To celebrate what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday, here’s Uncut’s rundown of John Lennon’s 30 best songs, as chosen by an all-star panel (this article was originally published in 2007).
Iceland, October 9, 2007. Yoko Ono is in Reykjavik to unveil a tribute to John Lennon, the Imagine Peace Tower, on what would have been her husband’s 67th birthday. Located on nearby Videy Island, the tower consists of nine beams of light, rising up from a white wishing well that’s inscribed with the words “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages. Also attending the ceremony are Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Sean Lennon and his half-sister, Kyoko – and Ringo who, clearly feeling the bitter cold, suggests Yoko “have the next one in the Caribbean.” The ceremony climaxes with the crowd leaving the site to the strains of Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance”.
We meet Yoko the night before the ceremony, in the grand presidential suite of her hotel, where despite suffering from extreme nerves she chats enthusiastically about John’s songwriting, particularly his formidable collection of peace songs.
“In 1965, I put the light house down as part of the sales list in my book Grapefruit,” she begins, explaining the origins of the Imagine Peace Tower as part of a conceptual art show. “In 1966, I put some prisms in the Indica Art Gallery as part of the light house. I met John there, and in 1967, he invited me to his house, Kenwood, to talk about it. It was funny: the light house was conceptual and it took John to visualise it. Now it’s a reality.
“About three years ago, I had to think about what to do with all the wishes that people tied to the wish trees at my museum shows. We have more than a million wishes. I thought, ‘I need a tower.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh… that should be John’s light tower.’ The light stands for empowerment, and for energy and wisdom. The wishes will be buried around the tower in capsules.
“It’s called Imagine Peace Tower because the word ‘imagine’ was a very important word between us. It’s very special because of John’s song ‘Imagine’, as well. I was there when he wrote it. We were in Ascot, in our bedroom upstairs. Because we were both artists, we showed each other everything. If I scribbled something I’d show it to John. He would scribble something and show it to me. That’s how he wrote his songs, too. He wasn’t one of those writers who’d write from ten until 12 in the morning. He used to think of an idea when we were in a plane or something. He just writes it down. And at the time he writes it down, he’s already got the melody.
“John didn’t have a narrow talent. He had all the different emotions he was able to express in his songs. If you want to analyse it, his mum wasn’t around, and his dad wasn’t around, and he wanted someone to listen to him when he was a little boy. When I went to Liverpool, to his childhood home, I cried, because I saw the little bedroom where it all started.
“‘Imagine’ is my favourite of John’s peace songs. I think he thought just like I do now – world peace is an inevitable thing. What are we going to do? Kill ourselves? We’re not that dumb.
“I think ‘All You Need Is Love‘ was the beginning of John’s peace writing. You notice that even when he was a Beatle, he wanted to dabble in different things, especially anti-war songs. But The Beatles were so successful he felt he couldn’t.
“‘Give Peace A Chance‘ is basically John’s idea. I might have thrown some words in. It happened spontaneously in the hotel room [Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel, during the 1969 Bed-In]. I thought it was great. But, you know, it’s a political song. When John writes something extremely artistic like ‘Scared‘ [from Walls & Bridges], that’s a different story. I really admire it, it’s fantastic. But with ‘Give Peace A Chance’, it’s very important when you try to communicate on a very wide level you have to choose very simple but powerful words to get the message across.
“Thank you Uncut for your continuing support of John’s work and for playing your part in keeping his spirit alive. It is important that new generations continue to discover John’s music and the message behind it. IMAGINE PEACE!”
30 BEAUTIFUL BOY (DARLING BOY)
From the John Lennon & Yoko Ono album, Double Fantasy (November 1980)
Written for son Sean, then 5, and partially inspired by the writings of French psychologist Emile Coue, “Beautiful Boy” sees Lennon extolling the simple joy of fatherhood…
Liam Gallagher: My song “Little James” was inspired by “Beautiful Boy” and “Hey Jude”. More “Beautiful Boy”. People who’ve got any soul will realise that there’s a day when you go home and put your feet up and cuddle your kids. If anyone slags it off, they’ve either got no heart or they don’t know what the meaning of life is. They just go out and do-do-do-do-do the same thing every day. So fuck them. You can’t win with these people. They’re going, “You’re the wild man of rock, you’re this, you don’t fucking care,” and when you do show a bit of caring, they call you a poof… Originally, I wanted it to be acoustic. Have you heard Lennon’s demos? They’re dead crackly, and it’s just on a guitar, and that’s the way I’d like to write music. But if it’s gonna go on an Oasis album, it’s gotta be big, hasn’t it? So then I played it Noel, he went away with the band and he goes: “What do you think of this?” I went: “It’s fucking top.”
