100 Greatest Beatles Songs

From 'Helter Skelter' to 'Sgt. Pepper's,' ranking of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison's output

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'In My Life'
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5. 'In My Life'

Writers: Lennon-McCartney
Recorded: October 18 and 22, 1965
Released: December 6, 1965
Not released as a single

'In My Life" represented a crucial breakthrough for John Lennon — as well as a creative struggle. The song began with a question: During a March 1964 interview with Lennon, journalist Kenneth Allsop asked why he hadn't written more lyrics about his life and experiences. "I had a sort of professional songwriter's attitude to writing pop songs," Lennon said to Rolling Stone in 1970. "I would write [books like] In His Own Write, to express my personal emotions. I'd have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market. I didn't consider them to have any depth at all. They were just a joke."

Taking Allsop's critique to heart, Lennon wrote a long poem about people and places from his past, touching on Liverpool landmarks like Penny Lane, Strawberry Field and Menlove Avenue. "I had a complete set of lyrics after struggling with a journalistic version of a trip downtown on a bus, naming every sight," he said. When he read the poem later, though, "it was the most boring 'What I Did on My Holidays' song, and it wasn't working. But then I laid back, and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember."

What happened next is a dispute that will never be resolved. "In My Life" is one of only a handful of Lennon-McCartney songs where the two strongly disagreed over who wrote what: According to Lennon, "The whole lyrics were already written before Paul even heard it. His contribution melodically was the harmony and the middle eight." According to McCartney, Lennon basically had the first verse done. At one of their writing sessions at Lennon's Weybridge estate, the two painstakingly rewrote the lyrics, making them less specific and more universal. (Some of Lennon's lines, like his reference to the late Stu Sutcliffe, the Beatles' former bassist, in "some are dead and some are living," remained.) McCartney also says he wrote the melody on Lennon's Mellotron, inspired by Smokey Robinson, as well as the gentle opening guitar figure.

Regardless of its true authorship, "In My Life" represented Lennon's evolution as an artist. "I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively," Lennon said. "I think it was Dylan who helped me realize that — not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work." The Beatles were huge Dylan fans by early 1964, playing The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan nonstop in between gigs. When Dylan visited the Beatles in New York that August, he famously introduced them to marijuana. (He thought the Beatles were already pot smokers, having misheard the lyrics "I can't hide" in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as "I get high.") Dylan and pot would be the great twin influences that led the Beatles out of their moptop period and on to their first masterpiece, Rubber Soul.

Before that album, "We were just writing songs à la the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly," Lennon said, "pop songs with no more thought to them than that." He rightly called "In My Life" "my first real, major piece of work. Up until then, it had all been glib and throwaway."

Appears On: Rubber Soul

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