John Lennon, the lost interviews
September 6, 2009
by Ray Connolly
John Lennon did many brilliant things in his life, but arguably one
of his most inspired acts was his deliberate destruction of the
Beatles in 1969 just 40 years ago this month. It didn't seem that
way then, not to tens of millions of devastated Beatles fans around
the world, and not to Paul McCartney, who, feeling abandoned, went
off to his farm in Scotland and into a deep depression.
But if Lennon, who'd started the group that evolved into the Beatles,
hadn't murdered his creation at that moment, if the band had somehow
struggled on through their rows into the 1970s,
I doubt that you'd be reading this article today.
By killing the Beatles before they could disappoint us, as they
inevitably would have done when music fashions changed and the band's
later albums didn't quite live up to the ones we still love, Lennon
froze them for ever at their peak.
At the time of their break-up in 1969, I was an interviewer on
London's Evening Standard with the special task of covering rock
music. Today, journalists are kept at arm's length from stars by
legions of publicists, but it was different then, for me anyway. Only
now, looking back, do I fully appreciate the astonishing access to the Beatles
I had, from 1967, that Sgt Pepper high water of their careers, until
1972, when their dissolution was making its way through the High Court.
So I was at the Abbey Road studios in October 1968 to hear Yoko Ono
be happily indiscreet about her affairs during her first two
marriages, before ending the evening being given a personal concert
by McCartney at the piano as he worked on a new song called Let It Be
while from down the corridor I could hear John Lennon and the
producer George Martin mixing Cry Baby Cry for the White Album.
Almost every conversation I had during those final febrile Beatle
days ended up in my new little Sony recorder, where intimacies and
opinions were caught on cassettes, and then stored away, forgotten
and uncatalogued in an old Pickfords packing case. And it's those
tapes, unplayed in decades (if ever, in some cases), that I recently
unearthed recordings that in some cases challenge views of the
Lennon-McCartney relationship that have been held for 40 years.
Not all the interviews have survived. Cassettes were expensive then,
and I'm mortified to admit that I have one on which the names
McCartney, Jagger and Hendrix have each been successively crossed out
as the interviews were recorded over. Nor was everything that was
recorded published. Much was off the record. Time heals. Now it
doesn't matter that I write some of it here.
By 1969 there were rumours of strife in the Beatles camp, but on the
surface it still seemed jolly enough. Then, while I was hanging
around their Apple headquarters in Mayfair one day in September, I
realised something was seriously wrong. There was a Beatles meeting
in the boardroom that suddenly ended in a row, followed by much
running up and down the stairs. But nobody was saying what it was about.
A few weeks later I got a call from John telling me he'd just sent
his MBE back to the Queen. He was in a giddy mood,
I reflected, as I typed out my story. But he was also acting so
separately from the other Beatles that two days later I wrote a piece
headlined "The Day the Beatles Died".
At the time I was half-afraid I'd overstated my case, because to the
outside world they were still very much alive. But no sooner was the
article published than a white rose wrapped in Cellophane was
delivered to my desk with the message "To Ray with love from John and Yoko".
From then on, when it came to covering Beatles affairs, my tape
recorder and I would have the best possible source. And, just before
Christmas that year, I would listen in astonishment (and some
despair) as John, who'd flown me out to join him and Yoko in Toronto,
gleefully let me in on the secret of how he'd destroyed the band.
"At the meeting Paul just kept mithering on about what we were going
to do, so in the end
I just said, 'I think you're daft. I want a divorce.'"
He hadn't planned to say that, but once spoken, and although news of
the split wasn't going to be announced until the Let It Be album came
out the following May, the words were never withdrawn.
Of course, there are McCartney interviews on tape, too. While John
was busy pulling the walls of the Beatles temple down around him,
Paul eventually recovered from the setback enough to make his first
solo album, McCartney. Usually astute with publicity, at this point
he slipped up, putting out an ambiguous press statement along with
his record in April 1970 that was interpreted as saying that he'd
broken up the band. Headlines of blame ran around the world. "How
could he?" distressed fans wanted to know. "It was all a
misunderstanding," he told me a few days later. "I thought, 'Christ,
what have I done now?' and my stomach started churning up.
I never intended the statement to mean 'Paul McCartney quits Beatles'."
It was ironic. The Beatle who had most wanted the group to stay
together, the biggest Beatles fan of all, was being blamed for its
"Why didn't you write it when I told you in Canada?" John demanded
when he realised that Paul had accidentally got the dubious honour of
ending the world's favourite group. As he'd started it, he thought he
should be the one to end it. "You asked me not to," I said. He was
scornful. "You're the journalist, Connolly, not me," he snapped.
What strikes me most, though, listening again to the tapes, is how
prescient John was, how closely his ear was tuned to the changing
mood of the times. As once he'd instinctively known which songs to
write and what pithy comments would grab a headline, somehow, while
in the middle of the whirlpool that was the Beatles, he'd seen the
"The whole thing died in my mind long before all the rumpus started,"
he said in 1971 when I was spending a few days with him and Yoko in
New York. "We used to believe the Beatles myth just as much as the
public, and we were in love with them in just the same way. But
basically we were four individuals who eventually recovered our own
individualities after being submerged in a myth.
