Ashley Chittock – How To Write Like John Lennon
Let's start by slinging some insults. John Lennon was a rubbish musician. He took an interest in performing music during the skiffle craze of the late fifties, and the ragtag, untidy style was a perfect fit for the young Lennon. Unlike McCartney, he was devoid of almost any formal musical tuition, his famously stern Aunt Mimi preferring him to paint rather than to strum. When he began playing the guitar, his understanding of what he was actually doing was so low that he didn't even know his instrument had two strings missing until George Harrison pointed it out to him. After the passage of Beatlemania his understanding of how to use his talents was occasionally bolstered (by George Martin in the studio, and by people such as Donovan in India) but as a teenager he was very much a lone force.
What he did possess was confidence, reams and reams of the stuff. This is what made him such a potent performer and drove him to better himself after meeting his opposite, the precise, natural musician that was Paul McCartney. In their early work, it is often said that Paul sung the love songs and that John sung the screamers. Whilst this is not entirely true (as I Saw Her Standing There, Long Tall Sally and I'm Down show, Paul was equally adept at rock n roll), the lions share of attention was on John in the early days. His stage presence spills over into his 1958-64 songwriting, full of loud guitar, empassioned delivery, and cocksure lyrics (You Can't Do That possibly sums up the young Lennon the best of any song in their catalogue).
Lennon's early work is full of bluesy sevenths, augmented chord changes and sudden shifts in musical direction. The majority of his earlier songs fit into one of three categories: straightforward blues (When I Get Home), thoughtful folk (I'm A Loser) or bitter, dissonant pop (It Won't Be Long). With eyesight so bad he could barely see what fret he was playing on, Lennon didn't write the next chord by following typical progressions, but rather by prodding around the fretboard until he found something that fitted. This created songs with unusual, ambiguous sounds in his early work such as I'll Be Back, and later on in his career gave him such moments as the F9 in the verse of Julia ("calls me...").
Unlike McCartney, Lennon had an unsubtle singing voice and a comparatively small range. This meant his melodies lacked the scalar jumps of his partner's and instead carried a cynical, narrow sound that can be heard in many of their "joint lead vocal" songs (She Loves You being a great example, McCartney's leaping harmony juxtaposed against the downbeat Lennon). The most defining feature of Lennon's melodies is that they were often made up of one note repeated many times (Help!, I’m Only Sleeping), or of a few of notes alternated between in quick succession (I Should Have Known Better, The Word, I Am The Walrus).
Later in The Beatles' career, Lennon's increasing drug use and relationship with Yoko Ono changed him on every level. Fiercely rejecting his youthful arrogance (the third verse of Getting Better, "man I was mean, but I'm changing my scene..." tantamount to a confession from Lennon), he disowned every facet of his previous existence, including his estranged wife and son, Julian. Still capable of writing rock songs but largely disinterested with conventional music, he began to explore new methods of innovation, learning a fingerpicking style in India that facilitated his newfound introspection (Dear Prudence).
By the time The Beatles came to record Abbey Road, Lennon was spiritually no longer part of The Beatles. McCartney's magnum opus, the side two medley, was dismissed by Lennon as rubbish, who claimed that Come Together and Something were the only good songs on the album. Though his solo output showed some of his potential, his stint as a househusband was the death of his musical heyday. The two songs he wrote that were used for The Beatles Anthology, Free As A Bird and Real Love, are both musically lazy and uncharacteristically conventional. It is rude to both start and end this piece with an insult, however, so it must be said that John Lennon's style is almost impossible to replicate. Both simple and unique, it was a by-product of his own personality and as such, died with him.
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