As a member of one of the most influential and successful rock bands of all time, John Lennon is widely regarded as a musical genius. The Beatles were constantly in the public eye, but Lennon himself was a bit of an enigma. Capable of enormous acts of kindness, he was equally petty and cruel at times.
His life and career ended far too soon, but he left the world with a host of written and recorded musical masterpieces. Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about this famous Beatle.
A Career Launched in a Weird Music Genre
As a teenager in Liverpool, Lennon was a singer and guitarist in a skiffle band called the Quarrymen. Skiffle was a musical craze that had British teenagers dancing in the 1950s. Derived from jazz and swing, the genre is largely forgotten today, but it was huge in England at one time, thanks to skiffle star Lonnie Donegan.
The band, consisting of students at Quarry Bank High School, took its name from a line in the school song. The 15-year-old Lennon was the lead singer by default. A young Paul McCartney attended the band’s second performance and eventually joined the group, followed by George Harrison a year later.
Some Very Different Music While Still a Beatle
Even before the Beatles officially called it quits, Lennon and Yoko Ono were quite prolific musically. The duo recorded more than a dozen records in a four-year period that started in 1968. Lennon’s early solo records produced several international top 10 hits, including “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Instant Karma!” and “Imagine.”
Ever the rebel — and always ready to push musical boundaries and offend sensibilities — John worked with Yoko to make a trio of avant-garde records that confused Beatles’ fans and confounded critics. Several famous musicians lent their talents to these recordings.
So Much More Than a Rhythm Guitarist
Lennon was mostly known as a rhythm guitarist, but his mother, Julia, also taught him to play the banjo when he was a teenager. He learned to play the harmonica from a bus driver while he was traveling to visit a cousin in Scotland, and the harmonica was featured heavily on early Beatles’ recordings.
Lennon played a six-string bass guitar on several Beatles’ songs and played a Mellotron keyboard on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” He wrote many songs on the piano, including one of his most-loved hits, “Imagine.” The McCartney-Lennon song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” resulted from a jam the two had on a piano.
Taking a Shot at a Former Bandmate in Song
Lennon wrote a song that appeared on his 1971 solo album Imagine that took a direct jab at his former friend, collaborator and bandmate, Paul McCartney. The song “How Do You Sleep” features the line, “The only thing you done was yesterday. And since you’re gone, you’re just another day.”
The sting was made greater by George Harrison playing guitar on the song. Some say Lennon was disappointed in his former friend’s watered-down post-Beatles output, although it was more likely in retaliation to McCartney’s dig at John and Yoko on his album Ram that soured things.
Tossed from a Nightclub for Bad Behavior
In 1973, while Lennon was recording his Mind Games album, he and Yoko agreed to a separation that ended up lasting 18 months. Lennon lived in Los Angeles but also spent time in New York City. He drank heavily and spent a lot of time with a woman named May Pang, who had worked as a personal assistant to John and Yoko.
During his time in exile from his marriage, John and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson partied hard. The pair’s drunken escapades made headlines and got them kicked out of The Troubadour nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers comedy act.
Collaborations with Some of the Biggest Names in Music
Throughout his post-Beatles career, Lennon collaborated with some pretty big names in pop music. In addition to playing with two other Beatles — Harrison and Starr — on recordings, he worked with stars like Elton John, who provided backing vocals and played piano on “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”
Lennon also co-wrote “Fame” with David Bowie. The song was Bowie’s first number one hit in the U.S. Even better, Lennon also played guitar and sang backup vocals on the song, credited under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie.
Abusive to More Than Just Women
Rumors of Lennon’s abusive tendencies toward women followed him throughout his life. In his song “Jealous Guy,” he seemed to acknowledge his past behavior, blaming it on his insecurities. However, Lennon didn’t actually discriminate when it came to bad treatment. His biting wit and sarcasm left many victims bleeding throughout his career, including Paul McCartney.
