LONDON — Other than Hurricane Sandy, few things can distract us right now from our single-minded focus on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 6. But on Sunday, Sir Paul McCartney managed to do just that when he announced that Yoko Ono — John Lennon’s widow — was not responsible for the break up of the world’s most famous rock band.
In an interview to be published next month on Al Jazeera English with the veteran British journalist David Frost — (and previewed by the British media this past weekend) — Sir Paul claims Ono was not the reason The Beatles came apart in the early 1970s. “She certainly didn’t break the group up, the group was breaking up,” he tells Frost.
If anything, Sir Paul suggests, the Beatles’s split had more to do with the role played by talent agent Allen Klein, who tried to manage the group after the group’s much beloved manager, Brian Epstein, died in 1967.
This is big news for those of us, like me, who’ve watched one too many biopics about the lives of the various Beatles. (My husband is a huge Beatles fan, though he insists that by far the best account of the band’s breakup can be found on the film featuring the musicians themselves, “Let it Be.”)
If you watch any of those films — or read the media over the years — you come away thinking that Ono was this new-agey, avant-garde, exotic Japanese freak show who forever spoiled the rough, working class sensibilities of the sometimes-truculent, creative musical genius from the streets of Liverpool. By these accounts, it was Lennon’s early musical collaboration with Sir Paul and the others — against a backdrop of working-class England in the 1960s and a troubled family life (he was raised by an aunt from the age of five and his mother died when he was seventeen) — that really defined Lennon.
There’s no doubt that after meeting Ono, Lennon moved in a decidedly different creative direction. In their first public “event” together, on June 15, 1968, the couple planted two acorns in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral, one facing east, the other facing west. The planting was intended as symbolic of their meeting and love for one another, as well as the uniting of their two cultures. And, of course, who could forget the iconic image of the couple’s famous bed-ins, their novel version of a peace protest, which ultimately lay the foundation for Lennon’s first hit solo outside of the Beatles, “Give Peace A Chance“?
But as Sir Paul points out, it’s also the case that without Ono, we’d never have had “Imagine,” the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of all of Lennon’s post-Beatles efforts. The title track was later listed as the third all-time best song by Rolling Stone magazine.
“Imagine” was based on poems from Ono’s 1964 book of poetry, “Grapefruit.” Lennon later said that “Imagine” should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song, admitting that both the lyric and concept were “right out of Grapefruit.” For those of us who came of age in the No Nukes 1980s, “Imagine” — with its plaintive, evocative appeal for a peaceful utopia — struck a real chord long after it was written. I still tear up when I hear it.
Ono — who, in addition to being a musician was also a visual/performance artist — also cultivated these other artistic strands in her famous musician husband. Lennon, for example, was a terrific sketch artist. Like millions of other baby boomers giving birth in the early 00s, I was thrilled to discover that Carter’s was distributing a line of baby clothing/accessories based around Lennon’s drawings which he’d made for his son, Sean, when Sean was a baby. I didn’t buy them because of Lennon; I bought them because they were good.
Since Lennon’s death in 1980, Ono has continued with her own musical career — sometimes in collaboration with their son, Sean Lennon — and has written an autobiography and a musical play. She’s also been very active in the charity sector through her foundation, Imagine Peace.
In short, what Sir Paul seems to be implying in his interview is that without Ono, we wouldn’t have Lennon.
Delia Lloyd is an American journalist based in London who was previously the London correspondent for Politics Daily. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia.