The Beatles came from the school of pop that The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly presided over. These seminal artists predominately shaped pop and rock music by the late ’50s and early ’60s. So when The Beatles exploded onto the scene, their music was the offspring of this and the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership operated within these predetermined parameters.
Their music during the early days was designed with pop hooks, undeniable harmonies and rhythm and blues presentations. The type of lyrics that Lennon and McCartney were writing at this time were fairly ‘safe’ and conveyed emotional stories of ’50s doo-wop heartbreak and romantic relationships all befitting the rock ‘n’ roll tropes of old. It wouldn’t be until Lennon’s ‘I’m a Loser’, directly inspired by Bob Dylan, when the intent of their songs began to explore more elaborate themes.
Rubber Soul, released in 1965, would mark a milestone for the Liverpool lads as their transformation from live touring band to solely a ‘studio band.’ This album would feature another song of Lennon’s that marked an evolutionary step in his songwriting, and it is no coincidence that it happens to be in large part due to Bob Dylan’s influence once more. Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood’, is considered, even more so than ‘I’m a Loser’, an homage paid to Dylan and Lennon’s relationship.
Of course, it wasn’t all down to Dylan. Lennon certainly had a very deep and promising writer inside him. In 1964, John Lennon published a book called In His Own Write which really represented Lennon’s wit and non-sensical childish sense of humour. He has referenced fantasy writers such as C.S Lewis as influences and was an avid reader of all kinds of literature.
Up to this point, he already had a way with words, and while some later Beatles songs showcased his truest sense of lyricism, it wouldn’t be until his solo career when he really got in touch with himself and spoke from a very honest point of view.
After The Beatles, Lennon became fully enthralled in his relationship with Yoko Ono; Ono emphasised the artist within Lennon and challenged him to come forth as such. Partly thanks to her, Lennon wrote some of his best lyrics later in his life.
John Lennon’s 10 Best Lyrics
10. ‘Nowhere Man’ – Rubber Soul
“Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command?”
The song, which appears on their milestone 1965 album, Rubber Soul, is one of The Beatles’ first songs to appear to not be about romance. Lennon said of the song, “I’d spent five hours that morning trying to write a song that was meaningful and good, and I finally gave up and lay down. Then ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down” The song, apparently, was written in a last-ditch effort to fill out a void on the album
While the narrator of the song appears to be singing about someone else, really, the narrator is John and he is singing about himself. Paul McCartney would confirm this story, “that was John after a night out, with dawn coming up. I think at that point, he was a bit…wondering where he was going, and to be truthful so was I. I was starting to worry about him.”
9. ‘Watching the Wheels’ – Double Fantasy
“Ah, people asking questions
Lost in confusion
Well, I tell them there’s no problem
Well, they shake their heads and they look at me,
as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry, I’m just sitting here doing time“
The final single to be released from the last album Lennon released while he was alive, seemed to be tragically fateful as if it were goodbye to the world. Lennon described the song as such, “it’s a song version of the love letter from John and Yoko. It’s an answer to ‘What have you been doing?’ ‘Well, I’ve been doing this – watchin’ the wheels.’”
The song itself is fairly on the nose and expressed pretty well as to where Lennon was at during this point in his life. He had retreated from the limelight as he was burnt out from the media’s constant recording process and attention. “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.”
Lennon continued, “I thought, Well, oughtn’t I? Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I be, like, going to the office or something? 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.”
8. ‘Mother’ – Plastic Ono Band
“Children, don’t do
What I have done
I couldn’t walk
And I tried to run
I just got to tell you
‘Mother’ is as painfully honest as a songwriter can get with themself. It is the result of Lennon and Ono’s primal therapy — sessions they were undergoing in under 1970, that involved the use of screaming to find solace. The beauty and pain of the song are best experienced through the full lyric and by listening to the song. This stanza sums up the end of the song as a painful realisation that childhood trauma will persist and recycle through future generations if not taken seriously.
“Many, many people will not like ‘Mother’; it hurts them. The first thing that happens to you when you get the album is you can’t take it. Everybody reacted exactly the same. They think, ‘fuck!’ That’s how everybody is. And the second time, they start saying, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little…’ so I can’t lay Mother on them. It confirms the suspicions that something nasty’s going on with that John Lennon and his broad again,” John Lennon said of the song.
Lou Reed would describe it as the most searing thing he had ever heard Lennon write and perform. The song opens with a slowed-down recording of the chimes of church bells. He got this idea after watching a horror movie on TV. Lennon said about this, “I was watching TV as usual in California, and there was this old horror movie on. I just heard the bells, which sounded like that to me. But they were probably different ’cause those that I used on the album were actually other bells slowed down. I just thought, ‘That’s how to start Mother.’ I knew Mother was going to be the first track.”
7. ‘Mind Games’ – Mind Games
“We’re playing those mind games together
Pushing the barrier planting seed
Playing the mind guerrilla
Chanting the Mantra “peace on earth”
We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dude lifting the veil
Doing the mind guerrilla
Some call it magic the search for the grail”
Initially titled ‘Make Love Not War,’ the song is very Lennon-pastiche, containing that simple call to peace and love that the singer so elegantly espoused throughout his career. Instead, the song took more of an interesting turn, examining how lovers play mind games with each other and the struggles to remain direct and honest with one another.
The lyrics are an example of Lennon’s ability to use word-play. Here, he plays around quite a bit with the sounds of words, rhyming and identifying similar sounding words and putting them together, despite not making complete sense.
