John Lennon was overrated.

My love for the Beatles is almost organic. Almost cellular. In fact, it’s like loving one’s own arm or leg to say that one loves The Beatles. Not that everyone should. Just that it seems somehow unnatural not to. Impractical. However, I think that the way people fawn over John Lennon and his “idealism” is a bit out of place. If only because it all seems so fake. So contrived.

If you look at his solo career, you find that his one brilliant statement, his one irrefutable masterpiece, “Plastic Ono Band” (1970), was recorded and released when the wounds from his battles with McCartney were still raw, when he had the most chips in the game, and when the one emotion he was trained (and equipped) to facilitate (anger) was at its peak, justifiably or not. After that, the only thing he “done” was “Imagine”, a noble turn of a phrase, but ultimately as meaningless and empty as his other forays into passive politics.

Once that anger subsided, once the battle had clearly no chance to be revisited, he, like all of his brothers in arms, came out with some really regrettable dirges. In fact, pretty much the entirety of his solo career was a sort of winking apology to his own dissipating muse.

Why?

I’ve read countless books on the subject, seen and read copious volumes of interviews, and of course, devoured every record he ever put out. And it seems as if he signed a deal with the devil somewhere in Germany or before, to be a big man, to be untouchable, to be a soldier in a war on his own restlessness, fought unknowingly by his four partners, soon to be three, soon to be one. And once that dream came true (primarily due to his unwillingness to accept defeat, and of course because of his talent, and whithering good luck), there he was on the mountain top, fucking anything and everything he wanted to. Seeing the world, not as a sailor or a fighting man, but as a rock and roll Oscar Wilde, getting it up for his required 25 minutes of ringmaster to chaos, and then to the shelter of his concrete bunker once more.

I think Lennon was telling the truth when he said that he was thinking of quitting as early as 1965, and why not? What was there to achieve? He was doing what only Elvis had done before him, only more-so and with three people who could absolutely understand what he was talking about when and if he should ever try to explain what his life was like. I think the reason he didn’t quit is because he found himself in direct and needless competition with Paul McCartney, his only real peer on Earth. And as McCartney’s powers as a musician and songwriter grew, Lennon simply could not bring himself to follow his instincts to stop, as if the group he started could have gone on without him. He probably believed they could, but that’s because he was one insecure puppy. All McCartney ever wanted was a band, that band, and to tour like a normal band of the time.

Even after Manilla, even after Brian Epstein died, they could have toured, augmented their line-up, and played stuff from their most creative period, but I think McCartney demurred in deference to his clearly unstable partner, in an effort to keep the group a going concern.

Lennon did heroin because of his inability to stop those voices that told him that his partner had surpassed him in every way. He was roused to greatness in the psychedelic period not out of ambition or whimsy, but out of fear. He had admitted as much when he bemoaned McCartney’s ever-increasing output. It’s like he was only motivated in order to not be left behind. Which is why once his anger (at himself, no doubt, having never been anything but a whip-smart intellect) subsided, he was left with what can only be termed arrested development as a songwriter.  No more innovative or profound than George Harrison at his nadir, he quit after 1975. He gave the line that he was happy to relegate himself a “house husband” but I don’t buy it. His partner was literally conquering the world of music with an entirely unknown group of players. “What does that make me?” he must have thought more than once.

Yet history shows that all he had to do was pick up the phone and all the world would have been able to behold what they were waiting for, circa 1974. It was his frailty as an adult, and his pettiness in the face of almost universal admiration and respect that he chose to make an excuse and leave the party when he could have truly made the biggest difference. All the bed-in, David Peel, Yoko Ono stuff would have been but a strange diversion in the life of a fully formed adult, but that was what Lennon ceased to be when he reached the top of the mountain.

The reason I say all this stuff is because, as my good friend Dan and I were discussing online the other day, Paul McCartney is either an expert at hiding (well-deserved) righteous anger at how his career has been overlooked in favor of the maddeningly inconsistent Lennon canon, or he’s a fucking saint. When was the last time someone was walking around with a McCartney t-shirt?

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23 thoughts on “John Lennon was overrated.

