Maybe it was his presence as part of the Beatles. Perhaps it’s the lingering impact of his most famous songs. It could be the senselessness and untimely nature of his murder. It may also be his limited output and lack of strong commercial returns. Whatever the case, John Lennon is often viewed as the most meaningful of the solo Fab Four, an intellectualized response to the love laments of partner Paul McCartney or the difficult Zen extrapolations of George Harrison. From the primal scream primer of early single “Cold Turkey” to the doomed optimism of Double Fantasy, it was as if everything he did was given more layers and psychological important than merely being a wise world musician or a member of a band on the run.
That, in turn, makes picking his best and most memorable post-Beatles work even more difficult. What three-minute popularity he achieved has been since given over to Gospel, overplayed and over-analyzed to the peak of inferential pointlessness. For every obvious choice, contrarian voices are vying for their own lost gems. Even worse, when grading his solo material, Lennon can be his own worst censor, sometimes giving up on a solid idea in mid-muse. There’s no denying the grandeur in something like
Plastic Ono Band, but few would choose “I Found Out” over the various ‘hits’ released from his posthumous LP Milk and Honey. For them, it’s all about the ‘now’, about grasping hold of the legacy as it slowly starts to slip away.
In essence, the above is just a flowery way of saying that, with an exception or two, you will see the same Lennon songs listed here that everyone knows and name-checks. There are no hidden treasures from the demo-centric John Lennon Anthology or face-slap suggestions from otherwise underwhelming albums. As the crafter of some of the most perfect pop singles ever, Lennon should be allowed to enjoy such a reputation, even in death. He doesn’t have to be made more significant or relevant solely because of a madman’s bullets. If he wrote brilliant material, why not celebrate it? Why be weird when the obvious works so well? With that, we offer this attempt to take a shortened lifetime of art and compress it into ten meaningful moments. It may not be a flawless list, but then John Lennon wasn’t a flawless man.
10. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”
It seems hard to believe that this was John Lennon’s only #1 solo single in his lifetime. While fellow bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr all racked up such hits early on, it was working with Elton John (who was recording a version of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) that brought out the artist’s considered commerciality. It also happened with David Bowie, when Lennon collaborated on the track “Fame”. As it rollicks back and forth, horns blaring the announcement of purpose, this likeable ode to hedonism reflects a thoughtful performer trying to have fun… perhaps too much fun.
9. “Working Class Hero”
Lennon always had an issue with his fame. He felt burdened by the expectations of his fans and the critical eye of the media. For this simple boy from Liverpool, talent was not enough to put things into perspective, on any side of the situation. So, when looking at the lyrics to this undeniably strong track, it’s important to sift through at all the angles: the childhood traumas; the corrupting social ills; the fool’s paradise of participation (or lack thereof); the need to come together and forge some manner of change. Quite a switch from the simple plaintive “All You Need Is Love” lament.
8. “Out the Blue”
For the most part, Lennon wrote songs about one subject and one subject exclusively, his complicated relationship with wife and muse Yoko Ono. She was the breath of fresh air this suffocating superstar needed, and even when their marriage became strained in the early ’70s, he returned to her life-changing effects again and again. Without the older Japanese performance artist as part of his process, it’s impossible to comprehend what Lennon would have done. As this song suggests, the lightning bolt she provided was the answer to a myriad of miseries. While some have suggested it’s really about then mistress May Pang, it’s clearly a ode Yoko — as were many of his solo songs.
Had it not become the “Amazing Grace” of a postmodern PC world, has it not been overplayed on every oldies station on the planet, this song would rank right up near the top. It is indeed a beautiful musical masterwork. But the decision to drum the dreamy chord changes into everyone’s brain brings two distinct complaints. Aside from the old musical maxim of familiarity breeding contempt, there’s also the constant misconstruction and misuse of Lennon’s message. Paraphrasing the classic line in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, if Lennon were alive today to see what’s being said in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.
6. “Jealous Guy”
Though the melody dated back to his days as a Beatle (composed during the infamous trip to India, specifically), the lyrics came together during the Imagine sessions, resulting in the greatest non-singles in Lennon’s catalog. One of the most unique love songs ever written, the unusually paranoid perspective (he sings of “shivering inside” and losing “control” throughout) offers an emotional core far more striking than the standard “Moon/June/Spoon” conceits. While it’s hard to imagine anyone being this concerned over their proposed soulmate, Lennon was clearly uneasy. Given his history — and what was to come — he had a right to be.