‘I always wrote about me when I could. I didn’t really enjoy writing third-person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first-person music.’ We didn’t enjoy hearing this in 1970, when John Lennon said it in the course of Jann Wenner’s ‘Rolling Stone’ Interviews. It was bad enough that Lennon had left the beloved Beatles to work with a Japanese-born conceptual artist, living in beds and bags and producing minimalist packages of photographs and recorded shrieks. But that he should seem to be promising more songs on the pattern laid down by the Plastic Ono Band album, a collection which had proved morbid, hectoring and pathetic by turns – well, this represented a doomier start to the decade than we felt we deserved. Besides, the allusion to songs about people in concrete flats seemed an unnecessarily explicit rejection of Paul McCartney, whose favoured vein that had sometimes been, in songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Penny Lane’. McCartney’s compassionate tableaux and jaunty ballads, to be sure, were usually light and occasionally trite as well, but they were at least articulate. Lennon had turned away from verbal play into the Primal Scream therapy of Dr Arthur Janov – seen by Lennon’s public at best as a fashionable bolt-hole for the rich hysteric, and at worst as a profiteering alliance between phoney art and phoney medicine: Yoko and some quacks bleeding our John. It was an uncharitable attitude, but the evidence that informed it survives. The John/Yoko courtship albums are as vacuous as ever, and even the Plastic Ono record, it still seems to me, is emotional detritus barely shovelled along by music.

Where we were wrong, all along, was in failing to recognise Lennon’s human needs, which he had signalled almost from the start. It was too easy to mistake the anguish he often expressed for the standard rhetoric of the song-writer. In the early Sixties the only singers widely expected actually to mean what they sang were ‘protest’ performers operating in folk-clubs to their own acoustic guitar accompaniment. An electronic group shouting ‘Help!’ at the top of its voice couldn’t possibly mean it. Yet Lennon did; and by the time he’d got himself taken seriously, his talent had almost burnt away.

It was a gaunt sort of talent in the first place. If you discount the pastiche rock and apprentice roll of Hamburg, and take the start to be ‘Love me do’, the Beatles’ first national release, then a little of Lennon’s disquiet was already there. The song is apparently McCartney’s, but they were still two of a kind then: each had lost his mother in the late Fifties, and had the same vested interest in this almost dumbly beseeching song. Subtract from it the odd lazy, conventional line (‘I’ll always be true’) and you have something very nearly as desolate and unupholstered as Lennon’s songs of the Seventies. ‘Love, love me do, You know I love you ... So please ...’ In another musical setting it could have been embarrassing, a wheedling, lapdog serenade. But with its odd, bony tune, the sobbing hop in the vocal harmony part, and Lennon’s harmonica obbligato (the sound traditionally evoking loneliness), it added up to something new in love-songs, a strange bleakness. One could imagine the suggested relationship consumnated in a coalyard somewhere.

‘Please please me’, which followed, was perhaps fortunate to be so persuasive musically, with its escalating cries of ‘Come on!’ and falsetto resolution, because lyrically it was again a bit heavy on the ‘pleases’ to be a completely felicitous follow-up. However, the sexual urgency in it was new, though not unexpected after the slyness of ‘Love me do’, and a kind of fusion of the two songs, both pleading and masterful, was achieved in the third single, ‘From Me to You’ (‘I got everything that you want ...’). By now the songs had a genially bullying sexual tone that had everything to do with Lennon. Propositioning the female, the voices pretended to shock themselves in the process (‘and keep you satisfied ... OOOH!’). They teased the young audience with the possibility of sex, and its parents with the musical code in which the ‘thrill’ was suggested. Only Lennon’s stance at the microphone was insolently unequivocal. Lennon was heftily built in those days, and his thighs filled the tapering legs of the early sheeny Beatle trousers. Once a beat was established, he would stand, toughly square-on to the microphone, with feet planted a cowboyish distance apart, and flex, flex, flex the imposing thighs in a motion so comically sexual that only the knees-bend of a priapic music-hall policeman could have parodied it. This rhythmic exercise looked deliberately contrasted with the prim posture of McCartney: feet together, swaying snappily from the waist, wobbling the head, wearing that permanently surprised expression with which the young McCartney made himself prettier than some girls felt he had any need, or right, to be.

