I have wanted for a while to note a thematic thread in a few of my favorite Beatles’ songs, but the songs were not available on YouTube in their original versions. For the moment that has changed. I want to seize the day to offer my note on these early Beatles’ songs written by John Lennon. I have only this weak excuse. These songs have always resonated with me. My purpose here is to invite you to enjoy the songs from a slightly new angle, or simply to enjoy them again.
The theme I want to note in these songs is wounded pride. The lyrics reflect a primal hurt. In “She Loves You,” the the guy on the receiving end of the song’s advice is told “pride can hurt you too.” Lennon and McCartney wrote the song together, but I am certain that John Lennon was talking to himself in that part of the lyrics.
Lennon’s father, Alfred (Freddie) Lennon, was mostly absent during John’s childhood. He wasn’t around much after John was born and before long he was long gone. When Freddie turned up at John’s door during the early days of the Beatles’ success, John was unamused.
John yearned for a close relationship with his mother, Julia Lennon. You can hear it in “Julia,” the nakedly personal confession that comes toward the end of the Beatles’ recording career. Julia was a free spirit. She took up with another man within two or three years after John was born. He was raised mostly by Julia’s sister Mimi. Julia was killed when she was run over by a car in 1958. John was 17 and distraught over her death. If John’s relationship with Julia wasn’t exactly distant, it failed to give him the mother love he needed (according to me).
John wrote “This Boy” as an homage to the Motown songs that he loved. John’s melancholy permeates this beautiful song. It doesn’t exactly fit my theme, but it anticipates it. Close your eyes if the lip syncing bothers you and listen to the incredible three-part harmony.
In “If I Fell” John makes the theme of wounded pride manifest. The singer is guarding against the pain of another failed love (“Don’t hurt my pride like her”). Here too the harmony is incredible.
“No Reply” develops the theme with a twist. The hurt is turned into humiliation and anger. The singer testifies to what Othello calls “the ocular proof” of his betrayal. I love the indignant line: “I saw the light” (or as the Spanish subtitles helpfully have it, “Vi la luz”).
Lennon reworked “This Boy” in “Yes It Is.” Key line: “I could be happy…but it’s my pride.” He emphasizes the point in the phrase that gives the song its title: “Yes it is.” Lennon, incidentally, trashed the song, but I don’t buy it. The song originally appeared on the B-side to “Ticket to Ride.” Again, note the incredible three-part harmony.
I hear the theme too in “I’ll Be Back.” The singer anticipates having his heart broken and his pride wounded, but he will overcome it and return. He knows because he’s done it before. The hurt is transformed into determination. The hurt comes through in the melody, the key changes, and the off-kilter structure of the song. (See, for example, Alan Pollock’s notes on the song.) I can’t find the Beatles’ beautiful original online, but we can hear out Shawn Colvin’s haunting interpretation, beautiful in its own way.
I could go on, but let me stop here. This is a backhanded Mother’s Day tribute. We need a mother’s love. Yes, we do.