John Lennon Remembered: The Beatles’ Experimental Songwriting

Lennon imagine

Happiness is a Warm Gun

The idea eventually surfacing in the Beatles’ avant-garde popular music is that their language more so in sound than in sense is the material of  emotional human connection, and that connection is therefore, as language, a contingent social construct when considering sense. From the influence of literary movements such as the Beats and Dadaism towards the ‘inter-media’ Fluxus, they powerfully expose the ambiguities and limitless nature of language as communication within pop, both vulnerable and formidable, alienating and liberating, a fragile yet powerful tool producing truth and lie, thus hinting at the idea that not just any musician should experiment with it without being aware of its power to connect and of its essential flaws.

This idea of contingency is vital in differentiating between the experimental and the avant-garde, and is comprehended further in the influence of Dadaism as a prominent presence in the Beatles work and a focal point for this conclusion regarding its influence on the resulting Fluxus groups and the avant-garde. Walter Everett believes:

“Lennon’s own production ran the gamut from Dadaist musique concrète (Gesang Der Junglinge), of which ‘Revolution #9’ was the year’s most conservative example.”[1]

Further documentation has demonstrated that Lennon was liable to lifting sections from his own songs,[2] to not only complete the unfinished song, but to supply sustenance in the form of the emotive retention he was trying to previously portray at the time of writing the vagrant segment. Following Bob Dylan’s lead, “lyrics grew in sophistication to become descriptive poems set to music”.[3]

In terms of sense, Bob Dylan’s Beat intuitions advised Lennon to “listen to the words” but Lennon’s art school tendencies branded the exercise tedious; he preferred “the sound of it, the overall thing”.[4] Lennon wrote and arranged songs “to create a sound”[5] rather than a sense. However we must note that before Lennon met Yoko Ono he crudely transcribed the term avant-garde as “French for bullshit”[6] and often refused to expand his mind in such a manner. Ono believes she “deal[s] with music of the mind” and was a heavily involved member of the avant-garde collective known as Fluxus, (meaning to “flow or change”) who were devoted to live events called “happenings”. And it was this exposure, along with the Timmy Leary’s demystification of LSD, that changed Lennon’s attitude towards music the most. Yet to maintain a successful connection in popular music whilst experimenting with techniques, rhythms or instrument combinations, the inclusion of the human vocal is paramount. As Thom Yorke notes “it becomes nonsensical unless the human being is sat in the middle going ‘I’m here!’”[7] This is the most reasonable explanation as to why ‘Revolution #9’ is the “least loved piece of music the Beatles ever released”[8] and why we “don’t really get many pop instrumentals”[9].

But we simply cannot assume that this is enough to achieve number one albums worldwide with claimed sales of a billion, whilst still retaining an avant-garde stance. Of course a significant factor that cannot be ignored is the undeniable importance of mainstream success as a preliminary for economic freedom to independently ‘experiment’. With the Beatles we have an example of consciously discovering a definitive mainstream formula and consciously choosing to expand that ideal, for better or for worse.

It is the combination of human voice and the universal medium of context sensitive pop lyrics, also including nonsense (derivative of Lennon’s admiration for Lewis Carroll[10]) that provides the music with an identity somebody out there can relate to. It is for this very reason that Michael Nyman disparages the avant-garde, for whom “the identity of a composition is of paramount importance”.[11] However as the Beatles most nonsensical lyrics can illustrate, sense can almost be considered irrelevant when the sound of the words are more consequential in conveying the necessary emotions.

The stream of consciousness style John Lennon developed in the later Beatles lyrics like “I think I know I mean uh yes but its all wrong” from ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ starkly contrast with the more conventional pop style of their earlier work. A prime example of the most lyrical nonsense Lennon could collate can be found in  ‘I Am The Walrus’, where we have a Lennon exercise in purposely misleading expert-textpert analysts in search of accurate interpretation, inspired after discovering that his old school’s “English class were analysing the Beatles’ lyrics”.[12] Again, with a distinct disregard for sense, honing emphasis on the sounds of the words in an attempt to emulate a police siren but “it didn’t work in the end (sings like a siren) ‘I-am-he-as-you-are-he-as…’ You couldn’t really sing the police siren.”[13] However through lilting trochaic dimeter lines that create a steady rise and fall between semitones, he comes close.

Lennon’s inventive impatience for “dead-air beats”[14] reinforces George Martin’s belief that “Lennon’s lyrics drive his music, indicating the verse’s buoyantly irregular meter and their reflection in the flexible musical phrase rhythms.”[15] “He kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences of speech”[16], a complimentary feature to Paul McCartney’s talent for installing naturally felt lyrics to a preconceived tune in the song writing partnership: “I developed the melody [‘Blackbird’] based on the Bach piece [‘Bourrée in E Minor’] and took it somewhere else, took it to another level, then I just fitted words to it”.[17]

John Lennon was shot dead on this day 30 years ago aged 40.

May he rest in peace and his music live on.

by James Godwin – 8th December, 2010

[1] Everett, p.149

[2] Everett, p.166

[3] Valdez, Stephen, ‘Revolver as a Pivotal Art Work: Structure, Harmony and Vocal Harmoization’, Every Sound There Is, p.89.

[4] MacDonald, p.24.

[5] Macdonald, p.24.

[6] Macdonald, p.224.

[7] ‘David Byrne and Thom Yorke on the Real Value of Music’, Wired Magazine issue 16.01. (Accessed 9 December 2009).

[8] Ian Hammond, Revolution 9 Analysis, p.1.

[9] ‘David Byrne and Thom Yorke on the Real Value of Music’, Wired Magazine issue 16.01. (Accessed 9 December 2009).

[10] In reference to ‘I Am The Walrus’: “It’s from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter.’ ‘Alice in Wonderland.’

[11] Nyman, p.2, p.9.

[12] Macdonald, p.266.

[14] Everett, p.168

[15] Everett, p.157

[16] Macdonald, p.12

[17] McCartney referring to ‘Blackbird’,

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.