The Cult of Memory in the Music of John Lennon and the Beatles

Nathan Pensky

In some ways, John Lennon's solo career was a response to his time as a Beatle. In others, it was something much more personal.

The Beatles achieved a level of adoration that, in some ways, can only be measured by itself, a popularity that bordered on mob mentality. However, both within and without the Beatles, the music of John Lennon can be characterized by a dual-purposed abrasiveness toward this populist mentality, represented on one side by his obsession with skiffle-inflected rock, on the other by the avant-garde leanings of his art school days brought to flower through his numerous collaborations with wife and muse, Yoko Ono. The leather-clad rocker and the ethereal art-rock guru each surfaces throughout Lennon's oeuvre at various times and to varying degrees.

Still, shuttling between these opposite ends of the Lennon continuum, the music itself is remarkably even in tone, distinctive in voice, always unequivocally him. And while the variation of quality in Lennon's voice is easily picked out from his collaborators, his music is measured most aptly in relation to the various personal distractions vying for his artistic gaze at the time of composition. For someone so singular in persona, Lennon was strongest in collaboration, highly tractable to the barbs and anodynes of personal relationship.

John Lennon's post-Beatles music is preoccupied by the yawning absence of the day-to-day influence of his boyhood mates. Or perhaps it only seems so; all pop music must be compared to the Beatles at some point, none so much as the solo work of the Beatles themselves. Such preoccupations are true of Paul McCartney's and George Harrison's solo work in terms of Lennon's absence; all had compositional gaps that seem so obvious when viewed against Beatles music. But these gaps, and the enduring and untranslatable experience of Beatlemania from the inside, themselves comprise a kind of collaborative musical experience. Always individually defined by that most definitive of bands, the members of the Beatles could not help but hearken back, either in direct musical or media overtures or in the unconscious reflection of a shared culture.

Lennon's references show most often in bitterly defensive reprisals more personal than critical. At one point post-breakup, he teamed up with Harrison to lambaste McCartney's financial meddling and artistic sins in "How Do You Sleep?", at another he disparaged Harrison's songwriting to the press against his own and McCartney's. However distinguished Lennon became on his own, anxiety over the cultural heights of the Beatles' gestalt effect is palpable in his post-Beatles persona. Citing as much does not diminish Lennon's cultural importance but contextualizes it.

Disparaging references to Beatlemania and to fame in general pepper Lennon's solo material, this alongside a conscious struggle with the bewildering heights to which the popularity of the band had catapulted him. But Lennon's anti-establishment impulses, which were so productive when kept in check by McCartney's broad-minded focus on craft, often fizzled into abstraction and ego-driven experimentation in solo outings, with occasional flashes of art-rock brilliance, as in "Instant Karma", and "Mother" and "God" from the Plastic Ono Band album. He shone brightest when he found something or someone worthy of his rebellion. Even while styling himself as a music industry outsider and pop culture prankster, and this often ineffectively, Lennon managed to spearhead the most artistically profound solo career of his Beatles cohort. His work is ever imbued with a sense of devil-may-care nihilism, masterful when tempered.

For all its accessibility, Beatles' music is hard to characterize in terms of prevailing aesthetic ideologies; they determined the cultural barometer rather than the other way around. Yet if one idea emerges from both the innocence of the mop-topped toe-steppers and the psychedelic scene-makers (and all the drugs they claimed they never sang about), it is a sense of being trapped within their own cultural importance. Within the actual songs, this is often translated didactically through invocations to an idealized 'Love.'

The Beatles were unique in that many of their love songs were to Love itself, rather than any one beloved, the didacticism of which offered an escape from any overtly cultural imperative. Perhaps the thinking was that if Beatles music could create a "message," then maybe they could rise above the cultural landscape they unnervingly seemed to be able to influence on a whim. They were not content to be dewy-eyed children forever, always singing about girls and money, which is a shame, since their innocence was arguably their greatest gift to their public. In singing about Love, the Beatles were trying to get away from themselves.