29 WHATEVER GETS YOU THRU THE NIGHT
From the John Lennon album, Walls And Bridges (October 1974); released as a single October 1974. Highest UK chart position: 36
Lennon’s first solo US No 1, with Elton John guesting on keyboards. Lennon later joined Elton on stage at Madison Square Gardens in November 1974, for what would be his last public performance…
Klaus Voormann: I got a call from John asking to come to New York to play on his new record. He was getting some friends together – Jim Keltner on drums, Jesse Ed Davis on guitar – so it sounded like a good idea. I think we did the whole of Walls & Bridges in two weeks.
We didn’t do any rehearsals. John would come in each day with a new song, play it to us and we’d go from there. We never got chord structure or anything like that, but he gave each of us a piece of A4 paper with the words on. We’d make our parts up on the spot and if he liked it, he’d give you a little grin.
He’d be wearing his denims, usually with his cap on, very low-key. He was completely on the level – you could tell he just wanted to be a member of a band again.
We’d start in the afternoon and work through the night, although by the end of the fortnight, we’d sometimes start about nine in the evening [laughs]. We would only break for food. John would say: “Let’s have Blintzes!” – he loved to have their pancakes with blueberries and cream – or we’d have Chinese – but then get back to work.
This was during his Lost Weekend and it was party time. There was booze, and people heading to the bathroom to sniff stuff. I never saw John drunk in the studio, or stoned, but there was a lot of cocaine around. John would say: “Fancy some nose?” So it was that and a little hot sake.
I remember the day we did “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” John was very excited about it. It’s a happy song, but there’s a sadness to it. You could tell he was missing Yoko, and he was cutting loose. We’ve got an expression for it in German – he was painting over his pain.
The recording is way too fast. Elton John wasn’t there – he came in and did his overdubs later – but Arthur Jenkins [percussionist] and Bobby Keys [saxophonist] were, and as the night wore on, each time it got faster and faster. It ended up almost twice the speed it started out! Bobby was playing all the wrong notes, too, which didn’t help! But John was pleased with it -it was all about capturing the feel and atmosphere in one take. Who cares about the speed and a few bum notes, y’know? John was right, of course – it was his first solo number one in America.
28 THIS BOY
B-side of The Beatles single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (November 1963). Highest UK chart position: 1
Inspired by Lennon’s love of doo-wop and home to the Beatles first great three-part harmony. An instrumental version appeared on the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack…
Ian Hart, actor Backbeat/The Hours And The Times: This song of longing and lost love breaks my heart when I try to sing it. It’s a perfect short love song, but as always with John’s songs, there’s something more to it; the plaintive quality of Lennon’s voice in the chorus is enough to make you cry. I’ve always loved “This Boy” and have various memories of it. They sang it on Morecambe & Wise, and the Ed Sullivan show in the States, neither of which I probably saw until I started doing research for The Hours And The Times.
But it’s the use of George Martin’s instrumental version in A Hard Day’s Night that provokes the greatest response in me. Ringo, egged on by Paul’s granddad, goes on his lonely journey, feeling like an outcast. It’s only a short scene, but the song perfectly matches the rejection and longing Ringo’s character feels in the movie. I owe my career in a way to John, and a lot more besides. I would never have worked with Ken Loach or Neil Jordan, and I wouldn’t have many of the friends I have. This boy wants you back again: cheesy but true.
Taken from the album, John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (December 1970); released as a single, December 1970. Highest US chart position: 43
Inspired by primal-scream therapy, Lennon confronts his abandonment issues head on, delivering a raw, revelatory glimpse inside his psyche…
Lee Ranaldo, Sonic Youth: Like Dylan, Lennon’s someone who has done so much that your favourite song could change from day to day, depending on where you’re at. “Mother” came out of this Janov Scream Therapy, and he was the kind of person who could take things that were going on in his personal life and channel them into his musical life. That was impressive to me. It came out in early Beatles songs – like “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – he was starting to channel things into his songs, and those early solo records, like the vituperative condemnation of Paul in “How Do You Sleep”, he was channelling this stuff directly into his music in this incredible way.
I always loved “Mother” – it’s really bold and audacious in the way it ends with the screaming lines of lyrics. It’s so emotionally appropriate and so true to who he was and where he was. It never fails to move me.
26 I’M SO TIRED
Taken from The Beatles album, The Beatles (November 1968)
Composed at the Maharishi’s retreat, and recorded during an all night session at Abbey Road, Lennon’s jaded ode speaks volumes for his boredom at being a Beatle.
