Remembering John Lennon (Updated for December 2021)
Published on 07 December 2021
Today marks 41 years since John Lennon's passing. Can you imagine (no pun intended...) how different the musical world would be today if his life hadn't been cut short? Love or hate his music, there's no denying the impact and influence his songwriting has had. Whether as part of the Fab Four or during his solo career, his music was potent, insightful, painful, uplifting and at times just plain silly. There are few, if any who can match his legendary status. Ripping with charisma and a wisdom that seemed sometimes out of place for such a young man, Lennon had a vision beyond his humble upbringing and became a true icon. We thought today would be the perfect time to relive some of his finest moments and look back on a career that changed the world.
We thought of throwing in one of the earlier Beatles singles to point to the incredible ability Lennon had for crafting a pop hook at a young age, but instead, we're going to jump right to the instantly recognisable Help! from the band's fifth album of the same name. This track was one which John was particularly proud of, stating that it was a favourite of his because of how "real" it felt. Help! was written alongside McCartney for the group's second film and although the process began simply as penning lead single for the movie, Lennon went on to describe it as "a very personal and emotional song" for him. Crafted during a period when he was battling with depression, the song allowed him to open up about his feelings in a way he'd struggled to in his writing up to that point. In a way, Help! is the perfect example of the magic behind Lennon's music; while it may have sounded like another catchy pop song, beneath the surface it explored a painful time in his life and was literally a cry for help.
Strawberry Fields Forever
As one of the Beatles most memorable songs, Strawberry Fields Forever may be anthemic but it also contains a lot of depth, exploring John's feelings of being different to the rest of the world. Lennon wrote almost all of the song at once, aside from the first verse which he completed later. As a result, it seems a little out of place and disjointed from the rest of the lyrics which deal with his alienation he felt from the people around him; questioning whether this made him a genius or a fool. Strawberry Field was actually a Victorian building near his home which he often used to visit with his Aunt and would sometimes sneak off to with his childhood friends. Using this as a symbol of internal peace and happiness, Lennon creates a world within the track that captures the imagination and stays with you. Strawberry Fields Forever is beautifully crafted with an air of mystery and escapism that draws the listener in and allows them to experience what he felt as he invites you to join him. As an all-time Beatles classic, this was right up there on our list of Lennon's finest moments.
A Day in the Life
Next up is a track from Sergeant Pepper's - the sprawling, yet catchy madness of A Day in the Life. It was another collaboration between Lennon and McCartney but this time was kind of a mish-mash of both their ideas, with Paul penning the upbeat middle eight sections. Lennon's verses were far more sorrowful, dealing with everything from what he'd read in the newspaper that morning to the death of his friend Tara Browne who'd recently passed away in a car accident. McCartney on the other hand was simply singing about waking up and going to school when he was younger. This kind of sums up their writing relationship and the real genius lay in bringing both totally unrelated ideas together into a complete sounding masterpiece. Featuring complex orchestral arrangements, haunting backing vocals and just the right amount of swagger, the pair essentially put together two different people's views on the world into a song, without ever really meaning to. There are few examples more incredible than this of what a stunning writing duo they really well so make sure you zone out and enjoy this one.
Across the Universe
Jumping forward to the band's more stripped back Let It Be album, Across the Universe is another of Lennon's personal favourites, despite the fact he was unsatisfied with both versions of the song. Initially recorded as part of a charity album, it was later reworked by Phil Spector for it's more well-known release with lyrics which focus on Lennon's creative process - something that amazed and intrigued him as much as it did his listeners. Apparently, John was trying to sleep following an argument with his wife Cynthia and the words "pools of sorrow, waves of joy" kept circling around in his head, causing him to get out of bed and start writing. He actually said "It drove me out of bed - I didn't want to write it" but went on to fall in love with the track as it came together. Across the Universe came after the Beatles began to explore their spirituality which had led John to open up to meditation and look at his life and feelings in a new light, also explaining why he name drops Guru Dev in the chorus! Both delicate and powerful, Across the Universe was one of our first choices for this list, whether Lennon liked the recording or not!
Lennon's first solo project after leaving the Beatles, the Plastic Ono Band was raw, creative and at times haunting. It's a very personal album which deals with the emotions he felt after the band's split, along with his childhood and relationships with the people around him. Throughout the album, you get the feeling that Lennon was questioning a lot of what he once believed in and God summed up perfectly what he was going through at the time. Beginning with him challenging the concept of religion, before looking at different ideologies and figures he once held in high regard and finally dealing with how he'd changed after leaving the band, it's incredibly insightful and telling of how much of himself Lennon gave to his music. Before recording the album, John and Yoko had undergone Primal Scream therapy, addressing issues from their youth which seemed to have a huge impact on the album. Putting everything into the record, he wrote the song in a day, recording several demos of it on his pianos before recording the final piece. You can feel Lennon's bitterness towards the Beatles and a shift in view to the carefree attitude he held the 60's as he states "I don't believe in Beatles/I once was the walrus, but now I am John", setting his solo career apart from their work and announcing that he was moving on to a new chapter in his life. The full album is a masterpiece that's well worth a listen, but this is a great place to start.
There's no Lennon track from his solo career more recognisable than Imagine. Beautiful in its simplicity, the song was the bestselling single of his solo career which surprised John because of the Communist connotations of the lyrics. However, the overall message of peace, love and understanding was everything his fans held dear and often, this is the track people point to when discussing his legacy. Yoko has stated previously that Imagine echoed John's views that "we are all one country, one world, one people" and there's a peacefulness to the record that wasn't always present in the Plastic Ono Band. John described the lyrics instead as "Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic" saying that "because it is sugarcoated it is accepted ... Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey". Given the success and impact of his extensive catalogue, we reckon he had a pretty good understanding of how to put a message across but in many ways Imagine was the cherry on top of his writing career. The track has not only gone on to become one of the most covered of all time but has become something of an anthem for world peace. You may say that he's a dreamer, but he's not the only one...
It's tough to wrap up such an iconic writer in only a few songs but we hope that this list has inspired you to revisit more of Lennon's work. He was only 40 years old when he was killed outside his New York City apartment building and the amount that he wrote and released during his life is absolutely staggering. We've no doubt that he'd still be writing today if he was with us but as sad a loss as it is, it's still an absolute pleasure to go back to some of his most notable achievements. Also a great rhythm guitarist with a keen ear for melody, Lennon had charm, charisma and a musical ability that's never been seen since. To put it simply, his work has changed the world and we wouldn't have it any other way.