Thursday, December 08, 2005

John Lennon

It was twenty-five years ago tonight that John Lennon died, shot to death by Mark David Chapman who fulfilled John's own prediction of how he'd die "I'll probably be popped off by some loony."

Like everyone else I heard about Lennon's death on television. If I'm not mistaken I was watching Carson. The first announcement of John Lennon's murder had been made by Howard Cossel on Monday Night Football because a producer for WABC-TV in New York had been in the Emergency Room of Roosevelt Hospital waiting for some X-Rays. He called his station with the news which was then confirmed and relayed to Cosell. Details were promised on Nightline but there were certainly some reminiscences from Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford. John and Yoko had been on Monday Night Football at least once - a famous incident where John had appeared with Ronald Reagan.

I however was not a Monday Night Football fan - in 1980 I was a devotee of Lou Grant among other shows - and was watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when NBC News interrupted with the report that John Lennon had been shot and killed. I suspect that CBS also broke in whatever they were showing at the time with a report. No network news director wanted a repetition of what happened at CBS when Elvis Presley died. Cronkite was on vacation and Roger Mudd was the anchor which also meant that he was setting the running order for the show. When the news came in that Elvis had died, Mudd decided that Elvis had been out of the public eye too long and wasn't "important" enough to lead the news so he moved the story to the middle of the broadcast - and came off looking like an elitist when ABC and NBC ran the story as the lead item on their newscasts. Some people mark that event as the end of Mudd's pre-eminence in the "fight" to replace Cronkite. Certainly no network news director was prepared to make a similar decision about Lennon, even though he'd had been out of the spotlight longer than Elvis had at the time of his death.

Over the next few days television news gave extensive coverage to the mourning for John Lennon. Some of it was moving - the vigil at Central Park and the ten minutes of silence the Sunday following the murder - some of it was newsworthy - putting together the sequence of events that brought John Lennon and Mark David Chapman together that night - and the trivial - John and Yoko had just recently bought bullet proof vests for the NYPD. Then of course the story faded from the news coming up on the anniversary of John Lennon's death and when there were other assassinations or attempts, as when Ronald Reagan was shot less than six months later. Over time the media remembrances of the event grew fewer even as nostalgia for The Beatles grew.

I think you could call John Lennon and The Beatles creations of Television in some way. John didn't grow up with TV - although regular TV broadcasting in Britain began in 1936 it was mostly restricted to London into the early 1950s and for a long time was a toy for the rich, and Lennon's family were scarcely affluent. Their influences were different - movies and radio - than a later generation's. Still, television would have an important influence on how their careers developed. They had paid their dues in the cellar clubs of Liverpool and then in Germany where they got their first recording contract ... as a back up band to Tony Sheridan and then as featured performers, but it wasn't until they signed with EMI that that they rose to prominence. Their first EMI recordings in September 1962 were followed within a month with their first TV appearance on Granada TV (one of the stations that made up the ITV network). Within a year they were appearing on ITV's national show Sunday Night At The Paladium as well as a number of other British programs. They still hadn't caught on in the USA despite the efforts of Dick Clark to promote the band on American Bandstand by playing "She Loves You" on the show. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Beatles "A testing of the song ... resulted in laughter and scorn from American teenagers when they saw the group's unusual haircuts." Their first appearance on American TV came on the CBS News in December 1963 which ironically described their act as "the latest non-music from Britain". This report however led a Washington radio station to begin extensive play of an imported copy of some Beatles music which in turn led to Capitol Records' early release of "I Want To Hold Your Hand".

It was the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that really made them an international phenomenon. The Sullivan appearances on three consecutive shows (February 9, 16, and 23) were the first time that I saw the band. And I do mean saw - if you've ever watched the tapes of those appearances you'll notice that the band could barely be heard over the screams of the teenaged audience (in fact the four Ed Sullivan Show appearances are available on DVD). It was one of the great television moments and it occurred in part because Brian Epstein was trying to promote the group in America and in part because Sullivan was receptive. Say whatever you want about Ed Sullivan, he had an incredible eye for talent and if he didn't think that the Beatles were good no amount of cajoling from a manager/promoter would get them on his show.

In the post Beatles period, John Lennon's TV appearances were fewer. He spent a week as "co-host" on the Mike Douglas Show (something that I find incredibly difficult to picture to be honest) and did a three Dick Cavett Shows which are available on DVD. His last TV appearance was on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show in April 1975. Increasingly Lennon was withdrawing from the spotlight, becoming something of a recluse and raising his son with Yoko Ono. At the time of his murder he was re-entering the music industry and would probably have made more TV appearances had his life not been cut short. He was inextricably tied to television as a promotional tool; besides, he was good at it.

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