Some folk and classical elements in the songs of John Lennon
by Ger Tillekens
Paul McCartney was the one who imported all those elements of the French chanson, of British folk, of Tin Pan Ally, and of classical music into the Beatles' songs. John Lennon on the other hand was the protagonist of pure rock and roll and rhythm and blues. So goes the simple myth that has wrapped itself tightly around the two musicians, responsible for the majority of the Beatles' greatest compositions. As most myths this one too is not true, as is shown by the fact that in the late sixties and early seventies — the alleged period of Lennon's return to his rock and roll roots — he actually did put some clear folk melodies and classical elements into his songs. Here Ger Tillekens discusses the examples of "Because" and "Happy Xmas".
It is true: John Lennon's musical inspiration was firmly rooted in the direct spontaneity of rock and roll and rhythm and blues. On his solo album Rock 'n' Roll (1975), he returned to the early years of the Beatles. On this album we hear Lennon singing Gene Vincent's "Be-bop-a-lula", Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue". Moreover, on the same record we hear him performing some classic rockers such as "Stand By Me", written by Carole King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Bobby Freeman's "Do You Want To Dance". But, Lennon's inclinations towards pure rock and roll were already visible in the late sixties. After their intricate compositions on Sergeant Pepper's (June 1967), their musical trips on Magical Mystery Tour (December 1967), their sometimes cryptic experiments on the White Album (November 1968) and Yellow Submarine (December 1968) the Beatles ended their studio years and their career as a group revisiting their musical homeland of rock and roll. At the start of January 1969 they began the Get Back project at the Twickenham Film Studios in London as a tribute to their roots. And also Abby Road (September 1969) was meant by Lennon as a straight forwarded rock and roll album.
In his excellent and informative book on the Beatles' songs Tell Me Why Beatles-expert Tim Riley (1988: 310) mentions, that both Paul McCartney and George Martin had other plans with Abbey Road: "McCartney and Martin were interested in playing with form: they wanted to create an album that would combine pop hooks with classical recapitulations — a kind of pop symphony, something more conceptual than a collection of songs." Nowadays this alleged musical discrepancy between McCartney and Lennon crops up in almost every historical and musical description and analysis of the group. In his recent overview Revolution in the Head the author Ian MacDonald (1994) summarizes this point of view — which is also strongly his own.
In MacDonald's (1994: 11) own words it reads: "In fact, the differences in musical style between Lennon and McCartney were, from the beginning, quite distinct. Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon's melodies tend to move up and down as little as possible, weaving deviously through their harmonies in chains of repeated notes ("Help!", "Tomorrow Never Knows", "I'm Only Sleeping"), two-note oscillations en minimal intervals ("I Should Have Known Better", "A Hard Day's Night", "I Am The Walrus"), or reiterated phrases ("I Feel Fine", "Rain", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences of speech, colouring his lyrics with (often bluesy) tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own. McCartney's lines, by contrast, display his extrovert energy and optimism, ranging freely across the stave in wide intervals and often encompassing more than an octave. His is the expression of a natural melodist, a creator of tunes capable of existing apart from their harmony — whereas Lennon's lines tend to be allusive, moody affairs which make sense only when accompanied (particularly the more chromatic creations of his later style). In other words, while the tunes of both are marked by an unusually high incidence of non-chordal notes, McCartney's method is, in terms of the intervals it employs, 'vertical' (melodic, consonant), and Lennon's 'horizontal' (harmonic, dissonant)."