Jarvis Cocker: John was my favourite Beatle. When I was a kid I thought I’d like to be like him, ’cause he had glasses. I thought that proves that you can be a pop star and wear glasses. “I’m So Tired”, I’ll have that. Lyrically I like the way he calls Sir Walter Raleigh such a stupid get, and the way he manages to get that mundanity into something quite intense. It made me realise that you could actually write songs like that. He’s just listing things that have pissed him off and he can’t sleep and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, ’cause he’s fallen in love. Getting all the little detail into it was an inspiration for me. Also, that’s one of the ones with the easiest chords. When I bought my Beatles’ Complete Guitar Book I got discouraged ’cause they always seemed to have all these sustained 9ths and I couldn’t play them. Then I realised “I’m So Tired” is quite simple and I managed to master that one.
From the album, John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (December 1970)
Bitter attack on idolatry, culminating in a denunciation of The Fabs themselves. “And so, dear friends, you just have to carry on…” is all the optimism Lennon can muster, consigning Sixties’ idealism to the dustbin…
John Leckie, engineer: I can’t say I was in awe of Lennon, because at that time, The Beatles weren’t that hip. I’d done George’s album [All Things Must Pass], which had so many different musicians that it became a challenge, but it was straightforward with John and Yoko. There were only three people in there and very focused. Yoko was there all the time, offering comments and guidance, and [co-producer] Phil Spector. Spector certainly wasn’t the tyrant in the studio. He was sitting back, letting John and Yoko do their thing. I’m not sure he understood it, though. I remember it being a lot of fun. It was Ringo, John and Klaus [Voorman] – mates. I went back into Abbey Road recently and got the old 8-track tapes out. That was fantastic in itself. You forget how many takes and experimentation went into that album. It was very conscientiously done, almost matter-of-fact. There’s about three days’ worth of recordings of “Mother”. He tried “God” out on electric guitar first, found it wasn’t working and tried it on piano. John would play a song through and through until he came up with the magic take. We’d start recording around six in the evening and often go on until eight in the morning.
24 #9 DREAM
From the John Lennon album, Walls And Bridges (October 1974); released as a single, January 1975. Highest UK chart position: 23
Inspired by Lennon’s fascination with the number 9, this piece of baroque pop featured backing vocals from May Pang, Lennon and Yoko’s PA who became his lover…
May Pang: John had just produced Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album, and he’d created a beautiful string arrangement for the opening track, “Many Rivers To Cross”. John liked it so much he wanted to use it himself. He literally dreamed the rest of the song, including the words “Ah, bowakawa pousse pousse.” Like so many of his lyrics, people searched for the hidden meaning, but there was none. [In the dream], two women were calling his name, which he figured were me and Yoko. It was his idea to have me sing it. He had to turn the studio lights down because I was shy doing those sultry “John”s. When Yoko put together a video for the song in 2005, she included footage of her lip-syncing to my vocal, which is why some people may be confused. John wrote on his Martin acoustic, whenever inspiration struck, which was often. He’d play me his songs and tell me what he envisioned them to be. In the case of “#9 Dream,” he wrote the orchestral arrangements and produced the track in such a way to lull the listener into his dream. He always had his pen and paper ready to jot something down, even by his bed. One of my expressions at the time was “off the wall,” which appeared in “Steel And Glass.” I introduced him to beef jerky, which became the title of another song. He often asked what I thought about a lick or some words, but when he played “Surprise Surprise” [the song Lennon wrote for May], I teared up and was speechless. He joked to me, “It’s that bad, huh?”
23 GIMME SOME TRUTH
From the John Lennon album, Imagine (October 1971)
A rip-roaring dig at “neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians”, “paranoic prima-donnas” and anyone else who didn’t dig the Ono-Lennon’s Bed-Ins…
Tony James, Generation X/Carbon Silicon: I always loved The Beatles, but I became a real Lennon fan when I first heard Imagine. I used to babysit for Neil Aspinall, who was The Beatles’ personal assistant. I was saving up for gigs and records by babysitting. He said, “I must play you this album John’s just made.”
Here was someone talking about something more than just love songs. Years later, Billy [Idol] and I used to listen to “Gimme Some Truth”. What made it stand out was the lyrical content. We loved the word play – “No short-haired, yellow-bellied son of Tricky Dicky’s gonna Mother Hubbard soft-soap me…”‘ It was brilliant the way the words alliterated, and this cry of passion… We covered it in Generation X. When I last saw Primal Scream, they did “Gimme Some Truth” and they did the Generation X version. When I saw Bobby after the show, he came rushing up and said, “Did you hear ‘Gimme Some Truth’? It’s the Generation X version!”