George Harrison played guitar on some of Lennon’s albums and recordings. In return, Lennon agreed to play at a concert Harrison was organizing in 1971 called Concert for Bangladesh. However, Harrison’s refusal to let Yoko Ono perform prompted Lennon to pull out, reportedly after a very heated argument.
A Threat on Both Sides of the Atlantic
Like many musicians and actors in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Lennon was a vocal critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. This resulted in President Richard Nixon’s repeated attempts to have him deported back to England. Additionally, the FBI had almost 300 pages of files on Lennon.
Some of the documents were released after his death through a Freedom of Information Act request. They revealed that the British government also considered Lennon a threat. Other files included information on his daily activities, involvement in anti-war efforts, transcripts from TV shows he appeared on and information obtained from informants.
Imagine a Lennon Not Raised in England
John’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a merchant seaman who was away for much of John’s life. He supported the family for a while by sending checks to John’s mother, Julia. Alfred went AWOL when John was just 4 years old.
He returned six months later, ready to assume his fatherly role, but by that point, Julia was pregnant with another man’s baby. Julia’s sister eventually assumed custody of John. At one point, Alfred planned to take John with him to New Zealand. They got as far as Blackpool before he was confronted by Julia and her new boyfriend.
Exploration of Other Creative Outlets
Lennon showed his creativity at an early age. His uncle encouraged him to write and draw, and he collected poems, stories and drawings in a notebook he titled the Daily Howl. His classmates have said that Lennon created the book to amuse his friends.
As an adult who had enjoyed monster success as a member of the Beatles, Lennon was encouraged to publish a book of his writings. His book In His Own Write was released in 1964. Similar to his high school work, it contained nonsensical stories and drawings. The following year, Lennon published a similar book titled A Spaniard in the Works.
A Band Reunion 40 Years Later
The year 2009 saw a revival of Plastic Ono Band, formed by John and Yoko more than 40 years prior to that date. John and Yoko’s son, Sean, was a member of the new version. The band released an album that year titled Don’t Stop Me!, followed by a full-length LP called Between My Head and the Sky.
In 2010, the band played a concert with Eric Clapton, who played in a supergroup with John and Yoko called The Dirty Mac in the late 1960s. (Small world, right?) The band also collaborated with The Flaming Lips to release an album aptly titled The Flaming Lips with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band.
The Son Who Inspired Three Huge Hits
Julian Lennon — John’s more famous son with his first wife, Cynthia — is a songwriter and musician. When he was still a child, he was actually the inspiration for three Beatles’ songs.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was allegedly the name of a drawing Julian drew in nursery school. “Hey Jude” started as a lullaby of sorts that Paul McCartney sang to Julian to comfort him and get him to go to sleep. “Good Night” is a lullaby John wrote for Julian. The recorded version appeared on the “White Album,” with Ringo Starr providing vocals and music provided by an orchestra.
One Spiked Cup of Coffee Changed Everything
It’s no secret that Lennon and the rest of the Beatles experimented with drugs. They were introduced to marijuana by folk singer Bob Dylan, but John’s first experience with the psychedelic drug LSD was not his choice.
His first LSD trip occurred because someone dosed him without even telling him. During a night of partying in London in the mid-1960s, dentist John Riley put the drug in John’s coffee. This changed the course of music forever, as the drug had a huge effect on the band’s music going forward.
A License to Drive a Little Bit Late
Lennon refused to wear glasses for much of his adult life, which probably contributed to his reputation as a bad driver. He actually didn’t learn to drive until much later than his Beatle counterparts. He was 24 years old when he got his license.
Lennon drove for less than five years. After crashing his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland, Lennon gave up the driver’s seat. Yoko, Julian and Yoko’s daughter, Kyoko, were passengers at the time. The wreckage of the car was put on display on the grounds of John and Yoko’s home in England.
Remember “Fan” Is Just Short for “Fanatic”
Mark David Chapman wasn’t just John Lennon’s assassin — he was reportedly a fan who started as a huge Beatles fan. Thanks to a religious conversion and obvious mental illness, Chapman felt compelled to kill his idol. He planned the murder for months in advance and carried it out on December 8, 1980.
Lennon signed a copy of the Double Fantasy album for Chapman on the day of his murder. Chapman returned to The Dakota, where Lennon lived in New York City, and shot him four times in the back. Lennon was pronounced dead after being rushed to Roosevelt Hospital in NYC.
No Simple Sit-in for John and Yoko
John and Yoko were ardent peace activists and two of the most visible protesters against the war in Vietnam. In 1969, the couple staged a bed-in for peace that lasted two weeks. The protests took place in hotels in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and in Montreal, Canada.
The idea was inspired by the existing concept of a sit-in, where protesters remained seated in protest until forcibly removed. Authorities didn’t attempt to physically remove the couple from their bed, but they still received a lot of publicity and attention for their cause.
One Drug Too Many
The breakup of the Beatles may have had more to do with drugs than anything else. Throughout the late 1960s, the Beatles experimented with drugs, and they aren’t shy about talking about the influence marijuana and LSD had on their music. However, John and Yoko’s use of heroin did some real damage to their mental health and creative output.
For one thing, heroin added to Lennon’s volatile mood swings, which made him even more difficult. The pair quit the drug cold turkey, which resulted in the harrowing experience documented in Lennon’s song of the same name.
An Astrological Prediction of the Shooting
John Lennon and Yoko Ono once hired a psychic to advise them on various matters, including financial and business decisions. While they certainly could afford to pay for almost anything, whether they received sound advice that was worth the money is a matter of much debate.
The couple was very spiritual and believed in astrology as well. Allegedly, an astrologist once warned Lennon that he would be shot on an island. This prophecy prompted John and Yoko to cancel a planned visit to the Greek islands in 1969. Eleven years later, John was killed on the island of Manhattan. Coincidence or prophecy?
The Less Traveled Path to Better Protein
The Beatles often seemed strangely connected, and they followed each other down various spiritual paths. This was true for individual spiritualism as well as for experimentation with mind-altering drugs like LSD. One path John didn’t take, however, was that of vegetarianism.
George Harrison was the first to forsake animal flesh in 1965 for spiritual reasons. When Ringo Starr became a vegetarian, it was about his health. Paul McCartney was also an avid proponent of the vegetarian lifestyle. In fact, Paul’s wife, Linda, had her own line of healthy vegetarian food products at one point. John remained a committed meat-eater to the end.
Moodiness That Could Turn to Violence in a Flash
John was prone to mood swings — some of them violent. Early in the Beatles career, he severely beat a disc jockey and friend of the band, Bob Wooler, because Wooler insinuated at a party that John was gay. Their manager, Brian Epstein, was gay and reportedly had a crush on Lennon. Lennon allegedly took advantage of Epstein’s feelings, but despite the rumors, there was never a relationship.
In a case of extreme overreaction and homophobia, John beat up Wooler at his own 21st birthday party. Fortunately, he realized he was about to kill his friend and regained control.
A Singer with Self-Esteem Issues
Although he was one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time, John hated the sound of his own voice. He was insecure in many ways, and that insecurity extended to his voice talent. He allegedly once asked legendary producer George Martin (regarding his vocals), “Can’t you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?”
He was always looking for ways to alter his voice on recordings. On the song “I Am the Walrus,” he wanted his vocals to sound as though they were being transmitted from the moon, much to his bandmates’ distress down here on Earth.
Not a Fan of Any of the Beatles’ Albums
John Lennon’s dislike of his own singing voice didn’t stop at live performances. He reportedly disliked all the Beatles’ albums — all of them. He supposedly confided to producer George Martin that he wished he could re-record all the Beatles’ records. It’s not clear whether it was due to his well-documented insecurity, his perfectionist nature or simple humility (unlikely).
It’s hard to believe that Lennon could be so critical of his amazing body of work. Millions of fans disagree that he sucks, but the fact that he questioned his own talent made John relatable to many.
Going Out with a Whimper, Not a Bang
The last time the legendary songwriting duo of Lennon and McCartney exchanged words was in 1976. Paul showed up at John’s apartment building in New York City, guitar in hand. He gave no advance warning of his arrival, and John reportedly turned his ex-bandmate away.
He claimed at the time that Paul had gotten into the habit of just popping by, and he needed more advance notice. Paul left NYC for Dallas the following day to prepare with Wings for another leg of their U.S. tour. The two stayed in touch until John’s death but never met in person again.
The Lennon Band You’ve Never Heard Of
John was once a member of the short-lived supergroup called The Dirty Mac. The name was a play on Fleetwood Mac, a hugely popular group in the U.K. in the 1960s (and future superstars in the U.S. in the 1970s). He assembled the band in 1968 to play “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” TV special.
Members included Keith Richards of the Stones on bass, Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums, Eric Clapton of Cream on lead guitar and himself on rhythm guitar and singing. He introduced the band members during the show, calling himself Winston Leg-Thigh.
Iconic Imagery That Always Comes to Mind
In terms of physical appearance, John Lennon is probably best remembered for his wireframe “granny” glasses. He was nearsighted but reluctant to wear glasses for most of his life. He was cast in the role of Musketeer Gripweed in the 1967 British movie How I Won the War, and his character wore the signature glasses.
John continued to wear them, even after the movie wrapped. A blood-stained pair of his glasses appeared on the cover of Yoko’s album Season of Glass. She also shared a photo of the glasses on Twitter in 2013 to protest gun violence.
A Mundane Beginning to an Extraordinary Relationship
According to his own accounting, John first met Yoko Ono on November 9, 1966, at an art show held at the Indica Gallery in London. He said he was embarrassed to attend because of his fame as a Beatle, but that obviously didn’t stop him.
He claims he was won over by the gifted artist while viewing one of the pieces in the exhibit. To appreciate the piece, he had to climb up a ladder to view it with a magnifying glass. What was it? The word “yes” written in tiny letters on the ceiling.
Playing Children’s Games on the Road
In addition to Mind Games, John also reportedly enjoyed playing board games, Monopoly in particular. When the Beatles were together, he packed the popular real estate game for them to play on the road.
John coerced band members to play the game on planes and in hotel rooms and seemed to be obsessed with buying the Boardwalk and Park Place properties. Whether the game was just a simple diversion from life on the road or his obsession held some deeper meaning, we will never know. It remains an interesting fact about a very complex person.
A Rock ‘n’ Roll Bad Boy with a Religious Start
John Lennon had a well-earned reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll bad boy. He worked hard, played hard and was never really like the clean-cut image the early version of the Beatles tried to project. Ironically, the rebel did get his start in music as a choir boy.
Not only was he a choir boy at St. Peter’s Church in Liverpool, England, but he was also a member of the Allerton Boy Scout Troop. Despite these early affiliations, John spent much of his life in opposition to conformity and organized anything (religion, in particular), but he had to start somewhere.
A Near Miss on the Longed for Stage Reunion
During the first season of Saturday Night Live, creator Lorne Michaels made a plea on live television for the Beatles to get back together on the show. He offered the relatively small amount of $3,000 for the Beatles to play three songs on the show.
John and Paul happened to be hanging out together in NYC on that Saturday night in 1975, and they were tempted to take him up on his offer. It would have only taken a short cab ride to reach the studio and make rock ‘n’ roll history, but they ultimately decided against it.
Posing for a Legend for a Final Farewell
John Lennon appeared on the cover of the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in 1968. He continued to be featured on the cover and inside the pages on a regular basis over the next 13 years until his death.
Photographer Annie Liebovitz photographed John for another cover just hours before he was shot to death in front of his apartment building. She asked both John and Yoko to pose nude as they had years earlier when promoting their Two Virgins album. Yoko declined but John accepted in what turned out to be the memorable cover of the January 22, 1981 issue.