Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Top Eleven John Lennon Songs - Beatles Edition

I’m only six days late on this one, but I wanted to write about this -- partially out of my love of all things Beatles and Lennon, partially because I wanted to one-up Ken’s list -- so here are my top eleven (mostly) Lennon-penned Beatles’ songs.

One thing you’ll find just from glancing at the list is that it is mostly dominated by the post-touring period in the Beatles timeline. This isn’t simply because the music from 1966-1970 is better -- though it kinda is -- but because early-period Beatles music was much more collaborative. Even though you could easily tell who wrote the the bulk of the song by who sang the lead vocal, and even though McCartney’s writing voice (confident, upbeat, mostly happy) or Lennon’s writing voice (insecure, angry, and more insecurity), the songs were mostly the same and dealt with the same subjects. There are plenty of great early songs in the Beatles oeuvre, but when they broke free of the shackles put on them by the pop music industry at the time, their works shined -- Lennon’s in particular.

I chose 11 songs because while compiling this list, I decided that I wanted to write about all of them so an extra song was left on.

Much thanks to the book “A Hard Day’s Write” by Steve Turner for tidbits and minutiae for the various songs. It was an invaluable resource.

Without further ado, here are my top 11 John Lennon Beatles songs.

Just missing the cut: "A Day in the Life" (not distinctly Lennon enough, but a great song nonetheless), "Revolution" (I'm an idiot and forgot all about it and didn't want to squeeze it in there), and "Nowhere Man" (not enough to say about it.)

11) “The Ballad of John and Yoko” - single b/w “Old Brown Shoe,” (1969)
(tidbit that might interest only me: Only John and Paul play on this song, with Paul playing drums and bass.)

I used to hate this song. I skipped it every time I listed to the Beatles’ #1 hits CD. Years later I find not only myself but my friends and their friends in long-term relationships and suddenly this song makes a lot more sense.

John wrote the lyrics mostly about how much of a pain in the ass it was to get married to Yoko Ono, and how much the press shit all over his relationship with her (“They’re going to crucify me!”).

I know I’m stretching it here, but in my experience we -- as in the long-term relationship people -- are all kind of like John and Yoko in this case. We all have our reservations about other people’s relationships (and sometimes our own), whether through jealousy or hatred or both. Some are more vocal about it than others, but we all gossip and talk shit about these types of things. In today’s world of endless snark, it’s kind of tough to be in a relationship if you’re self-conscious -- Christ, you know it ain’t easy.

10) "I’m A Loser" - Beatles for Sale LP (1964)

This song is one of the first where John’s personality really shows through, from the title on through the lyrics: “I'm a loser, and I'm not what I appear to be / Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown” He’s not just upset over losing a girl here, he’s upset over a lot of other things he’s lost, such as his mother. Not only that, but that “wearing a mask” bit is apt too, because he did cover up a lot of his own insecurities by being funny and sarcastic, and later with drugs.

Personally, I always found “I’m a Loser” to be one of those unhappy Beatles songs that cheered me up, mostly because I identified heavily with it. Early Beatles songs are timeless, and this is a prime example of it. For example, tell me this song wouldn’t fit right in on Weezer’s Pinkerton album. I rest my case.

9) “Across the Universe” - Let it Be LP (1970)

I’ve never read it this way but it makes perfect sense: it’s a song about writing songs, or at least about the creative process. Images and thoughts and sounds wander throughout his mind, and that’s how he comes up with this stuff.

What caught my ear about the song and got it stuck in my head (not just aurally but visually) were the images made by the lyrics themselves: “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,” “Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,” etc. I like plaintive melody and find it pretty; I like the repeated mantra -- Lennon was big on slogans and the like at the time -- of “Nothing’s going to change my world.” Just what a stubborn bastard like me needs to hear, right?

8) “Dear Prudence” - The Beatles LP (1968)

The genesis of this song was on the Beatles’ trip to India to learn from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. One of the people there was Prudence Farrow (sister to Mia), and she was so into her meditation exercise that she would rarely come out of her room, and John (and others) wanted her to “come out and play.”

“Dear Prudence” has such a beautiful melody and the lyrics paint such a wonderful picture that you can’t help but to smile while listening to it: “The sun is up, the sky is blue / It’s beautiful / And so are you!”

If I had to take Lennon’s lyrics on a more personal level, I’d say that the song isn’t just asking you to “come out and play”, but to come out and experience life itself. I can’t say I always (or ever) do that, but it’s nice to know that if I want to, I can turn on the Beatles to cheer me on.

7) “Good Morning Good Morning” - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band LP (1967)

Lennon got the idea for this song from watching a commercial for Corn Flakes and it’s lyrics describe a boring suburban life, which John mostly was living at the time.

I always liked it because it was one of the more rocking tunes on Sgt. Pepper -- not that the other songs were bad, but it was nice to know they still played guitars -- and as a hormonally-challenged 13-year-old listening to it for the first time, the lines “Watching the skirts / You start to flirt / Now you’re in gear” at the very least gave me something to look forward to later in life. It’s still one of my favorite tracks on Sgt. Pepper, and I listen to it regularly.

