John in 1965 – the best ever?

Imagine, if you will, that in 1965 Paul McCartney hit a writer’s block and George Harrison hadn’t yet found his feet as a songwriter. The Beatles were dependent on John Lennon compositions, plus the occasional cover. Brian Epstein kept a rabid EMI and, in the US, Capitol at bay by insisting the group would issue only one LP that year, as well as a couple of spin-off singles. Yes, I know Paul, George and Ringo massively enhanced John’s songs with their ideas and instrumental contributions. And I know that Macca played a key role in creating many Lennon originals during this period (though it cut both ways – for every McCartney-burnished ‘In My Life’, there was a Lennon-bolstered ‘Michelle’ or ‘We Can Work It Out’). Of course, collaboration was fundamental to achieving what they did, especially in this most glorious of Beatles years. I’m just urging you to focus on John’s creativity that year. Because I think there’s a case to be made that 1965 was Lennon’s artistic apex in the band, and captured him as the greatest rock star we’ve ever had.

A classic shot by Robert Whittaker

That’s not to say John wasn’t brilliant throughout his career. He dominated The Beatles’ 1964 output, for example, and had several other songwriting hotspots – the epic, mind-bending compositions of 1967, for example, 1971’s inspired Imagine  album and the array of great numbers he either created from scratch or polished off for his 1980 comeback recordings. In fact, he continued to evolve and develop throughout his life, refining his style and often reinventing it, and even his lesser years – say, 1969 or 1972 – are studded with great tunes. But there’s something about his songs for Help! and Rubber Soul, and their accompanying singles, which find a really sweet spot and capture him at the very peak of his considerable powers. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s have a look at the track list for The Beatles’ 1965 Lennon-led album:

Help!

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away

You’re Gonna Lose That Girl

Yes It Is

Ticket to Ride

It’s Only Love

Norwegian Wood

Nowhere Man

The Word

Girl

In My Life

Run for Your Life

(*Day Tripper, a co-write, could be the non-album single)

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but I think ‘Help!’, ‘Girl’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ are the best songs he wrote with The Beatles. And ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘In My Life’ are pretty close behind. And ‘It’s Only Love’ is one of the most underrated of all Fabs tunes. And ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ aren’t bad, either. See what I mean? The power and consistency of his writing (and singing) here is phenomenal. And, like a supremely confident boxer, he’ll take you down any which way want – dazzling you with his technique, battering you with a barrage of body blows or leaving you breathless with his speed, dexterity and audacity. So you have angst-ridden introspection (‘Help!’, ‘Nowhere Man’); wounded, flailing romanticism (‘Ticket’, ‘It’s Only Love’, ‘Hide Your Love Away’); dreamy, conflicted meditations on the past (‘Yes It Is’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘In My Life’), and impatient, frustrated relationship demands (‘Lose That Girl’, ‘Run For Your Life’). And, in the miraculous ‘Girl’, he somehow covers all four of these themes at once. And it’s not just the subject matter he plays around with. Stylistically, he switches from power pop to folk to jangly rock, all the while adding instrumental flourishes (flutes, sitar, harmonium, guitar volume pedals) which took rock music in to new areas. Looking for a more harder-edged Lennon? Well, he outdoes the Rolling Stones at their own game on ‘Run For Your Life’, and also leads the band through two ferocious covers of Larry Williams songs, ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’.

Recording ‘Rubber Soul’, autumn 1965

Why was he so good in this year? I think there are lots of factors behind it. Firstly, while still tied to an insanely busy work schedule, The Beatles had a little more time to breathe in 1965 and enjoy the fruits of their labours. At this point,  the mania whirlwind hadn’t yet begun take its toll; there was still an element of freshness and excitement, of new frontiers to conquer and undiscovered worlds to explore. For John, I think it was the first time he had the chance to take stock and reflect on what had happened to him, to savour his stardom and success, before the madness of it all became oppressive and the incessant attention began to chafe. From being an art school drop-out and Scouse ne’er do well, he was now a globally fêted multi-millionaire, heading up the biggest entertainment and cultural phenomenon of the century, hailed as a genius (which he had always thought he was, anyway) and mixing with the UK’s Swinging ‘60s cultural elite, some of whom he had loved and admired while growing up. As the memoirs of wife Cynthia and childhood pal Pete Shotton attest, he loved it – and, as with the other Fabs, it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity.

At the same time, while the previous year’s ‘I’m A Loser’ had hinted at his insecurities, the endless chart triumphs must’ve made him feel supremely confident. Rather than play it safe and stick to a winning formula, John’s character was such that it would have encouraged him to take more risks and see what he could get away with, to challenge his audience and test their adoration. The success in 1964 of his ‘In His Own Write’, his first book of sketches and language-mangling poetry, doggerel and short stories, had proven he could enjoy artistic success on his own terms. This not only resulted in a slightly darker, more twisted second book, ‘A Spaniard in the Works’, in 1965, but also encouraged him to take a more literate, personal approach to his songwriting. Contrary to what he later said, his early lyrics had often revealed a lot about the inner workings of his psyche (going back to ‘There’s A Place’ on Please Please Me), but this undoubtedly became more overt and sophisticated in 1965. Bob Dylan is often cited as a key influence here, but I suspect Lennon saw him as someone he wanted to put in his place, a rival, rather than an artist he aspired to be like. John never wanted to be anyone other than himself, and he always wanted to be top dog.

