Around the time the Beatles first emerged out of the Merseyside gloom, rock music had conservative critics grinding their dentures in despair. Most infamous was Paul Johnson’s spiteful 1964 New Statesman rant entitled ‘The Menace of Beatlism’, where he railed against the new youth ‘anti-culture’ as a ‘bottomless chasm of vacuity’.
Curious, then, that today Beatle worship has itself morphed into a backward-looking cult whereby a certain breed of Boomer and their acolytes—associates of the same gang that bequeathed us rabid consumerism, environmental devastation and the war on drugs—repeatedly cock a snook at contemporary culture. Sure, the Beatles were great—a ‘force of historical consequence’, as Richard Poirier declared back in 1967. Alas, Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Who Killed John Lennon? falls in with a long line of commentators who eschew great for greatest and imply there have been no forces of historical consequence in music since.
Brimming with unbridled enthusiasm, Jones’s book is part ’60s survivor group-hug, part instance of what Douglas Coupland calls legislated nostalgia: the drive to ‘force a body of people to have memories they do not possess’. Within the first dozen pages the Beatles are consecrated as ‘the greatest cultural and social phenomenon ever’—obliterating such fellow period icons as Bob Dylan, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King—and given credit for ‘the birth of the female sexual revolution’. As for John Lennon, irrefutable genius, peacemonger, provocateur, narcissist and all-round cad that he was, Jones calls him the icing on the Beatles cake—the greatest of the greatest.
Jones’s prose has its charms, and parts of the book (the pre-Beatles parts, mostly) are absorbing. But Beatles adulation is evidently death for one’s writerly restraint, as when it spawns the idea that Lennon’s family ‘long danced the length of fantasy beaches’ or sees him diagnosed with ‘devil imposter syndrome’. The author also gives in to the Beatles-doter trait of yoking their lyrics to key events: Brian Epstein’s suicide gives rise to a tawdry ‘He heard the news today, oh boy’.
In the rush to gush, Jones can’t help falling over herself. When she describes the Rolling Stones as ‘still roaming the globe like rusty tanks without a war to go to’, it’s a deft line and an apt one. Yet she quickly spoils it by making the tiresome Beatles-adorer claim that their 1970 break-up means they alone among rock’s founding idols remain eternally young. Her idea that just before Lennon died everyone was listening to his ‘(Just like) Starting Over’ or Paul McCartney’s flimsy ‘Coming Up’ may ring true for those who acquiesced to the sordid neoliberalism of the Thatcher-Reagan years. It never crosses Jones’s mainstream-mired mind that anyone with their finger anywhere near the zeitgeist might by then have moved on to the Clash (‘phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust’) or Gang of Four, or perhaps to the rap or mbaqanga scenes emerging out of New York and Soweto, respectively. Strangely, Beatles addicts tend to be as aesthetically timid as their beloved group was innovative.
And what of the title’s question? We’ve long presumed the culprit to be one Mark Chapman, loner with a .38 revolver in one hand (this was America, after all) and Catcher in the Rye in the other. Best I can tell, Jones thinks Lennon killed himself or else that we all killed him. ‘We already know there was more than one John’, she helpfully submits, ‘so what killed the original’? Jones quotes from some hack who infers Yoko Ono profited from Lennon’s murder before he demeans her (this was always coming) as ‘an average Japanese artist who wrecked the greatest band Britain ever produced’. Another interviewee says that when Lennon died an entire era was murdered. By now I was looking for a grassy knoll to hide behind.
In 1990, British band House of Love composed a delightful paean to the counterculture in which they sang: ‘The Beatles and the Stones / sucked the marrow out of bone / put the “V” in Vietnam / made it good to be alone’. Actually, neither group sucked the marrow out of anything. As aesthetic landmarks from the frayed end of the 1960s ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ still hold remarkable power, while Lennon’s ‘God’ and Mick Jagger et al.’s ‘Moonlight Mile’ are as spine-tinglingly harrowing as the early-’70s got.
But it’s the 2020s now. What’s really sucking the life out of things is this traditionalist drive to be borne ceaselessly backwards, a program that diminishes the dozens of equally transcendent recording artists—from Brian Eno, Prince and King Sunny Adé to Sonic Youth, Fiona Apple and Hildur Guðnadóttir—who’ve roamed the fallout zone since punk detonated the Beatles-led classic-rock hegemony circa 1976.
For British scholar Gerry Hassan, Beatles zealots are enacting a ‘faux rebelliousness’ that is in truth a new orthodoxy. Who Killed John Lennon? is but another splash of petrol on the interminable bonfire of sentimentalist vanity.