Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Beatlemania 1970 style

Forty years ago this afternoon, A Hard Day's Night was broadcast on British TV for the first time. It's not an exaggeration to say that this screening changed my life.

If my memory serves me well, the film began at just after four o'clock. I was thirteen years old, and had to beg special permission to be allowed to watch it through to the climax, as we would normally have begun our afternoon sandwiches and cakes at five pm. After six years of barely being aware of the Beatles' existence, I had recently stumbled across a copy of the With The Beatles album (full story to follow), and had started to look longingly at the racks of Beatles LPs in my local branches of Smith's and Woolworth's. That Christmas, my parents had allowed me to move their enormous radiogram - about the size of a two-seater sofa - from the sitting-room to my bedroom. But as yet I didn't own any Beatles records.

So the screening of A Hard Day's Night would have been a landmark under any circumstances - a rare opportunity to hear the Beatles' music. What I wasn't prepared for was the emotional impact of the film. As it finished, I felt tears filling my eyes, for reasons that I couldn't understand. With decades of hindsight, I can only imagine that the film conjured up the vision of a world - and a band - so magical that it was painful to watch it vanish. In 1970, I didn't realise that I would be able to access that world whenever I wanted to.

My other main memory of the film from this original screening was that I was absolutely captivated by John Lennon - by his deadpan humour, his unshakeable cool, even the perfect way in which his hair shadowed his face. It was a teenage crush, I suppose, never sexual, but utterly transforming. Before long, I had adopted his crushing sarcasm and his (1964) haircut as my own, and for the next decade, my view of the universe and his were difficult to separate. Which is why, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, his death had such an impact on me.

Those ten years between A Hard Day's Night and the gunshots at the Dakota seem, in retrospect, to have lasted about ten times longer than the three decades since. More next time about how I came to hear With The Beatles in 1970, and then slowly immersed myself in the world of the Beatles over the next few months. But for now, I'd like to raise my metaphorical hat to A Hard Day's Night, and 100 minutes that signposted the path to my future.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Living With Lennon's Death

At five minutes to eight, I stumbled out of bed and across the cold room to the radiogram. I punched the button for the radio, and fell back gratefully beneath the covers. Through the weather forecast, it was just another day. Then came the electronic pips with which the BBC marked the hour, followed by the familiar voice of Today presenter and professional contrarian Brian Redhead; and my world changed.

"The former Beatle", he began, and time began to slip free of its boundaries. "Not John", I remember thinking. "Please, not John." In the split-second between words, I was ready to condemn three other men. "John Lennon", Redhead continued, and I knew the worst.

Even in 2010, when other stations might lead their bulletins with the announcement that one celebrity has attacked another's performance on a reality TV show, Today still has standards. In 1980, there was no uncertainty. The top of the news meant death.

Redhead's statement was brutally austere. "The former Beatle John Lennon has been shot dead outside his home in New York." Already lying down, I had nowhere to fall, but when I recall the moment, I picture myself plummeting down and down, an impossible weight crushing my chest. I don't remember breathing, except to mutter a single profanity, over and over. I was 23 years old, and it was the biggest shock of my life. Thirty years later, I can't remember a moment to match it. There's been grief since then, and sadness of every kind that an adult in this tangled world can expect. But nothing else that split the universe asunder; shattered the fragile shell of life; wiped out hope. I've lived through worse things than John Lennon's murder, but nothing else has ever hit me that hard.

For almost exactly ten years, Lennon had been my touchstone, my role model, my hero. As a fan, I felt as if I owed him my life. And in a way, I did, as he had unwittingly provided me with an escape route from the deadening future that had seemed inevitable; had led me to the first months of a career in rock journalism; had lent me just enough of his swaggering arrogance to pull myself through month after difficult month. Later, I would always say that the world was a less interesting place without Lennon in it. But on December 9, 1980, a world without John Lennon seemed impossible - and impossible to bear.

