John Lennon may or may not have been the first Englishman to sing American-derived pop music with an English regional accent, but he was certainly the first Englishman to do it as if he meant it and as if this were a serious business; as if he was not doing a parody and the music was absolutely indivisible from his selfhood, like his flesh and bone – as if he lived it. We can only wonder now whether Lennon was aware at the time, when he began having hits with the Beatles in late 1962, of the gravity of his situation.
For here is the most important thing about John Lennon's singing. His voice was free in a way that he, the individual, felt that he was not. That fact must have disturbed him almost as much as it thrilled him.
Lennon's life story, to that fission point in 1962, was not a happy one. As is well documented, he was brought up by an aunt in lower-middle-class suburban purdah in Liverpool following the collapse of his parents' relationship when he was but a tot. At the age of six he was required to choose between an unreliable but charismatic mother and a sea-faring father, and he failed in that instant to be decisive (which is six year olds all over, isn't it just?) – hence John's subsequent removal to his Aunt Mimi's would-be bourgeois fastness on the edge of the countryside. His dad then disappeared completely from his life, while Aunt Mimi's husband, the benignly encouraging Uncle George, died when Lennon was a young teenager – followed shortly afterwards by his beloved if wayward mother, Julia, killed in a road accident. By the age of eighteen, young John was an unreliable, sardonic, vulnerable, cynical, short-sighted, jealous, gurning would-be hardcase with a soft underbelly and not much serviceable armour on top. He had, however, developed a purist's feel for rock 'n' roll and its English derivative, skiffle, thereby fortifying himself with thick coatings of the brand new sound of invulnerability. He was determined that no one was ever going to hurt him again.
And if all he'd ever done of worth in a studio with the Beatles was to record an end-of-session cover of the Isley Brothers' hit "Twist and Shout", as filler for the group's first album, he'd still be regarded as the greatest rock singer ever to be English. He'd be a cult figure. Literally dozens of people would employ hushed tones to mutter his name at conventions. A wizened Lennon himself might emerge periodically from behind the pumps of his Bootle hostelry to appear on Sixties nostalgia tours with the surviving members of the Swinging Blue Jeans.
"Twist and Shout" was startling. The Beatles were by then a barely-off-the-road, new-in-the-studio unit of rowdy crowd-pleasers with a reputation to make – sufficiently tuned-in among themselves to be able to knock out a high-energy performance in a spare half-hour of studio time at the end of a long day, but also still awed enough by the Abbey Road environment, its ghost army of white-coated engineers and their twitching needles, to want to oblige their producer George Martin and his thoughtful procedures, even when knackered. To which good-natured end, the band bomp through the instrumental backing of "Twist and Shout" like true entertainers, playing vividly, broadly, confidently (you can tell they're not doing the song for anything like the first time), pushing hard at the expressive limits of what can be achieved with a small ensemble recording three-chord R&B live to tape in an early-sixties British studio. It is by a distance the most energising bit of pure playing on the Beatles' first LP.
But good as the playing is from the feel point of view – the music contrives somehow to both bounce and swing, as if the group are trying to elasticate the song's four-square arrangement – it's the singing that takes "Twist and Shout" over the top into new-thrills territory.
Picture the scene. It was the end of the working day, past 10 pm. The ghosts in their white coats were looking at their watches. The group was pooped and Lennon's voice shot, the vapour of their collective sweat still souring the air. Nevertheless, at Martin's behest, they resolved to make the most of the minutes and seconds remaining to them and agreed to knock out one more number from their Reeperbahn-honed live repertoire. It is said that Lennon drank warm milk to soothe his throat and then removed his shirt to max out on his inner animal. He then virtually tore his larynx from its moorings, bellowing at his imagined "twisty little girl", that she should shake it up, twist, shout and work it on out, right now, and all for his personal benefit. Right now. It was as if she, the twisty little girl, were some recalcitrant alloy and he a blowtorch. And as the song progressed, the singer's bent notes flattened and flattened until the melodic curve barely existed as a curve at all, but as some sort of torn-up straight line. By the end it was all one note – and barely recognisable as a note at that. The up and down steps of the tune had devolved into the sound of torsion: a twisting, ripping, tearing laryngeal spasm… And then finally, when no breath remained inside to push out with any more force, refuge was taken with the other fellows in a wobbly but successfully stacked three-voice vocal arpeggio up the ladder of the dominant-seventh chord.
