The Lost Lennon Tour
November 2010 : Issue 135
On the eve of the former Beatle’s tragic assassination
30 years ago, John Lennon & Yoko Ono were planning to tour the world with a live production years ahead of its time.
In this chronicle special, Mark Cunningham talks to the people involved and unravels the missing pieces of an everlasting legacy...
In the second half of 1980, five years after turning his back on the rock star rat race in favour of raising his son Sean with wife Yoko Ono, John Lennon was making a profound comeback and the maverick couple were playing the media circus game to the full.
For the first time since 1975, Lennon returned to the recording studio to create a fresh body of work, and with the help of co-producer Jack Douglas and a crack band of session musicians, the result was Double Fantasy.
The first album release on Geffen Records, David Geffen’s newly-founded label, its songs — including ‘Watching The Wheels’, ‘Beautiful Boy’ and the timeless ‘Woman’ — were arranged back-to-back by the husband and wife duo to form an intimate ‘heart play’.
Although much has been documented about the star’s final creative spurt before his tragic assassination on December 8 that year, little has been written about the chapter that was supposed to follow: John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s 1981 world tour — provisionally titled One World, One People. Even less detail has been divulged about the plans for the tour’s production... until now.
In an interview with Playboy magazine’s David Sheff, a month before the release of Double Fantasy’s trailer single, ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ — though not published until early ’81 — Lennon was asked if he might consider returning to the live stage. He said: “I wouldn’t have believed it a month ago. But then I thought, ‘What the hell, why not?’
“If it’s enjoyable and if it doesn’t become something that one doesn’t want to do, ’cause it’s nice to get up and sing sometimes, like it’s nice to make music. I don’t want to get mixed up in deals and business and spin-offs and pressures, though, because I don’t need that anymore. Once was enough.
“But sure, I’d like to get up on stage with Yoko and a good band and play these songs, and really do ’em, because the band’s hot as shit. They just came off the album and they were all good — we’ve got the good feeling among ourselves. So it would be great. I’m just a little nervous about all that goes on around it. But I think we can probably handle it a bit better this time.”
Days later, on October 9 1980 (Lennon’s 40th birthday and his son’s fifth) it was announced to the press by the couple’s assistant, Fred Seaman, that “next spring, John and Yoko will be touring Japan, USA and Europe”. Having been granted a Green Card in 1976 after a long battle with the U.S. Government, Lennon could now travel the world and return to New York without fear of deportation. Allegedly, South Africa, Australia and Canada were also to have been included on the tour itinerary.
NEW... AND OLD
Jack Douglas, who first worked with the star as second engineer on 1971’s Imagine album, has confirmed that, “John pictured a big production tour... he definitely planned a tremendous production with new arrangements of Beatles songs he felt he never got right.”
One can speculate endlessly about the tour’s set list, which would inevitably have varied from show to show. Lennon’s recent renewed interest in his Beatles catalogue, along with private comments to those closest to him, suggested that new, specially arranged versions of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘Help!’ and — one of the few ‘Fab’ songs with which he consistently associated himself — ‘I Am The Walrus’ were to have made the selection.
Fifties standards such as ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Be- Bop-A-Lula’ were also likely to have made the set in acknowledgment of Lennon’s rock’n’roll roots.
According to writer Castor Dekker, Yoko Ono revealed after her husband’s death that, “John said, ‘We have to sing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’’. Solo classics ‘Imagine’, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ and ‘Instant Karma’ were A-list contenders, as were the then-current ‘Starting Over’ and ‘Woman’, and even newer songs set aside for the couple’s next projected album release, Milk And Honey, including ‘Nobody Told Me’, ‘Borrowed Time’ and Ono’s disco-flavoured ‘Walking On Thin Ice’.
A specially-written ‘Nutopian’ anthem, ‘One World, One People’, is
said to have been earmarked as the set’s finale jam at every show.
Guitarist Earl Slick, who had performed on Double Fantasy and ‘Fame’, Lennon’s 1975 collaboration with David Bowie, says: “As the album was progressing and John was feeling more confident in the people he was making this music with, talk of a possible tour seemed to increase on an almost daily basis.
