The complexity of anybody’s character is enough to make sure you cannot ever truly second guess someone’s steps. The textured complexity of John Lennon’s personality is one that can leave you in a spin. It’s an ambiguity he brought to all his songs with The Beatles too.
Throughout his work with the Fab Four, Lennon had begun to progressively introduce more and more of his own personality into the songs. That’s not just the affable, joking, charmer that fans had seen him as alongside Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to reach global stardom, but the darker moments too, the feelings of vulnerability and loss.
Lennon began allowing more and more of himself to become the narrative of the songs he was writing and it was part of what cemented The Beatles as a musical icon rather than just another band. It was this level of personal and autobiographical writing that kept fans glued to their speakers and The Beatles as one of the pivotal band of the moment.
By 1968, with The Beatles ready to launch the White Album, this continuation of personal stories and moments being woven into their songs was nearing fruition. For the new record, the group drew on their work and time spent together to form the previous years and began sketching out songs which hadn’t been appropriate for the concept of Sgt. Pepper.
A lot of songs which were written from 1965 and onwards were now being considered for the new double album and man of those featured were written while The Beatles were in India. The band had arrived in the sub-continent as part of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Transcendental Meditation group and began meditating for hours a day as a way of trying to ‘reach God’.
While staying at the complex, the band quickly found inspiration for a set of incredible songs including ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Rocky Racoon’ and many others. But one track perhaps encapsulates both Lennon’s deeply complex character and the moment John found himself in while studying under the Maharishi Mahesh. That song is ‘Yer Blues’.
Lennon famously performed the song with the supergroup Dirty Mac and it has been a fan-favourite ever since. Speaking with Playboy’s David Sheff, Lennon told the journalist of the song, “‘Yer Blues’ was written in India, too. The same thing up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.” It’s a jarring statement from the singer and one doubtless constructed to elicit a gasp—but it was authentic.
While many of the group under the tutelage were trying to align themselves spiritually and were being afforded the opportunity to do so, Lennon was finding himself more and more miserable. It’s why one of his most depressing songs, ‘Yer Blues’, was written at that time. If transcendental meditation is supposed to reveal the soul, then John’s was in a bad way.
“The funny thing about the [Maharishi’s] camp was that although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day,” recalls Lennon in The Beatles Anthology, “I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In ‘Yer Blues’, when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”
It has left many people to assume that Lennon was lovestruck during his time in India. Unable to act upon his feelings and seemingly cast out from the swinging set of London and New York, where he had made a home, Lennon turned to music to diarise his feelings. Who was Lennon writing about? Well, Yoko Ono, of course.
The pair had not officially begun their relationship but were writing letters to one another, leading many people to believe that the ‘girl’ mentioned in the song is, in fact, Yoko Ono herself. It is a song staunchly steeped in Lennon’s misery yet, as one might expect given the duality of the man, it offered one of the most crystalline moments of joy for the band during their difficult latter years.
The recording of ‘Yer Blues’ was also unusual. By this stage of their career, experimenting with sound was The Beatles way of life and the group had been trying out something special and had tried to record a song in the control room. “I remember that John Lennon came in at one point and I turned to him and said, ‘Bloody hell, the way you lot are carrying on you’ll be wanting to record everything in the room next door!’,” remembered Ken Scott as part of Mark Lewisohn’s comprehensive work.
“The room next door was tiny, where the four-track tape machines were once kept, and it had no proper studio walls or acoustic set-up of any kind,” continued Scott. “Lennon replied, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s try it on the next number!’ The next number was ‘Yer Blues’ and we literally had to set it all up – them and the instruments – in this minute room. That’s how they recorded ‘Yer Blues’, and it worked out great!”
The change of venue provides an unmatched intimacy, one that Ringo Starr believes makes the song one of his favourite Beatles tracks of all time, “Yer Blues’, on the White Album, you can’t top it. It was the four of us. That is what I’m saying: it was really because the four of us were in a box, a room about eight by eight, with no separation. It was this group that was together; it was like grunge rock of the sixties, really – grunge blues.”
One of The Beatles most cherished songs was written about the complexity of life, death, love, loss, God and the Devil, it offers a one-stop-shop for the many entanglements of life and a keen insight into the particularly tied up brain of John Lennon. Perhaps one of their best.