John Lennon was a genius (duh), and so he did what geniuses do: absorbed the world around him, took in what inspired him, and made it his own. He could be turned on by anything, from Elvis Presley to a Disney princess and everything in between. So in honor of what would have been his 75th birthday, this JUKEBOX highlights the music and the people that helped make John, well, John.
But first things first: John’s special day wouldn’t be complete without George Harrison’s birthday tribute from All Things Must Pass. And if your name is also John, lucky you for getting such an awesome birthday song.
1) “We’ll Meet Again,” Vera Lynne (1954)
Music was in John’s genes. His father, Freddie, was a seaman who could always be counted on for a laugh and a song (though not much else, in John’s case). He even recorded a few songs himself and sounds uncannily like his son. But it was his mother, Julia, who made the strongest impression. Julia sang and played the banjo, teaching John his first chords and encouraging him to follow his dreams — a far cry from his guardian Mimi, who famously told him, “The guitar’s all right as a hobby, but it won’t earn you any money.” Later in life, the memory of Julia’s tragic death inspired some of John’s most beautiful and painful songs.
It’s said that Julia’s voice sounded like Vera Lynn, a popular British singer at the time. Chances are, Julia sang this song while her son watched in awe.
2) “I’m Wishing,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Who would have thought that a Disney princess would inspire anything but derision from John Lennon? Another of Julia’s favorites, the opening lines are, “Do you want to know a secret?/Promise not to tell.” Sound familiar?
3) “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis Presley (1956)
John recalled, “Nothing really affected me until Elvis,” and his life changed the night he first heard the crackly broadcast of “Heartbreak Hotel” on Radio Luxembourg’s weekly rock program. John went to work learning everything he could about Elvis (he was most surprised to discover he was white) and changed his own look and persona to match. Once again, Aunt Mimi didn’t approve of the changes — “He became a mess, almost overnight, and all because of Elvis Presley” — but she lost that battle before it even started.
4) “Rock Island Line,” Lonnie Donegan (1955)
The British skiffle craze exploded out of nowhere in the mid 1950s, inspiring thousands of teen boys to create bands with little more than a guitar, a washboard, and a tea-chest bass. Lonnie Donegan was the patron saint of skiffle, and his cover of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” was its gospel.
With Julia’s encouragement, John and best mate/co-troublemaker Colin Hanton rounded up some local boys and formed their own skiffle band, the Quarry Men. They were probably no better than the average teen group — that’s to say, pretty bad — but John’s first taste of life in a band convinced him that he would one day be bigger than Elvis.
4) “Twenty Flight Rock,” Eddie Cochran (1956)
The 1956 jukebox movie The Girl Can’t Help It was the first time John saw his rock idols Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and Eddie Cochran perform onscreen, and the film intensified 16-year-old John’s need to be a professional musician. (It also opened his eyes to the wonder of Jayne Mansfield, but that’s another story.)
All four Beatles-to-be were obsessed with the movie’s soundtrack, especially Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” Many tried to play it, and few could master it. But one did — a younger boy John met through a friend on July 6, 1957, whose skills far surpassed anything he’d heard on the local scene. John also thought he looked a little like Elvis, which didn’t hurt. The cynical Lennon was impressed despite himself, and two days later, he asked Paul McCartney to join the Quarry Men.
6) “Move It,” Cliff Richard and the Drifters (1958)
Cliff Richard was a massive force in the British rock scene, and “Move It” is considered one of the first rock ‘n’ roll songs with true English roots. Richard’s success marks the beginning of British rock and paved the way for the homegrown sound that eventually led to the British Invasion. Without Cliff, there may have been no Beatles. Richard didn’t achieve success outside his home country, but his contributions to British music earned him a knighthood.
