songwriting lessons from John Lennon

Songwriting lessons from John Lennon

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

We settled on three compositions that provide virtual songwriting lessons from John Lennon: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Julia,” and “Watching The Wheels.”

Note: Beatles music is notoriously unavailable in video or streaming. We’ve included links to videos, but they are likely to be removed in the days and weeks to come. Apologies in advance if these links are broken. You can always turn to your library of Beatles and John Lennon albums to follow along or search for new videos.

The song catalog of John Lennon and Paul McCartney stands as arguably the most celebrated in popular music history. Aside from the lasting value and relevance of the duo’s collection of 200-plus recorded songs, their music provides countless lessons to songwriters and musicians interested in improving their craft.

We’ll zero in on a few songs written and sung by John Lennon at different points in his career that showcase the more straightforward side of his creativity. Always a mercurial figure, his creative bursts ranged from highly experimental forays into art rock to songs that were moody and enigmatic, to more personal, introspective works that provided listeners with a glimpse into what the artist himself was really feeling.

It was difficult to pare the list down, but I finally settled on three compositions that show Lennon at his most introspective, and which provide excellent examples of his approach to writing a heartfelt song: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Julia,” and “Watching The Wheels.”

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” was written in February 1965 and recorded in August of that year to help fulfill the need for new material for The Beatles’ second feature film, Help! Featuring only Lennon on vocals, it’s a largely acoustic number that is a textbook case of economical, effective songwriting, clocking in at 2:09.

In comments included in the Anthology series of CDs and DVDs, Lennon recalled this song was one that “you sing a bit sadly to yourself… I’d started thinking about my own emotions. I don’t know exactly when it started… Instead of projecting myself into a [fictional] situation, I would try to express what I felt about myself, which I’d done in my books. I think it was Dylan that helped me realize that – not by any discussion or anything, but by hearing his work.”

Other songs from this period that provide some sense of the turmoil Lennon was likely feeling include “I’m a Loser” and the title track from the film, “Help!” in which Lennon proclaimed, “I feel so insecure… Help me if you can, I’m feeling down.” Ironically, while the band was approaching the zenith of its popularity, Lennon was struggling to cope with non-stop celebrity and beginning to filter his unhappiness into the group’s songs.

While fans and songwriters have debated the source of the melancholic inspiration for “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” Lennon’s lyrics and haunting vocal performance make the song one of the most moving from this period of the band’s catalog.

Taking a page from Dylan’s approach to songwriting, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” uses four basic chords learned by nearly every beginning guitarist: G, D, C, and F. Lennon plays his acoustic guitar part using a Framus 12-string and keeps the G note (first string, third fret) as a common pedal tone between the three main chords (G, D, C) during the song’s four brief verses. This makes the D chord a suspended chord, often referred to as a D4 or Dsus4. Whenever he uses the F chord, he makes it an F9 chord by keeping his pinky finger on the same G note.

With this simple technique, Lennon ties together the song’s harmonic underpinning neatly and sets up the points in the song where he will stray away from that high G to play a regular D with its chordal third, F#, tweaking the ear of the listener (e.g. at the end of the song’s first verse, at the turnaround after he sings “Feeling two foot small,” the chord helps propel the listener right into the second verse).

To provide variety, with economy, Lennon uses one of his favorite techniques at the end of the second and fourth verses to build up tension leading into the punchline and title of the song, which is repeated twice each time. He plays the normal D chord and walks his own 12-string part with Paul’s bass down from D-C-B-A, building tension to lead into the song’s chorus. It’s reported that Pete Shotton, an original member of Lennon’s first group, The Quarrymen, was present when Lennon was writing the song at home and suggested he add the emphatic “Hey!” at the start of each line in the chorus. It is an attention-grabbing technique that adds an emotional punch. As for the chords used in the chorus, it’s just G, C, and D, but he varies the D chord by using both the D4 from the verse and the D2 versions. It’s a simple but effective embellishment, especially on the chime-like 12-string he favored for many of his more acoustic-oriented tracks.