"I know a lot of people were upset when we finished, but every circus
has to come to an end. The Beatles were a monument that had to be
either changed or scrapped. As it happens, it was scrapped. The
Beatles were supposed to be this and supposed to be that, but really
all we were was a band that got very big.
"Actually, our best days were before we got that big, when we used to
play for hours in clubs. My favourite number was always Elvis's Baby
Let's Play House. We'd make it last about 10 minutes, singing the
same verse over and over.
I pinched one of the lines from it later to put in one of my own
songs called Run for Your Life something about 'I'd rather see you
dead, little girl, than to see you with another man'.
"Mick Jagger said we weren't a good band as performers. But he never
saw us at our best in Liverpool and Hamburg. We were the best bloody
band there was. I know all the early rock songs much better than most
of those I've written myself."
During most of that time, however, John was in iconoclastic mode. It
was as though, having made his decision, he couldn't smash his Beatle
persona quickly, or outrageously, enough. He didn't want to be "one
of four gods on the stage", he told me, so instead he invited the
world's press to his honeymoon bedside for a week "in aid of world
peace". Then, not minding that he was being widely ridiculed, not to
mention chastised by his formidable Aunt Mimi for "making an
exhibition of himself", he appeared naked with Yoko on an album of
electronic music called Two Virgins, before really chasing
controversy with a series of erotic lithographs featuring Yoko, and
sometimes himself too.
"Why do you draw so much cunnilingus?" I asked him during the trip to
Canada, as I passed the lithographs for him to sign. "Because I like
it," the one-time moptop grinned merrily. London's Metropolitan
Police would later close down his exhibition in a West End gallery.
They didn't like it.
At the time, Yoko was much publicly blamed for the Beatles' demise,
and she certainly might have played her part more tactfully. But she
was only one of several catalysts. And John, as I've been hearing
again on my tapes, was absolutely besotted by her, this sexy,
mysterious artist who matched the zany dottiness in him.
"It was Yoko that changed me," he teases her during one conversation
in 1970. "She forced me to become avant-garde and take me clothes off
when all I wanted to do was become Tom Jones. And now look at me! Did
you know avant-garde is French for bullshit?" Then, referring to how
she'd begun to join him on stage, he goes on: "We've only got to play
four bars and she grabs the microphone and she's off… Aggghhh! Take
her anywhere and she does her number for you." In the background,
Yoko giggles. She was his pal.
The John Lennon I recorded was a very funny man who liked to paint
himself ironically as the indignant butt of his own stories. "Did you
see that Time magazine is saying that George is a philosopher?" he
asked me one day. "And there's an article in The Times , that I've
actually thought about sending to Pseuds Corner [in Private Eye]
anonymously, of course saying how Paul is this great musician. One
a philosopher, another a great musician. Where does that leave me?"
"The nutter?" I hear myself suggest.
"Yes. I'm the nutter. F*** 'em all."
Today he would have been a star as a stand-up comedian with a line in
self-mockery. And, having returned from a session of primal therapy
in California in 1970, he was more loquacious than ever. He could
have done a whole act on the subject of what made people like him
want to become famous. "There you are up on the stage like an Aunt
Sally waiting to have things thrown at you. It's like always putting
yourself on trial to see if you're good enough for Mummy and Daddy.
You know, 'Now will you love me if I stand on my head and fart and
play guitar and dance and blow balloons and get an MBE and sing She
Loves You now will you love me?'" It was a typical Lennon rant, but
he was smiling all the time.
On another occasion, talking about his song Not a Second Time from
the Beatles' second LP, in a conversation devoted to his music, he
says: "That was the one where that f***ing idiot Thomas Mann (he
meant William Mann, the Times music critic) talked about the aeolian
cadence at the end being like Mahler's Song of the Earth . They were
just chords like any other chords. It was the first intellectual
bullshit written about us." Then the knowing pause. "Still, I know it
helps to have bullshit written about you."
Later, saying how a favourite of his songs, You Can't Do That, was
his attempt at being Wilson Pickett, he becomes mock-anguished when
admitting it was "a flip side because Can't Buy Me Love [Paul's song]
was so f***ing good".
He was competitive with Paul, yes, and, when relations between the
two were really bad, vituperative, as evidenced in a line in a song
about his former partner on his Imagine album: "The sound you make is
Muzak to my ears."
Paul had to have been hurt, and a few months later in New York even
John would admit slightly ruefully: "I suppose it was a bit hard on
him…" But, as he would so often say, "They were just the words that
came out of my mouth at the time."
In truth, he always knew how good Paul was, without necessarily
liking everything he did.
"I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner," he would
boast of his talent-spotting abilities. "One was Paul McCartney and
the other Yoko Ono. That's not bad, is it?" Indeed, I recall a writer
from an underground magazine being snide about Paul's song Let It Be,
presumably assuming John would agree. He didn't.
