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John Lennon's subtle “cry for help” in a Beatles song

John Lennon was set to be a little different from his early childhood. The formative years of our lives tend to shape who we become in later life. Our insecurities, relationship tendencies, friendships and behavioural demeanour can often be traced back to nurture.

Lennon’s famous maternal abandonment issues weren’t fully expressed until his post-Beatles days, when he addressed the issue with experimental primal scream therapy. However, his latent insecurities were a constant presence throughout the 1960s; they wreaked havoc upon his personal life as he struggled to deal with The Beatles’ mounting fame. 

By 1964, The Beatles had become a worldwide sensation and round every street corner was a new chorus of screaming superfans. Alongside the flattery of fame came a strange kind of loneliness for the Beatles as they gradually lost their freedom. They often had to hide out in hotel rooms with close friends and partners to evade the paparazzi and swarming crowds. 

During these early years of fame, Lennon was quoted as saying: “The price of fame is not being able to go to the Phil [a pub] for a quiet pint.” 

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Lennon was the least equipped to deal with such a seismic lurch to fame. It was in 1964, following the band’s first foray into the States, that Lennon wrote his subtle cry for help, ‘I’ll Cry Instead’. The song was recorded for the Beatles’ third studio album and first film soundtrack, A Hard Day’s Night

At a glance, the song doesn’t come across as a cry for help, despite its name, because of its catchy rhythm and cheery tone. But as one delves into the lyrics set against Lennon’s true feelings at the time, the song takes the form of a window to the musician’s truest emotions.

The lyrics read: “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet / I can’t talk to people that I meet / If I could see you now, I’d try to make you sad somehow / But I can’t, so I’ll cry instead.”

He followed this up with: “Don’t wanna cry when there’s people there / I get shy when they start to stare / I’m gonna hide myself away / But I’ll come back again someday.”

The self-deprecating and sombre lyrics certainly seem to reflect Lennon’s feelings of fame-induced claustrophobia and loneliness at the time, but as Paul McCartney once pointed out, the song also seems to be directed at someone specifically. McCartney suspected that the song gave insight into Lennon’s feelings of being “trapped by his marriage” more so than the pressure of fame. 

Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, seemed to concur with the former theory, however. When discussing the song, she once said: “It reflects the frustration he felt at that time. He was the idol of millions, but the freedom and fun of the early days had gone.”

Unfortunately for our intrigue, Lennon never confirmed the true source of inspiration for ‘I’ll Cry Instead’. When asked about the origins of the track in 1980 in an interview with David Sheff, Lennon avoided the question altogether. 

“I wrote [‘I’ll Cry Instead’] for A Hard Day’s Night,” Lennon replied. “But Dick Lester didn’t even want it. He resurrected ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ for that sequence instead. I like the middle eight to that song, though – that’s about all I can say about it.”

In hindsight, the song was most likely the spawn of multiple fears and foibles, but McCartney’s assertion seems one of the more apparent factors. After their marriage in 1962, Lennon and Cynthia’s relationship suffered greatly. The fractious final years were put to a close when Lennon met Yoko Ono in a London art gallery in 1966. He finalised his divorce from Cynthia in 1968 on the grounds of adultery.

Listen to The Beatles’ ‘I’ll Cry Instead’ below.