not quite ready to admit liking such old-fashioned music, and I listened through the song and processed it silently, taken in by its energy and the sheer joy in it that I would come to love over the coming decades.

I grew up in a close family, in large part due to the influence of my Italian father, and my sisters Marina and Helen (5 and 4 years older, respectively) and I would regularly share our music and listen together. This was mostly the pop music of the 80s and we would listen to singles, trade compilations with each other and occasionally (heaven forbid) listen to whole albums. There were also occasional outings to the Radio 1 roadshow, which for us was tantamount to going to full-blown music festivals. Looking back on it, 80s pop singles showed good songwriting, and the songs are now fairly well-regarded, ‘Save A Prayer’ by my then-favourite group Duran Duran being a good example, but there was a self-consciousness to the whole thing. Quite apart from the synths and big hair, songs tended to have long fade-outs and now I think they could all have been cut by 30 seconds to a minute and still conveyed the same message, unless of course the message was itself about the joy of excess.

One day around the Spring of 1989, Marina announced that she’d just acquired a compilation record by that band The Beatles. We all listened mostly to vinyl in those days, with cassettes also around and useful for making the aforementioned compilations, and so the family record player (the 3 children wouldn’t dream of unplugging their stereo systems, just in case they stopped working when we plugged them in again!) was brought out and utilised and we listened with bated ears, if that is indeed possible. The first song on Side 1 was ‘She Loves You’, an explosion of joy akin to that experienced at the Trocadero, followed by ‘From Me To You’, which we considered similar but not quite on a par with the previous song. On and on the hits came, all sounding quite old admittedly, or perhaps vintage might be a better word, but all with lots of energy and apparently with subtly new sounds each time built around a general pop framework of guitars, bass and drums.

‘I Feel Fine’ was pop but with that strange feedback sound at the beginning and the faint sound of dogs (in fact, Beatles) barking at the end, and then there were the outliers such as ‘Michelle’, with its acoustic guitars and strange-sounding vocal partly sung in French, ‘Yesterday’ with its strings and apparently no sign of the backing group, and ‘Paperback Writer’ with its vocals-only intro and lyrics that didn’t seem to involve love. Strangely enough, I instantly recognised the ‘Michelle, ma belle’ part from a song called ‘The Show’ by Doug E. Fresh that was a popular song when I was in primary school! ‘Ticket To Ride’ sounded like a Beatles song but with the lead singer sounding slightly Irish and his voice once again somehow different. How did they achieve these slightly different vocals every time? Simon Le Bon sounded the same on every Duran Duran record! ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was something like ‘Yesterday’ but with that wonderful ‘ah, look at all the lonely people’ refrain, and then the final song was ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, which brought us back to the band that sang ‘She Loves You’ about 30 minutes earlier. The next revelation was the running times, with most songs clocking in at 2 minutes-something and ‘From Me To You’ not even getting that far. Where 80s singles were somewhat bloated, these songs were lean with no fat and all packed with value in every second of them. They hit hard but were friendly, like being whacked with a velvet glove with a smile on its face. The front sleeve photo was some kind of cartoon of Swinging London and the back was a photo of our 4 heroes looking slightly different and a bit frazzled. I recognised Paul McCartney because he was current and seemed to be around a lot, and the name John Lennon was familiar. With my curiosity and keen eye for details, I also noted the year of each song; all this development seemed to happen in just 3 years.

The next 2 years were basically like an immersion course, first with The Beatles in general and at some point John Lennon as a solo entity. I ceased following current music until the early 90s, which rather aptly turned out to be the decade where The Beatles returned to popularity though generally not as a working group, the Threetles excepted. That summer of ’89, my sisters and I had got in the habit of recording whatever the late film was and then watching it together early the next morning since there was no school or college for any of us. The selections turned out pretty random, but one of the first was ‘Birth of the Beatles’, Admittedly, this was and is a pretty bad film though not without its charms and I took what I could get in those days. What I noted then was the romantic idea of 4 scruffs from a working-class city on a 5-year journey from 1959-64, with a prologue from the end of the journey then looking back. There were earthy, quick-witted and always seemed sure of what they were doing even when they had nothing, a very attractive quality. I also remember one of my sisters saying ‘how come John Lennon isn’t a hippy here?’, which further piqued my curious young mind. This was the first time I’d heard of hippies and the first time that I’d heard of one of the Beatles perhaps having drastically changed his image.

