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Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “(Just Like) Starting Over”

FT + Popular64 comments • 3,697 views

#471, 20th December 1980

I don’t remember John Lennon being killed. It would be more accurate to say I don’t remember John Lennon being alive. His murder is the first thing I knew about him, a founding fact of pop music: John Lennon is dead. For me he has been dead longer than Bolan or Hendrix or Buddy Holly, who also came packaged in their deaths, but who I heard about far later.

I guess my parents were shocked, probably upset: I don’t think they cried. There were people crying on the news – but here I’m remembering footage I saw later, howling fans outside the Dakota building, flowers and candles in the snowy night. And then there was this, at Number One.

In the posts on “Imagine” and “Woman” I’ll talk about the later reputation of Lennon and about my reactions at the time to the convulsive impact his murder had on the charts. Normal spoiler rules don’t apply: all three were in a sense the same number one, a procession of Lennon at the top until the grief had begun to be worked through. “Starting Over” happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, so it was up first.

The strength of “(Just Like) Starting Over” is that tragedy slips off it: it still sounds as slight and relaxed as it must have done in November 1980, a natural No.20 hit by a star whose comeback was to be greeted with fondness but not overly indulged. Even the horrid irony of the title and sentiment has faded, leaving its mushy goodwill intact. A pastiche of the 50s rock and doo-wop Lennon loved, “Starting Over” can seem little more than superior Showaddywaddy, the man’s gifts for a hook and obvious enjoyment lifting it out of the retro trap. It’s a strong record but not at all a great one: in fact it fits comfortably into the minor canon of Later Solo Beatle Works, cosy pop music made by clearly talented men with nothing much left to prove.

Even so there’s a little more to it: Lennon picked it as a comeback single because of its self-referential qualities, reintroducing himself to an audience who’d moved dramatically on since 1975. The song is a man feeling his way back into a relationship by deploying the music he’d loved when younger, implicitly asking himself (and us) what this music might still mean now middle-age was rolling on. “Starting Over” is a record that treats rock music with an amused, endearing fondness: not trying to recapture past glories, just wondering out loud whether they could fuel deeper, richer present satisfactions. As demographic and format changes turned the rock audience upside-down, the question would become an increasingly crucial one: the questioner never got the chance to expand on this sketch of an answer.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    rosie on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Aw, that’s nice, we all thought. John’s been quiet for a long time now and we all know he’s had his problems with drink and drugs to the point where even Yoko was getting fed up. And then this comes along. It’s no Strawberry Fields but it’s a pleasant enough little ditty, worthy of the lower reaches of the top twenty which is where it appeared to be stalling.

    And then came that morning. I was back at work, doing computery things for a printing company, and running late. Dave Lee Travis was playing Beatles records back to back on the morning Radio 1 show but I never did get to hear why before I had to go out. I asked my office colleagues what was going on and neither of them knew. Then Gary the dedicated Bowie fan from the design studio came in. Did he know? Indeed he did. Lennon’s been shot. Terrible news.

    And it really did feel like the day the music died. I don’t remember the demise of Buddy Holly but I knew at this moment what it would be like. Of course, one always knew that of all the Beatles John would be the one to go violently, but all the same I think we all felt that the Beatles were forever, even if they were no longer an item.

    It has extra resonance for me. I was in a marital and domestic rut and I was unhappy there. When Lennon died I knew the game was up. Something very apt, which we won’t officially be discussing but I bet we will, would soon mark the beginning of the next phase of my life. But for now, well, we were all Yoko that day.

  2. 52
    Erithian on 9 Dec 2008 #

    That chart run in full: 30-20-13-8-10-21-1-2 (Xmas) – 5-5-15-22.

  3. 53
    Mark G on 9 Dec 2008 #

    Well, the first six weeks (i’m sure it went down to 21 the chart after he died, but anyway) was a respectable chart run for his comeback single, as low-key as it was ever going to be. 2 weeks top ten.

  4. 54
    Malice Cooper on 9 Dec 2008 #

    average pop song but when compared to the abysmal “Woman” it suddenly became a masterpiece.

  5. 55
    punctum on 16 Sep 2009 #

    Excerpt from Press Association release, Friday 7 January 1977:

    “Heathrow Airport was teeming with reporters, photographers and thousands of screaming fans to witness the unexpected return of John Lennon to Britain. Striding confidently through the Arrivals gate, the Beatles star and peace campaigner, 36, was smiling, tanned and besuited, with wife Yoko Ono and their two-year-old son Sean in tow, happily signing autographs – though some fans did notice the SEX T-shirt being discreetly worn under his expensive-looking suit.

    At a specially held press conference in the Dorchester Hotel shortly after his arrival, Lennon enthusiastically responded to journalists’ questions. He spoke of the genuine outrage which had provoked him to force the hand of EMI shareholders, demanding that the Sex Pistols’ contract with the record company be maintained and that their debut single “Anarchy In The U.K.” – which this week shot to number one, becoming the surprise first chart-topper of 1977 – not be withdrawn from sale.

    Lennon admitted that the “punk rock” boom had been the decisive factor in influencing his return to the UK, declaring that it was “like the Cavern all over again, but without Brian making us all behave nicely.” Later that evening both John and Yoko were to be seen in London’s Roxy club, “pogoing” energetically to controversial new girl punk band the Slits (“Yoko’s astonished that her musical style has finally caught on with the kids”) and speaking intensely with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the highly-rated punk band the Clash. It is understood that Lennon has now entered into talks with the group with a view to producing their debut album, scheduled for release on Parlophone later this year.”

    Yes, the above should have happened, but didn’t; instead the 36-year-old househusband stayed at home in the Dakota, baking bread, raising Sean, spinning the same old Jerry Lee and Eddie sides he’d spun in his Toxteth bedroom, being sarcastic and dismissive of the Pistols and others. But above all it should have happened because if Lennon had returned to Britain he might still be alive. He took too much for granted, and trusted too much; tentatively re-emerging in suit and short back and sides – looking for all the world like a young Peter Sellers – with a nice and reflective album about the renewed love he had for his wife, he thought it could still be Hamburg in ’61, that he could still walk around New York freely, unprotected by bodyguards, unsealed in bulletproof limousines. He never quite lost that naivety; thus the child inside him was killed by another outside(r) child who couldn’t forgive him for not having made “Revolution #10,” for not still being on the frontline of protest and action, for being a “phoney,” unmasked by the gross crime of wanting to become a middle-aged adult instead of being a child all of his life (“We have grown”).

    In this way the critics who uniformly slaughtered Double Fantasy at the time of its release were not that far removed from Mark Chapman; they bellowed bile at Lennon for not being Weller, for not coming back with a hitherto unimagined Joy Division/B52s/Wire fusion, or fission. But how did they, or Chapman, know that he eventually wouldn’t? There was the American market to consider; Double Fantasy was never going to be dreamt up with Martin Hannett at Strawberry Studios. But, as I said, it was also a tentative re-entry into the world after half a decade of deliberate silence, a wink of “remember me? Are you still interested? Well, we’re still happy, if not happier.”

    The school bell which begins “Starting Over” sounds like a resigned sequel to the “1-2-3-4” which began “I Saw Her Standing There” at the other end of my life. But the resignation is desired, and Lennon sounds satisfied. Fuck the history and the past, “let’s take a chance and fly away somewhere alone”…even as by doing so he was flying back into the public consciousness.

    “Starting Over” is a straightforward mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll ballad, with period echoes courtesy of producer Jack Douglas, and Lennon does indeed appear refreshed, even mischievous with his Presley trembles (“It’s been too long since we took the time”) and the genuinely joyous yelps he makes on the line “It’s LIKE we both are falling in love again.” He is rushing nothing, wants to go back to “the early days”; but there is also a wistfulness about his tone, as demonstrated in the final “let’s take a chance and fly away somewhere” where his voice is phased and synthesised into momentary non-existence. Somewhere away from life?

    Then the music starts again, with airport announcements of flights and departure times, and Lennon bows out; this is the life I want, and I’m off to live it, and you can come with me if you like – but note those increasingly orgasmic yelps (cf. “Revolution #1”) in which he indulges at the fadeout. Don’t take me for granted; I’ve still got some new tricks to play.

    On a personal level, I associate “Starting Over” and Lennon’s assassination with my Oxford interview, since the news had broken on the Tuesday morning that I was due to have the interview – and even in the misty early winter sunshine of Lady Margaret Hall I have never, before or since, seen so many people shellshocked, stunned; the only one who didn’t seem to be was the tutor who interviewed me, who immediately asked me (seeing as one of my entrance examination essays was to do with Keats) the second I entered his study: “Lennon or Keats?” I instinctly and immediately shot back “But where does that leave Cole Porter?” Under such circumstances are futures decided.