It is often said that Paul McCartney was the more soft and European oriented of the two songwriters, responsible for the main body of Beatles' songs, while Lennon was the sharp and cynical of the two and therefore more oriented towards the blues and the original rock and roll. Lennon himself added to this image in his interviews after his break with McCartney. The venomous song "How Do You Sleep?" on the album Imagine (October 1971) canonized the differences between both songwriters. However, McCartney sung such rockers as "Long Tall Sally", "I'm Down" and, of course, the raucous "Oh! Darling" on Abbey Road. Lennon on his side of the postulated fence wrote and sung songs like "If I Fell" and "It Won't Be Long", to name just a few of the early Beatles' ballads. McCartney's "Michelle" was countered by Lennon with his equally French-sounding "Girl". In reality the fence did not exist and Lennon appears as omnivorous in his musical appetite as McCartney. In his songs we find many sidesteps in such diverse genres as minimal music, folk and sometimes even the classical style. According to Riley (1988: 366) it was his relationship with Yoko Ono that took Lennon back to rock and roll. It brought him the necessary peace of mind and some distance from the musical artistry the Beatles had become involved with. She persuaded him, that rock and roll could be an art form by itself. Riley may be right on this point. But the same relationship also led Lennon to other musical sources. In this respect one can point, of course, to the avant-garde experimentalism of "Revolution No. 9" on the White Album — highly appreciated by Riley himself. But Yoko also introduced Lennon to other traditions.
The first audio fragment on this page is the strange and soothing intro of "Because", a song written mainly by John Lennon. The complete song was recorded between the 1st and 5th August of 1969 and released as track 8 on the album Abbey Road. MacDonald (1994: 291) mentions, that Lennon's inspiration for "Because" was evoked by hearing Yoko Ono play the "Adagio sostenuto" of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 14, Opus 27 no. 2 in C Sharp Minor — the famous "Moonlight Sonata". In his discussion of the song Steve Turner (1994: 194) tells the same story, at the same time quoting Wilfrid Mellers. In his book The Twilight of the Gods the famous British musicologist wrote about this song: "The affinity between the enveloping, arpeggiated C sharp minor triads, with the sudden shift to the flat supertonic, is, in the Lennon and Beethoven examples unmistakable."
According to Lennon himself "Because" was indeed this sonata, but played backwards. Steve Turner adds to this, that the song rather is a straithforward lift than the reversal of notes suggested by Lennon. In his study The Beatles. A Musical Evolution (1983: 161-162) Terence O'Grady makes some fun of Lennon's equation of "Because" with Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". There is some clear resemblance, however — listen to the audio sample. Even O'Grady has to admit, that "... the song does resemble the first movement of Beethoven's work in some harmonious aspects (especially the use of the Neapolitan or flat-II chord), its arpeggiated texture, and some aspects of the melodic rhythm." And of course, we can add, both compositions share the same key of C# minor. But there's yet another possible source of inspiration. And it is even from an earlier date.
Now listen to the start of the "Second Movement" (Adagio Molto — Ubriachi Dormienti) of the Autumn section of the (Four) Seasons as composed by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), the great Italian master of the Baroque concerto. Here it is played by The English Concert directed by Trevor Pinnock (CD Astoria 90013/4). Especially the harpsichord, used in this performance, highlights the striking resemblances of "Because" with this part of the "Four Seasons". On "Because" it is George Martin who plays the (electric) harpsichord. He even may have suggested this intro to John Lennon.
Next we take a step towards the idiom of folk music. First listen to John Lennon, singing "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)". The single was produced by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector. Though the song was recorded in October 1971, it appeared a year later in the UK on the 25th November 1972, two months after the album Some Time In New York City. Nowadays we can't go through Christmas, without hearing the official version — with the backing of the Harlem Children's Choir — over the radio at least a dozen times a day. So for this occasion we have chosen another one. This special fragment has been taken from a house demo of Lennon, recorded in New York 1971.
Now again stop for a moment. Listen to the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary singing their song "Stewball", a typical story-telling folksong about a race horse that always drank wine. At first, when the song starts you unmistakeably hear a song which could have come straight out of the songbook of America's foremost folksinger Pete Seeger. But wait! With Lennon still lingering in your mind there's no choice left. It can be no other than "Happy Xmas". However it was recorded long before Lennon reinvoked the spirit of Christmas against the evils of war. It is however, really "Stewball", an old folksong also — with other text lines — known as "Go 'Way F'om Mah Window". The song has a long history (Lloyd, 1969: 190-193). The musicologist Peter van der Merwe (1989: 70; 182) describes this song as a black American worksong with words that came from Britain, "deriving respectively from the broadside ballad "The Noble Skewball" (about a racehorse) and the Elizabethan lyric "Go from My Window"." Its bluesiness and its triadic framework, he notes, proves the songs black origins.