“It was originally called ‘Make Love Not War’, but that was such a cliché that you couldn’t say it anymore, so I wrote it obscurely, but it’s all the same story. How many times can you say the same thing over and over? When this came out, in the early Seventies, everybody was starting to say the Sixties was a joke, it didn’t mean anything, those love-and-peaceniks were idiots. [Sarcastically] ‘We all have to face the reality of being nasty human beings who are born evil and everything’s gonna be lousy and rotten so boo-hoo-hoo…’
“‘We had fun in the Sixties,’ they said, but the others took it away from us and spoiled it all for us.” And I was trying to say: ‘No, just keep doin’ it.'”
6. ‘Across the Universe’ – Let it Be
“Words are flowing out
Like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
Are drifting through my open mind
Possessing and caressing me”
The song appears on the last Beatles album and is perhaps one of Lennon’s finest songs ever. It is simultaneously familiar and ethereal and touches upon the eternal. The lyrics are a beautiful meditation on the mystery of life and came to Lennon in a dream-like episode. A transcendent moment among the mundane:
“I was lying next to my first wife in bed, you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she’d gone to sleep and I’d kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song; rather than a ‘Why are you always mouthing off at me?’ or whatever, right?”
The lyrics of the chorus of ‘Across the Universe’ are a chant; a mantra to be said to oneself for spiritual enlightenment. When writing the song, it got stuck in Lennon’s head and wouldn’t leave him alone. Perhaps not quite as romantic as a Buddhist transcending moment: “It’s like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. That’s always in the middle of the bloody night, when you’re half-awake or tired and your critical facilities are switched off.”
5. ‘Gimme Some Truth’ – Imagine
“No short-haired yellow-bellied
Son of tricky dicky’s
Gonna mother Hubbard soft soap me
With just a pocket full of hope
Money for dope, money for rope”
This could be a rap; the lyrics have a good meter and rhyme and are certainly some of his most poetic and cutting words. ‘Gimme Some Truth’ is one of Lennon’s earliest protest numbers and shows him as scathing as he can be. The Beatles had played around with this number for a bit, playing it in sessions. Later on, Lennon would rewrite some of the words to include ‘Tricky Dicky’, a reference to President Nixon, who would later try and get him thrown out of the States.
The song was released on Lennon’s first solo album, Imagine, and included George Harrison on slide guitar. The infamous Phil Spector produced the song as well as the rest of the record and recorded it at Lennon’s home studio, Ascot Sound Studios.
4. ‘Imagine’ – Imagine
“imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you”
Pick any one verse from this song and it will tell a tale of a unified world living in harmony with no divisions or inequality. Lennon’s most complete example in his scope of love, peace and freedom, ‘Imagine’, while lyrically fairly simple compared to other songs of his, as a whole, the song does a lot to convey a powerful message. “[Imagine] is anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic… but because it is sugar-coated, it is accepted,” Lennon said of the song. The song was inspired by cloud piece, an instructional poem that appeared in Yoko Ono’s workbook,
“Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.”
Lennon would elaborate on this piece of inspiration. “The song was originally inspired by Yoko’s book Grapefruit. In it are a lot of pieces saying, Imagine this, imagine that. Yoko actually helped a lot with the lyrics, but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to sort of take her contribution without acknowledging it. I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with the guys all the time, having to share everything.”
3. ‘Yer Blues’ – White Album
“My mother was of the sky
My father was of the earth
But I am of the universe
And you know what it’s worth”
One of Lennon’s darkest songs, he was singing of suicide and a, seemingly, deep-seated hatred for the world around him. “‘Yer Blues’ was written in India, too. The same thing up there trying to reach God and feeling suicidal.” In addition to releasing this on the White Album, Lennon would also perform this live at the Rolling Stones’ Rock n’ Roll Circus, with The Dirty Mac, a supergroup formed with Mitchel Mitchel, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton.
Lennon wrote the song at Maharishi’s camp. “The funny thing about the [Maharishi’s] camp was that although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In ‘Yer Blues’, when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt.”
2. ‘Working Class Hero’ – Plastic Ono Band
“There’s room at the top they are telling you still
But first, you must learn how to smile as you kill
If you want to be like the folks on the hill
A working-class hero is something to be”
A fiery diatribe of a song aimed directly at those Lennon resented most: the ruling elite and the bourgeoisie. Lennon himself said it was a revolutionary song, and I would have to agree with him.
“I think it’s a revolutionary song – it’s really just revolutionary. I just think its concept is revolutionary. I hope it’s for workers,” Though Lennon’s views weren’t always perfectly aligned with modern thinking, he was always trying to pay homage to his roots and stick up for those he thought deserved it.
“I hope it’s about what ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was about,” the singer continued. “But I don’t know – on the other hand, it might just be ignored. I think it’s for the people like me who are working class, who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, or into the machinery. It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people, ‘Working Class Hero.’”
1. ‘God’ – Plastic Ono Band
“God is a concept
By which we measure
I’ll say it again
God is a concept
By which we measure
Undoubtedly his most philosophical lyrics, this is John Lennon at his absolute finest. ‘God’ is a chance for Lennon to set the record straight with many feelings he has towards a lot of aspects in his life personally and professionally. Throughout the rest of the song, he goes on a vitriolic rant and disowns just about everything except for himself and Yoko Ono. It is clear at this point in his life that he has had enough of everything.
“I was just talking about Christianity in that – a thing like you have to be tortured to attain heaven. I’m only saying that I was talking about ‘pain will lead to pleasure’ in Girl and that was sort of the Catholic Christian concept – be tortured and then it’ll be all right, which seems to be a bit true but not in their concept of it. But I didn’t believe in that, that you have to be tortured to attain anything, it just so happens that you were.”
‘God’ is an anti-baptism of sorts; he is absolving himself of the past sins of his previous life while pointing out the futility and hypocrisy through so few words. The power of the meaning behind his words are more reliant on the mood of the song as a whole.