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Arts & Culture

John Lennon and Adelaide: A love story

Arts & Culture

In an ideal world, John Lennon would be celebrating his 80th birthday today, perhaps at Glenelg Beach, premiering a new song. Why not? After all, George Harrison gave the Beatles song ‘Free as a bird’ its world premiere at Margaux Nightclub in Adelaide’s Hilton Hotel in 1995. And Adelaide held special meaning for Lennon.

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Adelaide can rightly claim to have honoured—and even enriched—Lennon’s life at times. For instance, Adelaide astronaut Andy Thomas used to enjoy listening to Sgt. Pepper’s in space. And in 1964, the Beatles had the biggest reception of their career, with 300 000 fans screeching like corellas along Anzac Highway to the Adelaide Town Hall.

Lennon described the Adelaide crowd as bigger than New York.

George Harrison and Paul McCartney both returned to Adelaide more than once in later years. Although tonsillitis prevented Ringo Starr from making it to Adelaide in ’64 (and made Jimmy Nicol an instant Beatle), Starr finally found his way here in 2013.

Lennon never revisited Adelaide, but Adelaide kept visiting Lennon.

Adelaide cameraman John Howard filmed the Beatles in Adelaide and also co-filmed the Beatles song ‘Revolution’ in London’s Twickenham Studios in 1968. During a break, Lennon approached Howard. They discussed Adelaide and Lennon said: “Jesus. I’ve never seen so many bloody people in my entire life.”

The Beatles at Centennial Hall in 1964. Photographer unknown

One of those bloody people, in the crowd at Adelaide Town Hall, was Chantal Contouri. The future international film and TV star found herself suspended from Adelaide High for escaping school to see the Beatles. Unfortunately for her, a front-page story in The Advertiser had quoted Contouri as saying “my school is a prison”.

Fast forward to London, 1969. Contouri was working as a waitress at the exclusive Revolution Club. She rubbed shoulders (and her pink suede boots) with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Raquel Welch and bands of brothers famous and infamous, from the Bee Gees to the Krays.

At the Revolution Club, Contouri became friendly with Lennon, who called her by her nickname, Chunky. He was unfailingly nice and polite and always said “thank you” to her.

Contouri arranged for a nervous Molly Meldrum to enter the club and meet Lennon for the first time. Meldrum proceeded to fall over and spill a drink on John and himself. Says Contouri: “John just laughed and then invited him to sit down.” A good friendship was born, thanks to an Adelaidean midwife.

A fellow Adelaide youth who saw Lennon in Adelaide and then London was Jim Keays, the charismatic frontman from Masters Apprentices. In ’64, Keays watched the Beatles travel in their open-top car along Anzac Highway. He froze when Lennon looked straight at him.

In 1970, Lennon made Keays freeze again. Keays was recording an album with the Masters at Abbey Road at the same time Lennon was recording his first solo album. Keays was left speechless when Lennon stood alongside him to pee at the Abbey Road urinal. “Because it was John Lennon, I couldn’t utter a syllable, and I went ‘Aaah, aah, waah, waah!’ And he finished his wee and walked out.”

Another time, Keays sneaked into Abbey Road’s Studio Two, where the Beatles recorded. He thought everyone was at lunch. To his surprise, Lennon was alone in the studio, so Keays hid behind some speakers and watched. “Lennon was fiddling around with a song, and he was singing, ‘A working-class hero is something to be.’ I thought, ‘Ah, that sounds good.'”

In a strangely similar pattern, Glenn Shorrock, lead singer with the Twilights and Little River Band, also experienced the Beatlemania on Anzac Highway. He then heard the Beatles record ‘Penny Lane’ at Abbey Road in 1967.

Shorrock, whose songs were ultimately produced by Beatles producer Sir George Martin, would later switch roles when Lennon listened to Shorrock’s music.

Enter May Pang. Lennon’s lover from 1973 to 1975 during his so-called lost weekend, Pang claims that she and Lennon continued to have secret trysts after Lennon and Ono re-united.

Jim Keays recreating his bathroom encounter with John Lennon. Photo: Michael X. Savvas

“In 1978,” says Pang, “John called me and asked me to come by for a visit. He told me there was a song on the radio that stuck in his head because it reminded him of us. He couldn’t remember the words, but he did know the tune and hummed it to me. That tune was ‘Reminiscing’ by [Adelaide’s] Little River Band, which surprised him. That became an ‘our song’ for us, and as it turned out, the last. Today, every time I hear the song, I know ‘Dr Winston O’Boogie’ is around.”

John Lennon’s son Julian is also convinced his father has shown him he’s still around. John had told him that after he died, he would reveal his presence through a white feather.

When Julian Lennon came to Adelaide in 1998, Aboriginal elders of South Australia’s Mirning people met him at Glenelg’s Grand Hotel. They presented Julian with a white feather (unaware of John’s statement about this). Julian felt John was watching over him, and as result, started his White Feather Foundation.

Perhaps John Lennon had revisited the site of his band’s greatest reception after all. 

Michael X. Savvas is co-author (with daughter Olivia Savvas) of One Dream Ago: The Beatles’ South Australian Connections (Single X Publications, 2010).

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