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The Story Behind The Song: John Lennon’s only number one hit ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’


In not much more than a handful of years, The Beatles had changed the world. When the news broke on April 10th, 1970, that the musical force that had turned the monochrome world multicoloured had suddenly blown a fuse, the mourning took to the streets. “Nobody will ever replace The Beatles,” one fan remarked, “It’s just one Beatles group. We grew up with them. They started when they were younger and we were younger, and they belong to us in a way. There could never be another Beatles, never!”

In the time that followed afterwards, it became clear to the adoring masses in mourning that the hope of a resurrection was merely a pipedream. Not long after that, thoughts turned to the rather more exciting realm of what they would each turn out in a solo capacity. By 1974, Paul McCartney had scored three number one hits in the US, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had two apiece, but John Lennon was yet to top the tree. You’d love to say that such a vapid thing barely registered, but you know full well that egos were itching. 

Thus, when Elton John entered the studio to assist John Lennon with ‘Whatever Gets You Thru the Night’ and wagered that they achieve that elusive number one spot, John Lennon was quick to shake hands on it. In exchange for his assistance with the track, Elton John levied that if they got it to number one, then Lennon would have to make an appearance at his Madison Square Garden show for Thanksgiving in 1974. By the time the concert came around, Lennon walked onto the stage with a beaming smile on his face and prideful number one in his trousers. Tragically, however, this would prove to be the last time Lennon appeared live on stage. 

This proved to be a seismic night in more ways than one for Lennon, as the Thanksgiving show also marked the end of his ‘Lost Weekend’ period whereby he endured an 18-month separation from Yoko Ono. During the highs and lows of this period, Lennon took to watching TV in an almost William S. Burroughs-like word cutting fashion as he flicked through the stations at a rapid pace extracting little segments. 

His personal assistant, May Pang, told the Radio Times that this is how the track initially came about. “At night he [John Lennon] loved to channel-surf, and he would pick up phrases from all the shows,” she recalled. “One time, he was watching Reverend Ike, a famous black evangelist, who was saying, ‘Let me tell you guys, it doesn’t matter, it’s whatever gets you through the night.’ John loved it and said, ‘I’ve got to write it down or I’ll forget it.’ He always kept a pad and pen by the bed. That was the beginning of ‘Whatever Gets You Thru The Night’.”

With this, the song represents a befitting moment of reconciliation and a celebration of friendship. As Lennon would recall of Elton John’s involvement: “I was fiddling about one night and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple — you know, we’re all good friends — and the next minute Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play.”

Adding: “A fine musician, great piano player. I was really pleasantly surprised at the way he could get in on such a loose track and add to it and keep up with the rhythm changes — obviously, ’cause it doesn’t keep the same rhythm… And then he sang with me. We had a great time.” 

This sense of fun returning to performing is what made the song soar, and although it might not be as much of a zenith in terms of quality as it was commercially, it certainly offered up a depth of contentment for Lennon after a long lost weekend.