The Meaning Behind “Nobody Told Me” by John Lennon, the Hit Single off His First Posthumous Album

Four years after his death, John Lennon popped up on radios all over the world once again, sounding fresh and energized. “Nobody Told Me” was originally intended to represent the next chapter in Lennon’s music career. As it turned out, the song would prove a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

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What was the song about? What other ex-Beatle was the intended target for it? And how did it progress from its initial incarnation to being chosen as first single off Milk and Honey, Lennon’s first posthumous album released in 1984? Let’s go back to find out how “Nobody Told Me” came to be, while also checking out the meaning behind the song.

Writing in His Downtime

When the Cliff’s Notes version of John Lennon’s life story is told, you’ll generally hear that he used the time from 1976 to 1979 to concentrate on his roles as a house-husband and father, spending most of his time in his apartment with wife Yoko and son Sean, before re-emerging with his and Yoko’s album Double Fantasy in 1980.

But that broad overview doesn’t take into account that Lennon was writing all along during that stretch, even if he wasn’t recording and releasing them. In fact, he had the rough sketch of “Nobody Told Me” worked out as early as 1976, taping a crude demo using a drum machine to give him a backbeat.

Because of the occasional writing he did during his hiatus, Lennon headed into the studio with a backlog of songs in excess of what he needed for Double Fantasy (especially since Ono would be contributing half the material.) As he said in an interview in 1980 (as reported by The Beatles Bible), he was already thinking beyond the upcoming album:

“We’re talking and talking and talking and all sorts of plans and ideas we have in our heads, it’s just a matter of getting it done, you know? We already got half the next album, and we’ll probably go in just after Christmas and do that. And we’re already talking about what the ideas for the third album is, already laid out and I can’t wait, you know. So it’s a matter of just getting it done, and I’m sorry about you people that get fed up of hearing about us, but you know, we like to do it, so it’s too bad.”

Lennon tackled “Nobody Told Me” at those Double Fantasy sessions, but chose to save it. As it turns out, he might even have kept it off future records of his as well, because he thought the song would be a perfect vehicle for Ringo Starr. After Lennon was killed, Starr decided the timing wasn’t right to be releasing songs written by his old Beatle buddy.

Instead, it was one of the songs that Yoko Ono collected for release on Milk and Honey. For the most part, those songs were presented in their rough forms without any overdubs, since Lennon hadn’t made it that far into them yet. You won’t notice any lack of polish on “Nobody Told Me,” however, as Lennon’s assembled studio pros had already laid the dynamic groundwork. In particular, the rhythm section of bassist Tony Levin and drummer Andy Newmark gave some serious swagger to Lennon’s somewhat unusual stop-and-start songwriting construction.

What is the Meaning of “Nobody Told Me”?

Lennon framed “Nobody Told Me” as a series of life’s seeming contradictions that serve to bedevil the narrator. For example: Well, everybody’s talking, and no one says a word / Everybody’s making love, and no one really cares. These absurdities cause him to express his frustrations in the chorus: Nobody told me there’d be days like this / Strange days indeed / Most peculiar, Mama.

For the most part, Lennon comes at this setup with more than a little humor, from his references to UFOs in the Big Apple and a little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu (a phrase he borrowed from an old poem). He eventually suggests that Hollywood could be the answer to these aggravations: There’s a place for us in movies, you just gotta lay around.

“Nobody Told Me” finds Lennon moving away from love-song mode, which generally dominated the proceedings on Double Fantasy. It’s clear that he was ready to tackle all kinds of different subjects again as he moved forward. Even though that didn’t happen, at least this crackling number gives us an indication of what it all might have sounded like.

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