In marking what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, artists, critics, friends, and family have tried to describe his legacy. Some articles, such as a recent Vanity Fair piece, have speculated on what Lennon might have been like at 70. While no one may ever be successful in fully encapsulating his complex life and personality, one indisputable fact remains: Lennon was a first-class singer and songwriter. Everyone knows “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” and “(Just Like) Starting Over,” among many other hits; digging through his catalog (much of it remastered as part of a box set, individual CDs, and new compilations) reveals some lesser-known treasures. This list is limited to official releases, although many quality bootlegs exist.
“Isolation”: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, otherwise known as the “primal scream album,” featured highly confessional songwriting in tracks such as “Mother,” “God,” and “Working Class Hero.” His anguished, bare-bones vocals transform listeners into eavesdroppers, as if Lennon is inviting the audience to share his doubts, insecurities, and pain with him. While the aforementioned tracks are all standouts, my favorite song from the album remains “Isolation.” Few other songs have captured the essence of loneliness and feelings of helplessness like this one does in its lyrics. The first words insist on the listener’s attention: “People say we got it made/Don’t they know we’re so afraid?” Perhaps referring to his work with Yoko Ono, he sings of “a boy and a little girl/Trying to change the whole wide world”; yet they sometimes feel discouraged as “The world is just a little town/Everybody trying to put us down.” During the bridge, Lennon addresses an unknown nemesis. “I don’t expect you to understand,” he sings, his voice starting to rise. But he seems to forgive the person, as he/she is “just a human, a victim of the insane.” When Lennon holds the note while singing the word “isolation,” his voice rises to almost a scream, enabling everyone to experience his anguish. “Isolation” may be a heartbreaking track, but it represents Lennon’s unique ability to express blunt honesty in a brutal yet beautiful way.
“I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama I Don’t Want to Die”: Choosing a particular song from Lennon’s masterpiece Imagine poses a challenge. The album contains no filler tracks; they are all artfully crafted works. But “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama” receives less attention than other songs such as the title track, “Jealous Guy,” and his jab at Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?” However, “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama” stands out for its unusual rhythm, biting slide guitar, and Lennon’s drawling vocal performance. The shuffling percussion, amplified by Phil Spector’s resonant production, differs greatly from the album’s other tracks. George Harrison’s slide guitar adds just the right amount of anger to the politically charged song. At the beginning of each line, Lennon draws out the words “well” and “I,” further enhanced by Spector’s echoing effects. The effect lends an angry but uneasy air to the song, with Lennon expressing uncertainty at following society’s expected roles. The line that resonates with me is “Well, I don’t wanna be a failure mama, I don’t wanna cry.” Again, Lennon infuses his lyrics with honesty, using strong words like “failure” to demand that everyone listen.
“Bless You”: Lennon recorded the album Walls and Bridges during a tumultuous time in his life. Separated from Ono, he moved to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, May Pang, and embarked on what he would later term the “Lost Weekend” (which lasted 18 months). While struggling with demons, particularly excessive drinking, he still managed to record a solid album. “Bless You” reveals Lennon’s tender side, which occasionally surfaces in his work with the Beatles as well as solo material such as “Woman” or “Beautiful Boy.” The song also represents a departure from Lennon’s normal sound, as the chord progressions reflect jazz more than rock. His voice takes on a softer tone, presumably addressing Ono in lyrics such as “Restless Spirits depart/Still we’re deep in each other’s hearts.” This underrated track contains lyrics that describes love’s complications, and ends on a hopeful note: “Now and forever our love will remain.”
“What You Got”: Rock with just a touch of soul, the song features an uptempo beat and a popping bass line. The horns lend a hint of southern soul. But underneath the party atmosphere, and despite lines such as “Well it’s Saturday night and I just gotta rip it up,” undercurrents of regret and a willingness to change exist. Lennon’s voice is in full rock and roll mode, hoarseness evident in lyrics such as “Oh baby, baby, baby gimme one more chance.” He may like to party, but ultimately “it’s such a drag to face another day.” In the chorus, he concludes that “you don’t know what you got, until you lose it,” clearly referring to his troubled relationship with Ono. Walls and Bridges’ “What You Got” is a multi-layered track in terms of meanings and musical styles, which results in a compelling listening experience.
