Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ten Story Love Song - John Lennon's Top Ten

December the 8th is here again (ain't been round since you know when...)

31 years ago today, John Lennon, arguably one of the 20th centuries most interesting, and most paradoxical stars was gunned down by a demon on a New York street.
Doubtless today's papers, magazines, blogs and various online media will be filled with messages of peace, love and understanding...nothing funny 'bout that. However many will present the annual token deconstruction of Lennon's 'genius'. Some will refer to him as Gandhi, Jesus, or even a God- like figure (the irony is not lost), while others will counteract with the usual comments that he was a cruel and aggressive asshole who turned his back on his first family and served his own interests first. None of the former group is true of course, while some of the latter certainly hold water.

Don't listen to any of them. In truth it's all utter bollox.

What the man was, and what he did is irrelevant. His music however will never be such. Not to belittle the compositions of his songwriting partner and former band-mates, but Lennon was in a different league completely because he was cursed. He possessed an internal honesty and filter for bullshit that the careful sensibilities of McCartney, and the distracted spirit of Harrison could never quite aspire to. That's not to say that his lyrical conclusions or suggestions were always right, he was often wrong and too easily misled. However, he was always thought provoking, and has remained perpetually relevant. Lennon has never been passé.

I've taken the liberty to choose Lennon's ten greatest achievements on record. Many of these reflect his brutal honesty about how he saw himself, and the world around him.

But how do you pick 10 of Lennon's most notable songs you say? Seriously? Well, not without pacing the floor and losing sleep, that's for sure. There are far fewer tea bags in the tin than there were when this idea was first suggested to me. But if you're partial to other peoples musical suggestions, and you trust the opinion of someone who has been listening to John Lennon's music for 32 of his 42 years, then please, read on.

10. Imagine (1971)

Overrated? Perhaps. This is not John Lennon's greatest song, and it's certainly not the greatest song of the 20th century. I even toyed with the idea of excluding it from the top ten. I included it for two reasons however; 1. I don't want to hear a tap-tap on my back door only to open it and find hundreds of disgruntled Lennon fans holding a noose in the light of burning torches, and 2. I love how this song gets up the nose of cynics who miss the point. It's not called "Instruction", "Action" or "Do". The hint is in the title folks. It's as relevant today with our world crumbling and those who value possessions over people scrambling to protect their interests, as it was in 1971. I've included the acoustic version to distance this beautiful song as far from the candle carrying mob that I possibly can. 

9. Watching the Wheels (1980)

In the middle of the punk revolution in 1977 England, NME published an edition which featured John Lennon in Hamburg on the cover. The caption read: "Oh no, not another angry punk dressed in leather on the cover...which reminds us...where the hell are you John Lennon?". NME, and the UK wanted Lennon back, they needed him. His answer 3 years later was "Watching the Wheels". The song was the final installment in a career of self searching and self yearning that began with the pained "There's A Place" in 1963. It was followed through with "I'll Be Back", "I'll Cry Instead", "I'm A Loser", "Help!", "In My Life", "I'm Only Sleeping", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "I'm So Tired", "The Ballad Of John And Yoko", "Don't Let Me Down", "Mother", "God", "Working Class Hero", "My Mummy's Dead", "Crippled Inside", "How?" and culminated in "Watching the Wheels", "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over". Placed chronologically, you can almost trace Lennon's life through his introspective habit of writing about what he knew best; himself. "Watching the Wheels" seemingly finds him at peace, two months before his death.

8. I Should Have Known Better (1964)

My own personal favourite from the giddy, bright and optimistic soundtrack to Beatlemania, and the endless possibilities of post-war Europe now that the future belonged to war-babies and not their warring, scrounging, sensible parents. It couldn't last alas, but this fabulous pop song is timeless in its simplicity. My 2 year old sings it enthusiastically, cutely muddling the words, but never the melody which seems to have him possessed. That's the point of pop music isn't it? If aliens landed and had an hour to absorb our culture, this would be the Beatles song I would play them. Sums the entire crazy 7 years up in 2 and a half  minutes. 

7. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)  (1965)

Forget the perpetual stories about sitars and which female Lennon was referring to. Who really cares? What matters here is the sound of Lennon, and the Beatles' coming of age. Possibly the most beautiful acoustic intro sequence ever captured on tape. That Gibson is so rich, so lush. The strumming deliberately held back, escaping from its waltz-like structure through an enthusiastic accent at just the perfect moment. Rhythm guitar playing is an art, here in the hands of one its greatest masters, it can be heard at its best. 

6. Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)

Although this is the manic track that winds up Revolver, providing a perfect cliff hanger, and the missing link that bridges Revolver and Sgt Peppers; this was actually the first song recorded for the album. How they found the energy and enthusiasm for the rest of Revolver after recording this amazing feat of experimentation is a wonder indeed. Sampling, tape loops, and thundering break-beats were all pioneered with this recording. How sneaky of the Beatles to discover and then discard 'Drum n Bass', 20 years before it was 'invented'!

5. She Said, She Said (1966)

Again, a point of opinion on whether this is Revolver's greatest track or not, I've included it because, personally I think its the Fab's coolest albums' coolest track. It's effortlessly cool. And all the more so because while every other track on Revolver was painstakingly and expensively created over months and months, "She Said, She Said" was laid down on the last night of mixing as an afterthought. Interestingly McCartney does not appear on the track at all; Harrison plays bass. Now, I never suggested that's why it might be so bloody cool, you thought that in your own head! 

4. A Day In The Life  (1967)

Another lyrical Lennon trawl through his life of (dis)content in The City of London 'stockbroker belt', even the song's title betrays its origins; a narrative of his post-touring life (reading papers, reading film scripts, reading papers). So much has been documented about the recording of this incredibly beautiful pop song that to regurgitate it all here would be completely predictable and boring. McCartney provides the light relief, and the song wouldn't be the same without it. Starr provides lead drums, roadie Malcolm Evans is on alarm clock and countdown, and several pianos were used to create the crashing E chord at the end. Picture George Martin squirming as he told the 40 piece orchestra that he could give them the lowest note, and the highest note, but that in between, it was every man for himself.  "Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad" 

3. I Am The Walrus (1967)

Conscious of the fact that his old grammar school (which had told him he would amount to nothing) was discussing his lyrics in English classes, Lennon set about composing these Lewis-Carroll inspired lyrics over the course of several acid trips. The anti-establishment lyrics are one thing, the aural landscape they are set within is another. George Martin always maintained that recording a song was like painting a picture in sound. If so, this ranks among the strangest works of Dali. The track contains a darkness and intensity that is unmatched in the entire Beatles catalogue. This is Lennon at his creative Beatles peak. The slope from this point on was ever so slightly downward.

2. Strawberry Fields Forever (1967)

I'm going to leave this one alone and let you enjoy it. I don't want to spoil it. There is nothing I could possibly say which could further enhance it. Pop music becoming high brow art becoming pop music. 

1. God (1970)

God is a concept, by which we measure, our pain.

This is not my personal favourite Lennon song. However, I'm awarding this my number one spot purely because the song contains a revolutionary lyric. The type of vitriolic denunciation contained in Lennon's lyric was previously the privilege of religious leaders, senate hearings, state departments or despotic dictators. As much as popular music had progressed by 1970, this type of honesty and scathing criticism of the failures of the apparent 'progress' of the past 6 years had never been seen or heard before. Lennon not only denounces his friends and the Beatles themselves (sharp intake of breath through teeth), he condemns organised religion, spirituality, politics, the far right, liberalism, and the entire counter culture movement itself. His prognosis accompanied by some tinkering piano parts a la "Love Letters" is that all that matters is you and yours. Everything else is irrelevant. This should be on every school curriculum.

And so dear friends, you'll just have to carry on...


  1. Nice Top 10 rundown. Very interesting choices, never heard of some, thanks. "I Should Have Known Better" is one of my favorite Beatles tunes, so I was glad to see it on the list. It is so simple, joyful, playful.

    I'm surprised, though, that you didn't include "Nowhere Man" in the list of songs chronicling his life and state of mind.

  2. Your list is fantastic. I would have personally chosen Jealous Guy off Imagine instead of the title track, and there's a bunch on Mind Games and Walls and Bridges I consistently call my favorite. Girl off of Rubber Soul is utter perfection, as is Dear Prudence, Because, Across The Universe, and Julia. Oh damn. Too many choices. Lennon was always my favorite Beatle and his placement has never budged.

  3. bad choices. even worse intro. lennon's "sincerity" have nothing to do with his ability to compose music. which was rather limited. mccartney is a far better composer and musician. and arranger. tomorrow never knows is fascinating mainly because of his tape loops and drums' pattern. "revolutionary lyrics" doesn't make a good song. although god is, in fact good, only not that good.

  4. "Forget the perpetual stories about sitars ...!" on Norwegian Wood. Harrison's sitar on NW is the essence and trademark of the song! - She Said ... and Tomorrow ... wouldn't have been the same without Harrison's dedicated contribution. - According to Ian MacDonald McCartney plays bas on She Said ... We all have our favorite Beatle, mine is - as you might have noticed - Harrison. But Lennon was the best singer in the band, Harrison the best musician, McCartney the best composer.

