This article was originally published in the April 2005 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. You’ll find the music to “Imagine” as well as “Eight Days a Week” and “Blackbird” in our 2005 Digital Archive.
London, November 4, 1963: In the wake of the number one U.K. hits “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You,” teenage hysteria greets the Beatles just about everywhere they go. But not tonight at the Prince of Wales Theater, where the band performs for a tony audience that includes the Queen Mother herself. In keeping with the venue, Paul McCartney sings the genteel “Till There Was You,” from The Music Man, and George Harrison adds a tidy guitar solo. Then John Lennon steps up to the mic. “For our last number, I’d like to ask for your help,” he says with a smirk. “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” With a satisfied “Yeah!” Lennon kicks off “Twist and Shout,” leading the call and response with a rocker’s rasp.
So much about John Lennon is captured in these onstage moments: his rebel streak, his cutting sense of humor, his love of straight-up rock ’n’ roll, and the way all these attributes were complemented so beautifully by McCartney and the other Beatles. “They’re like a four-color separation photo,” says English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who was ten years old when Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr bought estates near his home in the posh suburbs of Weybridge. “If you take a color photo down to its components, there’s a blue and it’s too much blue and a red and it’s too much red … The solo albums were sort of doomed because you get too much of one flavor.”
Thirty-five years have passed since the Beatles disbanded, and it’s been almost 25 years since an unhinged fan deprived us of the chance to see what sort of music and mischief John Lennon would have made in middle age and beyond. Yet Lennon’s voice still seems eerily present today, on the ageless Beatles and solo records as well as new releases like Acoustic, a set of Lennon demos and concert tapes. Considering the brevity of his life, the scope of Lennon’s music is breathtaking: from the bubblegum bounce of “Please Please Me” to the orchestral sweep of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (only four years later), the sentimental “In My Life” to the existential “Nowhere Man,” the cathartic screams of “Mother” to the utopian visions of “Imagine.” What gives this music such vitality and allure, even for those who didn’t grow up with Beatlemania in the ’60s? Here are some thoughts from contemporary songwriters, as well as firsthand observations from the woman who was at Lennon’s side for much of his musical life.
The Power of Two
John Lennon’s emergence as a defining voice of rock was inextricably tied to his partnership with Paul McCartney, something Brian Ritchie of the acoustic rock trio Violent Femmes calls “one of the great flukes of 20th-century music. Most of the other great composers of that period—John Cage, Sun Ra, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Nick Drake—were unstoppable as individuals. I get the impression that neither Lennon nor McCartney would have succeeded without the other.”
As Lennon and McCartney found their songwriting groove in early Beatles tracks like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” they co-wrote songs “playing into each other’s noses,” as Lennon put it in the Playboy interview he gave shortly before his death. Over the course of time, they worked more and more independently, adding a lyric or bridge to each other’s nearly complete songs, or simply acting as editors and sounding boards. By the time Yoko Ono met Lennon in 1966, she recalls, “John finished most of the songs and went to Paul’s place and said, ‘Well, this is what I wanted. What do you think?’ And vice versa: Paul had songs finished too, and I don’t think there was much to add. I think that Paul respected John and John respected Paul’s space.”
The essential feature of the Lennon/McCartney partnership is contrast: Lennon’s rock primitivism (“Revolution,” “Come Together”) versus McCartney’s instrumental sophistication (“Blackbird”) and fluency with Tin Pan Alley song forms (“Yesterday”); Lennon’s acerbic wit (“I Am the Walrus”) versus McCartney’s gentle optimism (“Let It Be”); Lennon’s personal outcries (“Don’t Let Me Down”) versus McCartney’s third person storytelling (“Rocky Raccoon”).
Roots rocker Chris Whitley describes a “wonderfully weird” tension between what he calls Lennon’s agitation and McCartney’s empathy. To singer-songwriter/ producer Joe Henry, “Paul’s contribution seems to be more deliberately intellectual, as far as songcraft goes, and John’s thing seems to be so much more visceral and emotional, which is probably why they were such a beautiful team.”
