“I’m not going to sacrifice love, real love,” John Lennon said in 1971. “I’ve been through it all, and nothing works better than to have somebody hold you.”
Lennon found that “real love” he had been searching for with Yoko Ono. The pair met at a London conceptual art exhibit and quickly began an affair. After Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia Powell was broken up, he and Ono fell into a whirlwind honeymoon period riddled with protests, music and art.
The pair informed one another’s careers until Lennon’s death in 1980. Though their relationship may not always fare well in the court of public appeal, no one can deny Lennon and Ono pushed each other creatively.
Almost every stage of their relationship is documented somewhere in a song. From their honeymoon phase to their brief breakup, it’s all there. Below, is a timeline of the Lennons’ relationship from beginning to end – in song.
1. “Two Virgins: Side One and Two”
At the very beginning of their relationship, Lennon invited Ono over to play with a tape machine. The evening culminated in Lennon and Ono getting together for the first time and Cynthia, Lennon’s first wife, coming home to find the pair in matching white robes.
The experimental session resulted in a sprawling (albeit half-finished) song that acted more as a soundscape than anything flushed out. The album’s cover featured Lennon and Ono naked, which caused it to be released to stores in a brown paper bag.
2. “The Ballad of John and Yoko”
“The Ballad of John and Yoko” acted as the final U.K. No. 1 for The Beatles. The track chronicles the public discourse around Lennon and Ono’s raucous marriage. Instead of relaxing into marital bliss, the newly-wedded Lennons used their honeymoon to stage a number of press stunts, including the famed peace campaign in an Amsterdam bed. “The Ballad of John and Yoko” acted as the climax to all their rebel rousing. The lyrics read, The way things are going / They’re going to crucify me / Finally made the plane into Paris / Honey mooning down by the Seine.
3. “Give Peace a Chance”
After leaving Amsterdam behind, Lennon and Ono moved their Bed-In campaign to Montreal and invited a host of press and friends to join them in the room. The entire crew aided in the recording of the now-classic anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance.” This song is a testament to Lennon and Ono’s ability to create iconography together.
4. “Who Has Seen the Wind?”
Lennon and Ono rounded out their string of experimental albums with The Wedding Album. Among the track list was “Who Has Seen the Wind,” a medieval-style love song penned by Ono. In the lyrics she speaks to the power of their relationship singing, Who has seen enough? / Only me and John / But when a smile goes ’round the world / Our love is catching on.
The penultimate song on his debut solo effort, “God” saw Lennon’s shunning any false idols. Towards the end of the track, he explained what he put in their place, singing, I just believe in me / Yoko and me / And that’s reality.
6. “Mrs. Lennon”
Ono released “Mrs. Lennon” as a broadside to the public that saw her as nothing more than the wife of a rockstar. She sings, Mrs. Lennon, o’ Mrs. Lennon / Making the tea and watching the sea / There’s no waves / O’ then, I guess it must be alright.
The couple’s son, Sean Ono Lennon, once Tweeted about this song saying, “‘Mrs. Lennon’ ppl always talk about @yokoono ‘a avant-garde whaling style, but almost always overlook songs like this where she sings beautifully. Song also salient from a feminist perspective. The idea that her identity was erased as she became only ‘Mrs Lennon’ to the world.”
7. “Oh Yoko!”
Taken from Imagine, Lennon’s “Oh Yoko!” is yet another vulnerable ode to his wife. He sings, In the middle of the night / In the middle of the night, I call your name.
Lennon once said of the song, “It’s a very popular track, but I was sort of shy and embarrassed and it didn’t sort of represent my image of myself as the tough, hard-biting rock ‘n’ roller with the acid tongue. Everybody wanted it to be a single – I mean, the record company, the public – everybody. But I just stopped it from being a single ’cause of that. Which probably kept it in number two.”
8. “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry)”
Around 1973, Lennon and Ono’s relationship started to hit the rocks. Their life in the public eye began to take a toll. Lennon became possessive over Ono despite cheating on her at the same time. As an apology for this period of their lives, Lennon wrote “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry).” To extend a sonic olive branch, Lennon tried to dip into Ono’s native Japanese. He sings, When I’m down, really yin / And I don’t know what I’m doing / Aisumasen, aisumasen, Yoko / All I had to do was call your name / All I had to do was call your name.
9. “I Don’t Know Why”
Ono’s solo album Season of Glass was a statement of grief. In “I Don’t Know Why” she sings about feeling an overwhelming sense of loneliness in the aftermath of Lennon’s death. The lyrics read, The room’s so empty, the room’s empty without you / My body’s so empty, the world’s so empty without you.
Ono got awarded co-authorship of “Imagine” in 2017. The surprising change to the credits was a wish of Lennon’s before he passed. The ex-Beatle long marked Ono’s influence and inspiration on the iconic track. He once told BBC that in “those days, I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted to mention her contribution. But it was right out of Grapefruit, her book. There’s a whole pile of pieces about ‘Imagine this’ and ‘Imagine that.'”
Photo by Richard DiLello