A fascinating cache of mostly unheard interview tapes with John Lennon is up for auction this month, offering an insight into topics including his favourite Beatles songs, his love for Yoko Ono, the corrupting power of fame and his feelings of hypocrisy over initially accepting an MBE.
The 91 minutes of recordings and interviews were conducted by a Canadian journalist, Ken Zeilig, on three occasions in 1969 and 1970, as the Beatles were beginning to fracture.
Only around five minutes of them have been aired before, in a TV broadcast in the late 1980s. Zeilig died in 1990, but the tapes have only recently been discovered by his family. They are estimated to sell for between £20,000 and £30,000.
On the greatest Beatles songs, Lennon says on the recordings: “I’m prejudiced, I like my own, you know. [laughs] I like Revolution #9” – the freeform sonic experiment at the climax of The White Album. Asked to name more, he picks I Am the Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day in the Life and Rain.
He says the Beatles were influenced by the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage – “it influenced our music, and then other people’s music” – but plays down the significance of the group. “People said the Beatles created a whole new way of life and thinking. Well, we didn’t, we were part of it. If there was a big wave in the ocean which was the movement, we were on the front of the wave. But we were not the movement itself.”
Lennon is interviewed alongside Ono, who he had married in March 1969, and speaks with great tenderness of his love for her. Ono, he says, “recultivated the natural John Lennon … that had been lost in the Beatles thing, in the worldwide thing, and all that. [And] made me myself.” He longs to die at “exactly the same minute” as her, “otherwise, even if it’s three minutes later, it’s gonna be hell. I couldn’t bear three minutes of it.”
On love itself, he says: “It has its storms to go through, and snow, but you have to protect it. It’s like a pet cat … [love has to be] nurtured like a very sensitive animal, because that’s what it is.”
Lennon and Ono had recently staged a pair of peace protests, in beds in Montreal and Amsterdam hotel rooms, against the Vietnam war. Speaking to Zeilig, Lennon gives his reasoning for protesting rather than giving financial aid: “People will probably say: ‘Why didn’t you give rice?’ and our answer is, we are trying to prevent cancer and not cure it after it’s happened. If we have enough money we will do both, we will try and do both. But we really believe in prevention rather than cure.”
He explains why he returned his MBE in 1969: “A protest against Britain’s involvement in Biafra and Nigeria, and about Britain’s backing of the United States morally and verbally in Vietnam. I had to write three letters: one to the Queen, one to [prime minister] Harold Wilson, and one to the … something of the Chancellery.”
Zeilig asks him why he originally accepted and Lennon replies: “Well, I was a hypocrite, and I was on the make … if you get a medal for killing, you should certainly get a medal for singing, and keeping Britain’s economics in good nick.”
Lennon describes fame in dark terms, comparing himself to a pilgrim that is constantly tempted: “We became possessed by a spirit of people adoring us … having all that energy that people gave to us … we lose the way.” He is also disparaging of music critics: “The critic can never be the artist and so never understand what is going on. He can only hope, he can only sort of judge it … people are wasting their time writing about music. I mean who are they writing it for?”
The imminent end of the Beatles, who broke up in mid-1970, is presaged when he is asked for their future plans. “The Beatles never made plans after they stopped touring,” Lennon says. “Plans were always made for them. And once there was nobody making plans for us, we didn’t want any plans, so we don’t make them.”
The auction takes place on 28 September. Paul Fairweather, of Omega Auctions in Merseyside, said: “John’s witty insight and proclamations are vintage Lennon and there is much in here that will greatly excite Beatles fans. They are a hugely important find.”
This week also marks the 50th anniversary of Lennon’s song Imagine, first released on 9 September 1971. The occasion is being celebrated with the lyric “imagine all the people living life in peace” being projected on landmarks around the world, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Berlin Wall, and in New York’s Times Square.
Ono, 88, said: “John would have loved this. Imagine embodied what we believed together at the time. We are still together now and we still believe this. The sentiment is just as important now as when it was written and released 50 years ago.”
A limited edition vinyl version of the Imagine album is being released this week, featuring outtakes including the original demo of the title track.