John Lennon’s name is at the top of a lot of The Beatles songs and a general rule with the Fab Four was that if you wrote the song then you usually sang the lead vocal. However, one track would prove too much of a leap for Lennon.
The White Album track would prove to be so tender, so emotionally charged and so delicate that Lennon decided he was not the right man to bring the song home and instead gave the song’s lead vocal over to Ringo Starr, so as to save his caustic rocker image.
John Lennon’s reputation as a bonafide rock star was gaining speed by 1968. As the Beatle began to enact his will over the band and his interviews became more and more outspoken, the image of Lennon as the rough and ready rocker was beginning to form in the public’s mind. It was an image Lennon was keen to cultivate.
Talking about The White Album, the band’s leader made it clear how he saw things. He wanted the new record to “get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are”. Lennon made no secret of his desire to be more authentic, adding: “You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I’m getting into it, I’m just doing my old bit… not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. It’s just natural.
“Everybody says we must do this and that but our thing is just rocking. You know, the usual gig. That’s what this new record is about. Definitely rocking.”
That didn’t mean that the album was without tenderness, however, and Lennon was often behind some of those most vulnerable moments, contrary to his public image at the time. One such track which saw Lennon open himself up was ‘Good Night’, a song he wrote for his son Julian. Lennon told David Sheff in 1980: “‘Good Night’ was written for Julian, the way ‘Beautiful Boy’ was written for Sean… but given to Ringo and possibly overlush.”
Even some years after Beatlemania had died down to a low hum, Lennon was still a little wary of attaching himself to such sentimentality. It was the kind of thing John had always had to balance out with his songwriting partner Paul McCartney. While Macca was naturally gifted with sweet pop melodies, Lennon worked to counterbalance that sound with a powerful sour streak.
Speaking in 1968, Ringo Starr noted that it was such a diversion from Lennon’s usual sound that most people thought it was McCartney who had written the song. “Everybody thinks Paul wrote ‘Goodnight’ for me to sing, but it was John who wrote it for me. He’s got a lot of soul, John has.”
It was a sentiment that McCartney himself reflected at the time, “John wrote it, mainly. It’s his tune, uhh, which is surprising for John— ‘cuz he doesn’t normally write this kind of tune. It’s a very sweet tune, and Ringo sings it great, I think,” he continued, a departure for Lennon meant the song had a “very sort of lush, sweet arrangement.”
‘Good night’ is one of the more touching moments on The White Album as Starr sings out the beautiful lyrics which reflect on fatherhood and offer up sweet dreams to all those who hear it. It may well have been this vulnerability that meant Lennon was unwilling to sing the song.
“I think John felt it might not be good for his image for him to sing it, but it was fabulous to hear him do it, he sang it great,” said Macca remembering one of the early sessions of the track back in 1994. “We heard him sing it in order to teach it to Ringo and he sang it very tenderly. John rarely showed his tender side, but my key memories of John are when he was tender, that’s what has remained with me— those moments where he showed himself to be a very generous, loving person.
“I always cite that song as an example of the John beneath the surface that we only saw occasionally… I don’t think John’s version was ever recorded.”
So, if you were ever intrigued to get to know the real John Lennon, the man behind the image and intrigue then, according to Paul McCartney, The Beatles’ ‘Good Night’ is the track for you.