The mother-son relationship has been often explored in English music. Some of them are tear-jerking, some haunting, some jovial and some are controversial. When John Lennon set out to work on this idea, he gave us two very distinct songs. The Beatles’ song ‘Julia’ was his first one which raised some concerns being a love song. It would later transpire that Lennon discussed the overwhelming psychosexual desires towards his mother, Julia. This confusing period of time began after the child accidentally brushed his hand against his mother’s breast during an afternoon nap together.
The song ‘Mother’, however, kick-started his solo career. It was the opening song of the 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. The song was conceived when Lennon was attending Dr Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy sessions which was trauma-based psychotherapy involving the use of screaming to expose layers of pain associated with past experiences. Lennon had abandonment issues as his father left the family when he was an infant and his mother died when he was seventeen.
During this phase, Lennon tilted towards writing more confessional lyrics, the traces of which can be found in songs like ‘Help,’ ‘In My Life,’ ‘Girl’ and ‘Nowhere Man.’ Though the song ‘Mother’ resonates with his painful memories of childhood, Lennon said that “the song was not just about his parents,” but was rather “about 99% of the parents, alive or half dead” in one of his last concerts. Besides, with the advent of the Second World War, many lives were lost and many families were broken. The song begins with a funeral bell tolling slowly, four times.
Lennon, who realised the song’s potential as it “seemed to catch in my head”, said he was disappointed by its commercial success. “I was a bit surprised by the reaction to ‘Mother’,” Lennon complained to author Robert Hilburn. “Can’t they see how nice it is?” But one person was clearly impressed by the song and that was Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed.
Reed, who was a revolutionary musician, was very hard to please. To him, art was meant to be ground-breaking, controversial and something that no one had produced before. With this idea, he formed The Velvet Underground to “elevate the rock ’n’ roll song and take it where it hadn’t been taken before.” The Beatles and their “corny” rock n’ roll was despicable to Reed. He said in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, “When [bands] did try to get ‘arty,’ it was worse than stupid rock & roll,” Reed says in the interview. “What I mean by ‘stupid,’ I mean, like, the Doors… I never liked the Beatles [either]. I thought they were garbage. If you say, ‘Who did you like?’ I liked nobody.”
However, Reed didn’t hold back due praises. His reaction to Lennon’s ‘Mother’ though unexpected was justified. “That was a song that had realism,” Reed told Bruce Pollock. “When I first heard it, I didn’t even know it was him. I just said, ‘Who the fuck is that? I don’t believe that.’ Because the lyrics to that are real. You see, he wasn’t kidding around. He got right down to it, as down as you can get. I like that in a song.”
Lou Reed went on to perform the song at various concerts publicly approving the new and improved John Lennon. He generally sang it in a slower tempo and with abundant emotions. One could tell that he liked the song from the way he delivered it.
Watch Lou Reed perform ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Mother’, below.