The Beatles Apart: John Lennon

Resolved: 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. And granted, 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 “Oh, Yoko!” anywhere close to the genius of “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Was the controversial “Mother” anywhere near the powerful “Revolution”?

I’m not trying to soil John’s reputation nor deny his rightful place among songwriting legends. He was a gifted writer with a knack for poetic, powerful lyrics.  And as you can tell with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “In My Life,” he had a talent for writing a memorable melody, too. However, I do want to set give a little perspective on what was frankly an inconsistent and unfortunately short solo career.

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

I differ with critics on his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band. Where many laud his 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 folkie protest song that seems to go on forever.
  • “Look at Me” is 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 in anything.

Having gotten Plastic Ono Band out of his system, John toned it down just a little 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’.” It made the schism between the two irreparable.

The further John got from the Beatles, the more spotty the results. Some Time in New York City was just awful, with John spouting political rhetoric with an amateur backup band; 1973’s Mind Games offered 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, has only his lone #1 hit in the United States, “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” as a memorable track – if you don’t count the lethargic “#9 Dream.”

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

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 and sometimes sub-par. Melody often took a back seat to political statements and

John’s death in 1980 made him a martyr; in fact, Paul just admitted that in a recent interview with Esquire, saying, “John did a lot of great work. And post-Beatles he did more great work, but he also did a lot of not-great work. Now the fact that he’s now martyred has elevated him to a James Dean, and beyond.”

Next: Paul McCartney.