How Rockers Remembered John Lennon in Song
The world of rock perhaps inevitably channeled grief over John Lennon's Dec. 8, 1980, murder into their craft. Former bandmates, close confidantes and famous contemporaries released the bulk of Lennon tribute songs in the immediate aftermath of his death in a hail of gunfire on a New York City street.
These tracks served as both therapy and catharsis for a wider community still coming to terms with the former Beatles star's senseless end.
Most were tucked-away album cuts, meant to convey their deepest anguish rather than ring up sales. Still, several became high-charting smash hits – including George Harrison's "All Those Years Ago" (No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100), Elton John's "Empty Garden" (No. 13 on the Hot 100) and Oasis' "I'm Outta Time" (No. 12 in the U.K.).
Some thought the Kinks were referencing Lennon's death in "Killer's Eyes," from 1981's Give the People What They Want, but Ray Davies was actually attempting to write from the perspective of the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II four times earlier that year. He said he was inspired by a quote from Mehmet Ali Agca's mother in a local newspaper.
Lennon tribute songs eventually began to tail off. Yet, as Bob Dylan showed in 2012 with "Roll On John," they still packed an emotional punch more than 30 years later.
Here's a look back at how rockers remembered John Lennon in song.
George Harrison, "All Those Years Ago"
Somewhere in England (1981)
Harrison completed an early demo of this song for Ringo Starr, but the drummer felt the vocal was out of his range. Harrison then return to "All Those Years Ago" after Lennon's murder, keeping the Starr rhythm track but writing new lyrics celebrating his fallen bandmate. Paul McCartney stopped by not long after to add backing vocals, making this the first song to feature all three Beatles since 1970's "I Me Mine."
Stevie Nicks, "Edge of Seventeen"
Bella Donna (1981)
Stevie Nicks used "Edge of Seventeen" to sort through her heartache after John Lennon was murdered and her uncle succumbed to cancer within weeks of one another. "Every time I sing this song I have that ability to go back to that two-month period where it all came down," Nicks later remembered. "I can't imagine ending my show with any other song. It's such a strong, private moment that I share in this song."
Rossington Collins Band, "Tashauna"
This Is the Way (1981)
Gary Rossington and Allen Collins had already endured their own crushing misery when the plane carrying their band Lynyrd Skynyrd went down in 1977 – killing three members, including singer Ronnie Van Zant. They rebounded to form this offshoot group and then recorded "Tashauna," which touches on both tragedies by paying tribute to both Van Zant and the more recently deceased Lennon.
Paul McCartney, "Here Today"
Tug of War, (1982)
The delicately conveyed "Here Today" closed out Side One of Tug of War on a confidential note, as McCartney imagined a conversation with his late friend and bandmate. "The 'I love you' part was hard to say," he later admitted. "A part of me said, 'Hold on. Wait a minute. Are you really going to do that?' I finally said, 'Yeah, I've got to. It's true.'" George Martin scored a "Yesterday"-esque string quartet to complete things.
Elton John, "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)"
Jump Up! (1982)
Other than family and Beatles, no one's connections ran deeper. Elton John added a key assist on Lennon's first-ever No. 1 solo song, shared the stage at Lennon's last-ever concert and served as godfather to Lennon's youngest son, Sean. In keeping, he rarely returned to "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" in concert. "I love the lyric and I love the song," Elton told the Express, but "it's very hard for me to sing it. I get quite emotional singing that song."
Queen, "Life Is Real"
Hot Space (1982)
Queen's Freddie Mercury seems to be coming to the realization that Lennon will never return as "Life Is Real" unfolds. He was so moved by the tragedy, in fact, that this is one of the few times when Mercury wrote the lyrics before the music. He deftly mimicked Lennon's unusual way with words, but remained in awe of his gift: "I just feel that I'm not equipped enough to do certain things that John Lennon did," Mercury argued, "and I don't think anybody should."
