Whether or not John Lennon deserves the iconic status he is given is up for contention when one dissects the man from the music. A typically confused and somewhat abusive partner, Lennon is now routinely seen as a polarising figure. However, one thing that can never be questioned about the artist is his unique ability to write a showstopping song. Whether it is the pop desperation of The Beatles’ track ‘Help!‘ or the anthemic universality of ‘Imagine’, Lennon knew his way around a tune.
With over 200 songs credited to Lennon in the public sphere, the artist is one of the best-positioned composers to comment on the construction of pop music. That’s without recognising that he, alongside Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, almost invented the genre of pop music singlehandedly. So, when he offers up a brief window into how he created his unique tunes, then you best grab a pen and paper and get ready to note it all down — who knows where it could end up?
The truth is, Lennon acted as a singular creative ever since he burst through The Beatles’ hysteria with his own, far more expressive, set of songs. Inspired by Bob Dylan, Lennon would always put introspection at the forefront of his work. As an honest reflection of the man who wrote them, Lennon often cited a myriad of songwriting influences. Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and, of course, Bob Dylan can all be heard in his early work. But, as time moved on, Lennon found more inspiration across the musical spectrum.
During a conversation with Spin, where Lennon openly admitted to his wildly varied music taste, he confessed that the songwriting process of Elton John and Bernie Taupin was not something he could ever take part in because he was: “‘too egocentric’ to use other people’s words.” The duo have operated for decades with Elton John providing the music for his songs after Bernie Taupin has provided the lyric sheet. For Lennon, that would have been a bridge too far; he used his own sense of poetry to guide his writing, often letting the music “flow through him”.
“I just scribble on a bit of paper, you know,” Lennon explained of his songwriting craft. “And then leave it in a sort of pile. And when it begins to be more interesting, I venture onto the typewriter and type it out. And the typewriter adds things, too. I change it as I type it. It’s usually the third draft when I get to the typewriter.”
“Depending on how easy it came. If it just all came, it’s just like ‘write it and type it.’ But if it’s a general song, I’ll type it a few more times. But the final version is never [finished] until we’ve recorded it. I always change a word or two at the last minute.” It was a process he also used with The Beatles, allowing songs to just fall out of him, much like ‘Across the universe’, but also providing last-minute changes as the group added their own sentiment to the song at hand. For Lennon, words had always been the primary driver for his songs.
“The music is sort of easy,” he confessed. “I sometimes envy Elton John. Bernie Taupin sends him a big stack of words, and he writes all the songs in five days. I could do that. But I am too egocentric to use other people’s words. That’s the problem. So it’s my own fault. I still like Black music, disco music … ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ or ‘Rock Your Baby,’ I’d give my eyetooth to have written that. But I never could. I am too literal to write ‘Rock Your Baby.’ I wish I could. I’m too intellectual, even though I’m not really an intellectual. I feel as though I am a writer, really. And the music is easy. The music is just all over the place.”
It’s somewhat more difficult to entirely believe considering, that very year, Lennon would release his own album of covers — something he committed to do to fulfil his record contract expectations. If you’re a songwriter, and had your heart set on emulating the songwriting craft of John Lennon there seems to be only one real lesson to be learned here: never be afraid to change your lyrics whenever the wind changes and take every musical leaning you possibly can.
Listen below to one of those off-hand creations, the quite stunning Beatles anthem ‘Across the Universe’.