"I always thought it was a lousy song. The lyrics were abysmal. I always hated that song." --John Lennon, Playboy, 1980.
The Beatles were unusually outspoken on their own work--which songs they were proud of, which songs they didn't feel aged well, what details they wish they could change, etc. In a way, they were their harshest critics and their biggest fans. But what's even more surprising is how accurate their assessments were. A few examples:
"That's Paul's song and Paul's baby. Well done. Beautiful. And I never wished I'd written it." --John, on "Yesterday"
"I really dig myself as a bass player...I kind of fancy myself." --Paul, on his somehow-underrated contribution to rock bass
"I'm okay; I'm not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl and move. I was rhythm guitarist. It's an important job. I can make a band drive." --John, on his own guitar-playing.
"We weren't ashamed of the film [Help!], but close friends knew that the picture and 'Eight Days' weren't our best." --John, on Help! vs. Hard Day's Night.
And on, and on. However, the quote at the top of this post also comes from John, and it's a rare misstep in his self-criticism.
It's Only Love" (Help!)
Despite John Lennon's appraisal, I've always loved this song. I remember, as a child, flipping my Help! tape over and only liking "It's Only Love" and "Yesterday" on the b-side. John's vocal is hushed and confessional, then plaintive, then an outcry. It immediately puts us in a very specific--but unexpected--emotional space. It's a beautiful, earnest song that sneaks up on the listener. And even if John claims (fifteen years later) not to take the lyrics seriously, he sings them with total conviction.
And what of those lyrics? Sure, they rely on some cliched images and predictable rhymes. Read line-by-line, they look a little silly. But there are two reasons the song itself isn't silly:
1) The aforementioned vocal. Lyrics aren't meant to be read line-by-line. They're meant to be heard within the context of a song as it's sung. And these words, as they're sung by John, sound fresh and revelatory. He's not dutifully listing cliches; telling us a secret.
2) The song's hook, it's overarching premise ("it's only love, and that is all/why should I feel the way I do?") is actually a fresh idea. In 1965, love was the subject of seemingly every pop song. No subject was thought to carry more weight or hold more relevance to a teenage audience. It's therefore startling to hear pop's most famous singer dismiss it out-of-hand: it's only love. In other words, Lennon's known heartache, but this feeling is new. Something else is wrong with him, he doesn't know what, and that beautiful, understated vocal expresses all of his confusion.
Around this time, John and many contemporaries (other Beatles, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, etc.) began exploring other sources of pain, depression, alienation, confusion, etc. In more and more songs, what used to be tantamount now was trivial. The sentiment behind "It's Only Love" echoes the final line of Dylan's epic, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," as he concludes, "it's life and life only."
Today, love is still the most frequent topic for a pop song. Perhaps nothing is more important, or universal, or relevant to a young audience. Now, I hear "It's Only Love," and remember why I first loved it: the confessional tone of John's side-winding melody. And then I remember why it still matters: some feelings are harder to explain. If it's only love...then what else is the problem?
That's an important question for a song to ask in 1965, and in 2011. With all due respect to the songwriter himself, we'll agree to disagree.
See y'all next week!
P.S. For the YouTube Concert series, I covered "It's Only Love." Enjoy!