Soon after John Lennon was gunned down in front of the Dakota on December 8, 1980, songs dealing with the loss began to emerge. The first round were exploitative, no-talents attempting to get into the market quickly in the hopes of a fast buck. It was a morbid mirror-image of 1964 novelties like, "We Love You Beatles," lightweight fare designed to pull some dough from rabid Beatlemaniacs. Those tunes, were joyful knockoffs. Dead Lennon songs like "Dearest John," cut by a high school friend's step-brother-in-law, were the equivalent of rifling through a corpse's pockets as it sits in its casket.
It took higher quality artists time to digest this, and the songs they produced reflect their own styles as much as John Lennon's.
First out of the chute in the first half of 1981 was George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago." Hailed as the first Beatles reunion, and foreshadowing the Anthology get together 15 years later, ATYA was in the vein of George's shabbiest work. In 1973, George had written "Try Some Buy Some" for Ronnie Spector. He reclaimed the song and, rather than recut the whole thing, he erased Ronnie and dubbed his vocals in a setting unsuited for his range. Originally a knockoff for Ringo, Harrison quickly pulled the song back and reworked it to fit the Lennon subject. With references to "All You Need is Love" and "Imagine," it is closer to the lyrical vapidity of the nobodies who attempted their tributes in the immediate wake of Lennon's death. For someone so intimately involved with John for over two decades, ATYA is oddly impersonal. It is a memorable song, though not great, and the addition of Ringo on drums and Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals (dubbed) makes it of historical value. The bubbly happy sound of the record is jarringly off considering the topic. Maybe that's why it sticks.
Elton John had courted John Lennon through the mid-70's, becoming the spur that kicked Lennon into his only pre-death number one solo work "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." In return, Lennon made his legendary appearance at Madison Square Garden with Elton mid-November of 1974. Elton worshipped Lennon, and his entry in the mourning song category appeared on Jump Up!. Again writing with former partner Bernie Taupin, "Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)" matches a melodramatic Elton, the Elton of "Candle in the Wind," with a new sense of Lennon. While most writers were dealing with the obvious tragedy, Elton asks if johnny can come out to play, reminding himself and the listeners of the zany Lennon, the cut-up. The gardener imagery is a bit much though.
Paul McCartney's first reaction to John Lennon's murder was a study in shock and callousness. "It's a drag" he intoned without inflection. That wasn't how he really felt, though, and in "Here Today" Macca delves into a deeply felt and endlessly complicated relationship with his former partner. In the span of 2 1/2 minutes, the two laugh together, cry together and, at times, are so different as John mocks Paul. Such complex emotions set in one of McCartney's most beautiful and affecting melodies. After Harrison's death, McCartney played "Here Today" and "Something" (on ukulele) for his lost friends. "Here Today" still packed a wallop and if there wasn't a lump in your throat then you weren't listening.
The last giant to chime in was Paul Simon. Not close to Lennon by any means, Simon's "The Late Great Johnny Ace" is proto-typical Simon, thoughtful and thought provoking, exploring both the loss of a man like John Lennon, the influence of pop music on the young and old Paul Simon and the continuing early deaths of key figures in the pantheon of the rock era. Ranging from a nod to doo-wop to mid-60's London to the present, the song ends with a haunting Philip Glass piece that stops in its tracks, leaving the listener lost, hanging at the edge of an abyss. This, more than anything, captures the emotion of losing John Lennon, 40 years old, on the eve of the Reagan Revolution, a voice that was sorely needed and devastatingly taken.