22 JEALOUS GUY
From the John Lennon album, Imagine (November 1971)
One of Lennon’s most covered songs, this was a public apology to Yoko over his behaviour following The Beatles split, when his heavy drinking put pressure on their relationship…
Roger Daltrey: My favourite? It’s “Jealous Guy”. I don’t have to tell you why. But I was listening to his voice the other day, his music was on a radio play – his version of “Stand By Me”. Fucking great voice, he had: he was lovely, but again, he had that side of him which could be quite cutting and come across quite nasty. But he was straight up and down – what you saw was what you got. I can’t imagine what their life must have been like. It must have a nightmare. I can see why people go completely mad in this business. How they dealt with it – they couldn’t go out. I suppose it makes you have to hang on to who you are: every day, you have to ask yourself, “Who the fuck am I?” We had a few years of screaming girls, but that was it.
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.
18 HOW DO YOU SLEEP?
From the album, Imagine (October 1971)
A scorching evisceration of Paul McCartney (“The only thing you done was yesterday/ And since you’ve gone you’re just another day”) supported by some stinging slide-guitar from George Harrison…
Ian Hunter, Mott The Hoople: He’s pissed off. He’s always good at that. He could be bad-tempered at times, and that worked with his vocal, with the nostrils flaring. With “How Do You Sleep”, he had a cause – real or imaginary – and it adds to the performance. The lyric was maybe uncalled for, but he and Paul were having a do at the time. It pissed me off that people picked sides between them after The Beatles split. It’s amazing those two wound up in a band. It was only a matter of time before they got fed up, because they weren’t the same. Paul was always middle, John was very left. It’s a great song. Simple, which was John’s strength. It has that great “Lennon sound”. He wasn’t keen on his voice, he double-tracked it and covered it with all kinds of shit, and that became very powerful. He wasn’t willing to suffer fools either, and sometimes treated people not too well. A lot of guys were like that then. And John would let ’em have it. Which is an honesty you don’t often see.
17 THE BALLAD OF JOHN AND YOKO
The Beatles single (May 1969). Highest UK chart position: 1
“Christ, you know it ain’t easy,” sang Lennon, as he recounted life with Yoko, lived in the glare of the media spotlight…
Marianne Faithfull: I got to know Yoko through her exhibition at the Indica Gallery [in November 1966], through John Dunbar, the founding father of the British arts scene. I understood the attraction between John and Yoko. I could never see John happy being in Weybridge, in a normal bourgeois life. He was keen on The Beatles for a long time, maybe too keen in a way. He submerged himself too much, to the point where they were like one person. So John went in an extreme other direction. And Yoko was his way out. Nobody can imagine what it was like to be a Beatle. Then there’s all that incredible baggage they each had. I was fascinated with John and Yoko’s bravery – living their life so publicly. But they managed very well. “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” is a brilliant summary of their life so far, as well as being a great tune. It all rushes by, which is just how their life must have seemed then. I think John did manage to shake off The Beatles eventually, particularly with the Plastic Ono Band record. It’s a sparse record, the opposite of what the Beatles were doing. Yoko and I still keep in touch. I was invited to her tower of light ceremony [the Imagine Peace Tower in October 2007] in Reykjavik, which was very moving. It was fascinating because Yoko had a letter from John in which he said he’s seen the day when she would be able to do it. I love that.
16 WORKING CLASS HERO
From the album, John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (December 1970)
Brutal dissection of class, fame and religion furiously delivered by Lennon, armed only with an acoustic guitar…
John Lydon: The Beatles were poisoned for me when I was young because my mum and dad played them all the time, so it would drill into my head like rusty nails. You know what I mean? “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah…” It’s hard to get that stuff out of your head. I remember hearing “Working Class Hero” while I was in a pub with Malcolm McLaren, about 1975, when we were just starting the Pistols. He took us across the road for one drink each – ah, so kind that man! – and “Working Class Hero” was on the jukebox. It stuck in my mind, because it was such a relevant and important record. I’d heard it beforehand, but then it didn’t mean much. This time I related to it. The anger and the bitterness seemed utterly genuine, the words came out with such passion and violence. That was part of the building block for me, of songwriting in the Pistols. That you could shift into these larger aspects – class hatred, anger, resentment – and get it right.
15 HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER)
John & Yoko/the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir single (November 1972). Highest chart position: 2
“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” inverts the usual pop bromide of the Christmas single, posing the question: “And what have you done?”..
Yoko Ono: There’s a funny story about “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. We were writing it in a New York hotel over breakfast, and we’d just completed it. Then a call came from George [Harrison], who wanted him to perform in the Bangladesh concert and John said no. I think George wanted John to perform on his own, not with me, but John could not say that to me. He didn’t want to hurt me. He said: “At drop of a hat, you want to sing.” I said: “I’d like to sing.” John got so angry he didn’t know what to do. He can’t tell me about it. I said: “How dare you say no to a charity concert,” not knowing the situation. By the time he and I made up, we’d forgotten about the song. And then it was getting very near to Christmas – “Oh, that song, we have to put it out because it’s so important.” Allen Klein [manager] said: “It’s too late.” John was adamant and, of course, it did make it. When we made the song, John was saying, “This is going to replace ‘White Christmas’.” But it just disappeared. Now it’s different. So I was thinking: John, do you see what’s happening? You were right. This one really says it. I think that people of our generation like this more [than other Christmas perennials] – it’s something to hang on to.
