Remembering John Lennon. Liverpool, December 1980
Liverpool Echo, Thursday 4 December 1980
(Sam Leach) JUST BEFORE DAWN on Tuesday, 9 December 1980, my 17-year-old daughter, Debbie, woke me with the chilling news that John Lennon had been shot dead in New York City. I was completely devastated. Almost instinctively, I wondered if the CIA were behind it. It was an outrageous thought, but their open hostility towards John and rumours that they had orchestrated the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy fuelled my suspicious mind.
(Tony O’Keeffe) December 9th 1980, around 5am. ‘Site B’ computer block off Old Hall St., Liverpool: Part of the JM Centre, Littlewoods head office. Tons of computer output in front of me to get through for processing by the incoming day workers in a few hours’ time. Feeling a bit tired on this shift and looking forward to my bed around 9am. An older work colleague, Malcolm, comes into the room looking disturbed. “I’ve just heard on the radio that John Lennon has been killed!” Time stopped….Nah, he’s got that wrong, can’t be! Malcolm went to Quarry Bank around the same time as John and looking at him now it was obvious he wasn’t making it up (Who would?!) I ran to the nearest radio to hear for myself……
(Anthony Hogan) I woke up early and dragged myself downstairs to ready myself for yet another day at school (I hated school) After sitting by the fire for a warm I ventured into the kitchen to make some toast. As I waited for the bread to burn I turned on the radio and listened to the music that was playing. I cannot remember what song it was but I know it was a Beatles one, as was the next one, before the presenter started talking. I paid little attention at first. I heard him say something about a guy called, John Lennon, and something about a shooting? But I was more interested in my toast and sat down to eat it. More songs played and I did wonder why they were playing more Beatles tunes? The presenter returned to speaking to the listeners and I heard him saying that John Lennon from The Beatles had been shot dead!
(SL) Throughout that day, the local radio stations played nothing but Beatles' songs. I was called by a number of local and national newspapers, asking me for a statement. But I was numb. I searched my mind in vain for an appropriate response: his death was a terrible loss? I was heartbroken? I loved John like a brother? Nothing I could think of adequately described the feeling of grief, shock and utter desolation I felt. I found it impossible to articulate my emotions.
(AH) I remember thinking something along the lines of "Poor bloke" but it never really shook me. After all, I was not a Beatles fan. I was a kid, I liked Madness, The Jam, and The Specials from the pop charts, I really enjoyed listening to The Who and Janis Joplin, and my favourite band was those bad boys from Boston, Aerosmith. Of course, I knew The Beatles were from Liverpool, and I knew a few of their songs. We had some of their 45 singles next to the record player alongside Hank Williams, Abba, and a selection of disco songs, oh! and a Stylistics album. My stuff stayed safely in my bedroom as only I was allowed to play it. I knew that Paul McCartney had been in the band, Wings, and I knew John Lennon had had a couple of singles out recently as I would listen to the top 40 every Sunday. That was basically my Beatles knowledge back then apart from what my dads best mate, and ex Beatle, Tommy Moore, had told me about them. To be fair, I was more interested in what he had told me about Rory Storm than The Beatles, but you now have an idea of what was what to me on that day 40 years ago.
(TOK) The rest of the shift passed in a blur, an unreal state. Half asleep but aware of everything. The feeling of ‘this is not here’ couldn’t be more apt. Finally crawling in to bed sometime later, I didn’t get much sleep to recover from my shift as reports flooded the media and non-stop Beatles music filled the airwaves. Total, total shock.
(AH) So! Off I trot to school. I can still clearly recall walking into the registration class and some smart guy shouting "Who Shot JL ?" in reference to the ongoing saga in the TV soap Dallas who were running, or had already run, the story of "Who shot JR?"
Anyway, his joke went down like a ton of bricks and he sat in his chair red faced. This was the first moment that I realised something was different as normally his joke would have brought out the laughs or people telling him his joke was rubbish etc! But it was just silence. And that silence continued a lot during that day. Something was in the air and although I could not understand what it was, I could feel it, if that makes sense? I walked home from school and visited the shops along the way. Everywhere I went I could hear the adults talking about John Lennon. It all reminded me of 3 years earlier when Elvis had died and people were reacting in this same way.
