The anniversary of the birth of John Lennon is this Tuesday, October 9. Murdered at age 40, he would be 78 this week. What a loss.
His work has always struck a chord with me. Now that so much of the Beatles’ work is available on YouTube, I thought I would take the occasion to note some of his lesser known songs just for the sheer pleasure of the thing. I am a Lennonist at heart; these songs have always resonated with me. My modest purpose here is to acquaint you with the songs in case you may have missed one or two along the way, to invite you to think about them from a new angle if you are familiar with them or simply to enjoy them again. If you are not so inclined, please pass them by.
John yearned for a close relationship with his mother, Julia Lennon. You can hear it in “Julia,” the confessional song 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. John’s relationship with Julia failed to give him the mother love he needed (according to me), even if it may have benefited his art. The wounds ran deep. He was still working on the issues in his primal scream therapy after the Beatles broke up. See, e.g., “Mother.”
Picking up on the Motown songs he loved, John expressed extraordinarily tender feeling in much of his early work with the Beatles. “Ask Me Why” is a good example. The Beatles performed it in roughly this arrangement in their last appearance at Hamburg’s Star Club in 1962. It appeared on Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first British album. “In time you’ll understand the reason why…”
John continued in this vein in “All I’ve Got To Do” on With the Beatles. I love the writing. The song begins as a boast and turns into a statement of mutual love.
When Lennon and McCartney discovered their harmonic yin-yang, it emerged as ebullience. You can’t miss the ebullience in “I’ll Get You.”
The Beatles came up with 12 songs for A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, but director Richard Lester only found room for six new songs in the film. “I’ll Be Back” is one of the songs he left behind. The song structure is unusual. The arrangement is perfect. It appeared on A Hard Day’s Night in England and Beatles ’65 in the United States. This one blows me away.
“No Reply” led off the Beatles for Sale album later that year. It also appeared on Beatles ’65 in the United States. Here wounded pride manifests as anger. “I saw the light,” indeed.
John soaked up obscure American rock and r & b songs. The Beatles recorded Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone” in the Beatles for Sale sessions. They never finished it. It didn’t see the light of day until the first Anthology album.
“Yes It Is” appeared as the B-side to “Ticket to Ride” and on Beatles VI in the United States. The three-part harmony is a killer. George uses the volume pedal to good effect. The theme of wounded pride recurs.
John got a few songs out of sheer physical exhaustion. Off the Beatles’ Revolver album, “I’m Only Sleeping” seems to me magnificent in every respect, including George’s “backwards” guitar solo.
John reduced his art to its essence in “Don’t Let Me Down,” here from the rooftop session filmed for Let It Be with Billy Preston on the electric piano.
When the Beatles broke up John tried to work through some of his issues in primal scream therapy. You can hear the screaming on several of the songs he recorded for John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. “God” came out of the therapy, minus the screams, with one of John’s most beautiful vocals.