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Essential Lennon

The stories behind Lennon’s most important recordings after the Beatles

John Lennon

John Lennon (1940-1980) posed backstage on BBC TV's Top Of The Pops in London on February 11th, 1970.

Ron Howard/Redferns/Getty

Give Peace a Chance
Plastic Ono Band
1969 single, on Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon
Married on March 20th, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono celebrated their union as husband, wife and activists with a pair of “bed-ins” — calling for peace from between the sheets in Amsterdam and Montreal hotels — and this simple, enduring anthem, recorded in five minutes on June 1st, the couple’s last night in Montreal. Lennon sang and strummed in bed, the celebrity choir included Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, and a gang of Hare Krishnas kept time, hitting a mahogany table.

Cold Turkey
Plastic Ono Band
1969 single, on Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon
“The only time Yoko and I took heavy drugs was when we were without hope,” Lennon declared at a 1969 press conference. Indeed, Lennon’s portrait of his heroin addiction was such vivid hell that Paul McCartney and George Harrison refused to cut it for a Beatles single. Two weeks after Lennon played “Cold Turkey” in the Plastic Ono Band’s live debut, at the Toronto Rock & Roll Festival in September 1969, he cut this definitive terror with the ever-loyal Ringo Starr on drums.

Instant Karma (We All Shine On)
John Lennon
1970 single, on Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon
“I’m fascinated by commercials,” Lennon admitted to Playboy in 1980. “The idea of instant karma was like instant coffee: presenting something in a new form.” And fast. “Instant Karma” was “Ritten, Recorded, Remixed” (according to an ad) by Lennon on January 27th, 1970, with producer Phil Spector (coincidentally in town) and a pickup band of George Harrison, Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann and Alan White, who all pounded on the wall of overdubbed pianos. Most of the backing singers were amateurs: hastily recruited revelers from a nearby disco.

John Lennon
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970
Lennon lost his mother, Julia, twice: as a toddler, when she left him to be raised by his aunt Mimi; and in his teens, when Julia was killed in a traffic accident in Liverpool. Her abandonment, a deep wound brought to the fore when Lennon underwent primal-scream therapy, became a central theme of his solo debut. Yet his howling chorus in “Mother” (“Mama, don’t go!”) was not pent-up rage but pure grief underscored by the intro tape of church bells, slowed down by Lennon to deepen the ring of mourning.

Working Class Hero
John Lennon
John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970
“It doesn’t sound like Dylan to me. Does it sound like Dylan to you?” Lennon replied in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview when asked about “Working Class Hero.” It is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” in structure and vitriol. But this was Lennon’s verdict on “the fuckin’ peasants” of his own generation. “Nothing changed,” he said of the Sixties and the song in a ’71 interview, “except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything.”

John Lennon
Imagine, 1971
Lennon’s greatest song is the most radical hit single ever written: a challenge to create a heaven of absolute equality on earth, set to a serene melody sung with unshakable conviction. Written at the white piano in his and Ono’s bedroom at Ascot, Lennon’s English country estate, “Imagine” was inspired in part by Ono’s art, with its emphasis on imagining — the dreaming that precedes revolution. But the healing genius of the song is all Lennon’s: the instinctive way he made an extreme dream seem within everyone’s reach, as natural and inevitable as singing together.

Jealous Guy
John Lennon
Imagine, 1971
“I was a very jealous, possessive guy,” Lennon once said of this sumptuous confession about the intensity of his relationship with Ono. In fact, he wrote it in India, with different lyrics, as “Child of Nature,” in the spring of 1968, before they became a couple. But “Jealous Guy” was the better song: a moving contrast of the original wistful melody with Lennon’s pleas for forgiveness, ending with the bruised bravado of Lennon whistling the tune against a falling curtain of strings.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
John and Yoko
1971 single, on Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon
In 1969, Lennon and Ono gave major cities around the world a Christmas present: billboards declaring “War Is Over! If You Want It!” They made a lasting gift of that message in 1971 with this holiday perennial, written by the couple over breakfast in July and cut in October with the Harlem Community Choir. But “Happy Xmas,” conceived at the peak of Lennon’s romance with the radical left, was a grenade in garland — its first lines (“And so this is Christmas/And what have you done?”) a blunt reminder that another Christmas without universal peace was a Christmas wasted.

Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Sometime in New York City, 1972
“This is a song I used to sing when I was in the Cavern in Liverpool,” Lennon said before he, Ono and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention lit into this B side of the Olympics’ 1958 hit “Western Movies” at the Fillmore East on June 6th, 1971. The jam with Zappa was Lennon’s first show on U.S. soil since the Beatles’ 1966 tour — unrehearsed gritty fun, followed by a long freakout that’s been cut from the Sometime CD reissue but is intact on the 1992 Zappa release Playground Psychotics.

I’m the Greatest
Ringo Starr
Ringo, 1973
Written by Lennon, who played piano and sang harmonies, this song was his wry take on the blinding adulation of Beatlemania. The mention of “Billy Shears” was for Starr, who played the role on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But Lennon was also giving thanks for his life-after-madness: “And now I’m a man/A woman took me by the hand/And you know what she told me … I was great.”

Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga
Harry Nilsson
Pussycats, 1974
Lennon was at the alcoholic height of his 1973-’74 “lost weekend” when he produced this album for his drinking buddy Nilsson. But Lennon was sober enough to know he needed saving and to write about it in the first half of this medley, a jolt of bittersweet humility on a record of cheerfully toasted overkill. It was prophetic balladry, too: By March 1975, he was back with Ono and soon to become a father.

Watching the Wheels
John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Double Fantasy, 1980
Lennon defended his five years at home, in private self-examination as he tended to his son and marriage, with grace and confrontation: soft rolling-surf piano streaked with bolts of near-falsetto in his vocal. “The hardest thing is facing yourself,” Lennon said in his last Rolling Stone interview. “It’s easier to shout ‘Revolution’ and ‘Power to the people’ than it is to look at yourself and try to find out what’s real inside of you and what isn’t.”

Walking on Thin Ice
Yoko Ono
1981 single, on the CD reissue of Double Fantasy
Lennon’s unflagging belief in the commercial potential of Ono’s music finally paid off in this punk-disco classic, finished on the night of his death. “Walking on Thin Ice,” Ono’s only chart record, went to Number Fifty-eight in Billboard. It was utterly true to the rebel character of their earliest collaborations: her bleating vocal effects; his harsh skidding guitar, shaking with tremolo. But this time, you could dance to it.

In This Article: Beatles, Coverwall, John Lennon


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