By 1970 John Lennon was a happily married man and a father and moving away from the gentle,hippy pop songs of The Beatles era or possibly not even able to write them any more. Later on he would flirt with bitterness and one-world utopianism (on How do You Sleep and Imagine, from the Imagine album), but early solo work Plastic Ono Band (released December 1970) shows him at his most brittle and nihilistic. As the man himself once expressed dislike of analysis of his songs, and wrote “I am The Walrus” for that reason, let us just for fun analyse this song. What can it tell us about ourselves in the present day?
“God” is a piano-lead ballad that begins with the line “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” repeated. The song featured Lennon, singing and pencilling in the chords on piano, which was overdubbed by Billy Preston on grand piano. Ringo Star on drums, and Klaus Voorman on drums (all collaborators from Lennon’s Beatles era). The song was produced by Phil Spector and has five studio engineers credited, including John Leckie who would go on to be a producer on albums including The Bends for Radiohead. Yoko Ono is also credited as a co-producer.
The structure of the song is quite unusual, being as it is a repeated line, a long verse and then a coda, with a short break in the middle in which the track falls completely silent for a second or so. Lennon’s voice is never absent for more than a couple of seconds, which is characteristic of the Beatles style which rarely included long instrumental breaks and has been one of their most enduring contributions to what we think of as popular music (the orchestral section in A Day in The Life being the one obvious exception that comes to mind).
Lennon reels off in the verse a long litany of things he does not believe in, including Bob Dylan, Elvis, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Buddha and finally The Beatles.
Beatlesbible.com reports that God was composed in Los Angeles while Lennon was undergoing Primal Scream therapy:
He rented a house in Bel Air, which is a very ritzy area here, and we talked about things. He said: ‘What about God?’ and I would go on and on about [how] people who have deep pain generally tend to believe in God with a fervency. And he said: ‘Oh, you mean God is a concept by which we measure our pain.’ Just bang. I would go all around it and he was there, just like that. And that was John. John could take very profound philosophical concepts and make it simple.
Dr Arthur Janov
Classic Albums: Plastic Ono Band
The song does come across as perhaps a form of therapy for the singer, needing to list all these things which he perhaps finds to be “phoney” (like Holden Caulfield, the character in the Book that Lennon’s assassin was rumoured to be carrying when he shot Lennon dead in New York ten years later). But “God” also comes across as coming from a hopeless place. In the last verse Lennon muses:
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I’m reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I’m John
…finishing off with the killer line about the “dream” being “over” which is perhaps referring to the hippy dream of world peace (another utopian ideal, here) and the sixties being over, and the whole song also perhaps refers to Lennon’s controversial comments about the Beatles being “bigger than Jesus” when they toured America (only around five years earlier – but in some ways it must have seemed like everything had changed in that time).
According to Jan Wenner, the former Rolling Stone editor, Lennon told him:
dream’s over. I’m not just talking about The Beatles is over, I’m talking about the generation thing. The dream’s over, and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
The sixties had ended, the idealistic generation had been damaged by drugs or sent off to the Vietnam war, and Lennon was perhaps moving away from his stage personality and attempting to simply be himself at that time, seeing Beatlemania as just another false idol. Perhaps it is a shame that he didn’t go so far as to make the next step, and explicitly dismiss the hippy ideal as what it is: another utopian nightmare, as the Manson Family so convincingly proved just the previous year, ironically being inspired to commit their murders by too much LSD and the tune “Helter Skelter” on The Beatles White Album.
I think my main problem with this song is that, as Jordan Peterson has pointed out, when you remove all religious thought and religiosity from life it is almost impossible to maintain a workable standard of ethics – or morality – that is on anything but the most shakey of foundations. Or to put it another way, once you cease to believe in anything greater than yourself, you are going down a very dark road my friend.
And perhaps this crisis around ones own system of belief is what had happened to Lennon, who was also going through a battle with Heroin addiction at around this time, that he chronicled when he sang “Cold Turkey.” Or to put it another way: if you don’t believe in anything, something ugly will tend to come along and fill that existential vacuum. And who knows, perhaps this is also the same problem that is shared by some of the people who hold the power at the very top of the pyramid of what we call civilisation today?
Francis Fenn is a Dreamer and Rock n Roll fan