Lennon at this stage was prized chiefly for his meaty voice, and for a raw, sinus-scouring delivery in which the accents of Liverpool were still strong. But the Beatles were already approaching the end of the period when anyone’s contribution could be happily taken at face value. ‘she loves you’ was the last single that seemed to spring directly from the youth-clubby gossip of teenage Merseyside life (‘well I saw her yesterday’); and in the world-wide hit ‘I want to hold your hand’ the propositional mode – versions of ‘how about it?’ – finally played itself out. The gap between verbal innocence and musical pungency at last became noticeable; it turned into an irony. Lennon and McCartney, still working in fruitful intimacy at this time, had come up with a raucously passionate tune, climaxing in the giant animal leap of an octave, into the head-shaking falsetto range. Musically, it was a fit setting for a rape, but the words took us no further than ‘I wanna hold your HAND!’ Even those of us who in those days could aspire to no more exciting contact with girls than this recognised the comic disproportion in this effect. Perhaps we noted it all the more ruefully. Yet we enjoyed it. It was a way of dramatising frustration. While the music lasted, desperation and hilarity went ... hand in hand.

And so did the Beatles. So different and well-matched were they that their personalities became emblematic: they represented four interesting new divisions of the spectrum of human temperament, every bit as cleanly distinguishable, one from another, as earth, air, fire and water. To decide which of the four was which, and with which of them one’s own sympathy lay, became a game played by the young as part of the serious task of defining themselves. Yet precisely because these four figures interlocked so satisfyingly, nobody much wanted to consider them one by one, in the apparent meaninglessness of isolation. The group-effect of the Beatles was kaleidoscopic (a big word in the Sixties until ‘psychedelic’ took over). With each set of songs they issued, they shook themselves up into a new pattern. And one knew, as with a kaleidoscope, that if the thing once broke open, the fragments contributing to the display must reveal themselves to be tawdry bits of stuff, unspectacular to the point of ugliness outside the self-referring mirrors of the machine.

So when John Lennon wrote and performed the prophetic early song ‘There’s a place’, it was not he but the group voice that was felt to be confiding ‘There’s a place where I can go / When I feel low, when I feel blue/ And it’s my mind, and there’s no Time/ When I’m alone.’ In the proprietorial way of all musical customers, we easily assumed that the song was something created on our behalf, to express something we all felt. By ‘I’ Lennon meant ‘You’. This is indeed how songs tend to work: but Lennon, as it turned out, was letting loose a more concentrated urge to solipsism than most song-writers allowed themselves. This was no Tin Pan Alley placebo he had created. He was writing about his own imminent retreat into his own head. As Professor Mellers observed in 1973, when the whole Beatles show had collapsed, ‘There’s a place’ was ‘the first song concerned with self-reliance’. It was a theme that was destined to take Lennon over, the more so once Lennon and Yoko Ono had been welded into a dual self. All in all, when you consider how early in the game Lennon was using the song-writing process as a form of therapeutic declaration, it is perhaps surprising that his output maintained for as long as it did that quality of recognisable experience we optimistically call universality.

Whatever chance we had of adjusting to the emergent confessional Lennon was effectively obscured by Lennon himself. He became, rather suddenly, an all-rounder, reading his nonsense poems on TV, giving permission for his drawing ‘The Fat Budgie’ to be published as a Christmas card, and putting out his two manuals of linguistic subterfuge and sabotage. In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Cynics (who were admittedly in shorter supply fifteen years ago) were disconcerted to note that these sub-literary effusions could not quite be shrugged off as opportunist plunderings by the Beatle-marketing industry. Albeit at a low level of risk and accomplishment, there was something to them. If it was not art, then it was certainly cleverness. ‘Jesus El Pifco was a foreigner and he knew it,’ opened a typical tale. Who could have supposed there were reserves of New Yorkerishness in Liverpool?

Inevitably, this was a manner of invention that passed into the songs, tentatively at first, as in the title (but not much else) of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, then wholesale later on. It read like a ready amalgam of Lewis Carroll, nursery rhymes and the Goons, though Lennon himself located its centre of gravity elsewhere. ‘I went through my Dylanesque period a long time ago with songs like “I am the Walrus”,’ he remarked in last year’s Playboy interview: ‘the trick of never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something more. Where more or less can be read into it. It’s a good game.’ (Incidentally, this must be one of the few quotations in literary history where ‘Dylanesque’ could be taken to refer to either Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas, with roughly equal justice.)