“The idea was that in the January, we’d complete some tracks that were left over from Double Fantasy and finish off a new album. Once that was in the can, we’d go out on a tour. Most, if not all, of the main musicians were formally asked about our availability at the very end of the sessions in the September.”
Ahead of the tour, Lennon’s first live appearance anywhere since his guest spot on the Salute To Sir Lew Grade TV show in April 1975 was due to be filmed in Hawaii in mid-December 1980 as part of a Mike Douglas TV special — the decision to eventually turn down the invitation proved to be fatal.
Also, to appease fans whose territories were not to be included on the tour itinerary, one of the Lennons’ concerts at New York City’s Madison Square Garden was to have been broadcast live via satellite to TV stations and possibly also cinemas around the world.
This would come 14 years after The Beatles helped to pioneer the medium for their performance of ‘All You Need Is Love’ during 1967’s Our World, the first global TV production.
ONE WORLD: THE PRODUCTION
According to concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith, in the autumn of 1980, he was contacted in London by David Geffen with the aim of promoting a John Lennon world tour — UK dates would inevitably have included Earls Court.
Simultaneously, on the other side of the Atlantic, Henry Smith, a freelance tour manager who cut his industry teeth during the ’60s and early ’70s whilst working for The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin through Mickie Most’s RAK Music, was privately approached by Jack Douglas.
Together with his colleague, Dick Hansen, with whom he had worked on numerous Aerosmith and Roberta Flack tours, he was consulted about putting together a live schedule for the Lennons.
Talking exclusively to TPi, Smith reveals: “Jack Douglas called me and mentioned that John was going on the road and needed people to run his tour. At that time I was out with the Beatlemania stage show, working with Leber Krebs who produced the show, and managed bands like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and AC/DC.
“I had a brief meeting with Jack and John at the Record Plant in New York to get acquainted and talk about the possibilities of his touring. John mentioned that as far as sound and lights went, he knew how to turn on a radio and switch on the lights at home!
“I was trying to show John that he could self-promote his own shows using local promoters and not involve an agency. I’d mentioned to U.S. promoters like Jam Productions in Chicago and Lewis Messena in Texas if they were interested in dates that I might arrange their involvement.”
From the outset, it was Smith and Hansen’s intention to bring in Britannia Row Productions as the worldwide sound and lighting vendor (“for all the hard goods”), with John Conk co-heading the production management role alongside Smith.
A PA system comprising of Martin Audio stacks and Altec subs, along with Midas consoles, would almost certainly have been specified. In those pre-automated days, Brit Row’s default lighting would have included PARs and ACLs.
Had any specific sound engineers and lighting designers been put in the frame? “Not by myself. John or Bryan Grant might have been considering people, but it was premature as we started our involvement just before Thanksgiving and the tour was being considered for May [through July].”
A FISHER DESIGN
Fresh from designing both Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July/Masterblaster tour and Pink Floyd’s ground-breaking The Wall shows, set designer Mark Fisher was invited into the inner sanctum to apply his own creative skills.
Says Smith: “It might have been Dick Hansen or Perry Conley from Brit Row who mentioned Mark to me. It was accepted immediately as he was the leader in stage design as far as I was concerned. Perry called Mark and offered some of our ideas, and he left London that night, drawing up a design to show us in New York the following day.”
Fisher recalls that it was, in fact, Bryan Grant who played “the fixer” in getting him involved. However, Grant’s further activity on the brief project was prevented by his work with Stevie Wonder.
“John’s people contacted Brit Row and it therefore ended up with me in a room with them because of the then-recent production of The Wall,” comments Fisher. “I made the trip to New York in late November/early December and everything was arranged by Bryan.
“Although it wouldn’t be true to say that the tour planning was at an advanced stage, the design process was well under way. I stayed there several days, made sketches and proposals which were favourably received, and then returned to London two days before John’s death.”
Fisher insists that whilst he “met with a man who was acting as their producer”, presumably Douglas, he did not meet either of the Lennons during his New York visit.
