Every year on John Lennon’s birthday — he would have turned 78 this coming Tuesday — the former Beatle is recalled and revered as a dreamer, the man who gave us the beatific optimism of songs like “All You Need Is Love,” “Imagine,” “Mind Games,” and “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”
But the man who sang “Give Peace a Chance” was no Forrest Gumpian pop star; he was far more complex and so were his songs. Lennon’s sharp eye and caustic wit helped him become, as Paul McCartney once called him, “the great debunker.” In these troubled times, it’s fitting to honor that John Lennon: a man who demanded the truth, who, even while searching for himself, was outspoken about right and wrong and brutally frank about human nature.
These dozen songs — enough to fill a whole album — celebrate the darker side of Lennon’s solo career in all its beauty.
“Instant Karma”(Released as a single)
The “We all shine on” chorus sounds like an inspirational anthem, but in the verses, Lennon is urgently demanding our attention, determined to make us change our foolish ways: “Instant Karma’s gonna get you/ Gonna knock you right on the head/ You better get yourself together/ Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead.” The power of Lennon’s raw vocals mixed with Alan White’s dynamic drum fills enhance the emotional punch of the lyrics.
“I Found Out”(From “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”)
This forgotten song blends Lennon’s distorted guitar, sneering vocals, and vitriolic lyrics to shred every idol he and others chased throughout the 1960s: from hangers-on to his parents. But mostly he challenged the idea of seeking easy answers from any source, whether it was religion, drugs, or rock stars: “I’ve seen through junkies, I been through it all/ I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Paul/ Don’t let them fool you with dope and cocaine/ No one can harm you, feel yer own pain.”
“Working Class Hero”(From “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”)
Lennon lashed out at a class-bound society that dismissed him and so many of his generation. The stripped-down production, basic chord progression, and haunted vocals all serve to emphasize the words that spell out Lennon’s scathing worldview. These lyrics remain powerful today in a country where upward mobility has been replaced by income equality that tilts society’s favors even more toward the rich and powerful. “There’s room at the top they are telling you still/ But first you must learn how to smile as you kill/ If you want to be like all the folks on the hill.”
“Isolation”(From “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”)
Even a Beatle can be plagued by self-doubt — especially if you, your causes, and the woman you love and live for are being blamed for breaking up the world’s most beloved band. The simple lyrics are personal, yet their vulnerability also make them universal: “People say we got it made/ Don’t they know we’re so afraid/ Isolation/ We’re afraid to be alone/ Everybody got to have a home/ Isolation.”
“Remember”(From “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”)
Feeling nostalgic about your childhood? Forget it. Lennon’s look back at childhood tears apart feel-good tropes about the good guys winning but also about parental love and attention. “Just remember when you were small/ How people seemed so tall/ Always had their way/ Do you remember, your ma and pa/ Just wishing for movie stardom/ Always, always playing a part.”
“God”(From “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”)
When it comes to debunking cherished concepts, it’s hard to top “God.” After a beautiful piano riff, Lennon frankly tells listeners there is nothing left to latch onto: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Then he dismantles every belief system from yoga to Elvis until the moment fans might have been dreading: “I don’t believe in Beatles.” The 1960s had ended and you were on your own. “The dream is over . . . And so dear friends you just have to carry on.” Lennon was woke and he wanted everyone else to be too.
“Gimme Some Truth”(From “Imagine”)
Lennon’s quest to destroy hypocrisy, to find maximum honesty, reached its apex with the shredding lyrics in “Gimme Some Truth”: “I’m sick and tired of hearing things from/ Uptight short sided narrow minded hypocritics/ All I want is the truth, just give me some truth/ I’ve had enough of reading things/ By neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians/ All I want is the truth, just give me some truth.” The protest song, fueled by the lies surrounding the Vietnam War, specifically ripped into President Nixon, yet the seething fury aimed at “Tight-lipped condescending mama’s little chauvinists” and “Schizophrenic egocentric paranoiac prima donnas” feel timeless, or in today’s political climate, particularly timely.
While “Gimme Some Truth” vents naked rage, “How” desperately but quietly seeks help. “How can I give love when I don’t know what it is I’m giving?/ How can I give love when I just don’t know how to give?/ How can I give love when love is something I ain’t never had?” Don’t be fooled by the music’s tenderness — Lennon here feels just as lost and alone as he would on rockers like “Scared” and “I’m Losing You.”
“Scared”(From “Walls and Bridges”)
Separated from Yoko Ono, Lennon wrote several songs examining the state of his soul. “Scared” starts with the howling of a lone wolf before Lennon admits he’s alone because of his own flaws, like jealousy. “No bell book or candle/ Can get you out of this,” he laments.
“Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out”(From “Walls and Bridges”)
Written by a depressed, lonely man who was drinking too much, this song could have wallowed in self-pity. Instead the understated vocals and melancholy but lush music play beautifully, capturing Lennon’s weary disillusionment and alienation — from life with Yoko, from the music business, and from his fans. Ask him if he loves you, his answer is, “All I can tell you is it’s all showbiz” — a world devoid of trust. “Everybody’s hustlin’ for a buck and a dime/ I’ll scratch your back and you knife mine.”
“I’m Losing You”(From “Double Fantasy”)
Amid the joyful songs on “Double Fantasy,” this track, with its snarling guitar and wounded, defensive vocal, is testament to Lennon’s refusal to gloss over his pain. He confesses to his past sins but complains that they’re still held against him: “Well, well, well, I know I hurt you then/ But hell, that was way back when/ Well, do you still have to carry that cross?/ Don’t want to hear about it.” Worried that he’s losing his love, he still acknowledges that he is frustrated, even furious about compromising to get her back, which lends poignancy and potency to the album’s happy, mellow tunes.
“I Don’t Wanna Face It”(From “Milk and Honey”)
Lennon could chide and chastise politicians, ex-bandmates, and fans, because beyond cataloging his own pain, he fessed up to his flaws. “I Don’t Wanna Face It” makes his own hypocrisies universal: “Well now you’re lookin’ for a world of truth/ Trying to find a better way/ The time has come to see yourself/ You always look the other way.” The irony in this song is that when Lennon sings, he is actually looking right in the mirror. But by facing himself, he challenges his fans to do the same.Stuart Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.