Yet it had to be endured. I have grim, vivid memories of that day - calling my girlfriend across the other side of London, as if that would console me; walking like a dead man to work, where I demanded that the radio was silenced, as I could not bear to hear John's voice; phoning my mother, who advised me sensibly enough that I shouldn't get too upset, because he was only a pop star and I didn't actually know him. I can imagine saying something similar to my own children today, and getting the same response: "You don't understand". I didn't shed a tear, because I knew that if I started to cry, I would never stop.

In retrospect, my grief for a man I'd never met approached the borders of mental illness. That Christmas was insufferable: how could I enjoy anything when Lennon was gone? Every year, the anniversary would loom like a monster, poisoning the weeks before it. Gradually I regained some equilibrium. I wrote a book (The Art And Music Of John Lennon) that analysed every fragment of his output, and another (You Never Give Me Your Money) that chronicled the sadness that scarred his final decade, and the dissolution of the band that he had once loved. Yet through it all the terrible starkness of that moment remains.

Today, I can apply perspective to my obsession, and my grief; I know where they came from, and why they controlled me (and millions more). I can put Lennon's life and work into context; I can divide genius (John Lennon Plastic Ono Band) from hackwork (Double Fantasy), and appreciate both for what they are. I can even sit through a documentary about the murder, like ITV's surprisingly meticulous The Day John Lennon Died earlier this week, almost without a pang (no pun intended, May).

And yet . . . late in that film, the doctor who vainly attempted to save Lennon's life described the appalling damage that the assassin's bullets had done to his body. Just for a second, I caught myself thinking: "Maybe they'll be able to restart the heart, and patch up the arteries, and it will be OK." Thirty years on, part of my brain still refuses to accept that John Lennon is dead. Some dreams live forever, it seems, even when heroes are gone.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

No. 9 Nightmare

As a prelude to the sad but inevitable 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder . . .

. . . a reminder that, on the UK side of the Atlantic, John actually died in the early hours of December 9, 1980, and not on December 8. So anyone in Britain and Europe who wants to mark the exact moment when they first heard the awful news should be timing their commemoration for Thursday morning, not Wednesday.

John was convinced that 9 was his lucky number - it was his birthday, and his son Sean's, and (as I revealed in You Never Give Me Your Money) he also rewrote his personal history to claim that he met Yoko Ono on November 9, 1966, rather than the actual date: November 7. So it's a sad irony that, in the land of his birth, the number 9 should also mark the moment of his death. And another irony that December 8, 1980 was exactly ten years after he gave the notorious Rolling Stone interview that signalled to the world that Beatle John was gone forever.

More tomorrow night on the anniversary, and the impact of the murder on this particular Beatles fan . . .

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Beatles Reunion - The Inside Story

The Daily Star, perhaps the most prestigious of London's newspapers, has announced details of a Beatles reunion gig:

It says that Paul and Ringo will perform next August at the Hollywood Bowl, on the forty-seven-years-and-four-days anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance at the venue. They will be accompanied on stage by digital images of John Lennon and George Harrison.

I can exclusively reveal more details of this exciting event. To complete the nostalgic authenticity of the occasion, a hologram of Beatles manager Brian Epstein will be beamed to the side of the stage while the physical/digital reunion takes place. Bob Dylan will be backstage, providing commemorative sticks of marijuana. Jane Asher has already agreed to accompany Paul McCartney to the venue, while original Beatles drummer Pete Best will be locked outside the Bowl for the duration of the concert.

To bring together the old and new line-ups of the Beatles, Paul and Ringo will welcome two special guests: Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono. Yoko is already rehearsing for her portion of the show, inside a white bag. "Mmmfmff mffmmff mmmff", she told me earlier today . The two men, two women and two digital images will perform a poignant rendition of 'Two Of Us', with orchestral arrangement conducted from his prison cell by Phil Spector.

The concert will be broadcast around the world on pay-through-the-nose-per-view TV, while Apple Corps and Apple Computers will be suing each other for the rights to issue the soundtrack album on vinyl and reel-to-reel tape.

See you there.