John Lennon’s 20 best songs with and without The Beatles
There’s little doubt surrounding John Lennon’s contribution to music. Being the founding member of The Beatles is one thing, but the way Lennon brought his personality to pop music should never be understated—the change was seismic and wide-ranging. For many people, Lennon was the very beginning of top-selling hits being about more than sex, drugs and rock & roll and he did it with his three mates Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr by his side, supporting him along the way. But that said, he could still do it without them.
The band originally formed around the mercurial mind of Lennon as he continued to prove himself an intellectual wizard in music and a charismatic character which drew in fans, of all sorts. Soon enough, he and Paul McCartney formed a formidable songwriting partnership which would churn out hit after record-selling hit. It was a potent combination that quickly made them the biggest band in the world. After they split, Lennon was always going to push ahead with his own work and he produced some songs which more than equal the Fab Four contribution.
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. 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 but we aren’t quitters here at Far Out so we’re looking at 20 of John Lennon’s greatest songs of all time.
Below, we are bringing you 20 of the best songs John Winston Lennon ever created, throughout his time with The Beatles and the all-too-short time after too. It shows an artist incapable of doing anything but sharing himself with his work and his audience.
John Lennon’s 20 best songs:
Lennon’s update on The Beatles classic ‘Girl’ was a fitting song to go 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.
19. ‘Nowhere Man’
One of The Beatles’ stand-out albums, Rubber Soul is often thought of as the first time the Fab Four really stepped out of their comfort zones. The group, especially John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were keen to take their music away from the pop charts and radio-friendly hits about ‘boy meets girl’.
Instead, they reflected on their own journey. One song, in particular, will always go down as one of the band’s landmark moments. A signature tune which suggested that they knew the path laid out ahead of them, the band were destined to expand the idea of pop music beyond all recognition.
The track, ‘Nowhere Man’, was written by Lennon and birthed out of frustration: “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down,” Lennon once said in an interview with Playboy.
18. ‘I Am The Walrus’
Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs and the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll and sees Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point.
“Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. Like many dreams, the song is actually a composite of a few different themes. The basic rhythmic pattern came from one song about inner-city police which Lennon had based on a police siren. The other two threads were dreamed up when Lennon was high on acid, with one being written as if he was on a cornflake.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output at this time and also showed that songs don’t necessarily have to mean anything to be considered great.
17. ‘Gimme Some Truth’
Another moment of Lennon letting his politics run wild as the protest song sits pretty within Imagine. One of the leftover songs from The Beatles’ Get Back sessions, Lennon turns his caustic wit and razor-sharp tongue at lying politicians “short-haired yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky”, hypocrisy and chauvinism, “tight-lipped condescending mommy’s little chauvinists”.
It sees Lennon reflecting the world around him and trying to gather up further ground support for a change in the political system. Lennon is desperately trying to sift through the media minefield trying to find a golden nugget of truth. Another song with contribution from George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle arguably steals the show with his gritty playing on this one.
16. ‘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 feels 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.
15. ‘A Day in the Life’
One track that may not necessarily be entirely descended from an acid trip like some of the band’s songs but is certainly dripping with psychedelia is ‘A Day In The Life’. A track imbued with the same mysticism as the best of Beatles work, the song is a fragmented retelling of the day’s papers and sees Lennon at his magpie best, picking and choosing his inspirations on the fly.
Lyrically it doesn’t necessarily imbue you with the sense of ‘what-the-fuckery’ as some of the band’s other pieces, but musically, the track is one of the band’s most expansive. Beginning as a simple acoustic guitar and piano piece, the sonics continue to move up and up before a swirling climax finally explodes.
It is rightly regarded as one of The Beatles’ finest moments on tape and is a perfect example of just how well the two principal songwriters of the group could patch their styles and motifs so effortlessly together.
14. ‘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.
The song was composed about Yoko and sees Lennon take his lyrics into the territory of pleading with Yoko to stay with him, to prove him right and 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.”
13. ‘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.
12. ‘Working Class Hero’
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’.
