‘I always wrote about me when I could. I didn’t really enjoy writing third-person songs about people who lived in concrete flats and things like that. I like first-person music.’ We didn’t enjoy hearing this in 1970, when John Lennon said it in the course of Jann Wenner’s ‘Rolling Stone’ Interviews. It was bad enough that Lennon had left the beloved Beatles to work with a Japanese-born conceptual artist, living in beds and bags and producing minimalist packages of photographs and recorded shrieks. But that he should seem to be promising more songs on the pattern laid down by the Plastic Ono Band album, a collection which had proved morbid, hectoring and pathetic by turns – well, this represented a doomier start to the decade than we felt we deserved. Besides, the allusion to songs about people in concrete flats seemed an unnecessarily explicit rejection of Paul McCartney, whose favoured vein that had sometimes been, in songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Penny Lane’. McCartney’s compassionate tableaux and jaunty ballads, to be sure, were usually light and occasionally trite as well, but they were at least articulate. Lennon had turned away from verbal play into the Primal Scream therapy of Dr Arthur Janov – seen by Lennon’s public at best as a fashionable bolt-hole for the rich hysteric, and at worst as a profiteering alliance between phoney art and phoney medicine: Yoko and some quacks bleeding our John. It was an uncharitable attitude, but the evidence that informed it survives. The John/Yoko courtship albums are as vacuous as ever, and even the Plastic Ono record, it still seems to me, is emotional detritus barely shovelled along by music.
Where we were wrong, all along, was in failing to recognise Lennon’s human needs, which he had signalled almost from the start. It was too easy to mistake the anguish he often expressed for the standard rhetoric of the song-writer. In the early Sixties the only singers widely expected actually to mean what they sang were ‘protest’ performers operating in folk-clubs to their own acoustic guitar accompaniment. An electronic group shouting ‘Help!’ at the top of its voice couldn’t possibly mean it. Yet Lennon did; and by the time he’d got himself taken seriously, his talent had almost burnt away.
It was a gaunt sort of talent in the first place. If you discount the pastiche rock and apprentice roll of Hamburg, and take the start to be ‘Love me do’, the Beatles’ first national release, then a little of Lennon’s disquiet was already there. The song is apparently McCartney’s, but they were still two of a kind then: each had lost his mother in the late Fifties, and had the same vested interest in this almost dumbly beseeching song. Subtract from it the odd lazy, conventional line (‘I’ll always be true’) and you have something very nearly as desolate and unupholstered as Lennon’s songs of the Seventies. ‘Love, love me do, You know I love you ... So please ...’ In another musical setting it could have been embarrassing, a wheedling, lapdog serenade. But with its odd, bony tune, the sobbing hop in the vocal harmony part, and Lennon’s harmonica obbligato (the sound traditionally evoking loneliness), it added up to something new in love-songs, a strange bleakness. One could imagine the suggested relationship consumnated in a coalyard somewhere.