John Lennon: his star shines on

Had he survived Mark Chapman's bullet outside the Dakota Building in 1980, Lennon would have been celebrating his 60th birthday today. Robert Webb trawls through the ex-Beatle's musical legacy to come up with 60 minutes' worth of tracks that encapsulate his genius
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John Lennon was never one to hide his love away; nor his anger; nor his convictions. "Everything that comes out of a song shows something about yourself," he once remarked. His most confessional songs were the tracks recorded with Yoko in the early Seventies. "'Imagine' and those Plastic Ono Band songs stand up to any that was written when I was a Beatle. Now, it may take you 20 or 30 years to appreciate that," he said in 1980, with uncanny prescience. Twenty years after that comment, 30 years after it was recorded, "Imagine" was voted by many the "song of the millennium".

John Lennon was never one to hide his love away; nor his anger; nor his convictions. "Everything that comes out of a song shows something about yourself," he once remarked. His most confessional songs were the tracks recorded with Yoko in the early Seventies. "'Imagine' and those Plastic Ono Band songs stand up to any that was written when I was a Beatle. Now, it may take you 20 or 30 years to appreciate that," he said in 1980, with uncanny prescience. Twenty years after that comment, 30 years after it was recorded, "Imagine" was voted by many the "song of the millennium".

But John could never escape the hegemony of the Beatles. He once recalled autographing a restaurant musician's violin, after suffering a rendition of "Yesterday". "He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song," Lennon said. "But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing 'I am the Walrus'." So, 60 minutes (give or take) to mark his 60th birthday. A sidelong glance. An hour in the life. This is Lennon, through a glass onion.

Help! (Available on Help!, recorded: 1965)

Lennon's early life was punctured by loss, notably of his father, his mother and his soulmate and fellow Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe. In 1965, with emotions frayed from two years of non-stop touring and recording, the Beatle-jacket buttons were beginning to lose their thread. It would take another six years of self-discovery, and the death of manager Brian Epstein, before he could admit, with a wry grin, that "one thing you can't hide, is when you're crippled inside". "Help!" is Lennon learning the vocabulary of pain.

 

Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine, 1968)

From the staccato opening riff, reminiscent of Peter Gunn, to the chaotic brawl at the fade out, this grabs your collar and frisks you like a carload of TV cops. A throw-away track, incongruously snuck onto The Beatles' worst-selling album, it's Lennon's most shamefully-neglected band number.

Whatever it's about - he claimed the lyrics were nonsense - you don't argue with this one. "Big man", he snarls. "Yeah?" retorts Ringo, through his chewing-gum swing-beat. "You think you know me, but you haven't got a clue."

Instant Karma! (Lennon Legend, 1970)

"Imagine" with balls. John and Yoko cut their hair to see in the new year and the release of this self-help anthem. It seemed a fitting gesture at the turn of the decade. "Karma" left the studio and was bothering the charts just two weeks after its composition. Phil Spector's vigorous production pounds away, squeezing out a sound so tightly layered you could unfurl it and use it as a futon. After 30 years it still shines.

 

#9 Dream (Walls and Bridges, 1974)

Much ink has been spilled over the significance of the number nine in Lennon's life, not least his birthday on 9 October and his death on 9 December (Liverpool time, it was still the day before in NYC). Like McCartney's "Yesterday", Lennon claimed that parts of this haunting tune came to him in a dream. The somnambulant melody floats downstream, as the lyrics have it, "on a river of sound", evoking a peculiar magic along the way. The hit single from, yes, his ninth non-Beatles album.

 

Please Please Me (Please Please Me, 1962)

Raw and to the point. This was Lennon's first number one. It's a soundtrack to adolescent lust, fumbling with straps and catches, petting on the couch, a quick feel in the park after dark. The lads' urgent pleadings articulated in an orgiastic chorus of frustrated "come-ons", you can't help but surrender to Lennon's excited persuasions and blatant sexuality. Released in January 1963, pop had never known such an energetic two minutes.

 

A Day in the Life (Anthology 2, 1996)

Lennon establishes the phrasing for the opening section of this portmanteau prototype by mumbling "Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy". For him, music was often best explained thus. Lennon once asked producer George Martin to make a track sound "like an orange" - Martin, of course, knew exactly what he meant. This version ends with bathetic chit-chat, rather than the famous sustained note on the original version. The final recording, one of the most important of the last century, provided the per-fect coda to Sgt Pepper.

I Want You (She's So Heavy) (Abbey Road, 1969)

Along with Fleetwood Mac's "Green Manalishi", this claustrophobic blues cast a long shadow over the late-hippie era. Lennon's most intense contribution to The Beatles canon, the relentless downward spiral seems never-ending, grinding into the run-out grooves of side one of Abbey Road. You bubble to the surface and there's just enough time to catch your breath before you're dragged under again. Recording took almost six months; longer than any other Beatles song.

 

Revolution (Past Masters 2, 1968)

Lennon the politico was, by and large, an unconvincing figure. The ambiguous sentiments of this fuzzy rocker, and the now-famous "count me out, in" line from the more mellow "White Album" version, left many puzzled at the true nature of Lennon's political zeal. Ultimately more of a thorn in the establishment's backside than a collective mover and shaker, Lennon jettisoned his radical baggage when he moved to the Dakota Building in 1973.

A Hard Day's Night (A Hard Day's Night, 1964)

A portentous chord from Lennon kick starts one of The Beatles' tightest recordings, a bespoke piece prepared for their first feature movie. Ringo is the real star here. He provided the title and is the engine driving Lennon's locomotive vocals, chugging away in a bongo fury until the whole thing runs out of steam and jingle-jangles off up the track. This and John's romantic "If I Fell" were the highlights. If only all film music could be like this.

 

Watching the Wheels (Double Fantasy, 1980)

"I've done my bit, now it's your turn,"Yoko is reputed to have said to Lennon, handing him their new-born son. For five years from Sean's birth in 1975, John the rock star became John the father and househusband, spending his time baking bread and on his hands and knees with the boy. When it was time to write again, he offered his critics a resounding defence. "People say I'm crazy," he shrugs. "I'm doing fine, watching shadows on the wall."

  How Do You Sleep? (Imagine, 1971)

Bitter and twisted, this was Lennon's response to McCartney's album Ram, containing, or so he thought, a personal attack on him and Yoko. The original pressing of "Imagine" even contained a postcard of John manhandling a pig, in pastiche of the Ram cover photo. It was a shame that Lennon, who on the same record proclaimed such high ideals and aspirations for mankind, could not have shown a little more humility towards his former partner. It's easy if you try.

 

She Said She Said (Revolver, 1966)

Allegedly inspired by a tale from the American actor Peter Fonda about having a near-death experience during an operation. Lennon was irritated by Fonda, but found his claim that "I know what it's like to be dead" compelling, and made a mental note. Supremely spacey and undoubtedly drug-fuelled, this is Lennon's psychedelic masterpiece. It was studio creations such as this that finally put an end to any possibility of The Beatles ever playing live again.

Out The Blue (Mind Games, 1973)

Mind Games lacked the conviction of Imagine Lennon dismissed it as "just rock'n'roll at different speeds". It was also his first post-Beatles project without Yoko in tow. Ono's presence is nevertheless felt throughout, such as on this mid-paced celebration of their love. "All my life's been a long slow knife," he tells her, cryptically. "I survived long enough to make you my wife." By the time the album was ctually released, the Ono-Lennons were living a continent apart.

 

In My Life (Rubber Soul, 1965)

This is where rock'n'roll, and Lennon, came of age. Beginning life as a nostalgic romp round the Liverpool of his youth, John was dissatisfied with the "boring 'what I did on my holidays bus trip' song". He transformed it into a startlingly mature analysis of love, change and passing time, as emotionally complex as it is simple. It was completed with Paul McCartney's melodic input. Such a theme had never before been the subject of a pop song, least of all from the confident pen of two lads in their early twenties.

 

God (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1970)

This paean to solipsism is Lennon at his most self-assured and provocative. In a mantra of disbeliefs, John spurns everyone and everything, from the I-Ching and Kennedy to Elvis and magic. The angry agnostic delivers his message loud and clear: you are your own god. "I don't believe in Beatles," he sings, "I just believe in me", adding, as if his unconscious had betrayed a slip of the tongue, "Yoko and me".

 

Because (Abbey Road, 1969)

The final recording for Abbey Road, and virtually the last thing The Beatles ever created together, Lennon's "Because" is awash with over-dubbed, three-part harmonies. Taken as a nod towards The Beach Boys, a group with whom the band enjoyed a keen rivalry at their height, it seemed a fitting end to The Beatles and to the decade. Within two months, John and Yoko were back in the studio to thrash out their second single, "Cold Turkey".

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