Revisiting John Lennon’s candid interview on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975
In 1975, John Lennon had long transcended music and had become the definitive face of the decade. Typically outspoken in his demeanour, the BBC sent Bob Harris over to New York to record a special interview with the former Beat;e which had the whole of Blighty on the edge of their seats hanging on Lennon’s every word.
Harris was on fine form as an interviewer, managing to get Lennon to be candid, open as well as reflective which led to a fascinating and respectful encounter between the duo—a conversation that was topped off with a stunning performance of ‘Stand By Me’.
One particular highlight arrived when Harris mentioned that he was asking “The inevitable question” which he didn’t even have to finish as Lennon, with a wry smile on his face, finished it for him: “Are they ever going to get back together?” he says, to which the presenter adds more depth to the question: “First of all is there any possibility, secondly and much more importantly, do you think that it’s a good idea?”
Rather than offering Harris a soundbite, Lennon responds with a heavily nuanced answer, digesting: “That’s another point all together whether it would be a good idea or not. You see it’s strange because at one period when they were asking me I’d say ‘No, never, go back not me’ and then I came to a period where I thought why not if we felt like making a record or doing something. Everybody always envisaged a stage show but to me, if we were together, it would be in the studio again. The stage show is something else but if we’ve got something to say in the studio, then okay.”
Lennon continued: “Now when I’m saying that, I turn the paper and George is saying ‘Not me’, it’s never got to the position where each one of us has wanted to do it at the same time. I think over the period of being apart, we’ve all thought wouldn’t it be nice, that wouldn’t be bad. I’ve worked with Ringo and George but I haven’t worked with Paul because we had a more difficult time but now we are pretty close.”
Lennon then gets around to the second part of the question which is answered with just as much detail: “The other question is would it be worth it? That’s answered by if we wanted to do it then it would be worth it. If we got in the studio together and turned each other on again then it would be worth it, sod the critics. The music is the music and if we make a piece that we think would be worthwhile then it goes out. It’s pie in the sky, I don’t care either way. If someone wants to pull it together I’ll go along but I’m not in the mood to pull it together that’s for sure. I think we’ve all got too much to do ourselves if they were all in town I’d say come on down and I’d put them on my record right then it would be a Beatles record. I jammed with Paul, we did a lot of stuff in LA but there were 50 other people playing and they were all just watching me and Paul.”
The conversation then heads towards Lennon’s relationship with former bandmate Paul McCartney which, at the time of their meeting, had gone through a bruised period. Harris asked specifically if he had any regrets about the track How Do You Sleep which is famously written about McCartney, but Lennon replied sincerely and suggested that perhaps the track says more about him than his former bandmate.
The former Beatle, thoughtfully professed: “There were two things I regretted, that there was so much talk about Paul so they missed the song that was a good track and I should have kept my mouth shut but not on the song as that could have been about anybody. Y’know when you look back and Dylan said it about his stuff, that most of it is about him. It’s not about Paul, it’s about me and I’m really attacking myself. I regret the association but what’s a regret, he lived through it. The only thing that matters is how he and I feel about those things, not what the writer or commentator thinks because him and me are okay, so I don’t care about what they say about all that.”
Poignantly adding: “Our first national press was me beating up a disc jockey at Paul’s 21st party, that was the first Beatles national press we got on the back page of The Mirror, I’ve always been a little, y’know, loose and I hope it will change cos I’m fed up of waking up in the papers but if it doesn’t my friends are my friends whatever way.”
One thing that makes the interview so special is that Harris doesn’t interrupt Lennon and allows his thoughts flow. Lennon speaks with a freedom to express himself, an eye-opening difference that wasn’t always apparent in the musician’s television interviews. In addition, the performance of ‘Stand By Me’ is spectacular with Lennon pouring his whole heart into the Ben E. King cover that he famously made his own.
Watch the interview in full as well as the performance, below.