More about: John Lennon
John Winston Ono Lennon is arguably one of music’s most legendary enigmas. Fondly remembered for his musical genius and timeless peace activism, Lennon was also a troubled and flawed character due to a childhood filled with trauma thanks to the lack of a father figure, the untimely death of his mother and the brutal strictness of his guardian Aunt Mimi.
Unlike most, The Beatles legend addressed practically all of his flaws through his raw, honest and down to earth songwriting ability - which captured the hearts of millions across the world and forever changed the musical landscape.
We take a look back at John’s iconic career chronologically and pick out some of the finest hidden gems from The Beatles, The Plastic Ono Band and his solo work.
‘Tell Me Why’ (The Beatles)
Credited to Lennon-McCartney like most Beatles tracks but written by John alone in either Paris or New York, ‘Tell Me Why’ utilises a basic structure of simple doo-wop chord changes and block harmonies over a walking bassline that creates an illusion of sincerity through its sheer lyrical attack.
Taken from the Lennon-centric (from a song writing perspective) A Hard Day’s Night, the record sees Lennon begin to master his raw and reality-based song writing ability with ‘Tell Me Why’ being a prime example.
His song writing partner Paul McCartney said in a later interview “I think a lot of these songs like ‘Tell Me Why’ may have been based in real experiences or affairs John was having, or arguments with Cynthia [Lennon’s wife at the time] or whatever, but it never occurred to us until later to put that slant on it all.”
‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ (The Beatles)
Beatles fans have speculated about the mysterious and nonsensical lyrics that are widespread across the band’s discography for over half a century, with ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ being one of the biggest enigmas of them all.
Various theories have been speculated over the years, with some suggesting the song is directed towards Mick Jagger and his “bird” at the time (Marianne Faithfull), with others stating the song is an analogy for the lack of understanding between John and his wife Cynthia during their marriage, and the most amusing theory suggesting the bird in the title is a metaphor for a penis!
Lennon later dismissed this song as “another one of my throwaways… fancy paper around an empty box” but whatever this song means, the divine harmonised-guitar riffs glued to the beautiful melody of the track make it an absolute treat for the ears.
‘Julia’ (The Beatles)
The final track on side two of The White Album’s first LP and the final track recorded for the record as a whole could be seen as a love-letter from Lennon to the women who helped shape his life, with references to his lost mother and his partner at the time Yoko Ono.
The title is the name of John’s mother Julia Lennon who was tragically struck down and killed by a drunk-driving police officer in 1958 when John was just 17. The lyrics also reference his lover in later life Yoko Ono, the lyrics “ocean child” being the English translation of the name Yoko in Kanji Japanese. John saw Yoko as a mother figure that he never had in later life, suggesting that the track’s lyrics show John attempting to fill the hole of motherhood that was missing in his life for some time.
The heartfelt lyrics are accompanied by beautiful finger-picking style acoustic guitar known as ‘Travis-picking’ which John learnt from Scottish musician Donavan. It is also the only Beatles track that features no contributions from other Beatles except Lennon, with him both singing and playing the guitar.
‘I Found Out’
Taken from Lennon’s first solo album, the raw, heavy and hard-boiled beauty, Plastic Ono Band's ‘I Found Out’ demonstrates Lennon’s anger and disillusionment at a brutal world dominated by false religion and idols, warning the listener against those beliefs.
Musically, the track is blues-inspired also adopting a bare-bones recording style in stark contrast to the heavy production of Lennon’s later albums. The bare-bones and almost rough recording done at EMI studios in September 1970 fits perfectly alongside some of Lennon’s most vitriolic lyrics ever.
The uneasy and low rumbling tremolo guitar, thumping drums contributed by John’s Beatle-buddy Ringo Starr and the rolling, minimalist bassline from Klaus Voormann add to the atmosphere of total bitterness featured on this underrated track.
Another track from Lennon’s murky masterpiece Plastic Ono Band, ‘Remember’ was influenced by John’s primal therapy sessions with Dr Arthur Janov with the lyrics describing unpleasant memories and thoughts typically remembered in these therapy sessions.
Lennon returns to singing about his troubled childhood on this track as well as mentioning troubles with rising to fame and stardom so rapidly alongside extremely cool and bouncy staccato piano playing - demonstrating John’s erratic sense of rhythm which drummer Ringo Starr had to compensate for on the track.
‘Remember’ ends with the lyrics “Remember / the fifth of November” followed by a loud explosion sound effect which cuts off the track in reference to Guy Fawkes. This is also a reference to John wanting to disconnect from his dark past which he attempts by metaphorically blowing it to smithereens.