The rest of the group plays understated but perfectly appropriate background parts. Ringo adds a snare part tastefully played with brushes, as well as tambourine which comes in on the second verse and stays steadily on what is essentially the backbeat for the remainder of this triple meter song. In the brief choruses, he plays a single maraca to give added texture. Paul’s bass is way back in the mix and in a nod to the emotional oomph that the lyrics provide, simply play root notes for the folk-sounding piece. George contributes a tasty, understated nylon string guitar part, which beautifully doubles the chorus melody an octave lower, adding subtle power to the title lyric. Although Lennon played harmonica well, the decision was made to not echo Dylan’s instrumentation too closely and the band decided on a double tracked flute part to take the song home, performed by studio musician, Johnnie Scott, who played a regular flute onto John’s vocal track after his part concluded, then overdubbed an alto flute an octave lower to give the outro its wistful, folk-like feeling. (Remember, the Beatles had only four recording tracks available at this stage of their career.)

Finally, unlike the polished, in your face, three-part vocal harmonies featured on many other Beatles’ tracks of this era, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” features only John singing with a small amount of effects on his voice. Notably, his performance’s emotional coefficient trumps the imperfect break in his voice during the last verse when he sings, “Gather round all you clowns,” a simple-to-fix edit easily achieved with a drop in, but the flaw was left intentionally to maintain the integrity and emotion of his performance.

Julia

From The Beatles’ self-titled 1968 album, “Julia” was written while the Beatles were in India studying meditation. Lennon also penned “Dear Prudence” while in India, among dozens of songs the group wrote while there. Dubbed “The White Album” by the group’s fans, the double LP featured what was then the most adventurous work The Beatles had ever attempted. Taken as a whole, the compositions and production vary widely – some might say erratically – mirroring the rifts within the group itself.

“Julia” is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed and recorded by the group, and its apparent simplicity masks the fact that John Lennon had developed into a brilliant songwriter, uniquely capable of combining gorgeous lyrical imagery with a haunting vocal performance to yield a timeless masterpiece.

Upon first listening to the tune, it stands out among Beatles tracks as it is features John playing and singing, albeit double-tracked, all by himself. And while the song’s building blocks are standard – relying on a verse, chorus, bridge, and short coda – Lennon mixes up what would be the traditional ordering of those building blocks to keep the listener on the edge of their seat. Rather than the common structure of two verses followed by a chorus, Lennon uses the unorthodox approach to the song’s structure illustrated in the graphic below.

While starting a pop song with the chorus is hardly unique, he drops the second chorus in between the third and fourth verses and chooses to conclude the 3:00 song by humming over the first part of the fifth and final verse before closing with the coda and song’s title repeated three times. He then slowly picks the notes which comprise the lovely C Major 7 chord to signal the end of the track. As to the chords used in “Julia,” Lennon returns to the idea of using a similar constant upper note on the guitar’s first string, exactly as he did on “Hide Your Love Away.”

(Note: the references to the notes and chords will be standard fingerings in C major, however, Lennon performed the song with a capo on the second fret.)

This upper common note, a G played with the pinky finger, ties together all of the chords used in the chorus and verse with one exception. For the evocative upward melody Lennon sings mid-verse (“calls me”), he plays the only chord in either section that doesn’t have a G note in it: an F minor with an exposed third (Ab) played one half step higher than the pedal G. This exposed chordal third stands out like a beacon, immediately catching the listener’s attention, creating a point of tension that Lennon then resolves with each verse’s concluding chords C-Am-Em-G-C, all back to relying on the steady upper G note played while he sings the song’s dedication to his mother. “So I sing a song of love, Julia.”

For the song’s short bridge, he modulates to E minor, and cleverly uses descending upper notes – Am 7 to Am 6, then Em 7 to Em 6 to Em+ to plain Em – to give the bridge a sense of spiraling movement to match the lovely imagery he uses to describe the spirit of his deceased mother. “Her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering, in the sun.” In addition to the bridge’s depiction of an ethereal, other-worldly woman, Lennon peppers the verse lyrics with interesting images and alliterations including “seashell eyes,” “windy smile,” “morning moon,” “sleeping sand,” and “silent cloud.” Collectively, they create a dreamy word palette that matches Lennon’s understated, yet emotionally rich vocal delivery.

Lyrically, “Julia” also draws on a number of then contemporary sources according to the song’s Beatles Bible entry. Lennon borrowed/adapted a few lines of poetry from Kahlil Gibran, including the opening line of “Julia.” While the title clearly references Lennon’s mother, who was tragically killed in an auto accident when he was 15, Lennon himself admitted that it was a combination love song to his mother and Yoko Ono.

Lennon told author David Sheff, “Julia was my mother. But it [the song] was sort of a combination of my mother and Yoko blended in one.” The right hand picking pattern Lennon uses was taught to him by Donovan while The Beatles and Donavan were in India studying meditation. It was recorded in only three takes and was the final song to be started for the White Album, with John adding the aforementioned double-tracked guitar and vocal to the final take. It is the only Lennon solo recording in the entire Beatles catalog. Taken as a whole, “Julia” is a songwriting masterpiece: compact, artful, emotionally charged and deceptively simple in its solo execution by the master songsmith.

Watching the Wheels

“Watching the Wheels” is from what tragically became John Lennon’s farewell album, Double Fantasy, released in 1980. Once again, Lennon stripped away artifice to simply tell his fans what was on his mind, addressing the non-stop questions he faced as to why one of the most famous musicians in the world closed the door on fame and walked away from the music industry for more than five years.

One reason was the fact that prior to his self-imposed break, Lennon had been going full speed ahead with his career, first as a Beatle and then as a musician and activist with Yoko Ono from 1969-73. He finally realized that taking a break would be beneficial to his own health and the well-being of his relationship with Ono. Still, the decision was not a simple one. Speaking to biographer David Sheff, Lennon said, “I hadn’t stopped from 1962-1973 – on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard.”

Lennon mentioned his fear that if he weren’t putting out music, being seen around town, and mentioned regularly in the media, he would become invisible, comparing his vision of his future to what happened to men who retired at 65, only to discover, in Lennon’s words, that “Your life is over. Time for golf.”

The tune started life in 1977 with a working title of “Emotional Wreck,” according to the excellent Beatles Bible page devoted to it, with the opening lines firmly in place as well as the bluesy piano riff heard in the intro and throughout the recording. That working title provides a bit of a glimpse into the struggles Lennon faced with turning his back on celebrity.

Later, after its recording, Lennon likened the song’s final title to both the universe and the Eastern philosophy of a great mandala or wheel which represents life itself. He had come to truly appreciate his role as a house husband doting over his young son, Sean, who had been born in 1975. “Watching the wheels? The whole universe is a wheel,” he told Rolling Stone in an interview, “Wheels go round and round. They’re my own wheels, mainly. But you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child, too.”

The song itself went through a series of changes as it evolved over the next four years. By 1978, the verses were completed and the tune retitled “People,” alluding to his anonymous inquisitors referenced at the beginning of each of the song’s three verses. Lennon continued to rework the song and by 1979, the song title tinkering continued as he then renamed it with the confessional title, “I’m Crazy.” Prior to going into the studio in August 1980, he experimented with a guitar-driven boogie rhythm for the song, but dropped that approach as sessions loomed, returning to the keyboard-driven arrangement heard on the album.

Structurally, the song is straightforward, comprised of a four-bar introduction that repeats before each verse, an eight-bar verse, a five-measure pre-chorus and an eight-bar chorus. Lennon adds some variation by repeating the chorus’ last line three times as a vamp leading up to the song’s conclusion. He also adds two beats just before each chorus for the band to hit the three-note, syncopated riff that signals “we’re at the chorus.”

The chord changes are solidly in the key of C with the verse alternating between C and F. The pre-chorus, which builds tension, uses F, D minor, and G (or G7) to set up the chorus. When the song’s chorus finally does arrive after the second verse, Lennon adds an A minor as well as throwing in the color chord, F# minor 7 with a flatted fifth, an added musical twist to highlight the lyric “merry-go-round,” which signified the craziness of his existence prior to taking his lengthy break from the limelight. To heighten the sense of surrealism represented by the merry-go-round analogy, co-producer Jack Douglas invited a street musician, Matthew Cunningham, to come in and overdub hammered dulcimer to accompany the piano during each chorus. It’s a brilliant, cinematic touch that helps the chorus really differentiate itself from the more traditional “rock band” sound of the rest of the recording.

Speaking of the backing band, although Lennon’s double tracked vocal and piano part are the centerpiece, he’s backed by a good-sized ensemble that recorded the backing track (minus the dulcimer) in one day: August 18, 1980. A careful listen on headphones and a look at the credits reveals two electric guitars, a second piano, Hammond organ, plus various synth parts played on a Prophet V, drums, bass, percussion, and four background singers, who were used sparingly, heard only on the third line of each verse. By hiring the top studio musicians of the day, Douglas, along with Lennon and Ono, who are all credited as co-producers, allowed the musicians to help shape the sound of each track.

For instance, session keyboard player George Small added the ascending French horn-sounding synth parts heard on each pre chorus that build that section so elegantly. Similarly, to add propulsion to the chorus, Small played an active, Beatles-y eighth-note string synth part under the chorus that echoes busy string parts from classic Beatles tracks. Small recalled one last touch that Lennon specifically wanted on this song, the chromatic descending piano line heard only on the tune’s vocal vamp where Lennon sings, “I just had to let it go-o-o.”

Speaking with author Ken Sharp, keyboard ace Small said, “He [Lennon] really made a big point of making sure I had played that romantic piano line on the tag exactly that way. He told me he was in a bar one night and was listening to a piano player and that riff just stuck in his head. So he had to have the riff on the end of it.” It’s actually a perfect complement to Lennon’s vocals at the end when he swoops up into his falsetto to express how important it was to his own mental health to leave behind his old lifestyle. In the vamp, the chord changes vary slightly from the song’s first chorus, using an A-flat to substitute for the F minor as the second chord, and then altering the E natural in the F# minor 7 flat 5 to an E-flat, making the chord a diminished flat 7 chord to add a bit of extra tension.

Also, notice bassist Tony Levin’s active fretless bass line under Lennon’s vocal vamp which provides the stability for his double-tracked musings. This vamp or tag section really leaves the listener with the sense of Lennon not giving two cents for his previous pinnacle of pop supremacy. It’s likely that the doubting voices Lennon echoes throughout the song in lines such as “Surely, you’re not happy now,” and “Don’t you miss the big time, boy,” were based on actual remarks made to him during his house husband era. Lennon’s dismissal of such sentiments in this song are at once believable and convincing, hallmarks of a great song lyric.

“Watching the Wheels” was the third single from Double Fantasy, posthumously released in March 1981, which went Top 10 on both the Billboard and Cash Box charts. It provided a testament to exactly what the great songwriter saw himself becoming.

Final Thoughts

The takeaways from Lennon’s creation of these three songs could fill up an entire songwriter’s notebook. They range from the dogged determination he displayed in the lyrical evolution of “Watching the Wheels” to taking suggestions like shouting the first line of the chorus in “Hide Your Love Away.” While the sentiments he sang about – love, loss, and disappointment – are common themes in popular songs, Lennon creates memorable lyric combinations and phrases that stick in the listener’s mind, converting a simple lyric into a real hook. That ability translates to songwriting alchemy – the ability to turn words into gold.

Musically, each song shows how Lennon uses subtle musical changes to create variety such as the color chord in “Wheels,” and the melodic high point in “Julia” on the one chord that doesn’t feature the high G pedal note. Notice, too, that Lennon signaled his intent as he shifted between song sections to guide the listener through the song.

Most importantly, these songs prove that great songs do not require highly complex arrangements, multiple chord changes, or over-the-top production. John Lennon could have marshalled as many arrangers and session players as can be imagined, but it’s the wise songwriter who supports his or her work with only the essential production elements that help make the song a complete track. Although his life was tragically cut short, songwriters can both study and celebrate the genius his works help to define.

Images sourced from Shutterstock (editorial use only).


HatschekHeadshotKeith Hatschek is a regular contributor to the Disc Makers Blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

 

Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a great 
song

Related Posts
The ingenious musical arrangements of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys
The creative genius of Paul McCartney’s bass lines
After The Beatles: Paul McCartney’s bass playing, Part II
A look at Ringo Starr’s enduring musical influence
The song worlds of three musical greats
George Harrison’s songwriting brilliance

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on StumbleUponEmail this to someoneShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

5 thoughts on “Songwriting lessons from John Lennon

  1. Good choice of songs for John. In your analysis of “Julia” it was noted that John performed the song with a capo at the second fret. Then it says he played the G pedal tone with his pinky? Unless he was playing overhand with the guitar in his lap a la Jeff Healey, it would seem extraordinarily … um … non-ergonomic, shall we say? 😀

    Thanks for that great graphic of the song’s structure. I want to try to work on that song again.

  2. Very Interesting Blog Some songs take longer even years, others come fairly quick

    but nothing can come out that’s not already been put in side us

    The first lines or melody we think of are usually Cliché and that’s where the art comes in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *