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.
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
A bashing party number that
sprang from an offhand comment
Ringo made during the filming
of the Beatles’ first movie.
3. Ticket to Ride,
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
, 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
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,
8. Tomorrow Never
“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
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
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
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!”
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,
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
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
19. Don’t Let Me Down, 1969.
A companion piece to If I Fell, written
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
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.