❚ FAME FASCINATES NOW NO LESS THAN IT DID THEN. Interest in John Lennon intensifies this year because it brings the 70th anniversary of his birth and the 30th of his murder in New York. There, a prestigious 70th birthday celebration is being held at Radio City Music Hall on September 25 starring The Fab Faux, a premier-league tribute band. Soon after, Liverpool goes into overdrive for two whole months of Lennon worship.
Tonight and tomorrow BBC4 steals a march with Lennon Naked, a robust drama-documentary charting the musician’s activities from 1967 to 1971, a turbulent period which included the dissolution of The Beatles as the most popular group in pop history, huge enough to have pioneered the stadium concert. The sudden death in 1967 of gifted Beatles manager Brian Epstein was devastating for each of the Fab Four – Lennon most of all. He leaned ever more heavily on the bewitching catalyst for change in his own fortunes, the artist Yoko Ono, whom he had met the previous November in London.
With Beatlemania at its height, and the Fabs the coolest ambassadors for Swinging London, 1966 had precipitated its own trauma. Not only was Lennon taking his first steps exploring the not-yet fashionable halucinatory drug LSD, but in July a bombshell exploded in his lap, as The Beatles’ world tour was about to descend on 14 cities in North America.
An interview was published in an American teen magazine in which he boldly asserted of The Beatles’ fame: “We’re more popular than Jesus now.” Across the American Bible-belt and beyond, God-fearing Christians were outraged. Anti-Beatle demonstrations and public burnings of their records ensued, the Ku Klux Klan – a right-wing hate group – vowed vengeance and death threats were reported. Such was the pressure on the whole entourage that when a fan threw a lit firecracker onstage in Memphis and it went off, the Beatles’ press agent Tony Barrow recalls: “All of us at the side of the stage, including three Beatles on stage, all looked immediately at John Lennon. We would not at that moment have been surprised to see that guy go down.”
Though repeated apologies were issued at press conferences across the States, after the San Francisco concert on August 29, 1966, the whole furore persuaded the band to stop touring ever again.
The now notorious “Jesus” quote had arisen in conversation with the British journalist Maureen Cleave, a clear-sighted interviewer on the London Evening Standard where it had been first published without raising an eyebrow in the increasingly secular UK. Today, Shapersofthe80s republishes her riveting account of her tour of Lennon’s Weybridge home, which set out to explore the then novel phenomenon of four popstars who were so famous they couldn’t set foot in public without being mobbed. Thanks to the trust the Fab Four placed in her, Cleave sought to put Beatlemania under the microscope by interviewing John, George, Paul and Ringo separately and successively, under the series title How Does a Beatle Live? Lennon, for one, would ask when you rang, “What day is it?” – with genuine interest.