The crowd roared when they saw him: John Lennon, a surprise guest at Elton John’s 1974 concert at Madison Square Garden. The two had collaborated on a song, so it made sense that the Beatle appeared on stage that night. But behind the obvious creative relationship shared by the two musicians, the “Crocodile Rock” singer has now revealed that they were much more than friends.
John opened up about his special bond with Lennon in a BBC Radio 2 interview with the late star’s son, Sean, in commemoration of what would have been his father’s 80th birthday in 2020. He covered the breadth of their relationship, starting with its very innocent beginnings in the year prior to that special show when they shared the stage in the Big Apple.
John told Sean that he and the former Beatle had “just hit it off immediately.” The pair obviously had much in common – both musicians, they inevitably had lots to talk about. But their shared craft wasn’t what drew him to Lennon, although his talent would be alluring to anyone. Rather, it was his sense of humor, John revealed.
From there, John went on, the relationship that they built became something of “a dream come true.” The “whirlwind romance” did more than just infuse the “Daniel” singer’s life with extra creativity and good music, though. He admitted to Lennon’s son that the pairing had been “such an important thing” to him.
But the relationship fizzled out soon after that heady evening in New York’s Madison Square Garden show, and its demise was a subject John also covered in the interview, too. You’re probably wondering, how had the world missed out on the close relationship between the two famous singers? John felt ready to talk about it nearly 50 years later.
The interview with John conducted by Lennon’s son Sean was only one of a trio of fascinating conversations with those who knew the late Beatle best. BBC Radio 2’s three-part series welcomed the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” singer, as well as Lennon’s eldest son, Julian, and his former songwriting partner and bandmate, Paul McCartney.
Each part of the series brought to light new and fascinating information about the legendary musician, whose life was fated to end in tragedy when he was assassinated in 1980. McCartney, for one, admitted that he continues to think about Lennon whenever he writes new music. This was a particularly interesting revelation because, after The Beatles split up, the duo never penned a song together again.
McCartney said, “I often do it, I’m writing something and I go, ‘Oh, this is awful.,’… and I think, what would John say? And you go, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It’s awful. You’ve got to change it.’ And so I’ll change it. And I know from reports that he did similar things to that, you know, if I’d have a record out, he’d go, ‘Oh, got to go into studio, got to try and do better than Paul.’”
Of course, much of Lennon’s most noteworthy compositions came from his longtime collaboration with McCartney. And, from the sidelines, other musicians have long debated which Beatles song is best. One famous person to voice an opinion was crooner Frank Sinatra – but his choice didn’t sit well with the “Imagine” singer, according to an anecdote Sean told during his chat with half-brother Julian.
Sean revealed that Sinatra listed his favorite Lennon-McCartney track as “Something.” Any Beatles fan will know right away why that ticked off Lennon – the duo didn’t actually write that song. Sean said, “That’s one of the main ones that’s very George, and for Frank to pick that one out is just hilarious. I think he was a bit hurt by that.”
In the same conversation, Julian revealed that he got a sneak preview of one of the last songs his dad really had written. The tune would end up being Lennon’s final single, “(Just Like) Starting Over.” And his eldest son said that he had loved the track as soon as he heard it over the phone.
That phone call took place just before Lennon’s murder, which made it one of Julian’s last memories of his father – and it was a good final mental image to have. He said, “I just remember that as being the last kind of moment, listening to him being extremely happy, in a happy place and doing what he loved and the music that he played me at that particular point… I was very happy for him and looking forward to seeing him again. Anyway, you know, in another dimension!”
As for Sean’s relationship with his dad? Well, that wouldn’t have even existed were it not for pianist extraordinaire John, he revealed during the pair’s radio interview. It all traced back to that performance at Madison Square Garden in 1974. At the time, Lennon and his second wife, Yoko Ono, had been separated for 18 months.
But, according to Sean, Ono ended up attending John’s show and going backstage, where she crossed paths with her estranged spouse. There was no ill-will between them, though. In fact, their son recalled a photo from that very meeting. He said, “I grew up with this photograph of my mom and dad backstage at your show. And they’re looking at each other with real love in their eyes.”
The couple didn’t just reconcile that night, either. Sean revealed, “I was born nine months later, approximately, I mean, almost to the day.” And that’s why he credited John with his entire life – he had unknowingly helped facilitate Ono and Lennon’s reunion, after all. Their son concluded, “In a way, if it wasn’t for you playing that show, I can honestly say I wouldn’t even exist probably.”
And, while all of this information was intriguing to those who revered John Lennon, there was one part of John’s interview in particular that turned heads. The “Rocketman” singer covered his relationship with the former Beatle – and, as it turned out, they were closer than most people knew.
Long before John and Lennon met, though, the former had been a fan of the latter’s music. He told Sean that one of his schoolmates had introduced him to The Beatles via their 1962 debut single “Love Me Do.” The classmate assured John that the band was going to be the biggest band the world had ever seen – and he was quite accurate in that prediction.
John, too, quickly got on board with Beatlemania. He explained why to Sean, saying, “It was the first thing that really came out of Britain as far as pop music goes… even though they were influenced, and we were all influenced, by American artists, it had an original sound. Things were written about Liverpool, Strawberry Fields. It felt authentic.”
And it wouldn’t be long before John joined the Fab Four in the spotlight. His second studio album, Elton John, came out in 1970, and it marked the singer’s first commercially successful production. It didn’t hurt that “Your Song,” one of the artist’s most iconic ballads – and his breakout single – appeared on the record.
