I am not a fan of revisionism and it may seem strange that I feel somehow compelled to jump to the defence of the legendary John Lennon. Nonetheless, there have been a few echoings, a few pointed barbs that have called into question the measure of John Lennon’s musical legacy. Unheard of while he was alive, enough time has passed since the artist’s assassination in 1980 that some have felt emboldened to denigrate Lennon’s musical legacy.
Admittedly, much of the criticism is clouded by moralistic concerns over his absentee fathering of son Julian, his anti-Christianity stance, his self-destructive tendencies, and his own efforts to de-mystify the over-shadowing accomplishments of The Beatles. Certainly, none of the former Beatles are as controversial or divisive as John Lennon when it comes to public opinion. I get all that. However, to undermine, to criticize Lennon’s musical legacy is simply a disservice not only to the historicity of the Beatles’ and his own solo contributions but to the plain truth of the matter.
So, putting aside moralistic concerns let us turn our attention to the criticisms of the critics.
Geoff Emerick (Engineer on the Beatles Abbey Road album, Sgt Pepper, Revolver and more):
Emerick has been outspoken about his favoritism towards Paul McCartney as being the Beatles’ “true” musician. He says as much during an interview available on youtube:
However, once one reads Emerick’s autobiographical “Here, There, and Everywhere” it becomes clear that the Beatles’ erstwhile Engineer has some demons of his own to exercise. As Publisher’s Weekly reported in its review of the book:
He [Emerick] concedes the group never really fraternized with him—and he seems to have taken it personally. The gregarious McCartney is recalled fondly, while Lennon is “caustic,” Ringo “bland” and Harrison “sarcastic” and “furtive.”
It should be noted that McCartney was Emerick’s best-man at his wedding and admits further that fellow “Apple” staffers saw him as McCartney’s man during the tension filled Apple Corps years of the late 1960s. So, take what you read regarding Lennon’s role in the Beatles with a large grain of salt when reading Emerick’s account of those days.
Other criticisms of Lennon cite a lack of originality and a musically derivative output. Check out listerverse’s
Top 10 Unpleasant Facts About John Lennon by Edward Benjamin for examples of this kind of thinking.
To be sure songs such as Come Together have readily apparent connections to earlier works by other artists. In fact, Lennon settled out of court with publisher Moris Levy whose company owned the rights to “You Can’t Catch Me” the admitted influence behind the well-known Beatles hit. However, as Lennon himself said:
Come Together is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in, ‘Here comes old flat-top’. It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on Earth.
This was nothing new for Lennon who said of his earlier hit” You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”:
“That’s me in my Dylan period,…I am like a chameleon, influenced by whatever is going on. If Elvis can do it, I can do it. If the Everly Brothers can do it, me and Paul can. Same with Dylan.”
Lennon remained decidedly unapologetic about incorporating sounds and ideas from other musicians. He is not alone in doing so, McCartney, himself, has said about his song, “Back in the USSR”:
I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody. And “Back in the USA” was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there. I just liked the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if they were California, you know?
The Beatles influence on other artists is undeniable. The English rock group Queen has been quoted a number of times citing the Beatles and specifically John Lennon as being a major influence. Does that then relegate Queen to the status of Beatles wannabes? And God help Oasis– as the joke goes:
Noel Gallagher: “I feel like giving it all up and forming a Beatles’ cover band”
Rejoinder: “I thought Oasis was a Beatles cover band!”
From a musical perspective Lennon is regarded by most musicians as a capable but not a brilliant guitar/piano player. Lennon himself made no claims to technical brilliance a la’ Jimi Hendrix:
I’m really very embarrassed about my guitar playing, in one way, because it’s very poor; I can never move, but I can make a guitar speak. I think there’s a guy called Ritchie Valens, no, Richie Havens. Does he play very strange guitar? He’s a black guy that was in a concert and sang “Strawberry Fields” or something. He plays, like, one chord all the time. He plays a pretty funky guitar. But he doesn’t seem to be able to play in the real terms at all. I’m like that. Yoko has made me feel cocky about my guitar. You see, one part of me says, “Yes, of course I can play,” because I can make a rock move, you know? But the other part of me says, “Well, I wish I could just do like B.B. King.” If you would put me with B.B. King, I would feel real silly. I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.