(Margaret Parsons) As a big Beatles fan, my mum awoke me very early morning on that fateful day to tell me the sad news John Lennon had died.
I was really upset and so I thought I would get up and go into Liverpool on the bus to Mathew Street to the Old Cavern ( which was then just a car park as the council had torn original down and they had yet to build the new Cavern and Cavern Walks) and pay homage and my respects to John at the Beatles spiritual home.
I went there thinking there would be lots of other Beatles fans also doing the same.
I arrived at 8am and was so surprised to find no other Beatles fans in sight. I was on my own apart from the occasional person walking through the street to work.
As I gazed up at the wall at the Lady Madonna statue holding the Fab Four in her arms a guy appeared from nowhere (man) and asked if he could take my photo!
He took my details and a quote - by the way my 'end of a dream' quote was in reference to the fact that there would now never be the possibility of the Beatles reuniting.
The photographer told me he was from the Liverpool Echo newspaper, which I tried not to believe as I had told my Mum a fib that I was going into town shopping as when I had first said I was going in to the Cavern she thought I was daft! When I got home later I never said a word to my Mum about the Echo and photo. At tea time I offered to go and collect their Echo newspaper from the shop thinking that photographer guy must have been having me on!
The Echo was foolscap (sold folded in half) and not tabloid in those days so when I got out of the shop all I could see was the headlines of Johns death. But as I opened up the front page I was mortified to see that in the lower portion below the crease was my photo and my quote. I was in a sweat having fibbed to my Mum where I had been. My sins had found me out! When I got home to I said to Mum 'I have something to tell you' as I gave her the Echo... she just smiled.
Two different print runs of the Liverpool Echo, 9 December 1980 (with Margaret Parsons above) and without (below)
Two different print runs of the Liverpool Echo, 9 December 1980 (with Margaret Parsons above) and without (below)
(TOK) Eventually rising around late afternoon, I was greeted with the flagship evening edition of The Liverpool Echo, then a broadsheet, which ran with the massive headline ‘John Lennon Shot Dead’!
(TOK) Since before I started playing in bands myself, I used to go and watch local acts at the Star & Garter pub venue in St. John's Precinct on Lime Street. Loved watching the regular bands, especially the drummers, and also loved the venue’s atmosphere. It was my nearest local music hangout, being less than a 10 minute walk along Lime Street from where I lived. I’d always wanted to play there and when I eventually joined my first working band earlier that year, ‘Arena’, I’d finally realised my ambition and had got a date there…December 9th!
Mixed feelings abounded as I thought of the gig, this night of all nights. Talk about taking the wind out of my sails! However, the show must go on and we duly arrived later that evening and set up on the small stage with heavy hearts. There was a palpable sadness hanging heavily over the city and it was going to be tough. There were some guys from Manchester in there who had come over just to be in Liverpool and be near John somehow. They were visibly emotional throughout as we played through what Beatles songs we knew and more. I can’t remember that much about the actual gig but I know we were still in shock as we played our two sets as best we could.
(AH) Back home the radio station was still playing Beatles songs. I recall BBC2 removing a programme so that they could show the film 'Help!' though it may have been the next evening, I'm not certain. I watched that film on BBC2, it was a bit daft but funny at times as well. I can recall looking at John a lot and wondering "Why would someone shoot that nice guy?" Over the next few days I witnessed the spill out of emotion and how it was hitting people. It was clear that this Lennon guy meant a lot to many people.
(SL) (The following day) I was taking my wife, Joan, for a meal at the Ladbroke casino Restaurant in the famous Adelphi hotel on Lime Street. On the car radio, a local station was reporting the latest reactions from around the world on its hourly news bulletin. I was stunned by the closing item: "Earlier today, a memorial service for John Lennon was held at St Nicholas' parish church in the Liverpool city centre. An estimated congregation of just forty people turned up for the man who once said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus."