As one might imagine it’s a deeply personal song for the working-class lad 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.”
11. ‘Come Together’
Initially written as a campaign song for Timothy Leary as the pro-drugs activist ran for office in California, Lennon recognised the potential of the song 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 began to be a big signifier of things to come.
At this point in the band’s journey, Lennon was operating 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 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!”
10. ‘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 on 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.”
9. ‘How Do You Sleep?’
Some songs from Lennon’s solo career were a vision of the future, some are purely directed at the past and, in the case of ‘How Do You Sleep?’, at Paul McCartney in response to his own song.
The track ‘Too Many People’ doesn’t name names or refer to specific events in the lives of John and Yoko but when you look into the lyrics it all becomes fairly obvious what the subject matter is. In the opening verse, “People reaching for a piece of cake” sounds like it is about the latter years of The Beatles era but if you listen to the chorus as being about Lennon and Yoko, no wonder he was not best pleased. McCartney sings “That was your first mistake. You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”
Speaking to Crawdaddy Magazine, Lennon talked about his anger upon first hearing the track: “I heard Paul’s messages in Ram – yes there are dear reader! Too many people going where? Missed our lucky what? What was our first mistake? Can’t be wrong? Huh! I mean Yoko, me, and other friends can’t all be hearing things.”
It meant that Lennon recorded ‘How Do You Sleep?’ in retaliation and with Harrison on guitar the song was given extra weight, “So to have some fun, I must thank Allen Klein publicly for the line ‘just another day’. A real poet! Some people don’t see the funny side of it. Too bad. What am I supposed to do, make you laugh? It’s what you might call an ‘angry letter’, sung – get it?”
8. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
The track that Lennon called “my first psychedelic song” was one of the landmark moments of the band’s experimental record Revolver. ‘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 and bringing people in.
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.
7. ‘Instant Karma’
There’s not a lot more we can say on ‘Instant Karma’ the one-day wonder that Lennon produces without a moment’s notice, that we haven’t already said. So we’ll let Lennon pick up the story.
“I wrote it in the morning on the piano,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I went to the office and sang it many times. So I said, ‘Hell, let’s do it,’ and we booked the studio, and Phil [Spector] came in, and said, ‘How do you want it?’ I said, ‘You know, 1950s.’ He said, ‘Right,’ and boom, I did it in about three goes or something like that. I went in and he played it back and there it was. The only argument was that I said a bit more bass, that’s all, and off we went.”
It goes down as one of John Lennon’s greatest songs of all time and also speaks rather highly of his pursuit of artistic purity. For Lennon, out of the reach of Paul McCartney, he was able to work boldly and brightly with some degree of spontaneity.
6. ‘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 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.”
We’re sure that there will be countless Beatles aficionados or hundreds of musos waiting at our figurative door ready to chew our ears off about why Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ shouldn’t be as high up on the list as it is. But to counterbalance that we have literally millions of people who hold ‘Imagine’ up as a bastion of world peace, free-thinking and progressive behaviour.
It was Lennon setting himself a goal he knew that he would never achieve but simply couldn’t walk away from. It was the former Beatle putting his money where his mouth was and from it, the world has gained one song that manages to unite them all.
Whether your a Beatles fan or not, Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ has always provided a place of solace for those looking for peace.
4. ‘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.”
3. ‘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 and rather than reminiscing about his home as an unattainable place, Lennon pictures it as his own personal heaven, his safe place.
2. ‘Jealous Guy’
‘Jealous Guy’ is the very inner workings of John Lennon, it is the iconic man putting himself on the canvas, warts and all, and unflinching dissecting 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, 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 revealed further, “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.”
It’s not a unique feeling, it’s one that many of us have experienced but far, far fewer have ever expressed. This is why it deserves to be to the top of this list. ‘Jealous Guy’ shows that John Lennon committed himself completely to his art.
There’s a certain inevitability about being scolded for putting our favourite John Lennon song 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. It is on this track that 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 it down in a song. It was the moment the icon John Lennon was born.