The world lost John Lennon of the Beatles to a brutal assassination on Dec. 8, 1980. He was just 40 years old. But 40 years later, the universe still reveres his music, still mourns the loss of the rock icon.
On Dec. 8, 1980, I was on the phone with my wife-to-be, Liz, while keeping an eye on my little TV as “Monday Night Football” aired the closing moments of a tight game between Miami and New England.
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It was then that announcer Howard Cosell broke the unimaginable news — the “unspeakable tragedy” that Beatle John Lennon had been gunned down in New York City.
John Lennon assassinated? The world literally stopped.
I’d never before experienced true grief stemming from the death of a musician or a celebrity or a famous figure, but I still get choked up now recalling that night or hearing those words uttered in grainy YouTube videos. (There’s even a drawing of Lennon sketched by my daughter, Anna, that looks over my shoulder as I work.)
He was just 40 years old, and exactly 40 years later, Lennon’s impact as a member of the Beatles and as a solo artist on the music world — musicians and fans — hasn’t waned.
So today, on the 40th anniversary of his death, the Local Spins playlist pays tribute to Lennon with 40 of his songs that should forever be remembered and treasured. To help compile this special roster — listed in no particular order — I called on several of my Beatle-fan pals for their favorites and their under-the-radar gems, from Beatles hits to solo deep tracks.
40 JOHN LENNON SONGS THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER: The Playlist
1. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969) – With so much genuine emotion, vulnerability and near desperation in Lennon’s voice, this single sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded. And Billy Preston’s electric piano work just adds to the heartfelt vibe.
2. “Nowhere Man” (1965) – Honeytones guitarist Charley Honey doesn’t mince words when describing this song. “I do believe (this) to be his greatest song. Compelling lyrics, beautiful yet simple melody, spine-tingling vocals, ringing guitar lines, emotionally moving after all these years.”
3. “Woman” (1980) – Recorded with Yoko Ono for his “Double Fantasy” album, released the month before his death, it was also the first single to come out after his murder. It’s an unabashed love song. “As a kid, ‘Woman’ would make me choke up,” says Grand Rapids producer and Concussions guitarist Tommy Schichtel. “Such a sappy song, but man does it cut.”
4. “Give Peace a Chance” (1969) – This simple-yet-intoxicating chant was not only the first solo single ever released by Lennon, but it also became an anti-war movement anthem — one of several politically potent tracks that he would pen over the years.
5. “Come Together” (1969) – The opening track on the iconic “Abbey Road,” this heavy and utterly unique rock track boasts some of Lennon’s trademark kooky lyrics — all brilliantly unleashed and completely unforgettable.
6. “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” (1974) – With Elton John on piano and vocal harmonies, this track from “Walls and Bridges” rolls out as an upbeat, uptempo gem with Bobby Keys on saxophone. It’s also the only Lennon single to hit No. 1 in the United States during his lifetime.
7. “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967) – I’ll never forget the buzz and hubbub surrounding this psychedelic, effects-laden masterpiece when it was released along with a promo film. I had never heard ANYTHING like it, ever — and neither had anyone else. As Honey puts it: “What genius. Introspective, mystical, fascinating musings on his childhood haunt.”
8. “Imagine” (1971) – This is likely Lennon’s most-played solo track, and while it may be a too-obvious choice, the message and the melody resonate strongly in 2020 just as they did in 1971.
9. “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” (1965) – Admittedly catchy, Honey says Lennon “considered it a throwaway Motown knockoff. I consider it brilliant. What a fabulous falsetto; what a gorgeous bridge.”
10. “Please Please Me” (1963) – It was the Beatles’ first single released in the United States (and the second in the United Kingdom). James Murphy of That Beatles Thing, who calls Lennon his primary musical influence, says: “When I think about favorite John Lennon songs, I first think of Beatles tunes. Their first album, ‘Please Please Me’ features two of my favorites, ‘There’s A Place’ and the title track. ‘Please Please Me’ is so brilliantly crafted, and the recording jumps right off the record.”
11. “Jealous Guy” (1971) – A step forward from some of those understated songs on “Plastic Ono Band” the year before, the poignant “Jealous Guy” on “Imagine” has been covered by more than 90 other artists.