From the album Imagine that opens with John’s most well-known signature song, ‘Crippled Inside’ follows directly from it as track two - but it’s still a hidden gem. The track sees Lennon indulging his love for original rock and roll with its good-time ricky-tick rhythm and sliding guitars giving it a folk-rock in disguise identity.
The melody of the song’s bridge was appropriated from the 1964 song ‘Black Dog’ by Koerner, Ray & Glover which shows the enormous folk and blues inspirations taken to create this underrated track.
‘Crippled Inside’ tells the story of someone truly hurting within, so much so that it remains obvious no matter how hard they try to hide it. It’s unknown if this song was written from Lennon’s personal experience, but his raw song writing ability stands out here either way.
‘Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)’
Released on Lennon’s underrated record Mind Games in November 1973, the melody for this track dates back to at least 1971, when John recorded an early demo with the working title ‘Call My Name’ during the Imagine sessions.
Aisumasen is a slightly crooked version of the formal term ai sumimasen which means “I’m sorry” in Japanese. The lyrics have John apologising to his wife Yoko Ono as a result of their decaying marriage. By the time the song was released, Yoko had already separated from John who had begun his infamous 18-month “lost weekend” period.
This beautiful ballad that manifests seeking forgiveness ends with a glorious guitar solo which represents John begging for forgiveness. The solo abruptly ends, completing the track and demonstrating that Lennon knew he wasn’t going to receive the forgiveness he needed from Ono (not for another 18 months anyway).
‘Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)’
Another underrated gem from Mind Games that also coincidentally dates back to 1971 when Lennon first wrote the track’s chorus on his new National guitar. The guitar is undoubtedly the highlight of this song with the beautiful effect of a slide going up and down the guitar’s neck - making it sound almost heavenly.
After working on new lyrics during the recording of Mind Games and adding it to his 1971 demo of the chorus, ‘Freda Peeple’ became a prodigious political statement in similar vein to his earlier tracks like ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Imagine’, a statement still relevant today.
The song contains interesting and sometimes dark lyrical imagery such as “666 is your name” and “As you slip and you slide down the hill / On the blood of the people you killed”, but a truly magnificent piece in John’s discography.
‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’
Taken from the record Walls and Bridges which gifted Lennon with his first US solo number one with the hit ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ thanks to the help of Elton John, the gut-wrenching ‘Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)’ is the record’s hidden gem.
Written during John’s “lost weekend” era as he was separated from Yoko Ono, the track reflects his sadness, loneliness and loss, as well as his disillusionment from the music business after his recent work was poorly received by critics and the public.
Lennon’s hoarse vocals on the track create an atmosphere of alienated ambience that sounds haunting paired with the slow acoustic guitar that builds up to immense orchestration towards the end, creating a brilliant yet sorrowful tone of a 3am, self-pitying, booze-drenched interior monologue.
Double Fantasy is the astonishing collaborative effort from John and Yoko created after they spent five years in semi-retirement raising their son Sean, and tragically, John’s final album in his lifetime released just three weeks before his untimely death in December 1980.
‘Cleanup Time’ is a track shrouded with a sense of renewal and revival, something John particularly needed after his five-year isolation period. Written in June 1980 whilst Lennon was in Bermuda, the track was inspired by a phone conversation with Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas about their drug and alcohol habits – concluding with Douglas stating “Well, it’s cleanup time, right?”
Musically inspired by Lennon’s go-to era of 50s rock and roll, the bouncing blend of guitar and piano flourishes the verses along to fantastic guitar and trumpet instrumental breaks, and Lennon’s raspy vocals show his seriousness about renewal, adding to the tragedy of his murder.
‘Grow Old with Me’
This track was sadly never completely finished during Lennon’s lifetime. It was planned to be on Double Fantasy, but due to tight deadlines, the recording was rescheduled for 1981. Therefore, Yoko reworked John’s home demo for inclusion on John’s posthumous 1984 record Milk and Honey.
This love-letter for Yoko Ono isn’t very finely produced with it being a reworked demo, but it gives the song a raw, bare-bones edge reminiscent of the production on John’s 1970 debut Plastic Ono Band which gives the song a feeling of effective intimacy.
The death of John Lennon really makes one wonder about the fire that was still lit within Lennon’s musical genius, and with this being one of the final songs he ever wrote – it’s hard to not feel pain when thinking about the potential of John’s career throughout the 80s and beyond.
More about: John Lennon