The Rolling Stone Interview
And that’s part of the answer. Obviously, musical taste is to a very large extent an exercise in subjectivity. Nonetheless, the fact that Lennon influenced so many others, including Paul McCartney speaks to something bigger than mere subjective impressions. In Rolling Stone Magazine’s List of 100 Greatest Singers John Lennon landed at number 5. No less a personage than Jackson Browne wrote passionately of Lennon saying:
There was a tremendous intimacy in everything John Lennon did, combined with a formidable intellect…it was a stunning thing — he always told the truth. He felt he had the right to talk about this stuff, and that gives his voice a singular identity. It’s not the chops of a heralded singer — no one goes on about his actual technique. He went right to what he felt, what he had to say.
Jackson Browne gets it! Ironically, the very same quality of raw, unpolished, brutally honest musical communication is what Geoffry Emerick is critical of. However, that is the essence of Lennon’s appeal for those of us that continue to enjoy the genius of his musical gift.
Many of Lennon’s hits stand the test of time despite a conscious effort to write about what he liked, what he was interested in and not what his listening public necessarily wanted him to sing about. Lennon’s poignant meeting with a “fan” in 1988’s “Imagine” reveals Lennon’s own take on his music:
Fan: You weren’t thinking of anyone in particular when you were singing all that?
JL: How could I be? How could I be thinking of you man?
Fan: Well, I don’t know maybe I don’t care me but it’s all it’s all somebody you know
JL: I’m thinking about me, or at best Yoko, if it’s a love song, but that’s it. I’m basically singing about me I’m saying you know I had a good shit today and ah this is what I thought this morning and ah you know I love you Yoko whatever— I’m singing about me and my life you know and if it’s relevant for other people’s lives that’s all right.
Fortunately, for the rest of us Lennon’s music was and remains relevant for our own lives. Below are a few Lennonism’s I keep handy as they reflect truth for me and I find them coming to my consciousness when encountering certain people and situations relevant to myself:
One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside—
John Lennon “Crippled Inside” from Imagine
I use this as a reminder for myself that my dysfunction shines through and is easily seen by discerning folks around me. It also comes to mind when I notice another person swimming in their own dysfunction.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.—
John Lennon “Beautiful Boy” from Double Fantasy
A reminder to expect the unexpected— to be humble as you never know what unexpected changes may come your way.
Woman is the slave of the slaves—
John Lennon “Woman is the Nigger of the World” from Sometime in New York City
A profound song that reminds us all of the ongoing plight of women throughout the world. Every woman is either someones daughter, mother, sister, daughter, aunt, or grandmother. How can such violence and discrimination be shown to the sisters of the woman you care about. It makes me weep.
And Finally my top ten John Lennon songs list— some because of their lyrical content, some for the creative artistry expressed therein and some simply because “it’s got a good beat, Dick and I can dance to it.”
1. Strawberry Fields Forever
My proverbial “you’re on a desert island and can only take 5 singles with you” scenario. This would be my number 1 choice.
2. I Should Have Known Better
Features jangling Rickenbackers— one of my favorite Beatles tunes— ear candy 🙂
The rocking B side to Hey Jude version. Pure Rock n’ Roll
4. A Day in the Life
A Lennon and McCartney composition but the main song structure is Lennon’s
5. Working Class Hero
One I identify strongly with— alienation from the “system”
6. Mind Games
Brilliant melody and features the steel guitar wizardry of the late “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow
7. Give Peace a Chance
A simple chord structure but powerfully anthemic
8. In My Life
Sentimental and nostalgic. I love it!
Cleverly nuanced with multiple meanings. Lennon said it’s in part a knock at Christianity
10. Starting Over
Not so much for the song, itself, but the song capsulized the hope and promise of a freshly energized John Lennon ready to take on the newly born decade of the 1980s. I remember being so excited when I heard this on the radio for the first time. I couldn’t believe I was hearing a new Lennon tune following the singer’s lengthy self-imposed exile from the music business.
“‘How long are you gonna last?’ Well, you can’t say, you know. You can be big-headed and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna last ten years.’ But as soon as you’ve said that you think, ‘We’re lucky if we last three months,’ you know.”