Credit: University of Michigan

Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to John Lennon

One of the most imposing figures in the history music, John Lennon has become a cultural icon. So much so, in fact, that many people forget that underneath the images and the story of his tragic murder is the plethora of music that he created. As the founding member of The Beatles, he created one of the greatest bands to have ever graced a record and his solo work was equally as impressive. As we’re approaching what would have been the singer’s 80th birthday, below, we’re providing a crash course in the mercurial talent of John Lennon.

If you’re to believe the news then the generalised genre of ‘rock’ is floating by, dead in the water. The charts are stocked full of synthesised sounds and a new generation is finding new platforms for their expression more than ever. It’s an evolution in music which continues to devour the future as soon as it arrives and one we can certainly get behind. That doesn’t mean we can’t offer up a little education in the past as we go and one lesson everyone should learn is that John Lennon could well be a bonafide genius.

As we aim to offer up a little insight into the rock icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend. For Lennon, there is a gigantic watermark in his work, that conducted during his time with The Beatles and those songs he released after. It makes for an interesting list.

Many of us will know the weight of songs Lennon and his songwriting partner Paul McCartney contributed to The Beatles and, as such, we have left the majority of the singer’s work with the Fab Four out of this list to offer up a more intrinsic set of songs which showcase the type of man John Lennon was, warts and all.

See the list, below.

John Lennon’s six definitive songs:

‘Help!’ (1965)

A classic pop number, ‘Help!’ 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 the title track of the band’s 1965 album, 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 took over his life and made him famous.

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 Beatlemania dart across his mind like PTSD, “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. It is arguably the moment John Lennon became an icon.

‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (1967)

One of The Beatles most beloved songs features on the band’s 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon drew from his personal life in Liverpool to add a certain sentimentality to this otherwise psychedelic number, “Strawberry Fields is a real place,” he once said. “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, it was his happy place and arguably the happiest he had ever been: “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 and rather than reminiscing about his home as an unattainable place, Lennon pictures it as his own personal heaven, his safe place. It offers up as crystal clear an image of Lennon’s childhood as you are ever likely to find.

‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (1970)

Perhaps one of Lennon’s most passionate deliveries came on the band’s final released album Let It Be. The track, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, 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 and sees John Lennon pouring out his heart to the love of his life, Yoko Ono.

The song was composed about Yoko and sees Lennon take his lyrics into the territory of pleading with his love to stay with him, or rather, to prove him right. It was a song to ask her to make sure 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.”

‘Working Class Hero’ (1970)

Arguably the finest moment of Lennon’s solo career came in the middle of his best solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and the brilliant yet painful track ‘Working Class Hero’. It offers up another side of John Lennon, the scruffy lad from Liverpool.

As one might imagine it’s a deeply personal song for the working-class boy from Liverpool, who took aim at the British class system in this poignant number. “I think it’s for the people like me who are working-class—whatever, upper or lower—who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.

“It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people. I’m saying it’s a revolutionary song; not the song itself but that it’s a song for the revolution.” The song may well be a personal one but it is also a deeply poetic and poignant one. The song came shortly after The Beatles had split but in truth, Lennon had been writing this one in his mind for years before. This track is Lennon shooting from the hip using bullets straight from the heart.

‘Jealous Guy’ (1971)

If there is one song to show you the ugly side of John Lennon it has to be ‘Jealous Guy’. The song is the very inner workings of Lennon’s personality, it is the iconic man putting himself on the canvas, warts and all—an unflinching dissection of everything that is good and bad about him. Mostly the bad.

Inspired by his time with the Maharishi, the song has since become a vision of Lennon’s life at the time and a candid moment of vulnerability. Speaking with David Sheff in 1980 for Playboy, he revealed: “The lyrics explain themselves clearly: I was a very jealous, possessive guy. Toward everything. A very insecure male. A guy who wants to put his woman in a little box, lock her up, and just bring her out when he feels like playing with her. She’s not allowed to communicate with the outside world – outside of me – because it makes me feel insecure.”

Speaking with the BBC, Lennon offered more insight into the Imagine track: “When you actually are in love with somebody you tend to be jealous, and want to own them and possess them one hundred per cent, which I do… I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her, you know? That’s the danger, that you want to possess them to death.”

‘Woman’ (1980)

Sadly, John Lennon would never get to truly reach his potential as an icon. The singer was shot down in 1980 before the release of his album Double Fantasy, a record which had finally reinvigorated the Beatle to once again get back in the studio after some years spent both in the rock ‘n’ roll wilderness and being a parent. From the album, sadly posthumously released, there is one song which neatly ties up his entire career—’Woman’.

Lennon’s update on The Beatles classic ‘Girl’ is a fitting song to remember him by. Though tracks like ‘Imagine’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ may bring in the attention, this song showed the evolution of the artist. It even went to number one following his tragic death in 1980. The singer left his lasting impression of the charts with a track about his ultimate partner, Yoko Ono. It would be who he would leave behind too.

The song, therefore, became a somewhat saccharine but always soulful final expression from Lennon. Though it’s not the final song he made, it is certainly his final impression on the music industry which had supported him for so long. It may well be an ode to Yoko but the track has so much more to it and quite frankly, it is beautiful.

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