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Beatles in India: A new life for John Lennon

Fifty years ago, fresh from India, John Lennon underwent a creative rebirth and composed some of the most compelling music of his career

John Lennon at Heathrow Airport before heading to India in February 1968. Photo: Alamy
John Lennon at Heathrow Airport before heading to India in February 1968. Photo: Alamy

The Beatles’ White Album has a lot of songs. Thirty of them, in fact. Of these, 13 are by John Lennon, and 12 by Paul McCartney. That’s enough songs for each of them to have produced solo albums that year. And in a way, that’s what their music on the album is—songs by John Lennon and The Beatles; songs by Paul McCartney and The Beatles. After five years and eight albums of unified statements, the White Album was about individuals.

It also marked Lennon’s creative peak, where he reasserted his primacy within the band, with striking and diverse songs that would go on to influence generations of songwriters. These were born of the enforced LSD-free detox of Rishikesh and the resulting drive and energy that he discovered. After two years of “gobbling acid", as he put it, when he took LSD evangelist Timothy Leary’s advise to heart and surrendered his ego, Lennon was feeling recharged and competitive. He and McCartney were again composing songs “eyeball to eyeball" in Rishikesh, much as they used to earlier, and after months of drift following the death of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, Lennon was ready to re-engage.

The songs started pouring out of him: Revolution was written in Rishikesh even as Europe and the US were convulsed with student protests and race riots. “I wanted to put out what I felt about revolution," he said to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone in 1970, “I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India." A dedicated hippie, he had mixed feelings about the use of violence, to the extent that The Beatles recorded two distinct versions of the song. In the harder, faster Revolution, Lennon proclaims, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out". However, he also realized that the establishment would never give the protestors what they wanted if they only asked nicely. So, in the slower, brassy Revolution 1, he sings “...don’t you know that you can count me out/in". It was also the first song recorded for the album in end-May.

Dear Prudence, another gem written in Rishikesh, saw Lennon turning to one of his perennial muses, childhood. The song’s genesis lay in him singing to Prudence Farrow, the actress Mia’s sister, to persuade her to come out of one of her long, meditative trances. But the song’s sunny D major key, the optimistic, circular finger-picked melody and child-like wonder of lyrics like “the wind is low, the birds will sing, and you are part of everything", point to the regeneration that he felt in himself.

But Lennon’s childhood was also one of absent parents and trauma, so when he went down that route with Cry Baby Cry, what emerged was a dark and surreal take on the nursery rhyme Sing A Song Of Sixpence. Mixed with imagery from his favourite book, Alice In Wonderland, the song’s subconscious probing of a dreamlike looking-glass world was made more eerie by a soundscape of droning harmoniums, dirge-like piano figures and bubbling sound effects. It was, also, extremely melodic and catchy, which only added to its weirdness. Songs like this would go on to create a separate sub-genre: art rock.

One of the reasons for Lennon’s creativity was also Yoko Ono, the avant-garde artist and musician he started dating on his return from India. They had met in 1966, and for much of 1967 had soft-shoed around each other, sizing each other up. Seven years older than Lennon, she was from a very different milieu than The Beatles, one of hip New York guerrilla art happenings, Marcel Duchamp and Philip Glass. A member of the radical interdisciplinary art group Fluxus, to her The Beatles were strange creatures. To Lennon, she gave off the same creative charge that he got from McCartney. Their physical desire for each other was equally fuelled by an intellectual one to impress and collaborate. Once the two became an item in the summer of 1968, Lennon became increasingly prolific. They collaborated on an album of experimental music, Unfinished Music: Two Virgins. They also collaborated, along with Harrison, on the avant-garde sound-collage Revolution 9 for the White Album.

Lennon’s gorgeous meditation on his mother and idol, Julia, is a clear passing of the baton from one mother figure and muse to another. “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia", sings Lennon, echoing a Khalil Gibran poem. Exorcising a decade of hurt and regret since his mother’s death in 1958, he introduces her to “ocean child", the English translation of the Japanese word Yoko, in the song.

But all wasn’t rosy. The two had also started using heroin heavily that summer, as an escape from the stress of the racist abuse that Ono faced from the British public, and also that of The Beatles drifting apart, and their floundering multimedia empire, Apple. Two other stand-outs from Lennon, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey are clearly about this, but in a typically allusive Lennon way. Happiness..., a title taken from a gun magazine, is also deeply erotic and arty, shape shifting from finger-picked folk via a hybrid-talking blues to doo-wop.

Finally there is the neurotic fury of I’m So Tired, another Rishikesh-origin song. Racked with insomnia and longing for Ono, Lennon howls, “You know I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind," even as The Beatles play a sombre robotic waltz around his vocals. It’s a marvellous composition marrying emotion and expression. No matter what he was going through in his personal life, Lennon’s songwriting was firing on all cylinders.

The year 1968 was a landmark one for Lennon, and he ended it playing one of his White Album songs, Yer Blues, in The Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus TV show with a new band called The Dirty Mac, comprising Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell. It was a Fab Four, if not the one that people were accustomed to. Lennon had a new partner and things to say. The Beatles were no longer his primary concern.

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