Ken McNab

IN THE soft glow of a cinema, the moment arrived without warning and unleashed a tsunami of the senses. I could feel it building in the pit of my stomach, gathering pace with an almost overwhelming force. The last time I experienced this kind of emotional overload was watching my daughter being born. Glancing to my left, I saw a man in his fifties shifting uncomfortably in his seat, dabbing his eyes. Others around me had let out an audible gasp at the sight of the old man whose weathered features filled the big screen; standing at the door of an isolated cottage beside the sea, long hair flowing, those familiar glasses covering an imperious stare and that aquiline, almost aristocratic, nose.

Here was the incredible sight of John Lennon brought impossibly back to life by the magic of a movie. “Are you John?” asks the film’s main character Jack. “Yes,” answers the figure at the door in mild Scouse. “From Liverpool?” Again, the answer is yes.

As the conversation unwinds, Jack discovers Lennon is 78. “Fantastic,” he joyously declares. “You made it to 78.” The final scenes of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s dreamy 2019 rom-com that imagined a world where only a handful of people were aware of the Beatles and their legacy, provided a portal to an alternative reality that posed this tantalising question: What if Lennon had somehow survived the assassin’s bullets that brutally snuffed out his life on December 8, 1980, outside the gothic New York home he shared with his wife Yoko Ono and their five-year-old son Sean? Or simply had a sliding-doors moment that enabled him to avoid this fate.

What path might his life had taken in the four decades since his murder? Would he have continued to pick up the threads of the musical comeback he was embarking on that winter with the release of Double Fantasy, the seventh album he had released following the omni-shambles of the Beatles’ split? Might he have resurrected the activism that forced Richard Nixon to wage a shameful war of harassment to try and hound him out of the US? How would this mass communicator have embraced the internet? Would he have sanded down the hard edges of his relationship with “his old, estranged fiancé” Paul McCartney? And might they have tried to rekindle that profound Beatle chemistry by regrouping with George Harrison and Ringo Starr?

Or would he, in fact, have once again stepped back from fame’s bitter-sweet allure? Lennon was once asked if he had a vision of himself when he was 64? He did. With his marriage to Ono rebuilt after a shaky 1970s, he replied: "I hope we're a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland, looking at our scrapbook of madness." Lennon’s cinematic cameo – a lost future resurrected by an uncredited Robert Carlyle – was clearly a cosmic conundrum that brought back painful memories for Boyle when he first read Richard Curtis’s script for Yesterday.

“It was an absolute aberration in time,” said Boyle of the musician’s death. “Somebody’s life was robbed but movies can give him back to us, just for a moment. I love that about movies. We don't have the real power to right the wrong of Lennon’s death, but you do have the power through cinema to imagine it for a moment.”

So, in the spirit of Boyle’s film fantasy, let’s toss a few suggestions into the maelstrom of speculation and run a small book on how the complex life of John Winston Ono Lennon might have played out had chance dealt him a different hand that December night.


Lennon’s re-emergence from a five-year musical cryogenic chamber in the winter of 1980 – a period where he played the role of house husband to Yoko’s business CEO – saw Double Fantasy mocked for its “cloying domesticity”. The songs were largely the antithesis of punk and the new wave sounds emerging from, especially, his adopted city. Lennon, however, remained unapologetic, arguing his songs were a reconnect to a target audience – the fans who grew up with him and the Beatles in the 1960s. He was talking about a world tour in 1981 – an event that would unquestionably have included a show in his beloved Scotland and taking five-year-old Sean to Edinburgh Castle where, as a teenage tourist, the sounds of the Tattoo had left an indelible memory. Re-energised, this round-trip could have provided him with the platform to reinvent himself as a fully-fledged rock star.

But for a musician who hadn’t been on the road for 15 years, he would have found the concert stage a completely different place. At the Beatles’ last show in San Francisco in 1966, they played for half an hour. Now concerts – a la Springsteen and Led Zeppelin – were expected to last three hours. There would also have been a problem closer to home. Lennon live would have been a multi-million dollar attraction. Lennon live with Yoko in tow perhaps less so. Lennon had already insisted on equal billing with his wife on the heart play that was Double Fantasy. But opinions on the woman wrongly blamed for breaking up the Fabs remained polarised 10 years after Lennon walked away. A reluctant performer, he would long-term almost certainly have resisted stepping aboard the familiar record-tour-record carousel.

