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The Story Behind The Song: The Beatles’ lonely classic ‘Nowhere Man’

Sometimes songs can be the product of endless labour and unbelievable concentration, others, however, can just arrive in a flash of epiphany. Considering John Lennon and The Beatles wrote over 300 songs between them, there is bound to be a few cases of both happening.

“I’d spent five hours that morning,” John Lennon told Playboy Magazine, “Trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.” As far as lie-down’s go, that’s not a bad one, to take a break and manage to muster up a single that charted in territories all over the world as oppose to just lying there in a deepening pit of self-questioning is a triumph that probably only John Lennon is capable of. 

Given how much Lennon loved a lie-down, his song ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is a testament to that, and the nature of the song’s lyrics then perhaps it is not all that surprising that a stint of idleness summoned it to the surface. “I was just sitting, trying to think of a song,” Lennon said, “And I thought of myself sitting there, doing nothing and going nowhere. Once I’d thought of that, it was easy. It all came out. No, I remember now, I’d actually stopped trying to think of something. Nothing would come. I was cheesed off and went for a lie down, having given up. Then I thought of myself as ‘Nowhere Man’ – sitting in his nowhere land.”

Visiting his partner the next day, McCartney remembered the personal moments within the song: “When I came out to write with him the next day, he was kipping on the couch, very bleary-eyed. It was really an anti-John song. He told me later, he didn’t tell me then, he said he’d written it about himself, feeling like he wasn’t going anywhere. I think it was actually about the state of his marriage.

“It was in a period where he was a bit dissatisfied with what was going on,” continued Macca. “However, it led to a very good song. He treated it as a third-person song, but he was clever enough to say, ‘Isn’t he a bit like you and me?’ – ‘Me’ being the final word.”

“I thought of myself sitting there,” Lennon once reflected, “Doing nothing and getting nowhere,” and that’s very much the same quandary that the protagonist of the piece finds himself in. Just as the lyrics suggest: “Knows not where he’s going to / Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” – the protagonist is far from alone. 

It was a stint of idleness that proved incredibly profitable for the Fab Four too. Aside from the revenue generated from the finished product, the original hand-written lyrics themselves fetched a pretty penny, selling for $455,500 at an auction in New York in 2003. Not bad for something scratched up on the carpet following a nap. 

Depending on where you live in the world, those lyrics may or may not feature on your copy of Rubber Soul as, in some regions, it was omitted from the record and released as single, before finding a more consistent universal home as a sort of anti-ode to Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD, on the revolutionary Yellow Submarine movie. 

However, that’s not the only particular about the song that was notable at the time. The philosophical leanings of the track represented a departure for The Beatles and a progression into a much more Lennon-orientated school of thought. Up until ‘Nowhere Man’, the vast majority of Beatles songs were constrained to more typical pop subjects; romance in rhyme or fun and frolics, but with ‘Nowhere Man’ they sailed into different waters, steadying the ship with classical stylings; for instance opening the piece with a three-part harmony sung by Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney.

Elsewhere the song also features Lennon’s classic technique of falling-melodies, as the song’s pitch mirrors a downward melodic motion, echoing the lamentable trappings of ‘Nowhere Land’. 

Ultimately it is a song from a simple lie down that proved to be one of their best of the era, so much so that even Dylan couldn’t keep his hands off of it