John Lennon’s 1971 album, Imagine, is for most people the ultimate in hippy laidback aural wallpaper. High on vibes and life. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world. That’s why the 1988 documentary film, Imagine: John Lennon, is such an interesting document. The recording sessions for the album in question seem to mostly have been a series of moments involving Lennon losing his rag with Phil Spector, the producer of the album, after some minor thing spins out of the former Beatle’s control.
Particularly revealing as a testament to the album recording’s febrile atmosphere is the bit where Lennon sets out to record the song “How Do You Sleep At Night”, a not very well-veiled attack on his former band-mate, Paul McCartney. “The only thing you done was “Yesterday”/and since you’ve gone you’re just “Another Day”, the lyrics pointing to McCartney’s biggest hit from 1965 and one his most recent solo singles. At one point captured in the documentary, during an attempt at this song Lennon makes a mistake and then, the take being now a dud, mutters into the mic, “How do you sleep, ya cunt.” It is clear from this footage alone that his anger at McCartney was a real, deeply felt thing.
So why was John Lennon so angry at Paul McCartney anyway? From the outside, it seems to have had the texture of a romantic breakup. Which I want to stress isn’t me trying to assert some sort of Lennon/McCartney as gay couple conspiracy theory. It’s really just that their relationship seems to have had the intensity of a long marriage. When those kind of things disintegrate, the feelings on either side can be pretty strong. Lennon said he thought that McCartney’s “Too Many People” was about him. Two things to say about that: one, this isn’t abundantly and undeniably clear from the lyrics (unlike “How Do You Sleep At Night?” which is unquestionably an attack on McCartney); two, John Lennon had a tendency to think a lot of songs that may or may not have been about him were definitely about him, most notably Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”.
So Paul McCartney responded to “How Do You Sleep At Night” with a song aimed at Lennon, unequivocally this time. It’s called “Dear Friend”. It contains a bare piano riff with the same two verses repeated over and over again, no chorus. Well, except for some unwarranted sax noodling near the end; this is usually the problem with Macca’s solo stuff, every song goes on about a minute and a half longer that it ideally should have.
Dear friend, what’s the time?
Is this really the borderline?
Does it really mean so much to you?
Are you afraid, or is it true?
Dear friend, throw the wine,
I’m in love with a friend of mine.
Really truly, young and newly wed.
Are you a fool, or is it true?
It’s your classic mixture of McCartney’s ability to find a beautiful lyric and then to turn around and make the next line half-arsed. I should mention that the real reason I’m obsessed with the relationship between these two songs at the moment is because my Chicago Connection died recently and we used to have endless discussions about Lennon versus McCartney’s respective solo careers, most pointedly ones often with these two songs in the middle of it all. My friend’s death wasn’t something that was unexpected for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless it hit me quite hard in a subtle way. Our friendship fizzled out as opposed to exploded like the Lennon/McCartney one, but in the end I feel a lot like McCartney did when asked about Lennon’s death: a resigned shrug of the shoulders, with nothing to say about it other than it was “a drag”. I used to argue with my Chicago Connection that his reaction to Lennon dying showed the man’s callousness, while my friend always vociferously disagreed. It ironically took his own death for him to convince me that he was the one who was right all along.
When I got to about 28, I started thinking “Ballad of a Thin Man” was about me 🙂
I’d always taken the singer’s side against Mr Jones until one day I woke up and I WAS Mr Jones!
Oh, and it’s definitely George all the way for me, far too little use was made of him imho.
Alex Wilcock says
Condolences on losing your friend.
I still think How Do You Sleep is both horrible and one of Lennon’s best solo works (George is my favourite, too, and provides a blistering guitar there).
I always forget Dear Friend, though, because it just doesn’t have any oomph. Instead, I always jump ahead and remember McCartney’s second and massively better response to Lennon: Let Me Roll It is a/ a brilliant song in its own right; b/ sending his love and so trying to make it up; and c/ doing one of Lennon’s bath-tile-echo screamers better than any of Lennon’s as rebuttal. I always love the neatness of a reply that combines the embrace and the two-fingered salute.
Donna Williams says
I love this commentary regarding John and Paul’s solos. I don’t have anyone to really talk to regarding them anymore. I like so many still miss John & wonder what we all missed out on if he had not been so tragically killed. Sincerely, Donna
Wait, wait! Ballad of a Thin Man was released in 1965 and probably written quite a time before that. SO — I don’t think it was about John Lennon. He may have recognized some of his own faults in the lyrics, but, I may be mistaken, but I don’t think he was hanging with Dylan until after 1965!
Peter Bailey says
I have to admit I get Lennon’s anger. He started the group and his leadership took it to the top even if Brian Epstein did guide them. The Lennon/McCartney partnership was literally unstoppable and McCartney shared the lead over their catalogue with a few songs from Harrison and the odd one from Ringo. McCartney even sang the lead on their first single so there was certainly a decent balance between the two.
So what happened? It would seem Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper inspired McCartney to think the group revolved around him and his ego eventually ruined everything.
Isn’t It A Pity? Thanks George for your contributions during and post Beatles! I sympathize with your frustration at being limited with the songs you were allowed to contribute.