14 A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
The Beatles single (July 1964). Highest UK chart position: 1
2 minutes 32 seconds of pure, adrenalised pop, introduced by the most famous opening chord in pop history…
Roger McGuinn, The Byrds: When we got The Byrds together, we wanted to be a Mersey-type band. When we went to see the Hard Day’s Night movie, it was a life-changing event. We took notes on what they were wearing and tried to emulate them as closely as we could. Once we’d met The Beatles, I realised we’d superimposed certain things on to them. We thought they were coming more from the bohemian side, but they were still very hip. We had a lot in common. We all did LSD, pot and amphetamines. I thought Lennon was an incredible songwriter. On “A Hard Day’s Night”, the arpeggio fade was really interesting, as well as that big opening chord. That song is a great indicator of what they were up to at that stage. Back then, hanging out with other bands was like being in a secret brotherhood. I remember George sending a tape of “If I Needed Someone” to tell me he got the idea from “The Bells Of Rhymney”. I think Lennon got the idea for wearing the granny glasses from me. I saw him in London and he said “What’s with the shades?” I was wearing those little rectangular ones. I got the idea from John Sebastian. I saw him in the Village one night wearing them. He told me to try them on: “Look up at the street lights and move your head around. It’s really groovy, man!”
13 POWER TO THE PEOPLE
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band single (March 1971). Highest UK chart position: 7
Ebullient sequel to “Revolution” sparked by an interview with Red Mole magazine in 1971. The rousing chorus was specifically designed to be sung for street demonstrations…
John Sinclair, ex-manager MC5: The first I knew of John was when he came down to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play a concert to get me out of prison [the Free John Now Rally on December 10, 1971]. That was some first impression. Then my wife and I went to New York to say thank you. We sat around, smoked joints and shot the shit. He was a sweet guy, regular and down to earth. He was an intellectual. He wrote strange and twisted books and made movies. And John was a great composer. What more could you ask for? He saved my life. I loved the guy. I admired his solo work. He had that jacket from The Beatles, which on the one hand made him fabulously wealthy but at the same time shrunk his mental world. I loved “Power To The People”. This was something he believed in, and there was this whole concept of making records that expressed how he felt and he could get that over to millions of people. The impressive thing was that he was a rich guy trying to reach out to the other side and be one of the people. He was trying to figure out a way to be honest with himself. And that’s what an artist does.
Taken from the John Lennon album, Imagine (October 1971); released as a single October 1975. Highest UK chart position: 7
Written in one morning, with a lyric inspired by Yoko’s 1964 book Grapefruit, “Imagine” espoused a utopian dream after the gritty realism of Plastic Ono Band…
Peter Tork, The Monkees: Unlike McCartney, who retreated into domestic treacle, Lennon came at me, talking about – however naively – the world situation. He wanted to work on issues of world peace and international interaction. In other words, instead of writing the “Fuck you, bitch” songs he might have written to be nasty, he started writing songs about “imagine” – just imagine, and war is over if you want it, the Bed-Ins, everything. He was interested in the political aspects of his behaviour and for me as an audience, that was a stride forward, not a retreat.
Mick Jagger: My favourite Lennon song? “Imagine”, I should think. Because it’s the most catchy. I mean, there are many others, obviously, but that’s one that I like.
Neil Young: I did “Imagine” for a benefit show because I love that song. It’s apparently religious but not in the way you think – because that’s not always a good thing. You could say it’s holy, but not Christian, and it tells the right story. A story that was right for those circumstances.
11 ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
From The Beatles album, Let It Be (May 1970)
“One of the best lyrics I’ve ever written” according to Lennon. Composed on a late night songwriting roll, with added orchestra and celestial choir courtesy of producer Phil Spector…
Brian Wilson: My favourite Lennon song is “Across The Universe”. It had a great guitar sound. It flipped me out when I first heard it. And I thought his voice was especially good. He must have either taken some drugs or really concentrated hard, because he got a very special vocal sound on that one. The other thing was the lyrics. They were so heavenly [sings the chorus]. And they were most likely drug-inspired. I thought they were really great. People say that song reminds them of The Beach Boys, but not to me. It’s unique.
10 I AM THE WALRUS
From The Beatles EP, “Magical Mystery Tour” (December 1967); released as the B-side to “Hello Goodbye”, November 1967. Highest UK chart position: 1
Lennon’s most out-there composition, written after he learned pupils at his old school were studying his lyrics. “Let the fuckers work that one out,” he apparently said…
Neil Innes, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band/The Rutles: At the end of Magical Mystery Tour, we had this party where the Bonzos got up and did their bit. John dressed as a biker, with a leather jacket and brylcreamed hair. When Larry [“Legs” Smith] came out wearing false breasts, John was shouting out “C’mon Larry, we’ve all seen them already!” We ended up having a jam with The Beach Boys, who were also there, doing “Oh Carol” for 20 minutes.
“I Am The Walrus” is code for what The Beatles understood about one another, the rest was Lear-like fun. You have to admire that grinding, angry melody. Most people would have put that anger into some kind of shouting, but this is mean and driving. I didn’t want to play John in The Rutles. It was daunting because he was sharp-tongued, quick and very funny. We forget the Bed-In was a satire of the advertising world. He wanted to make an advert for something as abstract as love. Everyone thought he was mad, but he wasn’t. He was just another bloody art student! Somebody apparently asked John what he thought of the Rutles, and he started singing “Cheese & Onions”. “Questionnaire” was a tribute to John. That song was the only reason I went ahead with [Rutles’ 1996 follow-up] Archaeology. I’d been to see George about doing a second Rutles album and his dark humour immediately came to the fore: “More Rutles? Which one of you is going to get shot?” But he said we should go ahead and do it, because it was all part of the soup.
9 COLD TURKEY
Plastic Ono Band single (October 1969). Highest UK chart position: 14
“Thirty-six hours/rolling in pain”- Lennon’s fierce hymn to kicking heroin is a chilling musical counterpart to the Primal Scream Therapy he and Yoko undertook with psychologist Arthur Janov…
Bob Gruen, photographer: When we first met, in ’72, he was making Some Time In New York City. They were all new songs, kinda powerful things like “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”. He was very cool, grounded and very warm to his friends. A few months later, in the summer, he started rehearsing for the One To One concert at Madison Square Garden [August 1972]. By this time, we were getting to know each other. But when you heard that voice come through, it put a chill up your spine. Suddenly it wasn’t my New York buddy any more, it was a Beatle. Oh my God, it’s that John Lennon! But we’d been so comfortable and natural together, that suddenly hearing The Beatles’ songs made you see him in a different way. “Cold Turkey” was extremely powerful and, like many of his songs, very personal. And his contemporaries understood the feeling in the lyrics and what “Cold Turkey” is all about. It expresses that brilliantly. When they did it live at Madison Square Garden, it’s my favourite version. It was absolutely chilling to see him start screaming and mimicking the suffering you go through when you go through drug withdrawal. You just want and want and want and there’s no way to satisfy that. Everything hurts and you’d promise anybody anything to take yourself out of this hell.
B-side to The Beatles single, “Hey Jude” (August 1968). Highest UK chart position: 1
Inspired, perhaps, by the student riots in Paris during May 1968, this loud, fuzz-heavy track featured Stones’ collaborator Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. A more subdued version appeared on The Beatles album…
Tommy Smothers, co-host of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: I first met John in 1968. I was invited to the launch for The White Album. Then they picked our show to premier “Hey Jude”. Later, I played on “Give Peace A Chance”. The funniest thing about recording it was that we were sitting playing and John stops, turns to me and says: “Hey Tom, I don’t like what you’re playing. Just do exactly what I’m doing. That’s the sound I want.” I think I was doing D or G and putting a passing chord in here and there. Harry Nilsson was a buddy of mine and he’d started hanging out with John. Because of the television show, I had to be straight, but Harry and John were doing nose-blow and cognac. Around 1970, my brother Dick and I were making the show in LA and Harry and John came and ripped into us, throwing stuff and yelling things. They thought they were helping me! The next day, they sent me flowers. John never did things halfway. I loved “Revolution”. Musically, it was cool, but I loved the wordplay: “solution… evolution… contribution… constitution”. But if John was around today and could see what’s happening, he might have wished he’d changed those lines: “Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright?” It was appropriate at the time because a lot of Americans got out there and protested. “Revolution” summed up that era.
7 GIVE PEACE A CHANCE
Plastic Ono Band single (June 1969). Highest UK chart position: 2
Recorded during the Montreal Bed-In, the climactic shout-out to “Timmy Leary, Tommy Cooper, Allen Ginsberg, Hare Krishna” added a typically dry touch of humour to this call for world peace.
Julian Cope: As someone who loathes the Beatles, but realises that it’s me who’s out of step, I love Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band period, when he was reinventing himself as an American counter-cultural icon. Liverpool shares a lot with Detroit, and around this time Lennon was at his most Detroit-informed. Look at his song titles – “Come Together” was borrowed from the MC5, as was “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. He wanted to do the Bed-In in Detroit but they wouldn’t let him so he had to do it on the other side of the Windsor Bridge, in Toronto. He’s often mocked around this period – all that Che Guevara posturing – but I think the only way you can get anywhere, politically, is by making ludicrous demands that are impossible to achieve. When he sings “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”, “Give Peace A Chance” or “Power To The People” an entire generation was having to think – even if only momentarily – of a new world paradigm, be it feminism, revolutionary socialism, or peace. On top of that, he’s taking a woman – not just any woman, but a Jap, the enemy! – and declaring her his muse. She’s not even a cute Japanese woman, she’s older, a nutcase, a performance artist. That, to me, gives him more kudos in Heaven or Hell or Valhalla or wherever he’s gone than anything else he did.
6 IN MY LIFE
From The Beatles album, Rubber Soul (December 1965)
Nostalgic, even in 1965, for a world he’d already left far behind, “In My Life” took on the form of a personal epitaph following Lennon’s death…
Alex Turner, Arctic Monkeys: I’ve always loved that tune. I think it might be my mum and dad’s favourite Beatles tune too, it’s got that harmonium solo on it, with George Martin playing. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is probably our favourite Beatles tune as a band. Do I prefer Lennon to McCartney? Yeah, that goes without saying. I was watching that Gimme Some Truth film the other day, when he’s playing that tune that’s supposed to be about McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” He plays it on the piano to George Harrison and its like he’s *growling*. It’s mad to look at that and think that’s where it went. And they’re talking about the Beatles around the table, taking the piss out of the whole thing, saying: “So have you seen any of The Beatles…?” “From one Beatle to another…” Probably to them it did get to be a joke. I bet they did always take the piss out of it. It’s like that with us, we already take the piss out of ourselves.
5 YOU’VE GOT TO HIDE YOUR LOVE AWAY
From The Beatles album, Help! (August 1965)
Vulnerable, acoustic ballad – perhaps inspired by Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You [She Acts Like We Have Never Met]” – written and recorded in just two hours.
Ray Davies: When he got killed, I was doing the Palladium in New York a week or so later. I wanted to play this. I copped out because I couldn’t rehearse it with The Kinks, and in those days I had to do everything with them. Me and Dave should’ve just got up and done it on acoustic guitars. John could be a cruel man. He was very hurtful to me once, early on. But this is my favourite song by him because it shows the vulnerability he felt he had to press down, back then; the softness he had to hide.
4 ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
The Beatles single (July 1967). Highest UK chart position: 1
The defining statement for a generation, famously beamed into homes around the globe through a live TV broadcast featuring many famous friends – including the Stones…
Billy Bragg: For Lennon, it’s pretty un-cynical. He often leavened his political songs with a bit of cynicism, as was his way. But here he’s talking about the one thing that typified his generation. Songs had previously only addressed love in purely relationship terms, and “All You Need Is Love” suddenly takes on the status of a global movement. As with the greatest political songs, like “The Times They Are A Changing” or “Blowin’ In The Wind”, it doesn’t offer a solution, so you can bring your own perspective to it. The political songs that endure are the most accessible to people, and this is incredibly accessible, isn’t it? “There’s no one you can save that can’t be saved”. That’s a pretty powerful line to put in a love song. That song showed me that the most commercial band of the Sixties were able to reflect what was happening in the world, that pop music wasn’t about escapism. After Sgt Pepper had blown everybody’s mind, to come back in the Summer Of Love with that song and for it to be broadcast all around the world as the message from a generation – “All you need is love” – Lennon created the high water mark of the Sixties. What happens next is Epstein dies within a month and The Beatles just lose their innocence, that ability to turn everything they touch into gold. Magical Mystery Tour gets a right spanking, although the songs are great. And then in 1968, Martin Luther King is killed, Bobby Kennedy is killed. The White Album is a clear message that something’s not right now. Where do you go “After All You Need Is Love”?
3 INSTANT KARMA
John Lennon single (February 1970). Highest UK chart position: 5
Written, recorded and released in 10 days, “Karma” illustrated the volcanic rush of idea’s experienced by the newly-free Beatle. “We wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch, and we’re putting it out for dinner!” he announced…
Chris Frantz, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club: I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, driving across the Highland Park Bridge in Pittsburgh and this fantastic heavy drum sound came on the radio. I turned it up and thought, wow, this is cool and was surprised to hear Lennon’s voice. I was a big fan of The Beatles, but I guess by that time they’d broken up and I was more interested in experimental stuff. I certainly wasn’t looking to Beatles solo projects as a source of inspiration, but that track caught my attention. I’m a sucker for the production, the shuffle beat of the drums, with plenty of gated reverb on the mikes, and that echo on the vocal. The message of the lyric – emphasizing a personal spiritual odyssey – is wonderful, but the appeal is more about the production, which I suppose was all Phil Spector’s work. The song is so highly rhythmic and heavy.
