Those of us who are big Lennon fans will know the great tragedy that is Lennon’s seemingly eternal dislike of his own voice. Dozens if not hundreds of stories abound of Lennon finding new and unusual ways to make his voice sound different on Beatles’ recordings (including a request to be strung upside down from the ceiling and pushed around in a circle with a microphone in the center for Tomorrow Never Knows) because he just didn’t like it’s natural results. Seeing as how his voice affects me like no other, it’s a huge shame.
Of course, John’s obsession is what lead so much of the great innovation for which the Beatles are responsible and certainly kept poor George Martin on his toes. But for all of the great recordings they produced with these kind of effects (Strawberry Fields Forever, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, etc.), something was often lost of the raw beauty that was Lennon’s natural voice — something which I think these five songs really capture.
1. Stand By Me
Astute readers will remember how I’ve said previously that it’s an impossible toss-up for me between Stand By Me and A Day In The Life regarding which is the best Lennon vocal. I think I’ve settled lately. When I started listening to the song this morning, I also started tearing up. This song does that to me so often. And then, when paired with video of John and Yoko — which also makes me tear up — just wow. I remember reading once, but I don’t remember where, someone describing Lennon’s vocals on this song as “pleading.” I think it’s the perfect adjective. If you listen to nothing else here, do yourself a favor and listen to this one
2. A Day In The Life
Of course, if Stand By Me comes first, A Day In The Life simply must come in a close second. Brilliant.
3. In My Life
One of the best and perhaps the most beautiful song that John ever wrote. And the vocals just blow me away.
Excellent harmonies from Paul (and a bit of George), by the way.
4. Twist and Shout
In The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Abbey Road Years, Mark Lewisohn says that Twist and Shout is widely recognized as being the best rock vocal ever recorded. And if you don’t know the story behind it, you should.
The band recorded their first album Please Please Me in one day. The problem was that they had been relentlessly on tour, so they were weary; to make matters worse, John had a cold and his voice was shot. Twist and Shout was the last song they did that day, at George Martin’s request to finish the album before they packed in for the evening. Prior to recording John’s voice felt “like sandpaper.” Bob Spitz provides a riveting account of the events in his book The Beatles:
Everyone knew they’d have to get it on the first take — the band, the engineer, everybody had to do his job, without a missed note or a glitch. There would be nothing left of John’s voice after that.
[. . .]
John tore open a wax carton and gargled noisily with milk. He’d played most of the day in a rumpled suit, but sometime after dinner the jacket was removed and two fingers yanked down the tie. Now, without a word, he stripped off his shirt. He draped it over a bench, then walked over to the mike and nodded to the others: good to go.
It is obvious from the very first notes that John was straining for control. “Shake it up bay-be-eee. . .” was more of a shriek than singing. There was nothing left of his voice. It was bone-dry, stripped bare, with all the resonance husked from the tone, and the sound it made was like an angry, hoarse-voiced fan screeching at a football match. Between clamped jaws, contorting his face, he croaked, “Twist and shout.” He had been struggling all day to reach notes, but this was different, this hurt. And it was painful to listen to. Still, John held nothing in reserve. Trancelike, as the band rocked harder, buliding excitement with their impetuous energy, the struggle grew more intense. “C’mon, and twist a litle closer” broke up into an agonizing, demonic rasp, until on the last refrain of the tortured throatiness strangled every word before Paul, in admiration, shouted, “Hey,” celebrating, as they miraculously crossed the finished line.
John was wasted, near collapse, but the others already knew what he was about to find out from a playback: that for all its hairiness, “Twist and Shout” is a masterpiece . . .
Also, will you look at those hippies with their long hair?
5. Nowhere Man
The fifth pick was easily the most difficult. The first three were no-brainers, the fourth came really easily, but the fifth? Well, at that point there is just far too much to choose from. I’ll let you try to figure out some of the others I considered with your picks in the comments, as I imagine that this one may be hotly-contested. But there is no debating that Nowhere Man is up there amongst the finest Beatles’ vocals, certainly including those of Lennon’s.
Of course, praise for this vocal must also go to Paul and George.
What are your Top 5? Have at it.