12. “How Do You Sleep” (1971) – While we’re on the subject of the “Imagine” album, this has the completely opposite vibe from that title track and “Jealous Guy.” Sure, it’s a brutal slap at former bandmate Paul McCartney, but it’s a great slice of rock and brilliantly produced.
13. “In My Life” (1965) – Considered to be one of the greatest Beatles songs ever, Lennon wrote the lyrics and likely the bulk of the song, though there’s some disagreement as to how much McCartney may have also contributed to the track from “Rubber Soul.” Regardless, Honey rightly describes it as an “incredibly beautiful and poignant reflection on just that.”
14. “A Day in the Life” (1967) – Speaking of co-writes, I almost didn’t include this because while Lennon wrote the verses, McCartney penned the middle portion of the song. But let’s face it: This tour de force deserves a spot on this list. “It stands apart from all their other work for sheer transcendent majesty, crashing down the guardrails of rock forever more,” gushes Honey. Murphy calls it “simply brilliant. Masterpiece.”
15. “Help!” (1965) – “A great song, great recording,” insists Murphy. “I’ve heard sessions outtakes where they start the instrumental track, John breaks a string, so they stop, and he just grabs another guitar that was lying around, but it was a 12-string, and he played the rhythm on that. I’ve loved this song since the moment I first heard it in ’65.”
16. “Working Class Hero” (1970) – Lennon himself called this a “revolutionary” song — a musical treatise on social classes and a battle that continues to this day. “Great song, well sung, first f-bomb written into a song,” notes Murphy.
17. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) – It’s Christmastime after all, and while some might think this has been overplayed, I still appreciate the theme and the message. This tune has also been covered countless times.
18. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” (1968) – This “White Album” track (written about Yoko Ono) originally didn’t have a title. Mr. Honey loves the song: “Manic, hysterical, classic Lennon nonsense. The fadeout is just a bloody blast.”
19. “Gimme Some Truth” (1971) – I can think of few songs that would be more appropriate as a theme for 2020’s turbulence and political turmoil than this one. Was Lennon envisioning the future with his line about “neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians” and “egocentric, paranoia prima donnas”? Perhaps.
20. “Dear Prudence” (1968) – An absolutely hypnotic track from the “White Album,” it was a favorite of Lennon himself and features stunning guitar effects. “I love this song,” says Murphy. “Great song, great vocal. And the fingerpicking? I learned this song three different ways before I learned it correctly.”
21. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (1965) – From what Lennon called his “Dylan period.” Murphy praises Lennon’s vocals throughout. “I love to sing this song. He starts out singing low and dejected, then becomes defiant, then the chorus and he’s back to feeling low and dejected, but again becomes defiant. It’s a brilliant vocal performance.”
22. “Mind Games” (1973) – I’ve always felt a fondness for this tune and it was the first Lennon song I heard after he died, when radio stations across the globe were playing the Beatles and Lennon virtually non-stop for days after his passing.
23. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (1969) – The last song on Side 1 of “Abbey Road” is a splendid blending of rock, soul and blues — a lengthy ode to Yoko with scary-good guitar, bass and keyboard parts.
24. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” (1968) — Hailing from the “White Album,” this rhythmically complex tune has a “brilliant pastiche, so good they literally cut it together. Time signature changes are fun, especially when the band is playing in three, but the drummer is playing in four, and you’ve got to ignore the drummer, count and sing all at the same time. This is my favorite cut from the ‘White Album,'” says Murphy.
25. “Glass Onion” (1968) – Another “White Album” track, Lennon’s semi-autobiographical poke at all of the crazy Beatles conspiracies and hidden-meaning “gobbledygook” is a pretty fetching piece of music.
26. “Instant Karma!” (1970) – I didn’t give this Lennon track much attention until many years after it was released. But I love the lead vocal and the hook: “We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.”
27. “#9 Dream” (1974) – This single from “Walls and Bridges” appropriately enough peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It really is a dream, come to life as an “awfully pretty” piece of music, as Honey puts it.
28. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967) – Written primarily by Lennon, perhaps no song in the Beatles catalog received more attention, speculation and misinterpretation than this one. As a piece of stunning psychedelia, it stands out more than 50 years later. Murphy describes it as “a brilliant track. … I got a mono copy of ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ and it sounds perfect in mono.” (Also, Lennon pal Elton John’s 1974 cover of the song is terrific, too, with Lennon contributing backing vocals and guitar as “Dr. Winston O’Boogie.”)
29. “God” (1970) – There’s so much “moving on” wrapped up in this confessional tune from “Plastic Ono Band,” with lines like “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in Yoko and me.” As Mark Sellers puts it, “This is the definitive f— you to the Beatles and time to move on song. It must’ve been so cathartic for him to write.”
30. “Yer Blues” (1968) – Although written as a sort of parody of blues imitators, Lennon’s frantic vocals and the stripped-down nature of the recording gives this track a feeling of wonderful immediacy and authenticity. A “smoking hot recording,” says Murphy.
31. “Steel and Glass” (1974) – In feeling and attitude, this is like Part II of “How Do You Sleep,” though Lennon apparently wrote this song about himself. I love the vibe, the voice, the darkness.
32. “Ballad of John and Yoko” (1969) – It’s a wedding song of sorts — one that was banned by some radio stations for lines like “Christ you know it ain’t easy” and “They’re going to crucify me.” Seems silly now, doesn’t it?
33. “Look at Me” (1970) – Along with “Love” on Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” album, this represents spare, understated balladry. Says Schichtel: “Those two tracks always stood out to me so much as simple, but so emotional, and on so many different levels.”
34. “Stand by Me” (1975) – Of course, this is Lennon covering the classic Leiber/Stoller and Ben E. King song. But I had to include it to acknowledge his release of the all-covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Plus, his robust rendition of “Stand By Me” is more than worthy of recognition.
35. “Watching the Wheels” (1980) – I always pair this with “Beautiful Boy,” both from “Double Fantasy,” because they describe so tenderly and pointedly Lennon’s family life at the time just before his death. It’s impossible to listen to these tracks without thinking about what was lost at such a young age.
36. “This Boy” (1963) – The B-side of the monster hit, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (which was a true co-write between Lennon and McCartney), “This Boy” is a Motown-influenced Lennon gem. Murphy says he appreciates the vocals on “This Boy” in particular. “I love the first four British Beatles albums,” he says. “They’re totally dominated by Lennon.”
37. “I Am the Walrus” (1967) – The vocal cadence as Lennon unleashes the wild lyrics on this psychedelic classic is a slice of wit and wonder. Says Murphy: “This record scared me when I played it up in my room when I was 11. It has some freaky stuff on it, but it is simply brilliant on the part of John Lennon and George Martin. Again, fun to sing and play.”
38. “I’m Losing You” (1980) – The pain in Lennon’s voice on this song from “Double Fantasy” — written while he was away from Yoko — leaps right out from the speakers. And the guitar work by Earl Slick and Hugh McCracken is terrific. (Strangely, Lennon also recorded a version with Cheap Trick as the backing band.)
39. “I’m So Tired” (1968) — This Lennon track from the “White Album” is perfectly arranged. Murphy calls it “a brilliant use of a I-VI-IV-V chordal structure that he subverts in a very creative way that’s a mini-tutorial in songwriting.”
40. “Revolution” (1968) – I quite literally wore out my copy of the 45 after this was released and, 52 years later, its theme of a peaceful revolution has never seemed more timely. Notes Murphy: “I love every version (of ‘Revolution’) for different reasons. ‘Revolution 1’ is take No. 18 when they recorded it. This take lasted for 10-1/2 minutes, but is faded out for the ‘White Album’ at about 4:30. John used the remaining six minutes as the bed of ‘Revolution 9,’ which is a great track, in my opinion, and hearing that it emerged more organically, that it’s not a complete contrivance, kind of bears that out. ‘Revolution’ the single is just flat out great. George Harrison said he wasn’t crazy about the overloaded guitar sound, but that just drives the energy. A lot of mileage from one song.”
Honorable Mention: “Across the Universe” (1969) – I couldn’t ignore this track from “Let It Be” that seems to have picked up steam — and influence — over the years. Plus, I’m probably in the minority of Beatles fans who absolutely adore this album.
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