I’ll keep the intro to Lennon’s solo work short and sweet. His songs post-Beatles were more simple and direct. I think this is the reason his solo work resonates just as strongly (and sometimes stronger) than the stuff he wrote with his former band.
Each and every one of these tracks is available on the bevy of greatest hits collections released posthumously. This is not to say that the “deep cuts” are somehow inferior; it’s more a reflection of the fact that most of my exposure to Lennon’s solo catalogue have come through the greatest hits collections.
These are my top 12.
Just missing the cut: “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” (his only solo #1 single, unbelievably), “Mind Games,” “Jealous Guy,” and many others.
12. “Cold Turkey” - single, b/w “Don’t Worry Kyoko” by Yoko Ono (1969)
For a brief period of time, both John and Yoko were addicted to heroin. “Cold Turkey” is John’s recollection of what it was like to kick smack. The guitar is screechy, his vocals raw (specifically the screaming at the end), but the burbling bass line and plaintive drums keep the song from falling apart. “Cold Turkey” is vital and visceral and a sign of things to come on his solo album to be released the next year.
On a more personal note, “Cold Turkey” is partially responsible for this curse of a hobby I like to call writing. After hearing this song for the first time in 8th grade, I wrote a parody of it... about how much I hated being in 8th grade. Thanks a lot, John.
11. “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” - Double Fantasy LP (1980)
One unfortunate aspect of having memories is that they are fallible. Things happen over the years and our memories change with them; sooner or later what we remember and what actually happen differ. Sometimes it’s because we plain forgot; other times because we want to believe something so much that it commits itself to our subconscious.
“Beautiful Boy” is a song that has that effect on me.
I’m not sure anymore, but I swear my dad said to me once that he used to sing this to me when I was a baby. As you might imagine, it’s not something I want to confirm with him as the memory I have now is much more pleasant than what may be the truth.
It’s a cute song, a slightly Carribean-sounding lullaby written for his son Sean. It’s probably also famous for the line “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Whatever the cause for its resonance, I think it’ll be safe to say that if I ever have a son, I’ll be singing this to him at bedtime. And I won’t let him forget it.
10. “Mother” - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP (1970)
Up until just a few years ago, the only Lennon hits collection I was familiar with was The John Lennon Collection, and this song wasn’t on it. So it was much to my surprise when I bought the Instant Karma compilation that featured artists covering John’s songs, and heard Christina Aguilera sing the hell out of this one. Needless to say, I sought out the original shortly after, and love it.
Fellow Beatles dorks know that John always had issues with his mother. She abandoned him at a young age, then came back into his life when he was a teenager only to get run over by a car. “Mother” is John’s thoughts on the subject: “Mother, you had me / But I never had you.” As the song goes on, his singing turns to screaming (encouraged by Yoko and Arthur Janov of Primal Scream therapy fame), making his feelings that much more poignant.
For me, the song makes me quite thankful that I’ve always had my mom there for me when I needed her. I couldn’t imagine what went through John’s head all those years, but “Mother” brings us all a little closer to understanding it a bit.
9. “Gimme Some Truth” - Imagine LP (1971)
Most of John Lennon’s solo songs are his own personal declarations, his feelings on whatever he happens to be singing about. “Gimme Some Truth” could very well be about life itself as I think John was always looking for it from his early days as Beatle. In this case it’s about his frustration with the Vietnam war and Nixon as well as politicians in general. (Which of course makes the song just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago).
As apathetic as I am -- I don’t think things will ever truly change, nor will I work to change them -- I still think the lyrics speak to me, as, like pretty much everyone, I don’t like being lied to. I’d rather face an uncomfortable truth -- and have other people face them as well -- than telling them little white lies to save face. (This doesn’t happen all the time. I guess I am one of those “hypocritics” he references in the song. Like George Carlin said, if we introduced honesty into this country, there would be a lot more crying. However, I still like the sentiment of truth and I think Lennon nailed it nicely.)
8. “Grow Old With Me” - Milk and Honey LP (1984)
John and Yoko were working on songs for the follow-up to Double Fantasy when John was killed. “Grow Old With Me” was one of them, and a demo of it was featured on Milk and Honey. Like pretty much everything else, it’s a simple, sweet song -- the version on the Working Class Hero compilation features just vocals, piano, light drumming (possibly a tambourine), and an overdubbed string section -- but that’s all you need when you’re singing about spending the rest of your life with someone.
I’m not sure the beat is slow enough for a slow dance at a wedding -- not that it matters, I guess -- but, yeah, I’ve totally thought about it being the first dance at this mythical wedding that I talk about occasionally. I’m sure I’m not the first.
7. (Just Like) Starting Over - Double Fantasy LP (1980)
According to John, this was him playing “Elvis Orbison.” It was an apt description because the song indeed does have a very classic early rock n’ roll vibe, right down to the vocal affectations.
