Watch John Lennon’s Last Live Performance (1975): “Imagine,” “Stand By Me” & More

After each heart­break­ing loss of a musi­cal icon this past year and a half, we have turned to their great­est moments onstage, not nec­es­sar­i­ly their last, because their final shows weren’t always all that mem­o­rable. Declin­ing health, bad record­ings… and not every gig is a good one even in the best of times and with the best of per­form­ers. But when it comes to John Lennon’s last pub­lic appear­ance, I like to think he might have left the stage exact­ly the way he want­ed to, as a rock­er, a provo­ca­teur, and a pis­stak­er in a can­dy-apple red jump­suit, backed by a nine-piece mim­ing band of bald men in black leather with masks paint­ed on the back of their heads.

Cred­it­ed as “John Lennon, Etc.,” the band’s true name, giv­en to them by Lennon him­self, is abbre­vi­at­ed on their bass drum: B.O.M.F., or “Broth­ers of Moth­er Fuck­ers.” It was Lennon’s send off to his own career as much as it was a Salute to Sir Lew, as the pro­gram was called. Just a few months lat­er Sean was born, and Lennon declared he would retire to raise his son. At the time of his trag­ic death five years lat­er, he had begun record­ing again, releas­ing Dou­ble Fan­ta­sy and plan­ning a sec­ond dou­ble album, Milk and Hon­ey. But we nev­er got to see him per­form those songs.

The hon­oree for Lennon’s last gig was Sir Lew Grade, “a pow­er­ful media mogul,” notes Dan­ger­ous Minds, “with roots in cabaret and vari­ety shows.” A man known as much for his ruth­less­ness in busi­ness as for his Charleston, which he per­formed on table­tops when­ev­er the mood struck him. In 1969 Grade bought up the rights to over a hun­dred Lennon and McCart­ney songs, after some very tense nego­ti­a­tions. Lennon sued Grade in 1974 and set­tled out of court, and Grade remained the co-pub­lish­er of all of his new songs.

As part of the set­tle­ment, Lennon record­ed his album of cov­ers of clas­sic rock ‘n’ roll songs, appro­pri­ate­ly titled Rock ‘n’ Roll. When he appeared at the trib­ute con­cert for Sir Lew at the Hilton Hotel in New York—on the bill with Julie Andrews, Tom Jones, and Peter Sellers—he played Lit­tle Richard’s “Slip­pin’ and Slidin,” and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” for “a “who’s who of the old Hol­ly­wood elite,” includ­ing Lau­ren Bacall, Kirk Dou­glas, Gene Kel­ly, and Orson Welles. The show, record­ed for TV broad­cast, cut his ren­di­tion of “Stand by Me” (hear the audio above), but they did air his final song, “Imag­ine,” which turned out to be the last song he ever sang live onstage (top).

Lennon is in very good form, and seem­ing­ly in good spir­its. The year pre­vi­ous, he’d scored a num­ber one hit with “What­ev­er Gets You Thru the Night.” Accord­ing at least to Paul McCart­ney and Lennon’s girl­friend May Pang, he had even con­sid­ered reunit­ing the Bea­t­les. In Novem­ber of 1974, Lennon joined Elton John onstage at Madi­son Square Gar­den for rol­lick­ing ver­sions of “I Saw Her Stand­ing There,” “Lucy in the Sky with Dia­monds,” and “What­ev­er Gets You Thru the Night” on which Elton had played in the stu­dio. You can see a recre­ation of that per­for­mance above. It was tech­ni­cal­ly Lennon’s last live con­cert appear­ance.

His final appear­ance on stage, on the oth­er hand, while it might have been an odd way to say good­bye, whether he meant to do so or not, may not be what we revis­it when we revis­it Lennon. Why did he agree to do a trib­ute con­cert “for a man he had been embroiled in law­suits with?” With a stage show that many have thought was delib­er­ate­ly designed to antag­o­nize the hon­oree? We’ll nev­er know. But I’m grate­ful that his final live song was one that still speaks to us of hope and pos­si­bil­i­ty. Maybe bow­ing to cen­sors, Lennon changes “Imagine”’s con­tro­ver­sial line about reli­gion. Instead, he sings, “Noth­ing to kill or die for, no immi­gra­tion, too,” refer­ring both to his trou­bles with the U.S. immi­gra­tion author­i­ties and to the bor­der­less world the song projects. “Imag­ine there’s no coun­tries… Imag­ine all the peo­ple shar­ing all the world.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Night John Lennon & Yoko Ono Jammed with Frank Zap­pa at the Fill­more East (1971)

Get a Fly-on-the-Wall View of John Lennon Record­ing & Arrang­ing His Clas­sic Song, “Imag­ine” (1971)

John Lennon’s Solo Albums Now Stream­ing for Free on Spo­ti­fy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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