Even for a famous presenter on BBC Radio 1 who had interviewed countless household names, a meeting with one of the most famous musicians on the planet promised to be a thrilling exclusive.
Yet little did Andy Peebles know that his audience with John Lennon — the former Beatle’s first interview in a decade — was fated to become the most important obituary in the history of pop music.
Just two days after they met in December 1980, and while Andy was on his flight back to London, Lennon was gunned down in cold blood by Mark Chapman outside his New York apartment block.
This Tuesday it will be 40 years since that appalling event generated instant news-flashes and headlines worldwide.
It was only when his plane landed at Heathrow that Andy learnt of the tragedy.
Still in shock, he found himself delivering live tributes on radio and television, for domestic and foreign media, as the last British journalist to have seen Lennon before he died. But far from it being a career-defining moment, the John Lennon interview took Andy to the brink of breakdown.
‘I lost all sense of self-worth in the aftermath,’ he admits to me. ‘… It blighted my life, and stunted me… The obsession nearly drove me mad. I tormented myself with survivor’s guilt… He was the creator of some of the most brilliant music of the 20th century and will never be forgotten. I was nobody.’
Andy and I met in the 1980s as journalists and have been close friends ever since. Earlier this year we spent several hours discussing his encounter for my new book on John Lennon.
Close: Andy Peebles with John Lennon and Yoko Ono two days before singer died
Now 71, his memory was sharp, his grief undiminished. It was almost as if his meeting with Lennon had taken place only the day before. He had interviewed Paul McCartney several times but said he had long been fascinated by how Lennon — deprived of affection in childhood, brittle and cynical in adulthood — knew how to write love songs of such depth and feeling.
‘John’s mother gave him away to her childless sister Mimi. Everybody wanted John for something, even when he was little. But not for love,’ says Andy.
‘He felt spat-out and irrelevant. He never grew out of that. He was a pawn in other people’s lives. He came to scorn those who showered him with affection. Presumably because he felt he didn’t deserve it… He wrote If I Fell and In My Life and the rest at such a tender age. But how did he know that true love is the essence of life and is something that money can’t buy?’
By the time of that first and only meeting with the former Beatle, John had been married to second wife Yoko Ono for 11 years. Their relationship had certainly had its ups and downs, including an infamous 18-month ‘lost weekend’ when John took up with their Chinese-American assistant May Pang.
But they had reunited and their son Sean was born on John’s 35th birthday, October 9, 1975. For the five years following, John had become a virtual recluse during what he called the ‘house-husband’ years.
Then in 1980 he re-emerged with his and Yoko’s joint album Double Fantasy. Andy had secured the interview to promote John’s comeback.
When the Radio 1 team arrived at the Dakota building on Friday, December 5 for a preliminary meeting, Lennon’s soon-to-be murderer, Mark Chapman, was one of many ‘fans’ standing outside.
‘He was often there,’ says Andy. ‘He got John to sign records and was selling them on. Yoko was definitely aware of him.’
Ushered into the palatial apartment, they found Yoko in her office behind a huge desk. ‘She cross-examined us,’ says Andy. ‘It felt like she wanted us to beg for the interview. She said it had to be 50:50 about her and John. I made a mental note: “Delete”.’
The next morning, Andy went to the famous Hit Factory studios to do the interview. ‘John evidently felt at home there,’ he says. ‘There was a noticeable transformation in Yoko’s attitude. There was only one star in the room: it wasn’t her.’
In black jeans and a skinny black sweater, John looked thin, he recalls. ‘He put his arms around me and hugged me. He was warm, charming and polite, and as sharp as a scalpel. We got down to it.
‘I was astonished by the outpouring from this man, who was clearly missing the homeland and his kin. Out it all came: reminiscences, themes, memories, messages to the folks back home. We slipped instantly into British slang. Yoko, amazed, fell silent.’
Fateful: John Lennon signs autograph for Mark Chapman hours before Chapman killed him
On and on the conversation went for an unprecedented three hours and 22 minutes. The Chinese meal they had ordered went cold because John insisted they kept going.
‘He told such great stories — about his childhood, his deep passion for Liverpool, his first group, The Quarrymen, his lifelong “sibling rivalry” with Paul, The Beatles’ time in Hamburg, finding Yoko, the bed-ins, the bag-ins, the miscarriages, even his sperm count!
‘He spoke of his secret longing to have been a comedian, and his evolution into a more feminist, nicer person. He explained how he loved living in New York, and how much he missed England. He told me about McCartney turning up at the Dakota and ringing the doorbell, and John not letting him up, yelling down, “I’m baking bread and looking after the baby! If you think I’m coming out clubbing, you’ve gone mad!” ’
‘Do you get homesick?’ Andy asked. ‘Terminally,’ Lennon replied.
‘This was a man in early middle age who had accomplished over the course of 20 years what most people could never imagine achieving in their entire lifetime,’ says Andy.
‘The group he founded was the greatest cultural and social phenomenon of all time. The Beatles were still as familiar to millions of people in every corner of the globe as their own names. Their music had never gone away.’
John hadn’t been doing big solo world tours and racking up hits the way McCartney had, but Andy feels that he was building up to that.
(I later learn from Lennon’s guitarist Earl Slick that Lennon was planning a global comeback tour in 1981. He wanted to sail into Liverpool on the QE2, give a gig to end all gigs, and then perform across the world.)
Andy’s eyes light up as he describes dinner later that night with the Lennons at Mr Chow’s, their favourite restaurant, to celebrate the success of the interview. ‘I even travelled there in the car with John and his armed bodyguard. As if he didn’t want to let me out of his sight.
