25 years on from the death of John Lennon finds his light shining as strong as ever. His impact as a songwriter remains untarnished and continues to grow in stature with each passing decade, along with his persona that has taken on iconic, legendary status. There is no doubt that Lennon is one of the greats of the modern era, but the question is, what was that which made him so particularly great??
For about 15 or so years after Lennon’s passing in 1980 at the age of 40, Paul McCartney has had to suffer the ignominy of being seen as the tawdry, wimpy Beatle in contrast to the deceased Lennon, who in turn was deified as the true creative genius of the Beatles. Perhaps it was McCartney himself who put it most accurately when he said that they were as good as each other. Within the Beatles, this is true; Lennon and McCartney were equals. Yet within this statement lies further insights and truths, one of those being that both John and Paul each contributed something unique to the Beatles that was truly their own, and that one of the reasons for the Beatles amazing consistency throughout their recording career is that John and Paul’s inspiration often blazed at different times, with one or the other covering for each other’s fallow periods…and with a little bit of help from George Harrison’s songwriting. Whether or not John and Paul were equals after the Beatles split is something else altogether.
Lennon and McCartney were the premier songwriters and songwriting innovators of the 1960s, as were Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. McCartney, Dylan and Wilson all shared something in common that Lennon didn’t, and that is that their songwriting progressed to discernable pinnacles into the mid to late sixties. For Dylan this is seen in Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde, for Wilson it’s demonstrable in Pet Sounds and the unifinished-and-aborted-up-until-2003 Smile, and for McCartney it was Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.
Lennon was not a songwriter who progressed and travailed a path as the aforementioned three. Lennon was something of a mighty force of nature, taken by sheer bursts of inspiration throughout his life, so that his songwriting career was marked by occasional though tremendous bouts of inspired brilliance. These bouts roughly can be traced to the early to mid 1960s, 1968, 1970-71 and then finally 1980. This is not to say that Lennon was not writing great songs during those other times, it’s just that the extraordinary voice that was Lennon’s seemed to shine most brightly during these quite remarkable creative bursts.
Bob Dylan remarked to friends upon hearing the Beatles that the chords they used were just “outrageous”. It was John Lennon who gave the early Beatles songs that sense of utter force and vibrancy, paralleled with a totally unschooled and utterly inspired musicality that was uniquely his own. Whilst McCartney, a great writer from day one, was writing songs that fit the sound of a musical formula, Lennon took strident turns in rhythmic and harmonic development, constructing songs with a rhythmic verve and touches of modal originality harmonically. This can be seen in many early Beatles songs, ‘Please Please Me’, ‘It won’t be long’, ‘There’s a place’, ‘If I fell’. Many of his chords and cadences sound modal in a bluesy way and were utterly unlike anything heard in pop music previously; and, combined with his boldness and force of expression, broke open the doors of pop music possibility never seen before or since. Take for example the middle section of ‘This Boy’ and how Lennon’s verve and sheer sexual force contrasts to the pleasant yet formulaic treatment of Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer girl’, from which the Beatles constructed the similar do-wop verse in D major for ‘This Boy’. The height of Lennon’s early Beatles inspiration is the Hard Days Night soundtrack album whereby 10 of the 13 tracks are his. Of McCartney’s 3 songs, ‘Things we said today’ offers a glimpse into the songwriting realm he was to enter in years hence.
Lennon was soon to enter his Bob Dylan phase and began writing songs with more of a sense of self-confession that faintly disguised a melancholy soul, ‘I’m a loser’, ‘I’ll cry instead’, ‘Help’ (sped up for the movie sountrack), ‘You’re gonna lose that girl’, and ‘You’ve got to hide your love away’. The Rubber Soul album of late 1965 caught McCartney and Lennon on a synergistic mind wave, that along with George’s songs and he and Ringo’s empathetic musicianship, helped make it one of the finest Beatles albums. From there on the path Lennon and McCartney took as songwriters would begin to diverge, although that wasn’t to affect the excellence and unity of Beatles recordings until perhaps the ‘White Album’ aka Beatles.
Revolver of 1966, always considered to be either the greatest or 2nd best Beatles album recorded, is astonishing in its sheer variety of expression matched with its consistency of purpose – it’s a remarkably unified and cohesive album. Revolver is probably the album that best showcases the essential differences between McCartney and Lennon. By now, McCartney’s star was on the ascendant and he was at the peak of his ballad writing, his songs were grounded in the buzzing atmosphere of swinging London, upbeat and urbane with remarkable melodies, never before had McCartney sounded so assured, eg, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Good day sunshine’, ‘For no one’. Lennon on the other hand had nothing to do with swinging London; his songs reflected a suburban inertia exacerbated by frequent LSD use. Songs like ‘I’m only sleeping’ and ‘She said she said’ don’t appear to say much on the surface but matched to the music they are utterly brilliant compositions, the latter in particular points to disturbing recollections of traumas past – which would become fully cognizant for its author by the time of the 1st solo album. Lennon hated ‘And your bird can sing’ but it remains a Britpop classic, and ‘Tomorrow never knows’ catches him constructing a song on one chord with the remainder of the Beatles and George Martin aiding in the ground breaking production. Revolver – as well as the ‘Penny Lane’ · ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ single demonstrates that where McCartney is utterly superb, Lennon is utterly brilliant, yet they are as superb and brilliant as each other.