Many co-written Beatles songs, once we tease apart Lennon and McCartney’s individual contributions, provide telling studies in contrast. Inside McCartney’s jaunty “We Can Work It Out,” we find Lennon’s minor-key bridge, “Life is very short …” Similarly, Lennon replies sardonically to McCartney’s “Getting Better”: “Can’t get no worse.” And on the magnum opus “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s “I read the news today” verse travels into McCartney’s “I’d love to turn you on” and “Woke up, fell out of bed” sections and back into Lennon’s plaintive melody. “On any given tune they co-wrote,” notes Kenny Siegal, of the adventuresome pop/rock band Johnny Society, “it seemed that what one didn’t bring to the table the other one provided.”
Lennon himself told Playboy that McCartney “provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.” But their roles don’t always fit so neatly into these boxes. On the White Album, for instance, McCartney wrote the raging “Helter Skelter,” and Lennon contributed the Bing Crosby-esque lullaby “Good Night.” Their relationship, McCartney reflects in the authorized biography Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, was “a four-cornered thing rather than two cornered, it had diagonals, and my hard side could talk to John’s hard side when it was necessary, and our soft edges talked to each other.”
Striking a Chord
For songwriters, the deceptively simple, devastatingly effective chord moves in Lennon and McCartney songs are an endless source of wonder. Consider “Strawberry Fields Forever”: The verse concludes with a classic I–vi–IV–V progression (think “Stand by Me”), then the chorus jumps off a harmonic cliff, plunging to the v (minor) and VI7 (now major) as we arrive at the place where “nothing is real.” We can analyze all this with Roman numerals, but we feel the trippiness right in the gut.
Scores of Lennon songs feature these moments of harmonic vertigo, using nothing fancier than chords that flip between major and minor, modulations into unexpected keys, the occasional augmented or ninth chord. Hitchcock cites “Real Love,” the Lennon-written Beatles track on the posthumous Anthology 2. Hitchcock sings the falsetto lines that lead into the chorus, “Why must we be alone?/ Why must we be alone?” which are accompanied by an uncommon move from D (I) to C9 (bVll9) and back again. “Absolutely chilling,” says Hitchcock. “It makes me cry.”
Lennon, Hitchcock adds, “would have these odd chords on both guitar and piano, while ostensibly being simple workingman’s John, banging them out. You can see why people from as diverse ends as Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan marveled at it.”
Henry hears a “sense of discovery” in the way Lennon strings together chords in “Across the Universe.” “That sounds like a backwards melody to me,” he says. “It’s like he set up a situation to make a song create itself, as opposed to him orchestrating and driving it.” Another example is the gorgeously off-the-chart “Julia,” which Lennon wrote at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s compound in India, after learning fingerstyle technique from Donovan. “It’s like somebody playing an instrument they don’t play very well,” says Henry. “Even though John was a really good guitar player, he tricked himself into playing in a much more naive fashion.” The Acoustic collection provides an intimate snapshot of Lennon the guitarist, laying down songs in unplugged/unproduced form. Highlights include “Watching the Wheels,” which sounds downright folky compared to the version on Double Fantasy, and “Real Love” (a different demo than the one used by the other Beatles on Anthology 2).
When reviewing Lennon’s homemade tapes for a possible Japanese release, Ono discovered that his voice was irreparably drowned out on the piano tracks but the guitar-based demos had a special appeal. She decided to package the CD as a mini guitar songbook, with chord symbols above the lyrics in the liner notes. “When John was playing at home,” Ono recalls, “it was a normal thing for me, so I wasn’t that impressed. I was a very lucky girl, you know. But after 20 years or so, looking back and listening to it, I thought, my God, he was brilliant. If I can make this into a good-quality thing, it might inspire the professionals. It might even inspire kids who are just wanting to learn how to play guitar.” In the Beatles, Lennon mostly provided the rhythmic bedrock, punching out those singular changes (often using full barre chords) and freeing Harrison to add ornamentation and texture. On rare occasions Lennon stepped out on lead—notably in “Get Back”—and from the White Album onward, he recorded some beautiful stand-alone accompaniment parts, as on the dreamy fingerstyle “Dear Prudence.”
