The BBC’s Andy Peebles managed to secure an interview in 1980 with Yoko Ono and John Lennon just days before Lennon was assassinated.
Since the interview, he has remained in close contact with Yoko Ono and now speaking for the first time, he recalls his misgivings about her conduct after Lennon’s death, including how she acted with her new boyfriend
In this exposé he reveals a darker side to Yoko Ono that the public have never seen before.
In a frank and at times emotional interview, he raises a series of disturbing questions about her fame-hungry behaviour.
- Why did Yoko seem much happier after John’s death?
- Why did she parade her new lover Sam Havadtoy around New York, dressed in John’s old clothes?
- And why did she appear to exploit John’s memory and legacy for personal fame?
Peebles fears that John and Yoko – but especially Yoko – manipulated him for the sake of commercial profit. And, perhaps most troubling of all, he concludes that the couple’s ‘Starting Over’ episode in December 1980 was a sham promotional exercise, designed to restore John’s profile after a five-year absence.
He voices both sadness and anger at the BBC for keeping his most famous interview locked away instead of treating it as the public document he had hoped it would be.
Peebles had never before met John and Yoko when he flew to New York with his production team in December 1980, to talk about the new album, Double Fantasy.
John and Yoko realised that the key to its success was to regain contact with the UK, having walked away after the break-up of the Beatles, because Yoko had been blamed for it.
Immersed in controversy and scandal thanks to drug offences, aware that the Nixon administration wanted him out of America, and terrified to travel home for fear that U.S. immigration authorities would prevent him returning to the States, John had stayed put and parked his musical career.
Now he was back on the music scene, promoting the album Double Fantasy, which featured an equal number of songs by husband and wife. And they wanted to talk to the BBC, the broadcaster that John held most dear.
Peebles, of course, was a name in his own right. A respected DJ and music authority who spent 13 years at Radio One and created the long-running My Top Ten, interviewing stars about their favourite records.
Yet little had prepared him for his first encounter with Yoko.
‘We had agreed to meet her at The Dakota [the apartment block where she and Lennon lived] at midday on Friday, December 5,’ Peebles recalls. ‘Even though everything was arranged before we left the UK, we still had to be interviewed by her, to ensure that she wanted to proceed.
‘Their apartment was palatial, gorgeous. We were shown in to Yoko’s enormous office. She was seated behind an antique Egyptian desk. We were asked to remove our shoes.
‘I remember thinking, thank God I’d put on clean socks. I sat cross- legged on a sofa, and barely said a word. Yoko was opinionated and emphatic. She told us she’d had better offers than the BBC’s. She was being deliberately provocative. She wanted us to beg for it.’
Peebles was struck by her appearance in the flesh. At 47, she was ‘small and hard, with a slim figure, but also very busty.
‘What was I thinking as I sat there looking at her? I was thinking, frankly, “So this is the woman who broke up the Beatles”.
‘She said, “Right, if we are going to do this, I need to make very clear to you that this interview will be 50 per cent about John, and 50 per cent about me.” I felt like saying, “Who on earth are you? You’re the woman who has done for singing what Wayne Sleep has done for Rugby League”.’
Nevertheless, the interview the next day was a triumph, concluding with a celebratory dinner.
Peebles and his team spent the next day Christmas shopping, and boarded their return Pan Am flight on the evening of December 8. When they were halfway across the Atlantic, assassin Mark Chapman shot Lennon outside his home.
Only when the plane landed was Peebles given the devastating news.
Perhaps the last thing he could have expected was that he and Yoko Ono would become friends.
But soon after the historic interview was finally broadcast in January 1981, he began receiving calls from New York.
Drawn together, apparently, by their common love of John, they grew close. Each time a Lennon anniversary approached, it was to Peebles that Yoko turned, insisting that only he was allowed to interview her.
He spent private time with her on three continents over several years, and came to love the Lennons’ young son, Sean.
Each time the DJ went to New York, whether for pleasure or on business – such as when Elton John flew him over on Concorde to attend his concerts at Madison Square Garden – he and Yoko would meet up.
Whenever Yoko was in London, she’d get in touch. And they talked all the time on the phone.
It wasn’t long before the scales fell from his eyes, however. He was at first surprised, and then bemused, as Yoko’s energy grew and grew.
The grieving widow mounted exhibitions around the world, and expanded her profile as a musician. Indeed, she became more creatively active than ever before in her life.
‘It was obvious to me that John’s murder was working to her advantage,’ Peebles says.
‘I was embarrassed and ashamed at some of the decisions she made.
‘She used John’s death to hype her own new record, for example, and rushed to record a sentimental B-side compilation of bits of John talking as a souvenir. She compared John’s killing to the assassination of John F Kennedy, and herself to Jackie Onassis, insisting that their influence was greater than that of the Kennedys.
‘Out of nowhere, we had “Brand Lennon”. John would have loathed everything about it. I knew he wouldn’t have been comfortable with all that end-of-pier merchandise. He’d have laughed it off, most likely, but he would have seethed with anger inside.’
A year after the murder, the BBC decided to organise a Lennon tribute. They wanted Martin Bell, the then Washington correspondent, or presenter Sue Lawley, to interview Yoko, but she insisted on Andy.
Despite a growing sense of unease about her behaviour, he was pleased to have been offered another professional opportunity.
Peebles recalls: ‘She used her own crew, which was fine. I sat her at the white piano in the living room, and she was very good.
‘She cried, and said how much she missed John, and how stunned she still was by what had happened.
‘I referred to Mark Chapman, and she went berserk. She had never wanted his name mentioned in her presence.
‘But I found it hard to take her tears seriously. I knew she was in a new relationship with Sam Havadtoy, a sculptor and antiques expert 20 years her junior, and a former Lennon aide. It was quite scandalous.’
John was said to have been well aware that his wife was attracted to Havadtoy. One track on Double Fantasy is I’m Losing You – which John composed and wrote in a two-hour frenzy, fearful that Yoko, whom John called “Mother”, had fallen in love with Havadtoy.
On the same night as John’s murder, it is said, Havadtoy moved into the Dakota. He barely left Yoko’s side for months.
But suddenly, Sam took on a new image. Yoko had her young companion dress up in John’s old clothes, and wear his hair long, just like John’s. It was an impersonation that shocked and embarrassed their neighbours, including ballet star Rudolph Nureyev, who commented on it.
Havadtoy and Yoko wound up spending 20 years together – far longer than her marriage to John – and separated in 2000.
Peebles says: ‘I started asking myself whether she and Sam had been having a relationship before John’s death. All the pennies dropped at once.
‘I began to wonder if Yoko had encouraged John to go off and have a fling with their PA, May Pang. [May Pang later wrote and published a memoir, Loving John, about their affair] so that she could explore her attraction to Sam Havadtoy.
‘My blood ran cold. Had the whole Starting Over episode, the culmination of which had been my interview with them, been nothing but a charade?
‘Was their “happy couple back together and making their marriage work” stance all about the “product” – the album – ensuring that they got a hit out of Double Fantasy?
‘I felt sick. If indeed I had been duped, they were the finest actors on earth, the pair of them. It was Oscar-winning. It convinced me.’