The melodic lines of "Because" may resemble Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" or rather Vivaldi's "Adagio Molto".  The discussion about the classical roots of "Because" is still open.  One thing, however, is clear. Though the complex harmonies of "Because" make the song clearly into a real rock song, Lennon here imports classical elements into his song. And it is remarkable, how Lennon succeeds in fitting a classical theme into the mood of his song. The close resemblances between "Stewball" and "Happy Xmas", though, leave no doubt whatsoever. Here too, the added chord material change the song into a rock song. This time, however, Lennon's composition is almost exactly the same song as "Stewball", only with other words attached to its melody. It is almost a case of direct plagiarism. Admittedly, the influence did not have to be a conscious one. Maybe Lennon was only looking for a melody with some folksy feelings to it and did found this one between his early memories.  And, undoubtedly in rock music more examples can be found of such conscious or unconscious processes of beg, steal and borrow. As an excuse, of course, one can point to the habit in folk circles of using the same melody over and over again with other text lines added. One can argue that Lennon chose to follow this tradition to enhance the feeling of cosiness, with which he is playing so artfully in his song. In any case, one can say, he made an influential song out of it.
Just like McCartney Lennon made melodious ballads next to raw rock songs. And for his songs Lennon, just like McCartney, used classical elements and leaned towards the folk tradition. Indeed, statistically there are differences between the songs of both composers. As Cynthia Whissell (1996) has shown, the songs of Lennon, as a whole, are more cynical and sad. But, each individual song of McCartney can be matched by a song of Lennon with almost the same musical characteristics (Tillekens, 1998). If there are differences in this respect, it is a question of minor accents. What counted in rock music for Lennon first and for all was meaning. He tried to say something, twisting the music to his needs. McCartney, more musically gifted, first and for all was trying to mould, extend and systemize the new musical idiom of rock music that was forming around him. That's a difference, alright. It influenced their songwriting and in this respect MacDonald's description is to the point. But, this distinction does not coincide with the distinction between folk versus blues, between soft pop versus raw rock, between melodic versus harmonic, between artificial and honest, or even — as seems to be the point that is really at stake — between commercial versus authentic rock music.
The question of the differences between both Beatles seems to start from the wrong assumptions. More interesting is the question why so many people think these assumed differences are relevant at all. That is also the opinion of rock sociologist Simon Frith (1996). According to him the debate on the differences between Lennon and McCartney first and for all is a construction made by intellectual Beatles' fans. In the seventies for these fans of rock music a cultural distinction between commercial and authentic rock music became an important criterion of good taste. Frith's implicit suggestion is, that this criterion was cast afterwards on the differences of both our Beatles. In short, the real problem lies at the side of music reception instead of music production. So let's discuss and research the question from that side and stop quarrelling about McCartney versus Lennon.
1. A more extensive analysis of "Because" and its relation to the "Moonlight Sonata" has been written by Ian Hammond at Beathoven.com. Here Hammond points to yet another possible classical source of inspiration, a prelude by J.S. Bach, in C minor (BWV 999) — listen to the audio sample (performed in a guitar duet by Andres Segovia and John Williams). [Note added April 29th, 2000]
2. In 2005 musicologist Mark Mitchell for instance build his case on Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor as the forgotten source of Lennon's inspiration. [Note added May 12th, 2011]
3. As one of the first manifestations of the British folk movement, the song appeared in 1957 on the EP Bold Sportsmen All (Topic) by Steve Benbow and A.L "Bert" Lloyd (see: Harper, 2000: 27). [Note added September 24th, 2001]
Frith, Simon (1996), Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Harper, Colin (2000), Dazzling stranger. Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Lloyd, Albert Lancaster (1967), Folk Song in England. London: Panther, 1969 (originally published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1967).
MacDonald, Ian (1994), Revolution in the Head. The Beatles' Records and the Sixties. London: Fourth Estate, 1994.
Merwe, Peter van der (1989), Origins of the Popular Style. The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992 (paperback edition).