“Lennon was not a flashy guitarist,” says Ritchie, “but he got the job done, and his tone is better than 99 percent of guitarists.” Hitchcock notes that “Paul could play lead as well as George, which was a constant source of irritation to both of them. John wasn’t technically up there doing the squiggly bits with Paul and George, but he could come up with a melody line on the guitar. I love that harsh stuff on ‘Well Well Well’ [from Plastic Ono Band]. He certainly played for his needs.”
In a 1970 conversation with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, Lennon called himself a “cinema verite guitarist” who had no interest in technical perfection. “I’m really very embarrassed about my guitar playing in one way because it’s very poor,” he said. “I can never move, but I can make a guitar speak, you know.”
Look at Me
Just as Lennon’s harmonic sense continually evolved, so did his lyric writing. “He enjoyed words,” says Hitchcock. “He was a fan of Lewis Carroll, and he was obviously a big Dylan fan. Dylan liberated him to start putting different lyrics in songs rather than, you know, ‘diamond ring,’ ‘my friend,’ ‘I love you.’ The early Beatles had a vocabulary of about 15 words, but that helped them get going. If they’d come out with ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ to start, they wouldn’t have got anywhere.”
Looking back at his contributions to the Beatles catalog, Lennon pointed to his most personal writing as his best work: songs like “Help!” “Strawberry Fields,” and “In My Life,” which Ritchie calls “one of the loveliest songs in rock.” (“In My Life” is a rare example of contradiction between Lennon’s and McCartney’s memories of writing Beatles songs: both took credit for the music but agreed the words are Lennon’s.)
In his solo years, Lennon aimed to further strip away craft and pretense. Plastic Ono Band, released in 1970 after the implosion of the Beatles and a trip through Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Center, still sounds shockingly raw even after decades of singer-songwriters baring their souls for therapy and art.
Lennon’s writing on Plastic Ono Band and its tamer follow-up, Imagine, “had more to do with his own self-discovery than expressing a very smart idea,” says Henry. “It’s not clever wordplay. It’s more like biting into an idea and spitting it out.” In those songs, he adds, Lennon “starts to sound like he’s not conscious of influence. They’re not genre pieces, like some of the early Beatles—pieces here’s our western song, here’s our take on the blues.”
Six songs from Plastic Ono Band appear on Acoustic, including the little gem “Love” and the melancholy “Look at Me.” Ono has a particular fondness for “Working Class Hero,” in which Lennon addresses would-be followers with a characteristic mix of sympathy, mockery, and cynicism. Ono says, “I just love that idea, and I think that song really typifies what the Beatles did, which was to create a revolution in the hierarchy of, OK, first the queen and then the aristocrats and all that. They toppled it, you know?”
At times he resented the lofty pedestal on which the Beatles were placed (to the point of declaring “I don’t believe in Beatles,” in the song “God”), but Lennon also recognized that he stood in a unique position to broadcast messages to the world. He had a knack for distilling an idea down to a catchphrase or slogan, and he was ready to step up to the mic and just say it: “All you need is love.” “Power to the people.” “Give peace a chance.”
Lennon and the Beatles straddled tectonic shifts in how rock bands make music in yet another realm: the recording studio. In the early days, they knocked out studio tracks like the bar band they were, but in the mid-’60s on Rubber Soul and Revolver, a new universe of recording possibilities began to emerge.
The band took a radical step into alternate-reality recording with Lennon’s one-chord incantation “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which Ritchie calls “one of the first pop songs which used sounds and noise, rather than chords and notes, as the main building blocks.” Lennon’s voice warbled through a Leslie speaker, and engineers faded McCartney’s tape loops in and out on five different machines.
“Some of my favorite songs in the world aren’t songs at all,” Whitley says of “Tomorrow.” “It’s like [Jimi Hendrix’s] Are You Experienced?-totally fundamental groove-blues-rock-psychedelic surrealism.”
