As of December 8, 2010, the world will have existed without the voice of John Lennon for three decades. He was murdered by a deranged former fan, an event eerily foreshadowed in Woody Allen’s 1980 film Stardust Memories, where a man approaches Allen and says, “I’m your biggest fan,” and shoots him. With Lennon’s murder, any hope of a Beatles reunion – the source of multimillion offers as well as a tongue-in-cheek offer from Saturday Night Live show-runner Lorne Michaels for a whopping $7,500 (“if you want to give Ringo less, that’s your business,” he quipped) – was ended.
In his time after The Beatles, Lennon ventured through a tumultuous decade, changing with the times. His first solo album, John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band (1970), is marked with intensely personal lyrics, a release from his past with The Beatles as well as his troubled childhood. Imagine (1971) offered a glossier version of his songwriting style, featuring one of the greatest anthems of the Twentieth Century as well as a nasty snipe at Paul McCartney. The following year he released Some Time In New York City (1972), a double-album with wife Yoko Ono, featuring radically political songs that exchanged musical quality for lyrical astuteness. Mind Games (1973) seemed to negotiate the best qualities of his previous efforts, offering a slick production, lyrical confessionals, and a pair of bold political statements. In the midst of his “lost weekend,” where Lennon was separated from Ono on an 18-month long booze and cocaine bender in Los Angeles, hanging out with the likes of Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon, he put out Walls And Bridges (1974), a remarkably solid effort that this writer considers his best. He ended the first half of the 1970’s with Rock And Roll (1975), a Phil Spector-produced trip down memory lane, one that was more fun for the participants than the listeners.
After his reconcile with Ono, their only child, Sean, was born. Rectifying his past mistakes as a neglectful father to his first son Julian, John effectively dropped off of the map to raise his son, in what he later called his “house-husband” phase. During this time, he traveled, recorded countless demos, and even drafted a musical based on his own life. Feeling he was ready to venture back into music, he and Ono did Double Fantasy (1980), a mature effort showing a John Lennon who finally had his life in order. There are songs about growing old, his relationship with Ono, and fatherhood. One can only speculate where Lennon’s career might have gone with the 1980’s; given his politics, it is safe to assume he would have been just as vigilant railing against Ronald Reagan’s America as he had been under the paranoid thumb of Richard Nixon.
As a celebration of Lennon’s life, we offer a list of his most potent solo songs, representative of each phase of his career.
1. Cold Turkey (1969)
Lennon wore his life on his sleeve, and it is plainly evidenced in this early solo single, which describes his effort to ditch heroin in unpleasant terms. He lists off symptoms, pleading to do anything to the listener if we can “get him out of this Hell.” The song ends with moans, then later screams, expressing his agony. His backing band, which features Eric Clapton’s crunchy lead guitar and Ringo Starr’s walloping drums, matches the lyrics point for point. This song is also of significance for being the first piece released with sole songwriting credit to John Lennon. His earlier “Give Peace A Chance” was put out as a solo release, but still bore the Lennon/McCartney credit of John’s songs with The Beatles. John had auditioned this song for The Beatles, but it was passed on, as was “Gimme Some Truth.” Be sure to check out Cheap Trick’s heavy and deranged cover on the 1995 tribute album Working Class Hero.
2. Instant Karma (1970)
This 1970 single is a demonstration of the effectiveness of John’s simplistic approach to songwriting and recording, a stark contrast to McCartney’s infamous flair for perfectionism. “Instant Karma” was written and recorded in a single day, released ten days later. Its message is a simple advertising slogan, a simple call to action that digs deep into Eastern philosophies – “Why on Earth are you there / When you’re everywhere? / Come and get your share!” Despite its rushed recording, it is an all-star event, with Billy Preston on piano, future Yes drummer Alan White, George Harrison on guitar, Klaus Voorman (who did the cover art for The Beatles’ Revolver album) on bass, and ace producer (now unfortunately better known as an eccentric murderer) Phil Spector behind the mixing board. The drums pound like gunshots, the pianos and vocals are bathed in echo, John’s vocal lead peaks out the mix, and its triumphant chorus of “We all shine on / Like the moon / And the stars / And the sun” is almost a religious experience.
3. Mother (1970)
Opening the Plastic Ono Band album with the chiming of a bell slowed down to an eerie, funereal timbre, John opens up his life story in no uncertain terms. He sings to his mother, “You had me / But I never had you,” referencing Julia Lennon’s departure from John’s life when he was five, and her later accidental death in a hit-and-run when John was 17. The second verse is addressed to his father, Freddie, when he sings, “You left me / But I never left you.” Reflecting his stint in Dr. Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy, which encourages patients to revisit the pain of childhood trauma, the song’s coda features John’s plea “Mama, don’t go / Daddy, come home,” which transforms from begging to impassioned screaming. This is gut-wrenching listening.
