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How John Lennon wrote his timeless lyrics

After John Lennon and Yoko Ono separated in 1973, Lennon spent much of his time in Los Angeles. But before he left New York, May Pang, production coordinator for Ono and Lennon, recalled Lennon saying, “I’m ready.”

“And I looked at him and said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Book the studio. Either I’m going to do it now, or I’m never going to do it.’”

Lennon was referring to his album, “Mind Games,” which was released later that same year. How he wrote and recorded that album provide interesting insights into Lennon’s creative process. “[H]e didn’t have his songs ready yet, but in two weeks he wrote ‘Mind Games,’” Pang said in an interview for the American Masters documentary film, LENNONYC. “You know, you talk about somebody brilliant, I mean, he was just amazing!”

Jack Douglas, a record engineer and frequent collaborator, said that Lennon “hears the chord structure and then the words go around and around the block for a while. But by the time he gets to the studio, he has the words written and he’s got maybe two versions … they go through changes until the word and the sound of the word match the sound of the chord and the rhythm.”

The recording engineer for the album, Roy Cicala, also remembered how Lennon worked, spending much time in the studio experimenting. “A lot of the writing happened in the studio. While the musicians were playing, he’d be changing lyrics. I guess he got inspired by the band, or in the studio atmosphere.”

The result, according to his fellow musicians, was an honesty in lyrics and playing. Another drummer who worked with Lennon, Andy Newmark, said that “John was honest. His lyrics were also very bluntly honest. Everything was right up front with him. There was no mixing his words, or being diplomatic, or beating around the bush. And his songs were like that, too. He came out and just said it.”

Lennon’s open and earnest lyrics gave his music a timeless relevance. Klaus Voorman, bassist and longtime collaborator, said of Lennon’s songwriting capabilities, “the words he chooses are for everybody. John talks over his problems of the fight he has with himself. And that’s … what makes it so strong, and that’s what people can relate to.”