John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool on 9 October 1940. A founder member of The Beatles, and their singer, songwriter and guitarist, he was murdered in New York City on 8 December 1980.
The early years
Lennon grew up with his aunt Mimi and uncle George in a house called Mendips, at 251 Menlove Avenue, Liverpool. He kept in close contact with his mother Julia Lennon until her death in 1958, but had little contact with his father Alf.
Julia Lennon taught her son to play the banjo, and they shared a love of Elvis Presley’s music. The first song he learned to play was Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame.
In 1957 she bought John his first guitar, a Gallotone Champion acoustic “guaranteed not to split”. Julia ensured it was delivered to her house rather than Mimi’s, as her sister was disapproving of music. She told her nephew, “The guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”.
Lennon’s first school was Dovedale Primary School, and upon passing his 11 Plus attended Quarry Bank Grammar School (1952-1957). He formed The Quarrymen in March 1957, and in July the same year met Paul McCartney at the garden fete at St Peter’s Church in Woolton, Liverpool.
The pair quickly bonded, and began rehearsing and writing songs together at McCartney’s home at 20 Forthlin Road. Lennon’s first completed song was Hello Little Girl, later a hit for the Fourmost. McCartney also introduced Lennon to George Harrison, and convinced him to let the young guitarist join the group, eventually named The Beatles after a series of other names were rejected.
We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader – he was the quickest wit and the smartest and all that kind of thing.
Lennon failed all his GCE O level exams, but with the help of his head teacher was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art. There he met Cynthia Powell, who became his first wife. They married after she became pregnant with their son Julian, who was born on 8 April 1963.
With The Beatles
An unruly pupil, Lennon dropped out of college before his final year. By this time, however, The Beatles were working hard to establish a name for themselves. Initially managed by Allan Williams from May 1960, they were booked later that year to play at the Indra club in Hamburg. The trip wasn’t a success: McCartney and drummer Pete Best were accused of arson after a fire started in the cinema where they were staying, and George Harrison was deported for working while under the age of 18. Lennon returned to Liverpool after his work permit was revoked.
In 1962 they returned to Hamburg to play at the Star Club, and in May were signed to EMI subsidiary label Parlophone. Their first single, Love Me Do, was released on 5 October.
By the following year The Beatles had become a worldwide phenomenon, under the auspices of manager Brian Epstein. Their success looked unstoppable, though in March 1966 Lennon was interviewed by journalist Maureen Cleave, who quoted him as saying:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I do not know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. We’re more popular than Jesus now. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.
The quote led to protests in the southern and midwest US states, which included public bonfires of Beatles records and memorabilia. Lennon issued an apology of sorts at a Chicago press conference in August 1966, saying:
I was not saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise if that will make you happy. I still do not know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do, but if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.
By this time The Beatles had long tired of the demands of Beatlemania and the frenetic pace of touring. Lennon later wrote:
I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn’t said that The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’ and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus.