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The Night the Magic Died: forty years since John Lennon was murdered

My mother entering my room to wake me with a death notice became a bit of a habit in my teenage years.

In 1977, it was her idol, Elvis. In 1978, it was Pope John Paul I.

And on 9 December, 1980, three days before my 17th birthday, it was John Lennon, who had been cruelly shot down by Mark Chapman outside the Dakota Building in New York, being pronounced dead at 11pm Eastern Standard Time on 8 December, 1980, forty years ago this week.

Recent years have brought poignant memories of Lennon’s death.

His widow and musical collaborator Yoko Ono tweeted a photo of John’s bloodstained spectacles in 2013 as her way of protesting at the ongoing problem of gun deaths in the US. Paul McCartney, Lennon’s other famous collaborator and fellow Beatle, when asked in 2018 why he was attending a gun control protest in New York simply said “one of my best friends was killed in gun violence right around here, so it’s important to me”: when I saw Paul interviewed at the time, it took me a second to realise he was talking about Lennon, but by not naming him, he was reminding us that all the victims of gun violence, famous and not famous, are special to the people who loved them.

The Beatles were before my time, in the sense that I was a small child when they were out, but I was aware of the Fab Four because when my own blond mop top was in need of a trim, my dad would say “you look like a Beatle” and off we’d go to the barber down the town, where I’d sit up high on a wooden plank to be shorn.

Now, in 1980, after a long pause in his post-Beatles solo career, John Lennon had woken my generation from our nightmares of impending nuclear war with the fresh new upbeat sound of the Elvis inspired single (Just Like) Starting Over. 

The track opens with the friendly ting, ting, ting of a Tibetan wishing bell, an optimistic contrast to the doom laden tolling of a slowed down church bell at the start of Lennon’s 1970 single, Mother, recorded in a period when John was coming to terms with the trauma of his mother’s death and, earlier, his father’s departure.

The bell is followed by the echoey Elvis-like vocals of the opening lines, the song bringing back all the fun of the birth of rock and roll, before soaring joyously to the title phrase.

It was really a very grown up song about reconnecting with the one you love after time spent worrying about the children  and financial woes have taken their toll. John Lennon and Yoko Ono created a magical, radio friendly sound that tricked me into thinking their middle aged concerns were mine, but the real theme went over the head of a shy teenager who had barely started going to discos.

When John and Yoko released the album Double Fantasy, that contained Starting Over, it marked one of the great rock and roll comebacks. John was only forty, so who knows what lay ahead: would the couple who had bedded in for peace have out-Geldoffed Geldof and out-Bonoed Bono in the years of Reagan and Thatcher and Live Aid? Would they have grabbed the world’s attention once more in the decade of “greed is good” and the new Cold War?

In the weeks following his death, John Lennon’s music lived on in posthumous single releases like Woman and in tributes like Brian Ferry’s Jealous Guy.

His comeback in October 1980 had led to a new generation appreciating the music their parents had loved: his violent death cemented his legacy in a way none of us had expected.

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