“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep.” — John Lennon
There’s little doubt about John Lennon’s contribution to music. Being the founding member of The Beatles is one thing, but the way Lennon brought personality to pop music should never be understated. For many people, Lennon was the very beginning of top-selling hits being about more than sex, drugs and rock & roll, and he did with his three mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr by his side. It’s a story that both enriches and emboldens us.
The band originally formed around Lennon’s mercurial mind as he continued to prove himself an intellectual wizard in music. He and Paul McCartney soon formed a formidable songwriting partnership that would churn out hit after record-selling hit. It was a potent combination that quickly made them the biggest band in the world by the mid-60s, but then something changed.
After Lennon and the rest of the Fab Four met one Bob Dylan, their attitudes towards songwriting changed. Now, rather than just using rock’s worthy tropes to form their songs around, they would use their own experiences. It was here that Lennon truly excelled and set himself apart from the rest.
Paul McCartney’s style always had the music at its centre; he was, after all, a rather talented multi-instrumentalist and had the vision of a composer — as happy to compose silly little ditties as he was epic ballads. For Lennon, though, he was more akin to a poet or novelist. His songs are formed around the lyrics first, meaning many of his songs are deeply personal. It makes picking out his best almost impossible.
We’re not quitters here, though, and so we’ve picked out for you ten of John Lennon’s best songs for The Beatles and are looking back at his supreme talent — John Lennon may have become an icon that transcends music, but he was always a rocker before everything else.
John Lennon’s best Beatles songs:
10. ‘Don’t Let Me Down’
Perhaps one of Lennon’s most passionate deliveries came on the band’s Let It Be track, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. The song certainly isn’t the most complex piece of music you’ll ever hear, but Lennon’s inner-rocker comes out in full force on this track. It ranks high as one of The Beatles most precious numbers. It’s certainly one of the most impassioned.
The song was composed about Yoko and saw Lennon take his lyrics into the territory of pleading with Yoko to stay with him, prove him right and live out their love together. It was a plea that all the extra worries and troubles he was now dealing with were worth it. As Paul McCartney remembered in 1994, “So ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ was a genuine plea, ‘Don’t let me down, please, whatever you do. I’m out on this limb…’
“It was saying to Yoko, ‘I’m really stepping out of line on this one. I’m really letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.’ I think it was a genuine cry for help. It was a good song. We recorded it in the basement of Apple for ‘Let It Be’ and later did it up on the roof for the film.
9. ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’
Though not musically extremely gifted, Lennon knew a hook when he saw one and when he glanced over at a magazine and saw the NRA advert with the tagline: ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ he knew he had something.
Of course, McCartney certainly had a hand in the track, the complex time signatures should tell you that, but the motif and the sentiment of the track feel straight out of the Lennon playbook.
As one of the tougher moments of the band’s 1968 White Album Lennon does a great job of adding in a potent dose of acid-rock amid the swirling blues and doo-wop crescendo. It’s a joyful track.
8. ‘Come Together’
Initially written as a campaign song for Timothy Leary as the pro-drugs activist ran for office in California, Lennon recognised the song’s potential and, as soon as Leary’s race was cut short, made sure to include it as part of their canon. By the time Abbey Road rolled around, this track had begun to be a big signifier of things to come.
At this point in the band’s journey, Lennon operated almost as a solo artist and comprised this track largely away from the rest of the band. But the song did get changed during the session, “We said, ‘Let’s slow it down. Let’s do this to it, let’s do that to it,’ and it ends up however it comes out,” remembered Lennon at the time. “I just said, ‘Look, I’ve got no arrangement for you, but you know how I want it.’ I think that’s partly because we’ve played together for a long time. So I said, ‘Give me something funky and set up a beat, maybe.’ And they all just joined in.”
The song was somewhat similar to a Chuck Berry song and saw Lennon pay off the rock ‘n’ roller in an out of court settlement. When speaking to David Sheff about the track, Lennon said, “It’s funky, it’s bluesy, and I’m singing it pretty well. I like the sound of the record. You can dance to it. I’ll buy it!” (laughs)”
7. ‘I’m Only Sleeping’
Arguably one of the most irreverent songs on the 1966 Revolver album, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is beautifully constructed and gilded with the gorgeous use of backwards guitars. Lennon said the sound of the song was a representation of “me dreaming my life away”.
The song was inspired by Paul McCartney continuously having to wake John Lennon up for scheduled afternoon songwriting sessions at Lennon’s house. Journalist Maureen Cleave once said of Lennon in 1966: “He can sleep almost indefinitely, is probably the laziest person in England. ‘Physically lazy,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind writing or reading or watching or speaking, but sex is the only physical thing I can be bothered with any more’.”
The track is perfectly lethargic and wonderfully gifted in putting any rowdy thoughts to one side if only for a little nap.
6. ‘Norwegian Wood’
The Rubber Soul track is often considered Lennon’s first real acid-rock tune, but the truth is a little way off. Instead, this track is the first time he establishes that sound as part of his own musical vocabulary. Of course, he needed help for the sitar part of the song; luckily, he had Harrison on hand. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, John Lennon explained why it was decided to use the sitar on this song. He recalled: “I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar, and I said, ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right, and I was getting very angry about it; it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Well, just do it how you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Well, I just want to do it like this.’