4. Working Class Hero (1970)
John’s bitter take on life in a world dominated by the class system is one of the most overtly Dylanesque songs in his entire catalog. Featuring just John and an acoustic guitar, he lays his message plainly, going to lyrical extremes: “They hurt you at home and they hit you at school / They hate you if you’re clever but they despise a fool / ‘Til you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.” Evoking the ideology of Karl Marx, he accuses the people of being “doped with religion and sex and TV,” offering an alternative: “If you want to be a hero, then just follow me.” Sure, a lot can be said that he and Yoko were residing in a palatial old mansion called Tittenhurst Park at the time, making him about as in-touch with the working class as the average elected official, but its message is a potent one, warning listeners to avoid the trappings of a materialistic existence.
5. God (1970)
A finale of sorts to the journey that is the Plastic Ono Band album, John lets loose with his thoughts. He opens by telling the listener that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” The song then turns into John stating “I don’t believe in…” various religious (Jesus, Buddha) and cultural (Kennedys, Elvis) figures. He ends with “I don’t believe in Beatles,” which brings the song to a startling silence. John then states, “I just believe in me,” shedding his identity as a Beatle, and giving a stark forecast for everything The Beatles and the 1960’s stood for: “the dream is over.” It is a beautiful, poignant, and bittersweet moment. In his infamous 1970 interview with Rolling Stone magazine editor Jann Wenner, Wenner asked “How did you put together that litany in ‘God’?” Lennon’s response, a marvelous (albeit unintentional) statement on the over-intellectualization of rock music that critics and scholars must be careful to avoid, was, “What’s litany?”
6. Power To The People (1971)
John ventured back into the political sphere with this powerful single, using its title as an advertisement the same way he had with “Give Peace A Chance” and “Instant Karma.” Again featuring the heavy “wall of sound” production of Phil Spector, Lennon gives a self-referential wink with the opening line, “Say we want a revolution? / We’d better get it on right away!” Although it lays out a very plain us-versus-them mentality in the style of Marx’s class struggle, the third verse asks his audience to look inward, inquiring “how do you treat your own woman at home? / She’s gotta free herself so she can be herself.” It’s not lost any of its relevance, forty years later. When covered by The Minus 5 on Working Class Hero, the third verse was appropriately sung by a woman.
7. Imagine (1971)
I said this before elsewhere about “All You Need Is Love,” but if one were to distill John Lennon’s message and ideology into a single recording, it is this. It isn’t hard to comprehend what John meant when he said the Imagine album was a revisiting of Plastic Ono Band just covered in sugar when listening to this song: he’s speaking to the listener and asking us to imagine a world without religion, national barriers, and greed, things that have all served as incentive for some of the most dastardly behavior committed throughout the history of civilization. It isn’t too far-removed from Charlie Chaplin’s magnificent speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940), a plea for sanity in a world driven by insanity. It is a song for the ages, one that will outlive us by centuries.
8. Crippled Inside (1971)
Lennon calls out hypocrisy on this country-inspired number; George Harrison provides a great slide guitar, and session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins plays a fantastic piano solo in the middle of the song. The message of the song is succinct: no matter how much someone tries to look good, whether they “shine their shoes or wear a tie,” “live a lie until [they] die,” or “go to church and sing a hymn,” the simple fact of being crippled inside cannot be forever hidden.
9. Jealous Guy (1971)
Following up to his earlier “I’m A Loser,” John admits to past mistakes with this gorgeous ballad. His penchant for jealousy is depicted almost blissfully on Rubber Soul’s closing track, “Run For Your Life,” but here he looks back with a great deal of sadness and remorse. He apologizes for hurting the one he loves, a message just as much for his first wife Cynthia as it is for Yoko. A different version of the same melody can be heard on various bootlegs as “Child Of Nature,” originally slated for The Beatles (aka the “white” album), but turned down in favor of McCartney’s “Mother Nature’s Son.”
10. Gimme Some Truth (1971)
John once again offers his frank take on politics, expressing his anger with the dishonesty of all politicians and public figures. The logical middle-ground between Bob Dylan’s socially-conscious protest songs and punk music, “Gimme Some Truth” has John rattling off tongue-twisting lyrics in the style of Dylan, delivered with a snotty shout that gives Johnny Rotten a run for his money. George’s slide guitar solos are delivered with a palpable sneer. This was another song auditioned for The Beatles, during the production of what would become the Let It Be album.
