John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Sad Happiness Of John Lennon

“It’s Only Love” works on every level. But Lennon didn’t like it.

By - Jul 16th, 2018 03:57 pm
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The Beatles

The Beatles

I’m beginning a summer song clinic that will be based on The Beatles. The idea is to find the things they used over and over again to make songs that were fresh and exciting and apply them to our songs. What was it about these techniques, tried and true, yet not necessarily as successful when others tried them, that made them so effective for the Beatles? My obsession with this band is in the medium range compared to some. It doesn’t approach the level of all-out fandom some exhibit. I don’t wear the collarless sport coats or arrange the remaining follicles of my hair in tribute to them. But I have to be careful — once I jump into a project like this there’s a good chance I’ll also get lost in a Wonderland of Fab.

Charting out the lovely John Lennon tune, “It’s Only Love,” I was struck by a couple things. One, this song is short. It’s under two minutes — at 1:59 it’s a second shy. Many artists will labor mightily their whole careers and never manage to plant anything as memorable in the imagination. It was not unusual for The Beatles to reach this pinnacle. When they started out, they did two or three records and year, and they were routinely great.

In the comments section beneath the video I found a second thing to ponder, it was a comment I’ve heard before — Lennon never liked this song. Famously nasty (and funny) regarding his former writing partner after the band broke up, Lennon was just as unimpressed with a lot of his own songs, including this one, something we tend to forget. So here we have a song that sparkles harmonically, melodically, lyrically, sung memorably by one of the great voices in rock and roll. Anyone else would have hung their reputation on it and he dismisses it as minor.

This lead me to another thought: Would he have been driven to write some of his later songs if he had been consistently satisfied? Some artists never get beyond the first flush of success. Fame, money and distractions we can’t imagine, but wouldn’t mind trying, knock them off their game. Maybe hubris too. What was it that kept Lennon coming back? Did he feel, like many artists do, like a fraud? It was so easy — he could write these kind of songs in his sleep, so he may not have appreciated how hard it would be for others. Whatever it was fueling his creativity, it was very potent for a long time. And despite his harsh assessment, this song, short and sweet, is a winner.

I get high when I see you go by
My oh my
When you sigh, my, my inside just flies
Butterflies
Why am I so shy when I’m beside you?

It’s only love and that is all
Why should I feel the way I do?
It’s only love, and that is all
But it’s so hard loving you

Is it right that you and I should fight
Every night?
Just the sight of you makes nighttime bright
Very bright
Haven’t I the right to make it up girl?

It’s only love and that is all
Why should I feel the way I do?
It’s only love, and that is all
But it’s so hard loving you
Yes it’s so hard loving you, loving you

© Lennon & McCartney

Beatle lyrics are another great lesson for aspiring writers. They are tight and ridiculously disciplined rhythmically. If the melody has x amount of beats per line, with certain beats accented, you almost always count on them to deliver, verse after verse, well-thought-out lyrics that check off all those boxes, without variation. They also stayed with rhyme schemes for the most part. It’s like a tough crossword puzzle they always managed to solve. Because of this attention to detail, the listener stays with them till the last chord.

There are at least 20 other lessons in this song, but I’ll limit myself to one more. I may have mentioned the concept of regression before. Simply put, it’s a feeling you create when the chords feel like they’re moving backwards or falling away. The Beatles never studied music, they simple did things like this instinctively. But at the end of the day, it’s every bit as good as doing it in an educated way. What their instincts seemed to tell them was the lyrics and the music were about losing ground. Lennon didn’t often write from a place of security and that imbued his songs with a kind of sad beauty. For an outwardly confident man he had a lot of abandonment issues in his songs. Sit down Mr. Lennon and tell me about your childhood. Oh never mind, I have a couple Beatle records right here that tell the tale.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Sad Happiness Of John Lennon”

  1. “This lead me to another thought: Would he have been driven to write some of his later songs if he had been consistently satisfied? Some artists never get beyond the first flush of success. Fame, money and distractions we can’t imagine, but wouldn’t mind trying, knock them off their game. Maybe hubris too. What was it that kept Lennon coming back? Did he feel, like many artists do, like a fraud? ”

    I get where you are coming from. What drove me to make art for more than 40 years was being unsatisfied. Not is a painful way. I was hungry for what I could learn one baby step at a time. Was I fraud? Probably in that I never felt like the brilliant artist I told others about. Humility took me a long way. I was constanly arriving. Making art kept me honest, unlike the rest of my life.

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Those who’ve been abandoned often end up abandoning others first (before it happens to them)!

  3. Thomas says:

    This tribute to what John Lennon called a “minor” song reminded me of a rare, sunny Sunday afternoon in Seattle in the summer of 1973. I was walking in a neighborhood inhabited largely by young people. Most of the windows were open. The Beatles were singing from records or radios from every third or fourth house on a 6 or 8 block walk. All their songs were wonderful on that walk. ‘We were blessed to have the Beatles. John Lennon.s public struggles and uncertainties notwithstanding, we are still blessed to have Beatles tunes in our ears.

  4. I wish my first guitar teacher and later employer when I taught lessons for him were still around to see this article. It was too long ago and I don’t remember which Beatles song it was. But I played the record over and over for a full weekend and worked out the chords. I was teaching it to a student and the master teacher pulled me aside later and said that I couldn’t possibly have it right. No one would write those chords in that progression or even put them together in the same song. I put the record on in the studio and played along. This is what I hear and they aren’t trained…so why wouldn’t they just write and play what sounds right instead of what is technically right? Two weeks of fiddling around with it and apparently talking to a third party, he admitted that I was right!

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