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(Credit: Wikimedia / Joost Evers)

Behind the John Lennon song Lou Reed described as one of the greatest he ever heard

It’s no secret that Lou Reed wasn’t a huge fan of The Beatles. Although his flippant interview iconoclasm meant that you couldn’t put a great deal of faith in anything he said for fear that it had some performative agenda, you can certify that he definitely wasn’t a fanboy. In fact, he even said: “The Beatles? I never liked The Beatles, I thought they were garbage,” in an interview with Joe Smith in 1987. 

Interestingly, however, this is a viewpoint that has often proved infectious when it comes to Reed’s most ardent songwriting disciples. For instance, Julian Casablancas also agreed with his Fab Four defaming, stating: “I have that maybe advantage that I didn’t like or listen to the Beatles,” he said, adding” “I feel like that’s almost like the branch of, like, 98% of stuff you hear. But then there’s the Velvet Underground. I know Lou Reed hated the Beatles.”

The being said, there was one track that turned the late former Velvet Underground frontman’s head, despite his less than glowing set-up. “I don’t think Lennon did anything until he went solo,” Reed bemoaned. “But then too he was like trying to play catch up. He was getting involved in choruses and everything.” Later kindly clarifying: “I don’t want to come off as being snide, because I’m not being snide, what I’m doing is giving you a really frank answer, I have no respect for those people at all, I don’t listen to it at all, it’s absolute shit.”

If anything, this caustic condemnation, however, makes it all the more noteworthy that there was one song he did actually hold in rarefied acclaim; it’s like how you know you’ve made a tasty burger if it gets complimented by a vegan. As Reed uncharacteristically eulogised: “But [Lennon] wrote one song that I admire tremendously, I think it was one of the greatest songs I ever heard, called ‘Mother’. Now, with that, and he was capable of great pop stuff, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the question you asked me was ‘on another level’.” And while he continues to state that, in his view, Lennon and The Beatles usually missed that gilded next step, he was happy to place ‘Mother’ on the pantheon.

In a later interview with Bruce Pollock, Reed remarked: “That was a song that had realism. 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.”

Interestingly, the impetus behind the song also has something inherently very Lou Reed about it. The track was spawned from a weird cult therapy known as primal scream, and no, he wasn’t on a retreat with a time-travelling Bobby Gillespie. As Yoko Ono described the therapy in an interview with Uncut: “It’s just a matter of breaking the wall that’s there in yourself and come out and let it all hang out to the point that you start crying. He was going back to the days of when he wanted to scream, ‘Mother.’ He was able to go back to that childhood, that memory.”

In the end, the stirring composition is a touching cathartic release of Lennon lamenting the loss of his mother when she was struck by a drink driving off-duty policeman when he was only young and the fact his father continued a life at sea thereafter, leaving him in the care of his aunt. All of this was wrought out in a song that saw Lennon go back to his roots in more ways than one. As he told Rolling Stone in an interview upon its release: “I’ve always liked simple rock. I was influenced by acid and got psychedelic, like the whole generation, but really, I like rock and roll and I express myself best in rock.” 

Adding: “I had a few ideas to do this with ‘Mother’ and that with ‘Mother’ but when you just hear, the piano does it all for you, your mind can do the rest. I think the backings on mine are as complicated as the backings on any record you’ve ever heard if you’ve got an ear. Anybody knows that. Any musician will tell you, just play a note on a piano, it’s got harmonics in it. It got to that. What the hell, I didn’t need anything else.”

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