11
Dec 08

JOHN LENNON – “Woman”

FT + Popular58 comments • 3,786 views

#474, 7th February 1981

A basis purely in sales makes the UK chart faster-moving than playlist-led equivalents, and more responsive to the pleasures of any niche large enough to hit its thresholds. It’s a combination of that and the BBC’s dominant media position that has made caring about it such a British disease. But its calibrations are fragile – the Top 40 is easily knocked off-course by events. It would take a few more years for the mechanism to appear by which non-pop news and the charts could link up: Lennon’s death was a massive story but also still a pop event, so it was pop which felt its impact most. To a fan, the procession of Lennoniana at the top end of the charts was dignified and just. To a kid who’d only just started to fall for pop, it was like the Top 40 was simply broken: week upon week of this hairy guy wandering round a big white house.

I resented Lennon, and by the time “Woman” came round I probably hated him. This surely must have been the final straw for some of the mourning buyers too – its flat winsome uselessness the point where paying respects slipped into being ripped off. If this is the kind of thing that set Yoko’s pulse racing then good for her, but compare it to the sprightly, funny, cutesy but genuinely affectionate “Oh Yoko” and it sounds simply dutiful. But of course it isn’t about Yoko, is it? It’s about WOMAN, a contrite Lennon prostrating himself before WOMAN. Woman he loves you, woman he does, even though you’re far away, he thinks of yez. It’s “Grandma” for grown-ups and almost as awful: woman drained of specificity, turned into a cloud-shape to project self-pity onto. The song is burdened with soggy clouds of echo and harmonies and over-orchestration, in an attempt to turn its flimsy tune and zen weediness into something richer. “Please let me explain!” – if the Buddha ever hit his wife, this would be the sound of his tearful apology.

2

Comments

1 2 All
  1. 26
    Conrad on 11 Dec 2008 #

    Right, great another chance to do a bit more sacking of the Lennon temple… ah, hang on I actually quite like this one. I think my ability to zone out on the lyric and let the melody wash over me helps. It’s a pretty melody.

    I really don’t mind it at all. 6 for me, 7 on a very good day.

    I’m prepared to admit the lack of baggage probably helps. I’ve had a bit of a reflection on my “Imagine” bashing. It was a good discussion – I do think my irritation that this big totem from my parent’s generation was getting in the way of the normal course of the Top 40 and stopping my favourite acts from getting more attention, has stuck with me from 1981.

    I’m more forgiving of “Woman” although at the time it’s residency at the top of the chart irritated me, and at this point I was starting to wonder when this Lennon barrage would be over. However, there was so much else going on in the Top 40 by February to take pleasure in.

  2. 27
    Conrad on 11 Dec 2008 #

    Re 4, when I saw Phil Collins on TOTP performing “In The Air Tonight” I had absolutely no idea who he was. I actually thought he might be disabled. I think it was seeing him hunched over this keyboard – and he had a beard and was balding, and I thought – he doesn’t look well, he sounds in pain too. I felt quite sorry for him.

    Good record though – and the follow-up, I Missed Again, with the horns (from EW&F?).

  3. 28
    Doctor Casino on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Ahhhhhh, this is a harmless one. The dullness of “Imagine” has to stem in good measure from the fact that lots of people think it quite profound, which means we’ve all had to hear it forced upon us in inappropriate contexts as something important. This on the other hand nobody talks about ever, so despite Lennon’s tendency here to make The Song about women, it comes across as refreshingly lightweight and pleasant.

    Agreed that if McCartney had written this he’d never ever have been forgiven – thankfully, though, Paul at this time was doing much better for himself with “Coming Up” and “Temporary Secretary.”

  4. 29
    Glue Factory on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Re#26, whereas in reality if you really were bearded and in a wheelchair you wouldn’t have been allowed on Top Of The Pops (see Robert Wyatt and I’m A Believer). Does anyone know if that story is true or apochryphal ?

    EDIT: Semi-apochryphal. The producer wanted him to appear in a “real” chair according to Wikipedia, but lost eventually.

  5. 30
    AndyPandy on 12 Dec 2008 #

    As a person who at the time thought most “contemporary” guitar-based music was mediocre shit (as opposed to my love of synth pop/new romanticism, soul, funk etc) I really enjoyed the John Lennon take over of the charts – but it also made me realise how the guitar-based stuff from the second half of the 60s and early 70s was so much better than the rubbish we had to put up with so much so that even a 40 year old not on his top form could piss all over it. I didn’t think ‘Woman’ was outstanding or anything, after all I was only 15 and it wasn’t really made for teenagers, but now being Lennon’s age myself I see it as a pretty well written, unpretentious and mature take on the love song. ‘Grow Old With Me’ is far more poignant though.