Whereas as Lennon was once edged on by Bob Dylan’s influence, McCartney now took the clarion call from Brian Wilson and wanted to do something that would better Pet Sounds. The result was the ‘Sgt Pepper’ album, often cited as the apogee of McCartney’s creativity. Objectively Lennon’s songs are blighted by drug use that had blunted his true inspiration. However, Lennon wrote one stunning song, ‘A Day in the Life’, arguably the greatest song on the album and the greatest collaboration between Lennon and McCartney (the “…woke up…” section was McCartney’s). The introduction to ‘A Day in the Life’ featuring Lennon’s acoustic guitar and vocal remains one the eeriest and mesmerizing moments of Lennon’s songwriting cannon. Other standout songs during the post-Pepper period for Lennon include ‘I am the Walrus’ and more peculiarly, ‘Hey Bulldog’. The latter was recorded prior to the band’s hiatus to India to spend time with the Maharishi and of which the recording was filmed for the ‘Lady Madonna’ single promo, to find its way on the Yellow Submarine sountrack. ‘Hey Bulldog’ is a lesser-known Lennon classic where his old verve and vitality returns after years of drug-induced torpor. ‘Hey Bulldog’ is classic unaffected happy Lennon rock, even though the lyrics tend to be pointed towards McCartney. Lennon would never sound quite so innocent and carefree again.
It’s often remarked by Beatle biographers that the Beatles were Lennon’s band up until the making of Sgt Pepper, from which then onward the band became McCartney’s, with McCartney creating the lion’s share of the music. This is not totally true. The ‘White Album’ of 1968 is stamped by Lennon’s mercurial voice, both musically and emotively. Somehow the trip to India in February 1968 inspired Lennon into a new phase of songwriting that brought through songs that, for perhaps the first time, brought through the real John Lennon. These songs had the edge of aggression, a touch of menace, yet were sometimes gentle and beguiling, yet all had a lyrical freedom he hadn’t quite touched in past occasions. Perhaps it was staying off the substances combined with the meditation, or, his awakening love for Yoko Ono that awakened his true voice. In any event the ‘White Album’ is a central focus for Lennon fans as the album captures his most diverse and intriguing range of songwriting, ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Happiness is a warm gun’, ‘Julia’, ‘Yer blues’, etc etc, although it was McCartney who brought a true sense of winsome melancholia to the album with ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ and in particular‘Blackbird’, one of his very best songs.
Lennon continued to write classics up until the Beatles demise, eg, ‘Come Together’, ‘Don’t let me down’ etc, but it was McCartney who composed the epitaphs and fitting swan songs to the end of an extraordinary era in the finale of Abbey Road and ‘Let it be’ and ‘Long and winding road’. After the White Album, Lennon’s passions lay elsewhere; one of which were his avant-garde extemporisations with Yoko Ono that although authentic enough in their delivery and conviction, remained unpopular with the public. McCartney pointed out years later that he’d explored the avant-garde earlier, in the mid-60’s, and had not made a fuss over it.
The passing of the Beatles gave Lennon the opportunity to explore his songwriting on a wider level. ‘Cold Turkey’ from 1969 was his first “primal” song, the pain and anguish of the subject matter expelling itself in the most vindictively snarl-like guitar phrasing Lennon or anyone has ever recorded before or since. ‘Instant Karma’ of February 1970 is a Lennon classic; written in the morning and recorded in the afternoon it has a most catchy verse structure featuring pleasing and dramatic modulations whereby all patterns are based on I – minor VI, falling into the classic “…we all shine on…” chorus. Bursting with sheer verve and energy, ‘Instant Karma’ is inspired rock at its very best.
McCartney reportedly took the Beatles split the hardest yet Lennon himself was veering with depression, upon which Yoko enlisted the help of Dr Arthur Janov, exponent of primal scream therapy. This therapy allowed Lennon to get in touch with his childhood traumas and demons though it didn’t curb his anger any. Still, following from that, he came out with one of rock’s greatest albums, John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band. This album is anything but Hard Days Night, it is purely elemental rock, conceptually stark and quite painful (‘Mother’, ‘I Found Out’), yet mixed with songs of pure sensitivity and yearning (‘Look at me’ & ‘Love’). Lennon uses ‘God’ as an epitaph in diverging himself of his past by singing repeatedly “I don’t believe….” citing Beatles, Zimmerman, Krishna etc, finally stating “...I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality…”. This album was complimented somewhat by what is probably Rock’s cornerstone interview, that with Rolling Stone magazine’s editor Jann Wenner on 8 December 1970, exactly 10 years prior to the day of his death.
