If you were to think that the image of John Lennon bopping his mop along with the other members of The Beatles was a signifier of his contentedness and comfortable happiness, then you’d be wrong. The singer and songwriter had struggled throughout much of his life to come to terms with the loss of his mother, a bond he latterly shared with Paul McCartney. While many of the Fab Four’s songs from the early period were focused on rock ‘n’ roll tropes, not often leaving space for much else, on one album, Lennon did manage to add one of his earliest compositions and more personal songs.
The song, ‘I Call Your Name’, was one of Lennon’s earliest pieces of work and the only original Lennon-McCartney song to feature on the Long Tall Sally EP. Recorded in early 1964, it’s a song that ended up on With The Beatles but has rarely been revisited outside of diehard fans since. But, to glance over this track and not paw through the lyrics is to miss not only Lennon’s growing songwriting skill but a window into the anguish he felt at the time.
It’s easy to square away the image of The Beatles in their sharp suits and wobbling hairdos, bouncing away to some R&B pop, as an entirely jovial moment in their lives. While we’re sure they enjoyed all the trappings of fame they were beginning to be afforded, the reality of being four lads from Liverpool meant they came with a past. For Lennon, it was the difficulty of growing up without a solid family that was bleeding into his work, no matter how much he denied it.
Speaking in 1980 with Playboy’s David Sheff, Lennon reflected on the track he had written nearly 20 years prior: “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.”
It’s easy then to think how, lyrically, Lennon could have been letting us into a secret. At the time, Lennon’s image as the rowdy leader of the band was good for record sales, a factor which made it difficult to imagine he would have been encouraged to discuss how he bounced around his family houses following the absence of his father, the inability to be cared for by his mother and his Aunt Mimi’s iron fist. Instead, he let it filter into his work. It was something that his songwriting partner later picked up on.
“We worked on it together, but it was John’s idea,” remembered McCartney while speaking in 1994. “When I look back at some of these lyrics, I think, ‘Wait a minute. 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.”
Once you do, and you connect the timings of events and Lennon’s devotion to creating music, one can see how easily his life might bleed into his work, no matter whether it was a conscious or unconscious act. What was definitely a purposeful inclusion in the song was the reggae and ska tones that back the guitar solo. Lennon was a lover of ska music and was sure to add this delicate chop to pay homage.
One of John Lennon’s earliest songs offers up a viewpoint of the Beatles man that very few had at the time. It showed a sensitive soul behind the cheeky chappy bravado and though it may have taken some years for people to unpick the track, we think you’d agree, it was worth the wait.