Looking At Lennon’s Best

Originally posted December 11, 2007

Pondering John Lennon’s life and career – a result of noting the anniversary of his death last Saturday – I began to wonder which of his songs might be categorized as his best work. It’s a question I’ve dabbled with at various times over the years – I think most music fans do the same with any group or performer they like – but I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the question: Which John Lennon composition stands above all others?

The first problem one encounters is that for much of his career, anything Lennon wrote – and anything Paul McCartney wrote, too – was credited to the songwriting partnership as a Lennon-McCartney composition. One can generally assess which Beatle wrote a specific song by the identity of the lead singer. But things can get complex, as many of their songs – particularly in the early days – were in fact team projects. One bit of help there, though, is that the early songs are not as strong as the later ones; knowing whether Lennon or McCartney was the chief author of, say, “This Boy” or “I Wanna Be Your Man” isn’t truly crucial.

Another help for me as I waded through the idea this morning, was Beatlesongs, a 1989 book by William J. Dowlding that examines in depth every song recorded and released by the Beatles. One of the things examined – using as sources newspapers, magazines and other books as well as a wide variety of interviews on record – is the authorship of the Beatles’ songs. Half credits are granted for those songs that were truly shared, and partial credits are frequently granted through the Sgt. Pepper era; from then on, rarely are songs credited to more than one of the Beatles. So with that as a help, I began to look at the songs that were assessed as being John Lennon’s.

So what are the greatest John Lennon songs? As I once wrote about Bob Dylan, John Lennon could have given a four-hour concert and still had enough great songs/records left to put together a greatest hits package that would top the charts.

Here are some I thought of that didn’t make the Lennon Top Ten: From the Beatles era, “Help!” might be the best, followed by “No Reply,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Girl” (a Rubber Soul track), “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is a great recording, one that I love, but it’s not a great song.

There are fewer from Lennon’s solo work, partly because he wasn’t as prolific, and partly because – especially during the Lost Weekend years – his output wasn’t nearly as good as it had been. Songs from that era that just missed the Top Ten were “#9 Dream,” which is probably my favorite, “Working Class Hero,” and “Nobody Told Me.” Lennon’s performance on “God,” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is some of the best singing of his life, but it’s not a great song, and, similarly, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a great record, again one I love, but the song itself isn’t great.

There are ten Lennon songs that I think are better than those thirteen (although those thirteen would make a pretty good album!). In no particular order except for the song I judge to be Lennon’s best, the Lennon Top Ten are:

“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – Written for the movie and album Help!, this pensive confessional showed a new approach for Lennon’s songwriting, one that he openly acknowledged was influenced by Bob Dylan. According to Dowlding’s book, the line “Feeling two foot small” was originally supposed to be “two foot tall,” but Lennon mis-sang it during a rehearsal and decided to keep the error as the lyric.

“Norwegian Wood” – More likely remembered for the first use of a sitar on a popular song, “Norwegian Wood,” from Rubber Soul, has one of the more spare lyrics in Lennon’s oeuvre. The spareness works well, as Lennon masks in cryptic fashion his tale of an affair. I’ve always wondered if the narrator burns the place down at the end of the song: “So I lit a fire. Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

“A Day In The Life” – Dowlding credits forty percent of this song, which closes the Sgt. Pepper album, to McCartney, and it’s true that McCartney supplied the middle portion of the epic: “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head . . .” But the general tone of the song, its theme and its overall carriage, are all Lennon’s. Dreary with fatalism and pessimism, the song is a downer, but a well-written downer.

“Revolution” – Three Lennon compositions share this title: The rocking single that ended up collected on the Hey Jude album, the slower and slightly funky “Revolution 1” that was on The Beatles (commonly called The White Album), and “Revolution 9,” the tape-loop and noise experiment that was the next to last track on The Beatles. That last is not under consideration. The first two are essentially the same song, except Lennon sings “count me out . . . in” on the slower album version, showing more ambivalence toward any impending revolution than he did on the faster single, with its emphatic “count me out!” As to the recordings, I prefer the single version, but it’s a great song whether it boogies or ambles.

“Julia” – Lennon’s memorial to his late mother is one of the most lovely songs in rock history, never mind just in Lennon’s catalog. Dowlding credits Lennon with seventy-five percent of the song, with twenty percent to Yoko Ono and five percent to Kahlil Gibran. The line “Oceanchild calls me” refers to Ono, as in Japanese, Yoko means “oceanchild.” The phrase “Julia, seashell eyes” came from Gibran’s writings.

“Across the Universe” – Recorded in 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles, “Across the Universe” was set to be released as a single in March 1968, but McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” was released instead. A version of the song appeared on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969 (available, in the U.S. at least, on the Rarities album released in 1980; I don’t know off the top of my head about CD releases of that version). The song provides me with one of the more tolerable earworms, as the phrase “Nothing’s gonna change my world” sometimes cycles around and around in my head.

“Watching the Wheels” – This is one of only two entries in the Lennon Top Ten from his solo work after the dissolution of the Beatles, and the only entry from the last years of his life. I guess what I admire about the song is the sense of clarity and of purpose one finds in the lyric: I’ve been there, I’ve done enough of that, and I’m taking some time to figure out who I am.

“Come Together” – I dithered on this one for a while, wondering if it’s the record I like more than the song. The record is a great one, but so, too, is the song, with its sly wordplay. And it rocks!

“Imagine” – Lennon, as I see him, was a man of many facets, some of them not always noble. (In that, he was no different than you or I, except that his tremendous fame made public those less-than-noble aspects of his life and personality.) His most admirable persona, I think, was that of the utopian dreamer, an identity that carried with it a hint of mysticism. “Imagine” was Lennon’s best and most clear expression of that utopian mysticism.

“In My Life” – Dowlding notes in his book that Lennon and McCartney disputed the creation of this song, with Lennon noting that McCartney helped with the melody and McCartney claiming he wrote the music alone. The music is important, certainly, but it’s the lyrics that make “In My Life” a great song, and there’s no dispute that those are Lennon’s. I’ve long admired the clarity and tenderness with which Lennon looks back, as well as the sense of purpose he finds in balancing the lure of memory with the treasure of the present. To my mind, this is not only Lennon’s greatest song – certainly his greatest lyric – but one of the great songs in the history of rock.

All Music Guide lists more than two hundred and sixty CDs that include a version of “In My Life.” Subtract twenty to account for the Beatles’ version of the song, and you still have an astounding number of cover versions. I’ve not heard them all, of course, but I doubt if many of them could be as moving and affectionate as the version George Martin produced in 1998. It was the closing track and the title track of his last album before retiring, an album made up of cover versions of twelve Beatles songs. (Some of the pairings and performances are odd, others are impressive; In My Life is a CD well worth finding.)

Instead of having a vocalist sing Lennon’s words, Martin decided to enlist one of the greatest voices in the English-speaking world to recite Lennon’s words over a musical background. So here’s Sean Connery performing “In My Life.”

Sean Connery & George Martin – “In My Life” [1998]

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One Response to “Looking At Lennon’s Best”

  1. ‘Like Endless Rain Into A Paper Cup . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] while back, when I was discussing what I considered the ten best songs written by John Lennon, I included “Across the Universe” and […]

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