Choirboy Lennon

Lennon’s earliest performances as a singer, beginning at age eight, were as a member of his local Anglican church choir, where Lennon would have received basic instruction during regular rehearsals. There is no better training for the voice than to sing in a choir.

Young John attended up to three Sunday church performances, sang at weddings, in street performances, and travelled to choral competitions. He was eventually dismissed from the choir after repeatedly refusing to stop singing his own freely composed counterpoints—clearly, even at this early age Lennon was musically creative and wanted to stand out as a performer.

Do we see evidence of Lennon’s choirboy days in his later songs?

The most obvious instance of a Lennon hymn is Grow Old With Me, written in 1980 when Yoko Ono suggested they both write something based on Robert Browning’s (very long) 1860s poem Rabbi Ben Ezra. Lennon takes the two opening lines, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be”, which he then fashions into a deeply felt marriage song. Never recorded in the studio, all that survives are home recordings of the song.

The pause before the verse begins, with “Grow old,” is characteristic of the church song (where the back of the reverberating church is given time to catch up with the front pews). The simple four-square syllabic setting of the phrases and the melody itself all belong to the idiom. The refrain, “God bless our love,” speaks for itself. The end of the bridge, “World without end,” comes from the doxology, the fundamental Christian mantra. Grow Old With Me is entirely an Anglican hymn.

The verses of Nowhere Man (1965) and Strawberry Fields Forever (1966/67) are at most one step removed from the hymn. Both have that same four-square section format. The Strawberry Fields verse ends with the {F |C } close typical of church music. Both are confessional and reflective.

Another religious form we see in Lennon’s songs comes from the largely single-note chant recitation. We hear this style most clearly in Julia (1968), which begins by chanting “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you,” before falling to close with “Julia”.

The opening text of Julia paraphrases an aphorism from Kahil Gibran’s Sand And Stone (19xx).

Single note melody is central to Lennon’s minimalist, style-driven approach to songwriting. In many cases, like Julia, the melody begins with a high reciting note before falling to close. The chorus of All You Need Is Love is perhaps the best known. The style forms the skeleton of more elaborate melodies, such as the verse of A Day In The Life, where the reciting note acts as an inner pedal note (I read the news today, oh boy).

In some cases, such as the introduction to Do You Want To Know A Secret (1962), the chant decorates a single note without falling to close. The bridge of You’re Going To Lose That Girl (1964) is an example of an elaborated usage. The verse of Imagine is the exemplar.

The title of Do You Want To Know A Secret, written when Lennon and his wife Cynthia were (secretly) expecting their baby Julian, comes from a Disney song that his mother Julia sang to him as a child. The lyric of Imagine, written as a children’s prayer, reflects ideas expressed by Yoko Ono.

Stepping back, we see Lennon’s early church experience as a general resource that he could draw from when the expression of a song idea called for it, and that, of course, became commonplace for Lennon, beginning with Help! (1965) (where the verse is a decorated E-note chant). Lennon’s reflective, confessional theatrical persona is informed and colored by the words and music he heard at church as a boy.

Lennon’s chosen musical path was set in stone when he heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel (a decorated gospel-style chant). He was not to know at this time that his rock’n’roll heroes, such as Presley and Carl Perkins, saw African-American gospel music as forming the roots of their own musical lives. Lennon recognizes this distance when, out of embarrassment, he titles his 1968 rewrite of Heartbreak Hotel as Yer Blues. If we want to understand why British rock was different to American rock’n’roll, one place to start is with differences in religious musical expression that so obviously apply, and more generally, in the music these songwriters and performers grew up with.