McCartney Times

10 Darkest Songs John Lennon Ever Wrote

10 Darkest Songs John Lennon Ever Wrote

10 Darkest Songs John Lennon Ever Wrote
July 29
16:00 2020

Of all The Beatles’ music, most people first encounter their classic pop made for the masses. Tracks can seem lame and twee, singing about handholding and women called Eleanor.

The White Album though, changed this.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard from a thousand imitators in the same listening experience. It converts critics into fans, even if they qualify liking ‘just their experimental stuff’, and insists that drugs deserve a heap of song writing credits. The White Album sees a darker undercurrent in The Beatles’ music. It is an album that is largely open to interpretation, as taken to the extreme by infamous cult leader Charlie Manson, who decoded the tracks to inform part of his post-apocalyptic Helter Skelter scenario.

Of the ‘Fab Four’, John Lennon has the most complex legacy. From inspiring other generational idols such as Kurt Cobain to a past which dogged him throughout his life and career – notably his parental abandonment, abusive relationships, and jealousy issues – Lennon was given the chance to make large steps towards making amends.

He processed many of his personal demons through songwriting, and that led to some notably dark moments.

10. How Do You Sleep?

Featured on: Imagine (1971)

How Do You Sleep? is best known as Lennon’s scathing attack on Paul McCartney, particularly the line: “those freaks was [sic] right when they said you was dead”, which used the ‘Paul is Dead’ urban legend to mock his former bandmate.

Lennon also turned his personal attack to McCartney’s musical output, comparing it to “muzak” and stating his only achievement was Yesterday. Lennon was the lead song writer. However, Yoko Ono, and Lennon’s manager Allen Klein are said to have contributed lyrics. McCartney himself said “I just let [John] do it, because he was being fed a lot of those lines by Klein and Yoko”.

Lennon described the song as “what you might call an ‘angry letter’, sung”, and compared it to Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, “one of his nasty songs”. Lennon later backtracked somewhat saying the song was really an attack on himself.

Journalist Felix Dennis, who was present when the track was recorded, recalled a lot of the unused lyrics were “absolutely puerile” and “highly, highly personal”.

Dennis supposed McCartney “must have been some sort of figure of authority in Lennon’s life, because you don’t take the p*ss out of somebody that isn’t a figure of authority”.

9. Steel And Glass

Featured on: Walls and Bridges (1974)

Steel and Glass contains Lennon’s most threatening lyric in “You’re mother left you when you were small. But you’re gonna wish you wasn’t born at all”.

It is believed that Lennon wrote the song as an attack on his former business manager, Allen Klein. It was Klein who pushed McCartney to sue not only his former business manager but also his former bandmates.

Lennon never publicly confirmed Klein was his target, however, lyrical references to a squawking mouthpiece and pulling strings are cited as evidence. Many have also noted musical similarities to Lennon’s most infamous musical attack How Do You Sleep, particularly in the use of violin and horns during the chorus.

The strong backing music and sheer number of musicians gives the feeling Lennon’s vitriol has more co-conspirators than his previous lyrical attacks.

Lennon told fans that the song wasn’t really about anybody. Adding “I’m loathe to tell you this, because it spoils the fun. I would sooner everybody think, ‘Who’s it about?’ and try and piece it together. For sure, it isn’t about Paul and it isn’t about Eartha Kitt”.

Lennon summed up the track saying, “I was trying to write something nasty, and I really didn’t feel that nasty, but there’s some interesting musical stuff on it”.

8. How?

Featured on: Imagine (1971)

How? is the Lennon song that was dark enough for ‘The Prince of Darkness’ Ozzy Osbourne to cover.

Lennon uses the track to discuss his fears that he is unable to show his feelings and to give love. Even when the lyrics are ambiguous, Lennon’s vocal delivery bears his soul before the microphone. Stand out lines include:

“How can I have feelings when my feelings have always been denied?”

“How can I give love when I don’t know what it is I’m giving? How can I give love when love is something I ain’t never had?”

He also added, “And the world is so tough. Sometimes I feel I’ve had enough”.

The opening deals with an existential paralysis where Lennon laments that he can’t move forward as he doesn’t know which way he is facing, which way to turn, and is heading into something he is unsure of. Lennon’s angst during the track adds much to his song writing arch of him dealing with his flaws in interpersonal relationships, while tapping into a universal ennui. The complimentary sections featuring Alan White’s bass drum and Lennon’s piano playing are the song’s musical highlights.

7. Mother

Featured on: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Despite the title, Mother saw Lennon dealing with the pain of being abandoned by both parents. Though he had issues with his mother prior, she was killed in a car accident when he was seventeen. Mother opens with funeral bells tolling, an idea which Lennon had while watching an old horror movie. Lennon addresses both parents explicitly:

“Mother. You had Me. But I never had you […] I wanted you. But you didn’t want me.”

“Father. You left me. But I never left you […] I needed you. But you didn’t need me.”

Lennon was inspired to write the song after completing primal therapy, which involves screaming to unleash repressed pain caused by childhood trauma. In Lennon’s case, feelings of loss and abandonment by his parents.

Lennon predicted that “Many, many people will not like Mother” and that it would hurt them. When asked about the musical composition, Lennon said “I express myself best in rock, and I had a few ideas to do this with Mother and that with Mother, but the piano does it all for you”.

The song showcases the emotional range of Lennon’s vocals and is held together by some of Ringo’s best drumming, which was sampled as a beat in the Eminem track Headlights.

6. Happiness Is A Warm Gun

Featured on: The Beatles (The White Album) (1968)

Lennon wrote Happiness Is a Warm Gun about the “very sexually oriented” beginning of his and Yoko’s relationship. It is a song loaded with double-entendre and sexual metaphor.