Mr Chow’s is an opulent place, below ground level. We walk in, we’re at the top of the staircase. John is in a silver jacket with a fur trim. He looks a million dollars, the ultimate rock superstar, and he has his arm around my shoulder. We’d bonded in the short time we had spent together. As we peered down into the restaurant . . . every pair of eyes was on us.’
Just two days after they met in December 1980, and while Andy was on his flight back to London, Lennon was gunned down by Mark Chapman outside his New York apartment block
Andy captures John’s Scouse accent perfectly: ‘Eh, our Andrew, just look at that. They’re all going, “Who the f***’s that up there with Andy Peebles?” ’
Two days later — Monday, December 8 — the Radio 1 team boarded their 7pm Pan Am flight at JFK airport. The celebrations continued over drinks on board. Then, halfway across the Atlantic, it became apparent that one of the aircraft doors was not sealed securely and there was ‘a good deal of faffing around’. ‘I was in a state of high anxiety,’ Andy says. ‘I got up and walked down the plane at the very moment, it later turned out, that Chapman pulled the trigger: 10.50pm New York time [3.50am in London].
‘It was uncanny. It gives me shivers to this day. We landed just before 6am. I went to a pay-phone to tell my mother I was home. [BBC producer] Paul Williams did the same, calling his wife. But I sensed that something was wrong. “John has been shot,” he said, white-faced. “He’s dead.” ’
At this point during our interview, Andy begins to shake and wipe sweat from his forehead. He recalls how two uniformed policemen escorted him to the BBC airport studio to do a live broadcast for Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘I didn’t weep,’ he says. ‘I just felt numb. I am public school, stiff upper lip. I got on with the job . . . I went from the airport to the BBC. Radio 1’s controller Derek Chinnery sat me down, fetched me breakfast and said, “I think we need to realise, Andy, that this will never, ever go away.” ’
‘Derek wanted [the late DJ] John Peel and me to do a live on-air tribute to John that morning. On zero sleep, I did it. I went home, changed and was chauffeured to appear in a live Old Grey Whistle Test special [the BBC music show] with Paul Gambaccini and Annie Nightingale. When Annie cued the video of Imagine, the song that moved millions of hearts to generosity and goodwill, the red desk light started flashing.
‘It was Paul McCartney. “Thank you for doing a wonderful job,” he said. “Linda and I are watching.” ’
Days later, Andy received a call at the BBC from former Beatles producer George Martin.
‘He asked me to walk down to his studio on Oxford Circus. I knew exactly who would be waiting for me. Paul McCartney and I had a private conversation. He needed me to reassure him that John still loved him, despite all the post-Beatles fallings-out . . .
‘ “John talked about you in the interview,” I told Paul. “He was sarcastic, funny and irreverent but there was no doubting his fondness for you.”… We both became very emotional. I knew Paul well enough… I felt awful for making him cry.
Over the months and years to come, a bizarre friendship grew between Andy, Yoko and Sean. ‘When the BBC decided to pay tribute on the first anniversary of John’s death, she insisted that only I could interview her,’ he says. ‘The same thing happened two years later, when she flew me to Tokyo.
‘She phoned me at home all the time, saying things like, “You knew I was going to call you at that exact moment, didn’t you!” Making out that I must be psychic . . . She would also come to London just to take me out for dinner.
Looking back, I suppose I kidded myself that I meant something to John, and that was why she latched on to me. But the minute I left the BBC, I didn’t hear from her again. It seemed like it was the UK’s national broadcaster that she was interested in, not me. When I realised that, I sank even lower.’
Andy’s view — which I share as Lennon’s biographer — is that Double Fantasy became a worldwide hit only because it was released weeks before Lennon’s death. Some great tracks notwithstanding, it did not deserve the massive sales it achieved. ‘It wasn’t his finest offering,’ Andy admits. ‘He even said to me, “I know this is not my best work, but I also know there is much more to come.” How awful that we never got to hear it.’
Andy left Radio 1 in 1991 after 13 years. He has since worked for Smooth Radio and Capital Gold; married late, and acquired an adult stepdaughter; and moved north from London to Blackburn, where his wife Anne lived and worked.
How does he feel as the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death approached? ‘I have pulled myself together,’ he says.
‘‘At my age, I am thankful for life and for the love of my wife and family.’ Does he still think about John? ‘Every day.’
‘How can you miss a person you met only once?’ I ask. ‘Because I have carried his murder around like excess baggage, as though it were my fault,’ he says. ‘I can usually reason my way out of such dark thoughts. But John haunts me. He has never left my side.
‘What I miss is the opportunity to have spent more time with him. I miss a man who was fantastic company, who I had much in common with, and with whom I was looking forward to a rewarding friendship. The consolation is that there was no perilous descent for John, as there is for most rock stars. He is preserved at the age of 40 for all time. I know he was artistically at peace. He was happy, contented, and genuinely thrilled with his child.’
It occurred to me then how much he still cared for John’s son Sean. ‘I wanted that little boy to feel happy and loved. He reminded me of my boyhood self in many ways. I’d lost my own father at a young age, so I related. The pain never leaves you.
‘Sean and I used to sit on the sofa together, watching his favourite, Inspector Gadget, on TV. We would talk for hours. He was, for a while, the child I never had. Like the title of the song dedicated to him on Double Fantasy, he really was a very beautiful boy.’
After Yoko dropped him, Andy never saw Sean again. ‘He is older today than John was when he died, which makes you think. I wish him well. I always have. I have never stopped wondering about him.’
WHO KILLED JOHN LENNON? The Lives, Loves And Deaths Of The Greatest Rock Star by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by John Blake / Bonnier.