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MUSIC

All He Was Saying

The Top 30 John Lennon Songs

By Stephen Cole
December 8, 2005
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

In considering John Lennon’s music, we’re astonished by the warp speed of the composer’s development. There’s John in Liverpool, holed up in Aunt Mimi’s parlour in 1962, dashing off a music hall ditty like Please, Please Me before his tea is cold. Thirty months and several creative lives later, “the smart Beatle” is locked for days in Abbey Road, fussing over the percussive tracks on Revolver’s Tomorrow Never Knows. In 1970 John’s famous band imploded; he went out on his own and scored two boldly original solo album triumphs before gradually losing interest in music, retiring for five years. He was just “starting over” when his life came to a sudden end, 25 years ago. Here’s a chronology of the great pop artist’s most vital work:

John Lennon at Twickenham Studios, London, 1963. Photo Terry O'Neill/Getty Images.
John Lennon at Twickenham Studios, London, 1963. Photo Terry O'Neill/Getty Images.

1. If I Fell, 1964. Recorded while the beatific I Want to Hold Your Hand was atop the U.S. charts, John’s first ballad offers an early hint of coming Art. And the fretful lyrics might be considered an unconscious meditation on the mother who abandoned him: “If I give my heart to you/I must be sure from the very start/That you love me more than her.”

2. A Hard Day’s Night, 1964. A bashing party number that sprang from an offhand comment Ringo made during the filming of the Beatles’ first movie.

3. Ticket to Ride, 1965. The band’s first studio triumph: John’s vocal is double tracked. Paul plays lead guitar and dubbed bass. Ringo is recorded on various percussive instruments. The clutter suited Lennon’s compositional style. “Most writers are lucky to have one good idea per song,” producer George Martin observed. “On Ticket to Ride, John had three or four intriguing song bits that he joined together in the studio.”

4. Help, 1965. Originally a ballad, Lennon resented recasting the song into a rocker to make it into a single. The tension only succeeded in making the unhappy Beatle’s cry more compelling.

5. Norwegian Wood, 1965. The great lesson the Beatles learned from Bob Dylan was that they were free to write about their own lives. With Rubber Soul, the musical diary began. Norwegian Wood was the turning point, a sly confession of an affair with a journalist. “She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere/So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.”

6. In My Life, 1965. John’s best utopian fantasy, a warm embrace of the author’s early days in Liverpool.

7. Nowhere Man, 1965. Another S.O.S. to the world: John lost in his London mansion in a cloud of drugs, wondering about his marriage, his life, himself.

8. Tomorrow Never Knows, 1966. “But listen to the colour of your dreams.” Here’s where John falls down the rabbit hole into wanton drug use and endless studio experimentation. Lennon wanted Tibetan monks to sing the final refrain. Producer George Martin, as sober and straight as Prince Philip, hung tight at the wheel.

9. Rain, 1966. The B-side to Paul’s Paperback Writer and another masterful, Revolver-era sonic adventure. The instrumental track was slowed to sound as if the Beatles were playing underwater.

10. And Your Bird Can Sing, 1966. An up-tempo pop tune sweetened by chiming guitars and breathtaking harmonies.

11. I’m Only Sleeping, 1966. At first listen, a sleepyhead’s excuse for being late to work. But after a while, you notice the artful bits of studio invention; for instance, George’s smeared guitar solo, the result of six hours of experiments.

12. She Said, She Said, 1966. John’s best cut on Revolver: a report on a bad acid trip that presaged a retreat from the world. “Oh, no-no, you’re wrong, when I was a boy, everything was right!”

13. Strawberry Fields Forever, 1966. The journey back to childhood made inevitable by She Said, She Said. (Strawberry Fields was an orphanage near John’s childhood home.) Lennon’s floating, disoriented vocal sounds as if it tumbled from a dreamer in his sleep.

14. A Day in the Life, 1967. Leafing through a newspaper, John learned of a friend who died in a car accident. Flipping the page, he read there were 4,000 holes on a road in Blackburn, Lancashire. Hours later he entered the studio to bring alive a parable of modern alienation that took full advantage of his band’s studio skills along with the talents of a full orchestra. When the result was replayed, the guest musicians burst into spontaneous applause.

15. Good Morning, Good Morning, 1967. A romping satire of suburban life. Lennon sequenced the barnyard sounds at the end so that every beast was capable of consuming the animal previous.

16. I Am the Walrus, 1967 After Strawberry Fields and A Day in the Life, the third in John’s astonishing, drug-soaked studio constructions from 1966-67.

17. Happiness is a Warm Gun, 1968. Abandoning LSD while studying with the Maharishi in India, John returned to the studio newly energized. One startling result was this intriguing pile-up of disparate song fragments that ended with Lennon howling the title words, an NRA slogan that he’d read in a magazine.

18. Julia, 1968. A lilting seance between John and his mother, Julia, in which the singer announces he’s found a replacement for his parent’s lost love in an “ocean child” (the Japanese meaning of Yoko).

19. Don’t Let Me Down, 1969. A companion piece to If I Fell, written for Yoko.

20. Come Together, 1969. John gives notice he’s leaving the troubled band: “He say ‘I know you, you know me.’ One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.”

21. Instant Karma, 1970. Lennon’s most persuasive political song, probably because it was the least specific, and also because the man at the microphone, always a great shouter, lost himself in the dynamic of a convincing rock and roll song.

22. Mother, 1970. After Paul quit the Beatles in April 1970, John flew to L.A. with Yoko to scream his demons away in a four-month primal therapy session. The result was a candid, stripped bare solo album (Plastic Ono Band), which began with the lament, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.”

23. I Found Out, 1970. “I found out something about my ma and my pa. They didn’t want me so they made me a star.”

24. Well, Well, Well, 1970. A vocal tour de force! John’s first solo album was recorded in 10 days, the time it took the Beatles to tune up back in Pepperland. Still, he laid down the most committed and varied vocal performances of his career, filtering and electronically fooling with his voice every track. Commented critic Robert Christgau: “John is such a media artist that even when he’s fervently shedding personas… he knows, perhaps instinctively, that he communicates most effectively through technological masks.”

25. Imagine, 1971. John gives inner peace a chance.

26. Jealous Guy, 1971. A ballad left off the White Album that John dressed up with a new lyric, turning it into a heartfelt act of contrition to Yoko.

27. Crippled Inside, 1971. Energetic, loose-limbed fun, despite the subject matter, and another indicator of Lennon’s improving spirits.

28. Oh Yoko, 1971. John’s best love song and a highlight of his most popular solo album, Imagine.

29. #9 Dream, 1974. Most of John’s ballads were reveries. Sometimes, he’d work for hours on a song, quit in frustration, and the song would tumble into his head when he relaxed. This, one of his best songs from the ’70s, came to him in his sleep.

30. Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), 1980. John retired from music at age 35, becoming a house husband, learning how to bake bread and raise his child Sean. He made a comeback in 1980, sounding stable and content. “Close your eyes/Have no fear/The monster’s gone/He’s on the run and your daddy’s here,” he sang to Sean on the most affecting song on the album. The Nowhere Man had found himself.

Stephen Cole writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

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