  1. Rick says:

    Provocative.I agree that Lennon’s muse was 100% reactionary to McCartney’s output.During the Beatle era Lennon had to be on top of his game otherwise he would have been buried by the sheer volume of McCartney compositions(see G Harrison).I’ve always felt the White Album would have made a bulletproof single album.Revolution #9 is absolute rubbish on every level but Beatle Paul was not far behind.Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,Martha My Dear and the most sickeningly over rated Paul song in history, “Blackbird” are all fairly vomit inducing in their own right.I’d say the ratio was about 2 Paul pablums for every John asskicker.Solo wise I have to agree almost completely.Plastic Ono Band and Imagine are the only 2 worth noting.The rest is just shit.Mostly unlistenable shit.Not even our ol’ buddy Reg Dwight after hitting John with the defibrillator could save him.For all the peace and love our friend John spoke about,he was a selfish enough prick to deny us the pleasure of seeing him and Paul on Saturday Night Live,let alone deny himself and his Liverpudlian friends the livelihood they had worked so hard for.John was a dick.The only reason he got off his ass to do Double Fantasy was again,sibling rivalry.McCartney had a hit with “Coming Up” and had just signed the biggest contract in music history with Columbia.He also never intended for Yoko to besmirch that album.That was his lack of balls that allowed that nonsense to occur.The blood is also on Geffen’s hands.NO record company was interested in Yoko anything.But for me,the most disturbing thing about John Lennon is that he will forever liked to the peace movement while the reality is he was an abnormally violent man who I believe was directly responsible for the death of Stuart Sutcliffe.Lennon repeatedly booted him in the skull during a fight in Hamburg and Sutcliffe later died of a brain hemorrhage.I believe Lennon carried this and was tortured by it his whole life as he should have been.

  2. Luke says:

    What? John Lennon was fighting with Stuart Sutcliffe when they were in a fight with 2 other guys, he didn’t boot him in the skull. John was a great musician, he knew how to let it out and was way ahead of his time. McCartney was the overrated one.

  3. gilbert neal says:

    Luke, i guess what I would say to that is “who writes the history?” Were there ever any witnesses? We know Lennon had a terrible temper, but no one has ever come forward to say that they were the one to beat the shit out of a Beatle or two. Not saying it’s true or not, but Lennon also had a history of revisionism. Aggrandizement of his own achievements to preserve the myth he so disdained.

  4. […] affected freed slaves, and immigrants throughout history in this, the land of the free. It took guts to put a song like that on an ex-Beatle record, but no one ever said he didn’t have guts. Wait, did […]

  5. Craig says:

    Great article, with many truths contained therein. it is evidentially possible to acknowledge people’s weaknesses whilst admiring their abilities. Lennon had great musical talent but has certainly been elevated to an absurd level of sanctity as a human being. Ironically, if Paul had been shot instead and similarly idolised, John would probably have been the first to mercilessly mock the retrospective appraisal of his former band mate. Neither John nor Paul produced consistently good music after the Beatles split up, but that’s probably true of most musicians who go on to have solo careers.

  6. Craig, thanks. I think any Beatle fan would have to admit that one of the main attributes of the partnership, aside from driving both main writers to their zenith creatively (Morse Moose and the Grey Goose notwithstanding) was the built-in quality control. Would McCartney have DARED present “Bip Bop” or Lennon “Tight A$” with the awareness of the other songwriter’s potential? This was also as i see it the main function of George Martin.

  7. c2R says:

    Had Lennon not died, he would not be this big and McCartney would be seen as the true artist. It was kinda like jesus dying again.

  8. Gilbert Neal says:

    I agree, obviously. That’s a good parallel. And just as Jesus’ teachings were ill-defined and radically interpreted by whoever has the mic, so too do John Lennon’s true beliefs seem vague and ill-defined, save for “peace”, of course. What does that even mean?

  9. sarah says:

    i couldn’t agree more!!! i always feel that way about all beatles thing! and see paul as an unusual person who could do alot of those stuff that nobody has ever done before! and yet people who doesnt knoe what music is pick john as the artist…i cant get that!!

  10. Eclipse says:

    McCartney surpassed him in every way after 1966. I hate to say that, since I dislike McCartney, but it’s the quantifiable truth. He simply produced more great work and left Lennon in the shade (and was no doubt gleeful about it). Lennon hadn’t been a meaningful force in music for nearly a decade by 1980 and his last album would’ve been forgotten had he not been shot. He was on the other side of the mountain and death saved him from an even more painful decline and complete irrelevance.

  11. SO Lennon, ever the perpetual child, regressed back into the safety of drugs, etc. instead of taking on the “challenge”, which is an odd word to use since MCCartney by all accounts wished his partner every success. I’m writing my next post about the other side of the coin. SHould be done by tonight or tomorrow.

  12. […] McCartney is overrated. He, like his partner John Lennon, suffered mightily outside the hothouse of musical excellence that was “The Beatles […]

  13. valiant3 says:

    all the best beatles songs were not lennon’s. (Sergeant Pepper’s lonely Hearts club band, here comes the sun, hey jude, eleanor rigby, let it be, penny lane, within you and without you, yesterday, the list goes on and on. The only Lennon songs I liked are Revolution and lucy in the sky with diamonds. And why does everyone go crazy about lennon’s solo career? There is nothing special about Imagine. Yes it has a beautiful message, but the aesthetics of a song are much more important than the message. If the music is poor then the message is irrelevant. Lennon even stated in an interview that lyrics are not important. They are just needed to hear the voice of the singer. Paul and George had MUCH better music incorporated in their ballads. Here comes the sun, splhcb, live and let die,band on the run, and badfinger blow anything lennon wrote way out of the water. And I don’t remember the lyrics in these songs, because that’s not what makes them great.

  14. Srijan says:

    I am tired of people who always associate words like clever, experimental to John Lennon.
    Poor Paul.. Did nobody pay attention that he was inspired by likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, AMM and other unique artists. Tape loops were brought to them by Paully. ‘Musical Orgasm’ in A day in the life was the idea of Paul.. Again influenced by Stockhausen. John met this B-town ,second rate Avant Garde artist with no original ideas of her own called Yoko Ono. Did albums full of nonsense.Sings about Peace and no Possession (the Irony!) And Dies. Gets called a Genius..

  15. […] Noble. Read The John Lennon Letters for a while. He was, in a word, impenetrable, it seems to me. Also sort of a jerk. Trying to find a good reference book, but they seem to sell less and […]

  16. Gramulis says:

    paul mcartney and ringo was also the only ones to realise the potential of Syd Barret and Pink Floyd, i think lennon was intimated by Syds writing abilities, the psychdelia the beatles and john lennon did was kinda gibberrish , although revolver was my favorite beatles album i dont think magical mystery tour or sgt. pepper was as good Piper at the gates of Dawn but thats just my opinion also i think lennon did sell his soul to devil some crazy stuff was happening in hamburg at the time and alot of musicians went there its what kicked off a poppier rock n roll mersey beat

    • The whimsy of Syd Barrett seems totally natural and off-handed compared to Donovan, Lennon and others of the time. That’s apparently who he was. Man, that first Floyd album was unlike anything else.

      • Gramulis says:

        That’s what I’m saying Syd Barret didn’t want to freak people out like alot Psychedelic Music tried to do he wanted to calm you down and tell you a story and in my opinion hasn’t written a bad song both solo albums were masterpieces. Also I like some of John Lennon’s stuff songs that stick out are Rain, A day in the Life , Benefit of Being Mr.Kite, I’m a Loser , Tomorrow never Knows, and Across the Universe as being my favorite although Lennon’s character was a really hateful person who was a hypocrite , A woman hitter , Was mean to his son’s and ex wife . I can separate the music from the person but I’m sure his dark side wasn’t pleasant to be around.

  17. kg says:

    I wasn’t around in the 60’s because I’m only 42 but I’ll ask my question anyway.
    Do you think if the Beatles hadn’t broke up in 1970 they would have still be having hits as late as 1979 or 1981? If so there would have been no glam (T-rex), no punk (Sex Pistols), no synth-pop (Gary Numan). This really interests me. What do you think?

    • gilbert neal says:

      Sure. If we were to take the drugs out (Lennon) and the discontent (Harrison) I think as long as George Martin was producing them and they listened to him, their collective craft and quality control could have really kept going and going. And I like to think that they would have also played live since sound systems got more sophisticated and their audience more mature.

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