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The Solo Beatles: John Lennon

John LennonResolved: That John Winston Ono Lennon, having been blessed with an extraordinary songwriting talent, a sharp wit and creative mind, has been duly canonized it such a way that the legend is bigger than reality.

Be it further resolved that Mr. Lennon needed his former songwriting partner, James Paul McCartney, more than he would ever admit.

All it took was one great visionary song, “Imagine,” to solidify John Lennon’s status as a solo artist. He had his share of hits during the 70s – enough to fill a Greatest Hits album – but a closer look at his success reveals some flaws: Was “#9 Dream” anywhere close to the caliber of “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Was the controversy of “God” anywhere near the power of “Revolution”?

This isn’t starting well. I am not trying to sully John’s reputation nor deny his rightful place among songwriting legends. I do, however, want to set some perspective on what was really an inconsistent and unfortunately short solo career.

As with the other Beatles, it started out well – “Instant Karma!” was a perfect example of John’s ability to roll out a song quickly. Writing and recording took all of one day, but he was technically still with the Beatles at the time. This could have been a Beatles single.

Plastic Ono Band: Where are the melodies?

It’s with his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, that I usually differ with the critics. Where many lauded his blaringly honest, cathartic songwriting, I find it tuneless. His primal therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov peeled too much away from his psyche, revealing too many raw nerves:

  • “Mother” is typical Freudian psychobabble, plodding along at a barely existent tempo.
  • “Working Class Hero” is a droning folk protest song in a minor key that seems to go on forever.
  • “Look at Me” is charming enough, but it’s a retread of “Julia” from the White Album. John should have sued himself for plagiarism.
  • “God,” a song which probably angered those already protesting his “more popular than Jesus” comment, begins well but ends on a three-chord refrain in which John names everything he doesn’t believe in. You wonder from the list whether he believed anything.

Having gotten Plastic Ono Band out of his system, John toned it down somewhat in his follow up, Imagine. Several Lennon classics can be found on this album besides the title track: “Oh My Love,” “Jealous Guy,” and “Give Me Some Truth.” But he couldn’t leave well enough alone, taking his feud with Paul public on the tuneless, grammatically incorrect “How Do You Sleep?”: “The only thing you done [sic] was ‘Yesterday’ / And since you’ve gone you’re just ‘Another Day’.”

The further John got from the Beatles, the more spotty the results. Some Time in New York City was ┬ájust awful, with John spouting political rhetoric to a fumbling backup band; 1973’s Mind Games featured little more than the title track; and for those who thought that his wife Yoko was bringing him down musically, 1974’s Walls and Bridges, recorded during his “Lost Weekend” away from her, was little known outside of his lone #1 hit in the United States, “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.”

It was only after five years of house husbandry that John returned to form, with his last release, Double Fantasy. Gone were the political statements, the rage and sarcasm. The music was sublime, but it was too little too late.

It’s ironic that John seemed to be most successful with the type of music he ridiculed Paul for: ballads. “Oh My Love,” “Woman,” “#9 Dream,” and “Watching the Wheels” could all be compared with Paul’s “My Love.” John Lennon was a man of extremes, but Paul’s presence during the 1960s tempered those extremes. Without him, the result was unpredictable.

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  1. I think you are giving John short shrift here, but I can’t disagree with your basic premise: his post-Beatles work is mostly a disappointment. Thing is, a great deal of his Beatles work, post, say, “Help”, or maybe “Revolver” isn’t all that we wish it was either. His early death means we’ll never know, but I think it is interesting to think about the fact that his work was on an upward curve at the time he was killed. I also think it is worth keeping in mind that other great songwriters have had similar slumps, and broken out of them. In particular I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, who has had several moments in his career where he has broken out after having been dismissed as no longer relevant. Given the opportunity to get past the drugs and other personal crises, would John have gone on to produce better work than the things he recorded with Elephant’s Memory? Almost certainly. He was still finding his way when he was killed, but his track record establishes that he understood his art.

    I’d also take issue with your contention that Paul’s contribution might have made a difference. The record is not really clear on this, but it seems to be generally understood that for the most part the boys sang the songs that they wrote, and that there was comparatively little actual collaboration– almost none after, say, “Rubber Soul”– except to the extent that musicians who play together always collaborate. There are Paul songs and there are John songs, but unless you are referring to tape collage pieces like “A Day in the Life” or the medley from “Abbey Road” there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of sitting around a piano working things out. The collaborative sound of the Beatles comes from the fact that they were album artists, not song writing partners.

  2. peter says:

    I’d agree that Paul’s true songwriting collaboration with John ceased for the most part around 1966, but I still think that subconsciously, Paul was still affecting John. You can’t be around all that melody without it having some benefit. (And as we’ll see next week, Paul not being around the more poetic John affected his songwriting as well.) There’s a reason “Cold Turkey” was never on a Beatles album, even though it was written before the breakup. And even though John wrote some pretty avant-garde material during the Beatles years (“Revolution #9”, “What’s the New Mary Jane”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”), if you look at his more melodic output during his early solo career, you’ll see that they’re actually snippets from melodies written when he was still with the Beatles (“Oh My Love,” “Jealous Guy” and even the piano intro to “Imagine”).

    John no doubt felt free when the Beatles broke up, but having Yoko as a sounding board instead of Paul had to have affected the quality of his work – and not in a good way. I think John missed Paul more than John would ever admit to.

  3. Judith says:

    John’s problem was having Yoko around. I

  4. Terry says:

    I agree as well. I have trouble filling up an LP’s worth (40 minutes) of great songs, an 80 minute CD has some very marginal songs. John is still my favorite, and I wish we had his satiric wit, but he should have taken up acting or hosted a TV/radio show instead of a solo musical career. He and Keith Richards might have make some kickass records.

    I dislike Paul’s sappy songs but could easily fill up a CD’s worth and would end up singing along to one or two of them.

  5. Tony Bennett says:

    I just love the Beatles, have you tried out http://www.legal5ounds.com – you can download all their albums there!

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