“Beef Jerky”: John Lennon, funky? Indeed, this rare instrumental pays tribute to Stax soul. The only instrumental in his official catalog, “Beef Jerky” contains a guitar riff inspired by McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.” The bass line and the horns contribute to the funky sound, with Lennon paying tribute to his soul and blues background. Anyone who believes Lennon could not jam or disliked R&B should hear this fun track off of Walls and Bridges.
“Peggy Sue”: To be honest, Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album has always been slightly disappointing for me. Like Walls and Bridges, it was recorded during a turbulent period, and it shows through his sometimes shredded vocals and the album’s overproduction. Lennon possessed one of the greatest rock voices in music; thus I feel he deserved better than this effort. Still, it includes some great moments (such as “Stand by Me” and “Slipping and Sliding”), and Lennon clearly enjoyed singing material close to his heart. When brainstorming names for his band, he was partially inspired by Buddy Holly and the Crickets in deciding on the name “Beatles.” One of his first recordings with McCartney was a cover of “That’ll Be the Day.” Obviously Holly influenced Lennon, and thus he pays tribute to the legend with his cover of “Peggy Sue.” Lennon evidently wanted to emulate Holly’s unique vocal style, and he succeeds admirably. Just listen for the hiccups and slight nasal quality Lennon’s voice takes on; listeners can immediately appreciate the deep respect he had for Holly’s singing and songwriting. Lennon’s joy shines through his enthusiastic performance.
“Real Love” (original guitar version): During the Beatles Anthology, McCartney, Harrison, Ringo Starr, and producer Jeff Lynne elaborated on Lennon’s rough demos of “Real Love” to create the virtual Beatles reunion single in 1996. But the song first emerged in 1988, when the sixth take was included on the Imagine documentary soundtrack. I love the song’s simplicity, as Lennon recorded it only as a home demo. He sings in a gentle manner, utilizing his voice’s higher ranges. Featuring slightly different lyrics than the 1996 version, “Real Love” benefits from the lack of production (unlike the overproduced Anthology track) and allows him to display his gift for writing elegant, romantic songs.
“I’m Losing You” (Cheap Trick version): While the official Double Fantasy track “I’m Losing You” is likable, this rendition, included in the John Lennon Anthology box set, simply blows the album version away. During the Double Fantasy sessions, producer Jack Douglas suggested bringing in members of Cheap Trick to play on some of the tracks. Minus lead singer Robin Zander, the group recorded a blistering version of “I’m Losing You,” amping up the rock guitar. The cutting guitar riffs enhance Lennon’s obvious frustration in lyrics such as “So what the hell am I supposed to do?/Just put a band aid on it?” The softer version on Double Fantasy sounds apologetic; the Cheap Trick rendition adds bite and anger to the song, thus enhancing the lyrics. Why this version did not make the final cut is a total mystery.
“Dear Yoko” (acoustic version): Lennon played rhythm guitar with the Beatles, but this home demo of the Double Fantasy track “Dear Yoko” features his considerable lead guitar skills. Like “Real Love,” this version (available on John Lennon Acoustic) lacks any production; it simply presents Lennon singing and playing to himself, fine-tuning the track. He strikes up a strong rhythm that closely resembles the final version, but his enthusiastic vocals demonstrate the affection he had for the song. When he sings “I’m never, ever, ever, ever, ever gonna let you go,” listeners can hear his conviction and love for his wife. For the deft guitar work alone, the acoustic version of “Dear Yoko” is well worth finding.
“Borrowed Time“: Released posthumously on the collection Milk and Honey, “Borrowed Time” makes for a bittersweet listening experience. His new-found contentment shines through lyrics such as “Good to be older/Would not exchange a single day or a year” and “The future is brighter and now is the hour.” He looks back on his youth, admitting he was “living illusion of freedom and power” and “living confusion and deep despair.” While he felt uncomfortable not knowing the answers as a teenager, now he knows that “The more that I see the less that I know for sure.” However, he has clearly grown accustomed to this uncertainty, that he understands he is “Living on borrowed time/Without a thought for tomorrow.” Every time I hear this song, it brings a smile to my face; his voice exudes happiness and new-found joy, and he embraces the future. Of course, these lyrics also inspire sadness, as Lennon never got to experience the middle age years and revel in his contentment. Still, the reggae-infused song shows Lennon at his happiest, and hints at how he would have experimented with his sound by incorporating other genres.