I was appalled. Although most local people were completely unaware the service was taking place, the implication was clear: Liverpudlians were indifferent to John's death. I was staggered by the newscaster's audacity. Punching the dashboard, I vowed to ram the distorted news report down the station's proverbial throat. I parked the car on Copperas Hill and walked towards the restaurant in silence. Once we were outside, I told Joan to go in alone. Her sister, Vera, was waiting for us, but I needed a few minutes to clear my head. Pacing up and down the pavement, my hands thrust deep in my pockets, my insides raged. I took the insult very personally. My mind was racing, but I could think of no suitable, verbal response to the charge. What was needed was a public demonstration from the people of Liverpool to prove to the world how much John Lennon meant to us and how heavily the city felt his loss. Then it came to me. I knew what I had to do. I strode into the restaurant and went straight to the telephone. Ringing directory enquiries, I obtained the numbers of as many newspapers, press agencies and broadcasting stations that I could name and rang each one. Confidently, I announced there would be a free, public tribute to John in Liverpool the following Sunday. Details would follow.
A full hour passed before I re-joined my wife and sister-in-law. Joan glared at me. 'Where have you been? You've missed the soup!' To hell with the soup, I thought, before cautiously trying to explain what it was I intended to do. 'I'm putting on a show for John,' I said, resolutely. Joan knew better than to object. She had seen me this way too many times before. 'When?' she asked instead. 'On Sunday,' I replied. My spirits were already restored and I smiled for the first time in forty-eight hours. 'Now, where's my steak?'
By then, I was able to tell them with infectious enthusiasm that there would be an all-day concert dedicated to John's life taking place on the plateau of St George's hall (which) would run from nine in the morning until seven at night, and taking part would be an array of current local bands and as many survivors of the Merseybeat era as I could contact. I confidently forecast that at least 10,000 Lennon fans would appear - whatever the weather.
I also declared that there would be a short service, during which those attending would be asked to raise lit candles and bow their heads in silent memory of John for ten minutes. Yes, ten minutes. John deserved nothing less. There were those who didn't think it possible for me to keep quiet for ten seconds, let alone such a tumultuous crowd, but I was determined it would be done. So many people telephoned it became almost impossible to make out-going calls. Eventually, I was forced to ask British Telecom to install another line. Under normal circumstances, it takes several days to provide such a service, but once they were made aware I was doing something for John Lennon, BT pulled out all the stops and had a crew at the house within two hours.
The days that followed were complete mayhem. I worked through the night and managed only three hours sleep in four days. It exhausts me just to recall it.
Media representatives from more than one hundred different countries contacted me, most without consideration for international time zones. Oddly, the only respite was between three and five in the morning when, it seemed, the global village took its lunch-break. I was by this time under no illusions regarding the magnitude of the task I had undertaken. Fortunately, my brother-in-law, Gordon Brown, and a good friend, Ken Doyle, moved into my living room to man the 'phone lines, keeping the media up to date with the latest developments.
Within twenty-four hours of my announcement, more than two dozen groups had volunteered their services. Not one requested a fee. Alan Knipe - a local club owner - provided both his sound equipment and a qualified electrical engineer, free of charge. Dozens of people called to say they would help in any way they could. I had an army of volunteers at my disposal. More than ever, I was determined to produce something of which both John and Liverpool could be proud. I contacted everyone who was anyone and invited them to put into words their own personal tributes. In return, accolades and messages of sympathy poured in from the widest range of public figures, including Sir Harold Wilson, Bill Shankly, Joe Mercer, Henry Cooper, Gerry Marsden and many, many others. After three days, I could think of nobody else to call and pondered at length on who I may have left out.
Joan put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. 'Give it a rest, love,' she said, sympathetically. 'You've called everyone but the Pope!' Twenty minutes later, I'd obtained the telephone number of the Vatican in Rome. Politely, I asked to speak with someone close to el Papa who could obtain for me an official message of condolence from the man himself. Joan walked out of the room, shaking her head, but I was on a roll. Next, I called the White House.
Liverpool Echo, Friday 12 December 1980
Eventually, I attempted to explain there would be no paying customers and that, at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon, he was effectively leaving me with little more than an hour to sort the problem out. My pleas fell on deaf ears. He insisted I could not go ahead without the necessary cover and that if I could not comply, he would have no option but to inform the police the event was illegal. There followed a frantic search for an insurance company willing to provide cover at such ridiculously short notice. In the end, General Accident - who were astonished the council itself was not prepared to underwrite the event - obliged me and covered the day's liabilities at a cost of £500. Picking up the cover-note from their branch office in Water Street, I got to the Municipal Building in Dale Street just in time.
