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My sixteen favorite John Lennon vocals

Saturday 4/30/22

16. "I'm So Tired"

Fun to imitate. Less fun, maybe, with the knowledge of how much one relates to the voice. "Tired" is not tired. Tired is existentially "fagged out." Not a gay thing. Chill. Lennon builds to impressive climaxes which are akin to outbursts devoid of petulance. A push-back on depression and the weariness that soaks the soul.

15. "Help!"

He screams it--not like "Twist and Shout," but screaming all the same. The voice is a controlled form of ragged in those instances when it is left on its own to hang in the air. Said hangings are like lines in a conversation that need--and know they will have to wait for--an answer. Presages the writing and singing styles of "Strawberry Fields Forever" in this fashion, difference being singer of "Strawberry Fields" can and will answer himself. Evolution.

14. "Girl"

So English as to be Chaucerian. A pastoral, but urban, moddish. The voice is an instrument, but here it is more of one. More on display as one. It's the carrier of the song, more than front-and-center.

13. "Across the Universe" (take 6)

A late period return to the voice we last heard in 1964. Notice how he becomes more confident the further he goes.

12. "I'll Be Back"

He just leans back into the song, lets the voice do the work. Singing to others by singing to yourself.

11. "Yes It Is" (take 1)

A (mostly) private moment in which the vocal is the window to the man. Reminds me of Thoreau's journals, but done up as druggy lullaby.

10. "I'm in Love" (demo)

Tooling around and tooling magically. Lennon ventures into "mocker" territory a number of times--in the cut-up sense that Starr riffs off of in the press conference sequence of A Hard Day's Night--but he never loses the song's path, a form of purity.

9. "To Know Her Is to Love Her" (BBC)

Breathy and dreamy like love, both first and lasting. The voice in the nude, no shame.

8. "Where Have You Been (All My Life)" (Star Club)

The perfect rock and roll singer by way of rhythm and blues and understanding the union. No one could dig into a vocal like Lennon--it's like drilling a hole in a rock to stick in a metal peg for a better hold. Then he opens up the chest on the coda, which is both what we've been waiting for and also what we didn't know was coming.

7. "Baby It's You" (BBC)

A cold lends charm to the Please Please Me version--young man from the north carries on at first album session--but this is what that performance would have been with the illness lifted. You can want to be tough, come across as hard, but to give yourself over to what you love is where it's at and the toughness that need not pretend to be tough. Lennon always understood that as a singer, if not as a person.

6. "I Should Have Known Better" (mono)

The bit before the first falsetto break--when Lennon's voice is single-tracked--is the single purest expression of his purest rock and roll voice. This is as classic at the classic Lennon voice ever got.

5. "Johnny B. Goode" (BBC)

Lennon sounds like he's singing about everything he has ever loved on this 1964 Beeb cut, and also singing as if he sees himself squarely in the middle of the dream he had, which he's now living. The cover is a masterpiece. Every source you read on the subject will tell you it's dreck, because that's what someone said first, and then what everyone went with. Not only must we think for ourselves in this life, we must listen for ourselves, too. Chuck Berry's lines course like poetry, and so does Lennon's voice. Listen to how he travels atop the stream.

4. "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" (BBC)

A warning song, but a warming vocal. Sometimes our heart gets the better of us of our intentions and plans. More of a declaration to her than a threat to him. Asks a lot of Lennon's range and timing.

3. tie: "A Day in the Life" and "A Day in the Life" (take 1)

My sense was that George Martin thought this was the best singing he ever heard--speaking of the first take. The vocal on the finished song is like that of an element. Embodies the human and is more than human. Terrifying, and yet a protective embrace.

2. "Strawberry Fields Forever" (take 1)

The vocal on the official version is pinched, nasal, hard. Not a criticism. Take 1 has the voice of possibility, of the wonder one has known, and remembers, and would like to know again, elsewhere. It's the voice that has to tell you a story, and its story. You want that voice--it's the most important one.

1. "Soldier of Love" (BBC)

Favorite and best. It's the alien vocal. Alien comes down from somewhere, and you play the alien this, and more so than with just about anything you can give the alien, there's no learning curve. They get it right away. "Oh, that's what rock and roll singing can be and is meant to be but has hardly ever been." If you are or were at some point, however briefly, the vocal incarnation of rock and roll, you would have had a vocal like this. Maybe just the one, but you would have had it.


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