Then came “Strawberry Fields Forever,” recorded in late 1966, shortly after the band quit touring. Lennon wrote the song on guitar (as documented in a fascinating demo sequence on Anthology 2), but it became something entirely new in the Abbey Road studio, with touches of Mellotron (a tape-replay keyboard), surmandal (Indian harp), and strings, and producer George Martin’s deft editing together of two takes with different tempos and keys. The psychedelic extravaganza “A Day in the Life” followed just a few months later.
Joe Henry, who coproduced Ani DiFranco’s newest CD, Knuckle Down, contrasts the baroque constructions of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour with the bare-bones approach of Lennon’s early solo albums. With those Beatles albums, he says, “It’s hard to separate the recordings from the songs themselves, because it’s almost like the studio helped create the songs. Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, those records sound more like you get some good musicians in a room and everybody has to hang on, because John is taking the song down the field and you get a couple takes to get onboard or else you’ve missed it.”
For Lennon, the studio was a place for experimentation but not for songwriting, says Ono. “I’ve heard from some producers, ‘That band, they just come in and they only have one [vocal] line and say, “What are we going to do about this?’” John was never like that. He might change a few words or something, but he had the whole song finished before he went into the studio.”
Ono’s voice softens when she’s asked about musical ambitions that Lennon never had a chance to realize. “We were going to go on doing all sorts of things,” she reflects. “That’s all lost, you know. It’s neither here nor there.” And what sort of music does she imagine he might be making today? “I think he would have gone into more complex music that’s more avant-garde. I’m sure that he would have been very interested in computers, the Internet, and all that—he would have jumped on it. New expression, new communication.”
As we approach what would have been John Lennon’s 65th birthday, a steady stream of new releases and events preserves the illusion that Lennon and the Beatles play on. In 2004 came The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1, a collection of the US versions of early Beatles albums (in both mono and stereo); Lennon’s Acoustic and the remastered/remixed Rock ‘n’ Roll; Ringo Starr’s coffee-table book Postcards from the Boys; a Lennon art exhibit titled “When I’m Sixty-Four”; and more. A tribute musical, Lennon, debuts this spring on Broadway. There’s enough music and memorabilia to occupy the most obsessed fans, but the songwriters I spoke with find something less tangible—and more powerful—in Lennon’s legacy.
“I feel his spirit,” says Hitchcock. “A corny thing to say, but I draw a lot of strength from him.” Whitley takes inspiration as much from Lennon’s audacity as from his songs. “His creativity is so let loose,” says Whitley, “like he’s not scared of being trite.” To Henry, Lennon’s music is a lesson in “being liberated from the constraints of a preconceived idea.” Kenny Siegal, who was in elementary school when Lennon died, reflects, “I’m not the kind of guy who knows how to play their tunes around the fire-too busy writing my own, which those guys would probably applaud.” He still sees John Lennon as a hero, but adds, “You know … I don’t think he would have wanted people to carry his voice more than their own.”
What They Played
“George Harrison was really the gearhead,” says Andy Babiuk, author of the encyclopedic book Beatles Gear (Backbeat). “Lennon and McCartney were really songwriters—the instruments themselves were strictly tools.” During the Beatles years, John Lennon played four main guitars: a 1962 Gibson J-160E (stolen in 1963 and replaced with a nearly identical model, which Lennon stripped and refinished twice; a 1967 Martin D-28 that featured prominently in the writing and recording of the White Album; a Rickenbacker 325 (one from 1958 and a second from 1964); and a 1965 Epiphone Casino (also painted and then stripped). Babiuk notes that Lennon got the acoustic-electric J-160E specifically to plug into a Vox AC-30 on stage and that it’s the only instrument used on nearly every Beatles record.
Lennon had no particular favorite guitar in his later years, says Yoko Ono. “He was interested in jumping from one to another. He liked all sorts of guitars really.” The photos on Acoustic show, among other things, an Ovation and a circa-1977 custom Yamaha with a dragon inlay designed by Ono.