"Yay!" yells someone, off-mic.
The first pop record I ever owned was bought for me by my parents in 1964, for reasons that are semi-mysterious given that my parents professed to not like pop music. I was four. It was an EP containing four songs. It came dressed in more or less the same livery as the With The Beatles long-player, the four members of the group photographed on the front in ordered chiaroscuro splendour. The songs were extracted (with one slight variation in take) from the group's first two Parlophone albums: "All My Loving", "Ask Me Why", "PS I Love You" and "Money". They constituted the first music I ever owned – which is to say, the first music I ever considered mine to do with as I please. I consider myself fortunate indeed that this was my first material brush with pop.
It didn't thrill me, of course. I'd already been scared by the Rolling Stones on television and knew the difference between being thrilled and pleasantly entertained. But the All My Loving EP did compel attention. It entertained well. Most especially, I was struck by how two of the four songs differed from the other two in one very particular but hard-to-think-about way.
Of the four, "All My Loving" and "P.S. I Love You" were clearly sung by one singer and "Ask Me Why" and "Money" by another. One voice was soft, cottony, felted even, melodious, open-throated, warm, radiant, friendly, outreaching, solicitous. Lovely. The other was narrower, slightly nasal, appraising rather than embracing, less reliable-sounding and much, much less friendly. The first voice sounded accomplished, as if tutored; the other was an untutored emission, an emission freighted with what we would now call "attitude". You might say, with sophisticated hindsight, that the difference between the two was one of cultivation, but I didn't think like that when I was four. All I knew was that one voice got my attention in detail and the other didn't, and that was all.
Paul McCartney has a lovely voice indeed. It's sweetly flexible in a way that very few true rock 'n' rollers' voices are (perhaps, of McCartney's rocking elders, only Elvis, Orbison and Charlie Rich can claim to have more naturally euphonious pipes). He can rip it up like Little Richard or he can slick it up like Rick Nelson and do both with equal aplomb. Equal conviction too. But on the All My Loving EP, McCartney occupied space somewhere in between the two: his voice was bland with conviction. "P.S. I Love You" and "All My Loving" offer a sort of chirpy yet soft-shoed exercise in period pop ingratiation. Both songs are sweetly sung. Both are addressed earnestly to "you" and Paul sings them warmly and humorously. You'd like him, you really would – he probably gives great cuddles, especially to your mum.
"Ask Me Why" and "Money (That’s What I Want)" do not offer cuddles. The latter was plain nasty, in a jokey, chippy, bitterly deprecating sort of way. The ripping sound of bad faith. The former was described by the great Beatles analyst Ian MacDonald as "the first of Lennon's exercises in the style of Smokey Robinson", which is a stylistic observation only, telling us nothing of what lies behind the style. Yes, formally, "Ask Me Why" is a sort of earnestly loping latin-soul ballad evoking the brittleness and muddle – not to mention the insatiable gaucheness – of young love in all its ferment. It's a slight piece in most ways. MacDonald is sniffy about the arrangement and its "fumbling" ironies, and he is right to be. But at the time, in 1964 and, for that matter, throughout the rest of the decade, I wasn't listening to the arrangement. I was busy soaking up the voice. I was busy enjoying being invaded by the uncertain, wounded, slightly cranky feeling that is etched like dirt into its grain: it seemed to be expressing the idea that being in love is a reason to feel sad. No, not just sad: pissed off. In "Ask Me Why", the sardonic would-be hard-nut dispenses with the armoured impersonality of the rock 'n' roll scream and animates, quietly and not at all confidently, the beginnings of a singing voice with content, a voice capable of expressing feelings which contradict each other – a true voice. You can actually hear Lennon thinking about what he's singing and how it makes him feel to sing like that. The performance isn't ingratiating. It is not an exercise in pleasure-giving. In fact it sounds rather less like a performance than the simple expediency of a man finding out, for himself, where his heart isn't.