Imagine album of 1971 captured Lennon on a songwriting high, gracing this album with far more poise and melodic grace than its predecessor. ‘Imagine’ is the obvious pick for superb craftsmanship yet ‘Jealous Guy’ also features a beautiful melody. ‘How do you sleep’ is a thinly veiled dig at McCartney and shows signs that the Liverpool roughie of old was about to reemerge in Lennon, yet of the song, Lennon was to play down its vitriol in future years. McCartney was justly hurt at the rather adolescent jibes thrown at him in ‘How do you sleep’, yet there’s no denying that the music with its swanky bluesiness was terrific and served as a good counterpoint to the lyrics.
Lennon’s consistency began to sway as his personal life became more erratic. ‘Number 9 dream’ and ‘Whatever gets you thru the night’ are classic Lennon songs, the latter in particular right up to date with the times and earned him a number one record. In 1974 Lennon recorded an album of covers, partly to pay homage to his roots and partly because his inspiration was swayed off its course due to his drunken rampaging around Los Angeles.
By 1975 Lennon had returned to Ono in New York, had fathered a child Sean and took time off from the music business. When Lennon returned to the public eye in 1980 he remarked on this period as a happy one where he settled down to the business of being a house-husband. Insiders paint a different picture that portrayed Lennon as a moody, lonely, and unfocused man, addicted to cannabis, and whose relationship with Yoko had fructified. Apparently their situation reached its nadir in early 1980. It was during a trip to Bermuda that Lennon was inspired to write the Double Fantasy album after seeing the flower by that name, and, as a means to mend his relationship with Yoko. Lennon and Yoko were to start recording Double Fantasy in August 1980 and these sessions and all the songs they spawned would prove to be the closing chapter on Lennon’s work.
Lennon had written songs in the late 70’s that included ‘Free as a bird’ and ‘Real love’ that made their way into Beatles releases in the mid-90s. The new songs in 1980 had a freshness and power, beginning with ‘Serve yourself’ of early 1980 which was inspired and directed against Dylan’s ‘You gotta serve somebody’. The songs that made Double Fantasy did not excite contemporary reviewers who were in fact annoyed that John didn’t have anything better to do than to sing love songs about Yoko and have to tell the world how great their relationship was. Yet by the beginning of December 1980 it climbed up around the top of the British and American charts. Lennon’s death on 8 December put hold to those reviews, and now in hindsight, some 25 years on it’s evident that these songs are amongst the very best of Lennon’s career, and that his songwriting skills had again reached peak form. Even songs like ‘Clean up time’ sound sharp and contemporary and didn’t merely sound like an ex-Beatle playing ex-Beatle music. Off-cuts include the reggae influenced (and eerily prescient ‘Living on borrowed time’ and the excellent ‘Nobody told me’ which would become a single in 1984 and released on the posthumous Milk and Honey). Yet the songs on Double Fantasy are amongst the most special, ‘Starting over’, faintly echoing Brian Wilson’s ‘Don’t worry baby’, musically illustrates Lennon bringing together some of his roots with a wonderfully yearning tune and a reawakened clarity of expression. ‘Losing you’ has that contemporary ‘New York 1980’ edge with a gripping and suspenseful riff eased with a terrific middle eight. ‘Watching the wheels’ was another great song; obviously Lennon had regained his poise to a point where he’d never been so lucid as a writer. ‘Beautiful Boy’ pays lovely homage to his son Sean, and a song like ‘Woman’ is a reminder that though Lennon had died young, it’s through the grace of life that he was inspired to compose a most beautiful epitaph of love and gratitude prior to his passing. The poise, expressiveness, the underlying grace and a newfound mellowness in these songs of Double Fantasy paint Lennon’s passing in a bittersweet yet somewhat salutary picture.
Lennon’s enormous mass-appeal continues to grow 25 years after his death. Perhaps it’s because as a person, there’s a lot about Lennon we can all relate to. Yoko said after his passing that he was a “simple, complex man”. When you look at it, Lennon was utterly and essentially “human” – meaning he was diverse, flawed, and prone to the entire gamut of human emotionality including that which was less than pleasant - whilst possessing an unparalleled expressive power and emotional directness of expression that channeled itself so boldly through his songs. Lennon’s music and personality are hard to pin down but people seem to be drawn to him because he was always so “out there” in whatever he did, even if that includes his bouts of depression and inertia. Dylan for example, kept the walls up particularly after his motorcycle accident in 1966. Lennon never seemed to have “walls” and his music for the most part always seemed to possess a “directness” or candidness that penetrates the psyche of the listener, no matter how “out there” Lennon may have sounded on occasions. (His interviews particularly after the Beatles demise are similar.) It follows then that his songs still possess a remarkable communicative power, they communicate to us on all levels. All this combines with a remarkable personal charisma and you get the most famous popular music icon of the late 20th century.