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When John Lennon sang like Chopin

Where Bob Dylan fits 45 words into a six-word line, Lennon could be sorcerously expansive, as John Lennon: Verbatim  reminds us.

By Antonia Quirke

An Archive on 4 programme to mark John Lennon’s 75th birthday (3 October, 8pm, BBC Radio 4) used his music and the man talking. Lennon gave many revealing radio interviews between 1962 and 1980 – excerpts were used here, filleted and shaped so you heard him over the years sounding less furious, less defensive about Yoko, less likely to have a go at the Beatles, less convinced he’d been silenced by the band or couldn’t do anything politically for fear of being mocked. The savage edge for the most part in abeyance.

“We were going crackers,” he confesses, a grin in his voice, galloping on about his first acid trip, at a dinner party with his dentist, and being so helplessly amusing about it, so giddy and up-welling (“George somehow or other managed to drive us home in his Mini but we were going about ten miles an hour but it seemed like a thousand . . . And Pattie was saying, ‘Let’s jump out and play football . . .’”), you heard him for the supreme monologuist he was. A talker who couldn’t stop himself, very clearly the guy who wrote the two nonsense books in a matter of minutes. It brought you back to the unworked, off-the-top-of-the-head creativity of those books; Lennon was a brilliant surreal artist. Set the books against Spike Milligan’s and it becomes clear that Lennon was the more natural comedian. He showed such fluency.

Memorably, Lennon mentioned Dylan a couple of times in the show, hinting at Bob’s “delusions of grandeur” in the thick poetry of his lyrics. “Simple English,” he shrugged slyly of the kind of music he preferred. “Make it rhyme, and put a beat behind it.”

And although it’s true that nobody (still!) can challenge Lennon’s direct expressiveness (“Imagine there’s no countries”; “If you don’t take her out tonight/She’s gonna change her mind”; “Father, you left me”), like most people fascinated with their own talent, he was slightly skewed in his self-analysis. “I just knocked it off,” he glooms. “All these songs just came out of me.” His lyrics are straight but not simple, the work creating deep, inarticulate feelings: “And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown.” Where Dylan fits 45 words into a six-word line, Lennon could be sorcerously expansive, working with long lines of melody, like Chopin. Which the songs played in this blissful hour proved time and again. 

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis