When John Lennon Was Simon Cowell

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 4 2013 4:23 PM

When John Lennon Was Simon Cowell

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. 50 years ago this month, John Lennon was a panelist on the BBC show Juke Box Jury, where he rated every song a “miss.”

In 1960s Britain, they didn’t have American Idol or The Voice or The X Factor. But they did have Juke Box Jury. Not to be confused with the American version of the series, Jukebox Jury, Juke Box Jury featured a rotating panel of four showbiz personalities who would listen to a selection of the latest singles and rate them on a simple, binary scale: Each record was either a “hit” or a “miss.”

The show itself was undeniably a hit, attracting about 12 million viewers a week. For their part, The Beatles had scored only a couple No. 1s by June 1963, and so it was a major boon when John Lennon was asked to appear.

In fact, the extra publicity was so important to manager Brian Epstein that he chartered a helicopter to take Lennon from the taping to their next performance, just so he could uphold both engagements. After Lennon finished with the taping at 9:15 p.m., he was whisked off to the heliport, and at 9:50 he landed in the local soccer field. With The Beatles due on stage at 10:30, he was just in time. (The unusual move also brought some extra publicity to the band: “Guitar Player Will Arrive by Helicopter,” read one headline in the local paper.)

Though the appearance was supposedly important to The Beatles’ careers, Lennon didn’t go out of his way to make any new friends. In fact, Lennon’s performance quickly became notorious, because he graded each and every one of the eight records a “miss.”

Audio of the episode still exists—and some of it is online—though the recording is a bit rough. To give a better taste of Lennon’s acerbic judgments, a few of his comments are printed below (with some help from BeatlesInterviews.org and John C. Winn’s Beatles chronicle Way Beyond Compare).

Elvis Presley, “Devil In Disguise”

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Lennon: Well, you know, I used to go mad on Elvis, like all those groups. But not now. I don’t like this. And I hate songs with “walk” and “talk” in it—you know, those lyrics. She walks, she talks. I don’t like that. And I don’t like the double beat—boom-cha boom-cha—that bit. It’s awful. Poor ol’ Elvis. … I’ve got all his early records and I keep playing them, thinking “He mustn’t make another like this.” But somebody said today he sounds like Bing Crosby now, and he does.
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Miriam Makeba, “The Click Song”

Lennon: If it was in English, it’d mean even less. It’s intriguing because it’s foreign, y’know … but you can pick ’em out a mile away, all the gimmicks and all the different styles.

Paul & Paula, “First Quarrel”

Lennon: Well, I like their first record, because I like the octave singing—her singing one above him—and it wasn’t bad. I didn’t buy it. And the second one, you know, wasn’t worth bothering. This has “Jim” in it. All these American records are always about Jim and Bobby and Alfred and all this. I don’t like it.

Julie Grant, “Don’t Ever Let Me Down”

Lennon: I can’t think of a thing to say. At the beginning I thought, you know, “Oh, it’s one of those with an intro,” but the intro wasn’t strong enough.
David Jacobs, host: Do you like girls records or not?
Lennon: Well, I like girl singers. I like The Shirelles and Chiffons, you know. They’re different. But I can’t think of any girl in particular.
Jacobs: But not that particular record.
Lennon: No.

Tom Glazer, “On Top of Spaghetti”

Lennon: I can’t stand these ‘all together now’ records. I like the idea of one shouting and one answering, but not that. I prefer the recent Little Eva [another song based on the “On Top of Old Smoky” melody]—“Smokey Locomotion,” folks. But not that. It’s like an outing. … A coach trip.

While some of Lennon’s criticisms may have been legitimate, it’s worth noting that many of the songs—including “On Top of Spaghetti,” The Tymes’ “So Much in Love,” and Elvis’ “Devil in Disguise”—did end up becoming hits. “Devil” went to No. 1.

Nevertheless, all four Beatles were invited to serve as the show’s panelists in December, at the first blush of Beatlemania. Appearing together before 23 million viewers, they were somewhat more charitable, judging nine of the 13 singles as “hits.” Unfortunately for them, one of the groups whose hit they judged a “miss” was seated in the audience. When the host pointed this out, John switched his card, announcing, “I’ll change it to ‘hit’!” (The audio of the appearance was lost for almost 50 years, but surfaced in 2011.)

Lennon’s original performance may have helped establish a certain rock-star pose that others subsequently adopted on the show. When the Rolling Stones appeared months later, they were even harsher. “Nobody was particularly witty or anything,” Keith Richards later recalled, “We just trashed every record they played.” John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, appeared on the show in June 1979, but he didn’t even bother to stick around until the show was finished.

Read more recent posts from Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Overtake Their Idols
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Did John Lennon Have a Secret Affair With Brian Epstein?
The Songs the Beatles Gave Away
The Beatles Meet the Stones
John Lennon Has a Secret Wife and Son