From teddy boy to teddy bear

But the insecurities remained. Much has been made, not least by John himself, of the pain and tragedy of his early life, and how it provided the engine for his artistic expression. It undoubtedly found more of an outlet in his work after hooking up with Yoko in 1968, culminating in the tortured ‘primal screams’ of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1970, and echoing through much of his solo work in the decade that followed. Those feelings were obviously buried during the prime Beatlemania years, but they were still there, bubbling away from day one. In 1965, we can see now they were starting to come to the surface, ripping through the carefully composed moptop canvas in the most forceful of ways – none more so than in the song ‘Help!’, nominally a catchy toe-tapper but also a shard of self-realisation. His 1965 songs are not only more mature and eloquent, they showcase the aching sensitivity hidden beneath his mocking, sometimes caustic public persona. Nonetheless, his internalised hurt was balanced out by the positive influences in his life. His pain may have been a driving force, but it didn’t overwhelm or define him. While he was just beginning to explore and articulate past traumas, and coming to understand that success, his marriage to Cynthia and even Beatlehood would not ultimately satisfy his innermost cravings,  he was smart enough to know he was living out a life most people could not even dream of.

And this is reflected in the Lennon we see interviewed during that period. He never whines or preaches or over-intellectualises, or plays the showbiz game. The burning intelligence and biting wit is there, but he seems comfortable in his own skin and with his status, unfazed by adoration or criticism. He’s a shade more grown-up than before, but as playful as he ever was and, possibly, ever would be again. He was already a spokesman for his generation, but didn’t see himself as that (though ‘The Word’, on Rubber Soul – in particular, the line ‘I’m here to show everybody the light’ – betrays the first flickerings of a messiah complex). He was cheeky, cocksure and irreverent, absolutely, but utterly charming, funny and irresistible. Watch him at the Shea Stadium concert. The world is literally a puddle of hysteria at his feet, and he thinks it’s hilarious. Look at the cover of Rubber Soul – while the others are scanning far horizons, he staring directly at you, challenging, engaging you, with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-style smile. Maybe he knows something more than you do. Or maybe he doesn’t. But you instinctively know it will be fun finding out. Oh, and he looks so cool (though arguable even more so in 1966).

Never one for a typical showbiz pose

Drugs also started to seriously come into play in 1965,  notably LSD. While The Beatles almost never wrote or recorded under the influence – by all accounts, it was pretty much impossible to produce anything worthwhile in such a state – the experience began to find its way into their music, and John’s in particular. LSD represented another way of tearing down social restrictions and conventions, feeding his insatiable desire for something new and novel while also connecting with the surreal view of the world he had nurtured since childhood. Crucially, though, the heavy use, the thousands of ‘trips’, the days of “eating acid for breakfast” (as he later described it), didn’t come until later. In 1965, it was just another stimulant, alongside music, sex, booze, pot, fame. He was still very much in command of his faculties, still razor sharp, still in full control, and still very much the leader of the biggest band in the world. The drug-induced ego disintegration of 1966-67, when Paul became ascendant, was still a way off.

Which brings us back to the nonsensical fantasy I painted at the beginning about John dominating The Beatles in 1965. What makes his output that year all the more astonishing – and perhaps also partially explains it – is that Paul was just a hair’s breadth behind him in his stratospheric development. Indeed, you could argue in that in 1966, in pure songwriting terms, he overtook him (and I could make an equally strong case for Macca being the ultimate rock star from mid-1965 to mid-1966). In fact, if you see him as the junior parter in the 1964 Lennon-McCartney team, Paul’s progress during this period is even more startling – he recorded ‘I’m Down’, ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘Yesterday’ in just one day, for heaven’s sake – and it undoubtedly impacted on John. The intense rivalry and collaboration between them would’ve push John further, faster and more fervently into new realms of accomplishment. Add in the input from George (whose own writing was starting to blossom at this point), Ringo and George Martin, and his wonderful tunes were able to reach fantastical fruition. The John Lennon of 1965 could never have existed without the support and impetus provided by his best friends.

His talents were in full flower during 1965

Despite all that, I still think John was a remarkable creative force that year. As I said earlier, he was always great, and one of the things that made him so was his quest to keep moving and changing. The critic David Hepworth, in an article written last year to mark what would’ve been John’s 80th birthday, said Lennon remains the gold standard for anyone who picks up a guitar. And I think his work in 1965 raised the bar to an almost impossibly high level. If music truly is a universal language, and an advanced alien race with time travelling capabilities arrived and invited the Earth to enter a single person into an intergalactic musical contest, I’d say send for John during the Rubber Soul sessions. He’d probably think it was a right laugh, and the extra-terrestrials would be disarmed, wooed, amused, jolted and ever-so-slightly intimidated. I’d fancy our chances to win.

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