My mom and dad love this song, so therefore I grew to love this song. It’s no wonder as the song has a very easy-going rhythm, and I’ve always liked the verse “Why don’t we take off alone / On a trip somewhere far, far away / We’ll be together all alone again / Just like we used to in the early days”
It was the perfect song to start off Lennon’s comeback record, and it’s classic sound makes it timeless, and a song that I can listen to over and over again.
6. “Love” - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP (1970)
When I finally got around to finding a girl who wasn’t totally put off by me liked me at 16, we eventually chose this as our song. I’ve always thought it was pretty awesome that we picked a song that was written 10 years before we were even born.
But sentiments aside, “Love’ is another plain, sweet song that gets right to the heart of the matter: “Love is you / You and me / Love is knowing we can be” and “Love is needing to be loved.” The song doesn’t say much at all, but at the same time I think the song says everything. Pretty much par for the course for John Lennon.
5. “Working Class Hero” - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP (1970)
Some Lennon detractors will point out that though Lennon came from a mostly working class town, he was more middle class than anything (He did go to art school instead of working at a mill or something, after all.) That may be true, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know any actual working class people (giving him some perspective), or that his ideas presented in the song are any less valid.
I think the song goes beyond the notion that a “working class hero is something to be.” I think it’s about how tough it is to grow up, how much it sucks to be a wage slave: “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV / And you think you’re so clever and classless and free / But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see,” he sings passionately, imploring us to open up our eyes to what’s going on in the world. This isn’t a message to the working class; it’s a message to all classes and all people.
My favorite line, though, is “There’s room at the top they are telling you still / But first you must learn to smile as you kill.” Call me a commie if you want, but that’s what it takes to be a successful businessman in this world and thus far I want no part of it. Lennon’s take on it here is brilliant as usual.
4. “Instant Karma!” - single b/w “Who Has Seen the Wind? (by Yoko Ono) (!970)
This song was written and recorded in a day, and available in record stores ten days later. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. It’s obviously Lennon’s way of telling all of us to think about what we’re doing.
So why is this song ranked so highly? Because it’s so fucking catchy, that’s why. John implored buyers to “Play it loud” on the record itself, and that’s exactly how it should be listened to. And how could you not sing along to the chorus of “We all shine on / Like the moon and the starts and the sun!”? You can’t. It’s an irresistible rock song with a universal message, and so it is my #4 Lennon solo song.
3. “God” - John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band LP (1970)
Though it seems like the song is critically acclaimed, I don’t think the song was much of a commercial success. I can’t say I’ve ever heard it on classic rock radio, though because the song is a little too heady to be played along with “More Than A Feeling” and “Wheel in the Sky.” Of course, you’ve probably at least heard of the song. It’s famous for the shocking (at the time) line (referenced in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off): “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.”
Basically, it’s John saying what he thinks “God” is (a concept by which we measure our pain) and all the people -- religious figures and ideas (Buddha, the Bible, Jesus), leaders good and bad (Hitler, Kennedy), and musicians (Dylan, the Beatles) -- he doesn’t believe in. He just believes in himself. On some level, it seems kind of selfish but I don’t think he means that he doesn’t respect those things. He’s just saying that first and foremost it is important to believe in one’s self before believing in anything else.
When he says “The dream is over” he could be talking about the hippie movement in the sixties. But again I don’t think he’s disrespecting it, rather saying that maybe it’s time for a new one. I can’t say I disagree with him there; though we can learn from the past, we must stay focused on the present.
2. “Imagine” - Imagine LP (1971)
Though “Imagine” is easily Lennon’s most famous and revered song, there is plenty of divisiveness surrounding the song. Certainly the political right didn’t like this song as the lyrics feature a Communist utopia. Then other people, especially today, like to point out that he was worth 240 million dollars at the time the song came out, not to mention other demons he had such as beating his wife (not Yoko, naturally), being a shitty father to his first son, etc, etc.
They’re all kind of right. John was a contradiction of many things (or if you must, a hypocrite) and the lyrics of “Imagine” are hard to take from such a complicated man.
However, I will take some interpretive license here and look beyond what the lyrics literally say. Yeah, he says “no possessions” and “no religion” and “no country.” Whether or not those would be good things is infinitely debatable. I don’t think that’s the core of what he meant, though.
I’ve read that his reason for writing “Revolution” was because he didn’t believe a violent, bloody revolution was a good way to change things. He thought the answer was to change what was in people’s heads. I think with that in mind, listening to “Imagine” is less of a direction of what people should actually do, but a plea for people to cooperate to make the world a better place. I can’t claim to know John Lennon beyond what I’ve read in books, but I think he would have been thrilled even if people didn’t take his word as gospel, but instead just worked together for the common good.
That’s all he was saying: We can do this, but we need all of you to do this.
1. “Watching the Wheels” - Double Fantasy LP (1980)
If you actually know me, or have read this blog before, you knew I was going to pick this song at the top spot.
But it’s getting late, and I’m lazy and don’t feel the need to explain it further than what I have already written, so here’s the link to that.
It’s been my favorite Lennon solo song for more than 12 years now, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.