7) “That’ll Be the Day,” Buddy Holly (1958)
John and Paul may have loved Buddy Holly even more than they loved Elvis. Holly was the ultimate inspiration — he wrote and recorded his own songs, a rarity in those days, and his quirky look and simple stage act showed them that you don’t need to have Elvis’ pelvis to make it big. The name “Beatles” was even inspired by Buddy Holly’s backing band, the Crickets. Early Beatles sets contained as many as 13 Buddy Holly songs; some of which can be heard on Live at the BBC and their ill-fated Decca audition recording.
8) “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard (1956)
John once said of Little Richard, “[He] blew our heads — we’d never heard anybody sing like that in our lives.” Ever since seeing him in The Girl Can’t Help It, John and Paul (especially Paul) had idolized and emulated his distinctive sound and stage presence. How exciting it must have been to open for Richard in Hamburg the UK and find that he was also a huge fan of theirs!
His songs littered Beatles’ set lists and his influence is especially noticeable in their early sound — their head-shaking “oooh” is right out of “Tutti Frutti.” John would pay Little Richard further tribute by recording his songs on the 1975 Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
9) “Please Mr. Postman,” The Marvelettes (1961)
John loved the Motown sound, especially girl-group harmonies. The Beatles covered “Please Mr. Postman” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” to name a few, and wrote their own Motown-inspired song, “This Boy.” And the love was mutual: the Supremes recorded a tribute to the British Invasion called A Bit of Liverpool (1964) where they covered five Lennon-McCartney originals, as well a cover of the Beatles’ version of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” (So, a Supremes’ cover of the Beatles’ cover of a Motown original. Wrap your head around that!).
10) The Goon Show
All four Beatles loved the Goons, but their sharp and surreal humor was especially up Lennon’s alley. John’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works are reminiscent of the Goons’ style, as is the surrealist radio play featured on the Beatles’ 1966 Christmas record. It must have thrilled John to no end when the Beatles were signed to Parlophone and to George Martin, the man who produced many of the Goons’ comedy records.
The Goons were also indirectly responsible for the look and feel of the Beatles’ first two films. The band loved The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film, which featured the Goons’ Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, and requested the same director for their upcoming movie, A Hard Day’s Night. That person was Richard Lester, who also went on to direct Help! and How I Won the War, John Lennon’s first and only feature film outside the Beatles.
11) “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Bob Dylan (1963)
It’s the most influential mondegreen in history. Bob Dylan was convinced the Beatles loved marijuana when he heard “I can’t hide” in “I Saw Her Standing There” as “I get high.” So when he met them on their ’64 tour, he brought lots of weed with him. Turns out the Beatles hadn’t smoked it before, so Dylan gave them the first of many pot experiences. Dylan — and marijuana — opened the Beatles to new ways of writing and thinking about life and music.
John Lennon was already fascinated with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, and soon after that meeting, John’s music began to take on a Dylanesque quality. Dylan’s musical influences, combined with the mind-opening effects of marijuana, spawned a new, folk-influenced sound, most evident in “Nowhere Man” and “Norwegian Wood.”
12) “Here, There and Everywhere,” The Beatles (1966)
Friends and fierce competitors, John Lennon and Paul McCartney inspired each other to be better and go further. They corrected each other’s excesses and enhanced each other’s strengths. Though there was plenty of animosity after the Beatles, the influence that Paul had on John, and vice-versa, is impossible to quantify, even at their roughest moments. “Here, There and Everywhere” was one of John’s favorite McCartney compositions.
13) “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” Yoko Ono (1980)
“I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner,” John confessed. “One was Paul McCartney and the other Yoko Ono.”
Say what you will about Yoko’s brand of art, or John’s output during the solo years, but John and Yoko were everything to each another — spouse, friend, parent, artistic partner, and inspiration. Her influence led John in new artistic directions, turned him on to social issues, and changed his opinion on women’s equality.
14) “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon (1980)
John got the best present for his 35th birthday — the birth of his son Sean (happy 40th, Sean!), and took a five-year hiatus from the music business to raise him. When he re-emerged, his music had a maturity that reflected his newfound contentedness with himself and his family. Sean’s influence was not musical, but it was life changing.
Check out this week’s accompanying Spotify playlist for even more tunes!