It was only when I went to the US on tour in 1991 that I realised John Lennon had made solo records, and I went through the whole thing of buying Imagine and Plastic Ono Band and getting into Yoko’s albums. I loved the idea of what they did together and separately, it combined their love and their art. It was a really great period. Musically, his solo albums are pretty advanced and important works — minimalist, avant-garde and full of repetition. Everything was really experimental; he was writing harrowing songs such as Mother having gone through primal therapy. I always wanted to make music with that amount of seriousness.
She’s come in for so much flak, but I believe Yoko was the best thing that ever happened to John. The politics and the sit-ins were her influence, and she led him over a threshold and took him on to somewhere else. He’d perfected his pop side but I don’t think he had the confidence to explore his experimental side until he met Yoko — she taught him that art and politics could intertwine. People don’t realise just how powerful the combination was with John and Yoko, that’s why people blame her for splitting The Beatles. Even McCartney’s natural reaction was to blame. He’s only now coming to terms with their love, that it was real. I loved the era when John was going on TV with Yoko and defending her as a woman. People said really terrible things about her and he defended her in front of millions, telling the world to f*ck off.
It’s that defiance that I most admired in Lennon’s solo period. There were some genius songs in there — Woman, Don’t Worry Kyoko, Mind Games and right now Happy Xmas (War Is Over) feels particularly significant to me (maybe it’s the time of year) — all proof that he was a great songwriter. I even loved Yoko’s screaming. But where he went down in history is by using his fame for the greater good, politically. He threw it right in front of people, slapped them around the face with it. On the brilliant Gimme Some Truth he’s picking fights with Richard Nixon and
the state of US politics, possibly as a result of not getting his green card. He always questioned people’s motives which, in front of the huge audience that he had, was an incredibly brave thing to do. A lot of people would massage an audience that size; Lennon challenged them, used it as a platform to question things.
In retrospect, he probably gets painted as being a bit too friendly, cuddly and squeaky-clean, whereas he was extremely rock’n’roll, rugged, angry and alpha male. We need that image of him back, because everyone in rock music since, from Geldof and Sting to Bono and Chris Martin, have taken Lennon’s altruistic example to almost saint-like extremes. Lennon started that — there had been protest singers before, but nobody this big put their political neck on the line — he did it instinctively, he was always trying to find his way. When you see him interviewed on TV, he’s talking with such an innocence it’s almost cringeworthy, but it’s only because he didn’t have anybody else to base himself upon. And that’s what I love about him.
Britpop was essentially John Lennon’s second major cultural impact, only this time inspired by his later, Phil Spector-produced albums — remember Blur’s Beetlebum? Between Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher, or maybe Damon and Noel, there was a struggle over who was the most Lennon. Oasis won. They based their whole lives on him and they did it well — although they didn’t really reach out further than the blueprint that John gave them (which, ironically, is not very Lennon at all).
It was all the rage to pay homage to The Beatles in 1995. We got two songs out of one John Lennon track in that period. Lennon’s Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple) includes the line “Just when you’re thinking things over”. We wrote a song based on that, which I thought was a very Lennon thing to do, in the sense of choosing something to inspire you and running with it. And as for Just Lookin’, well, just listen to the chorus. In The Charlatans we’ve always picked many different fruits from many different trees.
Yoko’s album Fly was a huge inspiration on The Charlatans too, particularly the 17-minute song Mind Train. And that wasn’t the extent of Lennon’s direct influence on our music. The outro to Polar Bear on Some Friendly is a nod to Hey Bulldog and the chorus of I Never Want An Easy Life If Me And He Were Ever To Get There from our third album, Up To Our Hips, was inspired by I Am The Walrus. The circular-spectacled shadow even creeps over my solo work — a song called Held In Straps is almost embarrassingly Plastic Ono.
And where is Lennon’s legacy today?
I hear it in electronica, in acts like Wavves; genres where the tape-looping of Revolution 9 is quite ‘in’ at the moment. If John was still making music today he’d probably sound like Aphex Twin, doing something really experimental and for the greater good of the human race. But he wouldn’t be stagnant or too out-there — he had that pop sensibility which means you can be experimental but always draw yourself back in to popularity and relevance. Remember, he always used himself as an experiment. With Tomorrow Never Knows he span himself around and recorded himself singing through a megaphone, most of the time probably just to entertain himself.
Arguably his biggest influence was the way he kick-started the UK music scene into probably the fastest moving, most forward-thinking and consistently rewarding scene in the world over the past 50 years. No one will ever be The Beatles again because of how fast everything
went, but John was pushing that, and now every British band wants to emulate that.
In all musicians worth their name, John Lennon instilled a need for invention and urgency that keeps British rock hurtling forward to this day.
It doesn’t seem so far out to say that John Lennon will go down alongside the classical composers as someone remembered and appreciated centuries from now, a kind of rock’n’roll Shakespeare or Nietzsche with a mop top. It’s easy to wonder what he might be doing now if he had not been taken from us that wintry New York night in 1980 — whether he would have tried to keep his legacy safe or still be working on it. I’d imagine he’d still be working on it — while you’re living you keep living, don’t you? I think he’d still be doing what he always did, whatever turned him on, whatever got him through the night.
The Charlatans’ new album Who We Touch, and the single Your Pure Soul, are both out now