He wasn’t the first star to walk down the steps of a plane at Malaga Airport. For example, the flamboyant Frank Sinatra had done so just a year before and the pioneering Maureen O'Hara had made a glamorous entrance during the previous decade. Nevertheless, never before had a flight aroused so much interest. The difference this time was that the press had been told and not one, not two, but a whole legion of reporters and writers were waiting in September 1966 for the arrival of the Air France plane bringing John Lennon from Germany.
Gone was the Beatle’s famous long hair, but he was still instantly recognisable. There were so many members of the press waiting for him that the singer had no choice but to hold an improvised press conference, and when he had finally answered all their questions and thought he could get on his way, there was another barrier: dozens of fans were keen to obtain his autograph. This, remember, was long before the era of selfies.
“There was no way the presence of so many photographers would go unnoticed and a lot of foreigners, especially women, who were arriving at the airport to fly back to their own countries recognised him, so he spent ages signing autographs for them before he could finally leave,” says Eugenio Griñán, one of those whose camera immortalised the arrival of the Beatle, who was killed 40 years ago this month in New York.
Griñán remembers seeing Lennon, who was just 25 years old when he came to Malaga, signing everything people waved at him, including banknotes which the fans then took home with them as a souvenir. Those notes were worth 1,000 pesetas at the time; they are worth a great deal more than that now, with John Lennon’s signature on them.
Speaking of money, the Malaga press took the opportunity to ask the star how much he earned, to which he, already an expert in dealing with uncomfortable questions, had an answer ready: he said he didn’t know, because all that was handled by their manager.
John Lennon sat on a wooden bench in a room in the international arrivals area of the airport to talk to the crowd of reporters and photographers. “The airport was a source of news and I had a contact there who told me if someone famous was due to arrive, but on that day I obviously wasn’t the only one to hear about it,” says Griñán, who remembers the Beatle as being friendly, smiling and not at all reticent despite recently having caused a worldwide controversy.
Just a few months earlier, during an interview in March 1966, John Lennon had stated that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. His remarks were republished in the United States in July, and they enraged religious groups to such an extent that there were protesters at every concert on the Beatles’ American tour. Word of the controversy also reached Spain, causing the Franco regime’s press to make disparaging remarks about ‘el melenudo’, (long-haired guy), as they referred to him.
Short hair like Samson
On this occasion, that bad boy with the long hair arrived with it cut short in Samson style, something which the journalists lost no time asking him about. He told them he was on his way to Almeria to film Richard Lester’s black comedy How I Won the War, in which he played a sergeant, Musketeer Gripweed. Logically, if he was going to play a soldier, he had to have short hair.
A German music magazine also took advantage of this situation by collecting up his long locks as they were cut off and distributing them to its readers.
Although the film team comprised about 30 people and the expedition also included actor Michael Crawford, nobody at the airport had eyes for anyone but Lennon. Well, apart from Quique Herreros, who was handling public relations for the film and translated for the singer and vice versa. The press had no choice but to pay attention to him.
In response to questions, the Beatle said his top priorities during his visit were to shoot the film, swim in the sea and go to a flamenco club, an ambience that he already knew well because three years earlier he had spent a couple of weeks in Torremolinos with his manager, Brian Epstein, who was known as the fifth Beatle.
At one point the journalists did touch a nerve on the subject of bullfighting because it was already known that Lennon loved animals. When asked if he would be going to a bullfight, he told them bluntly that he didn’t like that type of spectacle: “I’m an animal lover”.
However, the ruffled feathers were soon smoothed by the star, when he said he thought Spain was a lovely country and said he felt happy here, referring to his holiday on the particularly libertarian Costa del Sol a few years earlier.
And that’s where the interview came to an end, although the author of Let It Be and Strawberry Fields Forever still took a while to win the battle to get out of the airport. Ahead of him, the fans were waiting with their 1,000 peseta notes held out for him to sign.
Finally, John Lennon was able to set off on the road to Almeria to start filming. David Trueba based his film Living is Easy with Eyes Closed on this second visit. But that is another story.