Adding: “He was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar, but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learned the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.” But the real story behind the song is one a little more scandalous. He disclosed: “I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was having one. I was sort of writing from my experiences – girl’s flats, things like that. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household.
Lennon then honestly stated: “I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”
5. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
The track that Lennon called “my first psychedelic song” is always destined to be near the top of this experimental record. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ may have been lacking the thousands of chanting monks, Lennon had originally intended for the recording but it certainly has a habit of tripping out.
The song was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as McCartney recalls in 1984: “John wrote the lyrics from Timothy Leary’s version of the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ It was a kind of Bible for all the psychedelic freaks. that was an LSD song. Probably the only one. People always thought ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was but it actually wasn’t.”
There’s no denying though that this song was the start of the band’s love affair with LSD but it is still a stellar track in its own right. It remains one of the shining moments of free-thought and creative experimentation on the album.
4. ‘All You Need Is Love’
If there’s one thing we should all be concerned about leaving behind in our ‘legacy’ is that the world needs a little more love. Always. It’s one that Lennon could be proud of as his song, ‘All You Need Is Love’ continues to work as an anthemic call for peace, kindness and understanding. Written as the starring piece of the Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon saw it as a continuation of the sentiments he had set out on the earlier track, ‘The Word’.
“I think if you get down to basics, whatever the problem is, it’s usually to do with love,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “So I think ‘All You Need is Love’ is a true statement. I’m not saying, ‘All you have to do is…’ because ‘All You Need’ came out in the Flower Power Generation time. It doesn’t mean that all you have to do is put on a phoney smile or wear a flower dress, and it’s gonna be alright.”
“Love is not just something that you stick on posters or stick on the back of your car, or on the back of your jacket or on a badge,” the singer continued. “I’m talking about real love, so I still believe that. Love is appreciation of other people and allowing them to be. Love is allowing somebody to be themselves, and that’s what we do need.”
3. ‘Across The Universe’
“One of my best songs,” said Lennon of the Let It Be track, ‘Across The Universe’.
The song seemingly came out of nowhere for Lennon after an argument with his first wife Cynthia, “I kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs, and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song… it drove me out of bed. I didn’t want to write it, but I was slightly irritable, and I went downstairs, and I couldn’t get to sleep until I’d put it on paper.”
Despite the seemingly prickly beginnings, the track has taken on a new persona with revision and is now seen as a resplendent moment on the record, a moment where it’s easy to let the music flow through you. For Lennon, the composition was very similar, “It’s like being possessed,” he said of writing the song, “like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. That’s always in the middle of the night when you’re half-awake or tired, and your critical facilities are switched off.”
2. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
Featuring on the band’s 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon drew on his life in Liverpool to add a certain sentimentality to this otherwise trippy number, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semi-detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around… not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles stories.”
For Lennon, the time spent around those houses and fields, losing marbles and having fun was all the symbolism he ever really cared for: “We always had fun at Strawberry Fields. So that’s where I got the name. But I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”
While ‘Penny Lane’ is a similar song in tone and sentiment, Lennon takes this track into a brand new realm. Rather than reminiscing about his home as an unattainable place, Lennon pictures it as his own personal heaven, his safe place.
There’s a certain inevitability about being scolded for putting our favourite John Lennon song for The Beatles as ‘Help!’. A classic pop number, the track isn’t as nearly as well-regarded as it should be. For us, it represents the crux of what made Lennon one of the greatest songwriters of all time—on ‘Help!’ he makes pop personal.
“We think it’s one of the best we’ve written,” said John Lennon in 1965 as he contemplated on the band’s recent single, a commissioned track for their new film Help!, taking notes from the film’s title. But behind all the fast games, quick cash and unstoppable fandom, John Lennon was already beginning to long for a time before The Beatles ever happened and took over his life. He was crying out for help. On this track, he goes into his “fat Elvis period” and yet still manages to create one of the band’s most cherished songs—and one of Lennon’s favourites.
The singer and guitarist replied to a Rolling Stone question about why he loved the song so much and he replied, “Because I meant it, it’s real. The lyric is as good now as it was then, it’s no different, you know. It makes me feel secure to know that I was that sensible or whatever- well, not sensible, but aware of myself. That’s with no acid, no nothing… well pot or whatever.” Lennon clarifies his point, “It was just me singing “help” and I meant it, you know. I don’t like the recording that much, the song I like. We did it too fast to try and be commercial.”
It’s a notion that Lennon later expanded on during his now-iconic interview with David Sheff of Playboy in 1980. “The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension,” recalls Lennon as flashes of the mobs of fans and press flash across his brain, “When ‘Help’ came out, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song. I didn’t realise it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help.” It was a moment when Lennon’s old personality, his old way of being, was beginning to lose out to the pop star the band had created.
So he did whatever he could to expel those demons and put them down in a song. It was the moment the icon John Lennon was born.