Friday marks the 80th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth. To celebrate, his family is releasing Gimme Some Truth. The Ultimate Mixes, a box set containing 36 songs from the late Beatle’s solo career, newly remixed from the master tapes. It was executive-produced by Yoko Ono Lennon and produced by Sean Ono Lennon, who shares a birthday with his father.
“It’s been a really tough year for everybody,” Sean tells Rolling Stone. “It’s been genuinely therapeutic to have a reason to reinvestigate all the music and listen to it and really think about it. It’s given me an opportunity to look back at my life and and look at my dad’s work in a way that I don’t always have to.”
One of his goals in putting together the set, he explains, is shoring up John Lennon’s legacy for future listeners.
“Part of what has been interesting in looking at this release is coming to terms with the reality that we’ve got to make an effort to make sure that kids have an opportunity to be exposed to his music and his message,” Sean says. “We’re living in an age where enough time has passed. No one bothers to make sure that the younger generations have an opportunity to be exposed to it. I just always assumed the Beatles and John Lennon — no one is going to forget those stories. I don’t think my dad would have been satisfied with just being somebody that you have to discover through your own research.”
From his home in upstate New York, Sean reflected on 10 of John’s solo songs, from “Cold Turkey” to “How Do You Sleep?” and beyond.
“Cold Turkey” (single, 1969)
This song is so important because it’s [John’s] first solo song. I know he submitted it as a possible song for Let It Be, and for whatever reason that didn’t work out. I can imagine why [laughs]. It was a pretty edgy lyric, even for the Beatles. But the reason I really feel like this song has been an anchor for the whole project, the Gimme Some Truth 80th-anniversary compilation, [is] because he wrote that letter to the Queen of England returning the Member of the British Empire, the MBE. And in that letter, he says, “I am returning the MBE in protest of Britain’s involvement in Vietnam, and ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”
I always felt like that was so funny and so great. And when we were trying to figure out how to represent or show the best part of my dad’s personality and his whole ethos, I was thinking about that letter as the message. He was super rebellious — no one had ever even considered returning an MBE in England. So he was radical, but like to the point where it’s beyond radical. But he was also really lighthearted and funny about it. His activism, his politics, and his humor are all wrapped into that one moment in that one letter.
Arguably, it wasn’t just controversial. From a cultural level, it was dangerous to be rude to the Queen. It’s something that was considered unthinkable, but he does it in such a nice way, in such a fun way. I can’t speak for the Queen, but I can imagine she wasn’t really offended. Technically, you can’t return an MBE. You’ve been made a member of the British Empire and it’s a thing. That’s it. Giving it back doesn’t mean you’re not a member. So they just put it in a drawer, and years later, they actually offered it to my mom because someone had found it. Like a butler was just cleaning up, as one does in the palace. They asked my mom if she wanted it and she said, “He gave it back, so I don’t want to go against his desire or his intention.” So she also didn’t take it back. My mom’s a rebel too, I guess. I would have been like, “Sure! Thank you! I’m sorry we were a bit rude, but, you know my dad!” But that’s me.
[The song is] also incredible musically, because it’s so stripped down for a guy who made “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “A Day In the Life.” It’s raw and refined. It’s a master class in simplicity. The arrangement and the chords and the lyrics. Sound-wise, it is the gateway to what would be the whole Plastic Ono Band record.
“Isolation” (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970)
Honestly, I thought I always knew the lyrics. It’s a simple song. I grew up listening to it, but I couldn’t believe how spot-on the lyrics were. I mean, it literally could be a song that was written about quarantine. I always knew it was about feeling isolated as John and Yoko and that people don’t realize how insecure he is. They think that he’s living his best life, as they say now. But he’s human and he feels isolated. It’s perfect in a way, because we all feel isolated right now. Then the last line, “The sun will never disappear and the world may not have many years/Isolation.” I was like, “Oh, my God. It even sounds like he’s talking about climate change there.” I don’t want to reframe what his words were and project what they’re supposed to mean, but I think in that case, it’s just funny how it hits the nail on the head. It’s the quarantine anthem, as far as I’m concerned.
I try to explain how remarkable the sound of Plastic Ono Band is for someone who is a famous pop star — maybe the most famous pop star in the world for years — and then making that album. It was very radical. I can’t think of any artist who had even a similar level of mainstream success, who made a left-field turn that was such an abrupt and such a radical shift musically. I tried to imagine what might be comparable. It would be like if Elvis had suddenly decided to do a punk band. Dylan going electric, people were jumping out the window. People were so upset about that, and that was pretty much the same songs, just with the Band. The folk purists were just so hurt. So you can imagine how the Beatles fans felt.
