Before he was in The Beatles, John Lennon was an incredibly intelligent child. Having lost his mother at an unfathomably unfortunate age, the bespectacled Beatle retreated further into the books and stories that had previously provided him such solace. Never a particularly well-behaved child at school, a lot of the rebellion in Lennon can be traced back to his childhood and his mother Julia’s death, a moment that forced him to live with his Aunt Mimi.
For a while, it seemed as though Lennon would become yet another statistic that sees young potential peter out and become wasted breath. Luckily for Lennon and his audience, the singer would find Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s work, and his life would change forever. The two rock ‘n’ rollers not only provided Lennon with a flash of excitement, a chance of sanctioned rebellion and space to let his imagination run wild, but also a sense of belonging that had otherwise evaded Lennon. While the moment everything clicked for Lennon came when he met Paul McCartney, he had been an avid songwriter before this kismet set him on a path to stardom.
A keen writer and, in turn, songwriter, Lennon would soon become one of the most revered songsmiths in the world. But while much of his and McCartney’s earliest songs have been revised and derided as pure pop, devoid of much gravitas beyond the obvious, there was one song which, if you scratch a little deeper, offers up a sincere vision of Lennon before The Beatles. The song in question is ‘I Call Your Name .’ It’s one of Lennon’s earliest compositions.
The song, ‘I Call Your Name’, ended up on the Long Tall Sally EP after being originally performed by another act under the guidance of Beatles manager Brian Epstein — Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. They released the song as a b-side to another Lennon-McCartney composition, ‘Bad to Me’. The Beatles had toyed with including the song on the Hard Days Night album but likely rejected it because of the similar use of cowbell on ‘You Can’t Do That’. While the song is seemingly similar to a lot of The Beatles efforts of the time, it’s actually far more authentic.
First of all, the song was written before there was the Fab Four. Lennon told David Sheff in 1980: “That was my song. When there was no Beatles and no group. I just had it around. It was my effort as a kind of blues originally, and then I wrote the middle eight just to stick it in the album when it came out years later. The first part had been written before Hamburg even. It was one of my first attempts at a song.”
The track is one of the more curious moments, musically, for the group too. It features a guitar solo which is more akin to a ska rhythm than anything else. Considering at the time that ska music was hardly recognisable outside of Jamaica, this was an arresting sound. In later years, Lennon would often share his love of ska music and reggae, but it’s hard to assume that this was a conscious replication of the rhythm.
‘I Call Your Name’, according to Paul McCartney, is actually a little deeper than some might expect. Like the song ‘Help!’ which would follow soon after, the song is actually Lennon’s cry for attention dressed up as a pop ditty. “We worked on it together, but it was John’s idea,” said Macca confirming the song was written at Aunt Mimi’s house following the death of his mother and disappearance of his father.
“When I look back at some of these lyrics, I think, Wait a minute,” McCartney continued, noting the expression in the song. “What did he mean? ‘I call your name, but you’re not there.’ Is it his mother? His father? I must admit I didn’t really see that as we wrote it because we were just a couple of young guys writing. You didn’t look behind it at the time; it was only later you started analysing things.”
When you begin such analysis, it’s hard to see the song as anything else but a young man, unwilling to sell himself short, desperately screaming out for the attention and love that every child craves. One could lose themselves in the multitude of different universes we may live in had Lennon’s mother and father not left him alone in the world, but the reality is far different. It’s a reality that can be heard in the lyrics and singing of The Beatles song ‘I Call Your Name’, even if you didn’t hear it the first time around.