"They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. . . . Everybody else thought they were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go ." -- Bob Dylan to biographer Anthony Scaduto
John Lennon helped alter forever the vernacular of pop culture.
As the driving artistic personality of the Beatles -- sharp, sardonic, even savage -- Lennon ignited a bonfire of conventional craft and concept that leveled the pop establishment.
He lit it with an urgency of delivery, a bright, sometimes brittle lyric sweep, a powerful rhythm and a refusal to pamper either the pop forms he was stretching or the rock themes he was articulating.
In the early '60s, rock 'n' roll emerged as not so much a compound of idioms -- rhythm and blues and rockabilly and pop and do-wop and dance band -- as a kind of mutation, a spontaneous generation of frustration and desire and reverberant exultation. Lennon and McCarney gave it depth, incorporating classical strains, gospel, country.They admired Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Elvis and Buddy Holly. They added a string quintet to "Eleanor Rigby" and Beethoven's Ninth to "Yellow Submarine." They had a compelling sense of the arresting chord progression, the contrapuntal bass line, the lyric delivery.
Lennon was no guitar wizard. Early on, Ringo said, "I can only play on the off beat because John can't keep up on the rhythm guitar." Lennon himself said, "I consider myself a primitive musician just because I never studied music."
He didn't consider his songwriting primitive: "I had a sort of professional songwriter's approach to writing pop songs . . . I was already a stylized songwriter on the first album. . . . Then I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively but subjectively."
In the mid-'70s, Lennon described a kind of evolution in his technique: "Dylan was always saying to me, 'Listen to the words, man!" and I said, 'I canT be bothered. I listen to the sound of it, the sound of the overall thing.' Then I reversed that and started being a words man. I naturally play with words anyway, so I made a conscious effort to be wordy a la Dylan. But now I've relieved myself of that burden and I'm only interested in pure sound."
As a folk hero, Lennon personified that blending of social and cultural and political ideals that characterized the '60s. It was a trompe l'oeil effect, and the increasing fragmentation and ultimate splintering of the Beatles themselves presaged their followers' confusion.
In even his most raucous numbers, Lennon cajoled his constituency to peaceful ends. And throughout the '70s, with Yoko Ono, Lennon pled for peace. Ono and Lennon began their marriage with a lie-in for peace. All we are saying is give peace a chance. In their new release, "Double Fantasy," Lennon and Ono celebrate the joys of parenthood and housekeeping and marital fidelity. Musically, it showed little trace of the aggressively innovative composer Lennon was once; philosophically, the trail was clear.
Lennon's total influence is incalculable. He left his mark not only on Top 40 radio but, rippling outward, on Muzak and Boston Pops and commercials and ballet and fashion and makeup and graphic arts and slang and recreational drugs and Broadway musicals and poetry and children's stories and role models and movie stars and sex and symbolism.
In his preface to a book on the Beatles, composer Leonard Bernstein said that Lennon and McCartney "embodied a creativity mostly unmatched in that fateful decade."
"Ringo was a lovely performer and George a mystical, unrealized talent," Bernstein wrote. "But John and Paul, Saints John and Paul, were, and made and aureoled and beatified and eternalized the concept that shall always be known, remembered and deeply loved as the Beatles."