History lesson: John Lennon

by Mark Jacobo


The name John Lennon is one many people are aware of. Whether you’re a Beatles fan or not, you’ve heard the name Lennon somewhere before. When you did hear it, it was probably accompanied with Paul, George, and Ringo.

This week would have marked the 72nd birthday of John Lennon, had he not been tragically shot to death by Mark David Chapman on December 8th, 1980. A shock not only to the music community but the whole world, Lennon was announced dead on arrival at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Many tributes were raised in Lennon’s honor, including Strawberry Fields in New York’s Central Park, a statue of a leather clad Lennon outside the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and another statue of a White Album Lennon in Havana, Cuba.

Last year I wrote a piece that corresponded with the date on which Lennon died. This year, I’m writing this to correspond with Lennon’s birth, to celebrate the music behind the man. Here is a list of songs to remember John Lennon by.

10. “Sexy Sadie” – The Beatles (AKA The White Album)

If you’re familiar with The Beatles then you know that after the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour were released, the Fab Four went to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in order to learn the art of meditation. The song “Sexy Sadie” was inspired after the Maharishi allegedly made sexual advances at a female colleague. The Beatles left India shortly after. When the Maharishi asked why, Lennon replied, “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.”


9. “Help” – Help

“Help” is in some sense a precursor to later Beatles compositions. The song directly reflected Lennon’s emotions at the time it was written, as his and his band mate’s sudden rise to fame was both tiring and stress inducing. “I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help,” Lennon told Playboy in an interview. Kind of gives the song a different perspective, doesn’t it?


8. “Across the Universe” – Let it Be

Lennon wrote the first line of “Across the Universe” when his wife was talking to him about something he wasn’t paying attention to, and her words kept on going and going like “endless rain”. The song is also inspired by the Beatles involvement of transcendental meditation. The line “Jai Guru Deva” can be translated to “Victory to God Divine”, along with several variations of that phrase. Here is my favorite version of the song.


7. “Dear Prudence”

The Beatles’ trip to India I mentioned earlier actually influenced the majority of 1968’s The Beatles, which is commonly referred to The White Album. As for “Dear Prudence”, the song is about Prudence Farrow, sister of actress Mia Farrow, who accompanied the Beatles on their trip to India. She had become so serious about her meditation that she rarely left her room, and Lennon was asked to draw her out and be more sociable. If you’ve seen the 2007 film Across the Universe, the scene in which “Dear Prudence” is played is really no different than the real life event that inspired the song.


6. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” – The Beatles

This is one of the songs that made me fall in with the Beatles. Lennon was inspired to write this song when he saw a gun magazine with “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on the cover. Lennon made the connection that a gun is warm after it is fired—probably after shooting someone. The song has three different stages—the beginning, starting with “She’s not a girl who misses much”, the middle, “Mother Superior Jumped the Gun”, and the final doo wop “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which you can’t help but sing along to.


5. “Tomorrow Never Knows” – Revolver

Revolver is the Beatles’ first true foray into psychedelic rock. The final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, is a journey into a land and genre the Beatles had never known. It has the famous lines, inspired by Timothy Leary, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream/It is not dying.” Also noticeable is guitarist George Harrison’s sitar playing, which will be more prominent in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


4. “Strawberry Fields Forever”

Strawberry Field is actually a house—a Salvation Army Children’s home, to be exact. Lennon used to play in the house, and he nicknamed the wooded area in behind the building “Strawberry Fields”. It is no doubt one of Lennon’s most impressive song in his canon.


3. “Come Together” – Abbey Road

Originally supposed to be a campaign song for Timothy Leary, this blues chord-driven song is one of Lennon’s most notable, and its lyrics are left open to interpretation. Each verse is speculated to be about each Beatle: “Holy Roller” describing Harrison, “Monkey finger” describing Ringo Starr, “Mojo filter” about Paul McCartney, and “Ono Sideboard” about Lennon. Some people suggest, however, that the entire song is about Lennon only. The song resulted in a lawsuit due to sounding similar to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon and McCartney purposely slowed down the tempo and added that awesome bass riff in order to avoid such a thing, but Lennon eventually settled in court. Lennon was a huge Chuck Berry fan, so can you blame him?


2. “Don’t Let Me Down”

The Beatles have two of the greatest love songs in their canon: George Harrison’s “Something”, and Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down”. The song is a screaming plea for a lover to stick by one’s side. “A love that lasts forever,” sings Lennon, “a love that has no past”. “Don’t Let Me Down” is one of Lennon’s many songs describing his love for Yoko Ono.


1. “All You Need is Love” – Magical Mystery Tour/Yellow Submarine

A simple, five word chorus, yet so powerful Lennon could only imagine the effect it would have on the world. “All you need is love”, a message that can mean so much in the kind of world we love in. The song was performed on “Our World”, the first ever global television link provided via satellite. 400 million people in 26 countries watched the broadcast. They honestly couldn’t have picked a better song for the occasion.



“Imagine” – Imagine

Lennon’s truly defining song about a better world with no materialism, religion, or government institutions. It’s not a communist/anarchist anthem—it’s a song about wanting the world to realize that we are all one people, in desperate need for unification.

“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” – Double Fantasy

Released three weeks before his death, this song is a beautiful composition about Lennon’s son Julian. The absolute best part is when he sings, “I can’t hardly wait/to see you come of age/but I guess we’ll just have to be patient,” as well “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”.