I mean, it already had begun with Two Virgins and the Wedding Album and Life with the Lions. Those three kind of experimental records that my mom and dad did, which is basically them, like, gurgling and making all sorts of avant-garde sounds, and no one knew what to do with it. Plastic Ono Band is the crystallization of this whole shift in my dad that arguably my mother was the catalyst for. But I also don’t want to go so far as to say it was just my mom, ‘cause people who don’t like the shift blame her for it. He was already radical. He was already seeking new things. He fell in love with my mom because he was a fan of what she was doing.
“God” (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970)
I think “God” summarizes the best aspects of that album, because it’s not a normal song. There’s no chorus. He says this line that’s really interesting. I don’t know where it came from; I have no idea even what it means still: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” He repeats it, and then he just goes into this repetitive mantra of, like, “I don’t believe this. I don’t believe in that.” It resolves with “I just believe in me, and Yoko and me,” which I think is so beautiful, because I don’t think he’s saying anything negative about God or Jesus or Buddha or the Beatles. I think he’s really saying, “I realize now that I’m older, that none of the things of the world matter as much as love,” which he’d been trying to say in other ways. But this is a much more potent way. It’s like the things of the world — my fame, other people’s fame, the gurus and the prophets — none of it means as much as this moment right now that I’m in love with this woman and I’m here in this moment and I’m alive.
“Gimme Some Truth” (Imagine, 1971)
The thing that’s remarkable to me about Imagine is, it’s really hard for me to take when rock stars try to lecture me about politics or how I should think about things philosophically. I’m not against it, but it’s just really hard to take. It’s really hard to not just feel like, “Come on. Shut up.” And somehow my dad pulls it off with “Imagine,” this almost impossible feat, which is to sincerely talk about world philosophy and not sound like an arrogant person. I think there’s something about his personality. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off, and I think it has to do with how obviously cynical he is as a person. He is clearly is coming to those ideas with a great effort to overcome his own kind of extreme cynicism and sarcasm about everything. It’s very interesting to me, because usually it’s not my favorite song.
“Gimme Some Truth” is an even better example of that, though. Obviously, that’s the song that we used as the title of the whole thing. Some people are complaining. There was apparently some other compilation called Gimme Some Truth, and we considered that. But it’s like, right now, at this moment in time, there’s nothing more relevant than that idea. Again, I really didn’t want to try to decide for anybody what “Gimme Some Truth” means in the modern context. I just want it to be the leading message because I think it is arguably more relevant today, lyrically, as a song than in any other moment in history.
As a message, it transcends tribalism and I think it’s maybe the most necessary lyric of my dad’s right now. That idea of being sick and tired of bullshit, because I don’t know how it got this way. But for some reason, the problem isn’t so simple that we can point our finger at one thing. It just seems like there’s been a general disassembly of the structures of media and politics that used to have some integrity. I’m not saying that they were perfect, but I think that they’ve really degraded and it’s terrifying. “Gimme Some Truth” is the other side of his personality than “Imagine.” He does it in a way that’s approachable and human and that I think a lot of people can connect to. He doesn’t alienate you from it. He includes you in it.
“How Do You Sleep?” (Imagine, 1971)
When I interviewed Paul, obviously I didn’t bring up that song. I don’t want to offend him, it’s as simple as that. A funny story is that one of the first times I ever got to hang out with Paul when I was young — I think I was 12 or 13 — one of the first times I ever actually spoke to him for more than just a hi or a handshake … I was very precocious as some teenagers can be. I really regret saying this, but I said something like, “What do you think of ‘How Do You Sleep?'” With this crazy, maniacal grin, because I’d always loved that song musically. And still to this day, it blows my mind. It’s funky, it’s groovy, it’s sexy. George Harrison’s solo is incredible. I just regret saying that. I was like, “The lyrics might have been mean, or whatever, but isn’t it musically a great song?” And looking back, I just feel like, “Why did you say that?” It was, like, the one thing you shouldn’t say. But he was very nice about it.
I still worry about talking about this song because I don’t want him to think that I’m trying to be provocative. I don’t know what their personal disagreement was exactly. I know that my dad thought “Too Many People,” the song on Ram, was sort of like a dig at my mom and dad. And so “How Do You Sleep?” was the rap-battle answer. They were inventing the Ja Rule–50 Cent kind of beef. It’s very scathing. It’s very intense. The lyrics are very mean. But my dad famously said — and I don’t know if this was just him being Politician John — but he did say, like, “Well, the end, it’s always about me. And I realized that I was criticizing myself.”
