John Lennon was an inveterate archivist of sound and image, documenting his life in whatever medium he had available to him and leaving behind acres of tape for friends and fans to discover. Lennon’s tapes comprise hundreds of hours of song sketches, full demos, conversations, jokes, and, as Yoko Ono puts it in her intro to The Lost Lennon Tapes, some “pretty personal stuff.” The Lost Lennon Tapes was a radio series that aired between 1988 and 1992, presenting over two hundred hours of archival Lennon audio in 219 episodes. Hosted by Lennon’s friend Elliot Mintz, the series gave listeners an intimate look into John’s creative process through demos like that above, a 1966 series of sketches that would become Revolver’s “She Said, She Said.”
In this recording, Lennon, alone with a jangly guitar, works out the now-familiar chord progressions and vocal melodies of the song in several different iterations—and with some quirky lyrical variants (“She’s making me feel like my trousers are torn”). We get to hear the song evolve in several stages, from its bouncy two-chord beginnings to its final, Eastern-inspired form. The demo also provides evidence of the song’s conceptual origins; in the first couple versions, you can hear Lennon sing “he said” instead of “she.” The “he” refers to Peter Fonda, who inspired the song by freaking Lennon out during an acid trip, uttering what became the song’s first line, “I know what it’s like to be dead.”
Just above you can hear several different 1966 home demo takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with John singing over a lone electric guitar. Lennon stops and starts several times, then, at 1:55, finds his groove and plays the whole song through. Next, we hear a run-through with added Mellotron, that odd early proto-synthesizer that lent the final George Martin-produced version so much of its distinctive sound. Finally, at 6:15, hear one of the very first demo recordings of the song—a beautiful solo acoustic version recorded in Almeria, Spain. In the prominent guitar, we hear the strange, serpentine chord pattern that gives the song such a haunting feel. Lennon began composing the song in Spain while filming his scenes for Richard Lester’s How I Won the War.
Paul McCartney once called Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down” a “genuine plea” to Yoko, interpreting the song as John saying “I’m really just letting my vulnerability be seen, so you must not let me down.” The Beatles recorded several versions of the song for the Let it Be sessions and released it as a B side to the “Get Back” single in 1969, though Phil Spector eventually dropped the song from Let it Be. McCartney restored it to his re-release of the album, Let it Be… Naked, in which he stripped the songs of Spector’s studio effects. Above, hear “Don’t Let Me Down” at its most stripped-down in a 1968 home demo. Just Lennon with his acoustic guitar, quietly strumming out his bluesy love tune, a stark contrast to the screaming rocker the song would become.
The 10-Minute, Never-Released, Experimental Demo of The Beatles’ “Revolution” (1968)
The Beatles: Unplugged Collects Acoustic Demos of White Album Songs (1968)
John Lennon’s Raw, Soul-Baring Vocals From the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (1969)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
Thanks Ono for editing out the video. John would not have done that. Ohno!