He adds: “Looking past the tragedy of John’s death, I never imagined that the sketches I made in New York were anything more than the start of a process, or even that the process would end with me being the designer of the show. Creating a show is a long journey and we had barely started when John was shot.
“I still have the original sketches in my archive, but they might be misleading as to what was in John’s mind, because they were only the starting point of the conversation.”
Jack Douglas says that the initial scenic ideas came from Lennon himself — his rough sketches of a stage included a device that suggested large crab-like arms with cameras mounted on them. Fisher’s proposal modified these with “some articulated booms above the stage with followspots in them”.
Five large video displays were also featured, and Lennon visualised that video content (projected, given the available technology of the period) would be custom-designed for each city on the tour, notably featuring footage of local people and landmarks, thus emphasising the One World, One People theme.
Such a concept would have been many years ahead of its time, and Mark Fisher was poised to make this a practical reality.
Commenting on Douglas’ recollections, Smith says: “It was going to be a complex set for the times. I don’t remember all the details of that drawing, but arms and video were in there, moving in and out — both new concepts for that period. I believe that what Jack remembers is the total concept of both John’s ideas and Mark’s vision of what he knew was achievable.”
THAT FATEFUL NIGHT
We all know how this story ends. Jack Douglas was in the studio with the Lennons on the evening of December 8. After working that night on Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’ for a potential New Year single release, the team planned to reconvene the next day for further work on the next (posthumous) album, Milk And Honey.
“We were so excited, everything was wrapped,” says Douglas. “John got in the elevator with Yoko and said, ‘See you at nine in the morning.’ He had a big smile on his face. He was buzzing.”
Of course, that meeting never happened. At 10.52pm, when John and Yoko’s limo dropped them at the entrance of their Dakota Building apartment at 1 West 72nd Street, Mark David Chapman — an obsessed, paranoid schizophrenic stalker — pumped four bullets into Lennon’s upper torso. The legend was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital and pronounced dead at 11.07pm. The official cause of death was shock produced by massive haemorrhaging.
Just like Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for Man’ or Princess Diana’s tragic car crash, everyone of a certain age remembers the impact of hearing the news of John Lennon’s death.
Henry Smith recalls his moment vividly: “Like so many, I went through a variety of emotions, including absolute disbeilef. I was with Roberta Flack and her band in New Zealand at the time; Dick Hansen was also there. Roberta called me in my room and said John had been shot and died.
“Roberta shared a floor on the Dakota with John and Yoko. The Dakota staff alerted her to what had gone on. At that time they didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack on him or not, and wanted her to be aware.
“She had a show that night and sang one of his songs in his memory — we all joined in and not a dry eye was seen.”
REHEATING THE SOUFFLÉ?
Political assassinations and untimely deaths of public figures never cease to shock the world, but Chapman’s senseless murder of John Lennon remains to this day the most heartbreaking waste of life ever experienced within the artistic community — rivalled only recently by last year’s passing of Michael Jackson.
If he had lived, one can only imagine how the proposed tour would have repositioned Lennon as a performing artist and a major influence on the 1980s.
As relationships between the former Beatles were less frosty in 1980 than at any time since their break-up 10 years earlier, it might not be foolish to assume that at some point on the 1981 tour, a reunion — even briefly during the filmed Madison Square Garden show’s inevitable encore — would have been very possible.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that this was on the cards. Ten days before his death, as part of a deposition by Apple Corps against the producers of the Beatlemania theatre show (whose team, ironically, included Henry Smith),
Lennon categorically stated: “I and the three other former Beatles have plans to stage a reunion concert.”
Footage of the reunion would have provided the final chapter of The Long And Winding Road, the band’s official documentary spearheaded by Apple’s Neil Aspinall that eventually grew into the epic Anthology project of 1995.
That Chapman slayed a husband and a father was tragic in itself, but in the hearts and minds of millions, he also killed The Dream. Today, prisoner 81A3860 remains confined in New York’s Attica Correctional Facility. Let it be.
Photography © Lennon Estate;
Rex Features; Mirror Group; Stufish;
Louise Stickland; TPi Archive