11. How Do You Sleep? (1971)
In the immediate aftermath of the break-up of The Beatles, a line was firmly drawn in the sand between John and Paul. After announcing he was leaving the group in the autumn of 1969, manager Allen Klein asked for John to keep it quiet. Following a series of business and artistic battles, McCartney stepped out to publicly announce he was suing to dissolve the legal partnership holding the group together. This made McCartney a much-reviled figure, with Lennon coming off as the artist more in touch with the average listener. The feud between John and Paul manifested itself first on McCartney’s second solo album Ram, with songs like “Too Many People,” “3 Legs,” and “Dear Boy” all containing subtle digs at his former songwriting partner. “How Do You Sleep?” shows John responding in kind, devoid of any subtlety or allegory. This philippic against Paul McCartney ranks with Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” as one of the nastiest put-down songs of all time, trashing the song “Yesterday,” the Sgt. Pepper album, and a mean-spirited dig at a popular conspiracy of the time with the line “Those freaks was right / When they said you was dead.” George’s presence on this song shows whose side he was on. Ringo Starr had released a song the previous year called “Early 1970,” where he stated his hope that they’d all play together again someday. The much-publicized feud was settled by 1973, when Paul recorded the Lennonesque “Let Me Roll It” on 1973’s Band On The Run. The two even jammed together the following year in Los Angeles; the (incredibly disappointing) result can be heard on a bootleg entitled A Toot And A Snore In ’74.
12. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1972)
Although now a perennial Holiday favorite, the song was originally based on John and Yoko’s 1969 advertising campaign where billboards stating “WAR IS OVER! (If you want it)” were placed in twelve major cities all over the world. It’s about as introspective as a Christmas song can be, with John asking us to look toward the new year, in hopes of it being “a good one / Without any tears.” It’s a beautiful song, unmatched as one of the best secular Christmas tunes of all time.
13. John Sinclair (1972)
John Sinclair was the manager of the proto-punk band The MC5 and a noted member of the leftist radical community in the United States. He was arrested for possession of two joints and given an unreasonably harsh sentence of ten years; Lennon, Ono, Stevie Wonder, and others put on a charity concert urging for his release in 1971. Shortly after the concert, which marked the debut of this song, Sinclair was released on the grounds that his sentence was unconstitutional. It is one of the few times a protest song actually achieved its stated intention. The studio version of this song can be heard on Some Time In New York City.
14. Mind Games (1973)
For all his earlier statements in “God,” “Working Class Hero,” “Imagine,” and “I Found Out” about religion and its ills, “Mind Games” shows Lennon in a surprisingly spiritual state of mind. A musically powerful song, Lennon updates the spirit of the flower power movement for a new decade, rife with references to New Age practices rather than any one particular underlying philosophy. George Clinton does a terrific version of “Mind Games” on the Working Class Hero compilation.
15. Bring On The Lucie (Freda Peeple) (1973)
Showing Lennon never strayed from his political leanings, “Bring On The Lucie” equates Richard Nixon with the Antichrist, stating “666 is your name.” Most of the song is a call to the audience in the style of “Power To The People,” buts final verse is an angry directive at the world’s leaders: “You were caught with your hands in the till […] As you slip and slide down the hill / On the blood of the people you killed.” This song was used in two different versions in the 2006 film Children Of Men.
16. Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (1974)
Despite the iconic status of songs like “Give Peace A Chance,” “Instant Karma,” and “Imagine,” this was the only number one hit Lennon achieved during his lifetime. Elton John plays piano and provides backing vocals on the song; during the session for “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” Elton John made a friendly wager with Lennon that should the song hit number one, he would have to play onstage with him. True to his word, Lennon joined Elton onstage at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving 1974, playing this song and “I Saw Her Standing There,” which Lennon dedicated to “an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul.”
17. #9 Dream (1974)
One of this author’s favorite solo Beatle tunes, this song is a surrealistic exploration of an actual dream Lennon had. The ethereal nature of the lyrics is matched by its dream-like production, with lots of echo, sliding string arrangements, and its haunting minor key. It is clearly a reflection of John’s confused mental state – he was at the time separated from Yoko Ono, torn between his partying lifestyle in California while simultaneously missing the stability his marriage to Yoko offered him in New York.
18. (Just Like) Starting Over (1980)
Middle age can be a troubling period for most people, but here, John wistfully looks back while optimistically looking ahead to the future. The sense of romance that underlines the song is sweet, with few parallels among Lennon’s contemporaries, with both Bob Dylan and Ray Davies using their music as an outlet for their divorces and break-ups. Done in a neo-50’s style, it’s a musical throwback to Lennon’s musical idols Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison.
19. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) (1980)
Fatherhood is a rare topic in rock music, and understandably so: settling down and raising a family doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with leather jackets, late nights turning into wee hours, or, to evoke the 1960’s, expanding one’s horizons through chemical or spiritual consciousness. However, John pulls it off with this delicate, calypso-inspired lullaby for his son Sean. Lyrics like “I can hardly wait / To see you come of age / But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient” are given a tragic aura in light of Lennon’s murder. This song also features one of John’s single greatest proverbs: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Indeed.
20. Nobody Told Me (1980)
Another one of this author’s favorite Lennon tunes, this Double Fantasy-era outtake has John recapturing his knack for bizarre lyrics. Situations unfold with surrealistic juxtapositions: “Everybody’s smoking / But no one’s getting high […] There’s UFO’s over New York / And I ain’t too surprised.” Initially released on 1984’s Milk And Honey, “Nobody Told Me” can now be heard on a number of Lennon compilations.