December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

The John Lennon Tapes and the FBI

4 min read
John Lennon was put under surveillance by the FBI under President Nixon in 1972 over his anti-war activities and youth influence

48 hours before being shot and killed by Mark Chapman, former Beatles member John Lennon recorded an interview with Andy Peebles of BBC Radio One, from his home in New York.  The tapes were made available by the BBC in early 1981 but I believe are now out of print. There is an out of print book based on the taped interview. The tapes surfaced in a period of shock after Lennon’s assassination when the FBI surveillance of John Lennon had become a media talking point. There were even unfounded accusations that US intelligence had bumped Lennon off.

At the same time of this FBI surveillance around 1972, President Nixon had been re-elected for a second term. But he was becoming steadily mired in what would become known as the Watergate scandal. This affair would eventually lead to his resignation as President the following year. Nevertheless, he still found time to vex about the political views of the Beatles lead vocalist.

The notoriously paranoid President unleashed the FBI on Lennon over his anti-Vietnam War views and meetings with anti-war activists. Historian Jon Wiener worked hard to get access to the FBI files using freedom of information laws and his resulting book gives incredible insights: Gimme Some Truth – The John Lennon FBI Files. In 1972, the FBI delivered its findings to Nixon on Lennon’s association with perceived radicals including the New Left. The head of the FBI at this time was its long serving chief, J. Edgar Hoover. He had been the Director of the FBI since…1924!!!

Hoover’s agency tracked down and killed notorious gangsters like Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd in the 1930s. But by the 1960s, he seemed more interested in spying on civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the boxer Muhammad Ali. Very pertinent to our time, Hoover’s FBI was often criticised for not investigating or playing down murders by white supremacists, particularly the Ku Klux Klan. There was also a noticeable absence of black agents at the FBI.

However, let’s strike some balance here. We now know that Hoover’s FBI was on the case of the KKK under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and had even – controversially – infiltrated the Klan. You can read a transcript of a conversation between Hoover and Johnson on this issue HERE. FBI investigations led to arrests of KKK members, which President Johnson even announced in a televised address.

So, the FBI went after Lennon at the start of the 1970s. But why? As is often the case, truth is stranger than fiction. Nixon was actually intent on extricating the United States from the Vietnam War but negotiations in Paris had got bogged down. Lennon mocked the talks saying the only thing agreed on in Paris had been the shape of the table. For his part, Lennon organised a “bed-in” where he basically lay in bed with Yoko Ono inviting the world press to come visit. Plenty of other people did as well – including relatively conservative political operators. A rather eclectic coalition formed around the peacenik Beatle.

You can read details of the FBI files by clicking HERE. The FBI website also has some very interesting documents now made public – click HERE. Having looked at the documents myself, one of the FBI concerns about John Lennon was his involvement in something called the Youth Election Strategy (YES). Described as a “New Left oriented group” formed by Lennon, Jerry Rubin who was the founder of the Yippie movement and a New Left activist whose name is redacted in the FBI files. One proposed activity was a demonstration at the 1972 Republican National Convention. That was enough to give Nixon a headache.

He was already engaged in dubious tactics against the Democrats that would lead to the uncovering of his connection to Watergate. The threat of John Lennon inspired youth storming the RNC tipped him over the edge. The objective of the surveillance was to rake up sufficient muck on Lennon to get him deported and out of Nixon’s hair.

Young people aged 18 had just been given the vote for the first time. Before that the voting age was 21. This was an era when the views of pop stars were held to be of seismic significance. I remember all the angst over whether David Bowie had or hadn’t given a Nazi salute – or was he just waving to his Mum? In the pre-digital age and with pop stars who believed their art could really make a difference – which it sometimes did – Lennon was deemed to exercise an unacceptable influence over voting American teenagers. And Nixon was hardly any young person’s idea of the perfect head of state.

An advert in 1981 for BBC Publications – ‘The Lennon Tapes’

In the end, Hoover’s FBI delivered its report. He died the same year. And Lennon eventually got his green card. Not before he went public angrily denouncing the FBI on a TV chat show in the US and accusing the agency of spying on him. An accusation that wasn’t widely believed at the time – but turned out to be true.

And then in 1980 – John Lennon was assassinated.

Throughout 1981, there was constant chatter – particularly in the music press – over allegations that the FBI had been complicit in the killing of John Lennon. Obviously this was strenuously denied by the forces of law and order in the US.  The issue of secret service involvement in Lennon’s death still resurfaces and this is an article from the Daily Mail regarding accusations that the CIA was involved. In my view – for what it’s worth – I find this theory a bit implausible. Nevertheless, Lennon exercised a huge political influence on young people in the early 1970s and certainly riled the powers that be.

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