Believe it or not, there are some people out there who aren’t satisfied with the Beatles.
The audacity! Well, it’s not that they’re not satisfied, but they just want a lot more. After memorizing every pot-baked inside joke of Rubber Soul, every hot lick of the White Album, and every giggle of Anthology, the logical question arises: “what would the group have sounded like had they not broken up?”
When it comes to Sir John Lennon, there’s never been a better time to discover the Funny One’s solo catalogue. The albums that matter (i.e. featuring traditional songs, not wonky noise experiments) have been remastered to relieve listeners from tracking down painfully thin mp3s online, but the neat packaging isn’t the only slick thing here.
Green ears may be in for a surprise. The ideal people always seem to have in their head when they think of solo John Lennon is a vitriolic, fire-tongued patriot always armed with a quip and a badge on his military jacket. This is the John Lennon of college dorm posters, the one living in New York City circa 1972 with his finger on the political pulse.
A good deal of Lennon’s solo work, even from early on, is actually smooth, adult contemporary stuff pleasant enough to play for your grandparents. This peaked on Double Fantasy, the 1980 paean to wanting what you’ve got that precedes modern life-is-good albums like Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. The soft, gooey center of that album, “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching The Wheels”, makes the strongest argument for Lennon’s Lite Radio side. These songs represent the polar opposite of “Yer Blues” (an honorary solo cut due to repeated live non-Beatles performances) and “Cold Turkey”, which depicted a miserable Lennon desperate for any form of relief.
This easy material acts as a chaser to the fiery tone of his earlier solo career, but this was also a Beatle who went extreme in whatever he did. After the breakup, anything that wasn’t completely off-the-wall (the Unfinished Music twins) or oozing with contempt (“Gimme Some Truth”) was airy pop that goes down like cotton candy. Regardless of genre, he had the same hunger for more that prods fans eager for solo John.
Of the four men who once called themselves the Beatles, it is perhaps Lennon with whom we most love to play armchair biographer. His relationships from childhood, his behavior — sometimes righteous, sometimes self-righteous — and the rolodex of quotes attributed to him (especially that hurtful elevator exchange with the openly gay Brian Epstein) demand inspection as to what was roiling under the surface. It would be a convenient narrative for Lennon to go from artsy post-modern music demolitionist to political rocker to warm fuzzy father, but this sheen is all over his catalogue: “Imagine”. “How?”. “Beautiful Boy”. “#9 Dream”. “Mind Games”. “Woman”. “Just Like Starting Over”. And the list goes on (Mind Games‘ “You Are Here” is a particularly sedating breed of beach rock, but hey, you can skip right to “Meat City” if you wanna really burn the boardwalk down).
The seeds were in the soil from the previous decade. Lennon was responsible for wholly uncontroversial favorites such as “In My Life” and “Across The Universe,” whose ‘paper cup’ lyric always struck me as particularly childlike in the tradition Paul McCartney is usually derided for (too frequently written off as a cream puff, he was actually messing with tape loops before John, continuing into the present under pseudonyms like the Fireman). Don’t forget who turned the Let It Be tapes over to Phil Spector to squirt horseradish all over them.
However, let’s make a point not to pit John against Paul; they did that to themselves enough throughout the years. Instead, it’s important to remember they both were pop musicians who sounded lost when they tried to get away from a solid melody. Even when locking in on one, their success peaked with the right amount of gloss.
“The first record was too real for people, so nobody bought it,” he remarked in an interview after the reception of Imagine blew away John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. “Now I understand what you have to do: put your political message across with a little honey.” (“[The sound of] Imagine is what John is really like,” went McCartney’s praise of the album at the time, to which John defensively replied he only sugared it up for “you conservatives!”.) He was never less than real, but he got raw on Plastic Ono Band, even on the sweetened-up Imagine, and especially on 1972’s flabby Some Time in New York City. However, that John would slowly give way to his prevailing pop instincts for the remainder of his career says he wasn’t too ego-drunk to shed himself even further.
The politics faded, at least in the music (Ono has said Lennon’s views went on more of an even keel as the years progressed), but the honey remained as the clouds in Lennon’s brain parted. Record sales aside, perhaps the softer side was simply more sustainable than the alternative. “I am the one who has come a long way. The pressures of being a pig were enormous,” he told Playboy around the time he moved to New York and buried his nose in feminist lit. “All those years of trying to be tough and trying to be the heavy rocker…were killing me. And it is a relief not to have to do it”. And he wasn’t done with life-changers: his son Sean wouldn’t be born for another couple years.
This soft streak wasn’t just melodic. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” goes one of Double Fantasy‘s rearview epiphanies. It just begs for its own throw pillow. He had been on about peace since the mid-’60s, but as the years wore on, the songs were actually sounding peaceful.
None of this is meant to be derogatory in the least; if anything, it should be evidence that John continues to pull a fast one on people 30 years after leaving us, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than having a little fun with people awaiting his next utterance. John deserved all the bliss he got, and that he chose to share some scraps with the world is a damn blessing. It’s not wrong to identify with “Beautiful Boy,” revel in “Love” in all its lucid glory, or cry when you hear “Imagine”. The only gripe is we didn’t get to hear another generation’s worth of it.