The Beatles song that John Lennon said was his first “major piece of work”
John Lennon is arguably one of the finest rock songwriters of all time. Alongside Paul McCartney, he turned The Beatles into one of the biggest names in showbusiness but with their album Rubber Soul, they were turned into musicians.
Prior to the release of that record, the band had been struggling to shake off their boy band image. It’s a moniker which is rightly detested by Fab Four fans and one that the band themselves hated too. That’s because, aside from the screaming girls, newspaper column inches, and chart-topping singles, Lennon and the rest of the group wanted to be a serious rock band.
That vision would eventually be enacted but not without some considerable changes from the group’s members. As well as ditching the matching outfits and moving away from ‘cheeky chappy’ answers to journalists questions, the band started to look inward for their musical inspiration.
No longer were irreverent songs about dusky summer nights and vibrant love affairs the name of the game. Now, the audience needed something more, something tangible—they wanted a piece of the band themselves. It was something Lennon was more than willing to give.
Lennon has become an acclaimed songwriter largely for this choice. For allowing The Beatles audience into his life by writing songs that were derived from his experiences. It may seem trivial these days but in 1965 to hear a pop star sing about their own lives in such a candid way was largely unheard of.
It was a giant leap forward for Lennon and the band. The Beatles began to flourish with their new direction and created some of their most cherished work by using their own lives as reference points. But, as with everything, there is always a first song that started the trend and for The Beatles, it was ‘In My Life’.
“It was the first song I wrote that was consciously about my life,” remembers Lennon during his iconic Playboy chat with David Sheff in 1980. “(Sings) ‘There are places I’ll remember/ All my life though some have changed…’ Before, we were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly — pop songs with no more thought to them than that. The words were almost irrelevant.”
Lennon also shared a little on the song’s conception during the interview: “‘In My Life’ started out as a bus journey from my house at 250 Menlove Avenue to town, mentioning every place I could remember. I wrote it all down and it was ridiculous… it was the most boring sort of ‘What I Did On My Holiday’s Bus Trip’ song and it wasn’t working at all. But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember.”
The song remains one of the band’s most beloved songs and suggested John Lennon was ready to open up: “It was, I think, my first real major piece of work. Up till then it had all been sort of glib and throw-away. And that was the first time I consciously put my literary part of myself into the lyric.”
Though Lennon has often cited McCartney’s contribution to the song’s middle eight, Macca suggests he had a larger hand in the song’s structure. Speaking in 1984 he said: “I think I wrote the tune to that; that’s the one we slightly dispute. John either forgot or didn’t think I wrote the tune. I remember he had the words, like a poem… sort of about faces he remembered. I recall going off for half an hour and sitting with a Mellotron he had, writing the tune… which was Miracles inspired, as I remember. In fact, a lot of stuff was then.”
Despite Paul McCartney helping out his old pal with the tune, giving some melody to his poem, it is without a doubt that John Lennon’s contribution to ‘In My Life’ paved the way for his own creative development, for the acceleration of The Beatles artistic output and, quite possibly, the solidification of rock and roll as an art form in itself.