John Lennon’s name is at the top of a lot of The Beatles songs, and a general rule with the Fab Four was that if you wrote the song, then you usually sang the lead vocal and claimed the plaudits. However, one track would prove too much of a leap for Lennon to grab by the lapels and take on himself. You might think this was because of Ringo Starr’s warbling voice, but the truth is a little further down the road from that.
The White Album song would turn out to be so fragile, so emotionally charged, and so delicate that Lennon thought he was not the proper man to bring the song home and instead passed the song’s lead vocal over to Ringo Starr in order to preserve his corrosive rocker image.
By 1968, John Lennon’s status as a legitimate rock star was growing, and he was determined to maintain that status. Lennon’s image as the gruff rocker was starting to take shape in the public’s eyes as the Beatles started to impose their will on the group and his interviews got more and more frank. Lennon was eager to promote this perception of himself.
The band’s frontman was very explicit in his opinions when discussing The White Album. Because “rockers is what we truly are,” he wished for the new album to “get on with rocking.” Lennon stated plainly that he wanted to appear more genuine, adding, “You may give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I’m feeling into it, I simply perform my old routine—not exactly doing Elvis Legs, but doing my acoustic version of it. Natural law dictates it.
“Everyone tells us that we need to accomplish this and that, but what we’re doing is already fantastic. The typical gig, you know. This new record is centered around that. Without a doubt rocking.
Contrary to what his public image at the time might have implied, the record did have considerable sensitivity, and Lennon was frequently there during some of those most vulnerable times. Good Night, a song he wrote for his son Julian, was one of these songs that allowed Lennon to reveal more of himself. In 1980, Lennon said to David Sheff, “‘Good Night’ was written for Julian, just as ‘Beautiful Boy’ was written for Sean… but given to Ringo and somewhat overlush.”
Lennon was apprehensive about associating himself with such sentimentality even a few years after Beatlemania had subsided to a low hum. John and Paul McCartney, who collaborated on the songs, had to always strike a balance with this kind of issue. Lennon sought to balance Macca’s sound with a strong sour streak, as opposed to Macca’s inherently sweet pop tunes.
The song was such a departure from John Lennon’s typical style, according to Ringo Starr, that many people believed Paul McCartney had written it. “Everyone believes that Paul composed ‘Goodnight’ for me to sing, but John actually did. John possesses a great deal of soul.
McCartney himself at the time expressed this attitude, saying that “John wrote it, largely.” John is surprised that it is his tune because he doesn’t typically write this kind of song. Ringo sings it really well, in my opinion. It’s a pretty lovely tune, and Lennon deviated from his usual style to say that the song had a “very sort of rich, sweet arrangement.”
One of The White Album’s most moving moments is the song “Good Night,” which features lovely lyrics by Ringo Starr that reflect on fatherhood and wish everyone who hears them peaceful dreams. Lennon may have been reluctant to sing the song because of his fragility.
Macca recalled one of the early sessions for the song back in 1994: “I suppose John felt it might not be good for his image for him to sing it, but it was amazing to hear him perform it; he sang it great. He sung it quite sweetly when we heard him sing it to instruct Ringo. John rarely shown his sensitive side, but those times when he did are what I will remember most about him—those times when he revealed his immense generosity and love for others.
“I always use the song as a representation of the John we only occasionally got to see—the John beneath the surface… John’s rendition, I don’t believe, has ever been recorded.
The Beatles’ “Good Night” is the song for you, according to Paul McCartney, if you’ve ever been curious to learn more about the actual John Lennon, the person behind the image and intrigue.