The Road to Revolution
The Growing Influence of Yoko Ono on John Lennon’s music
It all started with one word, Yes. Tiny little letters on a black canvas suspended from the ceiling. John Lennon, climbed up a ladder in an art gallery and picked up a small magnifying glass and saw the most positive word he’d seen in a while. Up until that point everything was beginning to unravel.
The Beatles had just stopped touring claiming it was because they were beginning to tire of the routine. The decision was helped by events in America. Lennon had made a comment about how The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and while he meant nothing more than teenagers were more influenced by rock and roll than religion, America took it differently. Public burnings of The Beatles albums became normal and near enough the entire country hated him. Even the Ku Klux Klan expressed hatred towards Lennon, and issued threats towards him. Yet The Beatles still carried on with their plans of touring. The tour was a failure, with the hatred towards the band showing. Lennon claimed at one point that the audience were shooting at him. When the band returned to the UK they decided to stop touring. Despite rumours at the time, there was no strong feeling for the band to break up.
While recording their previous album, Revolver, they had found it difficult, with the overdubbing, to perform it live. Now that they weren’t touring they didn’t see that as a problem and wanted to top the previous album, in terms of experimentation. Before starting that process though, the band took a break. George Harrison went to India in order to improve his Sitar playing and Paul McCartney collaborated with George Martin to make a soundtrack to The Family Way. John Lennon filmed his own film How We Won the War, his only appearance in a film without the other Beatles. It was while filming that Lennon was given the “Granny” style glasses that became an iconic part of his image.
On the 7h November 1966 John Lennon first met Yoko Ono. After being impressed with the preview of her art gallery he approached her about a particular piece. John Lennon later spoke to David Sheff and told him about one of Yoko’s pieces that led to their meeting. A blank piece of wood with a hammer attached to it called A Painting to Hammer a Nail in. John Lennon asked if he could hammer a nail in, but because it was the day before the actual gallery opening Yoko refused. Her manager told her that she should let him, believing that because he was rich he would buy something. Yoko, not knowing who John was, told him he could for five shillings. When speaking to Sheff John remembered his response as “So smart-ass here says, ‘Well, I’ll give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer an imaginary nail in.’ And that’s when we really met. That’s when we locked eyes and she got it and I got it and that was it.”
Later in November 1966 The Beatles rejoined and went to the studio to record sessions that would lead to their most critically acclaimed album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. It was early during these session that John played a song he’d been working on, Strawberry Fields Forever. He played it, on acoustic guitar, to the group. The sound engineer Geoff Emerick remembers it was “just a great, great song, that was apparent from the first time John sang it for all of us.” Over the next five weeks The Beatles changed the song and spent over forty-five hours recording various versions. The final released version sounds completely different to the acoustic version John originally presented to the group. Much later in a 1980 interview John stated his dissatisfaction with the song saying it was badly recorded, and claiming that Paul McCartney intentionally sabotaged it.
In early 1967 Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, pressured George Martin, their producer, for a new single to release. George, stating that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (A song written by Paul at the same time as Strawberry Fields Forever) were the best things the group had ever recorded, chose the two songs to be released as a double A-side single in February 1967.
Strawberry Fields Forever marked a change in the style of songs by The Beatles. Even though their previous album Revolver was a step towards Psychedelic rock, Strawberry Fields Forever was a major landmark in their new direction. It isn’t clear if Yoko Ono had any influence on this, and the timing of John and Yoko meeting is probably just a coincidence, but her influence is very present on later albums.
Between late November 1966 and April 1967 The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. It was a significant album, not just for The Beatles but for John Lennon. His lyrics showed a complete departure from his earlier love songs, and new technology allowed the band to do things they couldn’t before. They also wouldn’t have to worry about being able to reproduce it on stage. The album was also the first of “The Studio Years.” Paul McCartney, in an interview for the 30th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, remembered that “We were fed up with being the Beatles… and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.” It was this that led Paul to suggest posing as a fictional band allowing themselves to distance themselves from The Beatles. This is perhaps why The Beatles took another step towards Psychedelic Rock, which allowed John to write Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life. Both of which show a contrast to earlier songs, and dealt with the subject of drugs.
Shortly after finishing their album The Beatles started making Magical Mystery Tour. A TV film to be aired at Christmas 1967. As part of that project John wrote and recorded one of his strangest, at least lyric-wise, songs: I am the Walrus. Inspired by Lewis Carol’s nonsense poetry, especially ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ from Through the Looking Glass, John wrote a song that was meant to confuse anyone that tried to attach meaning to it. During an interview with Playboy, in 1980, John admitted that he wrote the song under the influence of drugs, but more importantly he said that “it was filled in when I met Yoko,” showing that she was beginning to have an influence on his music. The film, and accompanying album, has many weird moments, some of them being near enough Monty Python style sketches, but before Monty Python existed. The film is bizarre and not well received upon first release. Over 45 years later and critics are more generous towards it, although most call it a collection of music videos with sketches in-between. It had gotten to a point where the band could do near enough anything they wanted and next came the self-titled album, commonly known as The White Album.
The album began to take shape during a trip the band took in February 1968 to Rishikesh in order to attend meditation training sessions. One by one the band left early with various reasons. John was appalled by rumours that their teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, had made advances towards Prudance Farrow, who had accompanied the group to India. He left and then wrote a song showing his anger, which later turned into Sexy Sadie. In a 1980 interview John said that the song was completely about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, just with a different name.
Yoko Ono’s influence on John Lennon’s contribution to The Beatles became very evident in The White Album. There are quite a few avant garde and experimental songs on the albums, but Revolution 9 stands out. One of the early takes of Revolution lasted over twenty minutes, was a complete mess and inspired John to record another version of the song which was in no way a traditional Beatles song. It begins with a short musical section, followed by the repetition of the number 9. John went beyond the nonsense influence that was present on I Am the Walrus and took The Beatles to new levels of experimentation. Yoko Ono is featured on the track, and helped John organise and create it. Forty-five years later and the song still divides opinions of everyone who hears it. It’s the longest Beatles track to ever be officially released and when Paul McCartney first heard it he tried to stop the others from including it on the album.
Yoko Ono’s influence on John Lennon’s music was evident from their first collaboration, Unfinished Music, which was recorded shortly before The White Album, but John’s music was becoming more experimental from Revolver onwards. It was during the Sgt. Pepper sessions that his experimentalism became more evident and Yoko’s influence grew until it reached its height when recording Revolution 9.