  5. Absolutely the sitar on NW made the song, and became it's signature sound, there's no dispute there. Although Harrison did later admit that the song needed 'something'. He had a sitar at hand and he found the notes. The sitar became that 'something', so the sitar was a gimmick of sorts, albeit a gimmick that really worked. My reason for choosing NW was to display Lennon's songwriting maturity, and secondly his sublime acoustic work. I mean no disrespect to Harrison. McDonald's book declares Harrison was the bassist. Most likely you have an earlier edition, rpinted before McCartney's Many Years From Now, in which he states he did not play bass on this track; "I'm not sure but I think it was one of the only Beatle records I never played on. I think we had a barney or something and I said, 'Oh, fuck you!,' and they said, 'Well, we'll do it.'"... Miles 1997, p. 288. I would not put a huge amount of stock in what you read in McDonald's book. Personally speaking I think its an enormously flawed piece of work. If you want the studio credits, try Lewisohn's:The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions 1988. As for the best composer...this is always going to be affected by personal opinion. My own take would be that McCartney wrote more commercially appealing melodies, but lacked the depth of Lennon's honesty and simplicity. I think they both coveted each others abilities. Lennon was the most accomplished rhythm guitarist, McCartney the most rounded musician, Harrison the most technically gifted guitarist, and Ringo...wasn't even the best drummer in The Beatles

  6. There so many other good Lennon songs.What about "I am only sleeping" (my all time favourite Lennon songs), "Nowhere Man","In my life" and last but not least "It is like (starting over)". There many, many more fabulous songs from him. Good choice but not the bests.

  7. Can't say I like this article. Probably turned off when the writer is trying to make a point that reasonably isn't correct. An honesty that George and Paul couldn't aspire to. Come on who are you kidding. Confessional pain doesn't mean someone else's happier spirit isn't honest. Harrison's first song with the Beatles Don't bother Me is brutally honest and that was at the beginning of their career. Paul's melancholy with Yesterday not honest hhmm. Maybe they didn't wear their emotions quite as heavily as John's is true but that does'nt warrant your conclusion or insult. And I also agree with everyone saying George was the one that elevated their music eg. Norwegian Wood. This being said I love them all equally.

  8. One of the commenters wrote of McCartney who is not relevant to the article. While one cannot deny that he is talented and certainly great at pop music,as the "Merv Griffith" of the Beatles, he'll never have the depth John had.

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head describing Lennon. Thanks for the article.

  10. Anyone trying to knock John's honesty is ridiculous. His songs were self-confessional and deep from the get go. In fact, the first song he ever wrote described his despair in trying to win a woman's love and affection by trying to buy her, but she doesn't give him the time of day. What Lennon presented in songs was FULLY REALIZED confessionals. Yesterday is a pretty song, but I'm sorry it is NOT a deeo song by any stretch. And I can say that about a lot of Paul's lyrics. I actually think For No One was pretty nice but John OWNED that category.

    As for his "musical limitations" everyone likes to highlight. When YOU write something as beautiful as Julia or Across the Universe or Girl or Dear Prudence then talk to me. As a band, they all helped each other out with ideas musically. John was able to express himself romantically JUST AS WELL as Paul. The musical/lyrical section of Michele I personally prefer is the "I love you, I love you, I love you/that's all I want to say" part, which was written by Lennon.

    Whoever said these songs choices are terrible is absolutely wrong. And yes, the sitar part in NW was lovely. But it was John's melody and the combination of the two instruments in the intro that makes it gorgeous. That was NOT all George.

    No one is trying to diminish P, G, or R. But let's face facts: Lennon was a brilliant songwriter. No one is going to try and tell me otherwise. My favorite ever moment in the Beatles catalog is the chorus to Don't Let Me Down. That yearning scream. The pleading. Not only was he brilliant at writing songs, but he was an AMAZING singer.

    Still the best Beatle in my eyes and ears, but the others are all great. Can't knock 'em.

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  13. Good list. You know why? Cause it's your personal reflection on what your favourite songs are, and says a lot about your character. If one were to sit down and scientifically analyse all of his songs and come out with "the technically most well rounded 10 Lennon tunes"... that would be boring and say nothing about the writer.

    And I tend to agree with your opinions about him as a writer, especially as compared with the others. He was just more honest, more frank, willing to say whatever. George had some interesting word play that I think gave him a uniqueness from the others, McCartney was of course the more commercial composer, but Lennon both wrote and sang the words "Don't Let Me Down" with such honesty, that neither of the other two could really compare in that regard. "When you say she's looking good, she acts as if it's understood she's cool"... how frank.

    As far as the Norwegian Wood debate goes, Harrison is following the rhythm guitar part note for note. So to say Harrison's sitar part is what makes the song great, is to really say, the tone of the sitar is what makes the song great. Which is overlooking... the entire song. I'm sure we could all find 100 songs on youtube with sitars that aren't anywhere near being such an amazing masterpiece. I agree with how you said it, too... never mind the sitar for a second (cause that's what perks the ear first, and the melody it plays over the acoustic guitar is the driving melodic hook of the song) and perhaps refocus your attention on the lyrical genius at play.

    Nice work


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