Lennon's heart was all over the place, of course. He was not, by most accounts, a very considerate young man. Charming, yes; funny, intelligent, principled, charismatic, talented and all. But also, when the feelings took him (and they appear to have taken him quite often), churlish, bullying, unkind, competitive, spiteful and wildly, aggressively jealous. Given his childhood, it doesn't take a great leap of deductive imagination to see why that might have been, nor is it a stretch to figure that the newly minted social unit of the pop group might be an appealing one in which to, as it were, explore that emotional landscape. The exclusively masculine group environment, governed as it is by role-play, competition and masking insincerity, provides plenty of opportunity to try things on for size – to just, as the idiom has it, try things on.
Throughout his career you can hear Lennon trying things on virtually every time he opens his mouth to sing. He does it with passion, ferocity, tenderness, levity, even kindness sometimes. ("Nowhere Man" contains some of the kindest singing I know – and it is reasonable, I think, to suggest that the object of that kindness is Lennon himself, who wrote the song in a blizzard of intractable mid-twenties depression.) His voice is always free of inhibition and obedience – or it at least sounds that way. Over the course of more than a decade he lays out a moment-by-moment account of his selfhood that comes over as relentlessly authentic and hard to bear at times, not least because it comes in so many pieces. Sometimes it barely makes sense. Often it is contradicting prior iterations of itself.
Sometimes the pathos is in the slide between voices. The distances travelled can be tiny or epic. For every "Twist and Shout", there's an "Ask Me Why". For every "I'm a Loser", a "Nowhere Man". For every "For the Benefit of Mister Kite", a "Mother". For every "Strawberry Fields Forever", a "Working Class Hero". For every "I Feel Fine", a "Revolution #1". I am hoping that you, the reader, can summon to mind the tone of each of these songs and can register within yourself that emotional slide as real feeling. Because these aren't contrasts in style; they're facets of an emotional landscape. Not masks but revelations – of new faces, new feelings, new angles on the tricky experience of being alive. Some of those angles are subtle, others less so. It is one of the more painful listening games you can play, juxtaposing Lennon voices as cruelly as you can. Try it some time. It'll make you feel queasy. How about "This Boy" and "My Mummy’s Dead"?
But it will also make you realise, if you were not aware already, that back in his time Lennon's was a new kind of voice. If the primary objective of 1960s American pop vocal style was to offer a representation of a moment's authentic feeling, distilled and fortified and made rock-solidly vivid as an archetype of a recognisable emotion, then Lennon's departure (as it was also, more or less simultaneously, Bob Dylan's) was to suggest that that moment's feeling, however psychologically truthful it may be, is always contingent in detail; contingent on who the singer is, where he sits, what he sees of himself in that moment and on all the invidious, terrifying, thrilling possibilities implicit in the way others might be seeing him as he or she sings.
Lennon expresses this sense of self-conscious contingency like no other, apart from Dylan. Listening to him now is no less gripping an experience than it was at the time, with the singular difference that, at the time, no one had sung like that before – not to us, not of himself, not in that way.
It should perhaps not come as a surprise, then, to learn from one of Lennon's post-Beatles recording engineers that the singer would come to loathe his own voice. He could not bear to hear it relayed back to him dry in his studio headphones, and so he always insisted that the signal in his cans be compressed, distorted and drenched with reverb to the point of artificiality – otherwise he would find himself simply unable to sing. To be himself sufficiently to sing truthfully, he needed to not sound to himself like himself.
This is an extract from Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life, published by Vintage Books. We are grateful to Penguin Random House for their permission to reproduce it.
Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.