Anyone needing a perfect postscript to the Beatles era need look no further than this stunning gospel tinged track. As with most of Plastic Ono Band, the starkness adds to the song’s power, a stinging denouncement to everything the previous decade stood for. Though many would see the lyrics as yet another rebuke of religion (like the infamous “bigger than Jesus” remark), the truth is a lot more subtle. With the line “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”, Lennon was looking inward instead of skyward, with the only real Heaven a clarity of self, not some pearly gated community.
4. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
Leave it to John Lennon to combine Christmas with a more militant demand for world peace. As part of his unusual approach to revolution — bagism, Nutopia, bed-ins — he argued that a true end to war was only a vocal visualization away. With the proposal seemed overly simplistic, he actually had a point. If all the people in the world used their inherent power to demand change, only the corrupt and despotic could deny them same. As a challenge, as a reminder that time keeps passing and that holidays are meant for joy, not pain, this subversive song is more command than carol.
Fans love to mock this dreamy bit of pure pop bliss as nothing more than middling MOR muzak, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a confessional, as a way for Lennon to explain his ongoing fascination with Yoko and the lingering power of the female, it’s a million miles away from Plastic Ono Band‘s “Mother”, but the emotion remains the same. Instead of a stark appeal for missing maternal love, Lennon recognizes his own flaws and pleads guilty to being unappreciative of what he did/does have. It’s the gorgeous sonic backdrop that makes the mea culpa go down that much easier.
2. “#9 Dream”
Only John Lennon could get away with a song like this. Had his pals Paul or George recorded something similar, they’d be dismissed as slick, syrupy and way too superficial. Like a companion piece to his Sgt. Pepper‘s phase, the swirling symphonic backdrop belies an enlightened excursion into the singer’s subconscious… and it’s one weird trip. The female voice whispering John’s name is not Yoko, but then mistress May Pang, making the otherworldly message of personal transcendence even more perplexing. With a nonsense chorus and an unusual time signature and structure, it shouldn’t work. But Lennon finds a way to make it come together, resulting in one of his best, more beautiful songs.
1. “Instant Karma (We All Shine On)”
Encompassing everything Lennon stood for — peace, love, understanding, involvement, and just a sneaky bit of internal/external vitriol — this masterpiece of pop songwriting is so gloriously schizophrenic that you’re never sure if it’s a harsh rebuff or a communal call to arms. While the course tries to link all mankind together in a sort of shout-along group hug, the verses vent at the undecided, the undeclared, and the uninspired. In something like “Imagine”, Lennon used a more wistful, calming tone to get his point across. From the slap backbeat of the drums to the pounding piano, this sonic sledgehammer is far more pointed and powerful.
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This article was originally published on 23 November 2010.