There is, it is said, inside New York’s famed Dakota Building, if you know where to find it, a small plaque screwed to one of the walls. Look more closely and it reads: “Nutopia Embassy”. More than 40 years after the death of John Lennon, this is all that remains of what was almost certainly the late Beatle’s strangest idea.
Announced on April Fool’s Day 1973, elements of it were clearly tongue in cheek, but Lennon’s creation of the whimsical new country of Nutopia – pronounced “newtopia” and with “no land, no boundaries, no passports” – had a serious backdrop.
A year earlier, US President Richard Nixon’s administration had started attempts to deport the pop-star-turned-peace-activist as a way of neutralising his high-profile protests against, among others, the Vietnam War.
Now at a press conference, Lennon, who had moved to New York in 1971 with wife Yoko Ono, told a group of bemused journalists: “We announce the birth of a conceptual country, Nutopia. Citizenship of the country can be obtained by declaration of your awareness of Nutopia. Nutopia has no land, no boundaries, no passports, only people. Nutopia has no laws other than cosmic. All people of Nutopia are ambassadors of the country.”
Then came Lennon’s denouement: “As two ambassadors of Nutopia, we ask for diplomatic immunity and recognition in the United Nations of our country and its people.”
A week earlier he had received the latest deportation order. Clad in a tight-fitting tank top and blue jacket, Lennon proceeded to hold up a white tissue claiming this was the flag of Nutopia. He then blew his nose on it.
Backtrack to the previous winter and high on the list of things that were pressing on Lennon’s mind was the need to have a hit record after the most brutal critical savaging of his career.
His album Sometime In New York City, released in 1972, remains arguably the worst record Lennon recorded as a Beatle or solo artist.
It’s a point now forgotten by many Lennon fans, according to Patrick Humphries, a music journalist for the NME in the 1970s who interviewed the Fab Four and is currently writing his own memoir of the group.
“People have this ‘Saint John’ belief where history has been rewritten to show everything he touched turned to gold. But it’s just absolutely not true,” Humphries insists.
“Lennon was in real trouble in 1973. His marriage was collapsing and his records weren’t selling at all. It sounds incredible now but, at that time, his solo career was, by far, the least successful of all the former Beatles.”
As well as being under pressure from the US authorities who viewed him as a dangerous radical, Lennon was in desperate need of rediscovering his mojo.
Cue the Nutopia press conference. But what did the media make of the publicity stunt?
The official embassy address of Nutopia was named as One White Street (John and Yoko’s residence in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood at the time), while the nation’s crudely drawn official seal was of a seal balancing a globe on its nose.
The only element that prevented the audience of journalists from believing it was an April Fool’s Day joke – after all, Lennon was always keen on word-play, puns and spoonerisms in his lyrics and other writing – was the fact the press conference was held at the New York City Bar Association, and the presence of Lennon’s lawyer Leon Wildes.
Even he was clearly taken aback. Speaking four decades later, he admitted: “Yoko came and apologised to me afterwards. She said, ‘You have to understand that when you’re representing an artist, we’re not always predictable’.”
“The public, especially in the UK, were bored with John and Yoko,” he says. “Far more interesting music was being released by younger artists. Almost everyone in the British music press believed that the Americans were welcome to John Lennon if they wanted him.”
When Lennon’s new album, Mind Games, was released six months after the bizarre press conference, it was a complete dud, missing the Top Ten again in the UK, its songs described by Rolling Stone magazine as Lennon’s “worst writing yet”.
Nor was it helped by the fact that, at the end of the first side, was a three-second-long track of complete silence, called Nutopian International Anthem.
For Lennon himself, a break up with Yoko, a move to Los Angeles and a year-and-a-half of drunken debauchery – later described as his “lost weekend” – beckoned.
The downfall of President Nixon, and the death of FBI boss J Edgar Hoover, finally saw him granted permanent residency and reuniting with Yoko in 1975.
His musical reputation, however, would never truly recover until after his murder at the hands of Mark Chapman, seven years later in New York City aged just 40.
Today the fictional “micronation” lives on in the form of the plaque at the back entrance to the couple’s Dakota Building apartment, still occupied by Yoko. Half a century since it was dreamed up by the ex-Beatle, it is all that remains of Nutopia.