“What were you doing when John Lennon was shot?” This is a question every person who was alive on December 8, 1980 will know the answer to. How could they not? Stolen from the world on that gloomy Monday was an irreplaceable icon, and the resulting shock was haunting and unforgettable. John Lennon’s death 37 years ago triggered an outburst of grief comparable to the public reactions following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The fact that the loss of a singer-songwriter elicited the same response as of the leader of the Civil Rights movement and a U.S. president speaks to Lennon’s immense influence on pop culture. Lennon was a Beatle, but his death signaled a shift more serious than the Beatles’ dissolution ever did. In his brief life, Lennon did far more than thrill millions with his music; he changed the world.
Lennon’s legacy is strongly felt in, yet not at all limited to, the music industry. Prior to The Beatles, few musical groups played their own instruments or sang their own songs; The Beatles did both. Lennon’s unique sense of humor and intellectual keenness quickly revealed themselves in his lyrics; and his love of puns, wordplay, and storybook nonsense came to be one of the Beatles’ most prized traits. No modern songwriter brought such an unaffected playfulness to pop lyrics. John Lennon was also a key player in bringing certain techniques to the front of musical technology, and in the 1960s the Beatles helped influence the way music was recorded. The band forever impacted the evolution of sound, inventing techniques such as audio feedback, sampling, Artificial Double Tracking, and the use of multitrack recording machines.
Lennon influenced nearly every musician that came after him, from Elton John, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, to Oasis, Ray Charles, and Radiohead. Lennon revolutionized the image of pop culture in the eyes of the public from being unimportant and childish to a social force to be reckoned with. His ironic comment, “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” was the first major acknowledgement of the power of pop culture and provoked a reaction from the governments of Mexico, Spain, and South Africa, as well as The Vatican itself.
Few songs are more influential than John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Released in the midst of the Vietnam War, the song was a powerful ode to unity and peace that captured the feelings of anti-war sentiment at the time. Some people go so far as to say Lennon’s activism stopped the war in Vietnam. Although this may not be true, Lennon’s move in the opposite direction — toward peaceful protest — did succeed in angering, bewildering, and ridiculing supporters of the war. In 1999, Broadcast Music Inc. named Lennon’s “Imagine” one of the top 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century, and in 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine placed the “enduring hymn of solace and promise” third on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” “Imagine” has undoubtedly become an international anthem of peace.
The world seems to be in agreement that John Lennon’s legacy cannot, and will not, be forgotten.
In 2000, a number of events commemorated Lennon’s 60th birthday and the 20th anniversary of his death, including a major exhibition on Lennon and his work at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. In 2002, Lennon’s hometown renamed its airport Liverpool John Lennon Airport, and throughout the first decade of the 2000s several countries constructed monuments honoring Lennon. These monuments include a sculpture in the John Lennon Park in Havana, Cuba, and the Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavík, Iceland.
John Lennon is a symbol of peace, hope, and progress. While in the Beatles, and as a solo artist, Lennon captured the hearts of millions worldwide. His legacy will continue to live on for as long as music exists and freedom of expression is valued.
Graphic: Evie Cullen