December 8 marked the anniversary of John Lennon’s death with fans around the world gathering to pay tribute to the murdered musician. It’s a mark of Lennon’s influence and genius as songwriter and musician that thirty years after his death, he is still mourned. Yoko Ono reflected in her blog,“This year would have been the 70th birthday year for John if only he was here. But people are not questioning if he is here or not. They just love him and are keeping him alive with their love.”
It’s hard to think of Lennon as a seventy year old and that thirty years have passed since a deranged killer travelled to New York City and ended the life of one of the greatest artists, ever on the doorstep of his home in the Dakota Building.
There have been many television programmes in the last few weeks retracing the steps of the famous Beatle.A documentary that Ono has given her support to is making its way around the festival circuit. LennonNYC is written and directed by Michael Epstein, and it reveals a lot of never-before-seen footage from Lennon and Ono’s life in the Big Apple in the 1970s.
Since the early days of the Beatles until the time of his death people have been fascinated by Lennon and his lifestyle but ultimately it is the music that matters. Lennon once said, “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.” I was only one when Lennon died but like many others of my generation eventually discovered the complexities of this great artist, here is my own pick from a decade of his music, post-Beatles, from just before 1970’s release of John Lennon/Plastic One Band to the 1980 posthumous release of Double Fantasy.
The best of John Lennon
Give Peace a Chance – This is an anthem, a song that is charged and ready to knock down walls. All great artists ask questions about the world.
Lennon did that, but with this song, he also provided some answers.
Cold Turkey – Has got me on the run.
I don’t think it’s any secret that Lennon smoked cigarettes, did drugs and drank alcohol (his favourite drink was supposedly whiskey and milk). A lot of artists do. He wrote a song about not having any of that.
Instant Karma! (We All Shine On) – One of his greatest songs, Instant Karma was something that was just a slegde hammer. It’s one of the best-produced, best-performed songs that remains a benchmark of pop artistry.
Power to the People – Another anthem, this is the song that is more proof that Lennon made music for the everyman and woman. He came from humble backgrounds, and with this song, he wasn’t afraid to return.
I Found Out – This is one of Lennon’s heaviest songs, with raging electric guitars and vocals that demand attention. With this first album, Lennon was figuring out who he was as an artist without the Beatles. Turns out he was raw and unapologetic, and he had no time for sweet talk.
Working Class Hero – A song comes around every once in a while that defines a decade or year, but it also timeless. Working Class Hero was that song. It was the truth in song form. Years later, in the 2000s, Green Day performed a very successful cover of this song on the Instant Karma album, reinventing the song for a whole new generation.
Love – The beauty of this song is in its simplicity. Sometimes a song doesn’t need all the bells and whistles. In this case, it just needed a sweet thought and Lennon’s tender voice.
God – My personal favourite, this song is a challenge to everyone in the world’s thinking. It’s a combination of pop and experimental art, with a different song structure. There is no chorus, just thought-provoking verses that make you think about your beliefs.
Well Well Well – Another heavy song from Lennon, Well Well Well is a song about the regret and guilt of not acting on something important.
Imagine – Arguably the greatest song ever written, Imagine changed lives forever. It’s one of those songs that doesn’t really have an equal in the history of music. It’s hard to believe something so brilliant came from one man. (Sidenote – I made a playlist of thousands of songs for my son’s birth. This song came on as he came into this world, therefore his middle name is Lennon. Talk about chance. If The Doors’ Five to One came on, his middle name would have been Morrison.)
Jealous Guy – Lennon was willing to do what not many men are able to, which is admit that he is wrong, or that he’s jealous. Again, he wrote a song about it for everyone to hear, telling another one of his truths in the process.
Oh Yoko! – I think some of the best Lennon moments came when he was confessing his love for Yoko Ono. She was the one for him. No matter what anyone says or has said, Ono brought Lennon’s art to a whole new (and better) level.
Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – Lennon was able to talk about things like war by being literal. He could spin a beautiful and bittersweet tale like this without looking away from the truth.
Woman Is the Nigger of the World – With his release of Some Time in New York City, Lennon became the most clear and political since his career in music began. This song was another hammer that forced you to listen.
Attica State – Lennon looked at all kinds of issues including America’s prisons. In this song, he took on the riot that left nine hostages and 28 inmates dead at Attica Correctional Facility in New York.
New York City – Martin Scorsese brought us through New York City in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. Four years before, John Lennon led us through the city using this song as a tour guide.
Mind Games – I’ve always wondered what it was like in Lennon’s mind. When he created a song, did he come up with the lyrics or music first? The lyrics to Mind Games are what we’ve heard before out of him, but in a way that makes it feel like we’re flying through the sky.
Going Down on Love – I’m waiting for the hip-hop producer to use this song as a hook in the next big pop song of the year. Got to get down, down on my knees. We do for this song.
Whatever Gets You Thru the Night – Elton John saddled up for the harmony vocals and keys for this song, and it turned out to be one of the great pop songs from the era. There is something that is very 70s about it.
Nobody Love You (When You’re Down and Out) – Sometimes the most potent song is played with just an acoustic guitar and a voice. This song seems like he’s singing to someone specifically. Yes, everyone… individually.
Stand by Me – Lennon covered a few songs in his day, one of which was this Ben E. King original. Lennon’s version is more bare, more stripped down and gritty than King’s sweet first. Tough to compare anything to the original, but Lennon’s lives.
(Just Like) Starting Over – After a five-year break, Lennon came back with an autobiographical song that ended up being one of his best. Fans were glad to see that his music was back.
Woman – Can you guess who he was singing this song about? This song speaks to the power of Yoko Ono. Not only was she a great artistic muse for Lennon, she was also his wife, his love, his partner. And only they know about the silence in between chords. This songs sheds some light on those untouchable moments.
Watching the Wheels – My favourite song of his, Watching the Wheels is just simply perfect in so many ways. In fact, my two-year-old son can sing this one. I made sure of it. Just a perfect tune.
Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) – A love song for his song, Sean. The song gave us one of the best lyrics in music history: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Starting to see a pattern: the truth.
That’s a full decade of music and songs from one of the great artists of all-time.
No one will ever come along again like John Lennon. It’s just impossible. He came around in the perfect time to talk about necessary ideas that challenged society forever.
Because popular music became such a impermanent thing, music can’t penetrate the fabric of humanity like Lennon’s music did over and over again.
The hope is that new generations of musicians and fans pick up these songs and listen closely. They will learn not only how to be a great music man, but a great liver of life.
On the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I will be celebrating his life.