"Paul and me were the Beatles," he would emphasise to me privately.
"We wrote the songs." And on the subject of his debt to the young
McCartney, he was actually generous. "I didn't write much material
early on, less than Paul, because he was quite competent on guitar.
Paul taught me quite a lot of guitar, really."
Those who see John as the towering greatest of the great should
reflect on that: John Lennon quietly, happily admitting how much he
owed to Paul McCartney. And while he could be flattering about some
of Paul's songs he liked For No One particularly ("that was one of
his good ones. All his semi-classical ones are best, actually") he
was disarmingly dismissive about several of his own. "I Am the Walrus
didn't mean anything," he says, consigning to the pointless bin the
work of a generation of Beatles anoraks who'd tried to interpret its
lyrics, while he always hated Yes It Is, didn't think he sang Lucy in
the Sky with Diamonds very well ("I was so nervous I couldn't sing,
but I like the lyrics"), and admits that he and Paul would give the
lousy songs they wrote to George and Ringo to sing.
But It's Only Love from the Help! album was the one that earned his
greatest ire. "It's the most embarrassing song I ever wrote.
Everything rhymed. Disgusting lyrics. Even then I was so ashamed of
the lyrics, I could hardly sing them. That was one song I really
wished I'd never written," he says. Then, after another comic pause:
"Well, you can say that about quite a few." And the ones he liked?
"Across the Universe was one of my favourites. I gave it at first to
the World Wildlife Fund, but they didn't do much with it, and then we
put it on the Let It Be album. It missed it as a record but maybe the
lyrics will survive. And Strawberry Fields Forever meant a lot. Come
Together is another favourite. It started off as a slogan song for
Timothy Leary's wife, but I never got around to finishing it.
Everyone takes it as meaning 'come together in peace', but there's
the other meaning too!" Actually, he was proud of quite a few In My
Life, I'm a Loser, Girl…
"When I was in therapy I was asked to go through a book of all the
songs I'd written, line by line. I just couldn't believe I'd written so many."
Interestingly, and it's something I've only realised listening again
to the tapes, no matter how much John publicly criticised Paul, in
none of my interviews with Paul did he ever criticise John. Quite the
contrary. "On Abbey Road
I would like to have sung harmony with John, like we used to. And I
think he would have liked me to. But I was too embarrassed to ask him."
I always wished I'd been involved in the Beatles' early happier days,
but my role was to cover the final act of their career, and to
observe the fallout, mostly, though not totally, with John. There
were some bizarre and revealing moments during those days. Visiting a
Native American village in upstate New York the day after his
30th birthday, he showed that even he, in his enthusiasm, could get
it wrong. "When I used to see cowboys-and-Indians films when I was a
kid in Liverpool, I was always on the side of the Indians," he told
the assembled group, not realising how patronising he sounded.
I'm sure when he said he wanted a divorce from the Beatles he never
imagined how complicated, or expensive for all of them, it would be.
But by October 1971, when he was living in New York, he was beginning
to get a good idea. Asking me to be a go-between, he gave me a
message to take to Paul suggesting that perhaps the two of them could
solve at least one of their differences without either Allen Klein,
his manager, or Lee Eastman, Paul's manager and also Linda
McCartney's father, becoming involved. Back in London I delivered the
message, but in the end it was inevitably lawyers who sorted out
Listening to the tapes, and hearing John's singsong voice again after
all these years, has led to some poignant memories. But what has
stayed with me most from all the interviews is the vitality of the
man, and that straight-faced, British, tongue-in-cheek delivery he
had. A very generous person, he would say: "I can't think about
money. It rains in and rains out.
"I always wanted to be an eccentric millionaire, and now I am." John
on his education made me laugh: "If I'd had a better education, I
wouldn't have been me. When I was at grammar school I thought I'd go
to university, but I didn't get any GCEs. Then I went to art school
and thought I'd go to the Slade and become a wonder. But I never
fitted in. I was always a freak, I was never lovable. I was always Lennon!"
Then there's John, as forthright as ever when I suggested he might
like to write a musical. "No. No musicals. I loathe musicals. I never
did have a plan for doing one. My cousin made me sit through some
f***ing musical twice. I just hate them. They bore me stiff. I think
they're just horrible. Even Hair. And they're always lousy music."
What he would have made of Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas show Love, an
interpretation of the Beatles' records, would have been interesting to know.
John, talking about a Hare Krishna group who'd been painting a little
temple in the grounds of Tittenhurst Park near Ascot, which was
briefly his home, was typical. "I had to sack them. They were very
nice and gentle, but they kept going around saying 'peace' all the
time. It was driving me mad. I couldn't get any f***ing peace."
And finally there's John in 1970 being ominously prophetic. "I'm not
going to waste my life as I have been, which was running at 20,000
miles an hour. I have to learn not to do that, because I don't want
to die at 40."
He was 40 and two months when he was murdered by a mad fan in New
York in 1980.
I was due to interview him for The Sunday Times the following day.