Long Before Kim & Kanye, John Lennon & Yoko Ono's Love Life Was a Movie in Public

John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in London to promote the publication of the 2nd edition of Yoko Ono's book Grapefruit in 1971.

On Wednesday (Feb 1), it was reported that a new movie is to be made about the love lives of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. There is certainly plenty of material to mine from their story. 

Jude Southerland Kessler, author of three books of a planned nine-volume biography on the late Beatle called The John Lennon Series, says Ono complemented Lennon's life. “Under Yoko's tutelage, John expressed vital 'into-the-bag-but-outside-the-box' thinking. Planting acorns, shearing off his hair, staging a bed-in for peace, and enveloping his wife and himself in a bag, John began to share Yoko's delight in bizarre, creative expression...  expression that left a lasting impression and spurred viewers into action, not mere appreciation.”

Below is a look at some of the highlights in their lives together:

The Beginning
Their initial meeting on Nov. 9, 1966, was a fairytale story of sorts. It took place at the Indica Gallery in London run by John Dunbar, Peter Asher (of Peter & Gordon) and author Barry Miles. Ono, already known in avant-garde art circles for performance art, was previewing an exhibit called “Unfinished Paintings and Objects by Yoko Ono.” Lennon asked to “Hammer a Nail,” as the artwork said, but she initially refused, wanting to keep it unfettered for the opening of the exhibit. She eventually relented, according to Bill Harry's The Beatles Encyclopedia, if he would pay her five shillings. In somewhat typical Lennon fashion, he offered her an imaginary five shillings to hammer an imaginary nail.

What attracted Lennon to her avant-garde artwork? "I think that it's the fun quality (in it),” she said in 2009. “I think he was surprised there was some sense of humor. Usually when he [went] to art exhibitions, he told me [they were] too serious or angry or something.” And, she added, “There was some kind of playful quality to… my work. I think the playfulness is something that caught his eye."

Lennon and Ono formed a company called Bag One Productions to market their art creations. One such product was Bag One, a group of lithographs done by Lennon about the two of them. The drawings ranged from whimsical to explicitly sexual drawings of the two making love. Police in London confiscated the drawings for obscenity, but a judge later dismissed the charge. In later years, Ono had some of the drawings colorized to sell at Lennon art exhibits held in such places as shopping centers. Smile, their first movie of several together was also made in 1968 and featured Lennon smiling.

The Beatles' “The Ballad of John and Yoko”

Released by the Beatles in 1969, “The Ballad of John and Yoko," a song about their whirlwind courtship and wedding, caused much controversy due to the lyric, “Christ, you know it ain't easy / You know how hard it can be / The way things are going / They're gonna crucify me.” Some radio stations even banned the song.

It was the Lennon-Ono “bed-ins” that raised the most hackles in the media and among the public. In actuality, the bed-ins held in Amsterdam and Montreal in 1969 were tame affairs with talking, singing and a few celebrities (like Tom Smothers and conservative cartoonist Al Capp). The song “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded at the event in Montreal.

The now-infamous Unfinished Music No. 1 – Two Virgins album, originally released on Tetragrammaton Records in the U.S. because EMI wouldn't touch it, featured a cover of Lennon and Ono in full-frontal nudity. The follow-up, Unfinished Music No. 2 – Life With the Lions, featured two tracks with five minutes of the heartbeat of an unborn child and two minutes of silence.

The couple's headlining appearance at the Toronto Pop Music Festival in 1969 was indicative of their few live performances. It found Lennon, backed by Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann and Alan White on drums, performing such songs as “Blue Suede Shoes.” He introduced Yoko's solo spot, which featuring her wailing for a good 30 minutes, as, “Doing her thing all over you.”

One-On-One Benefit, 1972
Lennon and Ono played Madison Square Garden in a benefit concert that included Beatles and solo songs, including live versions of “Imagine” and “Mother.” (Writer Chip Madinger in Eight Arms to Hold You noted all their concert appearances were for charity.) Among those involved with the show was Geraldo Rivera, now of Fox News. The concert was released on CD and videotape in 1986 as Live in New York City, though the video has not been released on DVD as of this writing.

A Week on The Mike Douglas Show
Genial daytime TV host Mike Douglas shocked his daytime TV audience by inviting John and Yoko to co-host his show for an entire week in 1972. The show, which played basically to housewives, included appearances by Chicago Seven defendant Jerry Rubin, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, comic Louis Nye, Black Panther Bobby Seale and the highlight, a performance together by Lennon and his musical hero Chuck Berry. Douglas, in his book I'll Be Right Back: Memories of TV's Greatest Talk Show, wrote that Lennon was “as joyful a guest as we ever had.” However, he wrote of Yoko, “No one was harder for our staff to please.”

Lennon's Comeback
In 1979, news broke about John Lennon deciding to go public again after being a househusband since the birth of his son Sean in 1975. They released Double Fantasy, an album with alternating tracks by Lennon and Ono, in late 1980. The album went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and won the 1981 Grammy Award for album of the year. It was after a recording session for an Ono track, “Walking on Thin Ice,” that Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman in Dec. 1980. The song is notable for edgy guitar work by Lennon that may have been a prediction of where their music was headed.