    I also recall the train journey from Glasgow Central to Oxford that Monday, down through the dark, rainy and oppressive remnants of the industrial North, cathedrals of sacrificed steel, drowned fires, and associate quite a lot of the darker chart hits of December 1980 with that journey – UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming,” the Specials’ “Do Nothing,” the Stray Cats’ “Runaway Boys” – and certainly there seemed to prevail a cloak of impending catastrophe. As someone in the NME letters pages of the time put it: “first today’s music dies with Ian Curtis, then the father of pop dies.” Meanwhile I got to go to Oxford; and a quarter-century later I listen to this song about starting over, about “our love” being “so special,” about the need to take a chance and fly away, the airport tannoy announcements – and the song means something different to me now, as I am sure its author intended it to sound.

  6. 56
    lonepilgrim on 19 Sep 2009 #

    Marcello’s double fantasy provoked some further thoughts on John Lennon – linked to John Lydon who also left an iconic group before releasing an album mourning the loss of both his mother and railing against the image and music that had become like a straitjacket.

    I don’t know what Lennon (would have) made of UK punk. Living in New York he could have seen any number of the US wave of bands. I suspect his response to UK punk would have been ambivalent at best: “you can count me out/in” but hope he might have responded more positively to the Ramones, Blondie or Patti Smith

  7. 57
    Billy Smart on 19 Sep 2009 #

    In the last interview – just before his death – he says that he likes Madness.

  8. 58
    Waldo on 29 Jan 2010 #

    FLASH! J D SALINGER DIES!

    Whenever somebody of note checks out, Rosie, Erithian and myself start texting away with our mini obits. It’s normally a race to see who can get in first:

    Rosie: J D Salinger caught at last in the rye.
    Erithian: catcher in the rye = caught in the slips.
    Waldo: I bet Lennon’s beating the shit out of him as we speak.
    Erithian: and Reagan joining in!

    RIP, JD. One man. One book.

  9. 59
    thefatgit on 29 Jan 2010 #

    One of the reasons why Rock’n’Roll could exist in the first place was JD Salinger’s book. I’m not sure if the young Lennon had obsessed over the book as much as his killer had, but in his Quarrymen days, he struck that typical rebel pose, and adopted the attitude and manner that went hand-in-hand with being a rock’n’roller.

  10. 60
    Brooksie on 15 Feb 2010 #

    @ Thefatgit # 59:

    “One of the reasons why Rock’n’Roll could exist in the first place was JD Salinger’s book.”

    Too much credit. If ‘Catcher’ hadn’t been written we would still have Rock ‘n’ Roll. Good book for those who feel like ‘outsiders’ though.

  11. 61
    Erithian on 9 Dec 2010 #

    Andy Peebles, who famously got the last interview with Lennon (the one where he says that people in New York will stop you for autographs but they won’t bug you) was talking on Radio 5 last night about the circumstances of his interview. As I write it’s still available on Listen Again from http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00psvgw – his chat with the presenter Tony Livesey begins at around 2:08.00.

    I don’t know whether this was a well-known story already, but I learned the other day that another music legend, James Taylor, had also encountered Mark Chapman that week:
    “It seems amazing to me now, but I lived in the building one up from the Dakota and I heard him shot – five, just as quick as you could pull the trigger, about five explosions. And [Chapman] had button-holed me in the tube station, the subway stop, right in front of 72nd Street the day before. The guy had sort of pinned me to the wall and was glistening with maniacal sweat and talking some freak-speak about what he was going to do and his stuff … and he was going to get in touch with John Lennon. And it was surreal to actually have contact with the guy 24 hours before he shot John.”

  12. 62
    Jimmy the Swede on 10 Dec 2010 #

    I remember the interview very clearly and the bit when Lennon said something on the lines of: “the folk here (NYC) will stop you for autographs and things but they don’t bug you, you know?” …

    I had no idea, though, about the James Taylor meets Mark Chapman story, which sounds fascinating as well as chilling. Whilst I’m sure that Chapman would not have been driven to remove dear gentle old James from the gene pool for being a “phoney”, it is certainly true that had he indeed altered course and slain Taylor in lieu of Lennon, “You’ve Got A Friend” would have been number one instead of “(Just Like) Starting Over”. For all of us who have an unhealthy interest in the pop chart, this is of significant importance.

    On reflection, it’s probably just as well that Roger Whittaker wasn’t staying at or near the Dakota or it might well have been the last farewell in every sense!

  13. 63
    Lena on 22 Oct 2013 #

    TPL visits John Lennon, man not myth: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/john-lennon-collection.html

  14. 64
    hectorthebat on 31 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 7
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 72
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 275
    New Musical Express (UK) – Classic Singles (magazine feature 2006-2007)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 7

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