Paul Simon, "The Late Great Johnny Ace"
Hearts and Bones (1982)
Paul Simon debuted this Lennon tribute song during the Concert in Central Park in 1981 but didn't include it on the live document that followed. Those who weren't on hand had to wait until his next studio release to hear "The Late Great Johnny Ace," which is named after a '50s singer but also bids a devastating farewell to Lennon from atop a barstool.
Molly Hatchet, "Fall of the Peacemakers"
No Guts ... No Glory (1983)
As with Paul Simon's song, Dave Hlubek's Side One-closing epic includes direct mentions of others – specifically, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. "Fall of the Peacemakers" also includes familiar Lennon quotes from "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine," before Molly Hatchet turn to a twin-guitar attack the echoes the fury over these terrible losses.
David Gilmour, "Murder"
About Face (1984)
Recording between stints in Pink Floyd, David Gilmour sets the scene at the Dakota as Mark David Chapman joins other loitering fans ("Some of them standing, some waiting in line"), while questioning his murderous intent ("What was it that brought you out here in the dark?"). But then "Murder" switches out the killer's Charter Arms .38-caliber pistol for a knife – perhaps because it's an easier rhyme? Either way, Gilmour's thrumming rage remains.
Julian Lennon, "Too Late for Goodbyes"
The first single from John's eldest son, Julian Lennon, seemed to be directed at his lost parent with lines like "Ever since you've been leaving me, I've been wanting to cry." Lennon demurred, telling Songfacts that "initially it was about a girl, a relationship." But then he featured a very Lennon-esque figure in the music video, with long hair and an all-white outfit.
The Outfield, "John Lennon"
Diamond Days (1990)
Late Outfield founder John Spinks took a rare turn on vocals for his ode to Lennon, with references to Beatles songs ("You were surprised by a girl in the sky") and to that awful day ("He was the man that was sent from the rye"). Spinks is ultimately left to wish something different had happened when Mark David Chapman called out the ex-Beatles star's name: "Don't turn around; don't turn around."
The Cranberries, "I Just Shot John Lennon"
To the Faithfully Departed (1996)
Most Lennon tributes traffic in heartfelt nostalgia more than the gritty details of Dec. 8, 1980. This isn't one of those songs. Named after Mark David Chapman's answer when asked if he knew what he'd done, "I Just Shot John Lennon" takes us inside that day's chaos and violence. The Cranberries end things with a moment of well-earned anger: "What a sad and sorry and sickening night."
Gerry Marsden, "Much Missed Man"
Much Missed Man: Tribute to John Lennon (2001)
Best known as leader of the Merseybeat band Gerry and the Pacemakers, Marsden was well-positioned to stir up memories of Lennon's early years and early sounds. Instead, his "Much Missed Man" builds off the Beatles' string-laden, more layered approach of 1966-67 by pairing Marsden with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Neil Young, "Devil's Sidewalk"
Neil Young's early-'00s reunion with Crazy Horse took the form of a 10-track rock opera set in a made-up coastal California town. "Devil's Sidewalk," the third song in the cycle, references "Come Together" from 1969's Abbey Road: "One thing I can tell you, is you got to be free – John Lennon said that." Young wouldn't work with Crazy Horse again until 2012's Americana.
Oasis, "I'm Outta Time"
Dig Out Your Soul (2008)
Liam Gallagher seems to wonder aloud if a similar fate awaits him, asking: "If I'm to fall, would you be there to applaud?" The connection is made more clear with starkly emotional audio excerpts of a John Lennon BBC Radio interview done just days before his death.
Bob Dylan, "Roll On John"
Dylan's tribute references key Lennon lyrics, including "Come together right now" and "I heard the news today, oh boy." But the arrival of "Roll On John" just after his desperately sad, nearly 13-minute title track for Tempest suggests something more: a sense of constancy in the things that matter to us, despite whatever troubles may come.