Glenn Gass, Provost Professor and Rudy Professor Emeritus of Music at the IU Jacobs School of Music, knows John Lennon’s impact goes beyond the music he created with the Beatles, with his wife Yoko Ono or by himself.
“He was a hero to our generation, the baby boomers,” Gass said. “‘Give peace a chance’ – he gave us our anthem. When he died, it felt like the last of the 1960s assassinations. There was a sense that he was martyred because of who he was and what he stood for. The last time that generation came together was to pay tribute after John was killed in 1980.”
“John lived to be only 40, and has now been gone for as long as he was alive. I really wanted to commemorate that,” Gass said.
Question: The Beatles’ first record, “Please Please Me” was released in 1963. What about the group’s music appeals to audiences 57 years later?
Glenn Gass: In a word: Perfection! Their music has aged like Beethoven’s or the best of any kind of music. A lot of the songs were written one day and recorded the next and then never played again, but all these years later you wouldn’t change a note, and they still sound fresh.
There is a joy and humanity in their music that transcends time, and a level of artistry that is still astonishing. Two singers and songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the same band? What are the chances? Not to mention George, Ringo and George Martin! They were a true miracle. The greatest team effort in artistic history.
The renowned recently retired rock’n’roll professor said: “That’s too hard – there are too many!” Generously, though, he shared six, in chronological order.
This was John’s personal favorite, because it was his first fully developed response to the revelation of Bob Dylan: that you could write about your innermost feelings in a song. “Help!” is full of anguished existential despair, but it is also a catchy AM radio hit and the title song of the Beatles’ second movie. Talk about threading the needle! You could hear it many times and tap your toes before ever even noticing the lyrics. I did, but then so did Paul McCartney, so I don’t feel so bad.
‘In My Life’ (1965)
It’s a perfect song, voted “The Best Song Ever Written” by a Songwriters Association poll. Paul’s harmonies are gorgeous, George’s guitar tags are perfect, Ringo’s sublime shifting drum patterns shape the song, and John’s plaintive voice and lyrics, well … it is a true pull-over-and-weep song, a beautiful summation of life and love as a series of losses from the past that color even future hopes.
My wife, Julie, and I played this song at our wedding and for the births of our two sons, and it will be played at my funeral – perfect for any occasion! Seriously, it is. I’ve made students cry at final exams with it. It’s one of several head-shakingly great John (and Paul) songs on the “Rubber Soul” album.
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1966)
Here we have John’s full-on excursion into music from an altered state, mixing lyrics from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Timothy Leary’s LSD user’s manual. Goodbye folk rock, hello psychedelia! It’s astonishing that this acid thrill ride was recorded less than two years after “A Hard Day’s Night.”
John heard the sound of “thousands of chanting Tibetan monks” in his head creating the atmosphere for this single-chord drone song. Unable to summon monks on short notice, producer George Martin worked on ways to invent new sounds, and Paul McCartney provided the perfect touch with five homemade tape loops that waft through the finished track.
It was the first song recorded for the “Revolver” album, and it freed the Beatles to dream up anything they liked with no thought of ever re-creating it at second base at Shea Stadium.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (1967)
This was the first song the Beatles recorded after they quit touring. John wrote it while in isolation on a film set in Spain, away from his fellow Beatles for the first time in many years. It finds John at his most lonely and lost, looking to the past – Strawberry Field was an orphanage near John’s boyhood home – for some meaning and relief but finding none.
He worked harder on this song than on any other, in both the writing and recording, which was spread out over many sessions, more than entire albums used to take, in the search for a suitably surreal sound, eventually created by editing together two entirely different versions with a hard edit that is almost inaudible amidst the song’s Through-the-Looking-Glass soundworld.
‘A Day in the Life’ (1967)
This is the saddest-sounding and most epically produced song in pop history. It’s the crowning coda of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, with John’s terrifyingly placid voice in the mundanely horrifying verses balanced by Paul’s upbeat “meanwhile, back-in-the-world” middle eight and supported by Ringo’s most inspired, timpani-like “space fills” and connected by George Martin’s orchestral “orgasm of sound.” A true masterpiece.
‘All You Need Is Love’ (1967)
This was the high-water mark of the Summer of Love, and it’s still meaningful. John’s message to the world, literally – it was England’s contribution to a worldwide satellite broadcast with segments from several countries airing simultaneously, the first program of its type. The record was literally recorded live in front of a half-billion people. Instead of touring, the Beatles invited the world into Abbey Road Studios, creating one of the most memorable moments of an amazing decade. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” sealed John’s place as the songwriting heir to Dylan’s empowering Message songs. “All You Need is Love” was also, it turned out, a last moment of total Beatle solidarity, before the death of Brian Epstein, the arrival of Apple and Yoko Ono, and the inevitable changes of adulthood began to loosen the bonds that had been airtight for over a decade. Two years later, they were breaking up, the ’60s were ending, and the world would never be the same again.
Q: What are the key characteristics that make a “John Lennon song”?
GG: Early Beatle masterpieces like “She Loves You” were true Lennon/McCartney collaborations, but by 1965 they had developed their own unique songwriting styles. John’s songs like “Help,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “In My Life” are inspired attempts – inspired by Bob Dylan – to express deeply personal thoughts and complicated emotions within the context of a “simple” pop song and a rock group. The influence of drugs was likewise clear in the near-limitless sonic imagination of his psychedelic period – songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.”
In the later Beatles albums and through his solo career, as he tried to distance himself from the Beatles, John’s songs had a tough edge, rarely overly sentimental or ornate. “Honest” might be the most apt word. He was always trying to depict his inner life, and there was only a thin line between his soul and the music he sent out to the world. It’s like having an older brother; you felt like you knew him through his songs because he was always so honest with you.
Q: Have people’s appreciation and understanding of John Lennon’s music evolved?
GG: I think the generation who grew up with the Beatles will always carry John and his songs with us as we age and the songs take on new meanings. I have noticed a change in my students, though. Twenty years ago, nearly all of my students had been raised on the Beatles and already loved them. In the past few years I’ve had many students who had never listened to them, which came as a shock. By the end of the semester, they all seemed to love the Beatles – active listening is all it takes – but time marches on, and it will only get harder to keep the Beatles in focus, much less the intricacies of the band’s individual members and personalities.
So, we must teach our children well, as another Brit once said. In any event, if any rock music matters in 200 years, the Beatles will matter. The “Abbey Road” 50th-anniversary reissue topped the charts last year, so they’re holding up pretty well after more than a half-century! No one would have imagined that when the group disbanded in 1969.
Q: If people wanted to immerse themselves in John Lennon’s music prior to “Remembering John Lennon 40 Years Later,” what advice would you give?
GG: Start where you are and listen to anything! If you’re already a fan, then immerse yourself in the music. The Beatles are like Christmas music: The songs never get old, and repeated listening only deepens the happy familiarity. If you are a Beatle or Lennon novice, then how lucky can you get? You have all of it to look forward to! Any album/period would work – and if the term “album” does not register, I’m sure there are scads of Beatles and Lennon playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.
Q: What are some of the key takeaways you’d like audiences to remember after “Remembering John Lennon 40 Years Later”?
GG: I would, most of all, like to remind everyone that John was the essential Beatle. All of the others joined his band, and he was always the guiding spirit. Paul McCartney, bless him, is still out there and still wondrous. My fear is that after 40 years gone, memories of John are getting distorted, and his importance – not just to the Beatles but as a hero to a whole generation – is getting lost. If you do not understand the drama of John Lennon’s life and music, you cannot fully appreciate the Beatles.