It’s Beatlemania all over again: half a century after the Fab Four split, the Liverpudlians are once more dominating the cultural conversation thanks to Peter Jackson’s sprawling seven-hour documentary Get Back. In a recent five-star review, The Independent’s Ed Cumming argued that the film is so revelatory that “any future assessment of the band and its members will have to measure up against the people we see here”.
While Jackson’s film captures the pioneering band during the tumultuous recording sessions for their final record, 1970’s Let It Be, there was still plenty more to come from the four musicians. Over the course of the next decade, John Lennon released seven solo studio albums before he was assassinated by Mark David Chapman on 8 December 1980, 41 years ago this week. An eighth record, 1984’s Milk and Honey, followed posthumously.
These solo records feature some of the most famous and significant work of Lennon’s career, including activist anthems “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” and perennial festive favourite “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. Look beyond the hit singles and there are still plenty more gems to be uncovered.
Here are the nine best deep cuts of John Lennon’s solo career:
9. “Bless You” (1974)
After Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono separated in 1973, the songwriter began an 18-month relationship with their former personal assistant, May Pang, during a period he’d later refer to as his “lost weekend”. Still, his thoughts were never far from his estranged wife, as evidenced by this lovely ballad from 1974’s Walls and Bridges. Lennon himself rated it as the best track on that record: “As a song, I think it’s the best piece of work on the album, although I worked harder on some of the other tracks. In retrospect, that seems to be the best track, to me.”
8. “Remember” (1970)
Recorded on 9 October 1970, Lennon’s 30th birthday, “Remember” finds him reflecting on his youth, memories of which were jogged during a summer of primal therapy sessions overseen by Dr Arthur Janov. The song ends with a typically Lennon-like gag. After interpolating the nursery rhyme line “Remember, remember, the Fifth of November”, the singer is abruptly cut off by the sound of an explosion.
7. “Intuition” (1973)
Lennon is on upbeat and optimistic form on this jaunty album track from 1973’s Mind Games, which puts it somewhat out of step on a record made when his marriage to Ono was falling apart. While Lennon is well known for writing sardonic lyrics, here he offers a more earnest appraisal of music’s power to rejuvenate with lines like: “And when I struggle in the night / The magic of the music seems to light the way”.
6. “Cleanup Time:” (1980)
Many of the songs on 1980’s Double Fantasy, the last record Lennon released before his death, made reference to his embrace of fatherhood and domesticity. Most famously, these include the hit “(Just Like) Starting Over” and posthumous single “Watching the Wheels”, but don’t miss the underrated “Cleanup Time”. Accompanied by a full horn section, Lennon sketches out a portrait of himself and Ono as the king and queen of their very own Versailles at The Dakota in New York.
5. “Meat City” (1973)
The B-side of 1973 single “Mind Games” is a dancefloor-ready boogie swathed in cacophonous guitars that Lennon wrote after moving to New York, apparently inspired by the frenetic nature of the city. A mysterious high-pitched noise after the first verse contains a backward-recorded message: on the B-side, reversing and slowing the noise reveals recording engineer Roy Cicala instructing listeners to “check the album”. On the album version, when flipped and slowed down, Cicala’s voice states: “F*** a pig”.
4. “Isolation” (1970)
Lennon wrote this stately, piano-led blues song in 1970, inspired by his feelings about the break-up of The Beatles, the abuse he and Ono had suffered, and his own self-doubt. While not many of us may be able to directly relate to what it feels like to no longer be in the world’s biggest band, Lennon’s heartfelt, intimate vocal packs an emotional punch and exposes the vulnerability the songwriter felt beneath his fame and material success.
3. “Crippled Inside” (1971)
The second song on Lennon’s 1971 record Imagine immediately provides a stark contrast to the hippy utopianism of the opening title track. It’s a rockabilly tune featuring a dobro guitar solo by fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison and one of the bleakest earworms you’ll ever hear: “One thing you can’t hide/Is when you’re crippled inside”. It was widely interpreted to be a dig at Paul McCartney – much like the more well-known “How Do You Sleep?” from the same record.
2. “I Found Out” (1970)
Lennon spent much of the Sixties searching for enlightenment and wisdom from a variety of supposed prophets and would-be revolutionaries. On “I Found Out”, recorded in the autumn of 1970 with Ringo Starr on drums, Lennon cast aside these false idols with a blast of distorted guitar and some of his most vituperative lyrics. These range from amusing takes on The Beatles’ fame (“I seen religion from Jesus to Paul”) to a blunt dismissal of masturbatory gurus (“Some of you sitting there with your cock in your hand / Don’t get you nowhere, don't make you a man”).
1. “Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” (1973)
A stirring protest song that deserves to be as fêted as Lennon’s more famous political songwriting, “Bring On the Lucie (Freda Peeple)” was first sketched out in 1971 but wasn’t properly recorded until 1973. The completed track was included on that year’s Mind Games and features gorgeous pedal steel guitar playing by “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, formerly of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The song is an angry broadside against the powers-that-be that features both another masturbatory insult aimed at authority (“So while you're jerking off each other / You better bear this thought in mind / Your time is up, you better know it / But maybe you don't read the signs”) and an urgent, singalong chorus: “Free the people now (Do it, do it, do it now).”