[The alternate take] proves, I should mention, that my mom did produce Imagine. She was a producer. Obviously there’s been a great reckoning for women having been discredited over the years, but I think this is a perfect, obvious one that there’s no debate about. Because people used to say, “Oh, yeah. Yoko didn’t produce Imagine, listen to her music.” But if you see the film of them making that record, my dad asked her between every take. He’s like, “What do you think, Yoko?” And she whispers, like, “This is too loud.” And I know my mom. She has an opinion about everything. People say they hate her music. And I say, “Look, that’s fine. But do you like Imagine? Because she made that record.” I think people assumed because she was avant-garde and because she was a woman that she didn’t really do it. But you know, if she had been a man, I don’t think anyone would have questioned it. So that’s a perfect example of actual provable sexism.
“Mind Games” (Mind Games, 1973)
Mind Games is such a good album, and it’s such a good song. It’s interesting because it’s almost like my dad is getting more pop again. There’s something in “Mind Games” that’s more Beatle-esque, I think, than anything he had done so far in the solo work. It has this kind of descending Bach bass line, but it doesn’t sound like the Beatles either. To me, it’s a remarkable song. It’s like his songwriting is still evolving.
It’s the more composerly side of him, because his best songs on Plastic Ono Band and Imagine are these really raw songs, like “Gimme Some Truth,” “How Do You Sleep?” They’re really rock songs. They’re almost more simple than most anything he did in the Beatles. I mean, “Revolution” is pretty similar. Hip, edgy, distorted stuff. [But] “Mind Games” is this beautiful composition. It’s almost like a Möbius strip, because it loops back on itself. It’s like “God” in that it doesn’t have a discernible chorus. So it’s an unconventional song structure. But in this case, it’s very pop, it’s very musical — I don’t think you have to be edgy to like it. I always thought his guitar line was strings, but it’s not. It’s just him on guitar. I think it’s a jewel in the whole John Lennon solo career. I would say “Mind Games” and “#9 Dream” are my two favorite songs in terms of John Lennon, the musical composer.
“#9 Dream” (Walls and Bridges, 1974)
I think Walls and Bridges might be one of my dad’s lesser-known solo albums. Maybe because “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” was a hit at the time, because it was a big deal that Elton [John] and my dad had done it. But I don’t think it’s the kind of song that stood the test of time in the same way as “Imagine” did or even “Gimme Some Truth.” The best song on the record, as far as I’m concerned, is “#9 Dream.” And that was never really pushed as a single. I think my dad famously said he didn’t really like the song, but I don’t know if I believe him. I don’t know if it was him being sensitive to my mom, because that period was famously the Lost Weekend, when my mom and dad had split up for 18 months and he had been with May Pang. A lot of people might think about the Lost Weekend period as a dark time for my dad, but I don’t think you should look at it that way. I mean, I think he drank too much. That’s famous. He was heckling people at the Troubadour with Harry Nilsson and getting kicked out.
But I think it was a really important time for him musically. This record is a perfect example of that. And he also got to really connect with Julian [Lennon]. For a dad, I think nothing is more important than connecting with your kids. So I look at the Lost Weekend as complex. I think it was probably a break that was needed, and I probably wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t taken that break, because sometimes couples just need to take five, you know?
“#9 Dream” is one of his best songs. I think he didn’t love it. Maybe because it wasn’t deep, heartfelt, raw emotion, and it wasn’t heavy-duty intellectual. It was a light song. But I think it’s gorgeous. As a composer, it’s a masterpiece. For him, it was like, “Yeah, that’s just a song.” He also famously said that it’s him being a professional songwriter, that he wasn’t inspired necessarily, but that he just sat down to write a song because he had to and he did it, and it shows that he can do that. But I have heard May Pang say that it was inspired as far as she remembers, and that he woke up and had had a dream the way that I guess “Yesterday” came to Paul in a dream. So it sounds inspired to me musically, and maybe the lyrics are kind of throwaway. I will say that “Ah! Bowakawa, pousse pousse” is kind of laziness on his part. And look, I’m not a great lyricist, so don’t think that I’m criticizing because I think I could have done better. But I know what it’s like to write a song. But then at that point, I think it was like, “Well, what if what if I didn’t say anything? That’s kind of cool.” And it is kind of cool. I love it.
“Steel and Glass” (Walls and Bridges, 1974)
Right. So that’s kind of the antidote to “#9 Dream.” It’s very heavy, and I’m sure he loved that one. I think he was proud of it. “Steel and Glass” is my kind of song. It’s darker and it’s the part of my dad’s personality that I admire most. He’s a heavy guy, you know. My mom always talked about the lyric “steel and glass” being about buildings, like high-rises made of steel and glass, and it’s this sort of indictment of the structure of society and how we live in this unnatural world where we worship at banks and money and this Wall Street structure.
