On Monday, 8 December 1980, John Lennon was shot by disturbed ‘fan’ Mark Chapman in the archway of the Dakota Building, his residence in New York City. He was pronounced dead soon after his arrival at hospital. The ex-Beatle had just turned 40 and had recently recorded a new album, Double Fantasy, that celebrated his new zest for life – his single Starting Over was still in the charts. Now, on the 37th anniversary of his shocking murder, I’ve decided to share my personal memory of that day…
I woke up, got out of bed and dragged a comb through my tangled mop of red hair. It was still dark outside. My alarm had gone off at the ridiculously early time of 4.45am on the morning of Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was a 19-year-old trainee reporter for a Liverpool news magazine, The Woolton Mercury, and had an appointment at BBC Radio Merseyside studios in central Liverpool to write a piece on the workings of local radio. I was a tall, skinny youth, still living at home, who dressed almost exclusively in black. My musical tastes had moved on from the Beatles and Glam Rock to punk and new wave, reflected in my music column that featured new releases and gig reviews. I was a member of Erics club in Liverpool where I saw punk and new wave bands most weekends including: Joy Division, Magazine, Buzzcocks, OMD, Teardrop Explodes, Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, The Damned (featuring Lemmy!)… you get the picture.
The streetlights were still on and a milk float rumbled into our road as I buttoned my black Crombie overcoat and headed for the bus stop. The bus was warm as I joined a handful of silent shift workers on a speedy forty minute journey to Castle Street. From there a short walk took me through a deserted city centre to Commerce House – a grey 50s concrete building that had housed Radio Merseyside since its start in 1967 [note: this was before their move to their new purpose-built office on Paradise Street].
They were expecting me, as arranged, at 6.00am. I was greeted by Studio Manager, Phil Pinnington, a suave, dapper gent, who placed me in the capable hands of Studio Assistant, Janice Long (yes, Keith Chegwin’s sister who went on to be an acclaimed national radio DJ and host of Top of the Pops). I was shown around the newsroom and the newsgathering process was explained to me by Newsreader, Tony Nutter. In the pre-digital age, reel-to-reel tape recorders and spools of tapes were everywhere and two teleprinters spewed out news items on ticker tape from the national BBC newsroom in London. I was shown how soundbites (interview clips) were spliced together for use in news bulletins.
My published article in The Woolton Mercury records that at that time (about 6.30am) there were no major news stories coming through:
“One such news item that came through on the teleprinter concerned a US Army deserter who had been arrested at Risley Remand Centre with two canisters of nerve gas strapped to his legs.” Tony explained that this would be classified as a ‘human interest’ story and held in reserve to be used only if there was a lull in the news. As it turned out, it would not be needed.
Janice made me a mug of tea and I was ushered into the studio where veteran presenter, Alan Jackson, was cranking-up the breakfast drive-time show. A local lad from Prescott in Merseyside, he was warm, friendly and soon put me at ease. He asked me a few questions about my series on local media, and casually said after the next record he would do a little interview with me.
“Erm, live, on air?” I squeaked.
“You’ll be fine,” he laughed. “Just say what you’ve already told me and speak in your normal voice.”
And so my first radio interview took place, just before 7.00am on Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was scribbling a few notes in my reporter’s notebook when Phil popped his head in the studio door and announced in a hushed but earnest tone: “John Lennon has been shot.”
Alan’s eyes were wide in shock and a quick conversation between the media veterans instantly ensued along the lines of, “Call all our contacts who knew John and the Beatles – let’s start lining up responses as the news story unfolds…” This was personal. John was a much-loved son of the city and the magnitude of the event meant it instantly took center stage.
And so I sat there for the next three hours as the staff of Radio Merseyside pulled together and presented the news of John’s shooting in New York City, playing Imagine (several times) and Give Peace a Chance along with early Beatles classics such as Twist and Shout. To this day, I still get goosebumps and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck whenever I hear John’s raunchy rock vocals on Twist and Shout. For me, it will forever be associated with that day.
“…reports are still coming in that John Lennon has been shot outside his apartment building in New York…”
Alan Jackson vacated his seat for Morning Merseyside presenter, Roger Phillips, who took on the uncomfortable task of building a show devoted to outpourings of concern for John as we waited with trepidation for further news. The confirmation that John was dead came barely an hour later, and a state of shock descended on the city as the news was rolled out.
Shocked interview subjects shared their reminiscences of John over the airwaves as the city awoke to the devastating news on that cold December Tuesday. I left the studio at about 11.00 and made my way home in numb silence. It wasn’t meant to end this way for John, who had seemed to have found happiness in his new life with wife Yoko and son Sean in New York. By lunchtime, it was the headline item on the BBC television news.
The following Saturday I joined a crowd estimated at over 30,000 on the plaza outside St George’s Hall for music, readings and prayers as the city grieved over the death of a favourite son. It was the final end to hopes of a Beatles reunion, and consigned John’s body of work to the past tense. The man who asked us to give peace a chance had been the victim of an ugly act of murder by a psychotic ‘fan’ who earlier in the day had waited patiently to get John’s autograph. It was unpredictable, pointless and the cause of such grief and pain for those who loved the man and his work and who had been entertained and inspired by his music, wit and free spirit. It was our JFK moment – we remember what we were doing or where we were when we heard the news. John was dead and we had to accept it; and I know it’s a cliché but I’m going to give it an airing – his memory lives on through his music and his pro-peace sentiments.
As for me, I moved on to reporting and film reviewing for another Liverpool newspaper later that year, and in 1982 won a place to study for a degree course in Communication Studies. I became editor of the student magazine, utilising the experience I had garnered at The Woolton Mercury. After graduating, my path led me to London where I started a career working in the newspaper publishing industry – not as a journalist, but in product development and market research. I re-directed my creative mind to dull but commercially vital report writing and conducting training sessions for sales reps. I had unintentionally joined the group of frustrated creatives who are thwarted from making a living doing what we really want to do. At least John had that.
The anniversary of Lennon’s death still prompts outpourings of grief from fans around the World, although this is perhaps something John himself would not have wanted.
In one of his last major print interviews published in Playboy magazine, he said: “I don’t have any romanticism about any part of my past. I don’t believe in yesterday. I’m only interested in what I’m doing now.”
As a footnote to my earlier comment that my musical tastes in 1980 had moved on from The Beatles – their music continued to provide an enduring ingredient to the cultural wallpaper of Liverpool, a city that never fell out of love with the Fab Four. Every jukebox in every pub in Liverpool had Beatles singles that were frequently played along with other rock, punk and pop classics. There was no Beatles tourism activity in the 80s – that came later from the 90s onwards when musical nostalgia grew into an industry. We knew where the Beatles lived and the places they performed – Liverpudlians will always be intensely proud of their successful sons and daughters without any shows of fuss or drama.
When writing this piece, I checked what records and gigs I had reviewed in my music column in the weeks before Lennon’s death and found, next to a gig review of The Stranglers, this:-
“This Week’s New Single Releases –
UB40 – The Earth Dies Screaming [reviewed]
John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over – And who knows, maybe John is turning over a new leaf. This boppy, jog-a-long song has already been hailed as a ‘shhhh, it’s almost Christmas’ single, and will have the ex-Beatle laughing all the way to the bank. His first UK single release for some time, it’s already looking like a safe bet for Christmas No.1…”
It was actually No.2 in the UK Christmas charts behind, erm, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma by St Winifred’s School Choir. The first chart of 1981 saw re-issues of Imagine at No. 1 and Merry Xmas (War is Over) by John and Yoko at No.2. The worldwide outpouring of grief for the witty Scouser led to a celebration of his life and the birth of his legend.