Lennon’s solo work fell very much into two categories. There were the angry, visceral, political bawl-outs that tried to throttle peace out of the world’s leaders by gnarly chant alone, and there were the sentimental pop tunes. To celebrate what would have been his 77th birthday (October 9), we’ve ranked his ten best solo songs…
10 ‘Instant Karma’
Written while he was publicly still a member of The Beatles (although he’d announced his departure internally several months before), ‘Instant Karma’ was one of Lennon’s first solo forays – backed by Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band – and one that immediately got in people’s faces, demanding they pay attention to his message of peace. “What in the world you thinking of/ Laughing in the face of love?” John rails over gospel-style melodies so soaring you half forget he’s cursing those who don’t agree.
Lennon’s update of The Beatles’ ‘Girl’ became his tragic swan-song, shooting to Number One in the wake of his death in December 1980. The subtle schmaltz of the song was swept away by global grief and ‘Woman’ became the song that the turn-of-the-80s generation came to associate with the loss of a pop culture behemoth. And that sort of weight makes ‘Woman’ so much more than another sweet Yok-ode.
8 ‘Watching The Wheels’
“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round/ I really love to watch them roll/ No longer riding on the merry go round/ I just had to let it go”. For half of the ’70s, John was happy to be a house-husband in New York, and ‘Watching The Wheels’ was his carefree retort to everyone who claimed he was crazy for ducking out of the rock’n’roll rat race. Plonked shamelessly onto his final album ‘Double Fantasy’, it was his shrugging admission that, when he wanted to, he could write gorgeous throwaway pop songs while changing nappies with his spare hand.
7 ‘Mind Games’
All chorus, the title track to Lennon’s 1973 album started big and only got bigger, as if Lennon was convinced he could wail war out of existence. Full of “druid dudes”, “mind guerillas” and “karmic wheel”s, it also resembled a more euphoric ‘I Am The Walrus’.
6 ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’
Lennon was never just going to rattle the sleigh bells and ho-ho-ho his way to a Christmas single. Instead he issued a challenge to us mince pie-bloated, sprout-farting sluggards. “So this is Christmas and what have you done,” he sneered, knowing that most would answer ‘four hours of Call Of Duty and half a prawn ring, thanks’. The effect was the deepest song you’ll ever do a Christmas conga to.
5 ‘Gimme Some Truth’
Much like the rhyming stream of half-nonsensical consciousness on ‘Give Peace A Chance’, ‘Gimme Some Truth’ found Lennon spitting tongue-twisting ire at “neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians”, “tight-lipped, condescending mama’s little chauvinists” and more as he tried to sift through the maelstrom of media bullshit to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Scorn never sounded so good.
4 ‘Oh My Love’
One of the benefits of having one of the greatest vocals in musical history is that you don’t need much embellishment to create an absolute gut-wrenching heartbreaker. Like The Beatles’ soft and sparse ‘Julia’ – John’s ode to his mother – ‘Oh My Love’ is stripped back to its bones; little more than a simple guitar line (played by George Harrison), piano and Lennon’s voice, it’s all emotion, laid raw and bare. Yes, of course it’s about Yoko.
3 ‘Jealous Guy’
John Lennon: confident clown, spiritual campaigner, sometime violent aggressor, troubled soul. It’s fair to say that the singer had more than his fair share of personality traits battling for dominance. ‘Jealous Guy’ – one of Lennon’s finest piano ballads – laid some of these faults and foibles on the table and showed the ultimately human side of a man viewed by many as a demi-god. “I was feeling insecure/ You might not love me anymore,” he admits. “I’m just a jealous guy.”
One of the most iconic and famous songs ever, ‘Imagine’ proves the power of a simple, positive message, executed well. Adopted as an anthem for peace, its lyrics of unity and togetherness have somehow managed to avoid becoming schmaltzy despite being used to soundtrack every emotional campaign since its 1971 release. You may say he’s a dreamer, but time has shown he’s not the only one.
1 ‘#9 Dream’
Pitched somewhere between the doe-eyed dreaminess of retrospective 1995 Beatles track ‘Free As A Bird’, the contorting melodic ideas of ‘A Day In The Life’ and George Harrison’s spiritual solo output, ‘#9 Dream’ floats in and out of consciousness, centred around a gibberish phrase (“ah böwakawa poussé, poussé”) that came to him while asleep. If much of Lennon’s solo output had an agenda – be that political or to make everyone like Yoko a bit more – then this was a joyful slice of wistful, mystical beautiful nonsense, and all the better for it.