Good though the game was, it was sometimes forced on Lennon, as in ‘Norwegian Wood’, where he wished to write about an affair without letting his wife know the details. Sometimes he forced it on us, as in the towering Babel of surrealism that ‘Walrus’ represents: a song both arty and threatening, built of private visions which only the composer could ever fully possess. One recalls that ‘What do you see when you put out the light/I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine’ were the two naughty/revealing lines contributed by Lennon to McCartney’s apologia for Ringo Starr, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’. Lennon’s own appeal for aid, ‘Help’, was the least rhetorically frank of his confessional songs, and remained, for that reason, one of his favourites. ‘Because I meant it,’ he explained to Wenner, ‘it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then ... and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that ... aware of myself then. It was just me singing “Help” and I meant it.’ Considerations of authenticity still did not weigh heavily with the listening audience, however, and ‘Help’ is widely remembered as a disappointment. Phrases like ‘I’m not so self-assured’ and ‘I feel so insecure’ sounded uncomfortably mawkish when sung. Lennon had his own explanation – ‘We did it too fast, to try to be commercial’ – but this only goes to show how little, in the end, musical tactics concerned him. He would have preferred the beat of ‘Help’ to be matched to the heaviness of the message: because for all his hallucinatory excursions, both in and out of the drug trance, Lennon was a literal-minded soul. The notion of using a musical mood to offset a different verbal one offended his sense of propriety. Casting himself as a lazy anarch – not a difficult thing to do when you were ‘smoking marijuana for breakfast’, as he described himself to Playboy – he took against elaborate studio ‘production’ of the songs, which he came to associate increasingly with what he felt to be a false, showbiz versatility displayed by McCartney. After his two late but patchily brilliant insertions into the Sergeant Pepper collage, ‘Lucy in the Sky’ and ‘A Day in the Life’, Lennon began to shrink from imagery as well, apart from the kind he could live in. Just a couple of weeks after the consistently underrated Beatles White Album appeared in Britain (1968), John and Yoko were onstage in the Albert Hall, writhing about inside a large bag. The man who had written, ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,’ in an absurdist spirit, was beginning to explore vacuities for himself.

Lennon’s resentments all but poisoned the rest of his life, but it is not really to be wondered at that the public had now come to feel more at home with Paul McCartney. McCartney’s delight in parody ensured variety – and produced songs Lennon found quite disproportionately detestable, like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ – yet did not prevent his lurching back occasionally into good old red-throated rock and roll. But it was when he acquired a new and sanctimonious folksiness that McCartney laid claim to the title of favourite Beatle. Blossoming into unequivocal religiosity with ‘Let it be’, he set up a solo career for life, as a purveyor of agnostic inspirational material. ‘Mother Mary’, Paul insisted, was his own mother, Mary McCartney, but it wouldn’t wash – especially set alongside Lennon’s equivalent song, ‘Julia’, where he set out for the first time to conflate the figures of Julia Lennon, his dead mother and Yoko (whom he later came to call ‘Mother’ out of jokey Freudian self-consciousness, and later still out of habit). ‘Julia’ is not an attention-getting song, but it is a remarkable one. ‘Half of what I say is meaningless/but I say it just to reach you Julia,’ it says, summing up his career so far. ‘When I cannot sing my heart/I can only speak my mind,’ it adds, predicting the rest.

Lennon’s speak-my-mind period, which ran from ‘Revolution’ (1968) to ‘Imagine’ (1971), taking in ‘Give peace a chance’ and ‘Power to the People’ on the way, marked the end of him as an artist and the beginnings of his salvation as a human being. Under the thorough management of a substitute mother – both parties admitted this – he felt able at last to make statements he felt he owned. It was naturally of no concern to him, but a sadness to the rest of us, that these were the kind of statements anyone could have made. Yoko was blamed for throttling his talent: but though it seems undeniable that she throttled her own, through her extraordinary policy of doctrinaire superstition, Lennon’s participation always struck me as desperately voluntary. It even had its visible correlative. Perhaps the collapse of Lennon’s face into a flat oriental mask was accidental (the transformation was effected, it is said, by the corrosion of the nasal substructure after cocaine-sniffing), but it certainly turned the pair into near-twins. By 1980, it was clear that Lennon had determinedly abandoned responsibility for his spiritual estate, not to mention the earthly one which Yoko bought and sold daily in her downstairs office.

Their last LP together was described by Lennon as a postcard. Sure enough, it is humble and domestic, though there is not much news. The songs are not statements so much as messages exchanged across the breakfast table. ‘Our life together is so precious together/We have grown ... we have grown.’ It was hard when the record appeared, and impossible now, to grudge them this soppiness. The dominant spirit on the LP – even musically – is Yoko’s. Her ‘I’m your angel’, oddly enough, is an ethereal dance-band pastiche entirely worthy of the old Paul McCartney (except that Yoko’s staccato delivery, laced with tra-la-la, is there to remind us of the superficial but widespread influence she has exerted on punk-age vocalists).

Presumably it was this harmless family album that Mark Chapman waited to have autographed outside the Dakota at tea-time. What did he think he was destroying when he pulled the trigger at 10.50 p.m.? A happy man, I suppose. Lennon had discovered that his only possible escape from the madness of the first person led into a two-person world. It took an older enemy, the third person, to remove him from it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences