The Stories Behind Every John Lennon Song 1970-1980
by Paul Du Noyer
"I like to write about me, because I know about me." -John Lennon
Idealist, joker, showman, activist, poet and musician. John Lennon influenced a generation with his songs. This is the only book to explore the stories and thinking behind every song he recorded after The Beatles' breakup in 1970 - from the idealism and inner doubt of Imagine to the reaffirming love songs of Double Fantasy. Once free of The Beatles, John's style became more confessional than ever. "Imagine," "Mind Games," "Instant Karma": Lennon approach each song as another installment of his childhood, the bitter legacy of the Beatles, his love for Yoko, as well as his infidelities and his insecurity. There are also the classic anthems of social protest, like "Give Peace a Chance," "Power to the People," and "Working Class Hero." Even his choice of covers like "Standy by Me" and "Be-Bop-A-Lula," tells us much about his musical roots. Finally there are John's accounts of his domestic contentment and optimism for the future.
Illustrated throughout, this is essential reading for everyone who has been moved by the lyrics of one of the icons of pop culture.
Paul Du Noyer was born in Liverpool and educated at the London School of Economics. He is a rock journalist in London, and has written and/or edited for NME, Q, Mojo and The Story of Rock 'n' Roll.
The world knew him as a man of peace, but John Lennon was born in violence. And he died in violence, too. He came into the world on 9 October 1940, when Liverpool was being bombed to rubble by Hitler's air force. The Oxford Street Maternity Hospital stood on a hill above the city centre; below it were the docks that had made the seaport great, but were now earning it a terrible punishment. Liverpool was Pearl Harbour every night in those war years, and thousands perished in terrace slums or makeshift shelters. But Julia Lennon's war baby survived, and she took it home unharmed. All around them was the din of sirens and explosions.
The Lennons' house was small, in a working class street off Penny Lane; John's father, Freddie, was away at sea. Liverpool was where generations of new Americans took their leave of Europe, and its maritime links with New York stayed strong. Freddie Lennon was like many Liverpudlian men, who knew the bars of Brooklyn better than the palaces of London. "Cunyard Yanks" became a source of the US R&B records that made Liverpool a rock'n'roll town. Black American music found a ready market in this port, which had grown rich by selling the slaves of Africa to the masters of the New World. In a park near John's home stood a statue of Christopher Columbus, inscribed: "The discoverer of America was the maker of Liverpool."
John was of the usual local stock, not so much English as Welsh and Irish. The latter, especially, had dominated Liverpool since the mass migrations of the famine years. They gave the Lancashire town a hybrid accent all of its own, which John never lost. The Celtic stereotypes were always applied to Liverpool - violent and sentimental, lovers of music and words, witty and democratic. Far from breaking the mould, Lennon was that stereotype made flesh.
But his upbringing was traditionally British. His respectable Aunt Mimi looked after John from the age of five. With her husband George Smith she raised the boy in a neat, semi-detached house in Menlove Avenue, on Liverpool's outskirts. Post-war Britain was still subject to scarcity and rationing ("G is for orange," went John's poem Alphabet, "which we love to eat when we can get them"), but his circumstances were comfortable. He had a loving home, and was educated at Quarry Bank, one of the city's better state schools. His background was not as deprived as he sometimes implied.
Yet he could not forget that his natural parents had deserted him. Freddie left Julia, and Julia did not want her infant John. It was not until his teens that John would see his mother regularly, whereupon she was killed in a road accident. The tragedy seems to have compounded John's sense of isolation. As a child, he claims, he used to enter deep states of trance. He liked to paint and draw, and loved the surrealistic, "nonsense" styles of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Spike Milligan. But his quick mind made him a rebel rather than an academic achiever. To Liverpool suburbanites of Mimi's generation, the city accent meant a lack of breeding, while shaggy hair and scruffy clothes awoke pre-war memories of poverty. John made it his business to embrace all those things.
Rock'n'roll was his salvation, arriving like a cultural H-bomb in mid-Fifties Britain when John was 15. But his musical education began earlier. As Yoko wrote in the sleevenotes to Menlove Avenue, a compilation featuring some of John's Fifties favourites, "John's American rock roots. Elvis, Fats Domino and Phil Spector are evident in these tracks. But what I hear in John's voice are the other roots of the boy who grew up in Liverpool, listening to 'Greensleeves', BBC Radio and Tessie O'Shea." As well as the light classics and novelty songs of that pre-television era, John learned many of the folk songs still sung in Liverpool ('Maggie May' among them) and the hymns he was taught in Sunday school. Like his near neighbour Paul McCartney, Lennon's subconscious understanding of melody and harmony, if not of rhythm, was already being formed many years before his road-to-Damascus encounters with Bill Haley's 'Rock around the Clock' and Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel'.
By the dawn of the 1960s, when John's old skiffle band the Quarry Men had evolved into Liverpool's top beat group, the Beatles, he'd absorbed rock'n'roll into his bloodstream. The town's cognoscenti were by this time devouring the sounds of Brill Building pop or rare imports of Tamla Motown soul. When Lennon and McCartney made their first, hesitant efforts to write songs instead of copying American originals, their imaginations were a ferment of influences. Country and western was the city's most popular live music, which is why the Beatles' George Harrison became a guitar picker instead of a blueswailer like Surrey boy Eric Clapton. Then there was anything from Broadway shows to football chants, to family memories of long-demolished music halls.
More than all of these, there was Lennon and McCartney's innate creative talent. They inspired each other, at first as friends and then as rivals. Their band, the Beatles, was simultaneously toughened and sensitized by countless shows in Hamburg, the Cavern and elsewhere. And in London they met George Martin, who was surely the most intuitive producer they could ever have worked with. Finally on their way, the Beatles were world-conquering and unstoppable.
All this was not enough for Lennon. Millions adored 'Please Please Me', 'She Loves You' and 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', but John soon tired of any formula, however magical. Hearing the songs of Bob Dylan, he was stung into competing as a poet. Turning inwards to his own state of turmoil, he yearned to test his powers of self-expression. He began lacing the Beatles' repertoire with songs of dark portent, such as 'I'm a Loser' and 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away'. Attempting his most naked statement so far, he wrote a song that he simply called 'Help!' - but the conventions of Top 20 pop music ensured that nobody guessed he meant it.
As the Beatles gradually began to disappear behind moustaches and a sweet-scented, smoky veil, Lennon's lyrics moved towards more complex and original imagery. And yet paradoxically, there was greater self-revelation. 'Norwegian Wood', 'Tomorrow Never Knows', 'Strawberry Fields Forever' - while these songs were often suffused with gnomic mystery, the emotional presence of their creator remained unmistakable. He disclaimed the everyday, anecdotal songs that had become Paul's hallmark. "I like to write about me," he told Playboy magazine in 1980, "because I know me. I don't know anything about secretaries and postmen and meter maids."
His unthinking honesty almost killed him in 1966. A casual comment to a London newspaper - that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus - was shrugged off in Britain but summoned forth a torrent of death threats from America. "It put the fear of God into him," remembers Paul McCartney. "Boy, if there was one point in John's life when he was nervous. Try having the whole Bible Belt against you, it's not so funny." Coming through that, and having resolved the Beatles would not tour any more, John was ready for something else to happen in his life.
What happened was a woman named Yoko Ono. A Japanese artist, she arrived as if from nowhere and revolutionized John Lennon's life. "She came in through the bathroom window," he joked in 1969.