I took up the guitar a few months later after borrowing a classical guitar from the sister of my school friend Selom. I can date this precisely because I recently found a picture of myself with said guitar, standing just in front of our old sofa that even then had seen better days, the picture captioned ‘Autumn 1989’. I don’t remember exact dates but it’s hard to imagine that the decision to start this endeavour, which turned out to be another love affair of 30 years and counting, could be unconnected with my recent musical discovery (perhaps rediscovery is a more appropriate word since the songs seemed to be very familiar to me individually, I’d just never heard them all together). Another school mate Edmund was somewhat ahead of the Beatle curve and when school reconvened in September and I told him about my summer experiences, he kept mentioning songs I’d never heard of, such as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’. When he brought into school a cassette of a compilation album called ‘The Beatles 1967-70, henceforth to be known as ‘The Blue Album’, and I looked at the picture, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Having become at that time become fairly well acquainted with the look of the early Beatles, the ones who had sung those ‘Oldies But Goldies’ songs a few months earlier, I was shocked to discover four figures who looked at least 10 years older looking down with knowing, worldly smiles from a stairwell. And there was hair everywhere! And beards! And then I heard the songs. ‘Penny Lane’ seemed like a more sophisticated but equally tuneful version of the earlier material but ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was otherworldly, and ‘I Am The Walrus’ seemed to have no discernible tune at all. ‘All You Need Is Love’ started with a snatch of a whole other song that sounded vaguely like a national anthem, and I was utterly addicted to the chorus of ‘Hello Goodbye’. Looking back, I feel somewhat blessed to have discovered this music at a time, the late 80s, of pretty bland and unremarkable if musically decent mainstream pop. Strangely, the Smiths completely missed my radar, though I’m sure Marina used to play their records in her room. I’m sure I would have been impressed with them had I known or paid attention.

As far as John Lennon in particular goes, Marina was again responsible. I’m guessing it must have Xmas’89 when she bought me the 2-part biography, ‘John Winston Lennon’ and ‘John Ono Lennon’ by Ray Coleman. As you will read later in the main body of this book, I now consider Coleman’s work quite flawed in terms of finding the elusive truth about the singular character known as Lennon, but as a straight read of a truly extraordinary life, even more amazing considering how short it was, it was gripping stuff. In those days, and probably now as well, my obsessive streak for things I got interested in would sometimes overwhelm me and of course everyone around me had to know about it. At that time, I was also becoming interested in old films (‘old’ is relative of course but in my case it stretched right back to Hitchcock and 50s sci-fi), and there was a slight embarrassment factor when admitting this. However, I remember my schoolmates being force fed whatever I was passionate about, including getting a blast at full volume of ‘Twist And Shout’, to many 80s teenagers a hopelessly uncool and out-of-date song but with a vocal whose rawness and power I simply couldn’t believe was possible. Going back to the Coleman book, John Lennon was also responsible for me ‘bunking off’ school for probably the first time, since I was a very good boy in those days. I had a bicycle and would go home for lunch, and while engrossed in this book back in my bedroom after wolfing down my hastily-prepared sandwiches, I simply didn’t make it back to school. Of course reading about John the rebel made all this virtually compulsory.

As one gets older, the vivid memories of youth become ever more precious and magical, and this is especially true for me since I’ve always had a restless quality and a sense of feeling somewhat cheated that the necessary mundanities of life greatly dwarf the magic moments that I constantly seek, something I immediately recognised in John Lennon and strongly identified with. Therefore, it’s quite lovely to recall that precise moment and feeling of sitting up on my teenage bed and reading about this remarkable character who didn’t seem to care about anything except music and larks but who had a depth and compassion to him and who, as the back cover of the book said, later ‘earned the love of millions’. The excitement of reading those words and listening to the songs described must have been something akin to the young John Lennon in the 1950s hearing the strains of Elvis by way of the faraway signal of Radio Luxembourg from his little bedroom in Liverpool. Of course I was one of thousands of kids who found hundreds of parallels with the young John Lennon but I did quickly note that he’d had a small bedroom above the front door of his house and had been a dreamy, somewhat lonely and isolated young boy. I’d had a room exactly like that in my original hometown of Egham and also seemed to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders at an age when I should have been preoccupied with far more juvenile matters.

Inevitably I had already learned at some point that John Lennon was no longer around, and I knew that he’d been shot dead in New York when I was a young child though have no memories of hearing of the event when it actually happened. Something which perhaps even to this day turns me off Paul McCartney is how ever-present he’s always been, something that I think doesn’t allow for as much mystique. Of course with John Lennon, he had the ultimate mystique of having died relatively young but also seemingly being talked about constantly, so his legend would only grow and his singing and speaking voice would forever acquire the mystical aura of absence. Discovering the recent Albert Goldman biography soon after Coleman simply added to both my confusion and excitement. Suddenly I was reading about a totally different Lennon whose passionate and loving relationship with that mysterious Japanese lady Yoko Ono was apparently some kind of sham. Coleman vs Goldman would become, as you will read, quite a part of the podcast that inspired this book. Even at that time I didn’t judge or make guesses as to which version I believed, I just couldn’t believe that two such different versions could exist. Who was this guy who inspired this?

