Over 40 years since the Beatles celebrated the peak of their career and changed music forever and today (9 October) would have been John Lennon’s 77th birthday.
A singer, songwriter, and activist, Lennon’s work remains at the inspirational core of popular music and is cherished in the heart of fans across the world.
On his birthday, we look back at the seven best lyrics of his career.
Tomorrow Never Knows, 1966
‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying’
Closing the 1966 Beatles album Revolver, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ pinpoints the moment the band took a leap towards a more psychedelic future. The vast imagery in the song’s lyrics was adapted from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Allegedly Lennon bought the book, went home, took LSD and followed the instructions. Fellow Beatle George Harrison later explained what the song might actually be about: “Basically it is saying what meditation is all about. The goal of meditation is to go beyond (that is, transcend) waking, sleeping and dreaming. So the song starts out by saying, ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, it is not dying.’ The song is really about transcending and about the quality of the transcendent.”
Strawberry Fields Forever, 1967
‘No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low
That is you can’t, you know, tune in but it’s all right
That is I think it’s not too bad’
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was the first song to be recorded in the sessions Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band, but ended up being released as a double A-side with ‘Penny Lane’ in February 1967. The song was inspired by Lennon’s childhood, and specifically his memories playing in the Salvation Army children’s home, Strawberry Field, in Liverpool.
Of the iconic and elusive lyric beginning with ‘no one I think is in my tree’, Lennon revealed his personal attachment: “Well, what I was trying to say in that line is, ‘Nobody seems to be as hip as me, therefore I must be crazy or a genius.'”
Happiness Is A Warm Gun, 1968
‘She’s well-acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand
Like a lizard on a window pane’
Featuring on the White Album in 1968, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ was reportedly Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s favorite song on the album. The opening lyrics convey rich, surreal imagery, from the ‘touch of a velvet hand’ to the ‘multi-coloured mirrors’. This apparently was written from the traces of an acid trip Lennon experienced with Beatles press officer Derek Taylor.
Across The Universe, 1969
‘Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe’
First appearing on the charity album No One’s Gonna Change Our World in 1969, ‘Across the Universe’ went on to feature on Let It Be, the Beatles’ final studio album.
Wildly poetic and evocative, the lyrics are inspired by Lennon’s interest in transcendental meditation and remain some of his own favorites. He told Rolling Stone: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewin’ it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”
Come Together, 1969
‘He wear no shoeshine, he’s got toe-jam football
He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca-Cola
He say, “I know you, you know me”
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free’
Covered only this weekend at Cal Jam by Foo Fighters and Liam Gallagher, ‘Come Together’ has remained in the collective consciousness since its release on Abbey Road in 1969.
Lennon was originally asked to write ‘Come Together’ as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s 1970 campaign for governor of California. On the lyrics, the songwriter said: ‘It’s gobbledygook; ‘Come Together’ was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, ‘Come Together’, which would’ve been no good to him – you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?’
Mind Games, 1973
‘Millions of mind guerrillas
Putting their soul power to the karmic wheel
Keep on playing those mind games forever’
Developing as a solo artist, ‘Mind Games’ celebrates some of Lennon’s best lyrics in the lead single on his album of same name. Focusing again on the artist’s preoccupation with the mind, the soul and the self, the song was written after Lennon read the book Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space by Robert Masters and Jean Houston.
More recently, Arcade Fire recorded a cover of the song as part of Spotify’s Single Series shortly after the release of their new album,Everything Now.
Real Love, 1995
‘Just like little girls and boys
Playing with their little toys
Seems like all they really were doing
Was waiting for love’
Hugely reworked, overdubbed and unreleased for just over 15 years, ‘Real Love’ is the last ‘new’ song by the Beatles to be included on an album. The song featured on the Beatles Anthology Project in 1995 after Lennon initially recorded six takes of the track between 1979 and 1980.
The song featured on the 2014 John Lewis Christmas Advert, covered by Tom Odell. The lyrics touched the nation and found their contemporary muse, as Monty the Penguin found love in a Christmas miracle.
Originally published on the Independent