John Lennon is an undoubted icon. As the Beatles’ founder, it is almost breathtaking to try and understand the wide-reaching impact the bespectacled singer had on not only music, pop songs, and the performances of them but the entire 20th century. Through his songs, both with and without The Beatles, Lennon created a picture of visceral humanity that very few could match and off-stage, he was equally rich with the great and the grime of the human race.
One of the saddest iconic moments of John Lennon’s life is his death. The singer was shot outside of the Dakota Building in New York in broad daylight by the crazed obsessive Mark Chapman. The attack was carefully planned and executed, with Chapman becoming a perennial figure outside the Dakota building in the days before the shooting. It sent shockwaves around the world, and the reverberations within the music world were always going to be turned into song at one point or another.
It is clear that Lennon’s presence will be felt by the music world for some time yet. Every day he is gaining new fans and followers who still not only adore his music but are happy to follow his mantras and philosophies, revel in his written word and lust over photos. “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love,” the musician once said. “When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.” It is in that quote we get a real glance at the man he was — it’s a large part of why his presence still looms over the music world and why there was such an outpouring of emotion following his murder.
Love him or loathe him, there’s no doubt that Lennon tried to pursue peace wherever he could. Without glossing over his many fallible traits, and there were certainly many, Lennon’s music is what will outlast all of the stories and anecdotes about the singer. It was through his music that he touched so many lives. Under the guidance and helpful words of Bob Dylan, Lennon turned The Beatles’ songwriting viewpoint inward.
Following an iconic meeting with Dylan, Lennon began to use his own life as the route for his songwriting. It allowed pop to be personal for the very first time. He took his expressive poetry into his solo work too, championing abrasive honesty above any kind of stylistic pursuit. With music being the very lifeblood that ensured Lennon’s heart kept beating, it seems only fitting that many artists have paid tribute to him in the same way.
Below, we’re looking at ten of the best songs written in tribute to John Lennon.
10 best tributes to John Lennon:
‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’ – Elton John
Few people felt the pain of John Lennon’s death more succinctly than Elton John. The duo shared some incredible times together and Elton even contributed to Lennon’s only solo number one. John Lennon later recalled about how ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’ was born, stating: “I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple — you know, we’re all good friends — and the next minute Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play.
“A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes — obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm… And then he sang with me. We had a great time.”
Elton paid tribute to his fallen friend through song, and ‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny) is a poignant moment in the singer’s career. However, it does remain an emotional song for Elton, “it’s very hard for me to sing it. I get quite emotional singing that song.”
‘I’m Outta Time’ – Oasis
There aren’t many bands or artists that have been as heavily informed by The Beatles as Mancunian legends and britpop heroes, Oasis. It’s well known that the Gallagher brothers were huge fans of the band but Liam Gallagher has even gone one further and named his child after the bespectacled Beatle with Lennon Gallagher now beginning to follow in his father’s footsteps.
This track, ‘I’m Outta Time’, taken from their 2008 session, sees Liam asking whether a similar ending awaits him and his own iconic status, singing, “If I’m to fall, would you be there to applaud?” The connection becomes more obvious when the band interjected some excerpts of a John Lennon BBC Radio interview conducted just days before his murder.
‘All Those Years Ago’ – George Harrison
At the time of his death in 1980, each of the Fab Four experienced life out on their own solo path. Harrison, in particular, had enjoyed being released by The Beatles. Away from the shadow of the songwriting powerhouse of Lennon-McCartney, the spiritual sounds of George Harrison were finally given ample room to breathe. However, on one song specifically, Harrison welcomed Starr and McCartney’s talents as they all paid tribute to their fallen friend, John Lennon. The song in question was ‘All Those Years Ago’.
‘All Those Years Ago’, released in May 1981, six months after Lennon’s tragic murder, was Harrison expressing his sadness at losing not only a mentor and a bandmate but one of his best friends. The song had originally started as a track for a new Ringo Starr album, that Harrison had penned for his former drummer. However, following Lennon’s death, Harrison took the song back and adapted the lyrics to the circumstances.
‘Here Today’ – Paul McCartney
Written in tribute to his friend after Lennon’s shocking murder in 1980, the song sees Paul McCartney pose his now deceased friend a series of questions, answering them the way he thought John would have. It is a truly heart-wrenching song that as well as being laden with pop sentiment, is also a voracious piece of therapeutic work as McCartney works through his grief.
McCartney takes to his canvas to paint a beautiful, earnest and honest reflection of his friend. Warts and all, Lennon is accurately rendered for a generation who will now only know his memory. Macca adds texture to this image, showing their relationship’s tender moments, hinting at the day they met and ‘the night they cried’.
While we cannot be sure, it’s fair to assume that when Lennon was alive, the two songwriters didn’t say half of what they should have to each other. We’d bet the use of the word ‘love’ in this track is a hint to what McCartney wishes he told his friend.
It goes down as one of McCartney’s most poignant tracks and one that always deserves listening to as the typification of the Lennon-McCartney partnership.
‘Roll on John’ – Bob Dylan
Even over 30 years later, the death of John Lennon still hung heavily over the head of one of his ultimate contemporaries in Bob Dylan. The two icons shared many great moments together and Dylan is often cited as the inspiration behind Lennon’s lyrical change of pace. As such, Dylan paid homage to the singer with subtle references within the lyrics.
Dylan sings “Come together right now” and “I heard the news today, oh boy.” One of the more emotional songs on 2012’s Tempest and it provides one of Dylan’s more serious moments.
‘Edge of Seventeen’ – Stevie Nicks
Unfortunately, Stevie Nicks and John Lennon never crossed paths. While the two creatives didn’t know each other on a personal level, that didn’t stop the Fleetwood Mac singer feeling a grave sense of loss after she heard the devastating news.
The track in question was 1981’s momentous ‘Edge Of Seventeen’, a song which would announce Nicks as an undisputed rock God in her own right and, in truth, it arrived as the perfect way to silence the critics who thought she was incapable of operating as a solo artist. “I was in Australia when John Lennon was shot,” Nicks later said. “Everybody was devastated. I didn’t know John Lennon, but I knew Jimmy Iovine, who worked with John quite a bit in the ’70s and heard all the loving stories that Jimmy told about him. When I came back to Phoenix, I started to write this song.
“Right when I got to Phoenix, my uncle Bill got cancer, got very sick very fast, and died in a couple of weeks,” she continued. “My cousin John Nicks and I were in the room when he died. There was just John and I there. That was part of the song when I went running down the hallways looking for somebody – I thought where’s my mom? Where’s his wife and the rest of the family? At that point, I went back to the piano and finished the song.”
‘Life Is Real’ – Queen
Queen and Freddie Mercury, especially, shook with fear when the news of John Lennon’s death reached them. The whole music world reverberated with a sudden sense that anyone could be reached at any point by a mad man with a gun. For Mercury, the only way to really exorcise those fears was to put them into song.
‘Life Is Real’ doesn’t focus on Mercury’s own fears but instead works on the unfolding realisation that Lennon is never coming back. Mercury even wrote the lyrics to the song before the music, which was an unusual way to work for the singer. Using his own skill to mirror the style of Lennon, Mercury is at his peak.
“I just feel that I’m not equipped enough to do certain things that John Lennon did,” Mercury said, “and I don’t think anybody should.”
‘Murder’ – David Gilmour
Gilmour was so devastated following the brutal murder of John Lennon in 1980, that he turned to music to convey his emotions on the tragedy and wrote the track, ‘Murder’. The song featured on Gilmour’s sophomore solo album, About Face, which begins with the Pink Floyd man setting the scene outside of the infamous Dakota building where Mark Chapman is waiting outside with other Lennon obsessives.
He begins by singing: “Some of them standing, some were waiting in the line, As if there was something that they thought they might find, Taking some strength from the feelings that always were shared, And in the background, the eyes that just stared.”
The Pink Floyd singer tried to create some mystery around the track and didn’t want it to be a direct reference to Lennon’s death. One way was by swapping Chapman’s pistol for a knife in the lyrics, pleading with the killer: “On your own admission you raised up the knife, And you brought it down ending another man’s life.”
“If I’d left a gun in it, then it wouldn’t have rhymed,” Gilmour tried to explain at the time. “And also it would have made everyone say, ‘Well that’s obviously John Lennon’. That would have been more misleading because–although Lennon’s murder is part of it–it isn’t nearly all of it. It’s just murder in general really.”
‘I Just Shot John Lennon’ – The Cranberries
Most artists on our list saw fit to pay tribute to John Lennon in more emotional ways, but The Cranberries decided to take things to a new level and create a far more visceral song. ‘I Just Shot John Lennon’ doesn’t reflect Lennon’s legacy or contribution to music but the day of his murder.
The violence that erupted that fateful day outside the Dakota building in New York has long since cast a shadow over music but The Cranberries bring some closure to proceedings by thrusting their audience directly into the chaos.
The song was named after the first words Mark Chapman said after he was apprehended but as Dolores O’Riordan sings “What a sad and sorry and sickening night,” it’s clear this song is all about loss.
‘Devil’s Sidewalk’ – Neil Young
Neil Young was another of John Lennon’s contemporaries who took some years before expressing his sadness at the singer’s loss. For Neil Young, it came when he reunited with his old band Crazy Horse for a 10-track rock opera set in a fictional Californian town.
‘Devil’s Sidewalk’ is the third song in the opera and “One thing I can tell you, is you got to be free – John Lennon said that,” sings Young, referencing the peace-loving singer. It’s a reference to Lennon’s own California-adjacent track from Abbey Road, ‘Come Together’.