Like The Beatles, John began to enjoy success with American audiences. And, when he did, the quartet made it clear that they supported the singer-songwriter. John recalled that he received “a telegram from George [Harrison] when my first album, the Elton John album, got in the charts in America, and that was so exciting.”
As for Lennon, he made it clear that he, too, was a fan of the “Candle in the Wind” singer when the pair met for the first time in 1973. And for John, the feeling was very much mutual. He told Sean that he was “a little bit, obviously, I was in awe” – more so than he had been while meeting any of the other Beatles.
The pair met on the set of Lennon’s music video for “Mind Games.” Why was he so much more enamored by this Beatle when the other three had “treated [him] so brilliantly”? John said, “Your dad had that edge that none of the other Beatles had, kind of because he wasn’t afraid to say what he thought.”
But Lennon hadn’t been critical of John’s work – quite the contrary, according to his son, Sean. He said, “My dad, when he first heard your voice he was in America I think already, and he was thinking that’s the first new kind of British singing that he really liked and dug.”
Sean went on to say, “I think he said that he loved your music and the songs and he liked the song, ‘Your Song.’” Lennon made it clear that he respected John’s talent when he invited him into a recording session for his 1974 studio album, Walls and Bridges. Specifically, he had asked John to sing and play piano on the song, “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”
After hearing the track for the first time John was convinced that it should be the lead single of the album, but at that stage Lennon wasn’t persuaded. The record label agreed with the “Crocodile Rock” singer, though, so John made a bet with his new collaborator: if the song went to number one, then they’d perform live together. Lennon agreed – and we all know how that turned out, since the Beatle appeared on stage with John at Madison Square Garden.
Thousands of people saw Lennon and John on stage that night, but what they didn’t know was that the duo were more than just musical collaborators. As John told Lennon’s son, Sean, in 2020, the pair shared a “wonderful two- or three-year whirlwind romance and it was such an important thing in my life.”
When John said “romance,” though, he meant a close friendship and strong connection shared by the two men. It was more than just music that brought them together, too. The “Tiny Dancer” singer said he and Lennon had “laughed so much because we talked about the ’50s and ’60s and where we grew up, you know, […] the radio shows we liked, the songs we liked.”
Seven years older than John, Lennon proved to be “a fountain of knowledge” for his close friend, too. Their connection felt like “a hand-in-glove thing” to John – a perfect fit. And the fact he shared it with Lennon was something he “never thought that would ever happen.”
Of course, on the music scene in the 1970s, it wasn’t just about bonding over comedy and childhoods. Lennon and John got up to some trouble, too. When Sean pressed his interviewee about the “other things” he did with his father, the “Bennie and the Jets” singer admitted, “We did a lot of naughty, naughty things together.”
John didn’t explicitly go into what he meant by “naughty, naughty things.” But the singer did admit that those activities were “a lot of fun,” sighing, “Oh my God” as he vaguely recalled them to the son of his partner in crime. He then revealed that the pair had “nearly got in trouble a few times,” although he didn’t say for what.
Mostly, though, John remembered Lennon as someone “as kind and as generous and sweet.” Throughout their three-year relationship, the rock star said that they had “never had a bad word,” even though others had warned him about the former Beatle’s range of moods and seemingly scary behaviors.
John admitted, “You know, I always thought that [Lennon] was the one that could… turn, or people say, ‘Oh, watch out for him, he can turn.’ And I think maybe when he was drinking a lot and everything he did, but I never saw that.” In fact, the only time the “Imagine” singer brought any other emotion to John was during that fateful Madison Square Garden show.
When Lennon came out on stage that night, John said that he and others involved in the show began to break down. He revealed, “A lot of us cried, and there were tears running down our faces because here was one of the four people that were the biggest band ever coming out and playing with us.” This was a good way into the stars’ friendship, too – an indication of just how big an icon the one-time Beatle had been.
But the “whirlwind romance” shared by Lennon and John didn’t last forever. The latter admitted in the interview that, after Sean’s birth, he “didn’t really hear [from] or see [his] dad at all.” The fact that their friendship suddenly ended didn’t bother the “Philadelphia Freedom” singer, though.
John explained to Sean, “He was so happy being back together with your mom [Ono], and he was so enchanted having you that it was, his life had become another thing. So I didn’t really speak to him or see him that much at all or hear from him. And I didn’t mind because it was just the fact that that night was so consequential in the history of his life.
But the Lennon household did acknowledge John in one beautiful way after his life took a new direction and the friends lost touch. Because of the “happenstance and Kismet” involved in John’s New York concert bringing the then-new parents back together, Sean later chose the singer to be his godfather.
Even though their friendship faded, John told Sean that he had still been “very, very affected” by Lennon’s murder in 1980. After organizing a church service in Melbourne – the singer was in Australia when he got the news – he put pen to paper to write a musical tribute to his slain friend. He collaborated with his long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin on the song, “Empty Garden.”
To conclude the eye-opening, touching and heartbreaking interview, John imagined what Lennon might’ve been up to if he’d had the chance to live into old age. The singer opined to Sean, “I think if your dad had still been alive, he would have […] maybe won the Nobel Peace Prize or something.”
Why? Well, it came down to the same reason that Lennon and John became such wonderful friends in the first place. The “Imagine” songwriter could connect so well with others, but he had no trouble expressing his opinions. John explained, “He wanted to bring people together. He was a uniter and he was prepared to go to any lengths to make people see what his point was.”
Maybe, with more time, John and Lennon could have rekindled the flame and restored their close friendship, too. The “Candle in the Wind” singer said he wished his one-time pal was still with him. He said, “There aren’t many people around today with that kind of personality or strength of character.” The fact he waited so long to share the details of his relationship with Lennon suggests that was a quality they shared.