Magazine article The Spectator

Imagine There's No Lennon

Magazine article The Spectator

Imagine There's No Lennon

Article excerpt

True, we'd have lost some nice songs. But we might also be free of a great deal of today's fatuous pop-star posturing

Had he been spared a madman's bullet in December 1980 , as he left his apartment in New York, John Lennon would have turned 70 last week, a hypothetical event that was celebrated at the weekend by balloons, concerts, congregations and homilies the world over. It was also marked by the unveiling of a 'John Lennon Peace Monument' in Liverpool and the presentation of the Lennon Ono Grant for Peace in Reykjavik.

Lennon's was a tragic death, to be sure, and it is perfectly reasonable to mark this sad anniversary by recalling the gilded days of his youth. But let's keep things in perspective. Lennon may have represented one half of a memorable partnership in English song, worthy successors to Gilbert (who was wittier) and Sullivan (who wrote better tunes).

But he was also one of the supreme duffers of the late 20th century.

If his admirers restricted themselves to praising 'It 's Only Love', 'Norwegian Wood' or 'Ticket to Ride', there wouldn't be an argument. Those songs scrub up well 45 years after Lennon , with a little help from Paul McCartney and George Martin, knocked them into shape. This is pop music at its best, fresh and zingy, making no bid for the higher ground.

The Beatles, particularly in the golden period from 1964 to 1966, were superb popular entertainers. There was a falling-off after Revolver , when they were encouraged to take themselves seriously, but an impish spirit prevailed. When people talk about the group's roots in American rhythm and blues, they miss the mark. This was an English phenomenon, specifically a northern music-hall phenomenon, influenced by Billy 'Almost a Gentleman' Bennett, George Formby and Ken Dodd. 'I Am The Walrus' (not, admittedly, Lennon's best song) is Lewis Carroll, sort of, with a Liverpool accent.

In contrast to their peers, most of whom had been brought up in London, neither Lennon nor McCartney needed to adopt a transatlantic manner - shortening the a, for instance. Their natural voices sounded authentic enough for their very English songs, unlike, say, Ray Davies, who is usually considered to be an 'English' songwriter but who nevertheless assumed the inflections of American speech. With the exception of Steve Winwood, another 'provincial', Lennon and McCartney in their prime were the finest home-grown performers, as well as writers, of the pop song.

Together they contributed significantly to a bracing chapter in the history of postwar English life. Coming after the success of films like A Taste of Honey, Room at the Top (to which Lennon referred in 'Working Class Hero'), and This Sporting Life, the Beatles represented something that owed nothing to the Home Counties view of a rapidly changing kingdom. It is a bit of a cliche to say this, but it needs to be said anyway: the Sillitoes and Storeys, Finneys and Courtenays, Hockneys and Bennetts, changed our view of ourselves, and hurrah for that. The fact that there is too much inverted snobbery in our society today cannot alter the fact that there used to be far too much snobbery of the traditional kind, and, through his songs and his banter, Lennon helped to fix that.

Why then was he such a dunce? And why is his legacy one that cannot be celebrated without equivocation? Because he came to regard himself as an artist, and no mere artist at that. He came to save us all, sinners that we are, which isn't easy to do in 12 bars. …

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