Equally, however, he could as easily have indulged his reputation as a musical maverick by experimenting with hip-hop pioneers like Wu-Tang Clan and being influenced by his son’s diverse musical tastes. It seems, however, reasonable to conclude that his output would, over the course of four decades, gradually diminish. He simply wouldn’t have had the stamina to fight against the dying light of his own legend. His concert swansong may well have taken place at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, having been sweet-talked into appearing by Bob Geldof and Bono, the only two figures in music with whom he now shared a cultural and musical affinity.

There would, however, have been one non-negotiable caveat: this was not a back-door to a Beatles reunion. And so a worldwide TV audience could have seen Paul McCartney bringing down the curtain at Wembley with Let It Be before Lennon in Philadelphia, backed by Ringo – Harrison would have refused to have anything to do with it – conducted a chorus of Imagine, the global hymn railing against the material world. Alternatively, given his mercurial nature, he might as equally have joined forces with U2, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bryan Adams and a raft of others for the 1986 ground-breaking Conspiracy of Hope tour in aid of Amnesty International and the follow-up in 1988 which would have seen him renew his egalitarian credentials. But it seems unlikely he would follow the path of contemporaries like McCartney and trade on former glories as his creative powers waned. Almost unnoticed, he may simply have slipped back into the seclusion of family, and appearing only fleetingly on his son Sean’s records. Contrasting with the mayhem of Beatlemania, he would have whiled away his days immersing himself in the New York Times, and The Washington Post. And then along came the internet…


Imagine a world of total communication, it’s easy if you try. Lennon envisaged an inter-connected actuality using mass media long before anyone had heard of the worldwide web. The infamous bed-ins of 1969 saw him become the first social influencer of his age by using his celebrity to promote global peace and bring about an end to the war in Vietnam. So it’s far from a stretch to project the notion of a passionate and ‘woke’ Lennon becoming a keyboard crusader for the causes he would have taken an active interest in, such as civil rights, anti-war campaigns, the environment and perhaps teaming up with Elton John on AIDS awareness. Lennon on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook offers a delicious cornucopia. An inveterate reader, social media would have been his domain, a realm where he could fulminate unfettered – and swear as much as he liked. More seriously, brand Lennon would be guaranteed millions of followers, allowing him to interact with his huge fan base without having to set foot outside the front door. And it would have provided him with the perfect platform to shape their views.

Reality television would have offered a tantalising glimpse into life with the Lennons, a soap opera bordering on the Truman Show. Up to 1975, his life had been an open book. No rock star had ever lived his life more in the glare of publicity. He was an avid TV viewer so the prospect of allowing cameras to record his daily life – and get paid millions – would simply have been an extension of his normal existence. Move over Ozzy – there’s an old kid in town.


Instinctively left leaning, Lennon’s allegiances could have undergone a fundamental shift. The man who once sang about how he loathed “psychotic, pig-headed politicians” was a guest at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as Democratic US President in 1977. Hard though it may be for some to believe, there is evidence to suggest that by 1980, he had atypically tossed in his hat to support the incumbent Ronald Reagan, the right-wing Republican whose policies were arguably even more reactionary than Lennon’s old Oval Office nemesis Nixon. Long forgotten was his brief alliance with American Marxist revolutionaries such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Switching allegiances, though, would have seen him risk becoming ostracised by contemporaries such as Keith Richards, Neil Young and the politically-savvy new kids on the block like Elvis Costello, Bono, Sting and the growing rock the vote lobby as well as current activists like Kendrick Lamarr.

It would, I’m certain, have been a pithy pact, one made in ill-judged haste and mired in guilt over his unfathomable wealth. Hypocritical? Guilty as charged. There is, nevertheless, a persuasive argument to be made that Lennon, especially in a new media age, would have remained a vocal critic of political malfeasance in US politics especially. Equally, the landmark election of Barack Obama as American’s first black president would, I’m convinced, have delighted him. In flagrant contrast, he would have been appalled by the blatant racism of Donald Trump’s toxic-laden politics. Having been married to a Japanese woman, Lennon had seen up close how prejudice can poison society. The Beatles’ rock ’n’ roll roots were seeded by black music and Lennon always acknowledged that debt. Unquestionably, he would have been a champion of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, women’s rights and the LGBT lobby. Lennon's primary gift was for writing and recording songs that communicate with millions in ways that no ideologically driven political creed could. In that sense, the studio may well have remained Lennon’s pulpit as long as he felt his power of musical oratory could still influence. Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neill once reflected: “He made people question themselves. I think if he was alive today, he would find plenty to rebel against, because he always wanted music to give a voice to issues.”