2 YER BLUES
From The Beatles album, The Beatles (November, 1968)
Taut, Dylan-referencing slice of dues-payin’, sex’n’death blues – a fuck-you to the more purist critics.
Frank Black, Pixies: Someone in the British music press had commented that it was too bad The Beatles would never be able to tackle the blues. And John Lennon was so incensed that he set about proving them wrong. “Yer Blues” has a lot of rhythm and blues moves, almost showbiz style. The tempo changes and even some of the guitar motifs are like that. There’s one descending guitar line that’s almost humorous, but it has a beautiful grit to it. But then to balance it out, the main guitar riff is just scary. Call me a stupid white guy, but that guitar line is as scary and provocative as anything you’re going to hear on a Howlin’ Wolf record. It’s totally legitimate. There’s nothing white about it at all. It has so much attitude and confidence. It’s almost like he’s saying “Yeah, I know I’m really bad. Get the fuck out of my way.” That combination of strength and swagger is what makes it so powerful, elevating it to the next level. The lyric is just beautiful, contemporary and modern. I mean, he references Bob Dylan in it. That line [sings] “If I ain’t dead already / Ooh girl you know the reason why” is just so fucking bad. It’s sexual, but references death at the same time. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Some years later, Ringo had a hit with a song that went “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues” [“It Don’t Come Easy”] and “Yer Blues” is a perfect example of The Beatles doing that. When they played The Star Club in Hamburg all those years before, four or five sets a night on speed and trying to keep drunk servicemen happy, that’s where they really paid their dues. Some of those Star Club recordings came out here in the US as a double-live album and was one of the first records I had as a kid. You can hear it all in there. They were tough mutherfuckers.
1 STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER
The Beatles single (February 1967). Highest UK chart position: 2
Written while on location in Spain filming Richard Lester’s How I Won The War, this stylised portrait of Lennon’s youth remains British pop’s most timeless moment…
Paul Weller: Lennon’s a singer I admire not so much for the technical side but for the honesty and power. I was listening to “Don’t Stand Me Down” and he was just letting go on that track. I love it. And songs like “Twist And Shout”, “Money”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Bad Boy” really put him up there as one of the great rock’n’ roll bawlers. They sound like he was gargling with razor blades before recording ’em. The flipside, of course, is songs like “Jealous Guy” and “Beautiful Boy” which show the more sensitive, soulful side to his voice. He’s been a massive influence on me right across the board… as a writer, lyricist and singer.
There are so many of Lennon’s tracks that I think are absolutely amazing. I’m currently into some of the less obvious ones like “Remember Love” [B-side of “Give Peace A Chance”]. But when it comes down to it, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is my all time favourite. I can still remember when I first heard it on the radio; I was only nine at the time. I didn’t know anything about drugs or psychedelia, I just knew it was a great, great tune. I was already well into pop music. My mum was quite young and she was still buying records – so I’d already absorbed the Beatles and The Kinks, but that song just blew me away, it took me to a different place. I only had four teachers at school – John, Paul, George and Ringo – but you could say my education really started with “Strawberry Fields”. I got really into them after that.
I remember being desperate to watch Magical Mystery Tour when it was first on TV – Boxing Day 1967. My mum and dad wanted to watch some crappy film on ITV, so I’d switch the TV over during the ad breaks to see it! That was the extent of my authority over the TV back then! From that point on I was obsessed. We had relations in Chester, and one time I went on a pilgrimage over to Liverpool with my dad. We went to Menlove Avenue, and Paul’s house in Allerton, but we never made it to Strawberry Fields itself, sadly.
Technically, the production on “Strawberry Fields” is phenomenal. There was a documentary on a few months ago where bands tried to recreate the tracks played on Sgt Pepper using the original gear with engineer Geoff Emerick, and it showed how difficult it must have been to make. There was no Pro Tools or any of that business – if you got it wrong you had to start again, it was as simple as that.
For me, it’s the first psychedelic record. People talk about “See My Friends” by The Kinks, but “Strawberry Fields” is far more experimental. George Martin did a brilliant job editing together the two different sections; the key change in the middle is amazing. I still always return to it. It’s one of those tracks where you still hear something new every time you hear it, it’s got so many textures. For me it’s still unsurpassed.
INTERVIEWS BY MICHAEL BONNER, CAROL CLERK, STEPHEN DALTON, NICK HASTED, ROB HUGHES, JOHN LEWIS, ALASTAIR McKAY, PAUL MOODY, TOM PINNOCK AND JOHN ROBINSON