Imagine John Lennon at 80: Perhaps we should be grateful he did not live to see social media

It's easy to imagine a rapid 'cancelling' online, with thousands rallying behind #LennonisOver

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You know the Beatles story: Sixties Liverpool, the Cavern, Beatlemania, “more popular than Jesus”, Sgt. Pepper, India, squabbles, Yoko, rooftop gig and, in 1970, a bad-tempered split…

But it was the murder of John Lennon in December 1980 that not only put a sad full stop on the greatest band of all time, but also gave their arc special resonance, turning it into a 20th-century fable.

In the public imagination at least, Lennon is one half of an epochal creative marriage, the man who wrote Imagine. After he was shot four times in the back outside his New York home, he instantly became a modern-day saint.

Had he survived, however, how might we have perceived Lennon, who would have turned 80 today?

Here, we imagine…

— — — — —

On the day he was killed, Lennon was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, curled naked next to a clothed Yoko Ono. Following the success of Double Fantasy, his comeback album with Ono after five years spent as a “house husband” raising their son, what would he have done next? “Yoko Ono said that Lennon was very into the formative years of hip hop,” says Robin Allender, co-presenter of the Your Own Personal Beatles podcast. “The John Lennon hip-hop album… I’m not sure if that would have done his legacy any good. But everyone had a dodgy Eighties: Neil Young, David Bowie…”


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Ever since his death, Lennon’s birthday has meant commemorative activity. A statue was unveiled in San Francisco in 1981 and the Strawberry Fields memorial opened four years later in New York’s Central Park.

The release of the Imagine John Lennon documentary in 1988 was a high point. It included footage of the artist at work, strolling around his Tittenhurst Park home with Yoko, and inviting a haunted fan into the kitchen for bread and butter after patiently trying to explain that he was not writing all of his lyrics with him specifically in mind.

In October 1990, his 50th birthday was marked with a box set of solo work, a worldwide broadcast of the song Imagine and a limp tribute concert in Liverpool with no Beatles present. Tickets did not sell out. “[Lennon’s estate] were finding their feet in what commemorating John means,” says Jason Carty, co-host of Beatles podcast Nothing is Real.

But Lennon’s 60th birthday was a global event. Planes wrote “Remember Love” in the sky above New York, Ono opened a Lennon exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, an entire museum was dedicated to him in Japan, and an ice sculpture of his head was displayed outside Sydney Opera House.

The Nineties anointed Lennon as unimpeachably great. A large part of that was thanks to the Anthology project of 1995, an eight-episode documentary accompanied by three double albums of Beatles rarities. The Beatles 1 album followed, a compilation of every song that topped the charts on either side of the Atlantic. It became the bestselling album of the Noughties.


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Lennon’s stock had rarely been higher. But some dissent also began creeping in, not least from his sons. In December 2000, Julian stated: “I had a great deal of anger towards Dad because of his negligence and his attitude to peace and love. That peace and love never came home to me.”

Sean, who benefited from a more settled version of their father, said in 1998: “I think of my dad as a huge asshole. He was a macho pig in a lot of ways, and he knew it. The only thing that made it OK was that he could admit it. That was his saving grace.”

Sean Ono Lennon at an Empire State Building lighting ceremony in honor of his father John Lennon’s 80th Birthday, October 8, 2020 in New York City. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for UMe

Come Lennon’s 70th birthday, in 2010, there was a sense that those wishing to pay tribute were running out of ideas. A photo was projected on to Albert Dock. Google released its first ever video Doodle, Imagine the inevitable backing track. There was even a video game.

Meanwhile, more people were discovering Lennon’s failings. The violent lyrics to Rubber Soul’s final song Run For Your Life came under scrutiny: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl/ than to be with another man”. Footage of him mocking the disabled, a set piece in the Beatles stage show for years, still does the rounds.

Perhaps we should be grateful he did not live to see social media. “It would have been a disaster,” says Carty. It’s easy to imagine a rapid “cancelling” online, with thousands rallying behind #LennonisOver.

So where would we find John Lennon today, aged 80? McCartney, benefiting from nearly 40 years of being able to argue his corner, now seems to be implicitly perceived as the dominant partner of the greatest songwriting team ever. Richard Curtis’s sappy rom-com Yesterday was overburdened with McCartney compositions. With each new remastering of the back catalogue, McCartney’s (admittedly brilliant) bass playing becomes a little louder.


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John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Photo by David Mcgough/DMI/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Have we passed peak Lennon? Some of his legacy endures in unexpected places, says Carty. “I think the truest thing John ever said about his activism was ‘we’re an advertising campaign for peace’. There is a bit of a reflection in modern activism where someone like Greta Thunberg can say ‘look at this thing, I am not going to fix this thing, but I’m going to draw your attention to this thing, make you think about it, and see what side you’re on.’

“John and Greta get dismissed for gesturing, but even a dismissal is a response. Now more than ever, the most precious resource is people’s attention.”

However distasteful we found Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot leading celebrities in a sing-song of Imagine to cheer us up during lockdown, it seems likely Lennon will remain sentimentalized in the public imagination.

“Lennon had a lot of unsavoury aspects,” says Carty, “he wasn’t even the perfect husband to Yoko throughout their marriage. But it’s a bit like a holiday. You forget all the crap bits after a couple of months, you just remember the good times.”

Certainly, he was full of contradictions: the humanitarian who, in the Imagine documentary, while recording a song aimed at McCartney, is seen asking “How do you sleep, you c–?”

John Lennon in 1980. Photo by Brenda Chase/Newsmakers

The lifelong teenager desperate for attention who was visibly scornful of his screaming fans. The self-described “nice clean-cut suburban boy” who bought a mansion but wrote Working Class Hero and imagined having nothing. Capable of more than almost anyone else who has ever picked up a guitar, but as messed up as the rest of us. A flawed genius: a human being.

Perhaps George Harrison had it right in 1974: “John Lennon is a saint and he’s heavy-duty, and he’s great and I love him. But at the same time, he’s such a bastard – but that’s the great thing about him, you see?”

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