As chosen by Roger Daltrey, Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Alex Turner and more…
Taken from The Beatles album, Help! (August 1965); released as a single July 1965. Highest UK chart position: 1
An acknowledgement that entry into fame’s hall of mirrors doesn’t come for free, disguised as the perfect pop song…
Victor Spinetti: Of all The Beatles, I saw John the most. We wrote a play together, In His Own Write. I remember working on it at my flat in London and John said: “Let’s go somewhere warm”. I thought he meant another room and we ended up in Marrakesh. He was one of the first song-writing poets. It sounds like I’m eulogizing, but listen to his lyrics. Who else writes like that? It’s a reservoir of poetry that’s still here. He was misunderstood, too. When people listen to “Help!” and decide he was a troubled man, it’s not true. He was saying “I’m approaching 30 years of age. Is this it?” The pressure was on to be better and better. On the set of Help! I asked him: “Do you have lots of songs in a drawer that’ll be discovered after you’ve gone?” And he said: “No, I just ring up Paul and say it’s time we get together and write another hit.” In that sense, he was an artist like Picasso, in saying “I do not seek, I find”. It was finding things and making something out of it that was the key. There was no ego with John. People always thought he was full of it, but he wasn’t. He could be arrogant, but that’s a different thing.
20 SHE SAID SHE SAID
From The Beatles album, Revolver (August 1966)
Perfect, paranoid pop, inspired by Lennon’s encounter with LSD-convert Peter Fonda, who wrong-footed the Beatle at a party with the words: “I know what it’s like to be dead”…
John Cale: There was always this competition between the Stones and The Beatles. Even though The Beatles could be brilliant, the Velvets would always side with the Stones, because they were darker, rougher. Then “She Said She Said” turned up and I could see The Beatles were changing. Lou [Reed] and I looked at each other and realised something was happening, which we zeroed in on. The way Lennon did it seemed so natural. It was obviously not just something he made up his mind to do, it was always part of who he was.
It’s got a very tricky time signature. He stops the beat at one point, which made me sit up. The mindset was so unusual – “you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born”. This is nihilism. What I liked about Lennon was his terseness. He could make a point very fast. I love that ability to be very piercing and savage. You get a physical sense of something from him. As soon as I saw him play, it was there too. He used his entire body when he sang. By ’66, The Beatles were a big deal, it was like a giant wave. We were in New York and every night on the radio there’d be Murray The K calling himself the Fifth Beatle. People would hang on to every word.
19 DEAR PRUDENCE
Taken from The Beatles album, The Beatles (November 1968)
Inspired by Lennon’s efforts to coax Prudence Farrow from her shell while staying with the Maharishi, this is Lennon at his most warm-hearted…
Donovan: It has a particular connection to me because John wrote it while we were in India – the four Beatles, Mike Love, Paul Horn the jazz flutist and friends. We went in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which was a life change for us all. All we took were acoustic guitars. George brought in tablas for Ringo. It was very much an unplugged situation in the jungle in India. As I was acoustic all my life, I was playing guitar constantly, and John looked at me, and said: “How do you do that guitar pickin’?” So I taught John. It’s called the clawhammer. It was invented by Ma Carter in the Carter Family in the 1920s. She adapted a banjo style to guitar, and it changed folk music forever. Prudence is Mia Farrow’s sister. She had come to the ashram, as we all had, with various problems, and Maharishi kept her locked away in meditation for days on end. He was caring for her as she unfolded all her angst. But John felt: “Where is Prudence?” so he wrote this song. With the guitar style, and John’s caring attitude to Prudence, it was very touching.