Richard Purden

A SELDOM seen image of John Lennon taken in November 1969 at the Beatles Apple Corps headquarters in London will feature as cover art on a forthcoming album of new remixes. It marks what would have been Lennon's 80th birthday on October 9.

The photo was taken on the day Lennon returned his MBE to the Queen as a protest against the Vietnam War. Even 50 years on, it’s doubtful there would be similar dissent from Lennon’s generation of popular British musicians. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr both readily accepted knighthoods joining Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison and Elton John.

A rare knock-back came from David Bowie in 2003 who said: “I seriously don't know what it's for. It's not what I spent my life working for.”

Johnathan Barnbrook, Bowie’s sleeve artist on albums such as Reality, Heathen, The Next Day and Blackstar was chosen as the graphic designer for Gimme Some Truth. He suggests the picture was about “reassessing Lennon, the image felt more relevant than ever in the way that he didn’t separate his life from his politics, you don’t separate what you believe from how you act in public.”

Already, 1969 had been a turbulent year for The Beatles, just days before this photo was taken Lennon was perturbed during a visit to Greece where an astrologer predicted he would be “shot on an island”. Thinking this referred to a Greek island he cancelled an arranged yacht trip with the Scottish singer/songwriter Donovan.

The month before Paul McCartney had been forced to deny an ever-swelling conspiracy theory that he was dead as the result of a road accident three years earlier. When reporters arrived at his farm near Campbeltown, McCartney granted Radio 4 an interview to prove he was among the living. The story didn’t ease until he agreed to be photographed and provided another interview for the American weekly Life.

McCartney had been keeping a low profile since John Lennon had privately told fellow Beatles about his intention to leave the group. Members had left hitherto only to return but this time it led McCartney into a depression.

Scotland played a significant role in the life of both Beatles during this time. It was after a car crash near Durness in Sutherland that John Lennon spent time in Lawson Memorial Hospital during the summer receiving 17 stitches to his face, leaving a life-long scar.

Yoko Ono, pregnant at the time, was also given 14 stitches and Lennon’s son Julian and Yoko’s daughter Kyoko were treated for shock. Just days before the couple had been photographed, Lennon with long hair and heavily bearded, walking along Edinburgh’s Shandwick Place. He would also send postcards, one of which appears in Ringo Starr’s 2004 book Postcards From The Boys.

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn suggests that Lennon had embarked on the ill-fated trip to show Yoko Ono the influence Scotland had on his life.

“Both the north of Scotland and Edinburgh, where he stayed many times, had an enormous effect on John. He took a holiday there in 1969 to show it to the woman he loved. With a new partner, you want to show them all the things, people and places that are important to you.

"When John Lennon’s aunt Elizabeth Stanley, married Edinburgh dentist Bert Sutherland, the move provided Lennon with an important connection to Scotland that he would cherish for the rest of his life.

Visiting 15 Ormidale Terrace in a tranquil part of Murrayfield today with autumn leaves falling it's easy to understand why this place was said to have influenced In My Life from Rubber Soul (1965). Lennon also brought his future first wife Cynthia here in 1959 after several happy summers escaping from what had been a complicated and traumatic childhood.

In the autumn of 1979, Lennon sat down and recorded around 13 minutes of an audio diary. After a background burst of the bagpipes, he reflects on his time in Scotland. "The bagpipes got me right back to Edinburgh, which is one of my favourite dreams. Edinburgh Festival and the Tattoo in the castle and all these bands of the world and armies would come and march and play. The favourites, I think they were usually the Americans because they swung like shit, apart from actually the Scots, who were really the favourites. I always remember feeling very emotional about it especially where they did the bit at the end where they put all the lights out and there’s just one guy playing the bagpipes.”

At this point on the tape, Lennon affects a playful Scottish accent, something he did often: “Lit alone by a spotlight, auch aye.” He goes on to add: “I always felt free in Scotland.”

Lennon continued to stay with his family in Edinburgh when the Beatles toured there until 1964. Those trips to Scotland have found their way into Beatles folklore and there continue to be several less well-known suggestions of their influence on Lennon’s songwriting.

It was when sitting down to interview Mark Lewisohn back in 2015 after an appearance at the capital’s book festival that the Edinburgh Evening News claimed Lennon had written Rain in Edinburgh. The psychedelic b-side to Paperback Writer was the first serious record to use a backwards voice in the mix. It’s one of many key Beatles tracks that set a blueprint among British guitar bands with the likes of The Jam, The Stone Roses and Oasis all falling under the song’s spell.

The source of the story was current house owner Marlene Wood, who indicated Lennon’s late cousin Stan Parkes, who died in 2016, had suggested the song was written during one of his many visits. Parkes was interviewed for Ken McNab’s The Beatles In Scotland where he told the author about the source of a harmonica that helped provide Lennon’s distinctive style on Please Please Me and Love Me Do, two early Beatles tracks closer to Lennon’s Edinburgh timeline.

It had been presented to him by an Edinburgh bus driver who had heard Lennon play and offered him a professional chromatic mouth-organ. The gift of that French harp was a lightbulb moment for the future Beatle.

Mark Lewisohn suggests there were other harps in contention. “We know of at least three that John had because there was one he was given when he was seven years old, then there was the one that the Edinburgh bus driver gave him and then there was the one that he nicked when he was in a store in Holland.”

It’s unlikely to be the one John was given at age seven, which Stan described as “a cheap little mouth organ”, the one Lennon pilfered in Holland was also doubtful as it was thought to be a small blues harp with limited options and shoplifted in the heat of the moment, the chances of it being in the right key were doubtful.

The instrument played on Please Please Me and Love Me Do would have allowed Lennon to bend more notes and change key if required, suggesting there’s an Edinburgh bus driver who unwittingly changed the direction of popular culture.

The trips to Scotland made at such a formative point were absorbed into Lennon’s personality and sense of self for the rest of his life. Biographer Philip Norman suggests that: “John used to say that he felt more Scottish than English.”

He would refer to himself as Jock Lennon and one postcard written to Ringo Star in 1971 was signed “bonnie John”, another to his cousin Stan shortly before Lennon’s death in December 1980 claimed he missed Scotland more than England, having not set foot in Britain since he and Yoko Ono left for New York in August 1971.

It was during those contemplative moments captured on the aforementioned audio diary that Lennon revealed an intention to take his son Sean to Edinburgh in 1981. Sadly John never got that opportunity.

Sean Lennon will celebrate his 45th birthday on the same day his father was born 80 years ago. He is involved in presenting this new package, set for release on such a significant day. As well as having overseen the remixing of the original multi-tracks he also selected the 1969 image for Gimme Some Truth.

Johnathan Barnbrook adds that the album cover was “very much in collaboration with Sean. He found the image, Lennon is side-on with a pony-tale, he looks cool. I don’t know what the record company thought because it’s not immediately recognisable as John Lennon but that helps with a reassessment of him in its own way. Most compilation covers are quite dull – it’s not about just about taking a library image and selling it in a supermarket."

There's no doubt John Lennon would agree.

Gimme Some Truth is released on October 9