Before leaving the house, I had let it be known that the concert was threatened by the Council's rigid imposition of petty regulations. Outside their administrative headquarters was a posse of photographers and reporters. As I pushed my way through and climbed up the steps towards the entrance, cameras flashed and reporters shouted, 'Is it on, Sam? Is it on?' Triumphantly, I turned to face them and raised the cover-note over my head. 'Of course it's on!' I shouted. 'Go tell the world!' This additional expense meant that running costs were now in excess of £3,500. It was suggested a collection be made, but I was determined money would not sully such an occasion. Some things are above monetary considerations and this, unequivocally, was one of them.
Lord Mayor James Ross and 10 years old me on the left, 1981
The New York City administrators worked closely with the grieving Yoko when making their arrangements and I was truly humbled when, having agreed to our proposal to hold a ten-minute silence, she insisted it coincide with the one taking place in Liverpool. I spent most of Saturday night lying awake in my bed, thinking and worrying about the day ahead. Those fears were compounded by the heavy rain rapping against our bedroom window. I knew from experience the detrimental effect the weather could have on attendances at public events, especially those taking place out in the open.
Liverpool, Sunday 14 December 1980
(SL) As sleep eluded me, I rose early and emptied a pot of tea before leaving the house a little before eight o'clock. Walking to my car, I looked at the dark sky overhead. The rain had eased, but the prospects did not look good. Turning into Lime Street, adjacent to the hall, I watched as the outside broadcast units set up for the day. There were dozens of television, radio and newspaper crews making their preparations and chatting among themselves. With them was a team from CBS News, who were sending live, blanket coverage back to the States by satellite. Radio Merseyside - who gave us tremendous support throughout - arranged their entire day's programming around the event as part of an extended feature - Live from St George's Plateau.
Finally, nine o'clock came and I approached the microphone to thank those early birds patiently waiting for the proceedings to start. Looking at the four huge marble lions proudly guarding the plateau steps brought to mind a phrase: 'the four young lions of Liverpool'. How appropriate it would be if those fine, stone beasts could be dedicated to the Beatles. I introduced Jimmy Ross, who paid his own respects before declaring, 'The people of Liverpool's tribute to John Lennon is now officially open'.
The first group to play was Afraid of Mice, a group of local lads that included Phil Jones, who would later enjoy chart success with Up and Running. I listened for a few minutes and then wandered into the hall. It was still early and the weather was grim, but I was more than a little disappointed at the turn-out. Needing a distraction, I did what I could to keep myself busy. I spent an hour checking the performers had what they needed and fussed over the refreshments being prepared for the brigade of volunteers taken on as marshals for the day. Eventually, I conceded I was just interfering and getting in the way of people who knew what they were doing.
There, as the cold air hit my face, I was suddenly confronted by a sight that took my breath away. Swarming over the broad expanse of Lime Street, a crowd in excess of 25,000 Lennon fans had gathered in front of the hall. As far as the eyes could see, there were people watching and swaying to the music.
(SL) The police had been forced to close Lime Street to all traffic and it was only ten o'clock on a miserable Sunday morning. My heart nearly burst with pride and joy. To my overwhelming relief, the people of Liverpool had responded in style. The newscaster's words drifted back into my mind: 'An estimated congregation of just forty people turned up for the man who once said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.' I looked to heaven with a lump in my throat and said, 'Thank you.'
(TOK) A few days later, on the Sunday, 14 December I attended the memorial at St Georges Hall Plateau that was quickly organised by Sam Leach. It was freezing cold but everyone stood there all day in memory of John and his message of peace with chants of ‘Give Peace A Chance‘ regularly sung in full voice by the throng in between the bands that had hastily been booked for the occasion. I remember at some point running across to the Ribble bus station café in Skelhorn Street for a reviving cup of tea and some warmth with fellow Beatles fans, all sitting huddled together in front of steamed up windows, hands wrapped around hot cups to get some feeling back before resuming our vigil across the road.
