The Solo Beatles: John Lennon

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.

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’.”

1980lennonThe 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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