Perhaps inevitably then, the band members' solo careers, and especially Lennon's, could not help but take a similar track of projecting artistic desires through didacticism and collaborations of personality. John often sang pointedly about "issues" but even more so about the people in his life, if for no other reason than that everyone he knew either was, or soon would be under the influence of his music, a celebrity. He had the luxury of, god-like, determining who was famous.

McCartney wrote detailed fiction stories, like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Yellow Submarine" during his time with the Beatles, "Another Day", "Band on the Run", and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" from the solo albums. But in comparison to Lennon, McCartney's personal songs were downright bashful. Lennon boldly wrote non-fiction, often naming names. His biography was common knowledge to his fans, and his music thus became a kind of libretto to the continuing opera of his life. Having been subjected to constant invasions of privacy during Beatlemania, Lennon's solo material continued to intimately reveal, as if afflicted with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. He invited hordes of reporters into his room for the "bed in" publicity stunts; he posed nude for photographers and spoke unguardedly to the press about his travails in securing American citizenship.

Lennon sings about McCartney in "How Do You Sleep?" in response to a perceived slight in the latter's song "Too Many People", returning a veiled reference to people "preaching practices" meant to refer to Lennon's and Ono's peace protests, with unabashed invective detailing McCartney's artistic limitations, his surrounding himself with "straights". Lennon sings of no longer believing in the Beatles in "God", wailing "the dream is over, the dream is over" in the refrain. Lennon lambastes his mother and father in "Mother", a heartbreaking song about abandonment and neglect. But while Lennon's emotional openness toward his fans was most often expressed through wry cynicism or wounded vulnerability, he also created family-centered love songs, as in "Oh, Yoko" and "Beautiful Boy," written about his son, Sean. Lennon also joined forces significantly in collaborations with Harry Nilsson on a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross", Elton John for "Whatever Gets You Through the Night", and David Bowie for "Fame".

While the rise of the Fab Four to pop prominence was meteoric and absolute in the eyes of their fans, John, Paul, George, and Ringo each spoke in turn of the band's fame as an animal separate, and sometimes antagonistic, to their respective artistic identities. The constant reinvention of the band throughout the '60s was largely an attempt to maintain control of something that outstripped anyone's individual capacity to withstand.

Yet the brilliant antics of the Beatles' early albums and films are colored more by Lennon's hard-edged nihilism than McCartney's charm. Their boyishness was much more manic, drug-fueled, and ego-driven than the homespun, good-natured silliness portrayed by the press for the benefit of teenyboppers. Only years after the fact could one recognize how really drug-addled and exhausted those early films were. The demands of their fame only worsened through the tragic death of beloved manager, Brian Epstein, and friendships began to crumble in earnest soon after McCartney assumed leadership of the band's business dealings, while somehow artistic collaborations continued to flourish under these extra-musical compressions.

Post-breakup, the '70s saw the solo work of all four former Beatles characterized by a residue of each member's continued need to control the publicity that had surrounded them, to define themselves by something other than themselves, and this to diminishing creative returns. The ghosts of their creative collaboration -- Paul's talent for spectacle and his brilliant compositional chops, George's canny guitar work and rock roots sensibility, Ringo's humor and humanity, and John's flair for pop iconoclasm -- proved much less effective in their individual parts than in their generation-defining collaboration.

The further each Beatle got from the Beatles themselves, the less meaningful their music became, with occasional glimpses of former glory, as in Lennon's "Dream #9", the string section of which was written during the collaboration with Harry Nilsson, and McCartney's "Band on the Run". Throughout his solo career, Lennon's collaborative rebellions looked back in cynical response to McCartney's sometimes panderingly cheerful pop projections. Lennon's roles as rock star, political activist, and family man, and his insouciance concerning his own legend status were often in direct conflict with McCartney's fine-tuned compositions, his glib self-aggrandizements. But when these Lennon/McCartney connections were made in the time from the Beatles' demise to Lennon's own, sparks flew and headlines followed.

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