Liverpool Echo, Monday 15 December 1980
Another photo from Phil Battle's archive
Liverpool Echo, Friday 19 December 1980
(AH) Within a few months that ex Beatle, Tommy Moore, had taken me along to the Cavern Mecca in Mathew street. I became a regular here and made so many friendships that remain in place today (John Lennon caused that) Tommy also took me along to my first Beatles convention at the Adelphi Hotel, and I loved it. Sadly, just a few weeks later we lost that remarkable man, Tommy Moore, the guy who had not only introduced me to Beatles and Rory Storm, but had also tried to get me to play the drums, but it was not to be as guitars had become my thing. As you do I started hanging out with lads who liked guitars and Beatles music. We would learn each other things and try to copy the songs. Rock and Roll songs were the easiest to learn so we started there. It ventured into playing in bands. I had started to play bass by now and we began by performing the rock and roll songs before moving on to other things. I was never gifted, but it was all good fun. I still strum the guitars today but just for fun. But I had been one of those kids who sought to play music, who hung out with others who shared the same dream, it was a great experience (John Lennon caused that)
(TOK) Within 4 years, the Cavern Club would be rebuilt in its original location in Mathew St and the 60s music scene, Beatles conventions and festivals (not to mention a plethora of Beatles tribute bands and artists across the world!) and even the street itself would be re-born for a new age. The Beatles would once again become the band by which all others were judged and a new appreciation of their catalogue would influence a new generation of musicians and fans. Now, 40 years later, that is still the case.
(AH) So! I became a Beatles fan, and a fan of the Merseybeat era. I am glad the city of Liverpool finally caught up and embraced its talented sons. I love to see the fans and tourists exploring the city and Beatles places all excited. I love the live music venues and the bands who still keep the music of Merseybeat going for us all to enjoy. I do sometimes sadly think that it took the death of John Lennon to make this happen.
(TOK) So, December 8th in the UK was an ordinary, dank, unmemorable December day like any other. It was December 9th that stopped us in our tracks and so it is today that I remember John Lennon, ‘the toppermost of the poppermost’ and the day the earth stood still.
Liverpool Echo , 11 December 2010
Thirty years later the Echo's Peter Grant talked to Sam Leach about his memories of that day.
Sam says the day left its mark for so many reasons and he is happy that it is looked back on with affection in the part it played on the “Liverpool Loves Lennon” legacy.
He says: “Like every event, there are things that don’t go to plan. But it took just four days to organise and happen.”
He says that he had to do it because he believes the world’s media would have looked at John’s home town and said: ‘they don’t care about Lennon’.
Would Sam do it all again?
He sighs: “I wish he was still with us. But, yeah, despite all the red tape put in my way. It wasn’t about money – it was about emotion – about the messages John sang about.”
“How can you beat a crowd of 100,000* people – comprising all ages – all-patient and all singing a version of Give Peace a Chance to a candle-lit backdrop. A 10-minute silence, too. When we did Happy Christmas (War is Over) even the police joined in. I looked over at the four lions fronting the St George’s Hall steps where once John and his art school pals messed around. John loved Liverpool and we loved him back.”
Sam later felt elated at the response from fans all the world over. Yet, a year later he received a less than favourable letter.
He laughs: “The Corpy sent me a £250 bill for apparent damage to a statue. I think John would have loved the irony.”
* Actual figure seems closer to the 25,000 Sam claims in his book.
In 1980 Liverpool City Council had little interest in John Lennon or the Beatles. Save for the tireless efforts of one man, John Lennon's death would have passed without any significant recognition in his own birthplace. I dedicate this post to Sam Leach.
(SL) The late Sam Leach's comments are lifted from the the prologue of his book The Rocking City which is highly recommended.
(AH) Anthony Hogan was 15 in 1980 and went on to write From A Storm To A Hurricane, the biography of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, as well as The Beat Makers, Merseyside At War and A Life As A Bluenose: The Story of an Evertonian.
(MP) Echo cover star Margaret Parsons's recollections of 9 December 1980 first appeared in my earlier blog here
All newspaper cuttings from the Liverpool Echo unless stated.