John Lennon’s last-ever performance was on April 18 1975 at the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel, New York. The show was called A Tribute To Sir Lew, honouring Lew Grade, the British impressario who founded ATV and later bought the Beatles’ Northern Songs catalogue. John sported a lurid red jumpsuit in a shiny PVC-type material decorated with black zips randomly positioned across the garment, including the legs. The zips and material presage the fashions of punk rock, especially the zip-festooned clothes worn by The Clash, by eighteen months. It’s possible that John’s choice of red shiny jumpsuit was influenced by The New York Dolls, who a month earlier had played at New York’s Little Hippodrome Theatre, controversially dressed in all-red leather outfits.
John’s “Rock And Roll” album had just been released and his three-song set opened with one of its tracks, Little Richard’s “Slipping And Sliding”. John was backed by a band called BOMF (“Band of Motherfuckers”) who included Vinny Appice, Angelo Arcuri, Joe Crupi, Mark Rivera, Bob Livingood, and Joe Bassin. Mark Rivera later explained (http://www.boomerocity.com/markrivera72012.html) that the two face masks the band wore were Yoko Ono’s suggestion and were symbolic of the duality of American society. An alternative explanation has also been widely proferred: that the masks were symbolic of Sir Lew’s supposedly two-faced business tactics. The quote “It was a sardonic reference to my feelings on Lew Grade’s personality” has been attributed to John on several websites, but without details of its provenance.
A version of “Stand By Me” was played but cut from the broadcast. The third song, and second to be shown on TV, was a version of Imagine with some lyric changes (“immigration” instead of “religion”, “brotherhood and sisterhood of man”). There are two charming adlib moments when John, singing live over the band’s pre-recorded backing track, responds to “you may say I’m a dreamer” with an off-mic “he’s a dreamer” - a lovely Goonish aside. Some cool new brass parts in the chorus too.
Towards the end of the footage here is a lovely clip of Sir Lew, having been presented with a plaque, breaking into the Charleston dance (he first became famous as a Charleston dancer in the twenties). Finally all the evening’s performers take a final bow, and John is among them, sporting a debonair white cap, as he often did in 74-5, bounding on with good-nature like a kid at a school show. It was his last-ever moment on a public stage.
The show was broadcast on British television in summer 1975 and I watched it, aged 16, on holiday at my uncle and aunt’s house in Hornchurch, Essex. I still have the mono cassette recording I made that day.
I’ve seen it written that it’s a shame John ended his performing career by playing at such a cheesy, showbizzy event. Yes, the event is cheesy when viewed from a counter-cultural, 1960s perspective, or from our present-day perspective. But it can also be seen as a sincere event, rooted in an older set of values, to honour a man for whom many artists, actors and showbusiness people had a genuine fondness. I like to think that John’s consciousness was broad enough to encompass and honour that view, and that he played the gig out of his own goodwill, and not for an ulterior motive such as “promoting his new record” or making a veiled attack on Sir Lew, as is often suggested by fans on internet forums. I think the man was bigger than that.