“Your New York walk and you knew your New York talk” was about Allen Klein. I don’t think they were getting along at the time. But I do think that my dad sincerely wrote songs about many things at once. I think that’s incontrovertible. Like the song “Julia” is about my grandmother. But then he says “Ocean Child,” which is what my mother’s Japanese characters are individually — Yoko is written as “ocean child.” So that was definitely about my mom there. But it was about my grandmother. He wasn’t usually so specific that when he was inspired to write about something, he had to just stick to the theme exactly. It’s more rare that he does that. I think the song “Mother” is the best example. That song’s about his parents, period.
I think “Steel and Glass” is sort of about generally those kind of people, that business types that he was very cynical about. The suit guys, the record-company execs. The managers and the businessmen. But regardless of what it’s about, it’s just musically amazing. So that’s why I like that one. It has the same B section as “How Do You Sleep?” which is funny. But I don’t mind that a lot. I think he wrote like, 20 Beatles songs with the similar descending bass line to “Dear Prudence” and “Walrus.”
“I’m Losing You” (Double Fantasy, 1980)
Double Fantasy is a very loaded record for me, because my earliest memories are hanging around the Hit Factory as a kid when they were making it. And my dad famously died when they had just finished or were still finishing in a way. So I have so many personal memories revolving around that record. After my dad died, one of the ways in which I mourned or processed his death was just listening to that record over and over again. So I don’t even have any objective relationship to that music, for the most part, because it’s not even music. It’s this fundamental part of my childhood. A lot of people don’t remember when they were five. I’ve never asked a psychologist, but I’ve assumed that because my dad dying was so traumatic for me that a lot of those early memories just stayed. I have more memories of being five and four then than I do being 16.
But having said that, when I step back from the album and I try to just think of it musically as a musician today, it’s never been my favorite album from a production perspective. It was the end of the Seventies, moving into the Eighties. The technology was different. The way they recorded drums was different. Everything was getting brighter and slicker. It’s a different palette. So I have to be honest, to choose my favorite song from the record, it’s hard. I’m trying to be polite about it, but I don’t have to like everything [laughs]. I would cry and listen to that record over and over again because it meant so much to me. But then the other hat that I wear as a musician and producer, I’m like, “It’s not my favorite production.”
So long story short, “I’m Losing You” is one of the sexiest songs on the record. It’s minor. He sounds cool when he’s singing. It’s moody and it’s cool. He opens with that kind of throat-growl thing. I also think for an album that most people assume is this fairy-tale idea of a perfect couple, the reason it’s a cool record still is because my dad put “I’m Losing You” on it, which is not a story of two people just being happy. It’s the feeling of losing the relationship. And then it’s followed by “I’m Moving On,” a song my mom wrote about the same kind of thing. So I think that makes it a great album. It’s not a Hallmark postcard about an impossibly perfect relationship. It’s actually very much in their character as being very honest people. It’s about love, but it’s also about how hard it can be. They are a great love story, but I think what makes them so great is that they showed the struggle. They were honest about that.
“Watching the Wheels” (Double Fantasy, 1980)
I’ve always heard that my dad took off five years to raise me, and that’s why he didn’t do any records. This is speculative, so I don’t know. Maybe he should speak for himself, but I feel like maybe that was not exactly what happened. I think there was a lot of stuff going on with negotiating things here and there and Allen Klein or whatever. I think that might have had a lot to do with it as well, because, you know, he was raising me. But he also played guitar a lot, and I’m sure he was writing a lot of songs.
Whenever I talk about Double Fantasy with anyone, the most common favorite is “Watching the Wheels.” It was actually my favorite song as a kid, too. I used to listen to it over and over and over again, and I didn’t know what it was about at the time. Looking back on it, it’s clearly about that time. Taking that time off and just being a house dad. And people may be saying, “Why did you stop being a rock star?” And him saying essentially, “I’m happier than I was when I was doing that, because I’m at home, I’ve got a family and I’m doing what’s important, and it’s more important.” Which I think he was touching upon with “God,” that love and family are ultimately more important than anything else, and I think that’s true. I think anyone would say that ultimately in the end, what counts is the people you love.
I think “Watching the Wheels” is just musically so vibe-y, but it has a kind of depth and melancholy to it. I can’t put my finger on it. And honestly, what’s interesting about Double Fantasy is that, like Plastic Ono Band and Imagine and Mind Games, my dad had come up with almost like a new style of music for himself that wasn’t contrived. It just naturally came out of him.
I feel like Double Fantasy would have been the beginning of a whole new style of records for him, cause it’s definitely different. None of the songs on Double Fantasy sound like structurally anything from the Beatles or from his early solo records. It’s a whole new thing, and it’s beautiful. It’s such a tragic story to think about. That was his first Number One record in a while, and then it [reached that position] posthumously. It’s part of the fundamental story of my life.