The First Beatles Song That Had John Lennon Telling His Own Life Story
In the later years of The Beatles, there were John Lennon songs that told you exactly what was happening. “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” the No. 1 hit John recorded alone with Paul McCartney in 1969, offers a perfect example. It’s a straightforward story of events surrounding his wedding.
That was quite a different story compared to a song like “Norwegian Wood.” On that Rubber Soul track, John spoke of how he composed it with deliberately obscure lyrics. (It was about an affair he wanted to hide from his wife Cynthia.)
But on the classic “In My Life” (also from Rubber Soul), John had something of a breakthrough as a songwriter. Rather than writing in code or speaking from someone else’s point of view, he dug into his own personal history.
Eventually, the song became a bit of a literary creation and less a journalistic snapshot of places he remembered in Liverpool. But it began with mentions of both Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields — places that later became legendary in Fab Four lore.
John wrote ‘In My Life’ after being challenged by a journalist.
In the last John and Yoko interviews collected in the essential All We Are Saying, John speaks about writing “In My Life” following a conversation with journalist Kenneth Allsop. Talking about John’s lyrics, Allsop asked why John didn’t try something like he’d done in his book In His Own Write.
“He said to me, ‘Why don’t you put some of the way you write in the book, as it were, in the songs? Or why don’t you put something about your childhood into the songs?'”
After some misfires that included too much detail about Penny Lane and other sights, John decided to give it a rest. Then he saw a new way of writing the song. “I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember,” he recalled.
When he brought the song to work through with Paul, John still needed a middle part. Though he recalled doing more than that, Paul delivered with that change-of-pace melody and the harmony.
In earlier tracks, John had focused mostly on the sound.
David Sheff, the Playboy journalist who conducted the interviews in All We Are Saying, asks John about his songwriting method prior to that point. “It never dawned on you to write from your own experience?” Sheff wonders. Apparently, he’d been too preoccupied with the music.
“We were just writing songs a la The Everly Brothers, a la Buddy Holly,” John explained. “Pop songs with no more thought to them than that — to create a sound. And the words were almost irrelevant.”
That all changed with Rubber Soul. With “Girl,” “Nowhere Man,” and “Norwegian Wood,” John had something completely different on hand when he brought his new batch of songs to the studio. The Beatles (and thus the music scene) wouldn’t be the same again.