    And re the Goldman and Seaman books surely no-one takes seriously as a commentary on the state of the Lennons’ relationship in the former case a thoroughly disreputable ‘biographer’ who was a byword for the worst type of truth-twisting scurrilousness and a desperate and embittered former-employer who whould have sold his own gran to make a few quid.

  6. 31

    i’ve always seen the lennon-yoko relationship as one of those ones which is way better to be in than to observe: viz that two notoriously difficult oddballs actually really did make one another happy and fulfilled each other, hence seemed quite boring and self-absorbed not anyone not in the relationship

    (bowie also got superboring when he found true love! note to popstars: grrr, don’t be so selfish, yr bliss is my snooze!!)

  7. 32
    Erithian on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Just a bit more digression, if I may, on non-pop news-related hits. Your mention of the Royal Wedding brought to mind a track I still have on cassette (taped from the Steve Wright show) called “Now We Know It’s Diana” by Bobby and the Girls Next Door – a pop/punk sound not unlike the Dickies, with the chorus:

    “She is nearly 20
    And ‘e is 32
    But we don’t give a monkeys
    Because their love is true…”

    Tsk, if only we’d known. Remarkably, it didn’t trouble the chart compilers.

    An early example of a news item directly inspiring a hit record was “Ohio” by CSN&Y, top 20 in the US following the Kent State University shootings of May 1970. And there was a memorial album for JFK in 1963 which set a record as the fastest selling album ever in the States.

    We can of course discuss the key #1 you refer to when we get there, although it reflected a general atmosphere and was perfectly timed for the events occurring while it was number one.

  8. 33
    Billy Smart on 12 Dec 2008 #

    As Tom says, the version of this when you actually hear it is worse than the one in your head. You think that its a rudimentary melody, but you forget all of the orhestration and multi-tracking. Painfully bland.

    Those 8-year old Billy reactions in full;

    As a child I was just becoming aware of the Beatles, largely due to the continual use of Beatles songs on BBC television programmes (hot day = Here Comes The Sun, feature about publishing = Paperback Writer, etc). The only Beatle of whom I had a strong individual impression was Paul McCartney, though. Perhaps because of the video for ‘Coming Up’ I thought of him as being youthful and jolly, a child-friendly grown-up.

    I remember the death of Lennon vividly, largely due to the blanket news coverage. At that age, being told that an event was significant was enough for me to believe that it was significant. For my parents, however, the death of Lennon meant nothing at all beyond a small degree of inherant interest as a murder.

    So I watched the news, and then I watched the special BBC1 screening of ‘Help!’, which did seem highly enjoyable, more like a Pink Panther film or ‘One Of Our Dinosaurs Has Gone Missing’ in giving me an immersive experience of adventure, multiple locations and jokes – not the mounful wake which the news had prepared me for. I then pushed my luck too far and tried to stay up to watch the Whistle Test special. My mother refused (“I let you watch ALL of that film”), and I probably had a temper tantrum.

    Even in the midst of Lennon hysteria, I can’t remember ‘Starting Over’ at all.

    ‘Imagine’ disturbed me though, I think because of the echo on the piano, film of a dead man mooching about in a white room with his hairy wife, and ‘important’, ‘political’ message more than anything else. I can remember my 20-year old sister visiting home one Sunday and telling us repetatively that she had bought the single because it was so sad that he had to die and such a sad song, etc.

    This led to me trying to adaopt a similarly soulful reaction to the work at school the following week, running the piano motif again and again in my head, trying to make myself feel melancholy, refusing to do any work in a maths lesson in a prefab hut while I did this… Eventually I was summoned to account for my not working. I realised that saying ‘Because this man of peace was shot and its so sad’ would be a ridiculously precious thing, and so instead said nothing.

    I feel nothing but embarrasment in recollecting this incident.

    Woman was less frightening than Imagine, but had a similarly facile melody and one-word universal concept title, deepening the impression created by Imagine as Lennon as dead merchant of profound staements. By this time, I was getting rather fed up with this pondorous stuff, and was glad when pop eventually returned to the fizz, silliness and sass which had initially attracted me towards Top of The Pops in the first place…

  9. 34

    to be fair, ohio is as much a protest record as a cash-in record — when young was in buffalo springfield he wrote a song about police oppression of hippies based on an actual event (sorry to be vague — i have forgot what it is actually called)

  10. 35

    billy you betrayed the man of peace and all he stood for! everything war-related since is your fault!

  11. 36
    The Intl on 12 Dec 2008 #

    I think back to this timeframe and I honestly feel, were he alive at the time, his records probably wouldn’t matter. Anyone remember what the tracks on Mind Games or Walls & Bridges are? He was past his prime. Walking On Thin Ice could’ve been IT for him, though. REMEMBER WHAT WAS “HAPPENING” IN MUSIC AT THE TIME!! Post-punk, punk-rap hybrids – hell, rap by itself. I was reading New York Rocker & The Face. Not exactly jam-packed with Fabs articles. I remember 1966, when the charts had not only Gloria by Shadows of Knight but Strangers In The Fucking Night by Sinatra. Parents were still buying records! Maybe that’s how these songs were hits, mom & dad bought the singles at the discount store. I didn’t, but I DID pull out “Rain” and “I Found Out”.

  12. 37
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2008 #

    “She is 20
    ‘e is 32
    But we don’t give a toss
    Because their love is true…”

    Right, for getting the words correct, I deserve a download of this from that very cassette.

    I do.

  13. 38
    wichita lineman on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Re 22: The Royal Wedding Album was a number one, and I remember the record counter at Woolies in Croydon being almost entirely given over to the bloody thing (while I looked longingly at a copy of Our Daughter’s Wedding’s Lawnchairs, willing it into the half-price basket).

    Re 11: Saw Stardust again the other night and was surprised how the monstrous epic Dea Sancta doesn’t sound half as bad as I remembered – but then maybe I’ve been listening to too much Barry Ryan. On the other hand, I was in a taxi to Barcelona airport a few days later, with my heart playing peculiar and unpleasant tricks on me, and Woman came on the radio. It was far worse than I remembered. How dare he? Simpering, patronising pap.

    If Lennon had lived he’d have got the Beatles to reform for Live Aid. With this in mind, I’m retrospectively siding with the line taken by the Manics’ Motown Junk.

    And if Phil Collins had been part of the assassination trend of late 80/early 81 – say, while In The Air Tonight was in the chart, possibly drowned in a pot of emulsion by his wife’s new painter-and-decorator-boyfriend -from-Middlesbrough – how would we remember him?

  14. 39

    as the artful dodger and drummer for brand x!

  15. 40
    Erithian on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Come to think of it, Ringo was a near-miss early in 1980 as he and Barbara Bach had a car crash (ISTR he collapsed from overwork later in the year too). Wonder how he’d have been commemorated as the first late Beatle?

    Mark G #37: no, it was definitely “monkeys”. A variation on the chorus went:

    “She is nearly 20
    And ‘e is 32
    But if you fink there’s sumfing wrong
    You know what you can do…”

    Sheer bloody poetry.

  16. 41
    The Lurker on 12 Dec 2008 #

    #34 – I think you’re thinking of “For What It’s Worth”, which was actually a Stephen Stills composition, inspired by the closing of a club on Sunset Strip.

  17. 42
    Tom on 12 Dec 2008 #

    3 threads! 194 comments! (and counting)…

    AND FINALLY SOMEONE HAS MENTIONED MOTOWN JUNK!

  18. 43

    oops yes i am — i have airbrushed stephen stills from my brane’s conception of pop history, my excuse being his haircut in all pop eras

  19. 44
    lonepilgrim on 12 Dec 2008 #

    re#33 thanks for that recollection billy – I’m tempted to say that I’m ROTFLMAO but I think that would be a faux pas in these parts. I hope we can continue to feed your 8 year old self virtual madeleines if it means quality stuff like this.

  20. 45
    Mark G on 12 Dec 2008 #

    #40, I’m positive that “toss” was in there. There must have been a radio-playable version. It was the juxtaposed “toss” in with these ‘royalist’ sentiments which added to the irony. I’d bet a fiver on that.

    (I had the ‘radioplay’ version of “Jet boy jet girl”, “Blood” replaced by “Him”, “Head” replaced by “Hell” i.e. still nonradioplayable at the time.)

  21. 46
    johnny on 12 Dec 2008 #

    having been born in 1980, i obviously did not experience lennon’s death firsthand. i can only surmise that the appeal of songs like “just like starting over” and “woman” comes from the subtle reassurance that *yes, john lennon is trying to come back to us. he is not a crazy radical anymore and he won’t confront or offend you. he’s just like you, he has a wife and a young child and wants to be mellow and positive*.

    i don’t think the public understood this one as a message song. i think it was comforting to them because it could easily have been another version of “If I Fell” or “All I’ve Got to Do”.

    For those of you who remember this period, can you give a bit more detail about what Lennon songs were being played, besides the number ones obviously? I’ve heard in the inital days following his death it was almost impossible to turn on the radio without hearing a Lennon song. Were they beatles songs exclusively? Did they ever play “Mother” or “Working Class Hero” or “John Sinclair”? I don’t like Ono any more than most of you, but I can’t help feeling that the general public was as complicit in the Branding of Lennon as she was. We didn’t want to hear “Woman is the Nigger of the World”, we wanted “Give Peace a Chance”.

  22. 47
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 12 Dec 2008 #

    i heart yoko! sometimes tiresome, sometimes awesome

    i will bet a whole pig with crackling that no one played “john sinclair”

  23. 48
    wichita lineman on 12 Dec 2008 #

    Definitely heard a lot of (bleeped) Working Class Hero in Dec 80/Jan 81. I think it might have been the flip of Imagine, so that might have been (pre-cd) due to convenience.

  24. 49
    AndyPandy on 12 Dec 2008 #

    I remember coming in from school that day and the radio was already on and they were playing The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” at one point.

  25. 50
    peter goodlaws on 13 Dec 2008 #

    This was a step way too far in weeping for poor old murdered Lennon. I think this song is trite and pointless. It would have been far better to re-release “Stand by Me” instead, which I thought was great. “Woman” is cheesy and self-indulgent, rather like Lennon himself had become by the time of the ill-advised comeback, which almost obliged someone to drop him like a baby deer.

  26. 51
    Malice Cooper on 15 Dec 2008 #

    as Judy Tenuta said “if only he had aimed a little to the left”

    I cannot think of anything endearing to say about this, which of course, goes totally against my gentle and loving nature.
    Instantly forgettable

    Re :Wichita Lineman asking how we might remember Phil Collins if he had been assassinated, the answer is probably with a lot less boredom than we do now.

  27. 52
    vinylscot on 15 Dec 2008 #

    Phil who?

  28. 53
    Crimson Cheeked King on 18 Jan 2009 #

    Nice pic sleeve, with Yoko gazing at the Image and Likeness of John Lennon. Soon to be all hers.

  29. 54
    Noble on 1 Apr 2009 #

    Hi! The babes are here! This is my best site to visit. I make sure I am alone in case I get too hot. Post your favorite link here.

  30. 55
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    I think the problem with Lennon was that he had spent a great deal of the 70s being either out of his head and off with May Pang – or sitting at home “Watching the Wheels go round and round”… Listening again to my 4 CD LENNON collection (I know!), I’m struck by how few tracks I actually rate these days. Even the Rock n Roll numbers are over produced with sax and trumpets, keyboards and excess sound – and not all of that could be blamed on Phil Spector. Lennon seemed to lose his edge musically after the Beatles… the odd searing Working Class Hero or John SInclai apart its trite brassy schlock mostly – and this shocks me, as I always rated him more than Macca for his edginess.

    By the time we got to “Woman” – well…. its a “nice” song, but not too far from Pauls “Granny Music”. John Lennon circa 1966 would have hated it.

    However – I loved “Starting Over”… probably because it was a surprise to hear a contemporary John Lennon single at that time – unless Im mistaken (and I havent checked) that came out way before his assassination, and so came out of the blue. It was upbeat, it was catchy. I liked it.

  31. 56
    punctum on 20 Feb 2013 #

    TPL does Double Fantasy.

  32. 57
    Mark G on 17 Oct 2013 #

    Act-chewally.. just had a fuller thought here:

    I have said upthread that this would probably have made number one anyway, it’s that sort of ‘everyman’ MOR staple that would do it.

    In fact, I can ‘imagine’ that it would probably have been number one for longer than it was (2 weeks), as it would have had John actively promoting it, and would not have had the re-promoted “Imagine” getting in the way.

  33. 58
    hectorthebat on 5 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 126

1 2 All

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


If this was number 1 when you were born paste [stork-boy] or [stork-girl] into the start of your comment :)

Required

Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page