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Music

Why John Lennon hated Engelbert Humperdinck

John Lennon knew how to make a cutting remark in the many interviews he gave during his lifetime, but in Engelbert Humperdinck, he found the perfect foil, a metaphor by which he could brand anything he disliked as “stale” and “bland”. Written below are two examples, ranging from disinterested to outright disgust. “It was a load of rubbish,” he famously bellowed. “It was like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck.”

And that above comment pales in comparison to the vitriol he saved for Paul McCartney. “He was in that mood then and he wanted all that to be said,” the bassist recalled. “I think, now, whilst he probably doesn’t regret it, he didn’t mean every single syllable of it. I mean, he came out with all stuff like I’m like Engelbert Humperdinck. I know he doesn’t really think that. In the press, they really wanted me to come out and slam John back and I used to get pissed at the guys coming up to me and saying, ‘This is the latest thing John said and what’s your answer.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, don’t really have much of an answer. He’s got a right to say …’—you know, really limp things, I’d answer. But I believe keep cool and that sort of thing and it passes over.”

Lennon likely made that comment about ‘My Love’, a love song that was lush in the atmosphere, complete with a string arrangement by ‘I Me Mine’ arranger Richard Hewson.

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It went against Lennon’s principles to write something so heartfelt, designed for a commercial outlet that wasn’t designed for any particular agenda other than to be heard on the radio. But he was definitely unimpressed with the equally heartfelt ‘Release Me’, which outsold ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, his esoteric composition and greatest ode to Liverpool, his hometown and muse.

Nobody thought that ‘Release Me’ stood in the same league as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, but Humperdinck beat The Beatles’ effort in hitting the number one spot. Whether it was the yearning or the barrelling vocal that cemented the track, Humperdinck’s track won out and became the chart-topper of that battle. Although Lennon brushed it off, it is telling that he repeatedly used Humperdinck’s name as an insult from that point onwards.
This is a shame, because there are a number of strong songs heard in the Humperdinck canon.

From the mournful ‘The Last Waltz’ to the lively ‘Dance With Me’, there are a number of strong songs in the singer’s back catalogue that are worthy of the world’s attention, all of them superior to ‘Release Me’. Because ‘Release Me’ is a dreadful ballad, offering the subtlety of a badly written Eastenders episode, but none of the camp factor that has drawn so many to watch the soap opera (and Eastenders is more soap than opera.)

Released in the year of Sgt.Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Procol Harum’s shimmering ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, ‘Release Me’ paled in comparison. It was inessential at best, irritating at worst, and stood out like a sore thumb in 1967. One wonders why so many bought it, when ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ – perhaps the greatest single that has ever existed – was also available to the public.

But Lennon had also written a number of great hits, not least ‘Imagine’, which has gone on to immortalise his efforts in peace and activism. He was certainly wealthy enough to weather a number two, and although it might have been a blow to the ego, it blew everyone from his bandmates to the critics away. Longtime producer George Martin singled it out as one of the band’s triumphs, of which there were many, and of which there continue to be many (McCartney is still flying the Beatle flag).

So, perhaps Lennon should have given Humperdick this victory and acted in a more magnanimous manner. Perhaps Lennon could have been nicer about McCartney’s solo accomplishments. And perhaps Lennon could have congratulated Engelbert Humperdinck on his efforts. Anyway, if Lennon wanted the last laugh, all he had to do was wait until 2012 for the singer to embarrass himself at the Eurovision. What’s another year, indeed.