John Lennon, The Beatles and music history in Weybridge
- Credit: Archant
In the four years that John Lennon lived in Weybridge from 1964, The Beatles cemented their status as the world’s biggest band. On the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death, MATTHEW WILLIAMS embarks on a magical mystery tour of his own
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2010
DESPITE being senselessly murdered outside his New York apartment 30 years ago, John Lennon remains big news. If any further evidence were needed, the recent childhood biopic, Nowhere Boy, the high profile release of the reissued back catalogue, the new computer game The Beatles Rock Band, and the mad panic that ensued when his Hollywood star was relocated without prior announcement are probably not a bad place to start.
Less, however, is spoken about the four years in the mid-1960s, when bohemia well and truly came to Weybridge. Lennon and then wife Cynthia moved to St George’s Hill, with the purchase of the mock Tudor residence, Kenwood, for £20,000, on July 15, 1964, and he lived there during what was arguably the most important time in his career.
These were four years that saw him write the songs for the seminal Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, meet Elvis (sadly not in Weybridge), play Shea Stadium in New York to 60,000 screaming fans, start Apple Corps, as The Beatles attempted to control their own artistic pursuits, and ultimately meet Yoko Ono.
The end of the world’s most famous band was nigh, but there were still plenty of highs to come.
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“During the period that John lived there, Kenwood was, in a very quiet way, quite the enclave of bohemianism in the midst of an archetypal conservative private estate,” says Sean Jackson, a long time enthusiast, who since reading the famous Hunter Davies biography of The Beatles has been fascinated by the stars former Weybridge home and now runs a blog about the property’s Lennon links.
“While on one hand, Cynthia was raising Julian in the normal fashion, John was composing, both on his own and with Paul, inviting the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter Cook round for dinner, and experimenting with all the then fashionable substances.”
Scandal at St George’s Hill
What with his psychedelic Rolls-Royce, the constant presence of the fans, and John and friends occasionally being spotted wandering around in various states of inebriation, it’s hardly surprising that many of the older inhabitants of St George’s Hill were said to be less than impressed.
In fact, legend has it that the local golf club specifically stated that John wouldn’t be invited to join. While this is refuted these days (John didn’t play golf anyway, so it would have been neither here nor there), you can certainly picture the scene.
“There were also other incidents reported in the press at the time, such as when John’s psychedelic caravan was delivered,” adds Sean. “His immediate neighbour came out screaming and shouting about what a disgrace it was, only to, apparently, be jeered at by the ever-present girls at Kenwood’s gate.”
Although Cynthia would often be seen shopping in Weybridge for shoes and such, John was spotted in town only rarely though he would occasionally venture in for a drink at the local pub. Generally, though, he preferred to stay at home, and either watch TV, read, draw, paint, write songs or compose his stories and poems; along with his other recreational activities, of course.
Come Christmas 1964, however, John decided that it was time he learned to drive, and he set up a series of lessons with a Weybridge driving school. John passed his test, watched by some 200 girls at the centre in Queens Road, in February 1965, after only seven lessons. His instructor Paul Willson later revealed that they were often followed around Weybridge by enthusiastic fans and that “whenever we did a practice reverse or three-point turn, they would follow us and do the same.”
A Rolls, a caravan and a boot
Of course, John later went on to own the now legendary Rolls-Royce custom equipped with a Sterno Radio Telephone (with the number Weybridge 46676) and a loudhailer hidden under the wheel arches, with which he’d tease bystanders. Originally in matt black, John became restless with the plain Rolls and so in April of 1967 visited JP Fallon, a coachworks company located in Chertsey, for its psychedelic respray.
The car was finished and unveiled in an avalanche of publicity just in time for the release of the Sgt Pepper album. He also kept the caravan adorned with the same lurid display in his garden, which at the time seemed to be becoming something of a psychedelic museum in its own right.
“In the film Help!, Paul McCartney was somehow shrunk to a tiny size, and seen climbing out of his shoe,” says James Bell of the Weybridge Society. “A huge model of a boot was created for this scene and this was kept for a while in John Lennon’s garden. A car chassis was later added for a charity boot run held for Brooklands Technical College rag week.”
Giant shoes and psychedelic cavalcades aside, inspiration came from the strangest of places during Lennon’s time in Weybridge. While it is said that he never felt a great deal of fondness for Kenwood, and moved to Sunningdale with Yoko soon after his divorce from Cynthia, it was nevertheless the place where some of the greatest popular music of the 20th century was written.
Beatles songs written in Surrey
While the idea for Eight Days a Week reportedly came to Paul on a cab journey to John’s home, Day Tripper, In My Life, Good Day Sunshine and Across the Universe were just some of the classics penned at the house. Lennon would write upstairs, where he had a set of tape recorders linked up: “not enough equipment to make a rock and roll record but I could make some far-out stuff on it” as he put it to Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Meanwhile, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is said to have been inspired by a painting his son Julian did of a classmate at Heath House school.
Even the cover of Rubber Soul came from a photo shoot that took place at Kenwood with celebrated photographer Robert Freeman. And later on, after meeting Yoko Ono at a London art exhibition, the pair recorded the experimental Two Virgins album in the attic although the controversial nude cover was shot elsewhere.
In fact, the Weybridge home, which is still standing today and is now owned by a Russian businessman, seems to have a musical history of its own. Another subsequent occupier was Bill Martin, the songwriter responsible for Congratulations and Puppet on a String.
