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The Story Behind the Song: John Lennon’s ever-changing ‘Watching the Wheels’

The sentiment behind one of Lennon’s most memorable songs, ‘Watching the Wheels’ remained fairly much the same, even though the song underwent many changes, especially its title. 

From the very beginning, John Lennon worked furiously: he formed The Beatles in the early ‘60s, toured with them up until 1966, and even after then he recorded albums with and without them right up until 1973. He had a very vigorous schedule within his music career. Although, it wasn’t only his music that Lennon became extremely famous for, it was also his outspoken political and social activism, along with Yoko Ono, that kept him busy and gave him a powerful presence within the media. During those years, it seemed that John Lennon’s name was everywhere. 

During the Vietnam War, Lennon voiced his protest and waged somewhat of a media war with Nixon’s government in the States. The backlash to that was President Nixon’s attempt to get Lennon, and Yoko Ono deported from the US. In response, in a press conference, Lennon and Yoko Ono announced the creation of their new nation of free-thinking bohemians, Nutopia. Although it was really just a conceptual idea, the basis behind it was to be all-encompassing and inviting for everyone, regardless of national origin. In addition to this, Lennon and Ono also staged bed-in peace protests, where journalists were invited to interview and tape them while they stayed in bed to challenge the conformist’s idea of what it means to exist.

Considering all this, when Lennon decided to retreat from his vigorous music routine, people felt somewhat betrayed. The media, especially, felt hurt and therefore took it as an opportunity to attack Lennon, as they had so many times before. ‘Watching The Wheels’ was a letter to the world about how Lennon was ok just simply existing.  “I hadn’t stopped from ’62 till ’73 – on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard. What it seemed like to me was, This must be what guys go through at sixty-five when suddenly they’re not supposed to exist any more and they are sent out of the office. I thought, Well, oughtn’t I? Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I be, like, going to the office or something?”  

Lennon was seriously grappling with having been at the centre of attention for so long. He added: “because I don’t exist if my name isn’t in the papers or if I don’t have a record out or in the charts, or whatever – if I’m not seen at the right clubs. It must be like the guys at sixty-five when somebody comes up and goes, ‘Your life is over. Time for golf.’”

Lennon started writing the song in 1977; at its core, the song was his reply to the media’s pernicious remarks. ‘Watching the Wheels’ would develop multiple layers of meaning. On the surface, it was a literal ode to watching the wheels of automobiles turn around and around, as he watched from his apartment window in the famous Dakota building but scratch beneath the surface, and it poured fuel on to the fire of Lennon’s relentless life. 

Its original working title was ‘Emotional Wreck’. By 1978, he changed it to ‘People’. Through all of these iterations and versions of the song as it began to develop more as its title changed, the subject of the song revealed its many colours to Lennon. Another part of it was the singer coming to terms with growing old and having to accept his life as it is. Prior to 1980 when the song became what it is today, by 1979, it was named ‘I’m Crazy’. By this point, he had the basic motif of the song; he had the chord structure and thus recorded a demo of it on the piano.

In his own words, Lennon described the song as such: “watching the wheels? The whole universe is a wheel, right? Wheels go round and round. They’re my own wheels, mainly. But, you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child, too.”

By August 1980, Lennon went into the Hit Factory Studio in New York City to track the song and by September he did the vocals for it. Tragically, the song would be released posthumously in 1981 as the third and final single for his Double Fantasy album.

Listen to the brilliant John Lennon track, ‘Watching The Wheels’: