Friday, October 9, 2009

John Lennon and "It's Only Love"


SIXTY-NINE years ago today, one of the greatest artists of the rock era, and my first cultural hero, was born in a hospital on liverpool's oxford street.

especially with the madness over the beatles mono and stereo reissues still fresh, john lennon does not need my defense or explication here. i'll just say that i lost most of my elementary school years blasting my parents' beatles records, and all but levitated when i discovered the scarred depths of "plastic ono band," the one solo beatle LP that stands up with the group's work. (here is my old colleague bob hilburn on lennon.)

instead of diving into the man's amazing achievement and apparently contradictions -- his mix of generosity and bitterness, idealism and disillusionment -- i want to focus on just one song, and an overlooked one at that.

"it's only love" is a kind of orphan in the beatles' catalog. it was released on the american, but not the british, "rubber soul" -- in the UK it appeared on "help." over the last decade or so we've seen through the collaborative fiction implied by the "lennon-mccartney" songwriting credit: this is really john's number. he wrote it in a rush, and lated called it "a lousy song." paul knocked it as a "filler" song for its weak lyric.

let's listen to the song though: my favorite version is the incomplete third take on the "anthology 2" set. first of all, it's one of john's best-ever vocal performances: all the bite, the translation of the pain of the blues, is here, and he digs into the ambiguity of the lyrics -- this woman that he wants to love, but cant. or cant love, but does. (we've all been there.)

john's refrain of "but it's so hard, loving you" is as good a document of the group moving from its moptop phase into its darker, more complex middle period, which i think happens between "help" and "rubber soul," as i can think of.

musically, this has the byrdsy, folkrock sound the beatles were beginning to explore, and an unusual chord progression yoked to an unforgettable melody.

is the kind of tune which, if released today, would absolutely captivate people for its songcraft, but the beatles output in the '60s was so incredible it was seen as failed or forgettable.

(let me admit here that the song was recorded 15 june 1965 -- a few weeks from the day my parents were married. a shrink could probably unravel my almost unanimous fondness for the culture of 1965 and '66, but that's another story.)

but it's not just me who thinks this is a great song. bryan ferry recorded it, to good effect, in the '70s.

either way, let's raise a pint to one of the greatest musicians in history today, and wish we'd had more of him.

6 comments:

Milton said...

My favorite under-rated Lennon song is "You've Hide Your Love A-Way"

Scott Timberg said...

a wonderful song indeed, which i also first heard on the american rubber soul... shows the influence dylan was having on them at that point, an influence that went both ways.... and "hide" considerably more explicit in its bite, as was "run for your life."

Pete Bilderback said...

I also like this song a lot, and feel it fits in very nicely on the U.S. Rubber Soul, with its folk-rock sound. Definitely an overlooked gem in the Beatles' catalog.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is another great one. I always figured it was--at least in part--about Brian Epstein. It's not on the U.S. Rubber Soul though...it's on the U.S. Help! soundtrack, and appeared in the film. It would have fit right in on the U.S. Rubber Soul though.

Scott Timberg said...

i stand corrected by mr. bilderback! but indeed, sounds like it "hide" would fit right in on rubber soul...

Colin Barrett said...

A similar song in the same vein -- not an original but covered very effectively by the Fab Four -- is You Really Got A Hold On Me. The live version on Anthology is my personal fav.

Interestingly, John also disliked Run For Your Life. It was a favorite of George's at the time (and rightly so with that hellacious guitar solo)

Scott Timberg said...

"You Really Got a Hold On Me" another favorite of mine, for sure. Like Smokey's original, but the Beatles may actually have improved that great song.

Some consider "Run For Your Life" too mean, but i've always loved it, and dig the sly reference to elvis's sun sessions.