John Lennon was, to quote one of his lyrics, like a restless wind inside a letter box. In equal measure, he could be quixotic and complex, capricious and convivial. His marriage to Yoko Ono would, I’m sure, have come under strain. When they separated for 18 months in the mid-1970s – she kicked him out – Lennon self-medicated with drugs and booze. Shortly after his death, a number of scurrilous accounts surfaced portraying their union as little more than a convenient sham. True or false, any return to the studio and the stage might have shone an uncomfortable light on the ballad of John and Yoko. That dream of a cottage by the sea would have remained just that. It’s an easy bet to suggest it simply wouldn’t have lasted, either because of showbiz pressures, drugs or infidelity – both of them had strayed since marrying in 1969. They would likely have stayed together until Sean reached a point of mutual understanding before calling in the lawyers. Ono would have held the upper hand, especially financially. She had, by 1980, successfully ring-fenced his business life and was gatekeeper to the millions of dollars flowing into the Lennon bank account every year. He was terrified by the prospect seeing headlines like “Lennon the bankrupt Beatle” and having to write advertising jingles “to make some bread”.

Chances are it would never have come to that. He would have continued to be close to Sean and would, I believe, have repaired the broken fences with Julian, the son from his first marriage to Cynthia. But he would forever be a man in search of some kind of inner contentment. Throughout his life Lennon had been an easy mark for grifters like Allan Klein, the acerbic New York accountant who tried to hustle his way into managing the Beatles and helped to lever the split with McCartney. So it easily gives rise to the notion that, as the years advanced, he would have been easy prey for swindlers trying to get their paws on a slice of the Lennon legacy. Drugs would most likely still have been on the fringes of his life. Not necessarily heroin or cocaine but certainly milder narcotics like marijuana. Interestingly, there is one guilty pleasure he may never have kicked – his favourite French Gauloises cigarettes. And to hell with the consequences.


Once they were a band of brothers. But the bond John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared had long been sheared by the bitter aftermath of the Beatles denouement. McCartney would always cling onto the torch that, one day, he and Lennon would once again rekindle their musical communion. But even in the aftermath of a near-death experience, it’s unlikely that Lennon would ever have acquiesced to McCartney’s overtures. The only thing they would have had in common would have been their ever present past, names bracketed together by history but separated by time and space. The fact they were now middle-aged family men would have made little difference. In the 1980s, he would have watched with wry amusement as McCartney’s career suffered a steep commercial decline. High school reunions simply did not appeal to Lennon. And why risk jeopardising a legacy so hard won?

Time would undoubtedly have healed some of the wounds that had been festering since 1970. A fully-fledged Beatles’ reunion, however, would have been out of the question from Lennon’s perspective. The last thing he would have wanted would have been to see the band he started once upon a long ago transition through the cascading decades into their very own tribute band. Watching Mick Jagger yelling he can’t get no satisfaction as he slipped in to his sixties and even seventies would have nauseated Lennon, who would have long ago abandoned touring. Even when they all agreed to produce the Beatles’ Anthology in the 1990s to help a cash-strapped Harrison, Lennon would have refused to appear on camera with the other three.

But there may well have been one final moment of restorative harmony. Unlike the class-conscious McCartney, Lennon – now an American citizen – would never have accepted a knighthood from the British establishment. But it’s quite easy to picture Barack Obama welcoming Lennon and McCartney to the East Room of the White House and honouring them with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, America’s highest artistic accolade. Proving for all time that, as Lennon himself sang, living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see. A gentle precept in which Danny Boyle, for one, could fittingly find a measure of comfort and joy.

Ken McNab is the author of And In The End, The Last Days of the Beatles published by Birlinn/Polygon.