6) “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” - Help! LP (1965)

By this point Lennon had discovered Bob Dylan and his introspective style of songwriting. I’m sure if he had written this song a few years later there would be much speculation that the song was about Yoko, but alas, he’s just sad over a girl that doesn’t love him back -- or perhaps sad that he’s married and can’t show his love to another girl.

This song -- and this album, maybe the Beatles’ most underrated -- got me through many a lonely night in college, though you could probably substitute “lust” for “love.” No matter, it worked like a charm and I hold in high regard among not just Lennon songs, but Beatles songs as a whole.

5) “Help!” - Help! LP (1965)

Though I’m sure I’d heard it on the radio way before, my first memory of this song is when it was used during a montage on Full House, the episode where Uncle Jessie hurt himself while riding his motorcycle. Even then, I could identify with the song, and would only identify with it more and more through adolescence.

John originally wanted this song to be like a slow dirge, but the Beatles vetoed that one in favor of the album version. Even with it’s jaunty beat, it was literally a cry for help from Lennon -- he was hurting inside and depressed. I identify with that part of the song as well: John wrote the song for that reason, and a lot of the things I write are for those same reasons. It’s catharsis for me.

4) “Come Together” - Abbey Road LP (1969)

It’s been well-documented that as time went on, John became more and more disinterested in the Beatles, and thus his output on the band’s records decreased significantly. Of course, if “Come Together” is evidence of John on auto-pilot, I can’t find any evidence of it.

The verses are mostly nonsense, but the music and chorus are pure sex. He starts out the song by chanting “Shoot me!” (He’s doesn’t mean with a gun, people.) During the chorus he implores us: “Come together, right now, over me.” and then pants and asks us again to “come.” The music itself is sexy, almost seductive even, with a great little lead guitar line... and in the end he finally lets out an orgasmic moan.

On a personal note, I love singing this song at karaoke. It’s classic rock vibe and simple vocal parts make it a good time all around.

3) “I Am the Walrus” - Magical Mystery Tour LP (1966)

What I thought was an urban legend -- and one that totally sounds like something John would make up to amuse himself -- is apparently true as I read in the book that part of the reason this song exists is that a pupil at a school John used to attend wrote him telling him that the teacher was having them analyze Beatles lyrics. “Let the fuckers work that one out,” he reportedly said after he finished the song.

“I Am the Walrus” might be the best example of Lennon’s fascination with words and wordplay, with its vivid images, nonsense words, and internal rhymes. As a still-hormonally-challenged 16-year-old, I was titillated (pun intended) with the lines “Pornographic priestess / Boy you’ve been a naughty girl / You let your knickers down.”

It’s really kind of hard to describe why you’d like a song with nonsense lyrics. It’s just a fun to listen to while closing your eyes and imagining the the things Lennon is singing about. The sad, drooping string section is a great hook. I don’t know what else to say -- go sit in an English garden and wait for the sun.

P.S.: Paul wasn’t the walrus, and the eggman is apparently Eric Burdon of The Animals, who apparently had the kink of cracking eggs over his sexual conquests. You learn something new every day, huh?

2) “Tomorrow Never Knows” - Revolver LP

This song isn’t solely Lennon when the actual composition of the music is considered. Lennon asked to sound like “a thousand Tibetan monks,” so producer George Martin did his best. The tape loops throughout were Paul’s idea, and were something that Paul was into well before John’s “Revolution #9” (It took every bone in my body not to call it an abortion.) (Oops, just did.) The drumming on the track is perhaps Ringo’s finest moment as a Beatle. And the lyrics were taken mostly verbatim from Timothy Leary’s interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

So it wasn’t all Lennon’s, but yet it was pure Lennon nonetheless. The guitars and drums and loops all swirl around the head like an acid trip. It was a sure sign of things to come. The opening line “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream” is perfect for the kind of introspection (through psychedelic drugs and otherwise) that Lennon would champion throughout his musical career.

It is the perfect closing track to perhaps the perfect Beatles album. It is an experience not to be missed.

1) “In My Life” - Rubber Soul LP (1965)

Essentially a song about growing up and moving on, “In My Life” was inspired by a poem John wrote about his childhood. It’s a sweet, sentimental song about the nature of love, and for that alone it could make the top of many critics’ lists.

Not for this critic.

I’ve always been intrigued by the verse that goes:

Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

I’ve always been taught -- by parents, the media, other people, whatever -- that at some point you’ll get married and you’re wife will be your best friend. That now that you’re married, those other relationships and those other friends are mostly meaningless. I call bullshit. Lennon came out and said what I’ve always thought on the matter, that though “I love you more,” those that came before you are pretty damned important; they shaped who I was and who I would become.

The melody, the lyrics, even Lennon’s voice here are absolutely perfect. It’s no surprise that it was voted the best Beatles song by some British survey a few years ago. It might not be my all-time favorite, but it’s definitely my favorite Lennon track.

I know I’m lazy so I won’t say “check back tomorrow,” but check back soon for my top 12 solo Lennon songs.

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