John Lennon is my all-time favourite musician. Been listening to him since I was a child, and as is common among his fans, came to identify more with him as I got older and came into various esoteric and musical interests. Eventually you reach an age when you’re older than he was while making Abbey Road. That’s a weird time in your life.
Anyhow, among its many treasures, something remarkable given to us by YouTube is an endless store of demos, home recordings and bootlegs you’d have otherwise searched for at record stores or had dubbed to tape by a friend.
You can go as deep as you like with this stuff. I loved those early takes and alternate versions on The Beatles Anthology back in the ’90s. We can now hear many that were left out by the producers of that series, so I thought to present some of the most interesting and enjoyable of John’s early demos.
She Said, She Said
Revolver is such a fantastic record. It’s really amazing. That moment where The Beatles’ path opens up from the sparkly pop and rock n’ roll of their early years into the streams of technicolour that would lead to Sgt. Pepper’s, Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour.
Released in August 1966, it marks the point at which they ceased touring and set out to become a studio project that would change everyone’s views on what an album could be, transcending even the aural ambitions of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. With songs like Taxman, Here, There and Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine, Got To Get You Into My Life and Tomorrow Never Knows, Revolver was said to have been partly inspired by the impossibly great Pet Sounds. In turn Brian Wilson had been inspired by their preceding album Rubber Soul.
She Said, She Said was famously derived from an afternoon in which John, George and Ringo took LSD with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby from The Byrds in Los Angeles in August, 1965. John overheard the actor Peter Fonda telling George that he knew what it was like to be dead, as he had a near-death experience in his childhood. I really like this collection of demo takes as you hear the song progress from a meandering, unfamiliar rendition into the bright pop tune that we know on the album.
Strawberry Fields Forever
One of my favourite songs, an unbelievable piece. John started writing it while in Spain to film the movie How I Won The War after The Beatles quit touring in August, 1966. He then recorded the acoustic demo featured first in this video in November, 1966 at his famous house in Weybridge. That’s where he’s living in the Imagine film, playing the white grand piano. I’m guessing the version in the middle with the melotron was from the early studio sessions.
This song was paired on a single with Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane and both are nostalgic odes to their author’s childhoods in Liverpool. That was set to be the theme of the album that became Sgt. Pepper’s and A Day In The Life was recorded at the same time. However, the record companies demanded a new product for the market, and so Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were released as a single and Sgt. Pepper’s came to be something entirely different.
Child Of Nature
The moment this song begins, you realise of course that it’s Jealous Guy from Imagine, released in 1971. John wrote this one in 1968 while in Rishikesh, India, inspired by the lectures of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Apparently Paul McCartney wrote Mother Nature’s Son from The Beatles (White Album) at this same time. For whatever reason Child Of Nature didn’t make it onto that sprawling double album. Surprising to hear they left anything out. It’s surely a better song as Jealous Guy, which made Phil Spector shed tears in the control booth, make of that what you will.
Another song written in Rishikesh. It reveals some raw emotions, loneliness and suicidal feelings. “In the morning, wanna die. In the evening, wanna die. If I ain’t dead already, girl you know the reason why.” Pretty wild lyrics right there. In the Anthology series, John says that it was no joke. His time in India was tough. While meditating all the time and focusing on peace, it was still an isolating experience and they were likely a bit under-nourished, dabbling in various sedating substances.
The girl he’s singing to has to be Yoko Ono, who at that time was sending him letters from England. They weren’t together yet, but had recently met and he’d been enraptured by her particular brand of magic. I’m fairly sure she sent him her 1964 book Grapefruit, or at the least he had it on this trip. The book and its wild conceptual ideas was an important part of him really falling for her.
I’ve always loved Yer Blues. Recommend watching this video of John playing it with The Dirty Mac, featuring Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
Inspired by the political protest movements seen across the world in 1968. Many who were out in the streets against the Vietnam War in America saw it as a total cop out, as the song rejects the use of violence and destruction to achieve political goals. At the least he’s taking a nuanced view on the issue. What are we all marching for? Wouldn’t it be good to at least have a plan. Who’s really in charge of this thing?
You have to hand it to that kind of optimistic, it’s all gonna be alright thinking. It became a bit more untenable after the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year, at which the police took their batons to people en masse. Nevertheless, his thoughts shifted around on the issue.
On the original single, he says “You can count me out”, but on the later album version it’s recorded as “You can count me out, in”. I like the sound of this demo, sounds like a bunch of people sitting around having a good time. Surely that can’t be Ringo bashing out the rhythm, as it falls woefully out of time, and we know Ringo’s incapable of that. I wonder who was in the room.
Watching The Wheels
The final single to be released from his last album Double Fantasy in 1980. There’s a great article about this song at Beatles Bible. From what I’ve gathered in that piece, it seems this demo version was recorded at the Dakota in 1979, at which time the song was called I’m Crazy. It’s a beautiful song accounting for his time away from the music industry, the five years from 1976 to 1980 during which he played house-husband and took care of his son Sean.
It must have been a devastating listen to his fans in the wake of his death. Right there with Beautiful Boy and (Just Like) Starting Over. There are many clips of him writing songs on piano, I suggest Lennon Piano Tapes if you’re interested. The early demos that became Free As A Bird and Real Love in the Anthology series are lovely too.