The Lennon penned Beatles track no doubt has acquired much of its darkness due to the tragic assassination of John Lennon. The song’s title was borrowed from The American Rifleman, a gun magazine. Lennon commented “I thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you’ve just shot something”.

However, the song’s content was dark and subversive prior to personal tragedy. The line “She’s well-acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand” was inspired by Apple publicist Dennis Taylor’s encounter with a gloved fetishist while holidaying in the Isle of Man.

Also, “[the] man in the crowd with the multi-coloured mirrors on his hobnail boots” was a real-life pervert who used mirrors on his shoes to look up women’s skirts at football games.

Taylor elaborated on the enigmatic line “A soap impression of his wife which he ate. And donated to the National Trust” commenting “… to donate what you’ve eaten to the National Trust was what would now be known as ‘defecation on common land’”.

5. Isolation

Featured on: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Isolation sees Lennon deal with a varied internal turmoil at the height of his, and his wife’s, fame. Lennon’s piano plays with the false offering of hope, while also creating moments of plodding tension, broken by explosions of vocal energy comparable to the delivery of Freddie Mercury.

Lyrically Lennon wrestles with self-doubt and the downside of fame and fortune in the song’s opening line, “People say we’ve got it made. Don’t they know we’re so afraid?”. From here the lyrics take a distinctly paranoid ‘Us verses the World’ narrative. Lennon refers to the world as “just a little town. Everybody trying to put us down”.

In a surprising turn, Lennon excuses his enemies with the lyrics: “I don’t expect you to understand after you’ve caused so much pain. But then again, you’re not to blame. You’re just a human. A victim of the insane”.

The song closes with the initially abstract fear of the sun, before Lennon clarifies, “The sun will never disappear. But the world may not have many years”. Ending the song on an eerie doomsday note.

4. Crippled Inside

Featured on: Imagine (1971)

Lennon uses a jangly and uplifting Rockabilly musical style to contrast against dark lyrics which address internal struggle. Crippled Inside was partly inspired by Black Dog, a folk song by Blues group Koerner, Ray & Glover.

It has been suggested that the song is a self-parody of Lennon’s earlier offerings. There has been much debate about the subject of the song. Whether it is Lennon, or somebody else. Many believe the line “You can live a lie until you die” is believed to be a jab at Paul McCartney.

The lyrics address the futile attempts of the subject to hide being “crippled inside”. He mockingly sings about the subject’s efforts such as shining their shoes, wearing a suit, combing their hair, and hiding their face behind a smile. Lennon uses the myth that a cat has nine lives to remind the song’s subject that they only have one, even if a “dog’s life ain’t fun”.

Lennon’s lyrics do not conclude with an answer, or even a semblance of hope. The song ends with the repeated refrain “One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.”

3. Run For Your Life

Featured on: Rubber Soul (1965)

The upbeat, blues vibe gives Run for Your Life a dance quality that jars with the lyrics. It is the most menacing song recorded by The Beatles. Lennon would address his jealousy issues on other tracks; however, future attempts were a much more grounded and introspective analysis in which he acknowledged jealousy as a serious character flaw.

Run for Your Life’s “Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy. And I was born with a jealous mind. And I can’t spend my whole life, trying just to make you toe the line” was not part of this soul searching. Fans consider the track a blight on Rubber Soul.

The song is ominously addressed to “little girl” and laden with outright death threats. The line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” is taken from the Elvis Presley song Baby Let’s Play House.

It is this lyric which formed the basis of the song. For this reason, Lennon referred to the “throwaway song” as being “knocked off”. Paul McCartney also dismissed the track as “a bit of a macho song”.

2. My Mummy’s Dead

Featured on: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Apparent from its striking title, My Mummy’s Dead, while not Lennon’s first attempt at reconciling with his mother’s death through lyrics, is certainly the darkest. Listening to the track is an eerie experience owing largely to the music’s close association with the tune of the universal nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. Like the tune, the lyrics too have a childlike quality. Such as:

“My mummy’s dead. I can’t get through my head. Though it’s been so many years.”

“My mummy’s dead. I can’t explain, so much pain. I could never show it.”

Lennon explained the childlike lyrics coming about as he initially attempted to write them as a haiku.

The song consists of just Lennon’s vocals and electric guitar. The stripped back nature adds to the confessional undertone, the musical equivalent of a private journal entry. On writing songs about his mother, Lennon said: “I didn’t sit down to think, ‘I’m going to write about my mother’ or I didn’t sit down to think, ‘I’m going to write about this, that or the other.’ They all came out, like all the best work of anybody’s ever does”.

1. Yer Blues

Featured on: The Beatles (The White Album) (1968)

Yer Blues’ opening lyrics, the repeated “Yes, I’m lonely. Want to die”, is as dark an opening as any. If the suicidal ideation wasn’t clear enough, Lennon’s preceding lyrics, “I feel so suicidal. Just like Dylan’s Mr. Jones” and “Feel so suicidal. Even hate my rock and roll” clarify his anguish.

The lines “The eagle picks my eye. The worm he licks my bone”, provide macabre body horror.

Lennon wrote the lyrics in Rishikesh, India while at the Maharishi’s camp. Lennon stated “although it was very beautiful and I was meditating about eight hours a day, I was writing the most miserable songs on earth. In ‘Yer Blues’, when I wrote, ‘I’m so lonely I want to die,’ I’m not kidding. That’s how I felt”. The girl to who the song is addressed is assumed to be Yoko Ono who sent regular letters to Lennon at the retreat.

Though the song was a satirical jab at English musicians who attempted to emulate Blues, it has courted a post-ironic appreciation among generations of fans. Ringo star aptly summed up Yer Blues as “like grunge rock of the sixties, really – grunge blues”.

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Source: 10 Darkest Songs John Lennon Ever Wrote

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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