Just last year, the house hit the headlines yet again, when excerpts from a rediscovered interview with Lennon, conducted at Kenwood in 1968, were published in the New Statesman. At the time, only a snippet of the six-hour interview was printed, despite it containing probably Lennon’s strongest defence of The Beatles move towards more experimental sounds. It also mentions that the young interviewer was picked up from Weybridge station by Lennon himself in a Mini Cooper.
Lennon’s infamous interviews at Kenwood
It wasn’t the first time a Kenwood interview had made headlines, either. Lennon’s infamous “more popular than Jesus” comments which resulted in an American backlash against the group were taken, out of context, from an interview he gave Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave at his Weybridge home in 1966.
It may not have been the happiest time of his life, but there seems little doubting the creative output of Lennon’s years at Kenwood. With his drug use escalating and relationship with Yoko Ono becoming more apparent, Cynthia and John divorced in 1968. The house, along with custody of son Julian, went to Cynthia and Lennon’s association with Surrey was over. It was not long before he quit The Beatles and flew off to New York with Yoko. And the rest, as they say, is history.
HAVE YOUR SAY!
Of course, John Lennon wasn’t the only Beatle to make a home of Surrey, with George Harrison and Ringo Starr both having been residents of the county, too. We’d love to hear your stories and see your pictures of The Beatles in Surrey. Please, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Originally published by Surrey Life in May 2010
The Beatles and a Surrey photographer
AS BEATLEMANIA kicked off in the 60s, Surrey-based photographer Tom Hanley was by the bands side to capture their accent in all its glory
The Hinchley Wood resident’s career ran parallel to that of John, Paul, George and Ringo, seeing in the beginning, middle and end of the Beatles, with enviable access along the way.
“As much as I enjoyed the bands company, and they were always fun, being stuck with the Beatles even in the luxury of the George V in Paris, in January 1964, was some indication of the imprisonment that they were to experience later in their lives,” says Tom, now 79, who was staff photographer at Today magazine for many years and among the first to get the inside line on the Beatles, with journalist friends Derek Taylor and Mike Hennessey.
“After that trip, I said to myself, no more Beatles and three weeks later when they went to the USA for the first time I turned it down. However, I couldn’t resist going to the airport to see them off and I was flattered by their reaction when I told them I wouldn’t be there with them. No regrets.”
In 1968 though, Tom returned to work with the group, meeting them again at the Apple office in Saville Row and becoming part of the furniture indeed, it was he who took the pictures for Inside the crazy world of Apple. Tom Hanley’s association with the Beatles would continue until 1995, when, at the age of 64, his work was done.
Originally published by Surrey Life in March 2010
Help! John Lennon’s boot on a roll in Weybridge
From the Help! film to college rag week via John Lennon’s Weybridge garden: the tale of The Beatles’ giant boot as told to Surrey Life by Brian Wilson, formerly of BAC Weybridge, who now lives in Australia:
“Originally, it was made up by the people at Twickenham Studios using plaster of paris and a wooden frame coated in chicken wire over an old Morris 8 chassis.
“I had to reduce its weight (typical aero-engineering stuff really), so I broke off all the plaster, climbed inside and jigsawed out the frame to reduce weight there (no power tools in those days), then re-covered it using papier-mache (newspapers and wallpaper glue). Then I sealed it inside and out, gave it drainage holes in case it rained, and painted it as it had been originally. Did it all myself - not much enthusiasm for extra work among BACs youth.
John Lennon’s giant garden gnome substitute
“The rags emblem was a footprint, and during rag week, little stickers went up everywhere in those less environmentally sensitive days (including central London - there was an incident when giant white footprints were whitewashed all down Whitehall in the middle of the night!). There were footprints painted up and over the TSR-2 construction sheds, nicely in view of commuters on the railway past Brooklands.
“Anyway, John Lennon was apparently getting tired of his giant garden gnome substitute and it occurred to him to offer it to the rag week organisers, being as it was a pseudo symbolic footprint thing. I don’t know who he contacted, or quite what it was used for during rag week 65, because at that time I was relatively new (I’d started in Sept 64 and wasn’t on the committee or much involved).
I do know that it was carted about the district to take part in several nefarious activities. Afterwards it sat on the racetrack just north of the ATS until we were instructed by the management to get rid of it.
“I was by this time the newly-elected public relations officer of the Apprentice Association and volunteered to find a solution. I’d been roped in the previous year for the Bed-Push, which involved relocating a brass bed, mounted on a chassis, to Luton.
“I reckoned I could do something of the sort with The Boot. Filton apprentii were receptive to becoming recipients, and 112 miles suitably trumped the 50 miles or so to Luton, so I proposed it. Basically I was told I could do my silly stunt provided it cost nothing and I did everything, hence my weeks of solo re-working.
Visiting John Lennon in Weybridge
“Soon after it was over, some of the pushers were drinking at my place one night (not a frequent event it must be said), when they took it into their heads to go and thank John Lennon for the boot. I was against it, sensing a public relations disaster in the making, but in the end I went along on the basis that I had a better chance of preventing trouble if I was present than by sitting at home while a bunch of loose cannons trailed around St George’s Hill. I remember John Gamlin and my brother Keith being in the van that night.
“We got fairly short shrift at JL’s front door, which was a huge relief to me. I didn’t think these vaguely inebriated guys were a good advertisement for what I’d stood for in organising the Push.
“As an aside, does anyone else remember JL’s psychedelic Rolls and his wicker-panelled mini that used to be seen around Weybridge? I remember seeing the mini parked outside one of the shops on the sweeping corner where Addlestone Road meets Heath Road. Windows so tinted you wondered if that was what it was like to be inside a black hole!”