If there’s one thing you can call The Beatles’ John Lennon it is a rocker. The singer and songwriter may have topped the pop charts for the majority of his career but deep down inside he was far more comfortable with thrashing on his guitar and screaming blue murder down the microphone than he was delivering a touching and sincere ballad. That said, after The Beatles, Lennon got bored of rock ‘n’ roll.
When Paul McCartney first met John Lennon he did so when Lennon was up on stage and already with a guitar around his neck. To impress him, backstage, McCartney provided a rollicking version of Eddie Cochran’s song ’20 Flight Rock’, it piqued Lennon’s interest and The Beatles as we know it began. The Fab Four’s love affair with the genre didn’t stop there.
For most of their early years, like many a new group starting out in the 1960s, the first port of call for performing on any stage was ensuring that you knew the songs of the aforementioned acts as well as stalwarts like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison to name a few. Without these covers in their arsenal and a sincere rock beat in Lennon’s heart, The Beatles may never have come to fruition.
In 1968 while writing The White Album, the group were intent on getting back to their roots. “What we’re trying to do is rock ‘n roll, ‘with less of your philosorock,’ is what we’re saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are,” Lennon proclaimed. “It’s just natural,” he continued, “Everybody says we must do this and that but our thing is just rocking. You know, the usual gig. That’s what this new record is about. Definitely rocking.”
Skip ahead to 1971, with The Beatles now a somewhat distant memory and John Lennon had become bored with rock music. In fact, he only bothered to listen to acts from the top 10 during a very specific moment of his songwriting process. Speaking to Jann Wenner in 1971, he said: “Only when I’m recording or about to bring something out I will listen [to the Top 10].”
The bespectacled Beatle confirmed that it was part of his process for putting out new music but, in general, he was disappointed with the music he was hearing. “Just before I record, I go buy a few albums to see what people are doing,” Lennon confirms. “Whether they have improved any, or whether anything happened. And nothing’s really happened. There’s a lot of great guitarists and musicians around, but nothing’s happening, you know.”
The wave of creative optimism and freedom of the sixties was gone and now the record executives were keen to cash in on the growing heavy rock movement, an area of music which celebrated twiddling guitar solos and epic drum riffs that could last anywhere up to half an hour. Musicians continued to top bills and create swelling fanbases but for Lennon, the rock dream was, in many ways, over.
Now the focus wasn’t on great records but great solos or individual moments, with an act like Led Zeppelin becoming the biggest thing since the Fab Four, the precedent for purist musicianship was set. Lennon was asked about a specific band within the same kind of make-up as Zeppelin and the Liverpudlian wasn’t too afraid to show his true colours. Asked about the group Blood, Sweat & Tears—a critically acclaimed group—the singer replied: “I don’t like the Blood, Sweat & Tears sh*t. I think all that is bullsh*t.”
It wasn’t necessarily the band, in particular, that irked Lennon, but the degradation of rock in his eyes. “Rock ‘n’ roll is going like jazz, as far as I can see,” he continued, “and the bullsh*tters are going off into that excellentness which I never believed in.” Instead, Lennon believed rock music should be crafted from the heart but made for the soul. The state of rock music then was more of intellectual pursuit and it was, for Lennon, a boring thing to witness.
With Lennon still making music at the time, what did he suggest he was making in comparison to the rest of the rock scene? He replied, thanks to his work with Yoko Ono that “I consider myself in the avant-garde of rock ‘n’ roll.” When looking back at some of their earlier performances as an act, it’s hard to disagree.