The first album I bought of John Lennon’s was ‘The John Lennon Collection’, on cassette I remember. The photo on the front cover was of a man looking slightly older than his years and with bags under his eyes, and I would later learn that it was taken on the very day he died. Around the same time, the ‘Imagine’ film from 1988 entered my life, posthumously narrated by the man himself from the many interviews he’d given in his short life, and I continued to marvel at this man with his ever-changing appearance and musical styles and his sincere belief in a better world. As I’ve already noted and as you will later read in the book proper, I am fully aware that a premature death brings a macabre glamour to a person’s memory, and in the case of John Lennon a certain image and particular facets of his personality and life have been played up by his widow and the John Lennon estate as a whole, often for commercial gain. However, after a journey of 2-3 years exploring his life for a podcast and over 30 years as a fan, I can say categorically that he was a unique person with a unique mind who left a genuinely remarkable stamp on the world and packed an incredible amount of activity into around 20 years of adult life. On a lighter note, my sisters and I had to laugh at some of the scenes of ‘John And Yoko: A Love Story’, which today I see as some kind of equivalent of ‘Birth of the Beatles’.

Returning to the Beatles, for my 15th birthday in August 1990 I was gifted ‘The Compleat Beatles’ by my loving and somewhat mischievous sisters, who watched it with me and would anticipate quotes from it before revealing that they’d already watched it just after buying it for me. I still love this 1982 film and it did give the whole incredible journey in a lean 2 hours before ‘Anthology’ kicked everything up a notch in 1995. I also acquired my first guitar, bought by my mother from a shop in Reading, which I suppose was my version of Hessy’s in Liverpool where the young Lennon was bought his first axe at around the same age. I still have this Yamaha acoustic, which is battered but playable and as I’m writing this is soon to celebrate its 31st birthday. By this time, I’d worked my way through all the Beatles singles and albums, some bootlegs and a lot of the books, interviews, films and documentaries, a journey of discovery that sadly can never be recreated, as much as I’ve tried.

That summer, we went on holiday to Lerici in Italy and at the airport on the way, I picked up ‘The Murder of John Lennon’ by Fenton Bresler, which offered an alternative to the official narrative of John Lennon’s killer as a ‘lone nut’ and ushered in another aspect of my life and learning, namely an open-minded interest in conspiracies and a general feeling that the world is very different from the one that is presented to us in the mainstream news output that we all grow up with. I also had ‘The John Lennon Collection’ on constant rotation on my Walkman for the entire holiday and probably forgot where I was for a lot of that time. Nearly three decades later, I would return to this specific compilation on three rather rough overnight train journeys in India after deciding in my 40s to finally fulfil a longheld dream of ‘roughing it’, backpacker style, in that incredible, indescribable country. The voice of Lennon soothed me in my hour(s) of discomfort and allowed me to return in my mind to Lerici and those innocent days. It seems now that he’s always been ‘in my life’…

In late 2018, inspired by the recent wave of Beatles-related podcasts and the puzzling dearth of a show about such a famous and podcast-worthy subject, I finally bit the bullet and committed to creating what became ‘Glass Onion: On John Lennon’. I hit a brick wall of technophobia and general procrastinatory tendencies for a month or two but once Rod Davis of the Quarrymen had agreed to talk to me and we recorded via Skype a talk of nearly 2 hours, an experience I can only describe as ‘surreal but nice’, I bit the bullet and recorded and posted an intro episode. I could easily lapse into clichés about what a ‘journey’ it’s been but actually it has been just that. The following book is based on transcripts of some of the best episodes of ‘Glass Onion’, edited and with some parts of my own added to enhance the experience for the reader. I could further travel down the cliché highway by saying that ‘a splendid time is guaranteed for all’, and look I just did…

Hope you enjoy it!

link to the ‘Glass Onion: On John Lennon podcast homepage

2 thoughts on “Introduction to ‘Glass Onion: Conversations On John Lennon’ (first draft)”

  1. Looking forward to reading this, I’ve listened to the podcast for the last year and have gained lots of insights into Lennon and the Fabs from it. Bring it on Antony!

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